Like any thysia, animal sacrifice is at its most basic level a ritual of communion. The rituals of sacrifice are a sacred thing, far from barbaric reveling in blood; rather blood sacrifice underlines the human need to kill to preserve life, making of it an appropriately solemn act. Quite simply, to get tied up in the blood is to miss the point. The true purpose of sacrifice is the replication of illo tempore, which reflects the First Time and the creation of the cosmogony – typically represented in mythology by the dismemberment of the Monster/Giant from which the world was crafted from. It’s in itself a purification process, which purifies the space the sacrifice takes place on so that we can bring ourselves close to the Mythic Time in which the Gods dwell.
It is important to note that the thysia isn’t always a blood ritual. They can also be simply symbolic of blood rituals, and though the soul of an animal makes real animals better suited for gaining communion with the divine since, cakes in the shape of animals can also be offered as a substitute.
The choice of what to sacrifice also has symbolic significance. While certain things are universal and always appropriate to any deity, such as wine, bread, grain, other offerings are set aside and seen as particular for specific Gods. Virginal animals, for example, are traditional to the virgin Goddesses (e.g., Athene). The offering of the wrong sacrifice could obviate the whole ritual or even cause a rift in the relation between the God and the theurgist, and thus it is essential to do your homework and know something about the deity in mind before you go about making an offering to them.
During this ritual, and any ritual seeking communion with the divine for that matter, it is best to cover the head with a veil before offering a sacrifice.
Step 1: Procession
This is a procession toward the place of sacrifice.
- In the home this is simply approaching the lararium or shrine
- In public though, a large festival is held with a procession with music, dancing, and so forth. There are many images from Greek vases depicting these processions featuring lines of dancing boys and girls, cattle or other animals, and at the front a basket and a jar of lustral water. This basket contained groats and a sacrificial knife, used to slit the animal’s throat. The lustral water was for purification, the next step.
Step 2: Purification
The rite of purification through the use of lustral water, or khernips, is the next step. Khernips is a sacred water used to clean our hands as a means of ritual purification. This act of ritual purification goes with the idea that one must have clean hands before they can approach the Gods. Symbolically, it is the evacuation from miasma, which is one’s being of the extraneous, the dirty, or the day-to-day. (Burkert 1985, 77)
It is important to note that khernips have more uses than just washing the hands; it can also be sprinkled over the altar, sacrifice, and so on.
For animal sacrifice, khernips is sprinkled over the head of the sacrifice. This nod is significant as the animal to be sacrificed must seem willing to undergo the procedure. The animals are, of course, merely responding to the droplets of water and as an irrational creature is not truly giving consent, however tricking the animal into consent isn’t the purpose. The actual purpose of this action is to make it clear that the worshiper understands the importance of this act; that this isn’t an act of violence. Rather, it is an act of communion between three participants: the worshipers, the sacrifice, and the Gods.
These first two steps establish a typical opening ritual for all theurgic ceremonies of worship. The next steps specifically involve the ritual of sacrifice.
Step 3: Invocation and Immolation
The next step is the invocation of the deity through an invitation and a libation of wine and an offering of barley mixed with salt (mola salsa).
In animal sacrifices, the barley and salt are thrown into the sacrificial fire, an act referred to as immolatio. The grain and wine are offered, not by the priest in charge of the sacrifice, but by the audience. This way, everyone has a hand in preparing the offering, and so they all participate in not only the eating of the meal but its creation.
No matter the sacrifice’s intended recipient, a particular gateway deities are invoked first. Here are three good deities to invoke:
- Janus Pater, who is invoked before almost all sacrifices because it is He who opens the door to the Gods.
- Hestia, who is thought to preside over the sacred fire just as she presides over the sacred hearth
- The Great Mother, the Goddess of theurgy.
Step 4: Dedication
The priest in charge of the ritual then approaches the animal to be sacrificed and produces the knife from the basket. The priests cut a small lock of hair from the forehead of the animal, and throws that hair on the fire. This dedicates the animal to the God and is regarded as the first stroke of sacrifice.
Step 5: Prayer
Step 6: Killing
The priest, or someone who works under the direction of the priest, kills the animal according to a prescribed manner:
- Smaller animals have their throats slit.
- Larger animals are killed by a blow to the head.
This slaughtering is efficient, quick, and minimizes suffering. Of course, there is still some suffering, and in response, the attendant participants— especially the women—raise a ritual cry expressed as sympathy or grief for the animal, “life crying over death.”
If the animal is an offering to a ouranic deity, it should be sacrificed with its head pointed upwards. If the animal is an offering to to a chthonic deity, it should be sacrificed with its head pointed downwards.
Step 7: Examination
Haruspicy, a form of divinization, is the next step; where entrails are then examined for flaws. This is done to ensure that the animal is healthy and the offering good. If any flaw is found in the entrails, the meat is discarded and the sacrifice is redone. This aids in preventing diseased animals from being consumed.
Haruspicy can be seen as divination because if the sacrifice is performed and it’s determined that the meat is unfit for offering, one can also infer that the Gods have rejected the sacrifice. From this, we can conclude that the Gods, having shown they reject the sacrifice through the sacrifice itself, also show that the sacrifice becomes a place where the divine communicate.
From this, we can conclude that we can determine the future by examining the sacrifice. Particular patterns of development on the liver and other organs can be read as a sign from the Gods, and even variations in a healthy liver may indicate a sign.
Step 8: Ritual Feasting
The animal’s bones are then laid out to reconstruct the original form and covered in fat, which is then lit on fire (which is dedicated to Hestia). This, mingled with incense and fueled by strong wine, is the offering to the Gods. The reconstruction of the skeletal form is done as an acknowledgment of the underlying Form (or Idea) of the animal being offered.
The worshipers eat the meat. The meat must be eaten on site and is prohibited from being taken out of the sacred precinct described by the circumambulation. The restraint on the location of the sacred meal is a symbolic recognition that the act of sacrifice has elevated this particular earthly location above and beyond, for a moment, the rest of the earth. To eat it in the sacred temenos or precinct is to commune with the Gods, and to take what is holy out of the sacred space would be a transgression against the divine.
Note: This part is skipped entirely if this offering is towards a chthonic entity. Offerings to chthonic deities or the dead are to be completely burned, not shared.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985)
Dunn, Patrick. The practical art of divine magic: contemporary & ancient techniques of Theurgy. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd, 2015.
Hekster, Olivier, Sebastian Schmidt-Hofner, Christian Witschel, and Angelos Chaniotis, eds. Ritual Dynamics and Religious Change in the Roman Empire: Proceedings of the Eighth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Heidelberg, July 5-7, 2007). Leiden: Brill, 2009.
H.S. Versnel, Faith, Hope, and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World, (Leiden: Brill, 1981)
Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living theurgy: a course in Iamblichus philosophy, theology and theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.
Opsopaus, John. The oracles of Apollo: practical ancient Greek divination for today. Woodbury: Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd, 2017.
Scheid, John. Graeco Ritu: A Typically Roman Way of Honoring the Gods. Cambridge, MA: Department of the Classics, Harvard University, 2010. 15-31.