Anointing is the act of pouring or sprinkling a substance on a person's head or body for a particular purpose. The rite can be as simple as a small smear on the forehead or as robust as a thorough dousing of the entire body. When most people think of anointing, they presume that perfumed oil is used, but some rituals include other fats, such as butter or milk, or washing with scented water.
There are many reasons that people of faith have used anointing as a practice throughout history. While there is often a certain practicality to anointing, it communicates that the person is set apart for some type of purpose or honor. Some rituals are nods to the culture surrounding them, but others hold deeper spiritual meaning for certain groups.
Health and Beauty
Religious leaders and medical practitioners would often anoint the sick with oil as they administered aid. Some believed that it warded off the evil spirits that were causing the illness and prevented others from tormenting the afflicted. Other people used oil as a practical course of treatment to treat wounds or other ailments. Various oils were thought to have specific healing properties, a practice that continues to this day in some circles.
Another practice that has endured throughout the ages is the use of perfumed oils as part of a beauty regimen. Not only does the oil itself give the skin a healthy glow, but the fragrance also connotes richness and sensuality. It is no wonder that special oils are often used in religious wedding ceremonies to anoint the happy couple as a blessing for a healthy relationship.
Welcome and Honor
Most cultures and religions have their own rituals for welcoming a guest into the home. The concept of foot washing, which is still used as a rite of service in many religions today, was a regular practice for households in ancient Greece, Egypt, and the surrounding areas. After washing visitors' feet, many hosts would also anoint the visitors with oil to bestow honor. By sharing a precious commodity, the hosts demonstrated how pleased they were to welcome the guests.
Another common use of fragrant oil was in burial rituals. On the one hand, this served a practical purpose. It preserved the body long enough to go through the mourning rites while masking the odor of decay. This was also a mark of honor and remembrance. When used during last rites, anointing is referred to as extreme unction, a preparation for the departing soul for the afterlife.
Consecration and Vocation
Ancient prophets often used the practice of anointing to announce those who were set apart by God to lead. Likewise, many religions today still incorporate it into the rituals used to install people into leadership positions:
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Leaders are not the only ones who are marked by holy oil. Many Catholic and Christian sects anoint members with oil as part of certain special rites, particularly during baptism and Holy Week, and consecrated oil is often an essential element of blessing crosses or icons for use in worship. Buddhist practitioners are frequently anointed with scented water or butter. Finally, many faiths include aromatic water, oil, kefir, or butter in prayer, particularly when it is accompanied by the laying on of hands.
Anointing is a ritual that has persisted throughout the ages. Different religions and cultures may have their own specific reasons for practicing it, but most follow at least one of the common themes of wellness, honor, and calling. Regardless of the purpose that anointing serves, it typically holds deep religious and personal significance for the people performing and undergoing the rite.