Psellus, On Sacrificial Science

This translation of a treatise by the prominent Byzantine philosopher Psellus (perhaps on the basis of a work by Proclus, although this cannot be said with certainty) by Ɔ. Martiana (Unhistorize) is taken from a forthcoming eBook from Sartrix Translations, which also contains footnotes on this text.

I have decided to write you pointers about the sacrificial (θυτικῆς thytikês) science, which has no place at all in our (Christian) life, and with the teachings of which no one is familiar. And may it be wholly covered up! May the altars (stay) removed from us, and may sacrificing (stay) removed likewise! And all such awful wisdom of the Greeks has fallen silent and ended. But for a wise man who wishes to neglect none of the ancient teachings, it is reasonable to know this, what (the sacrifical science) is like, and to explain in brief what its power is.

The Greeks applied the name of ‘god’ to many things, for they believe that what we (Christians) call holy powers positioned around God, and those which have fallen from the divine order and have been separated out into the opposite fate, as well as heaven and the wandering and fixed stars all share, so to speak, the title of ‘god’. So, they thought it was right to sacrifice to these – as they called them – gods. They gave red and white animals to the ethereal ones because of the color of ether and the purity of the nature of those (gods); they sacrificed animals of the opposite color to the subterrestrial (gods); and they gave multi-colored ones to the aerial (gods).

Further, they varied the manner of sacrifice in terms of victims, cutting the throat of a young goat or a ram to the supercelestial (gods) above. For Homer describes the Greeks as sacrificing in this way: he says “first they drew back their heads, and slaughtered and skinned them” (Iliad 1.459). For those (gods) who have been allotted the subterrestrial region below, they pushed the victim’s head forwards, and so cut through the sinews of the neck. For the (gods) inbetween, they cut their throat by beding their heads to the side.

Next, they sliced open their bellies, and first cut out the heart, and sacrificed its skin to the ancestral gods, and they sacrificed its right chamber to the rising Sun, the left chamber to the setting Sun, and the pit to the Sun precisely in the middle of heaven.

Then, they carefully cut apart the skin of the liver, which lies atop the entrails, under the membrane covering the lower viscera; and they sacrificed from the ‘head’ to the supercelestial gods, the lobes to the five planets; but the lifeless part they sacrificed to Hades and Persephone.

They used to trouble themselves further about the corpses of the victims, (observing) whether they would fall down to the right or the left; and in the former case, they would predict fortunate (events), in the latter, unfortunate ones. And they would also observe the moment of the (final) spasm after the sacrifice: and if the victims immediately breathed their last, they would predict a fast resolution for themselves in the matters at hand, but if not, a drawn-out and troubled one.

Now, they did not sacrifice all things to all (gods), but to each from the sacrifice they accepted, respectively. The offerings and plants for them all had their conventions, and so did even the kindling. For sober gods, they cut wood and kindled fires with it, but for Bacchae and Dionysus, they made the pyre with vine-branches, and they only offered libations of wine to them; and frankincense, myrrh, saffron and pine-resin were differently allotted among the gods in each (respective) sacrifice.

For in the pomp of the Greeks, all things were divided among those whom they called gods, and the division was not just regarding bodies, but also their colors; and their invocations were different, and their incantations and amulets were varied, and so were their sacrifices and the rituals performed for them; and the sacrificer had to have precise knowledge of the sacrifical order, and had to make the sacrifices in precisely the right way.