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LUSTRA´TIO (luo, to purify), called by the Greeks κάθαρσις, is a term which covers a great variety of ceremonies in the religious usage of the ancients: of these only the most remarkable and best attested can be referred to in this article. It should be remarked at the outset, that ceremonial purification, which is found in some shape among peoples of all stages of development, may be traced to an origin in the necessities of bodily ablution, especially in connexion with certain well-marked events in human life, such as birth, marriage, bloodshed, and burial. There gradually follows a transition “from practical to symbolic cleansing, from removal of bodily impurity to deliverance from invisible, spiritual, and at last moral evil” (Tylor, Primitive Culture, 2.388).

This transition was complete by the time at which Greek and Roman literature enables us to become acquainted with the rites of this kind practised by the two peoples; but the primitive idea may be often noted underlying usages which had lost their original meaning. Cicero reflects this idea in the following remarkable passage:--“Caste jubet lex adire ad deos, animo videlicet, in quo sunt omnia; nec tollit castimoniam corporis, sed hoc oportet intelligi, quum multum animus corpori praestet observeturque, ut casta corpora adhibeantur, multo esse in animis id servandum magis; nam illud vel aspersione aquae vel dierum numero tollitur; animi labes nec diuturnitate evanescere nec amnibus ullis elui potest” (de Legibus, 2.10, 24).

The various usages of lustration may conveniently be grouped under the following heads:--1, purification necessary before entering holy places; 2, purification from blood-guiltiness; 3, purification at birth, marriage, and death; 4, purification of house, land, city, or people, on certain stated occasions, or with, some special temporary object.

1. Both in Greece and Italy we have sufficient evidence that worshippers could not enter a temple without a previous symbolic act of washing. Even before engaging in ordinary prayer this was proper, as may be seen from Homer; Od. 4.750 (cf. Il. 16.228 ff.); but in templeworship it was indispensable. At the entrance of temples were placed vessels holding pure water (περιρραντήρια), in which the worshippers dipped their hands; or the water was sprinkled over them by a whisk, frequently a laurelbranch (Bötticher, Baumkultus der Hellenen, p. 353; Lucian, Sacrif. 13; Pollux, 1.8). Seawater or spring-water was preferred; and salt was sometimes added to fresh water (Theoer. 24, 95). Temples were usually placed near running water, for convenience (Bötticher, Tektonik der Hellenen, 2.485). In Latium the word delubrum signified the space before the temple where this purification was performed (Serv. ad Aen. 2.225); and it was as indispensable as in Greece, as may be clearly seen from Livy (45.5, 4): “Cum omnis praefatio sacrorum eos, quibus non sint purae manus, arceat” (cf. 1.45, 6, where the priest of the temple of Diana, on the Aventine, requests a Sabine who wished to sacrifice there, to bathe in the Tiber in the valley below). The temples themselves were no doubt kept pure from defilement in the same manner as the worshippers; for we find that the Vestal Virgins daily sprinkled that of Vesta with some kind of mop (which is represented on coins) and with water brought fiom the holy springs of Egeria or the Camenae (cf. Eur. Ion 101). For further information about this kind of lustration, see K. F. Hermann, Griech. Alterthümer, vol. ii. sects. 19 and 23, ed. 2; Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, vol. iii. (ed. 2), pp. 154 and 175.

2. The notion that blood-guiltiness could be removed by symbolic purification was not apparently indigenous in Greece, for it is not found in Homer (Grote, Hist. of Greece, 1.21). Müller (Eumen. § 53) takes a different view. In later times, whether the murder had been voluntary or not, it was indispensable (see Lobeck, Aglaoph. 968, where passages are collected); and is familiar to us in the story of Orestes, both from the Eumenides of Aeschylus and from numerous painted vases. Herodotus (1.35) tells us that the κάθαρσις of the Greeks was identical with [p. 2.102]that used by the Lydians, whence it has been inferred that the Greeks borrowed the idea from Lydia; and considering the strong negative evidence of the Homeric poems on the point, it is not unlikely that the practice of expiation from blood-guiltiness may have been of later date, and suggested by Eastern influences. There is no certain sign of it in Roman antiquity; the so-called lex regia of Numa, quoted in Festus (221, s. v. parricida), makes no mention of it; and it would seem that a murderer was totally and permanently excluded from temple-worship (Liv. 45.5, 3), though this cannot be regarded as fully proved by the evidence. When Ovid, in the well-known lines, “A nimium faciles qui tristia crimina caedis Fluminea tolli posse putetis aqua” (Fasti, 2.45), refers to the Greek belief and practice as based on a delusion, he is perhaps reflecting not only the opinions of educated scepticism, but also the view which was natural to the Roman mind.

3. Purification was necessary after the birth of an infant, as is shown by the Roman expression dies lustricus for the day (the ninth after birth for a boy, the eighth for a girl) on which the child received its name (Macrob. 1.16, 36: “Est autem lustricus dies quo infantes lustrantur et nomen accipiunt” ). In the corresponding Athenian rite of the Amphidromia, we are not informed of any such lustration, except that the women who had attended at the birth then washed their hands (Suidas, s. v. ἀμφιδρόμια); but the practice of some form of baptism is so universal (Tylor, Prim. Culture, 2.389 ff.) that we may be justified in assuming it. At marriage the practice of lustration is clearly seen in Greece: both bride and bridegroom bathed, on the day before the wedding, in water brought from a holy spring (e. g. Callirrhoe, at Athens), to signify that they entered the married state in purity (Pollux, 3.43; Schol. Eur. Phaen. 349). So at Rome, the bride, on arriving at her husband's house, was sprinkled with lustral water (Festus, p. 87), and her feet were washed (Serv. ad Aen. 4.167). In Greece, after a death, all who were in the house, and all who subsequently came in contact with the corpse, were contaminated and in need of purification (Odyss. 10.481; Eur. Iph. Taur. 380), and a cask of water, called ἀρδάνιον, was placed outside the house with this object (Pollux, 8.65). Among the Romans we find the same ideas prevailing in funeral rites: a day was fixed on which, by sacrifices and other ceremonies, the polluted household was cleansed. This was called “feriae denicales” (Festus, p. 70; cf. Cic. de Leg. 2.2. 2, 25); a pig had been previously sacrificed at the grave (Cic. l.c.) to render it holy ground.

4. From the illustrations given in the three preceding paragraphs it will have been seen that the idea of the necessity of purification, in the simple and ordinary sense of the word, and as symbolised chiefly by some act of ablution, was one which pervaded the whole life of the individual and the family, both in Italy and Greece. The words καθαιρεῖν and lustrare, however, were applied to a great number of other purificatory rites on a larger scale, and occurring either on days fixed in the calendar of religious operations, or on peculiar occasions, which concerned certain portions of land, cities, or a whole community of individuals. It is by no means clear in all these rites, how far the leading idea is simple purification, or expiation for some crime or other taint, or even a kind of dedication to a divinity for the purpose of procuring good fortune, e. g. in agriculture or in war. Doubtless these ideas ran into each other, and were not clearly distinguished in the minds of those who took part in the rites at the time when we first become acquainted with them. A few examples, of which the most instructive are the Italian, will serve to show the nature of the rites, and to give some idea of their object or objects.

Of extraordinary purifications of this kind, the most famous in Greece were: 1. The work done by Epimenides at Athens after the Cylonian massacre, described by Plutarch in his Life of Solon (ch. 12; cf. D. L. 1.10, 3); the details are uncertain, but the general character seems to have resembled that combination of actual and moral purification which was wrought on the worshippers in the Greek mysteries. 2. The purification of Delos by the Athenians in the year 426 B.C., with the object of releasing their own city from the plague and the wrath of Apollo. All dead bodies were then removed from the island, and it was decreed that neither birth nor death should take place there in future (Thuc. 3.104). With these examples may be compared the Roman amburbium, which, unlike other rites of the kind at Rome, seems only to have been celebrated on occasions of great distress, as, for example, after the battle of the Trebia (Liv. 21.62, 7). Victims were led round the city wall and sacrificed, accompanied by the Pontifices, Vestal Virgins, and members of the other priestly colleges. (Lucan 1.592 ff.; Festus, p. 5.)

Of regularly recurring lustrations we find the best examples in Italy; but they also took place at Athens. Every meeting of the Ecclesia was preceded by a lustration (περίστια), when the περιστίαρχος sacrificed young pigs, which were afterwards thrown into the sea. [ECCLESIA Vol. I. p. 699 b.] Of the great Athenian festivals, some at least had the object of purification: such for example was the harvest festival of the Thargeia (ὅτε καθαίρουσιν Ἀθηναῖοι τὴν πόλιν, D. L. 2.5, 23), on which occasion two men called φαρμακοὶ were driven out of the city as καθάρσια (Harpocrat. s. v. φαρμακός).

Of parallel rites at Rome we have more certain information. Sometimes it was the land that was the object of lustration, whether the land of a private owner or the land of the state; sometimes it was the people, whether brought together in the form of a public assembly, or in the form of an army or fleet. Of the lustration of a farm we have an account preserved in Cato's treatise de Re Rustica ( § 41). The suovetaurilia (offering of pig, sheep, and ox) were driven round the farm, libations offered to Janus and Jupiter, and a fixed form of prayer used to propitiate Mars, the special deity of the agriculturist. This was doubtless the original and simplest form of this kind of lustratio, for we find exactly the same ritual applied to the land of the state on the 29th of May each year, in the Ambarvalia [AMBARVALIA], of which the best description will be found in Verg. [p. 2.103]Georg. 1.345. The great inscription from Iguvium in Umbria, which consists of exact regulations and formulae to be observed in a procession round the land of that city, offers a parallel case of lustration from North Italy, and a more minute description of the kind of ritual in use than we possess from any other source. (See Bréal, Tables Eugubines, p. xxi. f.)

A complete lustration of the whole Roman people took place at the end of every lustrum, when the censor had finished his census and before he laid down his office. This took place in the Campus Martius, where the people were assembled for the purpose. The sacrifices were carried three times round the assembled multitude, as in the Ambarvalia they were carried round the land (Dionys. A. R. 4.22). All Roman armies before they took the field were lustrated (D. C. 47.38; App. Hist. 19, and B.C. 4.89); and as this solemnity was probably always connected with a review of the troops, the word lustratio is also used in the sense of the modern review (Cic. Att. 5.2. 0, 2). The rites customary on such occasions are not mentioned, but they probably resembled those with which a fleet was lustrated before it set sail, and which are described by Appian (App. BC 5.96). Altars were erected on the shore, and the vessels manned with their troops assembled close at hand. Silence was kept, while the priests carried the purifying sacrifices (καθάρσια) in boats three times round the fleet; these sacrifices were then divided into two parts, one of which was thrown into the sea, and the other burnt on the altars, while the multitude prayed to the gods. (Cf. Liv. 36.42 and 29.27, where also a prayer is recorded such as generals used on these occasions.)

The examples given in the foregoing account are to be taken only as selected illustrations of a very large and widespread series of purificatory rites. There were indeed few religious ceremonies either in Greece or Italy of which some kind of lustration did not form a part; for as the simple idea of purification became connected with other ideas, such as fertilisation, as in rites of spring and summer, or the averting of evil from a community and its property, the field over which its influence extended became continually enlarged. It may be studied in the Greek Mysteries, which had as their chief object the removal of moral evil from the minds of the worshippers, and were accompanied by preliminary rites of a purely lustral character; in the Bacchic rites, where fire, sulphur, and air were used as means of purgation, besides water (Serv. ad Aen. 6.741); in the Palilia of the Romans, where the flocks and herds were made to pass through the fire, as a means both of purification and fertilising; in the Lupercalia in the month of February, which was the special season of purification (februum=an instrument of purifying); in the singular ceremony of the ARGEI on the Ides of May, called by Plutarch “the greatest of the purifications” (Quaest. Rom. 86), and in many other rites.

The articles on the festivals above mentioned may be referred to for further information: and on the general subject of lustration, for Greece, Hermann, Griech. Alterthümer, vol. ii. sects. 19, 23 and 24; for Rome, Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, vol. iii. (2nd edit.), pp. 200 ff., and Preller, Röm. Mlythol. (3rd edit.), vol. 1.419 ff.


hide References (18 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (18):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 5.2.2
    • Euripides, Ion, 101
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.35
    • Homer, Odyssey, 4.750
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.104
    • Homer, Iliad, 16.228
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 5.10.96
    • Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum, 1.3
    • Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum, 2.5
    • Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum, 1.10
    • Lucan, Civil War, 1.592
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 45, 3
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 45, 4
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 45, 5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 36, 42
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 21, 7
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 21, 62
    • Cicero, De Legibus, 2.2
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