Ritual and sacrifice in Dodekatheism

Elani Temperance, 2015

Sacrifice, the ‘offering of food, objects or the lives of animals to a higher purpose, in particular divine beings, as an act of propitiation or worship’. It is one of the–if not the–cornerstones of the modern Hellenistic faith, and was most definitely the cornerstone of the ancient Hellenic faith.

A sacrifice to the Gods is a way of bonding, of kharis. It’s a way of showing our devotion to the Gods and bringing Them, actively, into our homes and lives. It’s a way of acknowledging Their greatness and recognizing our loyalty to Them. Practically, this means that whatever the sacrifice, it should be given with this kharis in mind. It should be given with love, dedication and with respect to the bond between immortal and mortal.

Kharis is an important word. It means everything from beauty to joy, delight, kindness, good will, grace, favour, benefit, boon, charm, attraction, appeal, elegance, gracefulness, pleasure, cheerfulness, wit, gratitude, thankfulness and gratification. It’s the name of a Goddess as well; the Goddess of Grace and Beauty. When we give sacrifice, we give it freely, joyfully, with pleasure, out of respect and love for the Gods. We ask what we feel we need in prayer and never expect to be granted this request. Petitions aren’t bribery. We give to the Gods and should They feel inclined to grand us our request, we thank Them by offering to Them again, to which the Gods might respond, to which we will sacrifice, and so on. This circular practice of voluntary giving is kharis.

Closely linked to sacrifice are the rituals they were conducted at, so we will discuss those as well. Ritual has a purpose: it is ‘a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests’. In short, it is a way to take oneself out of the every day world and into the sacred. There are five steps to proper, Hellenistic, ritual: procession, purification, hymns and prayers, sacrifice/offerings, prayers of supplication and thanks, usually followed by a feast and/or theatre and sporting events.

Sacrifice was and is the highlight of Hellenic ritual. In ancient Hellas, communal sacrifices almost always included animal sacrifice. Worshippers processed to the ritual site, consciously leaving the mundane behind. The scent of incense would have filled the air, and hymns would have been sung. The ritual that took place took the celebrants out of the regular world and the animals they brought with them stepped out with them. They cleansed themselves with lustral water (named khernips) and sprinkled the area and altar with it. The mood would have been tense: a death was about to occur and they were about to receive a huge boost of kharis from it. Hymns would have continued, building the tension. Water was dripped on the head of the animal, trying to get it to say ‘yes’ to being sacrificed and purifying it in the process.

All participants threw barley groats onto the animal, the ground and the altar to sow good fortune. The barley came from a single basket and by the time everyone had had a handful to throw, the ritual knife would have been displayed at the bottom of the basket. Meanwhile, libations would have been made in or around the fire. As Hellenics, we have two general types of libations at our disposal; a sponde (Σπονδή) or a khoe (χοαί). Both are poured sacrifices, libations, but the practice differs, as does the goal. A sponde is a libation given, partly, to the Deity or Deities offered to, and partly drunken by those given the libation. A general sponde is a measure of wine, oil, honey, milk or even water.

A sponde, no matter to whom, is poured in a specific manner. After the procession, cleansing, hymns and prayers, the Spondophoroi (Σπονδοφοροί), the vessel which holds the sponde, is held up in the right hand, and presented to the Gods. It is dedicated to the Deity or Deities who will receive it. Then, the Spondophoroi is transfered to the left hand and a sponde is poured to Hestia first, then to whomever the sponde was intended for.

A khoe is a type of libation which is reserved for Khthonic Theoi and other Underworld beings, like spirits or ghosts, as well as earth deities. It consists of a measure of honey, milk and dark-red wine. The major difference with the sponde is that in a khoe, the entire content is poured out; the practitioner drinks nothing of it, like with a holókaustos. A khou is poured from a khoi, a large vessel which is tipped over or slowly emptied while (most often) remaining in contact with the ground.

After the libation, the person who would kill the animal would have taken the knife and cut a lock of the animal’s hair. Swiftly, the lock would be tossed into the fire as a warning of the impending sacrifice. The tension would have reached its height at this time and with a swift motion, the animal’s throat would have been cut. All of its blood was collected and later dripped onto the fire or–in case of a smaller animal–dripped onto the fire directly. Women would scream, possibly to cover up the dying sounds of the animal, and then the tension would have most likely been broken and the ominous mood turned festive: while the entire animal belonged to the Gods, They saw fit to give much of it to Their followers for rare meat consumption. Then, Hestia receives the last sponde.

After the sacrifice, the meat was boiled or roasted and divided amongst the people celebrating. There were other dishes as well, which were eaten in a communal meal. Afterwards, depending on the festival, there would have been sporting events, or myths were recited. There could have been plays performed or any type of other entertainment until the festival was over. And the Theoi would have been invited to enjoy all of these activities as well.

Modern worship is organized somewhat the same way as ancient sacrifice was: we start with a procession (no matter how short) towards the altar, where we purify ourselves and the space around us with khernips. We also sow barley groats. This is not only a form of purification, it was the start of the process of kharis where the strewing of barley groats on and around the altar of the Theoi is like a spiritual sowing to reap the benefits of later (asked for through prayer later on in the rite). As such, the barley that we use is whole form, just like it is for actual sowing of the crop.

During the procession, songs are sung, and once purification is performed, a hymn is sung or proclaimed. Hymns are sung to please, to bring forth. It is a way to celebrate the deity in question, but also to make Him or Her more inclined to grant the following request. Hymns were accompanied with music and dancing; they were true celebrations in that regard. They are performed to proclaim existing kharis and built upon it by showing respect and knowledge of the lives of the Gods.

Prayers are next on the agenda. Prayers are attempts by men and women to communicate with Gods by means of the voice. A prayer is carefully formulated to convey a message as persuasively as possible to the God, and was thus often spoken. The idea is not to please, but to request. They make use of the established and just now strengthened kharis to petition the Gods for aid. Where the hymn is an offering to go along with material sacrifice, the prayer is not an offering at all. To soften the request, prayers are often accompanied by the sacrifice–the main event of the rite.

Modern worship rarely includes animal sacrifice, although meat sacrifices are more common. There were sacrifices in ancient Hellas that did not include the death of an animal, especially in later years. Some were just libations, other included the offering of (dried) fruits, called a ‘pankarpia’. Another staple for a variety of festivals was the panspermia (a mixture of seeds and lentils). According to legend, as mentioned by Plutarch, this was the votive offering Theseus and his crew made to Apollo when they returned to Hellas on this day, for it was all that was left of their provisions.

First Fruit offerings were especially sacred. First Fruits were any fruit, vegetable, fish or hunted animal that was the first of the season. Just like the Theoi are granted the first portion of the sacrificed animal, the First Fruit sacrifice extended the same privilege with any other type of sacrificial type as well.

Especially for poorer families, it was acceptable to sacrifice a cake in the shape of an animal instead of animals themselves. When you read the ancient and scholarly texts having to do with ancient Hellas, you will often come upon references to ‘honey cakes’ or ‘cakes’ in general. We might be tempted to interpret these to mean modern day cakes, but the ancient Hellenes would have most likely used flat cracker-type ‘cakes’, made from barley meal and honey.

Sacrifice and ritual are important. Even more important is regular sacrifice and ritual. It maintains and builds the kharis that keeps safe and blessed not only us as worshippers but our loved ones as well. Learning how to conduct ritual properly and to ingrain these practices into your life are the most important lessons any Hellenist will ever learn, and mostly you will have to learn them on your own. We can base our practices off of the ways of the ancients, but household worship is intimate, personal, and routine. That routine you will find yourself, and it will change through the years. What matters most is that it follows the basic steps of ritual, and that it’s conducted with the beauty and greatness of the Gods in mind.

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