ANATHEMA (from Gr. anatithenai, to lift up), literally an offering, a thing set aside. The classical Greek form anathema (Lat. anathema) was the technical term for a gift (cf. donarium, oblatio) made to a god either in gratitude or with a view to propitiation. Thus at Athens the Thesmothetae (perhaps all the archons) made a vow that, should they break any law, they would dedicate a life-size gilt statue in the temple at Delphi. Similarly, of spoils taken in war, a part, generally a tenth, was dedicated to the god of the city (e.g. to Athena); to this class probably belong the trophies erected by the victors on the field of battle; sometimes a captured ship was placed upon a hill as an offering to Poseidon (Neptune). Persons who had recovered from an illness offered anathemata in the temples of Asclepius (Aesculapius); those who had escaped from shipwreck offered their clothes, or, if these had been lost, a lock of hair, to Neptune (Hor. Odes, i. 5. 13; Virg. Aeneid, xii. 768). The latter offering was very commonly made by young men and girls, especially young brides. Works of art of all kinds and the implements of a craftsman giving up his work were likewise dedicated. Such presents were far more common, as also more valuable, among the Greeks than among the Romans. Similar practices were prevalent, to an extent hardly realized, among the Christians up to the middle ages and even later. Just as the ancients hung their offerings on trees, temple columns and the images of the gods, so offerings were made to the Cross, to the Virgin Mary and on altars generally.
In the form anathema, the word is used in the Septuagint, the New Testament and ecclesiastical writers as the equivalent of the Hebrew herem, which is commonly translated "accursed thing" (A.V.) or "devoted thing" (R.V.; cf. the Roman devotio.) In Hebrew the root h-r-m means to "set apart," "devote to Yahweh," for destruction; but in Arabic it means simply to separate or seclude (cf. "harem"). The idea of destruction or perdition is thus a secondary meaning of the Word, which gradually lost its primary sense of consecration. In the New Testament, though it is used in the sense of "offering" (Luke xxi. 5), it generally signifies "separated" from the church, i.e. "accursed" (cf. Gal. i. 8 ff.; 1 Cor. xvi. 22), and it became the regular formula of excommunication from the time of the council of Chalcedon in 451, especially against heretics, e.g. in the canons of the council of Trent and those of the Vatican council of 1870. See EXCOMMUNICATION; PENANCE. The expression maranatha ("the Lord cometh"), which follows anathema in 1 Cor. xvi. 22, is often erroneously quoted as though it were an amplification of the curse.