In traditional usage, the cult of a religion, quite apart from its sacred writings ("scriptures"), its theology or mythology, or the personal faith of its believers, is the totality of external religious practice and observance. Cult is literally the "care" (Latin cultus) owed to the god and the shrine. In the specific context of Greek hero cult, Carla Antonaccio has written, "The term cult identifies a pattern of ritual behavior in connection with specific objects, within a framework of spatial and temporal coordinates. Ritual behavior would include (but not necessarily be limited to) prayer, sacrifice, votive offerings, competitions, processions and construction of monuments. Some degree of recurrence in place and repetition over time of ritual action is necessary for cult to be enacted, to be practiced" (Antonaccio, "Contesting the Past: Hero Cult, Tomb Cult, and Epic in Early Greece", American Journal of Archaeology 98.3 (July 1994: 389-410) p. 398.)
Cult is embodied in ritual and ceremony. Its present or former presence is made concrete in temples, shrines and churches. By extension, "cult" has come to connote the total cultural aspects of 'a' religion, as they are distinguished from others through differentiation.
The term "cult" first appeared in English in 1617, derived from the French culte, meaning "worship" or "a particular form of worship" which in turn originated from the Latin word cultus meaning "care, cultivation, worship," originally "tended, cultivated," also the past participle of colere "to till the soil". In French, for example, sections in newspapers giving the schedule of worship at Catholic churches are headed Culte Catholique; the section giving the schedule of Protestant churches is headed culte réformé.
The meaning "devotion to a person or thing" is from 1829. Starting about 1920, "cult" acquired additional proscriptive definitions.
Some Christians make refined distinctions between worship and veneration, both of which can be outwardly expressed in a similar manner. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy distinguish between worship (Latin adoratio, Greek latreia [λατρεια]) which is due to God alone, and veneration (Latin veneratio, Greek doulia [δουλεια]), which may be offered to heroes.
Among the observances in the cult are rituals which may involve spoken or sung words, and often involve personal sacrifice. Other manifestations of the cult of a deity are the preservation of relics or the creation of images, such as icons, and the specification of sacred places, hilltops and mountains, fissures and caves, springs, pools and groves, or even individual trees or stones, which may be the seat of an oracle or the venerated site of a vision, apparition, miracle or other occurrence commemorated or recreated in cult practices. Sacred places may be identified and elaborated by construction of shrines and temples, on which are centered public attention at religious festivals and which may become the center for pilgrimages.
The comparative study of cult practice is part of the disciplines of the anthropology of religion and the sociology of religion, two aspects of comparative religion. In the context of many religious organisations themselves, the study of cultic is called liturgy.
True religion is a meaningful way of living dynamically face to face with the commonplace realities of everyday life. But if religion is to stimulate individual development of character and augment integration of personality, it must not be standardized. If it is to stimulate evaluation of experience and serve as a value-lure, it must not be stereotyped. If religion is to promote supreme loyalties, it must not be formalized.