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This article discusses cult in the original and typically ancient sense of "religious practice" (cultus). It does not discuss cults in the sociology of religion, new religious movements referred to as cults, political cults or head of state cults of personality, therapeutic or business cults, popular cult followings in the sense of cult film, or specific groups referred to as cults in non-scientific media. See the main article at Cult.

In traditional usage, the cult of a religion, quite apart from its sacred writings ("scriptures"), its theology or myths, or the personal faith of its believers, is the totality of external religious practice and observance, the neglect of which is the definition of impiety. Cult in this primary sense is literally the "care" (Latin cultus) owed to the god and the shrine. 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. Ritual behavior 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 cult to be enacted, to be practiced"[1]

Cult is embodied in ritual and ceremony. Its present or former presence is made concrete in temples, shrines and churches, and cult images (denigrated by Christians as "idols") and votive deposits at votive sites.

By extension, "cult" has come to connote the total cultural aspects of a religion, as they are distinguished from others through change and individualization.

The comparative study of cult practice is part of the disciplines of the anthropology of religion and the sociology of religion, two aspects of comparative religion. In the context of many religious organisations themselves, the study of cultic or liturgical practises is called liturgiology.


The term "cult" first appeared in English in 1617, derived from the French culte, meaning "worship" or "a particular form of worship" which in turn originated from the Latin word cultus meaning "care, cultivation, worship," originally "tended, cultivated," as in the past participle of colere "to till the soil". 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.

The meaning "devotion to a person or thing" is from 1829. Starting about 1920, "cult" acquired an additional six or more connotatively positive and negative definitions that are separately discussed in the article Cult.

Roman Catholic cultus

In Roman Catholicism, cultus or cult is the technical term for the following Catholic devotions or veneration extended to a particular saint.

Some Christians make distinctions between worship and veneration, both of which can be outwardly expressed in a similar manner. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy distinguish between worship (Latin adoratio, Greek latreia [λατρεια]) which is only acceptable to be offered to God alone, and veneration (Latin veneratio, Greek doulia [δουλεια]), which may be offered to the saints. These distinctions between deity and mediators are exhaustively treated at the entries for latria and dulia.

Cult practice

Among the observances in the cult are rituals, ceremonies, liturgy or audits, which may involve spoken or sung words, and often involve personal sacrifice. Other 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, designated 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 cult practices. Sacred places may be identified and elaborated by construction of shrines and temples, on which are centered public attention at religious festivals and which may become the center for pilgrimages.

Cult centers

Many cities in the Ancient Near East were home to the cult centers of certain deities, such as Marduk in Babylon or Ptah in Memphis.

Meteorite falls may also be the source of cultish worship. The cult in the Temple of Artemis (Diana) at Ephesus, one of theSeven Wonders of the Ancient World possibly originated with the observation and recovery of a meteorite, which was understood by contemporaries to have fallen to the earth from Zeus, the principal Greek deity.[2]

See also


  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. "And when the townclerk had appeased the people, he said, Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter?" Acts 19:35

Further reading

  • Larson, Jennifer, Greek Heroine Cults (1995)
  • Larson, Jennifer, Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide (2007). Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-32448-9

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