and Blood Sacrifice

in Ancient Greek Religion



"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." (Ἰλιὰς Ὁμήρου 1.513 (456), trans. Samuel Butler, 1898.)

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, Ἑλληνισμός), this type of offering is not possible; it is not necessary; it is not desirable in any way whatsoever.

The word thysía (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 thysiázô (θυσιάζω) is a verb and it refers to the act of making sacrifice; when we make an offering, we are engaged in thysiázô. Generally, the thysía, or offering, 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.

To the modern mind, the idea of animal sacrifice is repulsive. Indeed, it was repulsive to some people in antiquity as well, 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 were 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. 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. 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 (Ὀρφεύς), the great Thæólogos (Θεόλογὁς), nor his disciples. [1] The Orphic Theogony (See The Sixth King) discusses the final generation of creatures...our generation...beings which have immortal souls from the Aithír (Αἰθήρ) of Zefs (Ζεύς) and his son Diónysos (Διόνυσος), but our bodies are mortal and subject to death, only to be reborn again, over and over, in a process known as palingænæsía (παλιγγενεσία), reincarnation, or the cycle of rebirths (κύκλος γενέσεως). All beings, with the exception of Gods, are subject to the cycle of births. We have had many, many lives, both human and animal, and therefore all living creatures are our 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 virtue (ἀρετή) to harm animals unnecessarily. The Gods do not demand blood sacrifice, therefore it is not necessary. Indeed, the Gods do not demand anything because they live in freedom and follow the law of freedom and, therefore, do not impose anything on mankind which violates the freedom of human beings.

Bloodless sacrifice in Antiquity

Although blood sacrifice persisted through antiquity, there was some movement to end the practice. It is believed that Pythagóras (Πυθαγόρας) not only prohibited blood sacrifice (which, according to Dioyǽnis Laǽrtios [Διογένης Λαέρτιος], Pythagóras equated with murder) but promoted complete vegetarianism. He reports that Pythagóras was involved with worship at the altar to Apóllôn (Ἀπόλλων) yænǽtôr (γενέτωρ) at Dílos (Δήλος). No animal was allowed to be sacrificed at this altar. Pythagóras recommended that cakes and myrrh and the like be made instead of blood sacrifice. [2]

And it is not only Orphéfs and Pythagóras who prohibited blood sacrifice. Porphýrios (Πορφύριος), the student of Plotínos (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 Publii Ovidii Nasonis Metamorphoses in Book 15. The philosopher Æmpædoklís (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." [3]

When given a chance, animals sometimes even surpass humans in nobility. In Ploutarkhos' (Πλούταρχος) life of Thæmistoklís (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 (Ξάνθιππος), the father of Pericles (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." [4]

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 with the excuse that they be an offering to the blessed Gods?

The support and endorsement of society

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 countless centuries, perhaps millennia, 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 (and 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 and in most places illegal. The fact that in ancient times the community as a whole approved of blood sacrifice actually makes a difference. The collective power of the people may have had 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 Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Αὐλίδι Εὐριπίδου, Iphiyǽneia (Ἰφιγένεια) 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.

Blood attracts the souls of the dead

When an animal is sacrificed, there is blood. This blood attracts the souls of those between lives, both the souls of well-meaning people as well as immoral people. These beings 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 constraining these inevitabilities, but even so, it was challenging. We can see this when Odysséfs (Ὀδυσσεύς), a highly advanced soul, consulted the spirit of Teiræsías (Τειρεσίας) the seer, as described in Ὀδύσσεια Ὁμήρου 10.568. Without the general support of a large community of good, pious people who know and love the Gods, it is an impossible situation. And for those inexperienced in this practice, it would be untenable, for the blood attracts the prósyeia pnévmata (πρόσγεια πνεύματα), the souls of vicious and immoral criminals who hover near the surface of the earth and are anxious to deceive and create harm. 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 these daimohnæs (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. They are like ghosts, dwelling near the earth and looking for an opportunity to torment and entrap naïve people. Such an idea seems rather incredible, but this is what is said in the tradition.

The Gods do not demand blood sacrifice

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 powerful 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 ǽrôs (ἔρως); this is what is pleasing to Gods because our attraction to their beauty gives them permission…our permission…to actively participate in our lives. And this gift is freely given. A true gift can never be a demand. A demand automatically negates the free nature of ǽrôs. And all genuine offerings to Gods are symbolic of ǽrôs; 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 major holidays, it is appropriate and delightful to have a fire for making offerings. Traditional gifts such as honey cakes, panspærmía (πανσπερμία, i.e., a gruel of all kinds of seeds), pankarpía (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 may 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 to my home once 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 stick or a toothpick to ignite the coals, being careful not to burn yourself.

Having an outdoor ritual fire for the great festivals 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.

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

“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.” (Ποικίλη ἱστορία τοῦ Κλαυδίου Αἰλιανοῦ 13.31, trans. N.G. Wilson, 1997, Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, p. 439)

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic 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.

Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.

How do we know there are Gods? Experiencing Gods.


[1] Νόμοι Πλάτωνος 6.782, trans. B. Jowett, 1892:

"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."

[2] Ιαμβλίχου Χαλκιδέως περί βίου Πυθαγορικού λόγος 36, trans. Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie 1920:

" 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 on 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.”

Ιαμβλίχου Χαλκιδέως περί βίου Πυθαγορικού λόγος 24, trans. Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie 1919:

"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 (ed. Pythagoras) lived after this manner, abstaining from animal food, and adoring altars undefiled with blood."

Διογένης Λαέρτιος Πυθαγόρου 12, trans. C. D. Yonge, 1853:

"The only altar at which he worshipped was that of Apollo the Father, at Delos, which is at the back of the altar of Ceratinus, because wheat, and barley, and cheese-cakes are the only offerings laid upon it, being not dressed by fire, and no victim is ever slain there…”

Nonetheless, the views of Pythagoras regarding animal sacrifice are not certain. From Βίοι καὶ γνῶμαι τῶν ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ εὐδοκιμησάντων Διογένους Λαερτίου· Πυθαγόρος 18, trans. C. D. Yonge, 1853:

"And 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 ἀπάλιοι, but that he rarely 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."

[3] Ἐμπεδοκλέους τμῆμα 118 (128), trans. M. R. Wright in Empedocles: the Extant Fragments, 1981, found in the 2001 edition on p. 282.

[4] Βίοι Παράλληλοι Πλουτάρχου·Θεμιστοκλέους Book 4, trans. John Dryden, 1683.

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The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic 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.

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Pronunciation of Ancient Greek

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