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What is Anointing?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Anointing is a practice in which oils, ointments, and other substances are applied to people or objects, typically as a part of religious ceremonies. Anointing is an ancient practice, with various cultures all over the world practicing anointing, and it continues to be an important part of the practice of many religions today. Many people have been anointed at some period or another in their lives, and some people are anointed on a regular basis, in keeping with the teachings of their faith.

The practice of anointing someone is sometimes known as unction, especially in Christian tradition. Someone may be anointed as part of a religious ceremony, especially an initiation, and people are also classically anointed at death and for other major life events, like marriages. Statues may also be ceremonially anointed on special holidays, especially in Asia.

A wide variety of substances can be used to anoint someone. Water is a common choice, as are essential oils, dairy products, and fats. Someone may also be anointed in ashes, paint, and a wide variety of other substances; typically the substance is blessed before being applied. The forehead is a common spot for anointing, as are the hands and feet, and sometimes other points on the body are viewed as sacred sites for the purpose of anointing as well.

Most classically, people are anointed by religious officiants, such as priests, although people can also anoint themselves. The Christian practice of sprinkling oneself with holy water upon entering a church is a form of anointment, for example, and some shamans and holy men anoint themselves before embarking upon important ceremonies.

Often, anointing is used as a form of purification and sanctification, with the anointed individual being considered, at least for a brief period of time, free of sin and evil. People have often asked to be anointed before battle, in the fear of dying in battle, and anointing is practiced both before and after death in cultures all over the world, as part of the grieving process and to protect the spirits of the dead.

Being anointed can be a very intense experience, as it often takes place in a very controlled, sanctified environment. While someone is anointed, prayers may be spoken or sung, and the anointed one may also join in on the prayers. Because anointing is associated so closely with initiation and life changes, the event can be momentous for the subject as well as his or her loved ones.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By NathanG — On Jun 27, 2011

@nony - I believe that understanding the anointing, at least in the Christian faith, begins with realizing that it was not meant to be some super spiritual, esoteric experience only for the elite.

It was actually meant to be quite common in the life of the believer, as seen in the Book of Acts, and pertained almost exclusively to works of service.

Some preachers today, like Benny Hinn, have made understanding the Holy Spirit the focal point of their ministry. I am neither condoning nor condemning Hinn’s ministry -- just pointing out a fact.

By nony — On Jun 24, 2011

@MrMoody - Don’t forget that the anointing with oil is also used in prayer for the sick. This is a New Testament practice and is done in some churches even today. Any oil can be used; it doesn’t have to be the spikenard anointing oil that was used in the New Testament.

By MrMoody — On Jun 22, 2011

@indigowater - I agree-the term “anointing” can refer to something physical or something spiritual. In the Old Testament we see a lot of physical references to the holy anointing oil being put on the priests and even of physical objects in the tabernacle.

Much of this was meant to be symbolic of New Testament realities. We hear about the Holy Spirit anointing Jesus so that He could do miracles, and of the disciples being anointed and believers being anointed as well.

In all cases it’s a type-or a symbol-of the presence of the Holy Spirit operating within a believer’s life for the works of ministry.

By indigowater — On Jun 22, 2011

Your anointing can also be a manifestation of a spiritual gift given by the Holy Spirit (1st Corinthians 12:7-11).

The gifts we receive or are anointed with include gifts of healing, faith, wisdom, prophecy and others.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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