ANCIENT GREEK RELIGIOUS BELIEFS, RITUALS AND SACRIFICES

ANCIENT GREEK RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

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sacrifice
Mary Leftowitz, a classics professor at Wellesley College wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “As the Greeks saw it the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement were immortalized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from gods but from other humans.”

“The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt and fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events, Philosophy---that characteristic Greek invention---had its roots in such theological inquiry, as did science.”

“Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers, the people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by god, yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what the wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they decide to communicate with the mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly by signs and portents which mortals often misinterpret....Greek religion openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out.”

There was no formal priesthood in Ancient Greece. There were leaders of local cults and priests who worked at specific temples, who were paid by donations to the temples.

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Prayers and Power of the Ancient Greek Gods

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According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The Greeks believed that the gods could see everything that humans did and could, if they choose, fulfill such needs as food, shelter and clothing as well as wants like love, wealth and victory. They sought the protection of the gods from their enemies, disease and the forces of nature. Prayers often begin “by identifying the god/goddess being petitioned, and the realm for which he or she was responsible. Former requests are mentioned, the results and the offerings made. Then the new request is presented for consideration. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca *|*]

Ancient inscriptions and surviving writings show that the prayer usually sounded something like this: ‘Oh Great Poseidon, brother of Zeus, Lord and Ruler of the Seas, I call on you to help me once again. Last year I asked you to protect my ship and its crew during that violent storm. You made the waters tranquil almost immediately and I honored your name with offerings in your temple. This time, on the day of the month sacred to you, I am beginning a long voyage to a distant land and I seek your blessings for fair weather and calm seas. At dawn today I ask you to accept this offering.’

“According to an ancient Greek myth it was the titan Prometheus who was instrumental in determining the nature of the offerings to be made to the gods. He made up two bundles from the body of a sacrificed animal. In the smaller bundle he put all the choice cuts of meat. In the larger, he put the bones of the animal and covered it with fat. Zeus was asked to select the portion that should always be offered to the gods. Zeus quickly, and rashly, selected the larger bundle finding out later that he had passed up on the better portion.” *|*

Criticism of Prayer

Persius wrote in Satire II (A.D. 60): “Mark this day, Macrinus, with a white stone, which, with auspicious omen, augments your fleeting years. Pour out the wine to your Genius! "A sound mind, a good name, integrity"---for these he prays aloud, and so that his neighbor may hear. But in his inmost breast, and beneath his breath, he murmurs thus, "Oh that my uncle would evaporate! what a splendid funeral! and oh that by Hercules' good favor a jar of silver would ring beneath my rake! or, Would that I could wipe out my ward, whose heels I tread on as next heir! For he is scrofulous, and swollen with acrid bile. [Source: The Satires of Juvenal, Persius, Sulpicia, and Lucilius, translated by Lewis Evans (London: Bell & Daldy, 1869), pp. 217-224

“This is the third wife that Nerius is now taking home!"---That you may pray for these things with due holiness, you plunge your head twice or thrice of a morning in Tiber's eddies, and purge away the defilements of night in the running stream.....You ask vigor for your sinews, and a frame that will insure old age. Well, so be it. You are eager to amass a fortune, by sacrificing a bull and court Mercury's favor by his entrails. "Grant that my household gods may make me lucky! Grant me cattle, and increase to my flocks!" Yet still he strives to gain his point by means of entrails and rich cakes. "Now my land, and now my sheepfold teems. Now, surely now, it will be granted!"

Ancient Greek Religious Rituals


Purification rituals often featured animal sacrifices, libation of wines and wine drinking. Sacrificing a dog, cock or pig was seen as a sign of purification as was bathing in the sea. Apollo was depicted on vases as performing purification by dipping laurel leaves in the bowl most likely of pig's blood. Scapegoats were of form of purification. The term is traced back to Biblical times to describe a goat representing all the sins of the people was killed.

In some rituals initiates were covered in plaster and then coated again after they died so they would be recognized in the Underworld as someone with a ticket to paradise. Greek pilgrims that visited a temple dedicated to Aphrodite's son Eryx cavorted with prostitute-priestesses.

Religious cults had their own rituals. The cult that honored the mythical singer Orpheus performed purification rituals that promised a life in paradise after death. "Orphic purifiers traveled the countryside," a German scholar told National Geographic, "Those wandering charismatics had books of poems supposedly written by Orpheus and gold leaves bearing the instructions for getting through the Underworld ."

Plutarch on Strange Ancient Greek Rituals

Plutarch wrote in “Life of Alcibiades”(c. A.D. 110): “After the people had adopted this motion and all things were made ready for the departure of the fleet, there were some unpropitious signs and portents, especially in connection with the festival, namely, the Adonia. This fell at that time, and little images like dead folk carried forth to burial were in many places exposed to view by the women, who mimicked burial rites, beat their breasts, and sang dirges. Moreover, the mutilation of the Hermai, most of which, in a single night, had their faces and phalli disfigured, confounded the hearts of many, even among those who usually set small store by such things. They looked on the occurrence with wrath and fear, thinking it the sign of a bold and dangerous conspiracy. They therefore scrutinized keenly every suspicious circumstance, the council and the assembly convening for this purpose many times within a few days.” [Source: Plutarch, “Plutarch’s Lives,” translated by John Dryden, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910)


Plutarch wrote in “The Life of Theseos” (c. A.D. 110): “The feast called Oschophoria, or the feast of boughs, which to this day the Athenians celebrate, was then first instituted by Theseos. For he took not with him the full number of virgins which by lot were to be carried away [to the Labyrinth], but selected two youths of his acquaintance, of fair and womanish faces, but of a manly and forward spirit, and having, by frequent baths, and avoiding the heat and scorching of the sun, with a constant use of all the ointments and washes and dresses that serve to the adorning of the head or smoothing the skin or improving the complexion, in a manner changed them from what they were before, and having taught them farther to counterfeit the very voice and carriage and gait of virgins so that there could not be the least difference perceived, he, undiscovered by any, put them into the number of the Athenian virgins designated for Crete. At his return, he and these two youths led up a solemn procession, in the same habit that is now worn by those who carry the vine-branches. Those branches they carry in honor of Dionysos and Ariadne, for the sake of their story before related; or rather because they happened to return in autumn, the time of gathering the grapes.

“The women, whom they call Deipnopherai, or supper-carriers, are taken into these ceremonies, and assist at the sacrifice, in remembrance and imitation of the mothers of the young men and virgins upon whom the lot fell, for thus they ran about bringing bread and meat to their children; and because the women then told their sons and daughters many tales and stories, to comfort and encourage them under the danger they were going upon, it has still continued a custom that at this feast old fables and tales should be told. There was then a place chosen out, and a temple erected in it to Theseos, and those families out of whom the tribute of the youth was gathered were appointed to pay tax to the temple for sacrifices to him. And the house of the Phytalidai had the overseeing of these sacrifices, Theseos doing them that honor in recompense of their former hospitality.

Herodotus on the Trial of Ordeal of the Getae

Herodotus wrote in Histories IV, 93-6: The Getae “pretend to be immortal’ and are “the bravest and most just Thracians of all. Their belief in their immortality is as follows: they believe that they do not die, but that one who perishes goes to the deity Salmoxis, or Gebeleïzis, as some of them call him. Once every five years they choose one of their people by lot and send him as a messenger to Salmoxis, with instructions to report their needs; and this is how they send him: three lances are held by designated men; others seize the messenger to Salmoxis by his hands and feet, and swing and toss him up on to the spear-points. If he is killed by the toss, they believe that the god regards them with favor; but if he is not killed, they blame the messenger himself, considering him a bad man, and send another messenger in place of him. It is while the man still lives that they give him the message. Furthermore, when there is thunder and lightning these same Thracians shoot arrows skyward as a threat to the god, believing in no other god but their own. [Source: Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920]


Thracian peltast

“I understand from the Greeks who live beside the Hellespont and Pontus, that this Salmoxis was a man who was once a slave in Samos, his master being Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus; [2] then, after being freed and gaining great wealth, he returned to his own country. Now the Thracians were a poor and backward people, but this Salmoxis knew Ionian ways and a more advanced way of life than the Thracian; for he had consorted with Greeks, and moreover with one of the greatest Greek teachers, Pythagoras; therefore he made a hall, where he entertained and fed the leaders among his countrymen, and taught them that neither he nor his guests nor any of their descendants would ever die, but that they would go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things. [Source: Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920]

“While he was doing as I have said and teaching this doctrine, he was meanwhile making an underground chamber. When this was finished, he vanished from the sight of the Thracians, and went down into the underground chamber, where he lived for three years, while the Thracians wished him back and mourned him for dead; then in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and thus they came to believe what Salmoxis had told them. Such is the Greek story about him. Now I neither disbelieve nor entirely believe the tale about Salmoxis and his underground chamber; but I think that he lived many years before Pythagoras; and as to whether there was a man called Salmoxis or this is some deity native to the Getae, let the question be dismissed.”

Rituals in the Temple of Athena in Athens

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): ““Both the city and the whole of the land are alike sacred to Athena; for even those who in their parishes have an established worship of other gods nevertheless hold Athena in honor. But the most holy symbol, that was so considered by all many years before the unification of the parishes, is the image of Athena which is on what is now called the Acropolis, but in early days the Polis (City). A legend concerning it says that it fell from heaven; whether this is true or not I shall not discuss. A golden lamp for the goddess was made by Callimachus. Having filled the lamp with oil, they wait until the same day next year, and the oil is sufficient for the lamp during the interval, although it is alight both day and night. The wick in it is of Carpasian flax, the only kind of flax which is fire-proof, and a bronze palm above the lamp reaches to the roof and draws off the smoke. The Callimachus who made the lamp, although not of the first rank of artists, was yet of unparalleled cleverness, so that he was the first to drill holes through stones, and gave himself the title of Refiner of Art, or perhaps others gave the title and he adopted it as his. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]


re-enactment of an ancient Greek temple ritual

“In the temple of Athena Polias (Of the City) is a wooden Hermes, said to have been dedicated by Cecrops, but not visible because of myrtle boughs. The votive offerings worth noting are, of the old ones, a folding chair made by Daedalus, Persian spoils, namely the breastplate of Masistius, who commanded the cavalry at Plataea1, and a scimitar said to have belonged to Mardonius. Now Masistius I know was killed by the Athenian cavalry. But Mardonius was opposed by the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) and was killed by a Spartan; so the Athenians could not have taken the scimitar to begin with, and furthermore the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) would scarcely have suffered them to carry it off. About the olive they have nothing to say except that it was testimony the goddess produced when she contended for their land. Legend also says that when the Persians fired Athens the olive was burnt down, but on the very day it was burnt it grew again to the height of two cubits.

“Adjoining the temple of Athena is the temple of Pandrosus, the only one of the sisters to be faithful to the trust. I was much amazed at something which is not generally known, and so I will describe the circumstances. Two maidens dwell not far from the temple of Athena Polias, called by the Athenians Bearers of the Sacred Offerings. For a time they live with the goddess, but when the festival comes round they perform at night the following rites. Having placed on their heads what the priestess of Athena gives them to carry--neither she who gives nor they who carry have any knowledge what it is--the maidens descend by the natural underground passage that goes across the adjacent precincts, within the city, of Aphrodite in the Gardens. They leave down below what they carry and receive something else which they bring back covered up. These maidens they henceforth let go free, and take up to the Acropolis others in their place. By the temple of Athena is .... an old woman about a cubit high, the inscription calling her a handmaid of Lysimache, and large bronze figures of men facing each other for a fight, one of whom they call Erechtheus, the other Eumolpus; and yet those Athenians who are acquainted with antiquity must surely know that this victim of Erechtheus was Immaradus, the son of Eumolpus. On the pedestal are also statues of Theaenetus, who was seer to Tolmides, and of Tolmides himself, who when in command of the Athenian fleet inflicted severe damage upon the enemy, especially upon the Peloponnesians.”

Wild Dionysus Festivals

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To pay their respect to Dionysus, the citizens of Athens, and other city-states, held a winter-time festival in which a large phallus was erected and displayed. After competitions were held to see who could empty their jug of wine the quickest, a procession from the sea to the city was held with flute players, garland bearers and honored citizens dressed as satyrs and maenads (nymphs), which were often paired together. At the end of the procession a bull was sacrificed symbolizing the fertility god's marriage to the queen of the city. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

The word “maenad” is derived from the same root that gave us the words “manic” and “madness”. Maenads were subjects of numerous vase paintings. Like Dionysus himself they often depicted with a crown of iv and fawn skins draped over one shoulder. To express the speed and wildness of their movement the figures in the vase images had flying tresses and cocked back head. Their limbs were often in awkward positions, suggesting drunkenness.

The main purveyors of the Dionysus fertility cult "These drunken devotees of Dionysus," wrote Boorstin, "filled with their god, felt no pain or fatigue, for they possessed the powers of the god himself. And they enjoyed one another to the rhythm of drum and pipe. At the climax of their mad dances the maenads, with their bare hands would tear apart some little animal that they had nourished at their breast. Then, as Euripides observed, they would enjoy 'the banquet of raw flesh.' On some occasions, it was said, they tore apart a tender child as if it were a fawn'"μ

One time the maenads got so involved in what they were doing they had to be rescued from a snow storm in which they were found dancing in clothes frozen solid. On another occasion a government official that forbade the worship of Dionysus was bewitched into dressing up like a maenad and enticed into one of their orgies. When the maenads discovered him, he was torn to pieces until only a severed head remained.μ

It is not totally clear whether the maenad dances were based purely on mythology and were acted out by festival goers or whether there were really episodes of mass hysteria, triggered perhaps by disease and pent up frustration by women living in a male-dominate society. On at least one occasion these dances were banned and an effort was made to chancel the energy into something else such as poetry reading contests.

Other Ancient Greek Festivals

There were two major festival for Athenian women every year: The Thesmophoria promoted fertility and honored Persephone with piglet sacrifices and the offering of mass-produced statues of the goddess to receive her blessing. The Adonia honored Aphrodite's lover Adonis. It was a riotous festival in which lovers had openly licentious affairs and seeds were planting to mark the beginning of the planting season.

During Thesmophoria, an annual Athenian event to honor Demeter and Persephone, women and men who required to abstain from sex and fast for three days. Women erected bowers made of branches and sat there during their fast. On the third day they carried serpent-shaped images thought to have magical powers and entered caves to claim decayed bodied of piglets left the previous years. Pigs were sacred animals to Demeter. The piglet remains were laid on an Thesmphoria altar with offerings, launching a party with feasting, dancing and praying. This rite also featured little girls dressed up as bears.

See Separate Article on Ancient Greek Festivals

Ancient Greek Sacrifices

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Sacrificial hammer
Sacrifices were the principal Greek religious ritual. They were often conducted at outdoor altars at temples to gain favor with the gods. Animals were also often sacrificed at religious festivals and sporting events, with different animals being sacrificed at different events. The spilling of blood during a ritual is believed to have magic powers. The haunch of the animal was often offered to the gods along with prayers, requests or favors, pleas for mercy or protection from harm.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The central ritual act in ancient Greece was animal sacrifice, especially of oxen, goats, and sheep. Sacrifices took place within the sanctuary, usually at an altar in front of the temple, with the assembled participants consuming the entrails and meat of the victim. Liquid offerings, or libations, were also commonly made. Religious festivals, literally feast days, filled the year. The four most famous festivals, each with its own procession, athletic competitions, and sacrifices, were held every four years at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. These Panhellenic festivals were attended by people from all over the Greek-speaking world. Many other festivals were celebrated locally, and in the case of mystery cults, such as the one at Eleusis near Athens, only initiates could participate. [Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, metmuseum.org \^/]

Animal sacrifices were performed with great care. One slip could spoil the whole thing. The choice of animals, methods of sacrifices used and the prayers and names invoked were all carefully selected. Before a sacrifice water was sprinkled on the brow of the animal. When the animals tried to shake it off it was viewed as a sign of assent. Whoever wished to consult an oracle had to offer a bull, a goat or a wild boar as a sacrifice.

Knives were used to sacrifice the animals, usually with a cut to the throat, and libation jars collected the blood from the animals necks. At the foot of a small mountain in Olympus small edifices were raised by each city-state to house jars which contained the blood of sacrificed animals.

Usually sheep or cattle were sacrificed. Goats were sacrificed at rituals honoring Bacchus and cattle were sometimes garlanded and dresses as impersonators of gods.. Sacrificing a dog, cock or pig was seen as a sign of purification as was bathing in the sea. Apollo was depicted on vases as performing purification by dipping laurel leaves in the bowl most likely of pig's blood.

In a commentary in her blog a Don’s Life on modern neo-pagan revivals involving worship of the Greek gods, “As almost everyone who studies ancient Greek religion insists, the key centre of the whole religious system was sacrifice: it was the ritual of killing and sharing the animal that was, if anything, the “article of faith” that defined the ancient community of worshippers. And it was through sacrifice (rather than ecology) that ancient Greeks conceptualized their own place in the world---distinct from animals on the one hand and the superhuman gods on the other... Until these eager neo-pagans get real and slaughter a bull or two in central Athens, I shan’t worry that they have much to do with ancient religion at all. At the moment, this is paganism lite.”

The Greeks and Romans considered human sacrifice immoral and uncivilized. Homer, however, describes captured Trojan being thrown onto the funeral pyre with the slain Greek soldiers under Achilles command.

Classical Sources on Ancient Greek Sacrifices

Clement of Alexandria wrote in “Stromata” (c. A.D. 200): “Sacrifices were devised by men, I do think, as a pretext for eating meals of meat.” On the sacrifice of a bull at funeral ceremony, Plutarch wrote in “Life of Aristides” (c. A.D. 110): “And the Plataeans undertook to make funeral offerings annually for the Hellenes who had fallen in battle and lay buried there. And this they do yet unto this day, after the following manner. On the sixteenth of the month Maimacterion (which is the Boiotian Alakomenius), they celebrate a procession. This is led forth at break of day by a trumpeter sounding the signal for battle; wagons follow filled with myrtle-wreaths, then comes a black bull, then free-born youths carrying libations of wine and milk in jars, and pitchers of oil and myrrh (no slave may put hand to any part of that ministration, because the men thus honored died for freedom); and following all, the chief magistrate of Plataea, who may not at other times touch iron or put on any other raiment than white, at this time is robed in a purple tunic, carries on high a water-jar from the city's archive chamber, and proceeds, sword in hand, through the midst of the city to the graves; there he takes water from the sacred spring, washes off with his own hands the gravestones, and anoints them with myrrh; then he slaughters the bull at the funeral pyre, and, with prayers to Zeus and Hermes Terrestrial, summons the brave men who died for Hellas to come to the banquet and its copious drafts of blood; next he mixes a mixer of wine, drinks, and then pours a libation from it, saying these words: "I drink to the men who died for the freedom of the Hellenes."” [Source: Plutarch, “Plutarch’s Lives,” translated by John Dryden, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910)

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human sacrifice at Polyxena ?
Lysias, an Athenian speech writer, wrote in “Against Nichomachos” (c. 400 B.C.): “I am informed that he alleges that I am guilty of impiety in seeking to abolish the sacrifices. But if it were I who were law-making over this transcription of our code, I should take it to be open to Nichomachos to make such a statement about me. But in fact I am merely claiming that he should obey the code established and patent to all and I am surprised at his not observing that, when he taxes me with impiety for saying that we ought to perform the sacrifices named in the tablets and pillars as directed in the regulations, he is accusing the city as well: for they are what you have decreed. And then, sir, if you feel these to be hard words, surely you must attribute grievous guilt to those citizens who used to sacrifice solely in accordance with the tablets. But of course, gentlemen of the jury, we are not to be instructed in piety by Nichomachos, but are rather to be guided by the ways of the past.

“Now our ancestors, by sacrificing in accordance with the tablets, have handed down to us a city superior in greatness and prosperity to any other in Hellas; so that it behooves us to perform the same sacrifices as they did, if for no other reason than that of the success which has resulted from those rites. And how could a man show greater piety than mine, when I demand, first that our sacrifices be performed according to our ancestral rules, and second that they be those which tend to promote the interests of the city, and finally those which the people have decreed and which we shall be able to afford out of the public revenue? But you, Nichomachos, have done the opposite of this: by entering in your copy a greater number than had been ordained you have caused the public revenue to be expended on these, and hence to be deficient for our ancestral offerings.”

Homer on Ancient Greek Sacrifices

Home wrote in “The Iliad” (ca. 800 B.C.): “And they did sacrifice each man to one of the everlasting gods, praying for escape from death and the tumult of battle. But Agamemnon, king of men, slew a fat bull of five years to most mighty Kronion, and called the elders, the princes of the Achaian host...Then they stood around the bull and took the barley meal, and Agamemnon made his prayer in their midst and said: "Zeus most glorious, most great god of the storm cloud, that lives in the heavens, make not the sun set upon us, nor the darkness come near, until I have laid low upon the earth Priam's palace smirched with smoke and burned the doorways thereof with consuming fire, and rent on Hector's breast his doublet, cleft with the blade; and about him may full many of his comrades, prone in the dust, bite the earth." [Source: Homer, “Homer's Iliad,” London: J. Cornish & Sons, 1862]


Alexander the Great makes a sacrifice to honor Achilles at Troy

“Now, when they had prayed and scattered the barley meal, they first drew back the bull's head and cut his throat and flayed him, and cut slices from the thighs and wrapped them in fat, making a double fold, and laid raw collops thereon. And these they burnt on cleft wood stripped of leaves, and spitted the vitals and held them over Hephaistos' flame. Now when the thighs were burnt and they had tasted the vitals, then sliced they all the rest and pierced it through with spits and roasted it carefully and drew all off again. So when they had rest from the task and had made ready the banquet, they feasted, nor was their heart stinted of the fair banquet.”

On a sacrifice for the dead, Homer wrote in The Odyssey, XI:18-50: Odysseus speaks: 'Thither we came and beached our ship, and took out the sheep, and ourselves went beside the stream of Oceanus until we came to the place of which Circe had told us. 'Here Perimedes and Eurylochus held the victims, while I drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh, and dug a pit of a cubit's length this way and that, and around it poured a libation to all the dead, first with milk and honey, thereafter with sweet wine, and in the third place with water, and I sprinkled thereon white barley meal. And I earnestly entreated the powerless heads of the dead, vowing that when I came to Ithaca I would sacrifice in my halls a barren heifer, the best I had, and pile the altar with goodly gifts, and to Teiresias alone would sacrifice separately a ram, wholly black, the goodliest of my flocks. But when with vows and prayers I had made supplication to the tribes of the dead, I took the sheep and cut their throats over the pit, and the dark blood ran forth. Then there gathered from out of Erebus the spirits of those that are dead, brides, and unwedded youths, and toil-worn old men, and tender maidens with hearts yet new to sorrow, and many, too, that had been wounded with bronze-tipped spears, men slain in fight, wearing their blood-stained armour. These came thronging in crowds about the pit from every side, with a wondrous cry, and pale fear seized me. Then I called to my comrades and bade them flay and burn the sheep that lay there slain with the pitiless bronze, and to make prayers to the gods, to mighty Hades and dread Persephone. And I myself drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh and sat there, and would not suffer the powerless heads of the dead to draw near to the blood until I had enquired of Teiresias. [Source: translation by A. T. Murray, in the Loeb Classical Library, vol. I (New York, 1919), PP. 387-9]

Sacrifice to Rhea: the Phrygian Mother-Goddess

On “A Sacrifice to Rhea, The Phrygian Mother-Goddess, Apollonius Rhodius wrote in “Argonautica,” I, 1078-1150: “After this, fierce tempests arose for twelve days and nights together and kept them there from sailing. But in the next night the rest of the chieftains, overcome by sleep, were resting during the latest period of the night, while Acastus and Mopsus the son of Ampycus kept guard over their deep slumbers. And above the golden head of Aeson's son there hovered a halcyon prophesying with shrill voice the ceasing of the stormy winds; and Mopsus heard and understood the cry of the bird of the shore, fraught with good omen. And some god made it turn aside, and flying aloft it settled upon the stern-ornament of the ship. [Source: translation by R. C. Seaton, in the Loeb Classical Library (New York, 1912), PP. 77-81]


Rhea

“And the seer touched Jason as he lay wrapped in soft sheepskins and woke him at once, and thus spake: ‘'Son of Aeson, thou must climb to this temple on rugged Dindymum and propitiate the mother (i.e., Rhea) of all the blessed gods on her fair throne, and the stormy blasts shall cease. For such was the voice I heard but now from the halcyon, bird of the sea, which, as it flew above thee in thy slumber, told me all. For by her power the winds and the sea and all the earth below and the snowy seat of Olympus are complete; and to her, when from the mountains she ascends the mighty heaven, Zeus himself, the son of Cronos, gives place. In like manner the rest of the immortal blessed ones reverence the dread goddess.'

“Thus he spake, and his words were welcome to Jason's ear. And he arose from his bed with joy and woke all his comrades hurriedly and told them the prophecy of Mopsus the son of Ampycus. And quickly the younger men drove oxen from their stalls and began to lead them to the mountain's lofty summit. And they loosed the hawsers from the sacred rock and rowed to the Thracian harbour; and the heroes climbed the mountain, leaving a few of their comrades in the ship. And to them, the Macrian heights and all the coast of Thrace opposite appeared to view dose at hand. And there appeared the misty mouth of Bosporus and the Mysian hills; and on the other side the stream of the river Aesepus and the city and Nepian plain of Adrasteia. Now there was a sturdy stump of vine that grew in the forest, a tree exceeding old; this they cut down, to be the sacred image of the mountain goddess; and Argos smoothed it skillfully, and they set it upon that rugged hill beneath a canopy of lofty oaks, which of all trees have their roots deepest. And near it they heaped an altar of small stones and wreathed their brows with oak leaves and paid heed invoking the mother of Dindymum, most venerable, dweller in Phrygia and Titas and Cyllenus, who alone of many are called dispensers of doom and assessors of the Idaean mother-the Idaean Dactyls of Crete, whom once the nymph Anchiale, as she grasped with both hands the land of Oaxus, bare in the Dictaean cave. And with many prayers did Aeson's son beseech the goddess to turn aside the stormy blasts as he poured libations on the blazing sacrifice; and at the same time by command of Orpheus the youths trod a measure dancing in full armour, and dashed with their swords on their shields, so that the ill-omened cry might be lost in the air-the wail which the people were still sending up in grief for their king. Hence from that time forward the Phrygians propitiate Rhea with the wheel and the drum. And the gracious goddess, I ween, inclined her heart to pious sacrifices; and favourable signs appeared. The trees shed abundant fruit, and round their feet the earth of its own accord put forth flowers from the tender grass. And the beasts of the wild wood left their lairs and thickets and came up fawning on them with their tails. And she caused yet another marvel; for hitherto there was no flow of water on Dindymum, but then for them an unceasing stream gushed forth from the thirsty peak just as it was, and the dwellers around in after times called that stream, the spring of Jason. And then they made a feast in honour of the goddess on the Mount of Bears, singing the praises of Rhea most venerable; but at dawn the winds had ceased and they rowed away from the island.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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