Paraphernalia of the Hellenic Reconstructionist
For the serious reconstructionist, there are a few things you will need in order to properly re-enact an ancient ritual. Modern-day pagans, especially those who are new to Hellenismos, may not be familiar with the basic concept of ritual within this religion. The type of ritual I am referring to here is the public ritual, which most often occurs within the framework of the festival. The paraphernalia described below are those needed for this type of public ritual (1).
The khernips is also known as “lustral water.” It is used to wash one’s hands before the start of a ritual. This is absolutely necessary, as the ancient Hellenes believed that pollution (or miasma) can be brought into the sanctuary. This may not only “contaminate” the people and things inside, but also it is a great offense to the gods to come into their presence in a state of pollution. Therefore, washing in thekhernips became the most popular method for purification for “general miasma.” More serious types of pollution, such as that acquired from an act of murder, for example, required a more elaborate purification ritual.
The khernips is often found in a bowl placed just outside the sanctuary, so that one washes their hands before entering (2). Sometimes the water is poured over the hands if it is in a jug. This water is also used in the beginning of the ritual to purify the offerings by sprinkling it over them. This is done by the priest or other officiating person.
Basket of barley
This grain is used as another form of purification. Participants take handfuls of barley and throw it at the altar before the offering. The meaning of this custom is not entirely clear. It could be linked to the old custom of first-fruits offerings, as barley is one of the first crops to be harvested. However, Walter Burkert notes that in some instances stones were thrown at the altar rather than barley. However, in either case it is intended as a purification, not of the self, but of the altar and items for sacrifice.
In ancient times animals were sacrificed at the altar. Few do this today. The knife obviously was used to kill and skin the animal. Also, before the animal was killed the knife was used to cut a few hairs from its head, which were thrown into the fire as an initial offering. It is interesting to note that this knife was kept hidden in the basket of barley until the moment it was needed; the item that purifies (barley) also produces the item that brings death (knife).
Even though most will not include animal sacrifice as part of their rituals, one may still want to offer pre- butchered meats in their rituals. Thus, there is still a use for the sacrificial knife, as it would be used to divide up the portions of the meat, i.e. the portion for the god and the portion for the participants.
Incense was used not only for the smell, but also as purification. Sulfur, which purifies, was commonly used, as was frankincense.
The altar is the focal point of the ritual. It is here that almost all of the activities of the ritual take place. It is often a raised stone slab, or it may simply be the pile of ashes from pervious sacrifices. It is always located outside of the temple building, standing in the open air, and usually faces to the east.
Every ritual must have a sacred fire, which is kindled on the altar. It is of chief importance, as all sacrifices to the gods reach them by being burnt up in this fire. The god’s portion of the sacrificial animal is put into the fire to be completely consumed (3). A libation is also poured into the fire for the gods being honored. Every temple has a fire in one form or another. In fact, even the ancient houses had a hearth fire, which was never allowed to be put out, except for when there was a death in the family. The fire is thought to be one of the oldest necessities for worship, dating back to pre-Hellenic times.
The offerings change according to the type of ritual being performed. In general, however, meat is offered, as is wine, but other things as well, including cakes, oil, honey, or any crops currently being harvested. Food is a major component of all festivals. It is the main offering to the gods. It is what is given to the priests as payment for their service. It is served to the people after the ritual so that they may join together as a community. It may be thought of as rather simple, and it is often overlooked by modern pagans. However, it was one of the key items for proper worship in the ancient mindset (4).
The ancients wore different clothing than we do today, and I am not one to believe that it is necessary to copy their clothing style. However, it is true that people would dress in their finest clothes and wear garlands or wreathes of flowers and leaves on their heads calledstefanoi. These festivals were special events, and therefore people wore special clothing to them. Even the animals to be sacrificed were decorated with ribbons, and their horns were gilded for the occasion.
The paraphernalia used may change depending on the particular festival being observed. For example, masks were an important part of rites for Dionysos, but not for other deities. Also, rituals in honor of the chthonic deities will be a little different. For sake of ease I’ve only described the items needed for the most common rituals, i.e. those for the Olympians.
1. Some contemporary pagans will refer to such things as “tools.”
2. Christian baptismal fonts are derived from the stands for khernips.
3. The gods’ portion of the sacrifice was the bones and other unsavory parts of the animal. They were also given small pieces of the best cuts.