- Robert Parker
The category of “sacred laws” is one within which modern scholarship on Greek religion assembles inscriptions which in various ways regulate the conduct of cult. Many have a broadly policing function: fines or other punishments are imposed for cutting wood, pasturing animals, lighting fires within a sanctuary, or disorderly conduct at a festival. Some deal with other aspects of sanctuary management such as the positioning and care of votive offerings. Some prescribe ritual activities such as processions or sacrifices to be conducted at new or reorganized festivals; the financing of cult is often a concern. Many define the duties and perquisites of priests and priestesses. A distinctive subclass is the “sale of priesthood” text, from those parts of the east Greek world where some priesthoods were so allocated. Each time a sale was to occur, a job description was published which functioned as a cross between advertisement and contract. Calendars listing month by month the sacrifices to be offered by a particular city or subgroup within one are also conventionally included among sacred laws. Legally, all the classes mentioned so far are decrees of the civic body concerned (or a subsection of it) and have the force of law. Other so-called sacred laws have a more advisory function: they lay down the rules of purity to be observed by visitors to sanctuaries or by priests, or draw attention to small particularities of sacrificial practice in the cult concerned. Such regulations probably normally derived from ritual experts such as exegetes. Whether they also had legal force and could lead, if violated, to prosecution for impiety is controversial; offences against purity laws, for example, would be largely unknowable except to the offender. Individual sacred laws, such as those on the conduct of funerals, may blend advisory and more clearly enforceable elements.
What sacred laws are not are do-it-yourself guides to the conduct of ritual. Those of the policing type are only incidentally concerned with ritual at all; those that advise about ritual assume a broad familiarity with the mechanics and pick out unusual features. The rare exceptions where a ritual is spelt out in detail seem to be products of innovation and a consequent need to be explicit: a uniquely detailed calendar from Cos, for instance, dates from shortly after an event which would have required a re-writing of the island’s sacred calendar, the synoecism of 366 bce (RO 62).
The Greeks sometimes spoke of “sacred laws,” and a few of those which appear in modern collections apply the term to themselves. But the modern class contains disparate elements, and it is not clear that modern usage tracks ancient at all closely (nor that ancient usage was any more rigorous than modern).
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