A Model of Religious Communication

How, then, should we describe ancient religious communication? Essentially, there was a human sender and his or her divine recipient. The sender attempted to transfer a signal, intending it to be received as information or as a script for action. But how could it be determined that the signal had arrived and had been understood? And how could the message be made relevant?

Concentrating on Roman standard procedures, there was a vast array of strategies. The choice of location, for example, was important.[1] A raised platform would improve performance, as would a sacred area or temple. Timing was also important: the calendar regulated the opening of temples, and special occasions were set aside for specific requests, such as a good harvest, disease-free crops, or successful business ventures.[2] Multichanneling was another strategy: words were enhanced by gifts. Sound was combined with smell, rising smoke with the downpour of liquids. In many instances word choice explicitly points to the agents’ reflection on the communicative problem: audi is a common exclamation in Latin prayers, and epekoos, “the god who hears,” is an important Greek cult title from Hellenistic times onward.[3] Representations of ears might even be offered as a gift.[4] Standard procedures, tested and hallowed by tradition, or just reported to be effective,[5] were employed, and action was thereby ritualized.[6] Occasionally ritual specialists were deployed, but their role tended to remain restricted in Roman antiquity.[7] The professionalism of Egyptian magicians is in stark contrast to the do-it-yourself curse tablets of the West, as mentioned earlier.

As the desired response would be delayed, checks were introduced. Divination, frequently considered an exotic and marginal feature of ancient religions, was in fact central to many rituals.[8] In a form of metacommunication, oracles were addressed to improve ritual communication. Successful transmission of the signal during animal sacrifice was regularly assessed through scrutiny of the liver or other entrails.[9] Because animal sacrifice was a very costly form of signaling, it was therefore as much a clear indicator of relevance to the gods as an arrogation of agency with regard to the fellow human beings who were involved as the indirect beneficiaries of the sacrificial meal. Again, the risky nature of the communication is apparent:[10] pains are taken to exclude disturbances and eliminate mistakes, and yet the very performance of such risk management construes the communication as risky. An inappropriate or incorrect utterance during the ceremony, an agent’s ominous name, a slip of tongue or foot: communication could be imperiled in countless ways.[11]

The ritual communication described so far was generically furthered by materialization and monumentalization, thus conferring prominence on the message and indicating its relevance. It was surely reassuring to use the temples and statues built by others for one’s own attempts at communication; this enhanced the plausibility of new communicative efforts in the eyes of both the agents and their observers.[12] In accordance with the strategies mentioned above, temples could be named as locations and statues as addressees. But these were not ab initio creations: they were not simply built and dedicated, but they were themselves the products of acts of communication. Temples in Rome were built in fulfillment of vows.[13] Statues and other images were the most visible signs of the presence of the gods. (Sometimes they even acknowledged a prayer by a small movement of their eyes.)[14] They often were objects of thanksgiving,[15] promised in a vow or added to a prayer. Thus, the production of the most visible form of the addressee is both a result of communication and the precondition for further successful, and less risky, communication. Understanding this communicative circle is important to the issue of ex post differentiation between so-called cult statues and dedicated images,[16] or between promised dedications and spontaneous gifts. These monuments, however, might suggest that religious resources were unlimited. The risks of inflationary

Monoptcros temple in Tivoli, entrance with the door of 5.5 x 2.4 meters. End of second century BC. Photo by J. Rupke.

devaluation and indifference were therefore countered by reduction in and control over accessibility: the size of doors, enlarged central intercolumnia, or fences within the cella (the inner room of the temple) could open or restrict access to the most important symbol of divine presence.[17]

An initial conclusion can be drawn from these general observations regarding vows: ritual communication was not just a sequence of prayers, vows, thanksgiving, and—often directly appended—new prayers.[18] The materialization of this process was the construction of a religious infrastructure that made communicative efforts plausible and provided them a channel. Such infrastructure, however, could not prevent the proliferation of religious communication outside of the monumental and beautiful sanctuaries that had been financed by the political elite. Nor could it halt its spread outside of the city. Thus, we must direct our attention to “cheap” religion: the appropriation of nonelite spaces, and the forms of communication practiced in such spaces. For most people, monumental expression was economically unfeasible and not part of everyday ritual praxis. And yet the less costly votives that were available, terra-cotta statues for example, followed the same communicative rules.

  • [1] An overview is given in ThesCRA 4 (2005), “Cult Places,” 1—361.
  • [2] For the establishment of cultic calendars, see Rupke 1995, 547—62 and 523—40.
  • [3] Versnel 1981, 34.
  • [4] Ibid., 36. This might be a specific appropriation or profiling of sanctuary space, whichwas thus marked out as holding greater importance—beyond that of the statue—for communicative processes. I am grateful to Valentino Gasparini, who inspired me to develop this idea (seeGasparini 2016).
  • [5] Ando 2008, 13, argues for the importance of the empirical dimension of Roman ritual.
  • [6] See C. Bell, e.g., Bell 1992.
  • [7] See Rupke 1996b.
  • [8] See Belayche and Rupke 2007 and Rosenberger 2013b for the centrality of divinatory practices, and Belayche et al. 2005a for an overview of Roman forms.
  • [9] Gladigow 2000.
  • [10] Rupke in Belayche et al. 2005a, 83.
  • [11] For an analysis of Pliny the Elder's description of this problem, see Koves-Zulauf 1972.
  • [12] Mylonopoulos 2006 points to the “visual experience of myths in a framework of mimeticrepresentation."
  • [13] See Pietila-Castrcn 1987; Orlin 1997.
  • [14] See Gordon 1979.
  • [15] Van Straten 1981, in particular 81; cf. Boardman et al. 2004, 316.
  • [16] See Scheer 2000 (“Kultbild" vs. “Weihgeschenk").
  • [17] Mattern 2006, 171-72, 175.
  • [18] See, e.g., van Straten 1981, 74.
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