A ritual (or religious ceremony) consists of a sequence of actions and words (or rites) that are performed or spoken as part of religious worship. The ancient Greeks and Romans performed many rituals in the observance of their religion. Some rituals, such as the recitation of prayers, were simple. Others, such as animal sacrifices, were very elaborate. Sacrifices, the most important of the ancient religious rituals, were offerings to the gods. Although offerings were usually animals, other typical sacrificial gifts included cooked food, plants, pottery, or even a stone or flower.

Rituals. In ancient Greek and Roman religion, performing a ritual according to specific tradition and custom was crucial. Failure to do so rendered the act meaningless. Thus, preserving rituals and passing them from one generation to the next became an important social function. Some of the earliest accounts of rituals and sacrifices are found in the epic* poems of Homer, in the historical writings of Herodotus, and in the plays of Aeschylus. Priests were the main keepers of ritual knowledge. They maintained written records of specific rituals, such as those involving magic. Mystery cults*, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, had rituals of an exceptional and secret nature, and little is known about them.

The elements of ritual often included prayer, washing, and libations (the pouring of liquids), as well as incense or flowers, food, and objects of value. An individual might pray on his or her own to a household god. If the person wished to address the god of a particular shrine*, he or she would enlist the help of a priest.

Cleansing oneself with water to remove the dirt of daily life or specific impurities was almost always done. Purification was an important part of Greek and Roman religious practices. The aim of purification, or cleansing, was to rid the person or the community of pollution. Pollution could be caused by an act of impiety* or failure to carry out a religious obligation properly. For example, performing a sacrifice without first washing one’s hands caused pollution. Committing murder caused serious pollution, and a murderer had to perform special acts to rid himself of the victim’s blood. (Blood shed in battle was more easily washed away.) One common Greek purification ritual involved associating the pollution with an object (such as an animal or a human scapegoat) and then burning the animal or banishing the human beyond the walls of the city.

* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

* shrine place that is considered sacred because of its history or the relics it contains

Ritual actions were set apart from usual behavior in several ways: the wearing of special clothing and adornments, the avoidance of certain behaviors or foods, the burning of incense, or the offering of flowers and branches. Food was also used in many rituals. Cakes, fruit, or grain was offered to the gods as a gift. Sometimes special ingredients were cooked together to prepare a ritual dish. Libation of wine, milk, water, oil, or honey was another type of offering.

Sacrifices. One of the main rituals of both Greek and Roman religion was animal sacrifice. Sacrifices established the appropriate relationships among gods, humans, and animals. The gods were superior and immortal*, whereas humans were mortal and ought to be pious and submissive to the deities. Animals existed to be used by humans in their worship of their gods. Sheep and goats were the most common sacrificial animals, although some special sacrifices involved bulls. Certain animals were associated with certain gods. For example, dogs were sacrificed to Hecate, a goddess of the underworld*. The Greeks believed that she traveled at night accompanied by ghosts and howling dogs.

A sacrifice (thusia in Greek) to the gods was the most important activity in Greek religion. According to the Greek philosopher* Theophrastus, the Greeks sacrificed to the gods for three reasons: to honor them, to thank them, or to request a favor from them. Sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle, as well as fish and birds, were offered to the gods. The sacrifice of an animal was carried out according to strict guidelines. First, the animal was decorated with flowers and garlands and led in a procession to the sanctuary* of the god. At the sanctuary, participants washed their hands in water and sprinkled a few drops on the victim. The priest or leader recited a prayer declaring the reason for the sacrifice. The sacrificial victim was killed quickly by having its neck cut with a knife. Large animals were first stunned with a blow from an ax and then similarly killed with the knife. The victim’s blood was spattered over the altar in the sanctuary. Then assistants butchered the animal and divided the parts. The thighbones were wrapped in fat and, along with small portions of meat cut from the limbs, were placed on the altar and burned as a gift to the gods. Wine was poured on the burnt offerings. Occasionally, these gifts were placed on the knees of a statue of the god. Next, the liver, lungs, heart, and other internal organs were roasted and shared by all the participants. The rest of the meat was boiled and either eaten at the altar or taken home. Omens were often taken from the burnt offerings to the god.

A typical Roman sacrifice consisted of four phases. The first involved the purification of the participants and the victim. Purification was followed by a procession to an altar. At the altar, participants honored the gods with the pouring of wine and the burning of incense, marking the beginning of the sacrifice. The leader of the sacrifice then poured wine on the victim’s brow, sprinkled its back with salted flour, and then passed a knife over the animal’s spine. These actions symbolized the transfer of the victim from mortal ownership to that of the god. In the next phase, the animal was killed and then butchered. Its heart and other internal organs were examined. If the entrails* looked suspicious or unhealthy, the sacrifice was deemed unacceptable to the gods, and another animal had to be sacrificed. The final phase of the Roman sacrifice was the banquet. The sacrificial meat and entrails were cooked and offered to the god. Then the rest of the animal was cooked and eaten by the participants or distributed for sale in butchers’ shops. Sometimes the banquet was attended only by the aristocracy*. At other times, the banquet was financed by a wealthy benefactor for the public at large. (See also Cults; Divinities; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman.)

* impiety lack of respect for the gods

* immortal living forever

* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades

* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science

* sanctuary place for worship


The Thargelia was the main festival of the god Apollo. It was held in Athens during the months of May and June. Prior to the festival, the city was purified by the expulsion of human scapegoats (pharmakoi in Greek), A man was chosen to represent the city's inhabitants. After being led around the city to "absorb" its pollution, he was stoned with rocks, beaten with tree branches, and then driven from the city. The Athenians believed that the scapegoat took all the sins of the city and of its inhabitants with him.

* entrails internal organs, including the intestines

* aristocracy privileged upper class

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!