Elani Temperance, 2015
Modern worshippers of the Theoi often try to compartmentalize Their worship. This, because we aren’t raised in a culture where the Theoi are worshipped in grand festivals and we have to reinvent the wheel as we try to find ways to worship Them in a way that resembles the ways of the ancient Hellenes. To have some hard rules for this worship helps us greatly; it allows us to look at the parts of the rites we do know and infer the rest–at least in broad lines. The biggest boxes we use are ‘Ouranic’ and ‘Khthonic’, and we often think the two are entirely separate–they are not.
‘Ouranic’ is a term that replies to Theoi and practices who reside or that are associated with Mount Olympos, home of many of the Theoi. As such, Ouranic deities are also referred to as ‘Olympians’. In ancient Hellas, an altar for the Ouranic Theoi was called a ‘bômos’ (βωμός). Most bômoi were isolated cubes, around one meter (three feet) high, but there were altars which were far larger. The sacrificial altars were either square or round, and many held an ‘epipuron’ (ἐπίπυρον)–a movable pan or brazier, used on top of the bômos so it could serve as an altar for burnt-offerings. Impromptu altars for the Ouranic deities were made of earth, turf, or stones collected on the spot. What mattered was that the offering was sacrificed (high) off of the ground.
Ouranic deities tended to receive wine libations that were mixed with water. Food offerings were usually divided between the Theoi and the worshippers where only a ceremonial part of the sacrifice was given to the Theoi. In general, Ouranic-themed festivals were light in tone and included a measure of festivity. They were also conducted at temples, often within the city limits. Sacrifice to the Ouranic deities was given with hands raised high, up towards the sky, with the palms flat and up. Worshippers stood for the sacrifice, and they were given during the daylight hours of the festival day.
‘Kthonic’, on the other hand, refers to deities or spirits of the Underworld or the earth, and the rituals associated with Them. An ‘eschára’ (ἐσχάρα) is the term for a low-lying altar used in burnt-offerings for the Khthonic Theoi. An offering pit–‘bothros’ (βόθρος) in Greek texts–also sufficed. Khthonic deities received either wineless libations (water, milk, and honey, usually), or wine libations of unmixed wine. These rituals often took place outside of the city walls, or started within the city walls ad ended outside of it. Their tone was usually sombre or grim, and there was far more fear of the Theoi invoked. Truly Khthonic sacrifices were given while kneeling, and/or with the flat palms either on or towards the ground. They were held at night and the sacrifices were given whole; it was a holókaustos (ὁλόκαυστος), and the matching libation a khoe (χοαί). The whole offering was either burned or buried and no one partook of any of the food or drink that was given to the Khthonic Theoi. This because contact with the underworld carried miasma.
Miasma (Μίασμα) literally means ‘pollution’, and it describes the lingering aura of uncleanliness in regards to a person or space through which contact is made with the Gods. Next to piety, being ritually clean is one of the most important things to adhere to within Hellenismos. Miasma occurs whenever the space or person comes into contact with death, sickness, birth, sex, excessive negative emotions and bodily fluids (amongst a few others). Especially death and birth, because these acts open up of the way to the Underworld. When a Khthonic deity is invoked, this passageway is opened as well.
Ouranic deities cannot and will not come into contact with the Underworld. They must remain pure, untainted. If a worshiper is tainted with miasma, he or she must first clean themselves of it through katharmos ((Καθαρμός). The most well-known of these is through applying khernips (Χἐρνιψ). Khernips is created by dropping smoldering incense or herb leaves into (fresh and/or salt) water (preferably sacred spring water or sea water). Both hands and face are washed with khernips.
There are, however, entities that exist between the strict divide between Ouranic and Khthonic, and the rites that honour them are mixed as well. Heroes were often worshipped at the eschára, for example, and certain Gods walk the fine line; Hekate, for example, who walks freely between the upper world and the Underworld, or Persephone, who spends part of the year in the Underworld and the rest on Olympos with her mother and father. And then there are Theoi like Zeus and Hermes, who have certain epithets that can make the journey down, and Hades who has an epithet who can make the journey up.