You are here

Sacrificing and Purifying in Greek Poleis. Reassessments and Perspectives

Stella Georgoudi

Many specialists of Greek religion have considered Greek sacrifice as a homogeneous entity, and have tried to find, more or less, only one key to the explanation of all kinds of sacrifice. Nor did we avoid the dangers of generalization with the collaborative project, The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks (1979), which interpreted Greek sacrifice on the basis of the Prometheus myth of Hesiod (Theog. 533-564; cf. Op. 42-58). More recently, however, efforts have been made to counter this trend (Georgoudi et al. 2005, Faraone and Naiden 2012, Naiden 2013). This paper will seek to continue with those efforts by considering the relation between the ritual acts of sacrifice and purification and the meaning of what is usually called “purificatory sacirifice” through close analysis of textual, epigraphic, and iconographic evidence.

Although purification and sacrifice are generally understood to operate by similar procedures (Parker 1983), this paper will argue that the two ritual activities ought to be considered relatively autonomous from each other, each with different purposes, though occurring within the same contexts. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus must purify both himself and the Eumenides and their sacred grove (v. 466). Although scholars have described this as a “purificatory sacrifice,” there is no explicit mention of sacrifice per se and the term designating sacrifice, thuein, is markedly absent from the account. In Idyll 24 of Theocritus, we are also able to observe the autonomy of these two ritual acts. Tiresias provides instructions to purify the house of Apmhictyon, after Heracles has killed the serpents, and to offer a sacrifice of a piglet to Zeus Superior in order that the family stay superior to their enemies. Again, these two ritual acts, purification and sacrifice, had been collapsed by scholars into a single ritual procedure, even though the purpose of the sacrifice to Zeus is clearly not intended for purification. Sacrifice and purification are also seen as separate but related in an inscription for the cult of Alectrona in Rhodes, with the phrase kathairetô kai epirezetô (Sokolowski, LSCG, 136, ll. 27-30), two distinct actions, which we may also observe in Theocritus (cf. katharôi… theeiôi,v. 96, and epirrexai, v. 99). The great Cathartic Law of Cyrene (ca. 335-324 BCE) also demonstrates this difference in ritual actions, in which sacrifice is only permitted after purification of the altar (Sokolowski, LSS, 115, l. 31: toka dê thuetô). This distinction between purification and sacrifice will also allow us to disambiguate the problematic ritual procedures of Circe’s “purificatory sacrifice” in the Argonautica (v. 690-717), and the question of Heracles’ purification/sacrifice in Euripides Heracles (v. 922-941).

To be sure, an animal is often killed in purification rituals, but this killing must be distinguished from the killing of an animal in sacrifice, since a young animal, often a piglet, is killed for its blood as a cathartic agent, as seen in the texts already discussed. Rather than rely on Rudhardt's account that “impure blood of animals” attracts defilement (Rudhardt, p. 166), this paper points to the age of the victim to account for the logic of purification. Contrary to the notion that piglets were “impure” (Clinton 2005,173), comparative evidence with Roman sacrifice indicates that the young age of the animal makes it “pure,” such that the blood of the animals is considered a “pure” substance that will wash away impurities (Varro, Rust. 2. 4. 16: Cato Agr. 141).

Through a close reading of multiple texts and inscriptions, along with comparative data, this paper will therefore seek to move beyond the Hesiodic model in order to contribute to a more nuanced view of complex and problematic Greek ritual procedures within different literary and cultural contexts. We could say that the most interesting and exciting aspect of the studies on ancient Greek religion is due precisely to its polysemy.

Session/Panel Title

Written Ritual: Greek Sacrifice in Text and Context

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy