Ancient religious practices were often highly elaborate and undertaken with utmost respect and solemnity. We’ve selected four of the most interesting traditions for you to learn about below. Although they widely affected their concurrent populations, these particular rituals are obsolete today—but that doesn’t mean we don’t find them fascinating!
Rome's Vestal Virgins
In Roman religion, six priestesses served the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta. Girls between the ages of six and 10 with parents of good social standing were selected to serve as these Vestal priestesses for a period of 30 years, during which they had to remain abstinent. This is where the term “Vestal Virgins” comes from.
These women were highly respected members of society, and enjoyed rights that other women did not have, such as the ability to own property. They stayed in luxurious housing and had access to fine dining and preferred seats at the theater. While some married after their 30 years of service ended, many did not.
The first 10 years of their service were spent as students. During the following 10 years, the Vestal Virgins were responsible for a litany of tasks around the temple, and could face beatings or even death as punishment if they did not fulfill their duties. The final 10 years of their service were spent as teachers to the new selection of priestesses.
Their primary responsibility was tending to the perpetual fire in the temple of Vesta. They also had to care for objects within the temple’s inner sanctuary and lead religious events. Above all, the main rule they had to follow was to remain virgins throughout the entire 30 year period. Failure to do so was punishable by death. It was forbidden to spill the blood of the Vestal Virgins, so if they broke their vow of chastity, they were killed by live burial.
The Vestal Virgin practice is thought to date back to the seventh century BCE, and was banned by Theodosis I around 393 CE, along with most other non-Christian religious practices.
The Oracle of Delphi
The Oracle of Delphi was the most famous ancient oracle, thought to deliver prophecies from the Greek god Apollo. Pythia, the name of the high priestess who served as the oracle, was believed to be possessed by Apollo himself. Upon the death of one Pythia, another would be chosen; typically, these were well-educated women from wealthy families.
The Pythia practiced at the shrine of Delphi—Apollo’s temple, constructed in the eighth century BCE—and stories of men traveling far and wide to hear their prophecies continue up until 393 CE, when the Roman emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan practices.
One could typically only visit the Pythia on Apollo’s birthday, the seventh day of the Delphic month. First, you had to climb the sacred mountain of Parnassus, before completing a series of rituals to prepare yourself and the Pythia for the ceremony. Obtaining a prophecy also required animal sacrifice and (unsurprisingly) a good amount of gold.
During the consultation, the oracle would enter a chamber fumigated by the smoke of laurel and bay leaves, and she would then enter an ecstatic state during which she received Apollo’s guidance. Scholars now believe the Pythia’s altered consciousness was due to the inhalation of natural gasses from nearby volcanic fault lines.
Her nonsensical utterings would then be written down and translated by the priests into an ambiguous prescription of advice. Nonetheless, this ambiguity is what made the prophecies so famous; since they were nonspecific, they could “accurately” apply to any situation. But even though this practice may seem silly today, it had significant impacts on ancient history—like starting wars!
Druids were part of Celtic and Gaulish culture in Europe, with the first classical reference to them being made around the second century BCE. While the origin of the word druid is unconfirmed, it is generally believed to have come from "doire," the Irish-Gaelic word for oak tree, also meaning wisdom.
Druids were selected from the well-educated class among the ancient Celts to act as intermediaries between regular people and the gods—an early form of priesthood. The Druids’ worship cycle followed the eight main days of the lunar, solar, and seasonal cycles. They also worked as teachers, philosophers, judges, and scientists. The Druids were separated into different classes, denoted by color-coded robes.
Julius Caesar is one of our main sources of information about the Druids. According to him, their responsibilities included: taking charge of sacrifices, instructing young men, and judging all private and public disputes. Because Druids were exempt from participating in war or paying tribute, many eagerly submitted themselves or family members to joining the Druids.
Druids were banned by the Roman emperor Tiberius in the first century CE and by the second century CE, Druidism seemed to become obsolete in Roman Gaul. While many of them escaped persecution by fleeing to Ireland, Druidic tradition gradually faded away there as well when Christianity superseded it.
"Io Saturnalia", meaning "happy Saturnalia!" is what you would have heard throughout the streets during the week-long Roman festival. What originally started as just a celebration on December 17th and was extended to three and then seven days, Saturnalia was dedicated to the Roman god Saturn and tied to the winter sowing season. It was by far the liveliest religious festival of the year.
In Rome, the week began with a religious ceremony in the Temple of Saturn, followed by a massive banquet that was free and open to the public. All work was suspended so that everyone could partake. Even enslaved people were given a week of unmitigated freedom; in fact, during Saturnalia, they attended feasts and were celebrated with gifts and wine.
Several other social norms were relaxed or overturned during this time. Gambling, which was typically outlawed, was allowed in public. Instead of the usual strict Roman dress code, everyone wore comfortable dinner dress usually reserved for private dining and a freedman’s cap—the conical hat awarded to freed enslaved people—as a symbol of the free spirit of the holiday. Additionally, households appointed their own mock king, who ordered his “subjects” around with humorous requests like dancing naked or chasing each other around the house.
During Saturnalia, it was customary to exchange gifts, the most popular being wax candles and oil lamps. Drinking was also a central part of the festivities.
This beloved week of merrymaking began as early as 217 BCE and continued until the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 CE. But Saturnalia never completely disappeared—in fact, it continues to influence the way we celebrate Christmas and the New Year to this day.
Featured image: Siora Photography / Unsplash