Fuel in Burnt-Offerings


1 Introduction

It is not obvious that the nature of the fuel used in burnt-offerings would matter – and perhaps it often did not – but there are a number of sources telling us that distinctions between different kinds of coal and wood were observed at least by some.

Several ancient Greek lexica, specifically, tell us that “sober (nēphália) woods are those which are not of ivy, mulberry- or fig-tree; for those are called ‘of the wine libation’ (oinósponda)” (e.g., Hesychius); Diogenianus also lists myrtle-wood (Proverbs 6.76). In other words, the distinction between two categories of wood corresponds to two categories of sacrifices: on the one hand, “to sacrifice sober offerings, that is, to use wineless sacrifices – the opposite of which they called sacrifices of the wine libation (thysíai oinospóndoi)” (Julius Pollux, Onomasticon 6.26).

These sacrifices accompanied by wine libations were especially suited to Dionysus and the Bacchae (i.e., Dionysiac Nymphs, see Psellus, On the Sacrifical Science), for obvious reasons, but also given to most other gods – while “a sober drink, of water as much as of honey, is suitable to the souls, and to all in Hades” (Eustathius, On the Odyssey, vol. 1, p. 393), that is to say, to the dead, heroes, and chthonic daemons and gods (especially but not only the chthonic gods of the underworld).

Οn the other hand, however, sober sacrifices were made even to Dionysus on certain occasions (Plutarch, Precepts for Maintaining Your Health 132e), and the dead and the Earth herself sometimes received wine (e.g., “unmixed wine and honey-dripping libations to the Earth, the local gods, and the souls of fallen heroes”, in Apollonius, Argonautica 2.1272–1273). In other words, this was not a system of strict correspondences, but a kind of scaffolding of rules, with exceptions and variations based on place, time and specific ritual. In any case, the details would be better discussed under Libations.

2 On oinospónda woods

In the Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri, which include the most detailed ritual instructions surviving in Greek, many rites include burnt-sacrifices, and a good number of them specify what to burn them on – albeit not all do (e.g., PGM 1.285–288). Sometimes, we are only told to use “bricks” (PGM 4.30) or “an altar” (“earthen”, PGM 5.200; “unbaked”, PGM 1.282; “made from pieces of fruit-bearing wood”, PGM 12.212), “a bronze or earthen censer” (PGM 2.26) or a tripod (PGM 5.200), other times “coals” are mentioned (solely or in addition to the altar/censer, PGM 4.2709–2710).

When a ritual specifies the fuel, it is most often vine-wood coal:

  • “Sacrifice frankincense after libating wine or beer or honey or milk of a black cow onto vine-wood” (PGM 4.907–909).
  • “Sacrifice sesame and black cumin on vine-wood coals” (PGM 4.918–919).
  • “Sacrifice: make blood and fat of a white dove, raw myrrh and parched wormwood together into pills, and sacrifice them facing the star (Venus) on pieces of vine-wood or (vine-wood) coals” (PGM 4.2888–2891).
  • “When you have made another sacrifice on pieces of wine-wood” (PGM 5.230–232).
  • “Sacrifice frankincense on pieces of vine-wood” (PGM 7.543–544).
  • “Take seven throws’ worth of unburnt sulphur and make a fire-sacrifice from pieces of vine-wood” (PGM 6.295–296).

Taken with the other evidence cited above, and some further parallel texts (e.g., Physiologus 7; Cyranides 4.1), it is clear that vine-wood really was in common use as sacrificial fuel, even when no libations were made. I have not found such clear evidence for the use of the other oinospónda woods, but I may be able to collect more relevant information (if not on their use as fuel, then on their cultural significance more broadly) in the future, gods willing.

3 Sober woods

Euripides describes a wineless offering to the Hyacinthids – the daughters of king Erechtheus, who sacrificed themselves to rescue Athens – in preparation for an attack against the city: “sacrifice … without touching the wine-producing vine, nor libating (wine) into the fire, but rather the fruit of the much-laboring bee, together with riverine founts” (Euripides, Erechtheus; fr. 65, lines 83–86 in Austin’s Nova fragmenta Euripidea in papyris reperta [‘New Fragments of Euripides Discovered in Papyri’]).

Notably, while wine is contrasted with the prescribed offerings (honey and freshwater), there is no such contrast for the vine-wood. It seems that it really only mattered what wood was not used.

Differently put, (a) most sacrifices probably just used any wood or coal, (b) while vine-wood was preferred in some circumstances, and (c) in other circumstances, vine-wood and the other oinospónda woods were dispreferred.

Status: first draft completed (June 2022)