What is Sacrifice?

1 Introduction

When approaching a pagan conception of “sacrifice”, it is important to let go of the particular semantics this word has in English, and to be very conscious of what specific Greek, Latin or other terms we are actually trying to understand.

2 Not modern “sacrifice”

To the first point, we have to take note of the primary connotation the English word carries: that of knowingly giving something up, of choosing to live less comfortably than one could out of a sense of moral obligation or as a sign of sincerity. That is not an idea alien to ancient pagans, but it was not something they directly associated with offerings made to the gods. While sacrifice as “giving something up” would imply that the rich should sacrifice more, ancient philosophers often complain that the abundant sacrifices of the wealthy are pointless displays of wealth, and that a pious disposition is more important than physical offerings—which, as philosophers also pointed out, the gods do not stand in need of. My point, to be clear, is not to construct a Christian vs. pagan binary here (because there is no one Christian or pagan viewpoint). Rather, I want to clear the table before I present the words and concepts at issue.

3 “Sacrifice” as thysia

Although there are different Greek and Latin words traditionally translated as “sacrifice”, and each has a different story and different implications about how we understand pagan ritual actions, the best path of access may be through the Greek word thysia. (On further Greek terms, see section 6). The Platonic Definitions aptly, but somewhat circularly, define this as “the gift of a thyma to a god”. Thyma itself is often translated as “sacrifice”, but that is not helpful here. An alternative is “victim”, yet that overstresses the violent character of sacrifice.

Etymology offers a better route. Both thysia and thyma come from the verb thyō, which means “to offer by burning”, and when animal (or, very rarely, human) victims are concerned, “to kill in order to burn”. In a looser sense, it can also mean “to make an offering” without burning. The point, in any case, is not always the destruction of the victim so much as the production of a fragrant smoke (thyma is related to the word “fume”). Accordingly, thymiama refers to incenses or “suffumigations” offered to the gods, and the Latin word thus (from Greek thyos) refers to the offering par excellence, frankincense. In short:

  • thysia: the act of sacrificing.
  • thyma: the sacrifical victim, or object being offered.
  • thyō: to offer, especially but not always by burning, or to slay an animal in order to sacrifice it.
  • thymiama: incense, suffumigation to the gods.
  • thyos: object being offered, especially a burnt-offering.
  • Latin thus: frankincense.

I hope that this peculiar set of associations goes some way in explaining how it is that the paradigmatic act of sacrifice (thysia) is animal slaughter, yet the prototypical offering (thyma) is frankincense, a vegetarian substance.

4 Thysia embedded in its ancient context (Hermeneumata Leidensia and Amploniana 2.3)

Unfortunately, there is no introduction or handbook of sacrifice surviving from antiquity (and unlike in some modern religions, there may not have been many such texts to begin with). This means that for this and similar subjects, we are dependent on ancient works that only touch on them incidentally, including a surprising number of texts from ancient grammatici or literary scholars, i.e., word-lists, lexica, philological commentaries. One genre that is especially useful for getting beyond individual words and reconstructing broader fields of meaning are the Hermeneumata. These are bilingual texts written in two columns, one Greek and one Latin, that include grammar exercises, short narrative texts, and vocabulary lists divided into little thematic sections.

One such section found in several Hermeneumata is that On Temples (Greek perì naôn, Latin de aedibus or de templis). It is here that the grammarians included the word thysia, because in the ancient imagination, the ideal place of sacrifice is the temple, even if the majority of sacrificial activity occurred elsewhere (in the kitchen, at household shrines or private chapels, on permanent or makeshift altars set up somewhere in the open, in caves or groves, at springs and unusual trees). I now give a composite version (with normalized orthography) of two very similar chapters On Temples, section 2.3 in both the Hermeneumata Amploniana and Leidensia:

Greek perì naôn : Latin de aedibus, templis : English “On Temples”
(1) naós : aedes, templum : “temple”
(2) prónaon : vestibulum : “front hall (of a temple)”
(3) hierón : sacrum : “sacred thing, sacrifice, temple”
(4) bōmós : ara : “altar”
(5) thysía : sacrificium : “sacrifice”
(6) thŷma : hostia : “sacrificial victim, sacrificial offering”
(7) thymiatḗrion : thuribulum : “censer, thurible”
(8) stéphanoi : coronae : “garland, wreath, crown”
(9) xóana : simulacra, Lares : “(carved) statue of a god” (Lares here meaning “statues at the household shrine”)
(10) eikónes : imagines : “images of gods”
(11) agálmata : simulacrae : “cult statues of gods”
(12) hiereús : sacerdos : “priest, sacrificer”
(13) thýtēs : popinarius, haruspex : “sacrificer” (popinarius meaning “cook”, haruspex “diviner from entrails”)
(14) moskhotómos : victimarius : “sacrificer”
(15) mántis : divinus : “diviner”
(16) prophḗtēs : hariolus : “diviner, soothsayer”
(17) neōkóros : aedituus : “temple custodian”
(18) oiōnoskópos : augur : “augur, diviner from birds”
(19) líbanos : thus : “frankincense”
(20) pyreîs (pyroeîs?) : flamines
(21) hieromnḗmōn : pontifex
(22) spondophóroi : fetiales
(23) Korýbantes : Salii Palatini
(24) Kourêtes : Collini

(A much longer section on this topic is contained in the Munich Hermeneumata.)

Here, rows 1–11 name objects, rows 12–24 persons (minus no. 19, which seems to be have gotten misplaced). I have left the last five rows (nos. 20–24) without translation since they only attempt to find rough Greek equivalents for the names of five quite specific groups of Roman priests, whereas the rest pertain to Greco-Roman culture at large.

The persons in question, apart from the temple custodian, can be loosely divided into sacrificers (nos. 12–14) and diviners (nos. 15–16, 18). However, animal sacrifice also regularly included divination from the entrails of the victim, so that many “priests”, whether associated with a temple or not, were diviners as well as sacrificers (see no. 13). Private sacrifices could of course also be done without the assistance of priests, but the larger and costlier the animal(s), the more needful it was to have an expert practitioner.

Sacrifice (no. 5) took place not in the temple building itself (nos. 1–3), but within the temple precinct (temenos), at an altar (no. 4) erected before the temple (or sometimes further away, or without an associated temple). The sacrificial offering (no. 6) would be cast into the fire of the altar; if an animal, it would first be led up to the altar and slain there. Incense, especially but not always frankincense (no. 19), would also be cast into this fire, or burned in censers (no. 7).

In a temple setting, the statues or images of the deity or deities (nos. 9–11) would often be in the innermost room of the temple, not directly behind the altar as they are in a household shrine, although the god (judging from artistic depictions) would perhaps still been imagined as standing behind it and looking down on the worshippers. Sometimes, altars would be dedicated to particular gods, with up to several dozens of specialized altars in a single temple precinct. Of course, one could also sacrifice to a certain deity without any image of theirs or a specially consecrated altar.

Both the images and the temple would often be decorated with garlands (no. 8) for the sacrifice, sometimes as a kind of sacrifice, as well as for other occasions.

5 The ethical meaning of sacrifice

Now, whether the offering is of animal or non-animal substance, performed at a temple or elsewhere, the question that applies to it all is: why? The most poignant answer I have found is from the Sayings of Menander (monostich 1.246):

Thysía megístē tôi theôi tò eusebeîn.
“The greatest sacrifice to the gods is to be pious.”

Once more, I stress that there is no connotation of giving something up here: the point is not that being pious is hard, but that piety is the essential element of sacrifice. And what is piety (eusebeia)? I turn again to the Platonic Definitions:

Eusébeia dikaiosýnē perì theoús; dýnamis therapeutikḕ theôn hekoúsios; perì theôn timês hypólēpsis orthḗ; epistḗmē tês perì theôn timês.
“Piety is an attitude of justice in relation to the gods; a power to serve the gods willingly; a correct conception of the reverence due to the gods; knowledge of the reverence due to the gods.”

In other words, piety is (1) a keen sense of the ethical duties we have towards the gods, (2) the ability to act on these duties with a willing heart, and (3) the knowledge of what these duties consist in, namely in certain timai (singular timē), acts of reverence or honor. The analogues to this in our ordinary social life are (1) a sense of moral obligation to other people, (2) the integrity and courage to actually observe the demands of morality, and (3) the courtesy or knowledge of etiquette necessary to put abstract moral principles into practice in concrete interhuman situations. This makes the crucial difference, for instance, between honesty and insult, and similarly between piety (eusebeia) and superstition (deisidaimonia).

Now, our ethical duties towards the gods are complex, and interwoven with the cultivation of practical and theoretical philosophy as a whole (see, e.g., the Golden Verses or the maxim Know Yourself). But in a narrower sense, the timē of the gods consists in devotional acts like sacrifice and prayer. Why we owe these kinds of actions in particular to the gods is another philosophical problem, which I set aside here. (For one solution, see Sallustius.)

6 Julius Pollux, Onomasticon 1.25–29; 33

A uniquely full and evocative list of actions associated with or equivalent to sacrifice is found in a lexicon of the 2nd century CE, the Onomasticon of Julius Pollux. The primary concern for Pollux is to teach his readers the correct words to use in Attic Greek prose, but in the process, he always tells us much about the given topic he is treating. The following is an excerpt from a much larger section concerned with the gods and all things related to them. After the translation, I give some commentary:

“One must approach the gods purified (kathar-), cleansed, besprinkled, washed, clean, hallowed (hagn-), sanctified (hosio-); with a pure mind (katharos nous); with newly made garments or with freshly washed clothes.

“To approach the gods (means) to make an approach (prosodos) to the gods, to pray to the gods, to stretch one’s hands upward, to communicate with the gods, to turn towards the gods, to call upon the gods, to ask for good things from the gods, to seek refuge with the gods, to implore, entreat, beseech them, to sacrifice (thyein) to the gods, to do sacred actions (hierourgein, hieropoiein), to sacrifice an ox (bouthytein), to offer a hecatomb, to perform sacrifice (thyēpolein), to sing paeans, to sing a hymn, to give the first (=best) parts (prokatarxasthai) of the sacrifices (hiera), to burn frankincense (libanōton kathagizein), to suffumigate (thymian), to burn fragrant herbs (arōmata) in fire.

“Now, the arōmata are also called suffumigations (thymiamata); and Thucydides(?) calls them pure (hagna) sacrifices (thymata), putting myrrh and frankincense in opposition to bloody and slaughtered victims (thymata).

“(Continuing the list,) to lead victims (hiereia) to the altars, to stain the altars with blood, to sacrifice a tithe, to pray by means of an ox or something else, to libate (spend-), to garland or wreathe (steph-), to present garlands, a crown of myrtle, to make libation (speis-), to lay up thigh-bones, to throw barley groats, to use the entrails (splankhneu-), to make a sacrifice (thyēl-), to give the first parts (prokatarxasthai) of the sacrifices, to give the first parts (aparxasthai) of entrails, to sacrifice a tithe, to lay down a tithe, to dedicate (anatheinai), to make a dedication (anathēma), to set up (anatheinai) in the temple.

“And the dedications, for the most part, are garlands (stephanoi), bowls, drinking-cups, censers (thymatēria), gold vessels, silver vessels, vessels for pouring wine (oinokhoai) or small amphoras.

“And the Pythia demands a public sacrifice (knisa agyias).

“(Continuing the list,) to bring first-fruits (aparkhai, apargmata, argmata), barley cakes (psaista), round cakes (popana), a cake of meal and honey (ompē), cakes of mixed meal/round cakes(? pelanoi), garlands (stephanoi), pastry (pemmata), chaplets (stemmata), green boughs (thalloi), myrtle branches, flowers; to paeanize, to sing paeans, whereas hololyg– is used only of women.

“Now the actions (pragmata) are called sacrifice (thysia), ox-sacrifice (bouthysia), performance of sacrifice (thyēpolia), invocation or calling upon gods, communication (enteuxis), advance/procession (prosodos), sacred work and action (hierourgia, hieropoiia), supplication (hiketeia), libation (spondē).

“And the vapor (pneuma) wafting up from the altars is called savor (knisa) or odor (atmos).

“And one must bring victims (hiereia) fit for sacrifice (thysima), entire, uncut, complete, with all their limbs, with complete limbs, not docked, maimed, mutilated or misshapen. Solon also called the maimed animals aphelē. And one must bring oxen that have never been yoked.

“One must also know that meats taken from the victims (hiereia) are called theotyta (‘sacrificed to a god’). […]

“The things used for sacrifice are pieces of firewood; sacrificial knives (sphagides), cleavers and axes; spits; winnowing-fans and reed-baskets; and khernibes [see note below]. Whereas the five-pronged fork (pempōbola), barley-sprinklings (oulokhytai) and the like are poetic terms.”

7 Interpreting Pollux’ catalogue

Pollux sometimes lists multiple expressions for the same action, sometimes different aspects of one procedure (like praying and raising your hands), but in other cases, different actions that can be equally done together or done independently (like animal sacrifice and singing hymns).

Since individual ceremonies could range from a hurried offering at the hearth to city-wide festivals lasting for days, I find it best not to get fixated on a certain sequence of events as it had been universally observed, and instead to study the major ritual actions individually first.

“One must approach the gods purified”: there is no unified concept of (ritual) purity in antiquity, and no single process of purification, but Pollux gives us some important aspects: one should be washed, wear well cared-for clothes (not necessarily new but at any rate clean), and have a “pure mind”, that is, an ethical and pious attitude. For further information (from Pollux and others), see the section on Purification.

“Hallowed, sanctified”: in this case meaning about the same as “pure” or “clean”.

“To approach the gods”: sacrifice and similar rituals are conceived as a kind of communication or intercourse with the gods, physically (by seeking out places with divine presence), morally, or in other ways. Hymns also often begin by asking the god to come or be present, to draw near the devotee as the devotee has approached the god.

“To pray to the gods, to stretch one’s hands upward”: these expressions are equivalent, “for we humans all strech our hands towards heaven when we make prayers” (Pseudo-Aristotle, On the Cosmos 400a); this apparently included Jews and Christians.

But not every prayer was necessarily attended by this large gesture. As Simon Pulleyn writes, it is more common in artistic depictions for the worshipper to raise only one hand, not above the head, but “held out in front of one in a gesture like that used by policemen to halt traffic” (Prayer in Greek Religion, 1997, p. 189). Since Plato assigns the right to the Olympian gods and the left to those of the underworld (Laws 717a), it may be that only the respective hand would be raised; or it may not. The meaning of this passage is not as clear as Pulleyn suggests.

When praying to the gods below, one might still raise the hands upwards to a cult statue (Pulleyn, p. 190), or more intuitively, stretch them downwards, as an anonymous commentator on Vergil notes: “we invoke the gods below with hands cast down towards the earth; hence Homer has Althaea, the mother of Meleager, (pray) with hands far outstretched […] but we pray to the celestial gods with hands raised toward heaven” (Servius auctus on Aeneid 4.205). In the Homeric passage referenced (Iliad 9.658), Althaea in fact strikes the earth; the commentator’s interpretation suggests that this was (or at least, was understood as) a poetic exaggeration of the ordinary custom.

My own opinion is that, in all, one should not overthink hand gestures. The gesture of folding the hands now commonly used by Christians (at any rate by Catholics and Protestants; I do not know about other Christian groups) was apparently unknown in the Ancient Mediterranean, and so not consciously rejected by pagans; as Christians only adopted it over time, there is no obvious reason that pagans could not do so as well.

“to offer a hecatomb”: technically, an offering of one hundred oxen, but more usually, simply a large sacrifice of many animals.

“to sing paeans, to sing a hymn”: See Pollux and Proclus on Hymns.

“hallowed sacrifices”: the point is that offerings of incense or herbs are pure in a way that animal sacrifice is not. (Of course, this also depends on ethical sourcing, as the production of any kind of good can be bloody.)

“to libate […], to make libation”: a libation or drink-offering is the pouring of a liquid, such as wine, into the altar fire, or else into a bowl. For the chthonic gods, of and under the earth, the libation is poured directly (and completely) into the soil or a trench.

“to sacrifice a tithe”: a tithe is a tenth part (but not necessarily a literal tenth), a share in one’s produce returned to the gods from whom it comes.

“to lay up thigh-bones”: as Hesiod explains mythologically in Theogony 557, it is the thigh-bones, wrapped in fat, which are burnt entirely on the altar, while the rest is roasted for human consumption. This rule was however far from consistently obeyed (off-site link; archived version here). In some circumstances, especially for chthonic gods, the whole animal was burned.

“to throw barley groats”: barley groats would be thrown into the altar fire along with the sacrifice.

“to use the entrails”: for sacrifice or for divination (as part of the sacrifice).

“to make a dedication”: this now refers not to offerings consumed or destroyed, but to items permanently given over to the god and usually displayed in a temple.

“to bring first-fruits”: the equivalent of a tithe (see above); note that the English word does not necessarily refer to fruits or crops, and the Greek would be more literally translated as “giving the first part”.

hololyg– is used only of women”: a specific root for words describing the way that women called to the gods; social convention prescribed greater emotionalism for women, while prohibiting it for men.

“garlands […], chaplets, green boughs, myrtle branches, flowers”: some of these cannot have been used to decorate statues, but were likely simply laid down in an appropriate place, such as an offering-table.

“cakes”: this is the conventional translation, but sacrificial cakes could be any number of baked goods, not necessarily sweet or cake-like in the modern sense. Unlike animal victims, which were (usually) shared between gods, priests and worshippers, cakes were generally burned whole (Menander, Dyskolos 449–453, as cited by Emily Kearns in her article on sacrificial cakes, titled after a part of this passage: “Ὁ λιβανωτὸς εὐσεβές καὶ τὸ πόπανον: the rationale of cakes and bloodless offerings in Greek sacrifice” [off-site link; archived version]).

“meats taken from the victims are called theotyta (‘sacrificed to a god’)”: often (but not always), sacrificed animals were cut into portions, some being placed on the altar to be burned, others on an offering-table to later be taken by the sacrificers as their share; the rest was eaten by those paying for the sacrifice or the community assembled for the festivities, or else sold for consumption by others.

“winnowing-fans: I have no notion what these were used for at sacrifice.

khernibes: khernips refers to water used for washing the hands (Pollux 2.149), especially before a meal or before sacrifice. In this case, Pollux probably means the vessel for such water (cf. Pollux 10.90), which could have been passed around or poured out over people’s hands.

Among modern Hellenic polytheists, it has come to be thought that even in household practice, khernips must be somehow specially prepared, because “in sacrifices (hieropoiiai), they used to plunge a fire-brand into the khernips and sprinkle it around the altar” (Hesychius, δ155). But to my knowledge, this is only attested for sacrifices at an outdoor altar, only for classical Athens, and quite sparsely at that (namely in Euripides, Heracles 925f and Aristophanes, Peace 959). It is only one scholium that gives the underlying logic: “They thought that by plunging fire into water, they could purify it, because fire is purificatory of everything, as Euripides writes in the Heracles: ‘The son of Alcmena was bringing the torch in his right hand, to dip it into the khernips’.” (Scholium on Aristophanes, Peace 959). Apparently this practice already required explanation to readers of the Athenian classics in later antiquity.