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This article discusses the original meaning of the word "cult" but not "cults" in the sociology of religion, new religious movements referred to as "cults", political cults or head-of-state cults of personality, or popular cult followings. See also: Cult (disambiguation).

Cult is literally the "care" (Latin cultus) owed to God or gods and to temples, shrines, or churches. Cult is embodied in ritual and ceremony. Its present or former presence is made concrete in temples, shrines and churches, and cult images, including, but not limited to, cult images and votive deposits at votive sites.

In the specific context of Greek hero cult, Carla Antonaccio has written, "The term cult identifies a pattern of ritual behavior in connection with specific objects, within a framework of spatial and temporal coordinates. Rituals would include (but not necessarily be limited to) prayer, sacrifice, votive offerings, competitions, processions and construction of monuments. Some degree of recurrence in place and repetition over time of ritual action is necessary for a cult to be enacted, to be practiced".[1]


Cicero defined religio as cultus deorum, "the cultivation of the gods."[2] The "cultivation" necessary to maintain a specific deity was that god's cultus, "cult," and required "the knowledge of giving the gods their due" (scientia colendorum deorum).[3] The noun cultus originates from the past participle of the verb colo, colere, colui, cultus, "to tend, take care of, cultivate," originally meaning "to dwell in, inhabit" and thus "to tend, cultivate land (ager); to practice agriculture," an activity fundamental to Roman identity even when Rome as a political center had become fully urbanized. Cultus is often translated as "cult", without the negative connotations the word may have in English, or with the Anglo-Saxon word "worship", but it implies the necessity of active maintenance beyond passive adoration. Cultus was expected to matter to the gods as a demonstration of respect, honor, and reverence; it was an aspect of the contractual nature of Roman religion (see do ut des).[4] St. Augustine echoes Cicero's formulation when he declares that "religio is nothing other than the cultus of God."[5]

The term "cult" first appeared in English in 1617, derived from the French culte, meaning "worship" which in turn originated from the Latin word cultus meaning "care, cultivation, worship". The meaning "devotion to a person or thing" is from 1829. Starting about 1920, "cult" acquired an additional six or more positive and negative definitions.

In French, for example, sections in newspapers giving the schedule of worship at Catholic churches are headed Culte Catholique; the section giving the schedule of Protestant churches is headed culte réformé.

In Christianity[edit]

In Roman Catholicism, outward religious practice in cultus is the technical term for devotions or veneration extended to a particular saint, not to the worship of God. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy make a major distinction between latria, which is the worship that is offered to God alone, and Dulia, which is the veneration offered to the saints, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose veneration is often referred to as hyperdulia.

Outwards religious practice[edit]

Outward religious practice in worship are rituals, ceremonies, liturgy or audits, which may involve spoken or sung words, and often involve personal sacrifice. Other outward manifestations of the cult of a deity are the preservation of relics or the creation of images, such as icons (usually connoting a flat painted image) or three-dimensional cultic images, denigrated as "idols", and the specification of sacred places, hilltops and mountains, fissures and caves, springs, pools and groves, or even individual trees or stones, which may be the seat of an oracle or the venerated site of a vision, apparition, miracle or other occurrence commemorated or recreated in outward religious practice. Sacred places may be identified and elaborated by construction of shrines, temples, and churches, on which are centered public attention at religious festivals and which may become the center for pilgrimages.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Antonaccio, "Contesting the Past: Hero Cult, Tomb Cult, and Epic in Early Greece", American Journal of Archaeology 98.3 (July 1994: 389-410) p. 398.
  2. ^ Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2.8 and 1.117.
  3. ^ Clifford Ando, The Matter of the Gods (University of California Press, 2009), p. 6.
  4. ^ Ando, The Matter of the Gods, pp. 5–7; Valerie M. Warrior, Roman Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 6; James B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Blackwell, 2007), pp. 13, 23.
  5. ^ Augustine, De Civitate Dei 10.1; Ando, The Matter of the Gods, p. 6.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adolf E. Jensen, Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, University of Chicago Press, 1963
  • Larson, Jennifer, Greek Heroine Cults (1995)
  • Larson, Jennifer, Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide (2007). Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-32448-9

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_(religious_practice) — Please support Wikipedia.
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