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The Adoratio

The adoratio (adoration) is a form of saluting a deity demonstrating one's veneration when saluting a deity, entering a temple, approaching the statue of a deity, approaching an altar, approaching a grave, etc.. There is little work on the interpretation of the descriptions and thus there are also several misinterpretations in some reconstructionist material. It this page we will present and exhaustive compilation of sources and then provide practical guidelines that are as close as possible from the sources.

I thank Prof. John Scheid for having informed me about the important passage in [Minucius Felix, Octavius, II], and Dr. Rubén Ríos Longares for helping me with the translation of [Servius Honoratus, in Vergilii Aeneidos Commentarius, 4.62].


According to Plinius, the adoration of the gods is performed as follows [Plinius, Naturalis Historia, 28.25]:

"in adorando dextram ad osculum referimus totumque corpus circumagimus, quod in laevum fecisse Galliae religiosius credunt."

"when adoring, we take our right hand to our lips and we rotate all the body, which the Gauls believe to be more religious when performed to the left."

The act of kissing the hand was customary when saluting the gods and could be used alone without the rotation [Minucius Felix, Octavius, II]:

"Caecilius simulacro Serapidis denotato, ut vulgus superstitiosus solet, manum ori admovens osculu, labiis pressit."

"Caecilius, observing an image of Serapis, raised his hand to his mouth, as is the custom of the superstitious common people, and pressed a kiss on it with his lips."

On the other hand, the rotation is confirmed by Plutarch [Plutarch, Roman Questions, 14]:

"Or is it that it has become customary for sons to cover their heads for the reason already given? For they turn about at the graves, as Varro relates, thus honouring the tombs of their fathers even as they do the shrines of the gods; and when they have cremated their parents, they declare that the dead person has become a god at the moment when first they find a bone."

He also says that it was a rule instituted by Numa while presenting his own tentative interpretation on its meaning [Plutarch, on Numa Pompilius]:

«So some of Numa's traditions have no obvious meaning. "Thou shalt not make libation to the gods of wine from an unpruned vine. No sacrifices shall be performed without meal. Turn round to pay adoration to the gods; sit after you have worshipped." The first two directions seem to denote the cultivation and subduing of the earth as a part of religion; and as to the turning which the worshippers are to use in divine adoration, it is said to represent the rotatory motion of the world. But, in my opinion, the meaning rather is, that the worshipper, since the temples front the east, enters with his back to the rising sun; there, faces round to the east, and so turns back to the god of the temple, by this circular movement referring the fulfilment of his prayers to both divinities. Unless, indeed, this change of posture may have a mystical meaning, like the Egyptian wheels, and signify to us the instability of human fortune, and that, in whatever way God changes and turns our lot and condition, we should rest contented, and accept it as right and fitting. They say, also, that the sitting after worship was to be by way of omen of their petitions being granted, and the blessing they asked assured to them. Again, as different courses of actions are divided by intervals of rest, they might seat themselves after the completion of what they had done, to seek favour of the gods for beginning something else. And this would very well suit with what we had before; the lawgiver wants to habituate us to make our petitions to the deity not by the way, and, as it were, in a hurry, when we have other things to do, but with time and leisure to attend to it. By such discipline and schooling in religion, the city passed insensibly into such a submissiveness of temper, and stood in such awe and reverence of the virtue of Numa, that they received, with an undoubted assurance, whatever he delivered though never so fabulous, and thought nothing incredible or impossible from him.»

The statement about the orientation of temples (turned to East) is nevertheless wrong. This passage was somewhat corrupted in the available manuscript and so this may be an error of the editors. According to Vitruvius, the orientation of the temples should be precisely the opposite (i.e. facing West) as the worshiper should face the statue of the deity towards the East whenever possible [Vitruvius, De Architectura, IV.5]:

"Regiones autem quas debent spectare aedes sacrae deorum inmortalium, sic erunt constituendae uti si nulla ratio inpedierit liberaque fuerit potestas, aedis signumque quod erit in cella conlocatum spectet ad vespertinam caeli regionem, uti qui adierint ad aram immolantes aut sacrifica facientes spectent ad partem caeli orientis ad simulacrum quod erit in aede, et ita vota suscipientes contueantur eadem exorientem caelum ipsaque simulacra videantur exorientia contueri supplicantes et sacrificantes. sin autem loci natura interpellaverit, tunc convertendae sunt earum regionum constitutiones, uti quam plurima pars moenium e templis deorum conspiciatur. item si secundum flumina aedes sacrae fient, ita uti Aegypto circa Nilum, ad fluminis ripas videntur spectare debere. similiter si circum vias publicas erunt aedificia deorum, ita constituantur uti praetereuntes possint respicere et in conspectu salutationes facere."

"If there be nothing to prevent it, and the use of the edifice allow it, the temples of the immortal gods should have such an aspect, that the statue in the cell may have its face towards the west, so that those who enter to sacrifice, or to make offerings, may have their faces to the east as well as to the statue in the temple. Thus suppliants, and those performing their vows, seem to have the temple, the east, and the deity, as it were, looking on them at the same moment. Hence all altars of the gods should be placed towards the east. But if the nature of the place do not permit this, the temple is to be turned as much as possible, so that the greater part of the city may be seen from it. moreover, if temples be built on the banks of a river, as those in Egypt on the Nile, they should face the river. So, also, if temples of the gods be erected on the road side, they should be placed in such a manner that those passing by may look towards them, and make their obeisance."

This passage is also interesting because it says that it was usual to salute the deity when passing in front of the temple. The salutation he is referring to is probably the act of kissing the right hand (see above). The orientation of Vitruvius is also confirmed by the records of the Fratres Arvales (see the article on Posture).

There are other descriptions of the adoratio. Servius says that it could also involve walking in a circle around the altar, but he also seems to mention the customary rotation. This is a passage of his commentary on Virgil's Aeneid, whose commented expressions are written boldface [Servius Honoratus, in Vergilii Aeneidos Commentarius, 4.62]:

"ante ora deum ante simulacra. pingves plenas vel sanguine delibutas, ut pecudumque cruore pingue solum . spatiatur ad aras matronae enim sacrificaturae circa aras faculas tenentes ferebantur, quod cum quodam gestu fiebat: unde Sallustius saltare elegantius quam necesse est probae . quidam genus sacrificii appellant, quo veteres cum aras circumirent et rursus se converterent et deinde consisterent, dicebant minusculum sacrum. an hoc ad impatientiam amoris referendum est, quo iactata Dido loco stare non poterat, iuxta illud 'uritur infelix Dido totaque vagatur urbe furens'."

"prays before the gods before the statues / glowing full or impregnated with blood, as by the dense blood unique of cattle. goes from one side to the other towards the altars it was said that the matrons who went to sacrifice walked around the altars with small torches, which was done with such a gesture: from which Sallustius says that "she danced with more grace than that which was required of an honest woman". Some mention the origin of the sacrifice, in which the ancients, when they walk around the altars and turn about for the second time and then stop, they said a short prayer. Maybe this refers to the impatience of the love because of which Dido, being unsure, could not remain calm in one place, and I  join to this'The miserable Dido inflames herself and madly roams throughout all the city'"  

There is yet another description that includes the customary rotation, though the gesture ends in prostration, which can be an oriental influence (it seems that at least after Emperor Constantine, the prostration was the customary form of adoring the Emperor, though this form of adoratio could have been introduced earlier):

"Idem miri in adulando genii, prius C. Caesarem adorare ut deum instituit, cum reversus ex Syria non aliter adire ausus esset quam capite velato circumvertensque se, deinde procumbens."

"He had also a marvelous talent for the adoration of Genii. It was him the first who instituted the adoration of Caligula Caesar as a god. Upon returning from Syria, he never dared to present himself before him without having the head covered and revolving, then prostrating."

Finally, there is an interesting illustration in the calendar of Filocalus for the month of April. The man is worshiping a statuette, which is probably of Attis (bacause April is the month of the Megalesia). The man makes a turn with his body, although his feet rest in the direction of the deity. He may be dancing (in fact he is holding some kind of instrument), but he might also be performing an adapted form of adoratio. The picture was scanned from Mary Beard's "Religions of Rome - Volume 2 - A sourcebook":

How should I perform the adoratio?

This practical question is now easier to answer, though the sources indicate that there were variants of the adoratio already in ancient times. We can identify two elements: the kissing of the right hand and the rotation. Sallustius also mentions that the head should be covered, which is another roman way of paying respect to the gods in more solemn occasions (e.g. while offering sacrifice, or entering a temple, etc.). Taking into account all the sources, I have three main suggestions for the adoratio:

1) When you pass before or approach a temple or statue of a deity, a grave, or other sacred place such as the hearth, the Lararium, etc. simply kiss your right hand in that direction.

2) If you prefer to make things more solemn (specially when you are about to offer a more solemn sacrifice, or when you approach a relative's grave), with the head covered, approach the altar, statue, Lararium, grave, etc.. Then take your right hand to your lips for a kiss and rotate all your body. Your rotation finishes in your original position facing the sacred spot, so that you can proceed with your ritual. 

3) You may also wish to adore in an even more elaborate way when you approach an altar. You may encircle the altar and then stop before the altar, take your hand to your lips and rotate as in 2).


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