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in Hellenic Polytheistic Religion

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"Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. When they had done praying and sprinkling the barley-meal, they drew back the heads of the victims and killed and flayed them. They cut out the thigh-bones, wrapped them round in two layers of fat, set some pieces of raw meat on the top of them, and then Chryses laid them on the wood fire and poured wine over them, while the young men stood near him with five-pronged spits in their hands. When the thigh-bones were burned and they had tasted the inward meats, they cut the rest up small, put the pieces upon the spits, roasted them till they were done, and drew them off: Then, when they had finished their work and the feast was ready, they ate it, and every man had his full share, so that all were satisfied. As soon as they had had enough to eat and drink, pages filled the mixing-bowl with wine and water and handed it round, after giving every man his drink-offering." (Όmiros [Homer; Gr. Ὅμηρος] Iliás [Iliad; Gr. λιάς] Book 1.513 (456), trans. Samuel Butler)


And so we read the description, oft repeated in Homer's Iliad, of a blood sacrifice, burnt, offered to the Gods, and shared with the participants in a great feast. In the contemporary world of Ællinismόs (Hellenismos; Gr. Ἑλληνισμός), this type of offering is not possible nor is it desirable. 

The word thysía (Gr. θυσία) is a noun and it refers to a sacrifice or an offering; thysía can also refer to a festival in which sacrifices are made. The word thysiázoh (Gr. θυσιάζω) is a verb and it refers to the act of making sacrifice; when we make an offering, we are engaged in thysiázohGenerally, thysía can be many things, honey or wine in libation, votive offerings left at a temple or shrine. Sometimes the offering is burnt on a fire; such a thysía is called a burnt offering. In ancient times, we have most commonly read about the animal sacrifice, burnt on the altar, usually outside of a temple as part of a ritual.

We find the idea of animal sacrifice repulsive, yet the practice was far more compassionate than the contemporary slaughter of livestock in food production, aspects of which can only horrify those who know the procedures taken. The animals from which you find meat in today's markets did not live in conditions nor killed in a manner that would have been viewed as humane in ancient times. The ancient sacrificial animal was slaughtered in a way which was believed at that time to be as painless as possible.

Animals who resisted sacrifice were thought of as unsuitable. It was believed that an animal would willingly give up its life for the God, as strange as that may seem to modern ears. There is a similar custom and belief in Native American culture. The western plains Indians would approach a herd of buffalo at some distance and wait until one of the beasts approached them, of its own free will, and that was the animal which was taken as food for the tribe. Now that buffalo have been reintroduced to the plains, Native Americans have revived this custom.  A radio documentary was made about these buffalo and the Indians. To the amazement of the maker of this documentary (NPR), he observed a buffalo actually leaving the herd and approaching the crew, just as the Indians had claimed it would. The Native American who worked with the producer claimed that this phenomenon happened every single time they approached the herd for food. A rather astonishing story.

So, now, returning to ancient practice, "The elaborate procedures required for a blood sacrifice show how seriously and solemnly the Greeks regarded the killing of animals for sacrifice. The victim had to be an unblemished domestic animal, specially decorated with garlands, and induced to approach the altar as if of its own volition. The assembled crowd had to maintain a strict silence to avoid possibly impure remarks. The sacrificer sprinkled water on the victim's head so it would, in shaking its head in response to the sprinkle, appear to consent to its death. After washing his hands, the sacrificer scattered barley grains on the altar fire and the victim's head, and then cut a lock of the animal's hair to throw on the fire. Following a prayer, he swiftly cut the animal's throat while musicians played flute-like pipes and female worshipers screamed, presumably to express the group's ritual sorrow at the victim's death. The carcass was then butchered, with some portions thrown on the altar fire so their aromatic smoke could waft its way upwards to the God of the cult " [1] 

In ancient Greece, most meat  used for food was obtained from animal sacrifice.  For the poor in particular, sacrifice was the only way they could obtain meat.  Meat was a rare commodity in ancient Greece, not the daily ration we are accustomed to in modern times.

Is Blood Sacrifice Essential to Hellenismos?

It has been asserted by some modern scholars, as a criticism of our contemporary communities, that only those who participate in blood sacrifice are practicing the genuine Ællinismόs (Hellenismos; Gr. Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion. This is false, which can be proven from plentiful evidence in ancient texts, evidence of which such scholars should be fully aware. Contemporary teachers in Greece generally forbid the practice, for some of the reasons which will be discussed later in the essay.

We do not make offerings of animals on our altars, nor did Orphéfs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς), the mighty Thæólogos (Gr. Θεόλογὁς), and his disciples. [2] The Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony (See The Sixth King) discusses the final generation of creatures...our generation...beings which have immortal souls from the Aithír (Aether; Gr. Αἰθήρ) of Zefs (Zeus; Gr. Ζεύς) and his son Diónysos (Dionysus; Gr. Διόνυσος), but our bodies are mortal and subject to death, only to be reborn again, over and over, in a process known as palingænæsía (palingenesía; Gr. παλιγγενεσία), reincarnation, or the cycle of rebirths (κύκλος γενέσεως). All beings with the exception of Gods are subject to this. We have had many, many lives, both human and animal, and therefore all living creatures are are brethren, and we should try to help those beings of lesser development and not be a further source of their miseries. Therefore, it is contrary to the advancement of Arætí (Arete; Gr. Ἀρετή), necessary Virtue, to harm animals unnecessarily.

Although blood sacrifice persisted through antiquity, there was some movement to end the practice. It is believed that Pythagóras (Gr. Πυθαγόρας) not only prohibited blood sacrifice to the Gods (which, according to Dioyǽnis Laǽrtios [Diogenes Laertius; Gr. Διογένης Λαέρτιος], Pythagóras equated with murder) but promoted complete vegetarianism.

"Iamblichus writes that Pythagóras abstained from eating meat and respected altars that were not tainted with blood." 

Tímaios (Timaeus: Gr. Τίμαιος) of Tavromǽnion (Tauromenium; Gr. Ταυρομένιον, modern Taormina in Sicily), the historian, reports that Pythagóras was involved with worship at the altar to Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων) Yænǽtohr (Genetor; Gr. Γενέτωρ. "Ancestor") at Dílos (Delos; Gr. Δήλος). No animal was allowed to be sacrificed at this altar. Pythagóras recommended that figures made of barley-flour, honeycombs, and offerings of frankincense be made instead of blood sacrifice. [3] 

And it is not only Orphéfs and Pythagóras who prohibited blood sacrifice. Porphýrios (Porphyry; Gr. Πορφύριος), the student of Plotínos (Plotinus; Gr. Πλωτῖνος) wrote an entire treatise on the subject of kindness to animals and vegetarianism. Even the enlightened king of Rome, Numa, taught kindness to animals, as is discussed at some length in Ovid's Metamorphoseon libri (The Metamorphoses) in Book XV. The philosopher Æmpædoklís (Empedocles; Gr. Ἐμπεδοκλῆς) writes:

"Her (ed. Aphrodíti) they propitiated with holy images and painted animal figures, with perfumes of subtle fragrance and offerings of distilled myrrh and sweet-smelling frankincense, and pouring on the  earth libations of golden honey. Their altar was not drenched by the (?unspeakable) slaughter of bulls, but this was the greatest defilement among men -- to bereave of life and eat noble limbs." [4]

When given a chance, animals sometimes even surpass humans. In Ploutarkhos' (Plutarch; Gr. Πλούταρχος) life of Thæmistoklís (Themistocles; Gr. Θεμιστοκλῆς), the author recounts the story of the Athenians leaving the city on their ships and that they had to leave their animals behind:

"...and even the tame domestic animals could not be seen without some pity, running about the town and howling, as desirous to be carried along with their masters that had kept them; among which it is reported that Xanthippus (ed. Xánthippos; Gr. Ξάνθιππος), the father of Pericles (ed. Pæriklís; Gr. Περικλῆς), had a dog that would not endure to stay behind, but leaped into the sea, and swam along by the galley's side till he came to the island of Salamis, where he fainted away and died, and that spot in the island, which is still called the Dog's Grave, is said to be his." [5]

Noble action by dogs is well known in our time as well, but even the farmers are said to keep their children away from the little piglets because they are so affectionate that the children cannot bear to see them go to slaughter. What right have we to take their lives away and offer an injustice as an offering to Gods?

Nonetheless, there is a precedent from ancient times, the sacrifice of animals was supported by the community at large. In very antique times, there were even instances of human sacrifice; Orphéfs is believed to have put an end to this practice, and, as discussed, he attempted to stop animal sacrifice as well, but was unsuccessful. Animal sacrifice was part of Greek culture for centuries, perhaps millenia, so it was not possible to easily stop the tradition. Almost the entire Greek population was agreeable to the practice, if for no other reason than to distribute meat to the poor, in a country which is not rich in tillable land.

In modern times, we do not have the agreement of the people to perform blood sacrifice; to the contrary, the idea of blood sacrifice is horrifying. The fact that in ancient times the community as a whole approved of blood sacrifice makes a difference. The collective power of the people may have some capacity to control the anger and fear of the animal after it was slaughtered, for the consent of a sacrificial victim is not to be believed. Even in ancient times they must have questioned this notion, otherwise, in the play Iphiyǽneia of Aflís (Iphigenia in Aulis; Gr. Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Αὐλίδ) of Evripídis (Euripides; Gr. Εὐριπίδης), Iphiyǽneia would have gladly consented to her own sacrifice, but no, she had to be tricked into traveling to the place of sacrifice with a promise of marriage, and only relented to her fate with great sadness, and in some renderings of the myth, she is rescued by Ártæmis, indicating that a rescue from such a fate was necessary and the alternative too terrible to imagine. And it is not plausible that animals, who have much less reasoning ability than humans, could be aware of what was about to become of them and thereby consent. And there are yet other issues.

When an animal is sacrificed, there is blood. This blood attracts the souls of those between lives; these souls and the reaction of the soul of the sacrificed animal are very difficult to control. The support of the ancient community is believed to have been capable of handling these things, but even then, it was challenging. We can see this when Odysséfs (Odysseus; Gr. Ὀδυσσεύς), a highly advanced soul, consulted the spirit of Teiræsías (Tiresias; Gr. Τειρεσίας) the seer, as described in Odýsseia (The Odyssey; Gr. Ὀδύσσεια) Book 10.568. Without the general support of a large community, it is an impossible situation. And for those inexperienced in this practice, it would be untenable, for the blood attracts the prósyeia pnéfmata (Gr. πρόσγεια πνεύματα), the souls of criminals who hover near the surface of the earth and are anxious to deceive and create trouble. The blood attracts them and gives them energy and enables them to communicate and trick the participants into thinking they hear the voices and see the signs of Gods, but, rather, they are being deceived by the daimohnæs (Gr. δαίμονες, plural of δαίμον) of the lower sky, the souls of immoral people who are between lives and who, because of their wickedness, possess souls which are too heavy to rise higher into the air, and are like ghosts, dwelling near the earth and looking for an opportunity to torment naive people. Such an idea seems rather incredible, but this is the tradition. 

There is no doubt that some people in ancient times believed that animal sacrifice was demanded by Gods; we can find evidence of this in the literature. But when the greatest minds of antiquity discourage the practice, as noted above, the idea that Gods demand animal sacrifice must be questioned. There is a great saying that applies here: the Gods live in freedom, and they desire this freedom for all; therefore, the Gods never impose their will. In truth, the offerings made to Gods are never consumed by Gods, whether animal or otherwise; the offerings are symbolic. The word sacrifice is deceiving. It is not so much that something is being given-up to the Gods, but rather it is that something is purely being given, being freely offered to the Gods. What is being given? It is our Ǽrohs (Eros; Gr. Ἔρως); this is what is pleasing to Gods. And this gift is freely given, it can never be a demand. A demand automatically negates the nature of Ǽrohs. And all offerings to Gods are symbolic of Ǽrohs; the leaves of laurel, the incense, the fruit or cakes, whatever offering is given, is purely symbolic. To imagine that the Gods need and demand food offerings, incense, or really anything we would like to give them, is extremely naïve. The Gods exist entirely independent of our worship of them and they need nothing that we could give them. Therefore, we express our love and devotion to the Gods with symbolic gifts such as incense and libation or a leaf of laurel, not by stealing the life of an innocent animal.

It has been suggested that we must prove our commitment to the Gods by doing blood sacrifice, but this is not correct. The Gods do not need us to prove our love, our commitment, or our belief, for the Gods know us better than we know ourselves; they already know our hearts. Our virtue is self-evident to the Gods and they are not petty, requiring a display of our commitment, for the Gods have no ego. It is not actually the physical offerings that the Gods desire or even our loyalty to them; they are interested in one thing in relationship to us: our progress.

Therefore, for these and countless other reasons, it is not possible to perform blood sacrifice in modern times in a society which does not understand, accept, or support it, but, rather, condemns it. Such a practice should be avoided and should always have been avoided, even in ancient times. The Gods do not demand it and they never force. 

In all fairness, this author knows a farmer who sacrifices his animals to the Gods. These animals would have been slaughtered in any case, so the farmer tries to make good of a difficult necessity. This is entirely different from going out of our way to place an innocent animal on the altar. There are those in our community who eat meat, probably the majority. It is believed that plants also have souls and there is now even scientific evidence that plants can feel pain, so an argument could be made that it doesn't matter if you sacrifice plants or animals...but common sense tells us that animals are much closer to us, they are much more akin to us than plants; they have eyes and limbs just like us, so we should avoid this practice and make an effort to be kind to them and improve their lot in life, and it is not necessary to sacrifice them to Gods who do not desire it.


Burnt Offerings in the Contemporary Hellenic Community

In the Orphic tradition, animal sacrifice is strictly forbidden, but, nonetheless, there is still a place for burnt offerings in contemporary Hellenic worship.  For important holidays such as the Anthæstiria, it is appropriate and delightful to have a fire for making offerings. Traditional offerings such as honey-cakes, panspærmía (panspermia; Gr. πανσπερμία, i.e., a gruel of all kinds of seeds), pankarpía (pancarpia; Gr. πανκαρπία, i.e., composed of all kinds of fruits), and any other food offerings and can be placed directly onto the coals. Laurel leaves from ritual can also be given to the sacrificial fire. If the fire is planned well, frankincense and other incense offerings can be made on smoldering embers.   

This author uses a very large antique hibachi (it is not a "cauldron" as a visitor suggested) with holes drilled through the bottom to bring in more air, but there are many other possibilities. For those with property, a permanent installation can be inspiring and aesthetically pleasing.  Consider using natural wood charcoal, obtainable at many hardware stores in very large bags, which contains no contaminating chemicals. Pour some olive-oil on the charcoal ten minutes before you light it, allowing it to soak into the wood. When olive oil burns, the fragrance is not appealing; you can add some frankincense-oil or myrrh-oil to the olive oil for special occasions. Just before you light the sacrificial fire, add some common lighter fluid used for barbecue. Take a votive candle and get fire from the Æstía-lamp (Hestia-lamp); use a toothpick to ignite the coals, being careful not to burn yourself.

Having an outdoor ritual fire for special holidays is an extraordinary  experience which seems to bring the various aspects of these great holidays together.  Perhaps there is some ancient memory in our souls that these fires invoke. 



After making your offerings, when the ritual is complete, when the coals are burnt through and cold, what do you do with the remainder? Offerings to the Gods are sacred and what remains should be treated with respect. Any food offerings should be shared amongst the participants or left out-of-doors for the animals. For the rest, I suggest digging the remainder (spent coals, flowers, etc.) into the ground where you make daily libations. 

For more information on offerings, visit this page: Offerings to Gods in Hellenismos

Unaltered natural charcoal is difficult to use indoors for burning incense, but is an excellent choice for the burnt offerings of outdoor altars.  This charcoal is not impregnated with salt-peter (as in self-lighting charcoal).  It comes in irregular shapes due to the fact that it is made from actual branches of trees and shrubs.  The most economical way to buy it is from your local hardware store in large bags (usually oak-wood), should they stock it.  You can use hookah charcoal, elegant but very costly, perhaps appropriate for a very special occasion.  You will find some exotic woods amongst these suppliers, woods such as lemon and olive.  Here are some sources:

Another option is to use common firewood, or firewood on top of coal. This method can be the best, particularly if you find large, thick pieces of firewood. These bigger pieces take some time to become immersed in flame, making possible the placement of incense offerings. In any case, every precaution should be taken to avoid burning oneself.

NOTE: A list of abbreviations can be found on this page: GLOSSARY HOME.
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Aimakouríai - (Gr. αἱμακουρίαι, ΑΙΜΑΚΟΥΡΙΑΙ. Etym. αἷμα is blood.) Lexicon entry: αἱμακουρίαι, ῶν, αἱ, (κορέννυμι) Boeot. for ἐναγίσματαofferings of blood made to the dead. (L&S p. 38, right column, edited for simplicity.) In our tradition, that of Orphismós (Orphism; Gr. Ορφισμός), we do not make aimakouríai, offerings of blood to the dead, because Orphéfs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς) indicates that blood-sacrifice is unnecessary, that the animals used in sacrifice have souls which are progressing; we include this entry for completeness as such an offering is made in the Odýsseia (Odyssey; Gr. Ὀδύσσεια) of Ómiros (Homer; Gr. Ὅμηρος).



[1]  Thomas R. Martin from An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander

[2]  "Again, the practice of men sacrificing one another still exists among many nations; while, on the other hand, we hear of other human beings who did not even venture to taste the flesh of a cow and had no animal sacrifices, but only cakes and fruits dipped in honey, and similar pure offerings, but no flesh of animals; from these they abstained under the idea that they ought not to eat them, and might not stain the altars of the Gods with blood.  For in those days men are said to have lived a sort of Orphic life, having the use of all lifeless things, but abstaining from all living things."  Plato Laws VI, 782, from the translation of B. Jowett, 1892, found in the 1920 edition, Oxford University Press, p.541.

[3]  This paragraph summarized from pp.40-41 of The Gardens of Adonis by Marcel Detienne, 1977 (English version), including the quotation.  

From Porphyry's The Life of Pythagoras, 36, in the translation found on p.130 of The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library (the text is unclear whether the translation is by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie or Morton Smith), 1987 edition, we find further confirmation of these ideas:

"When Pythagoras sacrificed to the Gods, he did not use offensive profusion, but offered no more than barley bread, cakes and myrrh, least of all animals, unless perhaps cocks and pigs.  When he discovered the proposition that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle was equal to the squares on the sides containing the right angle, he is said to have sacrificed an ox, although the more accurate say that this ox was made of flour."

From Iamblichus' The Life of Pythagoras, 24. Dietary Suggestions, from, again The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, 1987 edition, on p.84:

"Specially, however, the most contemplative of the philosophers, who had arrived at the summit of philosophic attainments, were forbidden superfluous food such as wine, or unjustifiable food, such as was animated, and not to sacrifice animals to the Gods, nor by any means to injure animals, but to observe most solicitous justice towards them.  He himself (HellenicGods ed.:  Pythagoras) lived after this manner, abstaining from animal food, and adoring altars undefiled with blood."

From Diogenes Laertius' The Life of Pythagoras, 12. Diet and Sacrifices, from, again The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, 1987 edition, on p.145:

"...for as he even forbade men to kill animals at all, much less would he have allowed his disciples to eat them, since they have a right to live in common with mankind.....The only altar at which he worshipped was that of Apollo the Giver of Life, at Delos, which is at the back of the Altar of Horns, because wheat and barley, and cheese cakes are the only offerings laid upon it, as it is not dressed by fire, and no victim is ever slain there, as Aristotle tells us, in his Constitution of the Delians.  It is also said that he was the first person who asserted that the soul, revolving around the circle of necessity, is transformed and confined at different times in different bodies."

Nonetheless, the views of Pythagoras regarding animal sacrifice are not certain.  From Diogenes Laertius' The Life of Pythagoras, 18. Personal Habits, from, again The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, 1987 edition, on p.146:  "All the sacrifices which he offered consisted of inanimate things.  But some, however, assert that he did sacrifice animals, limiting himself to cocks, and sucking kids, which are called apalioi, but that he never offered lambs.  Aristoxenus, however, affirms that he permitted the eating of all other animals, and abstained only from oxen used in agriculture, and from rams."

[4]  Empedocles Fragment 118 (128), translated by M.R. Wright from his book Empedocles: the Extant Fragments, 1981, found in the 2001 edition on p. 282.

[5] Ploutarkhos' (Plutarch; Gr. Πλούταρχος) life of Thæmistoklís (Themistocles; Gr. Θεμιστοκλῆς) Book IV of Víï Parállili (Parallel Lives; Gr. Βίοι Παράλληλοι), translated by John Dryden, 1683; found here in the 1992 Modern Library Edition, Random House, New York NY USA, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans: Plutarch Vol. I, p. 154.

Xenocrates of Chalcedon, the friend of Plato, was compassionate and not only kind to men but showed pity for many brute animals.  One day when he was sitting out of doors a sparrow pursued hotly by a hawk flew into his lap.  He welcomed the bird and hid it in order to protect it until its pursuer went away.  When he had calmed its fear he opened his cloak and let the bird go with the comment that he had not betrayed the suppliant.  (Aelian's Historical Miscellany [Varia Historia], Book 13.31, trans. N.G. Wilson, 1997, Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, p.439)

The logo to the left is the principal symbol of this website. It is called the CESS logo, i.e. the Children of the Earth and the Starry Sky. The Pætilía (Petelia; Gr. Πετηλία) and other golden tablets having this phrase are the inspiration for the symbol. The image represents this idea: Earth (divisible substance) and the Sky (continuous substance) are the two kozmogonic substances. The twelve stars represent the Natural Laws, the dominions of the Olympian Gods. In front of these symbols is the seven-stringed kithára (cithara; Gr. κιθάρα), the lyre of Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων). It (here) represents the bond between Gods and mortals and is representative that we are the children of Orphéfs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς).

PLEASE NOTE: Throughout the pages of this website, you will find fascinating stories about our Gods. These narratives are known as mythology, the traditional stories of the Gods and Heroes. While these tales are great mystical vehicles containing transcendent truth, they are symbolic and should not be taken literally. A literal reading will frequently yield an erroneous result. The meaning of the myths is concealed in code. To understand them requires a key. For instance, when a God kills someone, this usually means a transformation of the soul to a higher level. Similarly, sexual union with a God is a transformation.

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

SPELLING: uses the Reuchlinian method of pronouncing ancient Greek, the system preferred by scholars from Greece itself. An approach was developed to enable the student to easily approximate the Greek words. Consequently, the way we spell words is unique, as this method of transliteration is exclusive to this website. For more information, visit these three pages: 

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