Ancient History & Civilisation


Greek ritual was as varied as the kinds of deities that it honored. The chthonian gods received a gloomy ritual of appeasement and riddance, the Olympians a joyful ritual of welcome and praise. Neither form of ceremony required a clergyman: the father acted as priest for the family, the chief magistrate for the state. Life in Greece was not as secular as it has been described; religion played a major part in it everywhere, and each government protected the official cult as vital to social order and political stability. But whereas in Egypt and the Near East the priesthood dominated the state, in Greece the state dominated the priesthood, took the leadership of religion, and reduced the clergy to minor functionaries in the temples. The property of the temples, in real estate, money, and slaves, was audited and administered by officials of the state.53 There were no seminaries for the training of priests; anyone could be quietly chosen or appointed priest if he knew the rites of the god; and in many places the office was let out to the highest bidder.54 There was no hierarchy of priestly caste; the priests of one temple or state had usually no association with those of another.55 There was no church, no orthodoxy, no rigid creed; religion consisted not in professing certain beliefs, but in joining in the official ritual;56 any man might have his own creed provided that he did not openly deny or blaspheme the city’s gods. In Greece church and state were one.

The place of worship could be the domestic hearth, the municipal hearth in the city hall, some cleft in the earth for a chthonian deity, some temple for an Olympian god. The precincts of the temple were sacred and inviolable; here the worshipers met, and here all pursued persons, even if tainted with serious crime, could find sanctuary. The temple was not for the congregation but for the god; there, in his home, his statue was erected, and a light burned before it which was not allowed to die. Often the people identified the god with the statue; they washed, dressed, and tended the image carefully, and sometimes scolded it for negligence; they told how, at various times, the statue had sweated, or wept, or closed its eyes.57 In the temple records a history was kept of the festivals of the god, and of the major events in the life of the city or group that worshiped him; this was the source and first form of Greek historiography.

The ceremony consisted of procession, chants, sacrifice, prayer, and sometimes a sacred meal. Magic and masquerade, tableaux and dramatic representations might be part of the procession. In most cases the basic ritual was prescribed by custom, and every movement of it, every word of the hymns and prayers, was preserved in a book kept sacred by the family or the state; rarely was any syllable or action altered, or any rhythm; the god might not like or comprehend the novelty. The living speech changed, the ritual speech remained as before; in time the worshipers ceased to understand the words they used,58 but the thrill of antiquity supplied the place of understanding. Often the ceremony outlasted even the memory of the cause that had prompted it; then new myths were invented to explain its establishment: the myth or creed might change, but not the ritual. Music was essential to the whole process, for without music religion would be difficult; music generates religion as much as religion generates music. Out of the temple and processional chants came poetry, and the meters that later adorned the robust profanity of Archilochus, the reckless passion of Sappho, and the scandalous delicacies of Anacreon.

Having reached the altar—usually in front of the temple—the worshipers sought with sacrifice and prayer to avert the wrath or win the aid of their god. As individuals they might offer almost anything of value—statues, reliefs, furniture, weapons, caldrons, tripods, garments, pottery; when the gods could make no use of such articles the priests could. Armies might offer part of their spoils, as Xenophon’s Ten Thousand did in their retreat.59 Groups would offer the fruits of the field, the vines or the trees; more often an animal appetizing to the god; sometimes, on occasions of great need, a human being. Agamemnon offered Iphigenia for a wind; Achilles slaughtered twelve Trojan youths on the pyre of Patroclus;60 human victims were hurled from the cliffs of Cyprus and Leucas to satiate Apollo; others were presented to Dionysus in Chios and Tenedos; Themistocles is said to have sacrificed Persian captives to Dionysus at the battle of Salamis;61 the Spartans celebrated the festival of Artemis Orthia by flogging youths, sometimes to death, at her altar;62 in Arcadia Zeus received human sacrifice till the second century A.D.;63 at Massalia, in time of pestilence, one of the poorer citizens was fed at public expense, clad in holy garments, decorated with sacred boughs, and cast over a cliff to death with prayers that he might bear punishment for all the sins of his people.64 In Athens it was the custom, in famine, plague, or other crisis, to offer to the gods, in ritual mimicry or in actual fact, one or more scapegoats for the purification of the city; and a similar rite, mimic or literal, was annually performed at the festival of the Thargelia.*65 In the course of time human sacrifice was mitigated by restricting its victims to condemned criminals, and dulling their senses with wine; finally it was replaced by the sacrifice of an animal. When, on the night before the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.), the Boeotian leader Pelopidas had a dream that seemed to demand a human sacrifice at the altar as the price of victory, some of his councilors advised it, but others protested against it, saying “that such a barbarous and impious obligation could not be pleasing to any Supreme Beings; that typhons and giants did not preside over the world, but the general father of gods and mortals; that it was absurd to imagine any divinities and powers delighting in slaughter and sacrifice of men.”68

Animal sacrifice, then, was a major step in the development of civilization. The beasts who bore the brunt of this advance in Greece were the bull, the sheep, and the pig. Before any battle the rival armies sent up sacrifices in proportion to their desired victory; before any assembly in Athens the meeting place was purified by the sacrifice of a pig. The piety of the people, however, broke down at the crucial point: only the bones and a little flesh, wrapped in fat, went to the god; the rest was kept for the priests and the worshipers. To excuse themselves the Greeks told how, in the days of the giants, Prometheus had wrapped the edible portions of the sacrificial animal in skin, and the bones in fat, and had asked Zeus to choose which he preferred. Zeus had “with both hands” chosen the fat. It was true that Zeus was enraged upon finding that he had been deceived; but he had made his choice, and must abide by it forever.69 Only in sacrifice to the chthonian gods was everything surrendered to the deity, and the entire animal burnt to ashes in a holocaust; the divinities of the lower world were more feared than those of Olympus. No common meal followed a chthonic sacrifice, for that might tempt the god to come and join the feast. But after sacrifice to the Olympians the worshipers, not in awed atonement to the god but in joyous communion with him, consumed the consecrated victim; the magic formulas pronounced over it had, they hoped, imbued it with the life and power of the god, which would now pass mystically into his communicants. In like manner wine was poured upon the sacrifice, and then into the cups of the worshipers, who drank, so to speak, with the gods.70 In the thiasoi, or fraternities, into which so many trade and social groups in Athens were organized, this idea of divine communion in a common religious meal formed the binding tie.71

Animal sacrifice continued throughout Greece until ended by Christianity,72 which wisely substituted for it the spiritual and symbolical sacrifice of the Mass. In some measure prayer too became a substitute for sacrifice; it was a clever amendment that commuted offerings of blood into litanies of praise. In this gentler way man, subject to chance and tragedy at every step, consoled and strengthened himself by calling to his aid the mysterious powers of the world.

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