Religion and Ritual Definitions


Ancestor Cult

Definition: Where people pay homage to their forbears often on an annual basis and give offerings to them in the belief that they may intercede in your life and also as they need respect as you are here because of them.

Generic: Ancient Roman households contained a lararium with images or death masks of ancestors where offerings where placed.

Specific: Ancient Egyptian workers village of Deir el-Medina where there are niches containing statues of ancestors in which daily offerings were placed.

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Definition: The belief that elements of nature such as rivers and trees contain a spirit which may need to have an offering made to it in order to keep nature in balance.

Generic: In the Ancient Roman world elements of nature were often personified into statues that offerings could be made to eg. The River Tyne

Specific: At Aquae Sulis in Bath, it was believed to be a liminal zone to the underworld and the Romans would often place coins in the sulphurous water to placate it and the god Sul.

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Art and Iconography

Definition: Art is the expression of human feeling through a variety of forms such as sculpture and architecture and iconography is the meaning conveyed and the understanding of the art.

Generic: In Ancient Egyptian tombs there were often wall paintings of funeral banquets and their favourite hobbies so they could be replicated in the afterlife.

Specific: In the British Museum there is a Book of the Dead belonging to the scribe Ani showing what he believed would happen on his journey to the afterlife such as the weighting of the heart ceremony.

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Definition: The ritual burning of a body either on a pit or on a pyre usually involving an elemnt of purification.

Generic: During Roman times the ashes and bits of bones of a person were often placed in squarish glass jars.

Specific: Several bustum burials were also detected at Birdoswald outside Hadrian's Wall using magnotometry which had picked up burnt remains.

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Definition: The ritual purification of a body by removing the 'unclean' flesh to leave clean bone so the soul ccould travel more easily to the afterlife. The body was often left on the ground or on a platform and the flesh removed by animals or birds.

Generic: Native Americans often carried out sky burials where the body was left on a platform until only bone remained.

Specific: At Windmill and Hambledon Hill there are causewayed enclosures where bodies were placed and once only bone was left they were taken to long barrows such as that at West Kennet where the bones were grouped by type.

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Focus of Attention

Definition: According to Colin Renfrew this is a place such as a statue or highly decorated wall that draws the viewers attention to a place of ritual significance.

Generic: Ancient Roman households contained a lararium on the walls of their houses to remind them to respect and give offerings to their ancestors and the household gods.

Specific: At Karnak in the smaller temple of Ptah near the temple of Amun there are 3 shrines, the central one being to Ptah but Sekhmet's shrine to the right has a hole through which light would shine giving her statue a halo.

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Funerary Ritual

Definition: Something that is carried out in connection with the disposal of a dead body often believed to smooth its journey into the afterlife. The ritual often involved music, sounds and smells that would bring communities together.

Generic: Mummification in Ancient Egypt to preserve the body for the afterlife.

Specific: In the burial chamber of Tutankhamun there is a depiction of Ay touching an adzh to the imaginary mummy of the pharoah to enable him to use his senses in the afterlife.

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Grave Goods

Definition: Items placed with a deceased that may aid them onto their journey into the afterlife or be of special significance to the deceased, often the finest they owned or specially made to place into the tomb.

Generic: Shabti dolls were placed in the tombs of many Egyptian pharoahs to come alive and carry out work for them in the afterlife.

Specific: In the tomb of the Amesbury archer from 200-300BC, 2 sets of bow and arrows were found along with 5 beakers and gold hair ornaments.

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Definition: The disposal of a corpse by placing it into the ground. Its location may be marked by a mound or tombstone for example and rituals may be associated with placing it into the ground.

Generic: In the Ancient Roman world cemeteries were often found with visible mausoleums outside the city walls.

Specific: The woman in Wetwang in Yorkshire from around 400BC was discovered buried in the ground with a dismantle chariot.

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Definition: A threshold between two worlds where it is often easier to travel between them. A liminal place may be wet eg. a lake or river, a cave or the inner part of a monument with offerings often being placed there.

Generic: Bodies were often placed in bogs in Iron Age Northern Europe especially in Ireland and Denmark as offerings between this world and the next, the bodies sometimes being physically pinned down eg Clunycavan and Tollund man.

Specific: At the Bronze Age site Flag Fen near Peterborough, a walkway was created out into the marshy lake to allow for votive deposition of objects such as broken swords (that could only be mended by the gods).

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Definition: A belief that you can control often spirits to do what you want or prevent them from doing an action. It can also be apotropeic so drives away evil and is often carried out by chanting spells or incantations.

Generic: In Ancient Egypt several heiroglyphs were painted into tombs to act as spells such as a snake with it's head cut of believed to protect against snake bites as in the Pyramid of Unas.

Specific: On the ceiling of the burial chamber in KV9 is a painting of the sky goddess Nut giving birth to the sun and this depiction was believed to make the sun rise and helped the rebirth of the deceased's soul.

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Definition: The belief in one god instead of many which often has particular symbols and textual evidence associated.

Generic: In Roman Christianity the chi-rho symbol was often used as it represents Christos or Christ in Greek and is found in places such as the floor of Lullingstone villa in Kent.

Specific: In Ancient Egypt at Akhetaten, the city built based on worship of the Aten or sun disk by the pharoah Akhenaten there are boundary stelae that show worhsip of the Aten and have written 'The Hymn of the Aten.'

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Definition: A story with allegorical symbolism to explain the reasons for a certain behaviour or how something was created, often passed down from generation to generation. The also may contain a strong polarisation of good and evil as well as both human and superhuman characters.

Generic: The Book of the Dead shows and tells what Ancient Egyptians believed would happen to them on their journey to and in the afterlife.

Specific: At the temple of Horus at Edfu, on the inner side of the outer wall is an image of the contendings of Seth and Horus showing a 20ft Horus spearing tiny hippos representing his uncle Seth.

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Definition: A person who goes on a journey for a special reason and or purpose often with special religious intentions. The may carry out this journey to visit a certain holy place or to discover themselves and seek answers along the way.

Generic: Medieval pilgrims would often wear symbolic metal badges to show they had been on pilgrimage  to places such as Centerbury.

Specific: In Ancient Egypt, millions of pots were discovered at the Uum el-Qaab or 'Mother of All pots' at Abydos which belong to a festival in honour of Osiris where drinks were offered up and the empty pot placed on the pile.

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Definition: The belief and worship of more than one god where the gods often form a pantheon of god  in which each can be recognised by specific iconography.

Generic: In Ancient Rome many gods were worshiped as shown in imagery such as a frieze of them in the Parthenon.

Specific: In Ancient Egypt, temples were often combined to several gods such as at Kom Ombo where the temple on the left is to Horus and on the right to the crocodile god Sobek.

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Prayer and Participation

Definition: The act of communicating with a deity and or ancestors wither to ask for something or to appease the gods. It can be for an individual intention or as part of a group ritual. It is usually expected that the deity will listen to the prayer whic can also be expressed through song and dance.

Generic: In Ancient Egyptians temples there are relief sculptures of people praying with their hands outstretched.

Specific: In the British Museum there are wall paintings from the 4th century from Lullingstone Villa in Kent showing orantes figures - men in Byzantine dress praying with outstretched arms.

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Priest / Ritual Specialist

Definition: An individual who was in charge of religious rituals and is a storehouse of religious knowledge. The often would carry out elements of rites of passage as well as organising the running of temples or other places of worship.

Generic: Roman writers such as Tacitus and Caesar often refer to the Iron Age druids in Britain.

Specific: In Egypt at Karnak in the Temple of Amun there are images of priests with their shaven heads. In the temple there was also a sacred pool where they were expected to wash at least 4 times a day.

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Propitiation / Votives

Definition: An object or promise that is offered to the gods often to please them. It may be a vow or an object connected to the god or person making the offering. They were often placed in liminal zones as they were closer to the underworld.

Generic: The bogs bodies in Iron Age Northern Europe were placed as ritual deposition in a liminal zone to placate the gods such as Tollund or Lindow man.

Specific: At the Bronze Age site of Flag Fen near Peterborough, a wooden walkway was created out into a lake and objects such as broken swords or valuable boxed shears were thrown in. They were often broke beforehand so only the gods could use them.

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Purity and Cleaning

Definition: The idea of ritual cleanliness which can be both physical eg washing of the body or spiritual by behaving in a certain way. This cleansing is often carried out to appease the gods or ancestors and was often a mark of respect towards them.

Generic: The act of excarnation carried out in Stone Age Britain to remove impure flesh from a body.

Specific: In Ancient Egypt at the Temple of Amun at Karnak, there is a sacred lake in which the priests were expected to wash as well as reliefs showing them with shaven heads as Herodotus talks of them having to shave their heads 4 times a day.

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Rites of Passage

Definition: A time in life that was described by Van Genep in the 1950s as being a majorly important period of transition such as birth, marriage or death. They were oftenviewed as perilous times for the individual so the whole community would often gather for the ceremony to ease the change.

Generic: In the Ancient Roman world, freeborn children up until 14 wore bullas before being broken when they became an adult.

Specific: A statue found at Kostienki resembling a pregnant woman with certain parts of her body enlarged may have been given as a good luck statue for coming of age for women for further childbirth and motherhood.

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Rites of Intensification

Definition: A time or ceremony that occurs often in a time of crisis to bring people together and allow them to regain confidence.

Generic: In the Roman empire, gladiatorial games were often held during or after major events such as the eruption of Vesuvius to bring people together.

Specific: In the Aztec empire in Tenochtitlan at the Templo Mayor, around every 400 years mass human sacrifices were carried out according to the Spanish writer Diego de Landa.

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Definition: The act carried out in connection with a belief (which is only the thought). They often involve singing, dancing or praying in a certain way and may be carried out with groups of people under the guidance of a priest/druid or other ritual specialist.

Generic: Votive deposition at Bronze Age sites such as Flag Fen near Peterborough where objects were broken before being offered to the gods so only they could mend and use them.

Specific: At the tomb of the blind harpist Raia in Saqqara who served at the temple of Amun at Karnak, there is an illustration of the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, a ritual where an adzh is placed on the mummy's mouth to allow it to use it's sense in the afterlife.

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Ritual Feasting

Definition: An organised act with symbolic meaning of eating and drinking often in connection with funerals. Ancestors were often called to join the feast and/or offerings were made to placate the gods.

Generic: In Roman times, the tomb of an individual often had a pipe leading to it down which libations could be poured so the deceased could drinks druing feasts alongside the living.

Specific: At the Neolithic West Kennet longbarrow, a series of charred animal bones were found where feasting occured at the site over a period of time and the bones were then thrown away for the ancestors.

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Definition: Where a valuable object is given up or animals and in extreme cases people to placate the gods/ancestors or as part of a ritual.

Generic: In Iron Age Northern Europe, bog bodies such as Tollund or Lindow Man were placed in liminal zones as offerings to the gods.

Specific: In the Edinburgh Museum there is a distance marker called the Bridgeness Distance Slab showing a Roman priest with a toga over his head making a pig, bull, sheep sacrifice.

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Sensory experience

Definition: The use of sound, sight, touch and smell and similar sensations to add to a ritual. This may be through the use of insense, rhythmic clapping or dance and often highlights elements of an experience.

Generic: The henges in prehistoric Britain were often made of different textures to evoke different meanings with cold stone resembling death and wooden henges - life.

Specific: At the temple to Amun in Karnak, Egypt there is a sculpted relief of the dancing and rhythmic clapping that occured at the Opet festival in connection with Amun as well as their being mummies to Raia, a chantress of Amun in the British Museum.

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Definition: Where (often in hunter gatherer societies) an individual connects to the gods/ancestors to gain knowledge by connecting with their totem animal or spirit. The shaman would often enter a trance like state - sometimes from just sitting in the dark in caves. They were also seen as storytellers and mythological storehouses.

Generic: In North West American cultures, it was common for individuals to dress up as their totem animal.

Specific: In prehistoric Europe there also examples of therianthropomorphic cave paintings such as the Les Trois Freres cave in France where a man in shown turning into a reindeer.

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Shrine / temple

Definition: A place designed for worhsip often where particular parts of the decoration are associated with beliefs and in the temples, the layout also often has a specific significance.

Generic: In Ancient Rome they not only had major temples to gods such as Jupiter or Castor and Pollux but also smaller road and street shrines where offerings could be made.

Specific: In Ancient Egypt there were cult temples to the gods but also mortuary temples to the pharaohs such as Abu Simbel to Ramesses II.

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Definition: The use of abstract signs to represent ideas. They can be alphabetic in the sense of Egyptian hieroglyphs or pictorial in the sense of individual images.

Generic: In Ancient Egypt certain symbols were believed to be apotropeic such as the symbol of a headless snake which protects people from snake bites as seen in the Pyramid of Unas.

Specific: At the back of the royal palace in Tel El-Armana in Ancient Egypt there is a prominent scene of worhsip of the Aten, of which the Aten symbol of a sun with arms as rays is at the apex of the scene.

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Definition: The use of an animal as an emblem often for a particular family as part of clan system.

Generic: In North-West America groups such as the Haida had a totempole at their entrace of their house with several animals stack up with their personald totem being the top animal.

Specific: In Ancient Egypt, the rulers of dynasty 0 often adopted animals as their personal emblens such as the depiction of the scorpion on the rock at Gebel Tjouti from around 3000BC.

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World View

Definition: A set of beliefs shared by communities which explain the purpose of their existance in relation to the cosmos.

Generic: In the Mayan culture the belief  that people had been created out of maize dough is shown on some temple walls.

Specific: The Hypostyle Hall at the temple of Amun, in Karnak at Egypt has certain decorative features resembling the swamp of creation such as the pillars looking like papyrus and the temple itself resembling the mound on which Amun stood to create the world.

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Definition: The acts and utterences performed during a ritual because of what people believe such a set actions you have to do in the right order. It may include singing and dancing.

Generic: In Ancient Egyptians temple there are reliefs of people singing as well as mummies found to individuals who had specific jobs eg Azru - the chantress of Amun.

Specific: At Lullingstone villa in Kent there is a fresco of 4th century Byzantine orantes figures with their hands raised worshipping God, now in the British Museum.

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This is very well detailed and very useful, thank you very much 

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