1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lustration

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[ 131 ]

LUSTRATION, a term that includes all the methods of purification and expiation among the Greeks and Romans. Among the Greeks there are two ideas clearly distinguishable that human nature must purify itself (κάθαρσις) from guilt before it is fit to enter into communion with God or even to associate with men, and that guilt must be expiated voluntarily (ἱλασμός) by certain processes which God has revealed, in order to avoid the punishment that must otherwise overtake it. It is not possible to make such a distinction among the Latin terms lustratio, piacula, piamenta, caerimoniae, and even among the Greeks it is not consistently observed. Guilt and impurity arose in various ways; among the Greeks, besides the general idea that man is always in need of purification, the species of guilt most insisted on by religion are incurred by murder, by touching a dead body, by sexual intercourse, and by seeing a prodigy or sign of the divine will. The last three spring from the idea that man had been without preparation and improperly brought into communication with God, and was therefore guilty. The first, which involves a really moral idea of guilt, is far more important than the others in Hellenic religion. Among the Romans we hear more of the last species of impurity; in general the idea takes the form that after some great disaster the people become convinced that guilt has been incurred and must be expiated. The methods of purification consist in ceremonies performed with water, fire, air or earth, or with a branch of a sacred tree, especially of the laurel, and also in sacrifice and other ceremonial. Before entering a temple the worshipper dipped his hand in the vase of holy water (περιῤῥαντήριον, aqua lustralis) which stood at the door; before a sacrifice bathing was common; salt-water was more efficacious than fresh, and the celebrants of the Eleusinian mysteries bathed in the sea (ἅλαδε, μύσται); the water was more efficacious if a firebrand from the altar were plunged in it. The torch, fire and sulphur (τὁ θεῖον) were also powerful purifying agents. Purification by air was most frequent in the Dionysiac mysteries; puppets suspended and swinging in the air (oscilla) formed one way of using the lustrative power of the air. Rubbing with sand and salt was another method. The sacrifice chiefly used for purification by the Greeks was a pig; among the Romans it was always, except in the Lupercalia, a pig, a sheep and a bull (suovetaurilia). In Athens a purificatory sacrifice and prayer was held before every meeting of the ecclesia; the Maimacteria,[1] in honour of Zeus Maimactes (the god of wrath), was an annual festival of purification, and at the Thargelia two men (or a woman and a man) were sacrificed on the seashore, their bodies burned and the ashes thrown into the sea, to avert the wrath of Apollo. On extraordinary occasions lustrations were performed for a whole city. So Athens was purified by Epimenides after the Cylonian massacre, and Delos in the Peloponnesian War (426 B.C.) to stop the plague and appease the wrath of Apollo. In Rome, besides such annual ceremonies as the Ambarvalia, Lupercalia, Cerialia, Paganalia, &c., there was a lustration of the fleet before it sailed, and of the army before it marched. Part of the ceremonial always consisted in leading or carrying the victims round the impure persons or things. After any disaster the lusratio classium or exercitus was often again performed, so as to make certain that the gods got all their due. The Amburbium, a solemn procession of the people round the boundaries of Rome, was a similar ceremonial performed for the whole city on occasions of great danger or calamity; the Ambilustrium (so called from the sacrificial victims being carried round the people assembled on the Campus Martius) was the purificatory ceremony which took place after the regular quinquennial census (lustrum) of the Roman people.

See C. F. Hermann, Griechische Altertümer, ii.; G. F. Schömann, ib. ii.; P. Stengel, Die griechischen Kultusaltertümer (1898); Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung, iii. p. 200 (1885); P. E. von Lasaulx, Die Sühnopfer der Griechen und Römer (1841); J. Donaldson, “On the Expiatory and Substitutionary Sacrifices of the Greeks,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, xxvii., 1876; and the articles by A. Bouché-Leclercq in Daremberg and Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités, and by W. Warde Fowler in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (3rd ed., 1891).


  1. Maimacteria does not actually occur in ancient authorities as the name of a festival.