Psellus, On Sacrificial Science

Category: ?

1 Introduction

2 Translation

On Sacrificial Science.

I have decided to write you1 pointers about the sacrificial (thytikê) science, which has no place at all in our (Christian) life, and with whose teachings no one is familiar. And may it be wholly covered up! May the altars (stay) removed from us, and may sacrificing (stay) removed likewise! And all such awful wisdom of the Greeks2 has fallen silent and ended. But for a wise man who wishes to neglect none of the ancient teachings, it is reasonable to know this, what (the sacrifical science) is like, and to explain in brief what its power is.3

The Greeks applied the name of ‘god’ to many things, for they believe that what we (Christians) call holy powers positioned around God,4 and those which have fallen from the divine order and have been separated out into the opposite fate,5 as well as heaven and the wandering and fixed stars,6 all share, so to speak, the title of ‘god’. So, they thought it was right to sacrifice to these – as they called them – gods. They gave red and white animals to the ethereal ones because of the color of ether and the purity of the nature of those (gods); they sacrificed animals of the opposite color to the subterrestrial (gods); and they gave multi-colored ones to the aerial (gods).

Further, they varied the manner of sacrifice in terms of victims, cutting the throat of a young goat or a ram to the supercelestial (gods) above. For Homer describes the Greeks as sacrificing in this way: he says, “First they drew back their heads, and slaughtered and skinned them” (Iliad 1.459). For those (gods) who have been allotted the subterrestrial region below, they pushed the victim’s head forwards, and so cut through the sinews of the neck. For the (gods) inbetween, they cut their throat by bending their heads to the side.7

Next, they sliced open their bellies, and first cut out the heart,8 and sacrificed its skin to the ancestral gods, and they sacrificed its right chamber to the rising Sun, the left chamber to the setting Sun, and the pit to the Sun precisely in the middle of heaven.

Then, they carefully cut apart the skin of the liver,9 which lies atop the entrails, under the membrane covering the lower viscera; and they sacrificed from the ‘head’10 to the supercelestial gods,11 the lobes12 to the five planets;13 but the lifeless part14 they sacrificed to Hades and Persephone.

They used to trouble themselves further about the corpses of the victims, (observing) whether they would fall down to the right or the left; and in the former case, they would predict fortunate (events), in the latter, unfortunate ones. And they would also observe the moment of the (final) spasm after the sacrifice: and if the victims immediately breathed their last, they would predict a fast resolution for themselves in the matters at hand, but if not, a drawn-out and troubled one.

Now, they did not sacrifice all things to all (gods), but to each from the sacrifice they accepted, respectively. The offerings and plants for them all had their conventions, and so did even the kindling. For sober gods,15 they cut wood and kindled fires with it, but for Bacchae and Dionysus, they made the pyre with vine-branches, and they only offered libations of wine to them; and frankincense, myrrh, saffron and pine-resin were differently allotted among the gods in each (respective) sacrifice.16

For in the pomp of the Greeks, all things were divided among those whom they called gods, and the division was not just regarding bodies, but also their colors; and their invocations17 were different, and their incantations18 and amulets19 were varied, and so were their sacrifices and the rituals performed for them; and the sacrificer had to have precise knowledge of the sacrifical order, and had to make the sacrifices in precisely the right way.

Notes ❧

1. The name of the addressee has not been preserved.
2. Hellenes, meaning both ‘pagan Greeks’ and ‘pagans’ in general.
3. Psellus, who was unusually interested in paganism and fair-minded in his treatment of it, typically prefaces his writings about overtly pagan subjects with such unconvincing disavowals, which must not be taken seriously. On the other hand, the modern pagan rumor that Psellus was a polytheist is baseless.
4. Meaning angels.
5. Demons.
6. The wandering stars are the planets.
7. These distinctions are not known to have been observed in practice.
8. The sacrifice of the heart was not widely practiced, to my knowledge.
9. The liver played a significant role in sacrificial rituals, although more prominently for divination.
10. Now called the caudate lobe.
11. The gods above heaven, i.e., immediately beyond the cosmos.
12. The left and right lobes.
13. Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury.
14. What exactly is meant by this, I am unsure.
15. An ad hoc term for gods who are not associated with wine.
16. For such assignments of appropriate incenses, see especially the Orphic Hymns (which however does not mention pine-resin), but also texts of astral magic from any period.
17. Epiklḗseis. Referring especially to gods’ names and bynames.
18. Epáismata. Ritual songs of any kind.
19. Hámmata. Things ‘bound’, probably meaning talismanic objects bound on the body. These were often consecrated to a specific deity.

3 Greek text (ed. D.J. O’Meara, Michaelis Pselli philosophica minora, vol. 2, pp. 152–154)

Περὶ θυτικῆς.

Περὶ τῆς θυτικῆς ἐπιστήμης ἠξίωσας γράψαι σοι ἀφορμάς, ἐλλελειμμένης παντάπασι τῷ καθ‘ ἡμᾶς βίῳ καὶ μηδενὸς τοὺς λόγους αὐτῆς ἐπισταμένου. καὶ εἴη μὲν παντάπασι συγκεκαλυμμένη, καὶ καθαιρεθεῖεν μὲν ἡμῖν οἱ βωμοί, καθαιρεθεῖεν δὲ καὶ [θυ]τήρια, καὶ κατασιγασθείη ὁπός[α] ἡ τῶν Ἑλλήνων δεινὴ ἐτέλει σοφ[ία.] ὃ γοῦν εἰκὸς εἰδέναι σοφὸν ἄνδρα μηδενὸς τῶν ἀρχαίων [ἀμελεῖν] λόγων ἐθέλοντα, τοιαύτη τίς ἐστιν, ὡς ἐν κεφαλαίῳ εἰπεῖν, ἡ ταύτης δύναμις.

Εἰς πολλὰ περιέποντες Ἕλληνες τὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ὄνομα, ἃς γὰρ ἡμεῖς φαμεν ἁγίας δυνάμεις ἑστηκυίας περὶ θεὸν καὶ ἃς τῆς θείας ἀποπεπτωκυίας τάξεως καὶ εἰς ἀντίπαλον μοῖραν ἀποκριθείσας, οὐρανόν τε καὶ ἀστέρας πλανωμένους καὶ ἀπλανεῖς, μέτοχα πάντα τῆς τοῦ θεοῦ προσηγορίας, οὕτως εἰπεῖν, ἐδογμάτιζον· εἶτα δὴ θύειν τοῖς οὕτω παρ‘ αὐτοῖς ὠνομασμένοις θεοῖς ἀξιοῦντες, τοῖς μὲν αἰθερίοις τὰ πυρρὰ ἢ λευκὰ τῶν ζῴων προσῆγον διά τε τὸ αἰθέριον χρῶμα καὶ τὴν καθαρότητα τῆς ἐκείνων φύσεως, τοῖς δέ γε ὑποχθονίοις ἐζωοθύτουν ἀντίχροια, ἀερίοις δὲ ποικίλα προσῆγον καὶ τοῖς χρώμασι σύμμικτα.

Εἶτα δὴ καὶ τὸν τῆς θυσίας τρόπον παρήλλαττον ἐν τοῖς θύμασι, τοῖς μὲν ὑπερκοσμίοις ὑψοῦ τὸν ἔριφον ἢ τὸν κριὸν λαιμοτομοῦντες (οὕτω γοῦν καὶ Ὅμηρος θεοθυτοῦντας εἰσάγει τοὺς Ἕλληνας· ‘αὖ ἔρυσαν μὲν πρῶτα’ φησί ‘καὶ ἔσφαξαν καὶ ἔδειραν’), τοῖς δὲ τὸν ὑπόγειον λαχοῦσι χῶρον κάτω τὴν κεφαλὴν τοῦ θύματος ἕλκοντες, οὕτω τοὺς αὐχενίους ἀπέκοπτον τένοντας· τοῖς δέ γε μέσοις πλαγιάζοντες τὰ θυόμενα ἀπεδειροτόμουν τὰς κεφαλάς· εἶτα δὴ τὰς γαστέρας αὐτῶν ἀνασχίζοντες, τὴν καρδίαν πρώτην κατέτεμνον, καὶ τὸν μὲν ὑμένα ταύτης θεοῖς [πα]τρίοις ἀπέθυον, τῶν δέ γε κοιλιῶν τὴν μὲν δεξιὰν ἀνατέλλοντι [τῷ] ἡλίῳ κατέθυον, τὴν δὲ εὐώνυμον δύνοντι, τὸν δὲ βόθυνον ἄρτι μεσουρανήσαντι. Οὕτω δὲ καὶ τοῦ ἥπατος ἀποδιελόντες τὸν ὑμένα ἠρέμα, [ὃς ὑπ]ὸ τοῦ περιτοναίου τῷ σπλάγχνῳ ἐπίκειται, τῆς μὲν κεφαλῆς θεοῖς ὑπερκοσμίοις κατήρχοντο, τοὺς δὲ λοβοὺς [τοῖς πέντε] πλάνησιν ἀπεδίδοσαν· τὸ δέ γε νέκρωμα Ἅιδῃ καὶ Περσεφόνῃ κατέθυον.

Εἶτα δὴ τὰ τῶν θυομένων περιειργάζοντο πτώματα, εἰ ἐπὶ δεξιὰ πίπτοιεν ἢ ἐπὶ τὰ λαιά· κἀκεῖθεν μὲν δεξιὰ ἑαυτοῖς ἐμαντεύοντο, οὕτω δὲ ἐπαρίστερα. ἐμέτρουν δὲ καὶ τὸν τοῦ σπαραγμοῦ μετὰ τὴν θυσίαν καιρόν· καὶ εἰ μὲν αὐτίκα τὰ θύματα ἀποπνεύσειε, ταχείας ἑαυτοῖς τὰς τελευτὰς περὶ ὧν προσῄεσαν ἐμαντεύοντο, εἰ δ‘ οὖν, ἀποτεταμένας καὶ πράγματα ἐχούσας.

Οὐ πᾶσι δὲ πάντα ἐτέλουν, ἀλλὰ τοῖς οἰκείοις τῆς ληφθείσης θυσίας. τά τε δὲ θύματα τούτοις καὶ αἱ βοτάναι, σύμπαντα κατὰ τρόπον ἐγίνοντο, οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ καὶ αἱ σχίζαι. νηφαλίοις μὲν γὰρ θεοῖς ἐδρυοτόμουν καὶ ἐκεῖθεν ἀνῆπτον πυράς. Βάκχαις δὲ καὶ Διονύσῳ κληματίδες ἀνέκαιον τὴν πυρκαϊάν, καὶ πάντα τούτοις οἰνόσπονδα· ὅ τε λιβανωτὸς καὶ ἡ σμύρνα, ὁ κρόκος τε καὶ ἡ ῥιτίνη διεμερίζοντο τοῖς ἐφ‘ ἑκάστης θυσίας θεοῖς. ἐπ‘ ἐξουσίας γὰρ τοῖς Ἕλλησι πάντα τὰ πράγματα τοῖς παρ‘ αὐτῶν ὀνομασθεῖσι κατεμερίσθη θεοῖς, καὶ ἡ διαίρεσις οὐκ ἄχρι σωμάτων, ἀλλὰ καὶ χρωμάτων αὐτῶν· διάφοροί τε αἱ ἐπικλήσεις καὶ παρηλλαγμένα τά τε ἐπᾴσματα καὶ τὰ ἅμματα, οὕτω δὴ καὶ τὰ θύματα καὶ τὰ ἐπὶ τούτοις τελούμενα· καὶ τόν γε θύτην ἔδει τὰς θυηπολίας ἀκριβῶς εἰδότα, οὕτω τὰς θυσίας ποιεῖν.