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date: 26 January 2021

Animal Sacrifice in Antiquity

Abstract and Keywords

In ancient Greece and Rome, animal sacrifice was performed as a ritual to communicate with the gods, heroes, and other divine beings. Such rituals were meant to ask the divine recipients for favours, protection, and help, or to appease them. Animal sacrifice, in which prayer was central, was also a way for human worshippers to know the will of the gods and often concluded with the distribution and consumption of the meat. Literary texts, inscriptions, images, and archaeological remains in the form of altars and other sacrificial installations, as well as animal bones, provide evidence of animal sacrifice during antiquity. In particular, the animal bones recovered from sanctuaries have yielded significant information about the handling of sacrificial animals, which ranged from dogs and horses to game, fish, and snakes. Aside from species, sex, age, and colour, an important factor for the choice of animal to be sacrificed was the economics involved.

Keywords: ancient Greece, Rome, animal sacrifice, gods, rituals, meat, altars, sanctuaries, sacrificial animals, economics


For the ancient Greeks and Romans, animal sacrifice was the principal means for communication with the divine sphere. Such rituals were performed to thank the gods, heroes, and other divine beings, ask them for favours, protection, and help, or propitiate their anger. The actions, in particular the handling of the animal victim, constituted the means for expressing the purpose of the sacrifice and by different elements, of which prayer was central, various messages could be communicated to the divine recipients. But animal sacrifice also offered the human worshippers a way for knowing the will of the gods, while the distribution and consumption of the meat, which usually concluded the ritual, served to strengthen and define the social fabric by marking who belonged to a particular group and who was an outsider, expressed largely by the degree of access to the meat.

The sources available for the study of ancient animal sacrifice are literary texts, inscriptions, images, and archaeological remains in the form of altars and other sacrificial installations, as well as animal bones. The zooarchaeological evidence has increased significantly during the last decades and continuously provides new perspectives, which may clarify, complement, or even contradict the other sources. The study of ancient animal sacrifice has largely focused on the theoretical aspects of the rituals, in particular in the Greek world (Burkert, 1983, 1985; Detienne and Vernant, 1989) but recently the more practical execution of such rituals has attracted the interest of scholars.

It is important to keep in mind that animal sacrifice in antiquity was never one ritual, not even within Greek or Roman culture, but a set of actions that could be modified to suit the purpose of the particular occasion and the circumstances surrounding it. There was no orthodoxy in belief, rather an orthopraxy, that is, the rituals had to be performed the correct or appropriate way. Most sacrifices took place in sanctuaries or at particularly (p. 325) designated cult-places that may have consisted solely of an altar. The ancient sources mainly inform us about public rituals, although animal sacrifice was also practised by private cult associations in their precincts. To what extent animal sacrifice took place in domestic settings is less clear. In Greece, private houses have not yielded altars or zooarchaeological remains suggesting that this was a common practice, while in Roman houses burnt animal bones, mainly from piglets and chickens, can be taken as indicators of offerings of the meat of such animals to the household gods and perhaps also the sacrificial killing of them at home (Van Andringa and Lepetz, 2003: 92).

Rituals—an Outline

Although Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans practised animal sacrifice, there were differences as to the execution of the rituals (for recent overviews, see the substantial entries in Thesaurus cultus et rituum antiquorum by Hermary et al., 2004; Rafanelli and Donati, 2004; Huet et al., 2004). The main kind of sacrifice was alimentary, where only a small part of the animal was destroyed, usually by burning it, and the rest was available for consumption and use by the human participants. This kind of ritual could be modified, complemented, or replaced with actions at which a more substantial part of the victim or even its entire body was destroyed and there was no consumption of the meat.

Greek Sacrifice

Among the Greeks the principal kind of animal sacrifice was called thysia and seems to have been practised all over the Greek world with more or less the same contents, at least from the eighth century BC well into the late Roman period (Burkert, 1985: 54–9; Detienne and Vernant, 1989; Peirce, 1993; van Straten, 1995; Gebauer, 2002). Animal sacrifice was also performed in the Late Bronze Age, as is evident from both iconographical and zooarchaeological evidence, but there were distinctions in the practical execution compared to later times (Marinatos, 1986; Halstead and Isaakidou, 2004; Hamilakis and Konsolaki, 2004).

At a thysia sacrifice, the victim was led to the altar in a solemn procession, pompe. The animal could be adorned with fillets of wool or wreathes, and cattle may have their horns gilded, as in the Homeric description of a grand-scale sacrifice at Pylos of a heifer to Athena (Homer, Odyssey 3.426). Once at the altar, the initial rituals of the sacrifice took place, katharchestai. Grain, sometimes mixed with salt, was scattered over the animal, which was consecrated to the god by cutting off some hairs from its forehead and throwing them into the altar fire. The victim was then besprinkled with water so that it would move its head. This action has been of great importance for the modern interpretation of sacrifice and was previously taken to demonstrate the animal’s willingness to (p. 326) die, but is now rather considered to have been used as a sign of the animal’s vitality and suitability as a sacrificial victim (Georgoudi, 2008; Naiden, 2007).

After prayer, the animal was killed; sheep, goats, and pigs by cutting their throats, while larger victims such as cattle were first stunned by a blow over the neck or on the brow, the latter technique sometimes clearly visible in the bone material (Leguilloux, 2000: 345). The blood was collected in a large bowl, sphageion, and a small quantity sprinkled on the altar while the rest was kept for later preparation in sausages and black puddings. Then the carcass was placed on its back on a table or hung from a tree, and opened up and inspected to ascertain that it was a proper gift for the gods. The liver was of particular importance in this process. The thigh bones, mēria or mēroi in Greek, were cut out and wrapped in the fat from the stomach and burnt in the altar fire, creating a thick, fatty and savoury smoke, knise, which the gods were thought to enjoy by inhaling through their noses. Also the sacrum bone and the tail, together called osphys, were placed in the fire as part of the gods’ portion, and the curving of the tail, caused by the heat, which makes the ligaments contract, was taken as a sign of the gods’ benevolent acceptance of the sacrifice, hiera kala. The importance of the thigh bones and the tail section in the ritual is confirmed by the frequent finding of these parts in burnt bone assemblages from Greek sanctuaries (Ekroth, 2009). The burning of the osphys was often represented on Attic vase-paintings from the sixth and fifth centuries BC (van Straten, 1995; Gebauer, 2002) and modern experiments have demonstrated that real tails of cattle, sheep, and pigs actually behave in this way when placed in a fire (Jameson, 1986; Ekroth, 2009). The edible intestines, splanchna, which consisted of the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, and spleen (Aristotle, Parts of Animals 665a–672b), were threaded onto spits and grilled in the altar fire, an action also commonly shown on Attic vases, and subsequently handed out to the participants standing closest to the altar and immediately eaten. This consumption of the splanchna marked the inner circle of those participating in the ritual and these parts could also be shared with the gods by placing them in the hands or on the knees of the statue of the divinity.

The next step was to butcher the carcass and distribute the meat, an action often performed by a particular butcher or chef called mageiros (Berthiaume, 1982). The priest or priestess usually received the back leg and the hide as payment for their services and the regulation of such priestly prerequisites, gera, are known from a number of inscriptions documenting the practicalities of a cult at a particular site (Le Guen-Pollet, 1991; Tsoukala, 2009). Specific sections of the animal or larger portions of meat could also be given to other religious functionaries, magistrates, or honorary guests. The bulk of the meat was divided into portions of equal weight, merida, though not of equal quality, as some parts may contain substantially more bones than others, and were subsequently distributed to all participants entitled to receive a share (Durand, 1989a, 1989b). The meat could be eaten in the sanctuary, and many cult places were equipped with kitchens and dining rooms, though the majority of the worshippers must have cooked and consumed their meat reclining on the ground or under trees growing within the temenos, the sacred precinct. The meat could also be taken home to be eaten in one’s private dining room, the andrōn, a habit which became more frequent in the later Classical and (p. 327) Hellenistic period. Sacrificial meat was also sold at or by the sanctuary or on the market, and some sanctuaries also sold the hides from sacrificial victims as a source of income (Jameson, 1988: 107–12).

Judging from the bone material recovered in Greek sanctuaries, most meat seems to have been boiled, and was probably distributed after having been cooked (Ekroth, 2008), though the epigraphic evidence suggests that the tender and high-quality choice shares, such as the back legs given to the priests, may have been grilled. Animal sacrifice was sometimes commemorated in sanctuaries and perhaps also in private settings by the display of the skull of the victim. Heads of cattle, rams, and even deer adorned marble altars and religious architecture, and are often depicted on sacrificial scenes on Attic vases. The burnt animal bones from the altar could be allowed to accumulate at the site of the sacrifice or be collected and discarded elsewhere in the sanctuary, just like the leftovers from the meals. A striking commemoration of animal sacrifice has been found at Paestum in southern Italy, where the defleshed bones of at least forty cattle were spread out around a fifth-century BC altar and the area covered with soil when the cult was terminated in the first quarter of the third century BC, perhaps as an expiation offering to Jupiter, to whom the altar was dedicated (Leguilloux, 2000).

Sacrificial meat was also used for particular rituals for the gods in connection with thysia sacrifices. Sections of raw meat, usually specific parts of the animal such as the hind or forelegs, intestines, tongues, or meat portions, could be placed on a table next to the altar, a practice called trapezomata, documented in a number of inscriptions (Gill, 1974, 1991; Ekroth, 2011). The deposition and display of this meat functioned as an additional means for honouring and communicating with the god, and it was usually taken by the priest at the end of the ritual. Cooked meat was offered to the divinity at a ritual called theoxenia, where the god was invited as a prominent guest and presented with a table laden with food, meat as well as wine, bread, cheese, and fruit, and a couch to recline on (Jameson, 1994a; Ekroth, 2011). The god was here treated as a guest of honour, though there is no Greek tradition of the gods being thought to actually eat the meat or consume it together with the worshippers. Probably this food fell to the religious personnel as well when the ritual had been concluded.

Sacrifices where the animal was destroyed completely or partially were less frequent and can be linked to particular contexts and to a lesser extent to particular deities. At oath-takings, those swearing the oath would dip their hands or spears into the collected blood of the animal used, hold the victims’ intestines in their hands, or cover the animals’ bodies with their shields (Faraone, 1993). A famous oath-taking took place on the Lithos on the Athenian Agora, a large stone on top of which the cut-up bodies of a bull, a ram, and a boar were placed. The Athenian archons would step onto the stone and body parts and then swear to respect the laws of Athens and not to take bribes during their period of service. A recent find on Thasos of a bull, a ram, and a boar, a trittoia, which had been cut in half and deposited in two heaps, may be the remains of either an oath-taking or a purification ritual, where those swearing the oath or to be purified would have passed between the victims (Blondé et al., 2005). Sanctuaries and public places such as the Athenian assembly were regularly purified by the use of piglets, which (p. 328) had their throats cut and were bled, perhaps by sprinkling the blood around the area to be purified, and subsequently burnt in order to dispose of the impurity (Clinton, 2005). Major cases of pollution, such as the presence of a human corpse in a sanctuary, could be dealt with by the use of a bull, a ram, and a boar, three fully grown and uncastrated victims, which presumably also had their throats cut and the blood discarded, before the bodies were burnt.

At rituals on the battlefield, sphagia, which took place when the two armies were in sight of each other in order to divine the outcome of the battle, the killing and bleeding of the animal, usually a ram, was the main element and the carcass was subsequently left or discarded (Jameson, 1991, 1994b). Holocausts, where the entire animal was burnt, were fairly uncommon in Greek cult. Most instances are found in rituals for Zeus or Heracles and make use of inexpensive animals such as piglets or lambs (Ekroth, 2002: 217–28). In many cases, the holocaust of the smaller victims was followed by a thysia of a larger animal, which would be eaten. At some rituals, a part of the animal would be burnt, for example an entire leg, bone and meat, or a ninth of the meat. Such partial holocausts, conveniently labelled ‘moirocausts’ by a modern scholar, were practised at situations of crisis or for certain divinities with particular connection to death and the Underworld (Scullion, 2000: 165–6; Ekroth, 2002: 217–42).

Roman Sacrifice

Roman animal sacrifice largely followed a scheme similar to the Greek rituals (Beard, North, and Price, 1998, vol. 2: 149–93; Scheid, 2003; Huet et al., 2004; Prescendi, 2007), but the variations due to the extent in time and space of the Roman world should be kept in mind. Roman religion gradually came to incorporate ritual expressions from the Etruscans and the Greeks as well as a number of foreign cults, for example those of Isis, Mithras, and Magna Mater, which all had their particular rituals concerning animal sacrifice that were either kept or adapted to Roman tastes. Moreover, the city of Rome always occupied a particular place within Roman religion and some public sacrifices were probably only performed in that city. The structure of Roman society was more complex and the number of persons involved at some sacrifices greatly exceeded Greek sacrificial occasions.

Roman animal sacrifice, at least in the city of Rome, was accomplished according to either the ritus Romanus (‘Roman rite’) or the ritus Graecus (‘Greek rite’), which mainly differed with regard to whether the person sacrificing had his head covered or bare and whether the preliminary actions were performed before the animal was killed (Scheid, 1995). Public sacrifices, of which we are best informed, began at dawn, with a procession in which the victim was led to the altar by the victimarii, who were public or private slaves, and accompanied by flute music. At the altar the initial rites, praefatio, were accomplished by the person leading the sacrifice. Incense and wine were poured onto a fire lit on a round, portable hearth, often of metal, as an acknowledgement and greeting (p. 329) of the gods in general, but also as a means for inviting them to the sacrifice of the animal that would follow. The importance of this stage of the ritual is evident from its popularity in the sacrificial iconography, where the sacrificer is depicted next to the small altar, surrounded by the worshippers and often with the animal prominently placed and visible.

The next step was immolatio, the consecration of the victim to the gods. In the Roman rite, mola salsa, salted flour, was sprinkled on the victim’s back, followed by the pouring of some wine on its head. The sacrificial knife was then passed along the animal’s spine, from the head to the tail. The animal was now purified and belonged to the divine sphere and could be killed. At sacrifices performed according to the Greek rite, grains of wheat could instead be scattered on the victim, water sprinkled on its head, and some of the brow hair burnt in the altar fire.

The actual killing was done by the victimarii, who could be of different kinds. The popa stunned the animal with an axe or hammer while the cultrarii cut the jugular vein with a knife and divided up the meat. The same practical handling of large and small victims, respectively, was practised as among the Greeks. Cattle were in many cases restrained by a rope running from the head to a ring attached to the ground, a popular motif in sacrificial iconography, and such rings attached to blocks of stone have also been found in sanctuaries (Fourrier and Hermary, 2006: 181–6). The tying down of the animal probably aimed at quenching any expressions of fear or panic from the victim, which were taken as inauspicious omens. After being killed, the dead victim was placed on its back and opened up, and a haruspex, a diviner, inspected the intestines to ascertain that the animal was acceptable to the gods. Of particular importance at all animal sacrifices were the exta, the liver, lungs, gall bladder, peritoneum, and the heart, which had to be judged to be of normal appearance and located on the right spot in order for the ritual to proceed. In cases where the exta were abnormal, the sacrifice had to stop and then resume from the start with another animal. At some sacrifices the examination of the entrails also served to tell the future. In particular the liver was of interest on such occasions and hepatoscopy, the divination of the will of the gods by the help of this part of the body, was considered to be an Etruscan speciality that had been integrated into Roman cult.

The animal was then butchered. At a sacrifice following the Roman rite, the exta were either boiled in a pot (cattle) or grilled on spits (sheep and pigs). After having been cooked, the exta were cut up by the sacrificer, sprinkled with mola salsa and wine, and burnt in the altar fire, since they belonged exclusively to the god. If the deity receiving the sacrifice was connected to the sea, a river, or a source, his share could be thrown into a body of water. For gods of the Underworld, the exta could be placed on the ground or in a ditch and subsequently burnt. At rituals accomplished according to the Greek rite, the exta seem to have been shared between gods and men instead. For the worshippers to be able to consume the meat, the viscera, the rest of the victim first had to be returned to the profane sphere, which was done by the sacrificer placing his hand on the carcass, a gesture that transformed the meat into something that men could eat. Thereafter the meat could be divided and distributed.

The meat was often consumed in the sanctuary where the sacrifice had been, but could also be taken away in small baskets, sportulae, to be consumed at home or sold in (p. 330) public meat markets, macella (De Ruyt, 1983; Van Andringa, 2008). The distribution of the meat served to emphasize distinctions in status among the diners to a greater extent than at Greek sacrifices, and of particular importance was who paid for the animals (Scheid, 2008; Rüpke, 2009: 137–53). Important officials such as the senators could dine at the people’s expense, while on some sacrificial occasions not even all present were given free meat but some had to pay for their shares or even buy them at the butcher’s. The link between sacrifice and meat consumption at a banquet seems to have been less evident than at Greek sacrifices.

The gods could also be offered cooked meat, either in the form of blood sausages that were burnt with the exta or meatballs that were placed on a table inside the temple or in connection with more formal banquets of the gods, lectisternia, at which dining couches or chairs were displayed in the temples or private houses (Estienne, 2004, 2011).

Purifications and expiations were accomplished with piglets, piacularis porca (Festus, 234 L). For certain gods, such as Isis, birds, and in particular chickens, were completely burnt after having been decapitated; this has been demonstrated by the bone material from excavated sanctuaries (Hochmuth and Witteyer, 2008). The Romans employed the term holocaustum (borrowed from Greek) for offerings entirely given over to the gods, but neither the term nor the action were frequently used. For gods of the Underworld the victims could be completely burnt, but holocaustum covered not only the complete annihilation of the animals by fire, but also victims that were strangled, died from the inhalation of poisonous gases (Servius ad Aeneid 7.563), and even the human sacrifices on the Forum Boarium, where a Greek man and a woman and a Gaulish man and a woman were buried alive (Fraschetti, 1981).

Another ritual focusing on the killing of the animal was the taurobolium, practised in the cult of the Great Mother of the Gods and documented in Roman religion from the late second century BC to the end of the fourth century AD. Initially it seems to have been a bull chase and a sacrifice, but gradually the ritual came to focus on the castration of the animal victim. In the final stage, the taurobolium entailed the slaughter and bleeding of the bull over a pit, thereby drenching the worshipper in blood, a practice confirmed by the excavation of such installations. This bloodbath was considered as particularly offensive by Christian authors, presumably due to its similarity to the baptism, while it was used by pagans to manifest their religious characteristics (Rutter, 1968; Bourgeaud, 2004: 110–19).

The Sacrificial Victim

The animals chosen for sacrifice were usually of the domesticated species, such as cattle, sheep, goats, or pigs. This is evident from Greek and Roman texts, inscriptions, images, and the zooarchaeological material recovered in sanctuaries (Jameson, 1988; van Straten, 1995; Van Andringa and Lepetz, 2003; Lepetz and Van Andringa, 2008). The kind of species and the number of animals to be sacrificed depended not only on the (p. 331) deity, but also on who was sacrificing, for what occasion, and the economical resources available. However, the preference for a certain type of victim also depends on the kind of source material we consult and it is evident that some victims were considered more prestigious and desirable than others.

In the Attic evidence from the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the vase-paintings prefer to represent cattle, the votive reliefs pigs (or rather piglets), and the inscriptions in the form of sacrificial calendars and sacred laws have sheep as the predominant victim (van Straten, 1995: 170–86). Such disparities can be explained by for whom and for what purpose the respective media were produced. The vase-paintings do not refer to a particular deity, sanctuary, or occasion, but show generic depictions of sacrifices, with less reference to the sacrificial reality or a certain cult or group of worshippers, hence the dominance of cattle, the most expensive and prestigious victim that in real life predominantly were sacrificed by the state, which had the economic means for such costs. The votive reliefs, which largely were dedicated to commemorate sacrifices by private individuals or families, concern private occasions, and as piglets were the least expensive animals, they fit the budgets of families and individuals well. The sacred laws and sacrificial calendars, which concern communal or state sacrifices, record what was to be sacrificed at particular sanctuaries on particular occasions, thus reflecting the actual victims and their prices.

The representations of sacrificial victims on Roman reliefs show cattle, sheep, and pigs, but clearly favour oxen and bulls, and in scenes where the animals are killed only cattle are shown (Huet, 2008). The depictions of butchers in action and the sale of meat on Roman representations, on the other hand, not only from Italy but also from Germany and Gaul, mainly show pigs and most of all piglets. In the cult of Mithras, the iconography found in the god’s sanctuaries all over the Roman Empire focuses on the deity slaying a bull, a tauroctony, bending the animal’s head backwards and plunging the knife into its throat (Merkelbach, 1984: 193–9). Ritual meals were an important element of Mithraic ritual, but the zooarchaeological material recovered from Mithraea mainly consists of poultry, especially roosters, piglets, fish, and lamb, with a low occurrence of cattle bones (Lentacker, Ervynck, and Van Neer, 2004). The prominence of the killing of the bull in the representations may, therefore, not to be taken as a sacrifice of an actual bull by the worshippers being a standard element of the ritual but rather as a symbolic rendering of the deity’s power (Gilhus, 2006: 127–30). Moreover, the sanctuaries of Mithras are usually small, subterranean locations equipped for dining, which lack suitable altars for sacrifices and would be impractical for accommodating the handling of live animals of that size.

Such distinctions between various categories of evidence are important to consider for methodological reasons when trying to ascertain the kind of sacrificial victims chosen. The importance of the zooarchaeological material must here be stressed, as the animal bones correspond to the actual animals sacrificed and consumed within a sanctuary while texts, inscriptions, and, in particular, the representations all constitute choices made by the religious functionaries and worshippers and may present an ideal situation rather than the sacrificial reality.

(p. 332) A Perfect Victim?

The animals to be sacrificed were selected for explicit reasons; not any beast would do. Species, sex, age, colour, or other particular criteria could be decisive for particular divinities and occasions, but economics certainly affected the choice of victim as well (Georgoudi, 2007; Brulé and Touzé, 2008). Of great significance was the fact that the animal was to be pure and perfect, katharos kai enteles in Greek, and the same principle applies also to Roman religion, where faultless victims were called eximiae and those chosen for sacrifice optata or optima. The sanctity of the victim is evident from its denomination, hiereion in Greek, and hostia in Latin for sacrificial animals in general and victima in particular for prestigious offerings of cattle.

Still, the concept ‘perfect’ or ‘faultless’ was certainly a negotiable criterion that took the real conditions of animals and animal husbandry into consideration. Variations in the appearance of the victims, either natural ones or man-made, were compatible with an animal being considered fit for sacrifice. A fascinating passage in Aristotle (History of Animals 496b) outlines the differences in the set-up of intestines between sheep from various regions. The sheep from Chalcis lack gall bladders, while on Naxos, the sheep have such a large gall bladder that foreigners who sacrifice using the local animals are likely to be frightened, as they take the size of this part to be a sign that concerns them personally, not realizing that the huge gall bladder is part of the nature of these animals. Such distinctions in the physics of the animals does not lead Aristotle to dismiss or question the relevance of animal sacrifice in the communication with the gods, he simply makes it clear that one has to be aware of the local particularities in the animal population.

The frequency of castrated cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs as victims for the gods shows that castration did not render the victim flawed and unfit for sacrifice (contrary to Israelite ritual practice, for example, Leviticus 22: 24–5; Milgrom, 2000: 1879–80). Even defective animals seem to have been sacrificed: the Eretrians were said to offer maimed sheep to Artemis Amarynthia (Aelian, Characteristics of Animals 12.34), while the Spartans economized by even including lame victims (Plato, Alcibiades 2.149a–e). Though the principle was not to sacrifice the ox that pulled the plough or an animal that had been under the yoke, working oxen seem to have been used as victims or at least eaten (Jameson, 1988). In Athens, the Bouphonia ritual, the ‘Ox-murder’, entailed the sacrifice of a plough ox that was killed as a punishment for eating a cake from the sacred table. The priest and other religious functionaries either fled or blamed each other, finally leaving only the knife or the axe left to be held responsible and brought to trial for the slaying (Durand, 1986). Instead of an aberrant rite bringing out the guilt of killing plough oxen, the ritual can be seen as a way of legitimizing the sacrifice and slaughter also of working beasts.

The acquiring of the animals could be done by particular buyers and the selection of the victims to be sacrificed was sometimes highly elaborate, involving a parade and display of animals competing to be chosen. An extensive sacred law from mid-fourth-century BC Kos outlines the procedures for the choice of an ox to be sacrificed to Zeus Polieus, (p. 333) which was picked out from a group of oxen paraded in the agora (LS 151, lines 5–19; Rhodes and Osborne, 2003: 301–2, no. 62). The selected victims could be branded so that there would be no mix-up on the actual sacrificial occasion and such animals could also be fattened (Georgoudi, 1990: 293). The most beautiful victims could be selected at birth, labelled puri or sacres in Latin, to be raised in a separate herd. Virgil (Georgics 3.156–65) states that calves after being born were sorted into three categories and branded, those reserved for breeding, those to be sacrificed, and those that would become draught animals. Some sanctuaries raised their own animals, as a means for economic gain through milk and wool and to supply victims for sacrifice, and these flocks could be grazed on the land belonging to the sanctuary (Isaager, 1992; Rousset, 2002: 183–217; Chandezon, 2003: 286–307). Many sacrificial victims must have been taken from the regular flocks, however, in particular at private sacrifices. Among the Romans, a special formula was pronounced when buying such victims, meant to guarantee the health and condition of the animals (Varro, De re rustica 2.5.10–11).

Species and Sex

There is no absolute link between certain kinds of animals and certain deities, judging by the written and iconographical sources (for an overview of the various deities, see Kadletz (1976), though indiscriminately mixing texts and inscriptions), though certain preferences and aversions can be distinguished. Pigs and piglets were particularly common in the cult of Demeter, a preference brought out by both written and zooarchaeological evidence. To Aphrodite swine were not allowed in some instances (Aristophanes, Acharnians 793; Pausanias, 2.10.5), while pigs and piglets are attested in the cults of the goddess at other locations. Artemis was fond of goats, though her Roman counterpart Diana did not receive such animals. On Thasos, pigs and goats were forbidden in the cult of Heracles (IG XII suppl. 414; Bergquist, 1973: 65–6). On the whole, most deities had no animals that were completely banned and the choice of species rather had to do with the particular mythic history of a cult as well as its local conditions, such as the means for acquiring the animals and in particular the economics of the sanctuary and the worshippers. The desires of the priests have also been suggested as an explanation for the prohibition of certain types of victims, obliging the worshippers to choose the larger and better-tasting animals. The animal bones found in Greek sanctuaries demonstrate that at most cult places sheep predominate, though cattle are occasionally more common, for example at the sanctuary of Poseidon and Amphitrite on Tenos (Leguilloux, 1999). Pig bones are abundant at many cult places dedicated to Demeter, while a high quantity of birds, such as chicken and doves, are sometimes found in sanctuaries of Aphrodite (Pedley, 1988: 407–8).

The sex of the animal chosen and the divinity receiving the victim were usually the same, though the claim of an absolute match is only found in later sources, such as Arnobius, an anti-pagan author active around AD 300 AD (Kadletz, 1976). When sacrifices were performed according to the ‘Roman rite’, female deities received female (p. 334) victims, though male gods were given castrated animals, apart from Mars, Neptune, Janus, and the genius. In Greek cult, however, there was no outright rule that goddesses had to receive females and gods male victims, and rams could be sacrificed to Kore, Eirene, Ge, and Demeter. Overall, fully male victims were rarely sacrificed—presumably due to their scarcity in the flocks—and here the ritual practices adapt to the practicalities of animal husbandry, where one uncastrated male would be enough to service ten to twenty females depending of the species (Jameson, 1988; Ekroth, forthcoming). The castrated victims may also have been preferred since castration increases the fattiness of the meat, certainly a desirable commodity in antiquity (as well as the production of wool in the case of wethers). Bulls, rams, and boars were expensive and mainly used for prominently male divinities, such as Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, or Dionysos, or particular occasions, such as major purifications and oath-takings. Occasionally Greek sacred laws list a male victim that is to be uncastrated, such as a krios enorchēs—‘a fully male ram’ (LS 96, lines 6 and 9), which sounds like a tautology, but for some reason the complete masculinity of these animals was of prime importance, perhaps the fact that they had been successfully used in breeding. Still, Attic vase-paintings often show bulls as sacrificial victims, suggesting that the uncastrated male may have been the ideal victim even though they were rarely available in actual cult (Ekroth, forthcoming). On the other hand, Jupiter, who must be considered as a major male Roman god, was not to be given bulls but castrated oxen, a rule that was apparently already considered surprising in antiquity and that has been found intriguing by modern scholars as well (Prescendi, 2007: 32–3).

Pregnant animals could be sacrificed, which is surprising, as the killing of a pregnant female depletes the flock by the removal of both the mother and her offspring. Most instances concern sows, which reproduce quickly and can easily be replaced. Such victims are rare in the written sources, but zooarchaeological remains of foetal or new born piglets and lambs are occasionally found in Greek sanctuaries, sometimes even in larger quantities, as at the Artemision at Ephesos, suggesting that the practice of sacrificing pregnant females and their offspring might have been more widespread than what the written sources let on (Forstenpointner, 2003). Most instances of pregnant victims concern Demeter, the goddess of fertility and agriculture, and Ge, or their Roman equivalents Ceres and Tellus, though pregnant victims were occasionally given to Athena and Artemis, both virgin goddesses, but linked to the upbringing of the children and youths and their integration into society.

Age and Colour

The terminology for the victims shows that the age sometimes was of importance, though most animals are simply designated with a generic term for the species. Young animals, often less than a year of age, usually have their own terminology in Greek such as choiros or delphax (piglet), arēn or amnos (lamb), moschos (calf), and eriphos or chimaros (kid), or are qualified as galathēna, ‘animals that still suckle’, in contrast to teleia, adult animals. The Romans separated adult victims, hostia maiores, from sucklings, hostia lactentes. The written sources suggest that animals were to have a certain age to be sacrificed, though (p. 335) in the case of newly born animals it was only a question of a week or a month (Pliny, Natural History 8.206). At sacrifices to Athena Polias in Athens, the ewes had to have lambed and been shorn of wool at least once, and female lambs were not to be offered at all (Georgoudi, 1988). The swine herder Eumaios (Homer, Odyssey 14.80–1) makes a clear distinction between fully grown and fat pigs, either sows or castrated boars, on the one hand, and piglets, on the other, a division that is reflected both in their value and status as sacrificial victims and as meat. The animal bones recovered in Greek sanctuaries quite often include remains of newly born or even foetal piglets and sometimes also lambs, demonstrating the ritual uses of very young animals. In fact, the zooarchaeological evidence from sanctuaries shows that most victims sacrificed and eaten were young, which is in accordance with the notion that sacrificial victims were to be of prime quality. Occasionally, old animals are found, such as a sow between seven and ten years old from the sanctuary of Heracles on Thasos (Gardeisen, 1996: 819). The animal bones from settlements, both Greek and Roman, on the other hand, mainly come from older animals, slaughtered and consumed only when they had fulfilled their capacity as traction beasts or producers of milk and wool (Peters, 1992: 117; Forstenpointner and Hofer, 2001; Lauwerier, 2004: 67–8). The age of sacrificial victims can also to be linked to the strategies for maintaining the herds. If kept for the production of work and wool, hair and hides, males and females occur in equal numbers and most males are castrated, and the animals are kept to maturity. If the aim is milk production, the herds consist mainly of females, kept to older age, while most males are killed young. Finally, if meat production is the goal, young males are killed when they have grown enough in relation to the costs for fodder and in general all animals are slaughtered fairly young (Jameson, 1988: 88–9).

The colour of the animal was important on some occasions, but the texts and inscriptions are rarely specific on this point (Kadletz, 1976: 311). The traditional view among scholars that the ‘Olympian’ gods of the sky always received white animals, while black victims were given to the ‘chthonian’ divinities of the Underworld, has been shown to be too schematic and mainly found in the lexicographers and grammarians of late antiquity, who transmit armchair speculations more than the sacrificial reality of earlier periods. Holocausts, usually thought to belong to the chthonian sphere of ritual practice, could be performed with white victims as well. This is clear from the Attic sacrificial calendars, where the heroine Basile is given a white lamb to be burnt whole (LS 18, col. II, 16–20). Victims with red fur are known from the Greek sacrificial calendars, in particular for Dionysos, and also stipulated as suitable to the Roman gods Vulcan and Robigo, the deity averting the grain disease wheat rust. At most sacrifices we know nothing of any colour preferences, and when the colour of the victim is stipulated it is not always obvious what may have lain behind such specifications.


A decisive factor for the choice of sacrificial victims was the economics involved. Larger victims, such as cattle, were predominantly sacrificed at public rituals, by the state or local communities, due to the costs. Sheep and goats were sacrificed on all levels—state, (p. 336) local, and private—while sheep and in particular piglets were the preferred victims for private cult associations, families, and individuals. Smaller victims, such as chickens and other birds, were sacrificed by those of lesser means. In Aristophanes’ Peace (925), Trygaios debates what to sacrifice, starting with a cow, dismissing it as too much, then moving on to a fatted pig, before finally deciding on a sheep, the least expensive of the three. Also, the ladies in Herondas’s Mimiambi 4 excuse themselves to Asklepios that if they had been rich, they would have sacrificed an ox or a fat pig, but now they will settle with a chicken. In Menander (Pseuderakles fr. 451 Körte and Thierfelder) a mageiros makes fun of his employer who makes a big fuss of setting the tables for a meal after a sacrifice when the only victim will be a piglet.

The Greek religious inscriptions often give the price of the victims and provide us with specific information on the costs of the victims (van Straten, 1995: 175–86; Ekroth, 2002: 150–69). In fifth- and fourth-century BC Attica, the sacrificial calendars show that cattle could cost between 40 and 90 drachmas, fully grown pigs between 20 and 40, while sheep and goats ranged between 10 and 17 drachmas. The differences in prices within one kind of species are related to the sex and the age of the animals but also to their availability. Piglets, abundant in supply, did not cost more than 3 drachmas. A pregnant animal was as a rule more expensive, since the sacrifice of such a victim would mean the depletion of the flock. Also, uncastrated males were more costly victims due to their scarcity, as only a limited number of males is needed for a larger group of females. These prices are to be compared to the average daily wages for a worker in Athens during the same period, which was 1 drachma.

Piglets were clearly budget victims, a fact related to their abundance. A sow will farrow at least once a year, giving birth to eight to twelve piglets, and the ancient sources speak of the difficulties when there were more piglets than teats on the sow and recommend that some young should be removed. This makes piglets particularly suitable for rituals where a large number of worshippers needed a sacrificial animal each, as they are easy to get hold of as well as cheap. Such rituals included the Thesmophoria for Demeter, where piglets were deposited into deep pits, megara, and the initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries, where each participant had to bring their own mystic piglet. Economics may also have lain behind why piglets were the preferred victim at rituals where there was no consumption of the meat, such as holocausts, sometimes followed by a sacrifice of a sheep or ox that was eaten, and purifications of public space and sanctuaries, for example the piglets listed in the expense accounts of the Apollo sanctuary on Delos.

The number of animals to be offered on a particular occasion is also linked to economics. Sacrifices of an ox or cow, a sheep, and a pig, called trittoia or trittoia boarchon in Greek and souvetaurilia in Latin, were prestigious public sacrifices involving great expense. Greek sources sometimes designate a sacrifice as a hekatombe, strictly an offering of a hundred cattle. The hecatomb offered to Athena at the annual Panathenaia festival may have included one hundred cattle, judging by the incomes the state had from the sale of the hides, even though it is far from certain that all animals were brought up onto the Acropolis and slaughtered there (Jameson, 1988: 96; IG II2 334; Rhodes and Osborne, 2003: no. 81). On the other hand, the term could in fact be used for both fewer and less (p. 337) expensive animals, such as in a fourth-century inscription from Miletos, regulating a cult of Apollo, where it refers only to three animals (LSA 50, line 19; Herda, 2006: 217–20). Mass sacrifices of rare animals such as the eighty-one black bulls sacrificed by king Nestor on the beach at Pylos (Homer, Odyssey 3.172–84) or the hecatomb and fifty black uncastrated lambs to be offered by Achilles’ father Pelias if his son returned home alive from Troy (Homer, Iliad 23.146), are best considered as mythic and epic events with little bearing on the sacrificial reality.

Animals in Sanctuaries

The animal bones recovered from sanctuaries, predominantly Greek, though the Roman evidence is increasing, have greatly expanded our knowledge of the handling of animals present within the holy sphere and also led to an awareness of the complexity of the concept of the ‘sacrificial victim’. The bulk of all animal bones in ritual contexts stem from cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, matching the information from texts, inscriptions, and images. However, the increasing interest in the zooarchaeological evidence has revealed that these were far from the only animals present in sanctuaries. Among the bones from Greek sanctuaries are also found remains of dogs, horses, donkeys, mules, cats, chickens, geese, pigeons, red deer, fallow deer, roe deer, wild boar, foxes, bears, wolves, weasels, turtles, fish, sea shells, frogs, snakes, crocodiles, gazelles, camels, vultures, and lions. On the whole, such species only represent a limited quantity of the totality of the bones recovered, very seldom more than 10% at an individual site, but it is too simplistic to dismiss these remains as intrusions or rubbish, which has often been the case.

The question is how these animals fit into the sacrificial scene. Do they reflect a more diversified taste among both the divinities receiving the sacrifices and the worshippers consuming the meat? Were all these animals, domesticated or not, taken alive into the sanctuary and sacrificed at the altar, before the meat was cooked and consumed? Are they sacrificial victims or something else? When interpreting the animal bones found in sanctuaries, and most of all the more unusual species, it should be underlined that the zooarchaeological remains correspond to different kinds of activities and different ways of handling animals for different purposes. Bones from sanctuaries are often simply regarded as ‘remains of sacrifices’, but we have to make finer distinctions in order not to confuse matters. In this process, the kind of species has to be taken into consideration, but also the type of bones recovered from each category of animal, the quantities, to what extent the bones have been cut or broken into small segments, any cut or chop marks, and whether the bones are unburnt or charred, burnt or calcined. This approach provides the zooarchaeological evidence that can reflect the activity at the altar, that is the burning of the god’s portion, the consumption of the meat by the worshippers, the preceding butchery phase, as well as the dedication of bones as votive offerings.

To begin with the last category, the finding of claws, foot bones, and horns from animals not represented by any other parts of the body may constitute the remains of (p. 338) skins dedicated in the sanctuary rather than the presence of complete animals that had been sacrificed and eaten. Bears, lions, and wolves are seldom recovered in other forms than claws and teeth, while most remains of venison consist of horns. Claws, teeth, and single bones from exotic or non-local animals may have been dedicated as individual objects and in many cases there is no reason to believe that such species were brought alive to the sanctuary. As examples can be mentioned a phalanx of a gazelle found in the sanctuary of Demeter and the Heroes at Messene (Nobis, 1997: 106) and the jaw of a crocodile, which alive must have measured more than five metres, from the Heraion on Samos (Boessneck and von den Driesch, 1981, 1983). Also the Artemision at Ephesos has yielded in impressive selection of animal bones, such as pierced bear teeth that may have belonged to a piece of jewellery (Bammer, 1998: 40).

Altars and Meals

Such unusual and exotic bones only correspond to a very small quantity of the animals present in ancient sanctuaries. Most zooarchaeological material represents either the part of the animal that had been burnt on the altar for the god or the leftovers from the meals taken by the worshippers. The bones deriving from the activity at the altar usually consist of thighbones, knee caps, caudal vertebrae or sacrum bones, or a mixture of these categories. Furthermore, since the purpose of burning these parts was to feast the noses of the gods with smoke, the bones are heavily burnt, carbonized and calcined, and shattered into small splinters. The leftovers of meals, on the other hand, are primarily made up of bones from the meat-bearing parts of the body, such as legs, ribs, and vertebrae, while the sections burnt for the gods on the altar (thighbones, sacra, and caudal vertebrae) are present in small quantities or not at all. The lower parts of the legs as well as the back of the skull with the horns are usually missing: these parts have very little meat and are likely to have been removed at the flaying of the animal or at the initial stages of butchering and therefore discarded elsewhere. Chop and knife marks are often visible in the dining refuse, corresponding to a division into smaller portions or to the removal of the meat. There is a substantial degree of fragmentation and breakage of the bones to access the marrow. Finally, as the meat would have protected the bones at the cooking process, these bones bear few or no traces of having come in contact with the fire and most meat seems to have been boiled.

Interestingly, the same kinds of animals are not found in altar deposits and leftovers from meals. Cattle, sheep, and goats are found in both contexts, but the rarer animals, such as horses, donkeys, dogs, and game, are rarely or never recovered in the burnt material deriving from the altars, only in the unburnt refuse from dinners. Another observation to be made is the fact that pig bones are infrequently found in the sacrificial deposits from the altars, though we know from epigraphical and iconographical evidence that pigs were appreciated sacrificial victims. Swine may have been sacrificed following a different ritual than cattle, sheep, and goats (see further below).

(p. 339) In most Greek sanctuaries we either have the material from the altar or the dinner refuse. A fortunate case in this respect is the sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia (seventh to fourth century BC), where both kinds of deposits have been found (Gebhard and Reese, 2005). At the long altar to the east of the temple were recovered the burnt bones of cattle, sheep, and goats, predominantly thighbones, but also other parts of the body, apart from the forelegs. The meals took place after the sacrifices to the southwest of the temple, where the rubbish has been excavated as dumped into a large circular pit. Here the same species were found as at the altar, but also bones showing the presence of at least five pigs and a dog, animals that apparently had not been sacrificed or had select bones cut out and burnt. The cows, sheep, and goats sacrificed at the altar may have been eaten at the large circular pit, but at these meals were also consumed animals that have left no traces at the altar. Furthermore, the dinner refuse has a smaller quantity of thighbones, matching the fact that these were burnt on the altar. There is also an increase in the number of the forelegs, which corresponds to the lack of such bones at the altar.

Another example comes from the Greek sanctuary at Kommos on Crete (Shaw, 2000: 684–5; Reese, Rose, and Ruscillo, 2000: 450) in the Classical and Hellenistic phase. On the exterior Altar C were recovered sheep, goats, and cattle, mainly represented by back legs and tails, while on the hearths inside the so-called Temple C, which probably served as a dining room, a hestiatorion, were found bones from sheep and goats, but also pigs, egg shells, and marine shells. The material in these hearths probably constitutes the remains of meals that had been eaten within this building, or even cooked on the hearth. Bones and shells may also have been thrown into the fire during or after the dinner was over.

Dogs, Horses, and Game

When trying to define which animals were actually eaten, the bones stemming from the fleshier parts of the body are of particular interest. In the bone deposits that can be interpreted as leftovers from dinners, sheep, goat, cattle, and pig predominate, but the recurrent presence of equids, dogs, and game merits further comment (Ekroth, 2008: 256–60).

Parts of horses and donkeys have been found in a number of Greek sanctuaries, mixed with the bones from cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, and also bearing chop marks or being divided into suitable portions. A part of a skull of a donkey was even discovered in the kitchen of the sanctuary of Poseidon and Amphitrite on Tenos (Leguilloux, 1999: 427, 451) and horse ribs butchered into what seems to be portions were found in the Herakleion on Thasos (Gardeisen, 1996: 819), to mention a few examples. Equid bones never occur in substantial quantities in cultic contexts, but the documented cases show that horses and donkeys were actually eaten.

Bones from dogs are also not too infrequent in sanctuary contexts, also found mixed with the bones from the major domesticated species and showing the same cut and chop (p. 340) marks and being unburnt. A good example is the dinner debris from the Aire sacrificielle at Eretria, a cult place probably dedicated to Artemis dating to the Archaic to Hellenistic period (Hubert, 2003; Studer and Chenal-Velarde, 2003). Most bones in the food debris come from sheep, goats, and pigs, but there were also the remains of two dogs that had been skinned and gutted judging from the knife marks visible. These two dogs had been divided into smaller portions and have the same anatomical variation as the bones from the other animals that had been eaten. Butchered and burnt dog bones suggesting cooking have been found together with bones of sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and fish dumped in a well in front of the later temple of Athena in Syracuse (Chilardi, 2006), while the sanctuary kitchen on Tenos that yielded the donkey remains also produced some dog bones apart from the cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs (Leguilloux, 1999: 451 and Table 7). A highly interesting deposit of dog bones, dating from the Hellenistic period at least and representing more than thirty-three individuals, has been found in a secondary Roman deposit in a series of wells near the sanctuary of Apollo at Didyma (Boessneck and von den Driesch, 1983: 641–6; Boessneck and Schäffer, 1986: 285–94; Tuchelt, 1992: 75). They mainly consist of the upper parts of the legs and bear marks indicating that the meat was removed, thus probably constituting some kind of alimentary debris in the vicinity of a sanctuary, though not actually inside it.

Most bone assemblages from Greek sanctuaries contain some remains of wild species, usually red deer, fallow deer, roe deer, and wild boar. Often the material does not correspond to more than a part of an animal, such as a shoulder or a hind leg. In some sanctuaries, however, for example that of Apollo and Artemis at Kalapodi, the wild fauna made up around 6% of all bones recovered from the Archaic period (Stanzel, 1991: 87–119, 169, table 48). An intriguing find from this sanctuary was the scapula of a lion recovered in a mixed Geometric–Archaic layer and bearing traces of fire and cut marks, suggesting that the animal in question may have been eaten. Many of the sanctuaries with a higher number of bones from wild animals are dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of the wilderness and the hunt. In her small sanctuary at Messene, the animal bones included red deer, roe deer, wild goat, wild boar, but also smaller quantities of bear, fox, weasel, and wolf, in total around 5% of the zooarchaeological material (Nobis, 1994: 298–9). In the sixth-century BC sanctuary at Monte Polizzo on Sicily, dedicated to a local goddess who gradually may have been identified with Artemis, burnt deer remains, mainly feet and antlers, were found at the altar, while the rest of the meat was presumably consumed nearby (Morris et al., 2003: 279–87).

It is evident that equids, dogs, and game could be eaten at meals in sanctuaries but rarely were sacrificial victims in the same sense as cattle, sheep, and goats, at least not in Greek contexts. These animals do not need to have been killed in the sanctuary, but could have been brought there after having been caught at a hunt, slaughtered at home, or even bought at the market, in order to supplement the live victims sacrificed at the altar. Occasionally, such animals could have fulfilled a ritual function reflecting local practices or particular traits of the deity honoured. The link between Artemis and bones from wild animals is apparent (cf. Bevan, 1986) and there is also an interesting passage in Xenophon’s Anabasis (5.3.37) outlining how he established a sanctuary of Artemis (p. 341) Ephesia at Skillous on the Peloponnese. There was to be an annual festival of the goddess that included both a regular sacrifice and a hunt on the premises of the goddess where wild boars, roes, and deer were killed and presumably eaten as a supplement to the regular sacrificial victims. Fallow deer may actually have been kept and bred in deer parks to supply sacrificial victims or easily available meat for ritual consumption (Nobis, 1976–7: 292; Boessneck and von den Driesch 1988: 41). The sacred laws occasionally stipulate boars as victims, which may refer to wild boars caught at hunts, as their weight is given, which is not the case with the domesticated victims (Lupu, 2005: 178–80, no. 5, lines 37–8). There are also some representations of wild animals butchered into sections being carried presumably to a sanctuary to be dedicated, as is evidenced from the Archaic bronze plaques from the sanctuary to Hermes and Aphrodite at Kato Syme Viannou on Crete (Lembessi, 1985: 230 and pl. 48–50).

The ritual or alimentary uses of dogs and horses documented in the textual sources and inscriptions are less evident. The literary evidence refers to meat from these animals as a kind of marginal food that would have been consumed for want of anything better, as it was cheap, or by the sick for medical purposes (Dalby, 2003: 60–1; Roy, 2007). For ritual purposes, dogs were mainly used for purifications or sacrificed to Hekate or Enyalios, deities who often had rituals not involving any dining, and at the end of the ritual the animals would be burnt or discarded (Zaganiaris, 1975: 323–8; Danner, 2003: 78; De Grossi Mazzorin and Minniti, 2006). Entire dogs, most of them very young or even foetal, have also been found together with the bones of human infants, some even in gestation, deposited in wells near the Sebasteion at Eretria and on the Athenian Agora (Snyder, 1999; Chenal-Velarde, 2006). Both contexts date to the Hellenistic period (third to second centuries BC) and are perhaps the remains of some kind of purification rituals taking place in connection with a crisis such as disease or war. The dogs recovered at the Artemision at Ephesos have been suggested to reflect an early Lydian ethnic presence at this sanctuary (Forstenpointner, Weissengruber, and Galik, 2005: 90–1).

In Greek religion, horse sacrifices were rare and usually entailed plunging the horses into water at rituals for Poseidon or Helios (Georgoudi, 2005). The Roman sacrifice of the October Horse to Mars focused on its head and tail, which were cut off and to be carried to the Regia in the Forum Romanum (Bennet Pascal, 1981). The fate of the rest of the body is unknown, but it may have been burnt or thrown in the Tiber. The Gallic evidence here stands in contrast, as here both sacrifice and consumption of horses are widespread phenomena (Meniel, 2008; Lepetz, 2008).

Fish and Snakes

Other species found in sanctuaries are fish and sea shells, which largely seem to derive from meals, though these may naturally have a ritual framing and occasionally are more directly linked to sacrifices (Lefèvre-Novaro, 2010). In the sanctuary of Poseidon at Kalaureia on Poros, the remains of a huge feast for around 200 people that took place (p. 342) around 165 BC have been investigated (Mylona, 2008: 92–6). Present were bones from cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, but also the remains of at least eighteen different species of fish. These fish originated from various kinds of marine habitats and were apparently caught by different kinds of fishing techniques, some by large communal efforts using nets, others by individual fishermen with hook and line or a harpoon. The fish from this dinner deposit cannot represent a single catch at one locality, but are rather the labour of different fishermen at different spots around the island and the mainland coast, certainly to be seen as a worthy tribute to the god of the sea and his affluence. Sea shells have been found in many sanctuaries, where they represent either the remains of meals or dedications of shells after dinners or shells found on the beach (Theodoropoulou, forthcoming).

The presence of such ‘unusual’ animals in sanctuaries is partly a result of the more refined excavation methods practised, involving sieving and water floatation. One such unexpected find was a deposit of dogs and snakes in an Early Roman cistern at Kalaureia, which may have been used in a magic or purificatory ritual (Mylona, 2013).

Finally, a few words can be said about animals that died by natural causes and their presence and consumption in sanctuaries. There is evidence for the sale and consumption of such meat, but it was certainly not a particularly desired kind of food and possibly the carcasses of such animals may have carried with them a certain extent of pollution, which was to be avoided by ritual functionaries (Ekroth, 2008: 266).

Sacrifice and Meat Consumption

It is evident that sacrificial meat was an important source for protein in the diet in antiquity. In Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries BC, adult free men could be given portions of sacrificial meat as often as nine to ten times a month, though women, children, foreigners, and slaves were not that fortunate and were often excluded or had limited access to sacrificial meat (Osborne, 1993; Rosivach, 1994: 66). In the Roman world, or at least in the city of Rome, the meat consumed at public banquets seems to have derived from sacrifices, even though the practical execution and distribution of the huge quantities of meat generated at some public sacrifices is hard to grasp (Scheid, 2008).

That there was a strong connection between the killing of animals for religious purposes and the consumption of meat in Greek and Roman society is beyond dispute. Many scholars have assumed that all meat was linked to sacrifice and that there was no profane butchery, that is, meat not originating in sacrifices or ritual killing, though this position has also been a question of debate (Berthiaume, 1982; Kajava, 1998; Scheid, 2005: 213–54, 2008; Ekroth, 2008, 251–5; Parker, 2010). The reluctance to see meat in general in the ancient world as ritually linked may be a reflection of our modern attitudes to slaughter and meat consumption (in Western Europe), where these activities are predominantly a secular issue. This position can be seen as an outcome of the Christian outlook on sacrifice and meat, which considers the killing of animals as devoid of any religious meaning, even though pre-modern and modern festivals of saints may (p. 343) include the slaughter and consumption of animals (Georgoudi, 1989; Belayche, 2005; Grottanelli, 2005).

On the other hand, all meat eaten by Greeks and Romans did not come from animals that had been sacrificed at an altar; this is evident from the animal bones recovered in sanctuaries (Ekroth, 2008). The written sources also make it clear that meat from wild animals killed at hunts and even carrion was consumed (Parker, 2010). Although sacrifice was largely engaged with cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, what was actually eaten constituted a wider variety. Game was particularly appreciated among the Romans and ancient cookery books, such as Apicius, take venison and birds as essential elements of refined cuisine. Even the animals killed on the arena at the venationes, the animal fights, were consumed.

The Roman macella, the public meat markets, sold wild birds, such as pheasants and doves, as well as fish, apart from the more common beef, mutton, and pork (Belayche, 2008: 39–40; De Ruyt, 2008). Recent work on macella has shown that that these installations offered both meat deriving from sacrifices in sanctuaries and from animals killed in the market building, which was equipped with altars and statues of deities (Van Andringa, 2008). The situation is particularly clear at Pompeii, where the macellum is centrally located in the forum, allowing for easy access from this open space, and in the immediate or close vicinity of more than ten temples. The animals killed at those sanctuaries could have been butchered and sold at the public meat market, but the fact that slaughter took place on location is also clear from the discovery of a small enclosure containing the bones from live animals killed at the eruption of Vesuvius.

One difficulty in understanding the ancient view on the status of meat lies in how the term ‘sacrifice’ is to be defined. Our modern notion is heavily influenced by the Christian concept, which clearly differs from the ancient polytheistic one (Ullucci, 2012). All meat in antiquity may have had sacred connotations, as any food consumed was to be shared with the gods in some way, usually by an initial consecration to the deity and a subsequent handing back after the immortals had received their share, which could vary from select bones, entrails, or sections of meat to the entire animal, but also a small share of the prepared food at the beginning of a meal (Scheid, 2012). Still, all animals do not have to have been killed in a full-scale sacrifice at an altar in a sanctuary in the thysia or praefatio-immolatio manner. Scaled-down versions of the sacrificial rituals could have been used at home or in the market or even in sanctuaries (Berthiaume, 1982: 62–70, 79-93; Scheid, 2008: 26). Although all meat did not derive from sacrifices, it may still have been procured within a sacred setting or ritual framework, in a manner reminiscent of halal and kosher butchery, which, although not a sacrifice, definitely entails killing in a ritually recognized manner that renders the meat fit for consumption.

Such scaled-down rituals for killing animals can be traced in our sources, though the more elaborate thysia and praefatio-immolatio dominate. If we look at the zooarchaeological material from Greek sanctuaries, it is interesting to note that there are hardly any thighbones, sacra, and caudal vertebrae from pigs in the burnt assemblages from the altars. That pigs were to be sacrificed is evident from the sacred laws and sacrificial calendars, as well as from votive reliefs, but apparently pigs were not sacrificed in thysia fashion to the same extent as cattle and ovicaprines. A different ritual, not involving (p. 344) any cutting out and burning of bones when sacrificing a pig, is outlined in the Odyssey (14.414–48) where Eumaios kills a five-year-old castrated fatted boar at home, burns some hair, raw meat, and fat on the household hearth and sets aside a portion of the cooked meat for Hermes and the Nymphs. Before beginning to eat, Eumaios throws some small cuts of meat from his own plate into the fire and the guest of honour, Odysseus in disguise, is given the animal’s back as an honorary share.

The lack of burnt pig bones from the altar deposits and the ritual described in Homer suggest that pigs may have been sacrificed in rituals perhaps more focused on the meaty qualities of these animals. The popularity of pigs as meat is also indicated by their presence in the dinner debris, and at some sanctuaries pigs were clearly eaten even though no such animals had been sacrificed at the altar. This is the case at the sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia, where cattle and sheep/goats had parts of them burnt for the gods on the long altar, while the unburnt dining debris included the same animals but also pigs and at least one dog. A second-century BC private cult foundation from Amorgos, where Kritolaos honours his dead son Aleximachos (LSS 61, lines 39–74) lists an annual festival with a procession of an ox bought for the occasion, which is sacrificed at a public altar and eaten at a huge festive meal. There was also to be a distribution of pig’s meat to the young men of the community, but these animals were apparently not sacrificial victims in the same sense as the ox, only extra meat that was acquired to be eaten. Another instance of pork as ‘meat’ with no link with sacrifices is found in the statues of an early-second-century AD cult association from Athens (Lupu, 2005: no. 5, line 38). The association spent considerable sums on pig’s meat, hyikon, for the communal meals and, to become a member, one even paid a fee in pork. This meat may have been salted pork, a commodity widely traded in Roman times (Leguilloux, 2006). The text mentions one sacrifice, a boar to Heracles, but as its weight is given and not its price, even this may have been meat rather than a live victim.

A distinction between different categories of meat as to quality can also be traced, and the meat coming from animals that had not been killed in a sacrificial manner may have been regarded as inferior (Berthiaume, 1982: 88–91). Meat from sacrificed animals was more expensive on the market (Servius ad Aeneid 8.183), a fact that must depend both on the fact that such animals were definitely healthy, fatted, and fairly young, that is, high-quality meat, and that they had actually been shared with the deity and used to establish communication with the divine sphere (McDonough, 2004; Ekroth, 2008; Belayche, 2008: 41–2).

Animal Sacrifice: Origins, Critique, and End

Neither the Greeks nor the Romans were particularly interested in an exegesis as to the origins and meaning of animal sacrifice and the various myths dealing with the (p. 345) institution and developments of rituals offer far from consistent accounts. According to one tradition, sacrificial practice used to be more simple in the past, when vegetarian offerings were given to the gods, later to be supplanted by animal sacrifice where the meat was consumed (Obbink, 1988). In the Roman view, no use of elaborate matters such as incense or wine was made in ancient times, but instead indigenous herbs and milk were offered (Ovid, Fasti 1.337–53). There was also an idea of human sacrifice being more common long ago, though gradually having been replaced by animal sacrifice. In this blissful bygone age, gods and men were closer and even ate together at the same table. Evident in the ancient mind-set was the notion that the relation between immortals and mortals had changed over time, as most clearly illustrated by the role of animal sacrifice.

Interestingly, the traditions surrounding the origins of animal sacrifice often have negative connotations. The root of sacrifice could be seen as a punishment of an animal for misbehaviour, in particular after the beast had consumed an item sacred to a divinity, such as a plant or a cake placed on the offering table. Ovid (Fasti 1.335–456) takes the first sacrifice of a pig as retribution by Ceres after the animal had disturbed her crops, while Martial (Epigrams 3.24) describes a sacrifice (and castration) of a billy-goat to Dionysos since it had eaten the god’s vines. The stories connected to the Bouphonia at Athens centre around an ox eating an offering to Zeus, which gives rise to a particular kind of animal sacrifice after the animal is slain in anger by its owner.

Also, the myth explaining the practices at the Greek thysia sacrifice, the stand-off between the Titan Prometheus and Zeus at Mekone, told by Hesiod in the Theogony (535–57), has negative undertones. Prometheus butchered an ox and hid the white bones in the glistening fat while the meat was wrapped in the hide and then placed in the ox’s stomach, clearly in an attempt to deceive the god. Zeus got to choose the packet he wanted and picked the fat-covered one, which looked better, and was enraged when he discovered what was inside. Still, as a god, he of course knew the contents, and chose the one with the bones just so that he could punish mankind henceforth, an action that led to the final separation between mortals and immortals. As a commemoration of this event, men burn the white bones on the altars of the gods (Rudhardt, 1970; Vernant, 1989). Another early instance of sacrificial behaviour is found in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (94–137). Here the infant Hermes steals his brother Apollo’s cows and kills two of them, and cooks and distributes the meat for the gods in a ritualized manner recalling later thysia sacrifice (Jaillard, 2007: 114–18). He longs to eat since the grilled meat smells so good, but finally refrains, perhaps as a means for recognizing his own divine status.

Animal sacrifice was not a monolithic practice in antiquity with a given interpretation; instead there was a continuous debate among Greek and Roman authors as to the meaning, purpose, and significance of such rituals (Gilhus, 2006: 114–59; Ullucci, 2012). The ridicule of animal sacrifice in comedy, in particular the uneven division of the victim between gods and men, where the gods received a few burnt bones while worshippers got the rest, and the portrayal of the gods as hungry, greedy, and anxious to be fed, can be taken as reflections of such a discourse but not as signs of a disbelief in animal sacrifice (Aristophanes, Birds 1515–20, 1523–4; Ullucci, 2012: 51–6). Epicurean and Stoic texts have traditionally been understood as disapproving of the animal sacrifice itself, but a recent (p. 346) study has clearly demonstrated that they present different stances on the role of sacrifice within a given context, philosophical, social, or literary, to legitimize their own position, rather than an intention to abolish sacrifice altogether (Ullucci, 2012).

A proper critique of animal sacrifice is mainly found in a select group of philosophers, in particular those advocating a belief in the transmigration of the soul as an argument against sacrifice and meat consumption (Calder, 2011: 104–5; Newmyer, 2011: 97–111). To refrain from animal sacrifice and the consumption of meat was to place oneself outside the fabric of society and was only an option for those who had the will, resources, and status to handle such an exposed position. There is a strong tradition that the sixth-century BC philosopher Pythagoras abstained from animal sacrifice and animal meat, and also the Orphics and Cynics were said to shun meat and the rituals connected to it. However, the sources documenting each of these groups are to a large extent substantially later, and in the case of Pythagoras there is some confusion whether he and his followers rejected all meat or only certain types of animals or parts of them (Rives, 2011).

A negative attitude to animal sacrifice gradually developed among the Christians, though it is important to underline that neither Jesus, Paul, nor the other apostles rejected Jewish animal sacrifice in the temple at Jerusalem. Also, the formulation of the Christian attitude to sacrifice was a long and heterogeneous process, consisting of a number of individual positions reflecting their own particular historic context and not arriving at a more coherent form until the third century AD, when the death of Jesus and the Eucharist had been equated with animal sacrifice (Stroumsa, 2009; Ullucci, 2012).

Suggested Reading

Scholarship on ancient animal sacrifice is vast. A recent overview on the sacrifice and the various rituals accompanying this action is found in the Thesaurus cultus et rituum antiquorum (vol. I), which presents and discusses texts, inscriptions, representations, and archaeological evidence as well as previous research. Good introductions to Greek animal sacrifice of the Archaic and Classical periods are given by van Straten (1995) and Gebauer (2002). The Roman textual material is treated by Prescendi (2007) as well as various contributions by Scheid (2003, 2005). The zooarchaeological evidence, which is gradually increasing, provides important insights into the practical execution of animal sacrifice (Kotjabopoulou et al., 2003; Ekroth and Wallensten, in press/2013). A fundamental discussion of the relation between animal husbandry and sacrifice is provided by Jameson (1988).


  • IG Inscriptiones graecae (1873– ), Berlin.

  • LS F. Sokolowski (1969), Lois sacrées des cites grecques (École française d’Athènes. Travaux et memoires, 18), Paris.

  • LSA F. Sokolowski (1955), Lois sacrées de l’Asie Mineure (École française d’Athènes. Travaux et mémoires, 9), Paris.

  • (p. 347) LSS F. Sokolowski (1962), Lois sacrées des cites grecques. Supplément (École française d’Athènes. Travaux et memoires, 11), Paris.

  • ThesCRA Thesaurus cultus et rituum antiquorum (2004–6), vol. I–V, Los Angeles.


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