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The Music of Sacrifice: Between Mortals and Immortals

Pavlos Sfyroeras

Middlebury College, VT
The use of music in cult is by no means an exclusively Greek phenomenon and so can easily be taken for granted. Looking past its pervasive role in ritual, however, we may ask how its function is to be understood in the Greek context, especially in connection to sacrifice. I argue that the coexistence of these two genres of performance – music and sacrificial ritual – shapes the participants’ perception of both: ritual gestures and musical accompaniment complement each other to define the parameters of the divine presence in the cultic moment.

The link between music and sacrifice is amply attested through poetic diction from Homer onwards, other literary sources (e.g. Hdt. 1.132), inscriptions of sacred laws, numerous vase paintings, and general archaeological evidence, including instruments and figurines of musicians dedicated in shrines. All of that, a portion of which has been collected in ThesCRA 2.4.c, leaves no doubt as to the soundscape of the sacrificial sequence: music accompanies all its phases, with the exception of the ritual cry (ololygē) at the time of slaughter. But if we are to understand the semantic and pragmatic interaction between music and sacrifice, we need to compare the ways in which each articulates the relationship between mortals and immortals. 

As analyzed in modern scholarship (Vernant et al.), sacrifice connects but also divides. While serving as a vehicle for communication between the human and the divine realm (e.g. Pl. Symp. 202e), sacrifice also affirms the separateness of mortals and immortals. Hesiod’s foundational aetiology of Promethean sacrifice insists on this distinction: gods are assumed to attend sacrifices, but in a way that emphasizes the fundamental distance between mortals and immortals, as they partake of different parts of the sacrificial victim. We can thus speak of commensality only in a limited sense, as evident in the exception that proves the rule, i.e. the ceremonies classified as theoxenia, but also in the philosophical challenges (Orphic, Pythagorean, Empedoclean) to animal sacrifice.

By contrast, gods and men respond to music in similar, even identical ways: just as humans find pleasure in music, the Olympians’ love for it is a given in poetic accounts from Homer (e.g. Il. 1.472-4) to Menander (fr. 210 Körte) and beyond. Consequently, in genres that are performative, i.e. that enact their own utterances, gods are invited to the performance as it is taking place: Pindar’s dithyramb for Athens (fr. 75 Maehler) begins with such an evocation, while the later paean of Philodamos of Scarpheia (fr. 39 Käppel) even identifies the god with the current song. The implications of this fusion are already explicit in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (140-73), where spectatorship virtually transforms a human audience into a divine one. It thus comes as no
surprise to hear Plato describe the gods as ‘companions and leaders of dance’ (συγχορευτάς τε καὶ χορηγούς, Lg. 665a; cf. 653d-654a).

This divergence between the sacrificial and musical components of ritual is further illustrated if we consider that music has a divine prototype but sacrifice does not. The epic scenes on Olympus or the representations of gods playing instruments on vases offer divine models for what is essentially a human activity. By contrast, sacrifice may by definition be performed only by mortals, as demonstrated by the young god’s behavior in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. In other words, sacrifice creates two separate audiences; music unifies them into one. 

I shall conclude with the anecdote reported by Plutarch (Quaest. Conv. 632c-d) about Ismenias: his aulos-playing at a sacrifice pleases the gods who withhold auspicious signs so as to prolong their presence, but upon hearing inferior music, they accept the sacrifice and depart. Far from trivial, this anecdote captures the divine perspective on the interplay between music and sacrifice as experienced by humans: by alleviating our sense of sacrificial fragmentation, music serves as the glue ensuring that the fabric of our universe is not torn.

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Music and the Divine

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