Ritual: The Domestic Cult Contents

The domestic cult, the worship that takes place within the home, is primary, both in origin and in importance. I believe that in their early years, the transhumant Proto-Indo-Europeans were organized into extended family groupings, separated from each other by grazing lands, and gathering together with others at festival times. Those who met at these gatherings would, in time, grow into a clan, made up of intermarried families. From the clan would grow the town, and from the town the Indo-European society with its three functions.

First came the family and its rituals, though – we start from where we are. Just as they are the core of our lives, they are also the core of Indo-European religion.

The domestic cult varies from household to household, incorporating the favorite deities of each family, and admitting variations according to local situations. This is true to the extent that Angela Della Volpe could write that each Indo-European family had its own religion (1990, 160). But the major objects of worship are the original Proto-Indo-European primary deities, Dyḗus Ptḗr, Perkʷū́nos, and Westyā. Of almost equal importance are the Mṛtōs, the Dead – the ancestors worshiped in the same way as we do, and now their wisdom guides their descendants.

There is a strong possibility that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had home shrines, but they aren’t necessary. A home as a whole is sacred space, and since only fire and water are needed for a basic Proto-Indo-European ritual you need only have a bowl of water to purify yourself and a flame (a candle or oil lamp) to serve as the presence of Westyā, as well as the means through which offerings may be made. For practical reasons you will need a plate or bowl on which to put offerings of food or drink. After leaving them in place for a day or so, put them outside for the spirits to take the rest.

Within the family, the ptḗr, who is the oldest male, is the priest, and the mā́ter, the oldest female, is the priestess. The honoring of the hearth is the first part of the domestic practices.

The oldest woman in the family, the mā́ter, is the tender of the hearth. As might be expected, she is responsible for the cult of Wéstyā, assisted by the other women and girls in the family. She also makes offerings to the ancestors. Even in the patriarchal Vedic culture we read, “For his wife is (as it were) his house, and that fire is the domestic fire,” and she may perform the morning and evening offerings instead of her husband (Gonda, 1980, 200), and “This fire , set at the time of marriage, is perpetually, that is eternally maintained for the purpose of rituals closely connected to the wife” (Smith, 1986, 81).

Her role as keeper of the hearth makes the wife a very powerful figure: the true family altar is the hearth. If you have a working fireplace, you may use it for your altar, provided you regularly (at least once a week) prepare some food in it and use part of the food as an offering and the rest in a family meal. This can be as simple as toasted marshmallows or popcorn. Whether you have a fireplace or not, you should offer food to Wéstyā at least daily, in the morning and/or after your last meal of the day. A bit of food from your table is a must. If you don’t have a fireplace, you can place these offerings in bowls in front of your lamp and leave them there overnight, putting them outside for the land spirits the next days. Small pieces can be burned in the flame of the lamp.

Whenever you use your stove, say, "We cook with the fire of Wéstyā." For the main meal of the day, light the lamp from the stove (using a match as an intermediary) and leave it burning as you cook your meal.

When she offers to Wéstyā, the mā́ter purifies herself.

She dips a few fingers of her right hand into a bowl of water, touches his forehead and says:

Pṛntí supós púrā ʔesom.


She dips her fingers again, touches her lips, and says:

Xṇḱónti ḱwéntos súpom peporom.


She dips her fingers again, touches her left hand, and says:

Gʷṛtí wesū ḱwéntom neḱom.
.

She lights the lamp and says:

Burn on our hearth, Wéstyā,
Source of all that is holy:
bless this home
and all who dwell here.
Smile on all we own
and give special care to guests
that our hospitality might honor you.

She makes the offering during the line about guests.

The second part of domestic worship is the cult of the Ancestors. Because this worship is within the family, it is the genetic ancestors who are meant here. Strictly speaking, the Pterēs Māterēskʷe (the “Father and Mothers”) are honored rather than worshiped, since they are not deities. On the family level, though, their honoring has the same importance as the worship of the deities. The Ancestors form a great extended family to which we belong. The most distant ancestors are like the ptḗr and mā́ter of this family. When a living ptḗr and mā́ter perform the domestic rituals, they are the living representatives of the ancient Pterēs Māterēskʷe.

The offerings to the Pterēs Māterēskʷe may be a daily rite or a weekly one. It is performed by the má̄ter if possible. She puts before the Wéstyā lamp (or on the hearth) an offering for Wéstyā, a bowl for it, some of the food from the main meal, an offering for the Ancestors (such as beer, mead, or the favorite drink of a recent ancestor), a bowl for it, and a lighter. There will already be a bowl of water there; she makes sure it is full.

She begins the ritual by purifying himself. She dips a few fingers of her right hand into a bowl of water, touches her forehead and says:

Pṛntí supós púrā ʔesom.


She dips her fingers again, touches her lips, and says:

Xṇḱónti ḱwéntos súpom peporom.


She dips her fingers again, touches her left hand, and says:

Gʷṛtí wesu ḱwéntom ne ḱom.
.

Now purified, the mā́ter lights the lamp, saying:

Wéstyā is here,
the heart of our home.

She holds both her hands out straight in front of her, joined and cupped, and says:

The waters support and surround me
The land extends about me
The sky stretches out above me
At the center burns a living flame.
May all the Holy Ones bless me.
May my worship be true.
May my actions be just.
May my love be pure.
Blessings, and honor, and worship to the Holy Ones.

With the first line, she brings her hands up to the outside in a curved motion so as to have traced a bowl. With the second, she places them at the center of the top of this bowl and then pulls them flat horizontally, tracing a line. With the third, she brings them up from the ends of the line, curving them until they meet at the top of an inverted bowl. With the fourth, she extends them over the flame and then draws them back toward her heart. She next raises her hands into the orans position for the four lines beginning with “may.” With the final line, she puts his hands flat on his thighs and bows for a moment. (These motions were devised with the help of Jenni Hunt. The song, with the motions, may be found here)

She then prays to Wéstyā:

Burn on our hearth, Wéstyā,
Source of all that is holy:
bless this home and all who dwell here.
Smile on all we own,
and give special care to guests
that our hospitality might honor you.

She offers with the line about guests.

She then picks up the offering for the ancestors in her left hand, and says:

Pterēs Māterēskʷe,
founders of our family,
sources of our lives:
We make due offering to you
We honor you with gratitude.
Be with our family
and ensure its continuance and prosperity.
Advise and comfort us in all troubles.
Bless and support us with all your gifts.

She makes the offering when she says, “We make due offering to you.”

She then nods her head or bows to the fire and then says:

Extinguished without
but burning within,
the fire of Wéstyā burns within me.

She extinguishes the fire with the first line, and brings her right hand to her heart with the second.

The worship of Dyḗus Ptḗr, Perkʷū́nos, and the patron deities of the family members is the third part of the domestic cult. This is the responsibility of the ptḗr, the oldest male. His duties include the weekly prayers (either with the other members of the family or by himself on their behalf), and making the main offerings on special occasions. As well as Dyḗus Ptḗr and Perkʷū́nos, he should make offerings to the deities of the family members.

Before his weekly offerings, the ptḗr puts an offering bowl in front of the lamp of Wéstyā and prepares a liquid offering such as beer or mead, and makes sure he has matches or a lighter at hand. He begins the ritual by purifying himself. After dipping his right hand into a bowl of water, he touches his forehead and says:

Pṛntí supós púros ʔesom.


He dips his hand again, touches his lips, and says:

Xṇḱónti ḱwéntos súpom peporom.


He dips his hand again, touches his left hand, and says:

Gʷṛtí wesū ḱwéntom neḱom.
.

Now purified, the ptḗr lights the lamp, saying:

Wéstyā is here,
the heart of our home.

He holds both his hands out straight in front of him, joined and cupped, and says:

The waters support and surround me
The land extends about me
The sky stretches out above me
At the center burns a living flame.
May all the Holy Ones bless me.
May my worship be true.
May my actions be just.
May my love be pure.
Blessings, and honor, and worship to the Holy Ones.

With the first line, he brings his hands up to the outside in a curved motion so as to have traced a bowl. With the second, he places them at the center of the top of this bowl and then pulls them flat horizontally, tracing a line. With the third, he brings them up from the ends of the line, curving them until they meet at the top of an inverted bowl. With the fourth, he extends them over the flame and then draws them back toward his heart. He next raises his hands into the orans position for the four lines beginning with “may.” With the final line, he puts his hands flat on his thighs and bows for a moment.

He now pours the libation into the bowl, saying:

I pray to the Holy Ones my ancestors worshiped,
omitting none, forgetting none, leaving none out.
May all the Holy Ones receive my blessings,
receive my words and my oblations.
May all the Holy Ones send forth their blessings,
send forth their gifts and benedictions,
to all who dwell within my home,
to all for whom I speak these words.

He then stands in the orans position and says:

Dyḗus Ptḗr, Lord of law
Perkʷūno, mighty defender
May this home be orderly and peaceful,
well-built and well-protected,
blessed by the gifts the gods bestow.

He nods his head or bows to the fire and then says:

Extinguished without
but burning within,
the fire of Wéstyā burns within me.

He extinguishes the fire with the first line, and brings his right hand to his heart with the second.

References:

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Gonda, Jan. Vedic Ritual: The Non-Solemn Rites. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980.

Horace. Odes 3.23

Smith, Brian K. The Unity of Ritual: The Place of the Domestic Sacrifice in Vedic Ritualism. Indo-Iranian Journal 29 (1986), 79-96.

Volpe, Angela Della. From the Hearth to the Creation of Boundaries. Journal of Indo-European Studies 18:1 & 2 (Spring/Summer. 1990), 157-184.

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