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This paper proposes a reinterpretation of the Athenian Bouphonia festival. The argument consists of two parts. The first section analyses the aition of the ritual and demonstrates that Dipolieia festival served to define the difference between murder (illegitimate) and sacrifice (legitimate). The aition, preserved in Plutarch and Porphyry, is as follows: a priest had placed grain on an altar as a bloodless sacrifice to Zeus only to witness a draft ox, who had returned from the fields, grazing on the grain. Incensed, the priest took a knife and slaughtered the animal. Zeus sent a famine as punishment for this act and to expiate the sin the Athenians ever after sacrificed a single animal to Zeus Polieus, protector of the city, after leading it to the altar and waiting for it to assent to its slaughter by nodding its head. Two later stages of the ritual commonly attract attention: that the priest then runs away and drops the knife, which is itself put on trial, and that after the butchery of the sacrificial animal its hide is stuffed with straw and put to a plough recalling the original animal’s status as a working beast. Contra recent studies, such as Tyrrell and Brown 1991, analysis of the details of the Bouphonia show that it is not a normative sacrifice at all. Unlike a regular sacrifice, a thusia, this is called an "ox slaughter", bouphonia, using the word for murder, and this sacrificer is not a thytes or magieros but a boutypos, an "ox-striker." Further, unlike regular sacrifice, with its methodically prescribed action, it unfolds within the realm of the unexpected: the animal is coming home from the fields, not being led to sacrifice. It nibbles on first-fruits already there for a sacrifice, and is not sprinkled with flour to get it to nod, and the killing is emphatically an act done in haste. The Bouphonia paradoxically recalls a murder, but does so in order to distinguish it from "acceptable" murder: sacrifice.

Building on this, the second part of the argument concerns the precise spot on the Acropolis where the Bouphonia took place. In 1940 Gorham Phillips Stevens identified the rock-cut platform and cuttings located northeast of the Parthenon as the location of the sanctuary of Zeus Polieus, and the trenches and post-holes further east he identified as successive stages of a barn erected on the Acropolis to house the oxen sacrificed to Zeus. Using aerial photos of the Acropolis I propose that the cuttings are consistent not with a barn but with chutes designed to lead the cattle to a place for slaughter. This abattoir could be used both for the Dipoleia festival but also for the many cattle butchered at the time of the Panathenaia. The size of this operation, involving up to one hundred head of cattle, required a designated area on the acropolis for processing sacrificial animals, especially since major sacrifices were followed by the distribution of meat (kreonomia) to the population. Dressed bedrock, identified by Stevens as the foundation of a later structure housing Zeus’ ox, are not foundations at all, but shallow trenches designed for cleaning out the blood and gore that were the by-products of sacrifice. Egyptian parallels, specifically from the great Aten temple at Luxor, conform to the same design and confirm that offering tables, where carcasses were disarticulated, often stood immediately adjacent to sacred precincts.

This is generally overlooked in written sources because of what took place here. While sacred laws and iconography emphasize the sacrificial animal's beauty and the importance of cooking and sharing sacrificial meat, the one element of sacrifice that generally left unmentioned was the bloody business of killing the animal. The location of the Bouphonia may in fact be the Athenian version of a spot mentioned in Linear B tablets: Sphagianes, 'the Place of Slaughter'. If so, it is one of the most venerable spots in Athenian sacred topography.