Sacrifice, II (Greco-Roman)

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The most complete descriptions of sacrifices in ancient Greece, and the earliest preserved, are found in the Homeric poems. In fact, the rites, as found established in Homer, are maintained almost without change during more than ten centuries.

Sacrifice in Homer. As there are Olympian or celestial gods (o'ράνιοι) and infernal or chthonic divinities (χθόνιοι), the ritual of sacrifice can be Olympian or chthonian.

Olympian Sacrifice. In the Olympian ritual, the sacrifice (θυσία) is a meal offered to the gods and one in which men participate. It can be propitiatory, as the hecatomb to Apollo to atone for the abduction of Chryseis, which is described in Book 1 of the Iliad; more often it is one of petition, as the supplication of the Trojan women in Book 6, or Nestor's appeal to Athena in Book 3 of the Odyssey.

Propitiatory Sacrifice. In order to atone for the offense committed against Apollo, in the person of his priest Chryses, Odysseus brings a hecatomb to Chryses, which the Achaeans arrange about the altar.

They washed their hands, and took up the barley grains. Then Chryses, with hands extended to heaven, prayed for them in a loud voice: "Hear me, thou of the silver bow, who protectest Chryses and holy Cilla do thou now fulfill my desire: ward thou off the loathsome plague from the Danaans." So he spake in prayer, and Phoebus Apollo heard him. Then, when they had prayed, and had sprinkled the barley grains, they first drew back the victims' heads, and cut their throats, and flayed them, and cut out the thigh-pieces, and covered them with a twofold layer of fat, and laid raw flesh upon them. And the old man burned them on a pile of firewood and poured a libation of flaming wine over them, and beside him young men held in their hands five-pronged forks. But when the thigh-pieces were completely burned, and they had tasted the inner parts, they cut up the rest and put it on spits, and roasted it carefully, and drew all the pieces from the spits. Then, when they had ceased from their labor and had prepared the meal, they feasted, nor did their hearts lack any part of the equal feast. [Iliad 1.447468]

The barley grains undoubtedly had the same purifying virtue as lustral water with which the victim was also sprinkled before being sacrificed. In Iliad 3, in a sacrifice with an oath (269301), the barley grains are replaced by hair cut from the forehead of lambs. The purpose of the hecatomb is explained by Odysseus: "We wish to appease the god" (Iliad 1.444).

Sacrifice of Supplication. The best example is found in Iliad 6, when, in the name of the aged wives of Troy, the priestess Theano supplicates Athena: "that we may now sacrifice to thee in thy temple twelve sleek heifers that have not felt the goad, if thou wilt take pity on Troy and the wives of the Trojans and their little children" (305310). The prayer of the aged wives is accompanied by the ritual cry (λολυγή), which was later replaced by flute-playing.

As J. Rudhart has observed (Notions fondamentales, 289290): "sacrifice is essentially the act of a community and comprises three fundamental actions. These are: (1) the putting to death of a living being; (2) the removal from the body of the victim of some parts that are regarded as essential; (3) the use of these choice portions."

Chthonian Sacrifice. Homer furnishes several examples. Thus in Odyssey 10.516528, Circe gives Odysseus the following instructions. He must dig a square pit, and around it pour three libations to all the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, and thirdly of water. He must then sprinkle the hole with white barley meal. Finally, after invoking the dead, he must sacrifice to them a ram and a black ewe, turning their heads toward Erebus. In this "aversion" ritual, the sacrifice is made at night, without an altar or upon a low altar (σχάρα). The victim, usually black in color, is not eaten, but ordinarily is consumed entirely by the fire.

Sacrifice of the Kings of Atlantis. Plato's interest in old rites led him to describe a very archaic ritual, namely, the sacrifice of the kings of Atlantis in his unfinished dialogue, Critias or Atlantis (119D120C). The ritual comprises four principal stages: (1) The sacrifice of the god, for the bull selected by lot incarnates and represents Poseidon, the father of the kings of Atlantis; (2) the communion sacrifice uniting the kings and the god; (3) the administering of the oath; (4) the examination and atonement for ritual faults. The mythical age imagined appears to be the reign of Minos. The customs of the kings of Atlantis decorate the walls of the palace at Cnossus, being especially evident in the bull-leaping and in the priestly gestures of the fleur-de-lis king. There are traces of the Creto-Mycenaean or Aegean period in Homer, but the problem is to identify them precisely. The inscriptions such as that of Cyrene, e.g., which reproduce a "Founders' oath," always, as in the case of the kings of Atlantis, make provision for the punishment of subsequent transgressors. The narrative of the Critias indicates familiarity with anathemas engraved on stone (119E) and a nocturnal judgment (120C). Through the blood with which the kings of Atlantis sprinkle themselves, a pact is made between the god and his worshippers. Each of these, in order to attach himself as closely as possible to the god, dips a golden cup in the crater which receives the blood of the immolated bull. This act identifies the kings with their father Poseidon. They put on his dark blue robe and sit on the ground in the ashes of the sacrifice, which, being now filled with the god's power, remain sacred. By this contact, they bind themselves to the bull, offered in holocaust and representing the god, in order that they may be able to render perfect justice.

Perhaps in all this there is a survival of the primitive ideas found among the hunters of the Arctic and the herdsmen of Central Asia. However, the holocaust was not common in Olympian sacrifices; rather a form of simulation was adopted in which only thighs of the victims and bones of their other members were reserved for the gods. But all was covered with fat and represented the entire victim. This procedure recalled the deceit of Prometheus

as related by Hesiod (Theog. 533557; cf. Works 48 and 337).

Sacrifices in Popular Religion. Already in Homer, the people offer sacrifice. The sacrifice offered by the swineherd Eumaeus in Book 14 of the Odyssey (418436) imitates or perhaps parodies that of Nestor in Book 3, except that the cutting of the bristles from the boar's head replaces the sprinkling of the barley grains, instead of accompanying it. Some information, although rather scanty, can be gleaned from inscriptions or from the tragic and comic poets. Thus, Aristophanes mentions the sausages offered at the feast of the Apaturia (Acharnians 146), the slaughter of the steer at the Dipolia (Clouds 984985), and the celebration of the Panathenia (ibid. 386); his parodies of sacrifices in the Clouds (426), and in the Birds (848 and 862), are also helpful. Information becomes more copious in the Hellenistic Age, e.g., in the Idylls of Theocritus and the Mimes of Herondas. In the latter's Women Worshippers (at the temple of Asclepius at Cos) a cock is offered to the god, and the priest has a right to keep one leg of the fowl. There are many references to sacrifices, too, in the Palatine Anthology. Animals of all kinds were sacrificed, but reference is made also to offerings of vegetables, fruits, honey, and cheese. There are sacrifices, or offerings, of expiation, supplication, or thanksgiving, and the worshippers belong to all classes of society, even the most humble.

Judgment of the Philosophers. Sacrifice, like prayer, was so essential that its suppression would have destroyed religion. Accordingly, the philosophers are not so much against sacrifice itself as against the abuses which it authorizes. Too often sacrifice was made for mere form's sake to justify a crime committed or to be committed, or to get the gods on one's own side. The idea that the gods allowed themselves to be seduced by the fat and smoke of sacrifices seems to Plato the worst of impieties (cf. Rep. 2.365E; Laws 10.885B, 888C, 906B-E), and he considers Homer particularly blameworthy on this score. But the dying Socrates reminds his disciples that he had promised a cock to Asclepius (Phaedo 118A), and Plato has the Athenian say in the Laws (4.716D): "to sacrifice to the gods and to be continually in communion with them by prayers, and offerings, and every form of divine worship, is, for the good man, most noble and good, and helpful towards the happy life, and fitting also to the highest degree."

Roman Sacrifice. Roman religion exhibits the principal sacrificial rites of the Greeks and reflects the same basic ideas: a circuit of power which goes from the human gift to the god and returns to man, and a meal offered to the gods in which men participate. In the process of sacrificing, there is question of strengthening the god (mactare ), as in forcing a spring by throwing into it flowers because of their vegetative power. There were bloody and unbloody sacrifices, the usual victims being the pig, sheep, bull (the animals of the suovetaurilia ), and, more rarely, the female or male goat. Originally, fowls were offered only to Greek divinities. The victims (hostiae ) were called consultatoriae when their entrails were examined. At Rome the art of the haruspices, or diviners, enjoyed a widespread development.

Bibliography: s. eitrem, Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 787788. l. r. farnell, j. hastings, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 11:1218. p. e. legrand and j. toutain in Dictionnaire des anti-quités grecques et romaines d'après les textes et les monuments, ed. c. daremberg and e. saglio, 5 v. (Paris 18771919) 4.2:956980. l. ziehen, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 18.1:579627. r. k. yerkes, Sacrifice in Greek and Roman Religions and Early Judaism (New York 1952). m. p. nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion, 2 v. (2nd ed. Munich 195561) 1.2:121146. j. rudhart, Notions fondamentales de la pensée religieuse et actes constitutifs du culte dans la Grèce classique (Geneva 1958).

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