Skip to main content

Recent work on sacrifice has turned away from sociological and anthropological analyses to cultural ones—to esthetic and psychological aspects of sacrifice and aspects dictated by the genre or medium of sources for the practice. In this paper I propose to take cultural analysis a step farther, and raise the topic of cross-cultural reports on sacrifice. Greek writers from Herodotus onwards noticed sacrifices performed by neighboring peoples, and scholars have incorporated this subject into the study of early Greek ethnography.

Scholars have neglected foreign reports of sacrifices performed by Greeks. Notably, they have not considered Babylonian reports of two kinds of sacrifices, first acts performed by Greeks in the Greek way, or graeco ritu, and second, acts performed by Greeks babiloniaco ritu, in particular, Babylonian sacrifices performed by Seleucid kings. The crown prince Antiochus performed a sacrifice of the first kind at the shrine of Esagila in Babylon at some unknown date. The priests of Esagila made this report:

On top of the ruins of Esagila they (!) arranged. On top of the ruins

Of Esagila he fell down. Oxen, an offering in the Greek fashion

He made. The son of the king, his … his wagons

And elephants removed the debris of Esagila.

[BM 32248 + 32456 + 32477 + 32543 + 76-11-17 as joined by I. Finkel; see M. Linssen, The Cults of Uruk and Babylon: The Temple Ritual Texts as Evidence for Hellenistic Cult Practice (Leiden 2004) 100-07]

So far, I have compiled a half dozen other reports of this kind and of the second kind. Like this report, most of the others take notice of some mishap involving the Greek celebrant. Babylonian records give the impression that Greek celebrants—even, or especially, royal celebrants—are unlucky or incompetent. Why? Are the Greek rulers being badly coached, or do these rulers take badly to the coaching given to them? And who is offended? Marduk, the god of Esagila, or some Greek god to whom the prince may have been sacrificing “in the Greek fashion”? What is “the Greek fashion?”

A short paper cannot be able to answer all these questions, but it can begin to put ancient Greek practice in the cross-cultural context attested by Herodotus and later writers.