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Persian king (centre) and courtiers (right) depicted in the conventional attitude of proskynesis
Persian king (centre) and courtiers (right) depicted in the conventional attitude of proskynesis
Different degrees of proskynesis, from a slight bow of the head to full prostration.
Different degrees of proskynesis, from a slight bow of the head to full prostration.
Moravians performing proskynesis during worship in 1735.
Moravians performing proskynesis during worship in 1735.

Proskynesis /ˌprɒskɪˈnsɪs/ or proscynesis /ˌprɒsɪˈnsɪs/, or proskinesis /ˌprɒskɪˈnsɪs/ (Greek προσκύνησις, proskýnēsis; Latin adoratio) is a solemn gesture of respect for the gods and people; among the Persians, it referred to a man prostrating himself and kissing the earth, or the limbs of a respected person. Proskynesis (adoratio) was one of the religious rites of the Greeks and Romans.[1]

In the Byzantine ceremonial, it is a common gesture of supplication or reverence. The physical act ranged from full prostration to a genuflection, bow, or simple greeting that concretized the relative positions of performer and beneficiary within a hierarchical order (taxis).[2]


The Greek word προσκύνησις is derived from the verb προσκυνέω, proskyneo, itself formed from the compound words πρός, pros (towards) and κυνέω, kyneo ([I] kiss).[3] It describes an attitude of humbling, submission, or worship adoration – particularly towards a sovereign ruler, God or the gods.[citation needed]


According to Herodotus in his Histories, a person of equal rank received a kiss on the lips; someone of a slightly lower rank gave a kiss on the cheek; and someone of a very inferior social standing had to completely bow down to the other person before them.[4] To the Greeks, giving proskynesis to a mortal was seen as barbaric and ludicrous.


The Persian custom may have led some Greeks to believe that they worshipped their king as a god, the only person who received proskynesis from everyone, and other misinterpretations caused cultural conflicts. Proskynȇsis was not a specific custom of the Achaemenid court alone, since it was practiced earlier in the Assyrian court. Contrary to the suggestions of Greek authors, Near Eastern sources leave no doubt that proskynȇsis did not have the character of a religious gesture, but was an element of the court ceremony.[5]

Alexander the Great proposed this practice during his lifetime in adapting to the local customs of the Persian areas he conquered, but it was not accepted by his Greek companions (such as noted by the court historian, Callisthenes); he later did not insist on the practice. Most of his men could cope with Alexander's interest for having a Persian wardrobe, but honoring the king as if he was a god with proskynesis went a bit too far.[6] According to Arrian, Callisthenes explains the existence of separated ways of honoring a god or a human and that prostration is a way to explicitly honor gods. It is seen as a threat to the Greeks, ‘who are men most devoted to freedom’. According to Callisthenes, prostration was a foreign and degrading fashion.[6]

The emperor Diocletian (AD 284–305) is usually thought to have introduced the practice to the Roman Empire, forming a break with the Republican institutions of the principate, which preserved the form, if not the intent, of republican government. However, there is some evidence that an informal form of proskynesis was already practiced at the court of Septimius Severus.[7] The political reason for this change was to elevate the role of the emperor from "first citizen" to an otherworldly ruler, remote from his subjects, thus reducing the likelihood of successful revolt, which had plagued the Empire during the preceding 50 years.

Certain forms of proskynesis, such as those which entailed kissing the emperor's breast, hands, or feet, were reserved to specific categories of officials. The audience granted to native or foreign delegations included multiple series of proskynesis at points marked by porphyry disks (omphalia) set in the floor. Until the 10th century at least, imperial ceremonial avoided proskynesis on Sundays out of reverence for the God. As a show of loyalty, proskynesis had strong political overtones; it recurs in imperial iconography and its importance in imperial ceremonial could sometimes raise delicate diplomatic dilemmas when foreign potentates were involved.[8]

Similarly, the emperor was hailed no longer as "Imp(erator)" on coins, which meant "commander in chief" but as "D(ominus) N(oster)" - "Our Lord." With the conversion of Constantine, I to Christianity, proskynesis became part of an elaborate ritual, whereby the emperor became God's viceregent on earth.[9][full citation needed] Titular inflation also affected the other principal offices of the Empire. Justinian I and Theodora both insisted on an extreme form of proskynesis, even from members of the Roman Senate,[10] and they were attacked for it by Procopius in his Secret History.[11]

In Christianity

The verb προσκυνέω (proskyneo) is often used in the Septuagint and New Testament for the worship of pagan gods or the worship of the God of Israel. In addition, this word in some cases was used for the worship of angels.[12]

As with the Greeks five centuries earlier, the practice was shocking but prevailed.[13] With the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, it became part of an elaborate ritual, making the emperor "vice-regent of God on earth."

The question of the admissibility of proskynesis in relation to icons (bowing and kissing to icons) was raised in the 8th century during the period of iconoclasm. Opponents of proskynesis in relation to the icons referred to the second commandment of the Law of Moses:

"You shall not make for yourself a carved image any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down (προσκυνήσεις) to them nor serve (λατρεύσῃς) them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God."[14][15]

One defender of proskynesis in relation to icons was John of Damascus. He wrote Three Treatises on the Divine Images in defense of the icons, in which he described several kinds of proskynesis. The first kind is the proskynesis of latreia (λατρεία), which people give to God, who alone is adorable by nature. John believed that only the first kind of proskynesis associated with latreia was forbidden by God. Other kinds of proskynesis: proskynesis performed in relation to saints and images of them (icons) are permitted by God.[16]

In Christian theology, proskynesis denotes that simple veneration which is also permitted to saints, icons, etc., as opposed to Latreia (worship), which is due only to triune God.

"Greetings and respected proskynesis" (Greek: "ἀσπασμόν καί τιμητικήν προσκύνησιν"; Latin: "osculum et honorariam adorationem") for icons was established by the Second Council of Nicaea (Seventh Ecumenical Council) in 787.[17]

Different authors translate the Greek word "προσκύνησις" from Christian texts into English differently: adoration,[18] worship,[19][20] veneration,[21] bow, reverence.[22]

Latter-day Saints

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, proskynesis occurs in a number of the narratives in the Book of Mormon.[23][24][25][26]

See also

References and sources

  1. ^ Lübker 1860, p. 10.
  2. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium : in 3 vol. / ed. by Dr. Alexander Kazhdan. — N. Y. ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1991. — 2232 p. — ISBN 0-19-504652-8. — Third volume, P. 1738
  3. ^ πρός,κυνέω,προσκυνέω,προσκύνησις. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  4. ^ Herodotus. Histories. pp. I.134.
  5. ^ Dabrowa, Edward (2014) The Arsacids: Gods or Godlike Creatures? P. 157.
  6. ^ a b Alexander III and proskynesis: an affair
  7. ^ Frank Kolb, Herrscherideologie in der Spätantike. Archived 2011-06-05 at the Wayback Machine Review by Chris Epplett, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2002.07.02.
  8. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium : in 3 vol. / ed. by Dr. Alexander Kazhdan. — N. Y. ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1991. — 2232 p. — ISBN 0-19-504652-8. — T. 3, P. 1738
  9. ^ John Julius Norwich
  10. ^ Mitchell, Stephen. (2007) A History of the later Roman Empire AD 284-641: The Transformation of the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 228. ISBN 9781405108560
  11. ^ Procopius, Secret History 30, 21-30.
  12. ^ Lozano, Ray M. (2019). The Proskynesis of Jesus in the New Testament: A Study on the Significance of Jesus as an Object of "Proskuneo " in the New Testament Writings. London: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-567-68814-9.
  13. ^ Ammien Marcellin, History of Rome , 4th Century, Book XV, Chapter 5
  14. ^ "Исх.20". (in Russian). Retrieved 2020-04-03.
  15. ^ Interlinear Greek English Septuagint Old Testament (LXX). Internet Archive. 2014.
  16. ^ PG 94. / col. 1237, ϛ; col. 1245, ιϛ
  17. ^ Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio. Tomus 13 col. 378
  18. ^ Allies, Mary (1898). St. John Damascene on holy images. London: Thomas Baker. p. 104.
  19. ^ „The Nicene Council nullified the decrees of the iconoclastic Synod of Constantinople, and solemnly sanctioned a limited worship (proskynesis) of images.” – Philip Schaff. "History of the christian church" / Volume III / FOURTH PERIOD: THE CHURCH AMONG THE BARBARIANS. From Gregory I. To Gregory VII. A. D. 590 – 1049 (1073). / CHAPTER X. WORSHIP AND CEREMONIES. / § 102. The Restoration of Image-Worship by the Seventh Oecumenical Council, 787.
  20. ^ Mendham 1850, p. 440.
  21. ^ Ware, Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) (1993). The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin Books. p. 257. ISBN 0-14-014656-3.
  22. ^ "The Seven ecumenical councils of the undivided church : their canons and dogmatic decrees, together with the canons of all the local synods which have received ecumenical acceptance" / by Percival, Henry R, / 1900 / p. 550
  23. ^ "Book of Mormon Evidence: Falling to the Earth in Worship (Ancient Near East)". Book of Mormon Central. 19 September 2020. Retrieved 13 August 2021.
  24. ^ Nibley, Hugh (1988). "Old World Ritual in the New World". An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS. pp. 295–310.
  25. ^ Bowen, Matthew L. (22 June 2016). ""And Behold, They Had Fallen to the Earth": An Examination of Proskynesis in the Book of Mormon". Studia Antiqua. Book of Mormon Central. 4 (1): 91–110. Retrieved 13 August 2021.
  26. ^ Bowen, Matthew (2013). "'They Came and Held Him by the Feet and Worshipped Him': Prokynesis before Jesus in Its Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Context". Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. 5 (1). ISSN 2151-7800. Retrieved 13 August 2021.


Further reading