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Sacrificial Ceremonies Essay

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According to Mikalson, Greek worship is the doing of deeds, and the giving of gifts that show honor to the deity, and is also essentially a major role when considering pleasing them (Mikalson, 23). Sacrifice is defined as a ritual in by which a non-sacred object is given as a gift to a deity to please them (Mikalson, 23). In this paper I will argue the importance of sacrificial ritual as it relates to Greek religion. Greek sacrifice not only honors the gods, but it ties the community together, creating a sense of unity among those involved.

A ritual act is thought to be group behavior, and is considered a consolidating function in society. It is also considered to be a festive occasion within the community.

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In modern society, the exchange of gifts is a social process. According to Burkert, it is through the exchanging of gifts that bonds are made and maintained, and relations of superiority and subordination are recognized. “Charis” was the term used by the Greeks to define a favor expected to be repaid” (Mikalson, 24).

The mutual exchange of gifts is the center of a successful relationship between humans, and the divine (Mikalson, 24). Sacrifices were gifts that were given to a deity to express honor, respect, as well as appreciation of what the deity could potentially offer or do for them, and as a response to these gifts, the gods rejoiced (Mikalson, 24). Some of the reasons that people often sacrificed to the gods were for fertility, whether it be fertility in crops or humans, animals, economic prosperity, good health, safety in war and seafaring (Mikalson, 21).

Harvest times were naturally seasons that were beneficial for worship and sacrifice. First fruits are offerings of the first agricultural produce of the season. Firstlings and fruits are an act of redemption by which precious or forbidden things might be made available; partly an act of gratitude and hope (Rouse, 41). It is also stated in the modern day bible to honor the Lord with your wealth, and with the firstfruits of all your crops (Proverbs 3:9). Firstfruits are often offered to the ghost of departed ancestors; however, they were also offered to heroes (Rouse, 41). According to Rouse, first fruits are produced not only from corn and vine, but also from fish, loaves and or cakes made from sacred grain (Rouse, 42). “Seasonal gifts are dedicated in small rural shrines, and also included figs, olives, grapes, honey, and milk” (Burkert, 67).

Animal sacrifice is one of the most common forms of sacrificial worship. It is defined by Mikalson as the ritual of presenting the sacrificial animal to the god (Mikalson, 24). It is also, according to Burkert, the slaughter and consumption of a domestic animal for a god (Burkert, 55). For example, a cow is cleansed, decorated, then led to the altar, stunned, killed, bled, butchered, and finally, portions are offered to the deity by being burned (Mikalson, 24). The most noble sacrificial animal is the ox, especially the bull; the most common being the sheep, then the goat and the cheapest being the pig (Burkert, 55).

The animal chosen is to be perfect, and is adorned, entwined with ribbons, with its horns gilded. Everyone is hopeful that the animal will go to the altar voluntarily (Burkert, 56). The sacrificial knife is concealed beneath grains of barley or cakes in the sacrificial basket, and carried on the head of a maiden (Burkert, 56). A circle is marked, which includes the sacrificial site, animal and immediate ritual participants. Water is then poured over the hands of each participant, and the animal for purification. It is sprinkled over the head of the animal, causing it to jerk, which is interpreted by the sacrificer as nodding (Burkert, 56). “The purification of the worshippers helps to make the sacrifice acceptable by the gods” (Naiden, 17). The sacrificial process continues with a procession, then a hymn to the deity followed by a prayer and then the sacrifice. Afterwards, is the special event and meat banquet (Mikalson, 25).

Small animals are raised above the altar and their throat is cut. However, larger animals are chopped with an axe, and then the artery in their neck is opened (Burkert, 56). Afterwards, the women cry out in high shrill tones. This is known as the sacrificial cry, and marks the emotional climax of the process (Burkert, 56). The blood from the sacrifice is collected in a basin and sprayed over the altar. The animal is then butchered, and the inner organs are roasted on the fire. All of the inedible remains are consecrated, and the bones are laid on the pyre prepared on the altar (Burkert, 57).

The bones are burned, as well as food offerings. Afterwards, the sacrificer pours wine on to the fire, and then once the fire has died down the preparation of the meat meal begins (Burkert, 57). The meat is cooked either by roasting or by boiling, and must all be consumed within the sanctuary. This creates a relationship between the sacrificer and the divinity (Burkert, 57). A god might grant the prayer and accept the offering after seeing the smoke from the sacrifice, or he might ignore it altogether (Naiden, 3). For example, the Achaeans suffered from the plague inflicted by Apollo, after Agamemnon would not release his priest, Chryses daughter. In reaction to that, Odysseus brings a hecatomb of animals to Chryses, hoping that he would sacrifice them and pray to Apollo for relief. Odysseus then returns Chryses daughter to him and with this wrong now set right, Chryses performed the rite, and Apollo “heard him,” ending the plague (Naiden, 3).

However, the meat meal did not mark the end of the ritual. Music, dance and other events sometimes followed. All of these things addressed the gods, and they responded to them all, paying little attention to the number of worshippers or offerings sacrificed (Naiden, 15). In some Homeric sacrifices, singing and dancing was common, because these were two activities that the gods might notice (Naiden, 22). “Sacrifices and other rituals are considered a social festivities not because of the feast or the wine, but because of the hope and impression that the divine is present and will receive the ceremonies favorably” (Naiden, 23). The god’s response did not take one specific form. If the god granted the prayer, he might listen or might take pleasure in the offering. “The god could also reject the sacrifice for sake of finding the worshippers unclean” (Naiden).

Votive offerings can also be viewed as sacrifices to the god. “Votive offerings are also called thank-offerings or dedications, and are gifts given to repay a deity for a promise or “vow” made to them in prayer” (Mikalson, 14). “Votive offerings are dedicated on a special occasion, and for the purpose of propitiation” (Rouse, 4). They can include vases, statues and statuettes of deities or the animals sacrificed to them, stone, wooden or terracotta plaques representing the deity or the worshipper’s praying and sacrificing to that deity; clothing, tools; and inscriptions describing the deity’s services to the individual (Mikalson, 14). Anything sacrificed to a deity becomes the god’s property, and may not be removed.

The temple itself is a dedication to the deity; however, the altar is what is most important (Mikalson, 19). Like many other dedications, it may be a thank-offering for victory in war, a votive offering, or even a gift to appease an angry deity. The altar, however, is the place of offering and prayer (Mikalson, 19). The temenos is the enclosed area around the altar, and is marked off by boundary stones. The hieron is sacred to the gods and anything within the temenos becomes the property of that deity and is made sacred. Everything is under the protection of the god of the sanctuary and could not be removed against their will (Mikalson, 7). To remove these items is considered both civil and religious crime and is considered to be hybris (Mikalson, 7).

One example of a votive offering is a funeral feast, which was used to honor the dead. “Funeral feasts were to please the dead, mostly for fear of what harm the they could do, and partly from hope of their aid” (Rouse, 4). “The feast took place at the tomb, which was filled with weapons and utensils which belonged to them during their life, or which they may want in another life” (Rouse, 4). The weapons, tools or utensils are placed in the tomb along with the body. “Food is placed upon the mound and libations are poured into the earth” (Rouse, 4). A libation, however, is meaningless unless it connects to the dead or deities whom dwell in the underworld (Burkert, 71). Afterwards, the feast was carved on a slab of stone and set up over the grave, as a memorial of the willingness of the living to serve the dead (Rouse, 5).

Libations, sacrifice, and first fruit offerings are all considered acts of piety (Burkert, 73). Thus, sacrifice is the ritual of giving a non-sacred item to a deity to appease them so that they in turn will give you aid. Along with pleasing the gods, sacrifice is also a festive occasion that bring communities together. “Evidence for sacrificial ceremonies begins with the Minoan and Mycenaean practices, and continue until the end of paganism, or well after the second century CE” (Naiden, 38).


  1. Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Harvard University Press, 1985.
  2. Hughes, Dennis D. Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece. Routledge, 1991.
  3. Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
  4. Naiden, F. (2012-12-21). The Invention of a Ritual. In (Ed.), Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods. : Oxford University Press,. Retrieved 24 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordscholarship.com
  5. Rouse, William Henry Denham. Greek Votive Offerings. Arno Press, 1975.

Cite this Sacrificial Ceremonies Essay

Sacrificial Ceremonies Essay. (2021, May 26). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/sacrificial-ceremonies-essay/

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