Sacrificing animals

I suppose most of you have attended a church service and then gone to a community barbeque. Keep that in mind as you read this.

The Greeks, and virtually all the ancient peoples, had a few habits with a high yuck factor for moderns. One of the more yucky bits was sacrificing animals in religious rites, which they did frequently.

I suspect some people have an image of a crazed Greek plunging his knife into a squealing, struggling animal as the blood spurts everywhere and the crowd chants chthonic prayers.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole thing was very orderly.

In the Greek mind, it was important the animal "agree" to be a sacrifice. An unwilling sacrifice, one which struggled, was considered an ill omen. If any Greek priest had conducted a sacrifice like I just described, it would have been like the vicar turning up drunk for the sermon.

For days before, the selected sacrifice was treated kindly. It was given good food and made as comfortable as possible. Most sacrifices were sheep and pigs. Goats were a common standby. Oxen were luxury items for big events.

The sacrifice would be led from its farm to the temple. The sacrificial altar was put outside for obvious reasons, probably by the front steps. During whatever was the ritual for the particular God or Goddess, there came a point where the priest would take out a knife and quickly slit the animal's throat. This is a perfectly standard way to kill any farm animal for butchering, and in an agrarian society, virtually everyone would have the skill.

The blood was caught in a bowl and I presume was given to the God or Goddess.

A priest would then open the body and check the liver and entrails to see if the God or Goddess was pleased with the sacrifice. I expect the answer was always yes, unless there was something pathologically wrong.

If a Classical Greek saw one of our modern abattoirs, he would be shocked at the impiety and disgusted at the process. Not because of how many animals are killed there, but for the lack of respect shown the animals. The average animal sacrificed in ancient Greece probably died happier and in greater comfort than the steak you eat tonight.

Speaking of steak...

After the sacrifice the victim was butchered by someone who knew what he was doing. The long bones and probably some offal were burned in a brazier for the God or Goddess to consume. The rest of the meat was barbequed on the spot and everyone stayed for a community picnic!

If you were the child of a poor laborer, quite possibly the only meat you would see in your life was that given to you at the public sacrifices. The sacrifices were donated by rich men, and therefore were a roundabout way of donating quality meals to poor families. Animal sacrifice at the temples was, weird as it may sound, a community service.

This might seem a roundabout way of delivering the picnic food, but ancient Greece had a distinct lack of refrigerators. Without them, meat could not keep for long, even if it was preserved in sea salt. The only way to ensure the meat at a BBQ was fresh and healthy to eat was for it to arrive still breathing.

So the whole thing was nowhere near as yucky as you might think. Something to ponder the next time you go to church and then a barbeque.


Mimzy said...

Okay, I guess it doesn't sound as horrible as I thought, but still. There's a reason that I'm not a farmer, have no desire to be a farmer, and don't ever want to visit a farm who raises livestock.

I'd cry too much.

Merry Monteleone said...

Actually, the animal sacrifice bit never bothered me. My Papa (grandfather) would buy a lamb at Easter time, feed it and let it graze in the yard, and then butcher it for Easter dinner. The blood wasn't given to the gods, it was made into blood soup. It didn't feed the poor (unless you counted us), and yet that didn't bother me at all, either.

Carrie said...

So, maybe a non-fiction book in your publishing future? i love these posts Gary. Please keep doing them.

scaryazeri said...

They still sacrifice animals back home. i once witnessed a sheep sacrifice and- no, thank you. never again. I am surprised the experience did not turn me into a veggie, but somehow I guess I am born to eat meat. :)

Gary Corby said...

You're right, Mimzy, it's a different world on the land. My wife grew up on a farm way out west. Not the sort of place you go for a casual afternoon visit.

I met her parents after we'd been going out for well over a year. When we arrived at the farm we discovered there'd be huge, fresh steaks to eat all week: they had actually killed a fatted calf in honor of the boyfriend (me!) arriving.

This didn't stop me from having to work on the farm, just like everyone else. But you probably don't want to know about docking and crutching sheep.

Gary Corby said...

Wow Merry, I suspect that's quite a rare experience for kids these days.

Your Papa must have been a very competent man. I wouldn't have the slightest clue how to do that singlehanded.

I suppose the tradition is dying out?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie, I'm glad you like them. I confess I love writing these little non-fiction posts.

I guess if I keep at it long enough, there'll eventually be a book's worth of highly eclectic articles. Then all I need is a publisher!

Gary Corby said...

Scary, I'm so glad you stop by here, because every time you say something you amaze me. I had no idea people were still practicing animal sacrifice! That's what I get for concentrating on the past and not watching the present.

Thanks so much for telling us!

Dave in Columbus said...

Fascinating subject! Not only were sacrifices a calendar thing (the average deme had a calendar of 43 sacrifices a year; Athenian Popular Religion, John D. Mikalson,pages 68-69) they were also event driven. An army sacrificed before battle, or crossing a border or a stream. A funeral was followed by 11 days of mourning, with a sacrifice to Demeter on the 12th (Sparta, Mitchell, page 62). Sailors sacrifice a black lamb to Typhon, god of storms, when in danger (Aristaphanes, The Eleven Comedies, Liveright Publishing, book II, page 233, footnote), and before sailing sacrificed to "the sea blue god" Priapus; sometimes a flying fish, parrot fith, slice of cuttle fish, red mullet--perhaps the only god who ate fish (Greek Anthology, Book X, #1,9,14,16). Also there was a sacrifice before a meeting of the Boule and the Ecclesia (a piglet, if I recall correctly). Also, one could sacrifice to seal an oath, stamping on the victim's severed testicles, symbolizing "may my progeny too be so crushed if I break my word" (Persian Fire, Tom Holland, page 199). Only one god received no sacrifice; The "unbribeable god," Death (from a line spoken by Aeschylus, in Aristophanes, The Frogs).

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Gary,

I actually barely remember it, myself. Papa died when I was in second grade. He was raised in a little town in Sicily, and lamb was an Easter tradition. It wasn't often you got to have lamb because it was expensive. I'm guessing he learned how to do it from his own father.

When my dad was growing up, they lived in apartments in Chicago. This was during the great depression, so they didn't have the money for lamb, or the yard space. He started doing it again when he finally was able to buy his own house, with a big yard. He was so proud of that yard - he grew an amazing garden, complete with a fig tree, which was his prize.

I never got to participate with the lamb slaughtering. Though some of my older cousins apparently had to and it was a 'boy' thing anyway. Boys killed it, girls cooked it :-) He'd slit the throat and let the blood, and the boys had to keep continually stirring the blood so that it didn't coagulate... appetizing isn't it?

Gary Corby said...

Merry, that is simply fascinating.

I imagine you know Sicily was heavily colonized by the Greeks in ancient times. I'm wondering if you're at the tail end of a tradition stretching back that far.

Merry Monteleone said...

Sicily actually has a fascinating history. We were taken over by everybody!

Funny you should mention that, too. Most often, people ask if I'm either Greek or Spanish - I've actually had Greek people come up to me, speaking Greek because they think I'll understand it. And, from what I understand, there are parts of Sicily that were big vacation spots for people from Greece years ago. It's a beautiful island, but then, Greece is pretty beautiful, too from the pictures I've seen.

As far as my own lineage, I haven't traced it back farther than the middle of the 1800's, but one of the heritage research sites I was looking at indicated that my surname actually derives from Albania. Who'd a thunk it?