Expiation is a general concept denoting all acts and means whereby a sacred order to which harm has been done is restored. In any given religious structure the meaning of expiation depends on (1) the nature of the sacred order to which harm has been done—this order can be one that is established by a god, it can be the will of God Himself, or it can also be an impersonally conceived order; (2) the various concepts of the harm or evil that has been done (see sin).
The interdependence of the meanings of expiation, holiness, and sin accounts for the closeness of expiation to other concepts in many contexts. The Latin root word expiare means not only to atone for sins but also to placate or appease the wrath of a god. The words expiation, penance, and penalty are often interchangeable. In primitive cultures penal procedure and expiation are often hard to distinguish. The justice of the death penalty for incest in interior Celebes is thought of as self-evident because it confines the evil to the criminals and protects the community. Among the ancient Nordics the same place served as a center for cult and for the execution of justice. Thus sins can be atoned for or punishment inflicted because of the cultic order that protects the common weal. Castigation or self-castigation (in monastic life) to expiate for sin in Christianity, Buddhism, and Jainism is a related phenomenon. In most instances expiation in monastic life, however, is more properly understood as a form of mortification or purification. Purification implies not only the cleansing from evil or sin, but more widely the preparation for the holy, whether in cult and liturgy or in ascetic and monastic life. The confession of sins is probably the most widely attested element of expiation ceremonies. As an integral part of expiation it occurred long before Christianity, e.g., in the Egyptian, Babylonian, Hittite, Israelite, Chinese, and Japanese religions. Outside the Christian sphere of influence, R. Pettazzoni collected evidence of the practice from some 100 primitive tribes scattered over the world. The major emphases in expiation rites and concepts may be presented under four headings.
Concrete Removal of Sins. Expiation rites in primitive religions are often accomplished by such physical means as spitting, vomiting, or drawing of blood. Many ceremonies resemble magic operations, by removing a substance representing the cause of a malady. Among the Kagaba (Colombia, South America) a man who committed a crime is acquitted of his guilt by a process in which pebbles symbolizing the perpetrated evil are removed. Quite common are the burning and ablution of sins. In Brahmanism a priest ritually identifies the guilt of a person with a piece of the wooden, sacrificial post and throws it in the fire, thus physically annihilating the sacrificer's guilt. Ablutions with water, baths, and especially the sprinkling with blood are widely considered effective means of expiation, making people, devotees, and even things free from pollution, impurity, evil, and sin (see Ex 12.7). Among the Teutons the sprinkling of blood cleansed the participants in the sacrifice and purified the idols and walls of the temple.
Concreteness in expiation rites is particularly clear in the confession of sins that accompanies or precedes the specific acts. It is particular sins that are declared and are atoned for. Among the Kikuyu (East Africa) the declaration of each sin is followed by expectoration. Bath and confession of sins are both part of the expiatory ceremony among the Bashilange (Congo) and the Thonga (south-east Africa). Although in almost all cases of declaration of sins only the presence of a priest or medicine man is needed, there are, however, exceptions that emphasize the concreteness. Among the Dagari (Upper Guinea) the husband listens to his wife's confession of conjugal infidelities while she is in childbirth. Frequently, expiatory rites with confessions of sins are performed in times of crisis. Sins are feared for their concrete presence and consequences, and their declaration and expiation are to be understood as an equally concrete riddance. The concreteness of these ceremonies is by no means lost in the more advanced cultures and the great religions. Ritual baths and washings occur, for instance, in the religions of Israel, Islam, and Hinduism.
Cultic and Social Forms. The ritualistic writings of Brahmanism describe expiation ceremonies in great detail. The Vedic student who breaks his celibacy wears the skin of an ass and begs for alms while publicly proclaiming his transgression. The function of society in the expiation rite, though not absent elsewhere, is thus strongly accentuated. Religions that are strongly developed on the cultic side often show forms of vicarious expiation. The sins of Israel, e.g., were carried away by the goat for Azazel (Leviticus ch. 16).
In several religions priests play an important mediating role. The most typical example of kings mediating between gods and men and atoning for the transgressions of the people was in Babylon. At the New Year's festival the king did penance on behalf of the people, was divested of his regalia, and was cultically humiliated before being reassured of the god's (Marduk's) favor and reinstated as king. Special penitential prayers and fixed days for expiation rites have a great importance in cults. Brahmanic ritualism developed special rites (prāyaścitta ) to atone for ritual mistakes. Higher cults in general have special ceremonies and prayers for sins that are unwittingly committed, thus often continuing the concrete concept of sin as a material thing.
Mental Expiation. This form of expiation plays a crucial role in religions and religious institutions that are devoted to meditation and meditation techniques: monasticism, Buddhism, and Indian philosophies such as Sāmkhya and yoga (see indian philosophy). In most cases of advanced meditation techniques the purely mental purification is accompanied or preceded by moral purification.
Humiliation before God. Humiliation is the natural concomitant of all religions that are monotheistic or emphasize God's mercy. The act of humiliation is the result of God's mercy and power rather than a means to effect purification. Humble devotion to the god Vishnu has been stressed in India by Rāmānuja and Madhva. (see hinduism.) The latter and his followers in particular see in bhakti the highest bliss. Faith in the most merciful God and the experience of mere creatureliness and sinfulness may make expiation the principal act of man; "Against Thee have we sinned" (Jer 14.7). The act is clearly expressed at the beginning of the Mass in the Confiteor and at the beginning of most Protestant liturgies in the Confession of Sins, followed by the remission of sins or assurance of pardon. Different, yet not unrelated is the basic attitude of Islam (submission).
See Also: expiation (in the bible); expiation (in theology).
Bibliography: r. pettazzoni, "Confession of Sins: An Attempted General Interpretation," in his Essays on the History of Religions (Leiden 1954) 43–54; "Confession of Sins and the Classics," ibid. 55–67; La Confession des péchés, 2 v. (Paris 1931–32). h. frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago 1948). r. j. thompson, Penitence and Sacrifice in Early Israel Outside the Levitical Law (Leiden 1963). h. oldenberg, Die Religion des Veda (Berlin 1894). f. heiler, Das Gebet (5th ed. Munich 1923). a. mÉdebielle, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928–) Suppl 3 (1938) 1–262, esp. 3–48, with bibliog. l. h. gray et al., j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 1908–27) 5:635–671.
[k. w. bolle]