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The Domestic Cult

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 Westya:, 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. His duties include the daily prayers (either with the other members of the family or by himself on their behalf), and making the main offerings on special occasions. The main recipients of his daily offerings are Dyḗus Ptḗr and Perkʷū́nos, but he should also make offerings at least once a week to the deities of the family members.

Before his weekly offerings, the ptḗr puts an offering bowl in front of the lamp of Westyā (a lamp beside your stove or hearth; see below) 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:

         May I be pure to cross through the sacred.
         Pūtos ʔesō. [masc.]/Pūtā ʔesō. [fem.]
         [May I be pure.]

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

         May I cross through the sacred that I might attain the holy.
         Pūtos ʔesō. [masc.]/Pūtā ʔesō. [fem.]
         [May I be pure.]

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

         May I attain the holy that I might be blessed in all things.
         Pūtos ʔesō. [masc.]/Pūtā ʔesō. [fem.]
         [May I be pure.]

Now purified, the ptḗr lights the lamp,saying:

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

(This may be heard sung here.)

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 so as to have traced 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. (These motions were devised with the help of Jenni Hunt.)

He now pours the libation into a 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
         Perkʷū́no great defender
         May this, our home, be orderly, peaceful,
         strongly-built and well-protected,
         blessed by the gifts the gods bestow.

He bows to the fire, extinguishes it, and is done. If family members have deities they are particularly devoted to, he may also offer to them before extinguishing the fire, although those devoted to each of them should also be regularly making their own offerings, of course.

The worship of Dyḗus Ptḗr, Perkʷū́nos, and the patron deities of the family members is the first part of the domestic cult. The second is made up of the practices surrounding the hearth.

The oldest woman in the family, the mā́tr, is the tender of the hearth. As might be expected, she is responsible for the cult of Westyā, assisted by the other women and girls in the family. She also makes offerings to the ancestors.

Her role as keeper of the hearth makes her a very powerful figure: the true 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. Failing this, put an oil lamp or long-burning candle, a “lamp of Westyā,” next to your stove, with an offering bowl in front of it. Whenever you use the stove, say, "We cook with the fire of Westyā." 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.

Whenever she lights the lamp, the m̄́tr says:

         Westyā is here, the heart of our home.

At least weekly, offer food, and milk or oil, to Westyā. A bit of food from your table is a must; the Romans offered some from every meal. If you use a fireplace, put these offerings into the fire. If not, place them in bowls in front of your lamp and leave them there overnight, putting them outside for the land spirits the next days. Small pieces may be burned in the flame of the lamp.

When she offers to Westyā, the mā́tr says:

         Burn on our hearth, Westyā,
         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.

The daily lighting of the flame is important. In this way the cult of Westyā is maintained in everyday life. The connection between the lamp and the stove is also important; a bit of her goes into each piece of food we eat, and thus into us. Westyā feeds us. It is here, in the heart of the home, that we can connect with the holy.

The third part of domestic worship is the cult of the Ancestors. Strictly speaking, the Mṛtōs 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 mā́tr of this family. When a living ptḗr and mā́tr perform the domestic rituals, they embody the ptḗr and mā́tr of the Mṛtōs.

The offerings to the Mṛtōs may be a daily rite or a weekly one. The ritual is begun with the purification, lighting of the fire of Westyā, and offering to Westyā as done in her cult. The mā́tr then takes some of the food from a main meal (bread, as the archetypal main food, is best, although if there is something your family eats regularly, or a food particularly associated with your family’s ethnic background, that would be good as well, either by itself or accompanying the bread) and places it with her left hand in an offering bowl before the lit lamp of Westyā. She may offer some drink as well. As she makes the offering, she says:

         Patérēs mā́trēskʷe,
         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.

Even while observing all of these rituals, do not forget the most important one, the giving of hospitality. This is a domestic reflection of the ghosti-principle; the exchange of hospitality binds society together.

If the Bible tells us to treat strangers well because by doing so some “have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2), we Pagans have an even greater obligation to treat visitors as the deities they might well be. Friends, family, even the evangelist on your doorstep – you owe each of them your hospitality.

Volpe, Angel 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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