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Sacrifice in the Ancient Mediterranean World


Ancient sacrificial rituals encompassed a wide range of connected practices, including the sacrifice of animals and non-animal offerings (e.g., grain, wine, honey). Nevertheless, the focus of discussion, ancient and modern, has often been on the practice of specifically animal sacrifice in ancient Mediterranean societies, which was widespread but also target to criticism by ancient philosophical and religious groups.

What did the practice of sacrifice entail in the ancient Mediterranean world?

Numerous literary depictions, as well as material remains, from ancient Greece and Rome confirm the ongoing and widespread practice of animal sacrifice in the ancient world—even though no single Greek or Latin word corresponds to our English “sacrifice.” Despite this lack of a unified vocabulary, many of the key elements of the ancient sacrificial practice occur already in our first extended text of the Homeric epic poem, the Odyssey (3.430–463), which depicts Nestor, the Greek warrior and king, sacrificing to Athena in the following carefully organized sequence:

– Nestor chooses and decorates a cow to be sacrificed and processes with it, along with his family and select other participants, to the altar.
– Nestor rinses his hands in ceremonial cleansing water, sprinkles barley meal, and then prays to Athena. He cuts some hair from the sacrificial animal to throw into the fire. The others follow in prayer while sprinkling more barley.
– A son of Nestor initiates the wounding of the animal, accompanied by the ritual cry of the women present, and others join in for the kill. The blood of the animal is captured in a special vessel.
– The meat is then divided: first, thighbones wrapped in fat with some meat are burned on the altar with libations of wine for the goddess. Second, the entrails are tasted by the participants. Finally, the remaining meat is roasted and consumed in a feast shared with the visiting guest, Telemachus, son of Odysseus.

We also have numerous visual representations of animal sacrifice, primarily focusing on the elements initiating and concluding the ritual, rather than the actual moment of the killing.

Despite the apparent focus on large-scale animal offerings in our written and iconographic sources, textual and archaeological evidence suggests that most sacrificial rituals likely used smaller animals and even grains, vegetables, and fruits. When our ancient sources discuss these non-animal offerings, they rely on the same or similar vocabulary as animal sacrifices and emphasize how the practice benefits a divine figure, such as Athena above. These wide-ranging practices confirm the cultural centrality of sacrifice in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, but also the fact that it was not the exclusive realm of any social or priestly group.

How did the Greeks and Romans make sense of the ritualized practice of sacrifice?

In general, Greeks and Romans did not have a widely discussed theology explaining the meaning and purpose of sacrificial rituals. It was certainly a fundamental element in human-divine coexistence, and most seemed to have shared the view that the divine recipients (gods, intermediary beings, and even ancestors) benefited in some way from this ritualized practice. The benefits for humans, however, was the focus in this interaction with the divine and could include the appeasement of the gods, thanksgiving for past benefits, or request for future ones. A sacrifice could also form part of the ritual sequence in divination, foretelling the future with the help of the gods.  

According to the earliest Greek epic depiction, Hesiod’s Theogony (eighth–seventh century BCE), the trickster titan, Prometheus, created the system of sharing between gods and humans at the time of the very first sacrifice at Mecone (Theog. 535–61). By placing “shining fat” on top of bones in one pile, Prometheus tricked the king of the gods, Zeus, into choosing the less desirable portion of the sacrifice (the bones). This left the humans the more desirable portion (a mix of meat and fat covered by seemingly less appealing innards), which, in turn, provided for the ensuing human feast. Sacrificial remains were probably not the only source of meat in Graeco-Roman society but sharing in the feast at the end of the sacrificial ritual was a major event in local communities.

This event came at great expense and thus relied on members of the elite (ranging from local leaders to emperors) for financial support. Large-scale sacrifices therefore reinforced existing social hierarchies, with the majority of the population relying on the benefaction of a few wealthy individuals. But all Greeks and Romans of the empire who participated in the sacrificial ritual gained a sense of community and identity.

There were those who criticized sacrifice in the Graeco-Roman cultures too. The earliest known figure to criticize the practice was probably Pythagoras around 500 BCE, who believed in the transmigration of the souls and therefore took issue with the killing of animals. Later, Epicurean philosophers challenged the desire to try to influence the gods, whom they considered supremely ethical beings without specific care for humans. The strong connections of sacrifice with the existing political and religious hierarchies in the Roman Empire may have been the reason why some early Christians, such as Paul, did not wish to participate in the sacrifice and consumption of explicitly sacrificial meat. During the first systematic Christian persecution in 250–251 CE, the willingness to participate in sacrifice became the test by which one could prove that they were not Christian. This again suggests that reaffirming communal identity was a key benefit of the sacrificial system.

  • Varhelyi-Zsuzsanna

    Zsuzsanna Varhelyi is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. She published The Religion of Senators in the Roman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and coedited, with Jennifer Knust, Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice (Oxford University Press, 2011). She is currently working on a monograph on selfhood in the early Roman Empire.