Many shrines or sacred spaces in Ancient Greece were marked out by lustral basins or other vessels of water at the entrances which permitted the entrant to wash and thereby ensure ritual purity (hagneia). Sexual intercourse, like death or birth, rendered someone impure and required such ritual cleansing. Ritual purity might also demand a period of sexual abstention before entry into the shrine or contact with a cult statue. An inscription set up in the sanctuary of Athena at PERGAMUM after 133 BC declared that citizens ‘and all other people who enter the temple of the female god shall be pure, having washed themselves clean from their own wife or their own husband for one day, or from another woman or another man for two days; similarly from a corpse or from a woman in labour for two days’. At HELIOPOLIS (Συρία) the men who carried the statue of Jupiter in procession first shaved their heads and abstained from sex for an unknown period. It has been said that ‘fasting had no part in the preparation of priests for sacrifice or for other liturgical functions in Latin and Greek city cults’, but priests and priestesses might prepare to carry out sacrifices or other rituals by temporary abstention from certain foods as well as from sex. At COS priestesses of Demeter did not eat meat that had been slaughtered in a particular (now uncertain) manner. Nor were priests and priestesses there to eat offerings made in heroic or chthonic cult. According to Iamblichus the priestess at DIDYMA (Ἀπόλλων) uttered an oracle only after a three-day fast, while at CLAROS (Ἀπόλλων) the priest or prophet spoke only after a one-day fast. In Near-eastern cults like that of Cybele ritual purity required abstention from pork. What was not normally required of priests or priestesses in Greek cult was the permanent renunciation of sexual relations.
Temporary abstention marked the approach to the divine not only of priests but of pilgrims: suppliants in search of healing at a shrine of Asklepios might be required to abstain from sex and from certain foods over a number of days. At Pergamon, for example, the sick person who hoped for a healing vision of the god while sleeping in the shrine had first to observe certain rules of purity in abstaining from sex, goat meat, and cheese. At OROPUS, if Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius is a credible source, the person seeking an oracle was required to fast from all food for one day and from wine for three days. At DELOS devotees of Atargatis abstained from fish for several days before participating in sacred banquets.Concerns for purity also touched candidates for initiation into mystery cults. A chorus of initiates in Euripides’ The Cretans tells of their abstention from meat (‘living food’) at the cave of Zeus Idaios on Mount Ida in Crete. Livy (59 BC– ad 17) related in his Histories that initiation into the Bacchic mysteries at Rome before their suppression in 187 bc required an initiate to abstain from sex for ten days and seemingly to practise some form of fast broken by a meal on the tenth day. From the late second century ad, readers of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses learnt how the novel’s protagonist Lucius, after his many misfortunes as an ass, had recovered his human form and been initiated into the cult of Isis at Cenchreae through rites preceded by a ten-day fast from meat and wine. Whatever the reality behind these texts, the passages tell us what theatre-goers and readers in the Graeco-Roman world came to expect of participants in such rites.
Some forms of abstention were rites of mourning which mirrored the myths that governed particular festivals. Participants in the ELEUSINIAN mysteries at Athens imitated the mourning goddess Demeter by fasting and drinking the kykeon, a brew produced from barley meal, water, and pennyroyal.
Married women who participated in the Athenian THESMOPHORIA fasted on the second day of Demeter’s festival (itself named the Nesteia or Fast) while sitting on mats upon the ground within her sanctuaries to adopt the same posture as the grief-stricken goddess. They also abstained from sexual relations for all three days of the festival.
The Thesmophoria was widely celebrated in the Greek cities, not just in Greece, but in Italy and Sicily. Around the mid third century BC Greek festivals of Demeter gave rise to similar Roman festivals of Ceres, whose annual festival at the end of June included a nine-day period of sexual abstinence and fasting from bread and wine by its female participants or initiates. In 191 BC, in response to portents, the Senate further decreed a day’s fast to take place in October once every five years in honour of the goddess, but which appears to have been celebrated annually by the reign of Augustus. Rome likewise adopted other rites from the Greek east which involved periodic fasting: by some point in the imperial period, the March ceremonies in honour of the Great Mother goddess CYBELE included a nine-day fast from bread and other grain products, pomegranates, quinces, pork, fish, and perhaps wine.
Εἶναι γνωστὲς οἱ προτροπὲς τοῦ Πορφύριου γιὰ ἀποφυγὴ ὅλων τῶν παθῶν, ὅπως καὶ οἱ προτροπὲς τοῦ Ἐπίκτητου. Γνωστοὶ παγανιστὲς τῆς Ὕστερης Ἀρχαιότητας (Ὑπατία, Μαρίνος: ἀρχιδιδάσκαλος τῆς νεοπλατωνικῆς σχολῆς στὴν Ἀθήνα, Ἀντωνίνος, Σαραπίων) ἀπεῖχαν ἐντελῶς ἀπὸ τὶς σεξουαλικές σχέσεις, καὶ τιμῶνταν γι’ αὐτὸ ἀπὸ τοὺς σύγχρονούς τους παγανιστές (Δαμάσκιος). Ἄλλοι ἀπέφευγαν τὸ χοιρινὸ καὶ τὰ λουτρὰ (Χρυσάνθιος) ἢ ἀπέφευγαν πλήρως τὸ κρέας καὶ νήστευαν ὁρισμένες μέρες τὸ χρόνο (Πρόκλος). Καὶ ἄλλοι παγανιστές, τέλος, αὐτομαστιγώνονταν (Σουπηριανός).
Μπορεῖ ὁ χριστιανικὸς ἀσκητισμὸς τῆς Αἰγύπτου καὶ τῆς Συρίας νὰ μὴν προέρχεται ἀπὸ τὸν ἑλληνορωμαϊκό, ὡστόσο ἀκόμη κι ἔτσι -ἀνεξάρτητα ἀπὸ αὐτόν- τὰ μοτίβα τῆς στέρησης καὶ τῆς ἀποχῆς εἶναι τόσο ὅμοια σὲ ἀρχαία καὶ χριστιανικὴ θρησκεία καθὼς καὶ σὲ φιλοσόφους καὶ χριστιανοὺς μοναχούς, ποὺ δίκαια ὁ R. Finn ὁ ὁποῖος δὲν ἀναφέρει τὸν ἀσκητισμὸ τῶν παγανιστῶν τῆς προηγούμενης παραγράφου) παρατηρεῖ γιὰ τὸν Νικήτα Σινιόσογλου, ἕναν σύγχρονο ἐρευνητή ὁ ὁποῖος ἀρέσκεται στὴν ἔντονη ἀντιπαράθεση/ἀντιμαχία χριστιανικοῦ-προχριστιανικοῦ, ὅτι «Niketas Siniossoglou has recently sought to contrast an extreme Christian asceticism with the ‘moderation and self-control’ he ascribes to Graeco-Roman philosophical asceticism; any such contrast must be qualified by recognition of this more extreme asceticism constructed as a literary type in Neoplatonic and other pagan texts«.