"On top of the Acropolis, the oxen are released from the temple of Zeus Polieus. Outside, put out in sacrifice to the mighty Protector of the City, lie cakes on a table, and the oxen sniff them readily as they are herded past them. Nearby, two women with bowls of water in their hands stand by a man who is sharpening an axe and knife, using the water sporadically to cool and clean the blades. They watch as the third oxen in line reaches for one of the cakes with eager lips, devouring the sweet product merrily. One of the nearby men shouts at the ox, and--enraged at the cow's desecration--rushes to the man who is sharpening his weapons. He grabs the double-bladed axe and with one big swing, ends the life of the ox. As the ox falls dead on the ground, the Ox-Slayer realizes what he has done, and drops the axe in mortification. As fast as his legs can carry him, he flees the scene. 

Those who have witnessed the events rush to butcher the slain animal and sacrifice it properly to Zeus Polieus. All who witnessed the slaying, eat the flesh of the murdered ox. The hide of the ox is stuffed with hay and sewn closed. The filled skin is put in front of a yoke, out in the field. Afterwards, a hunt begins for the murderer of Zeus' sacred ox. He is found, eventually, and brought to trial. The man says it was not his fault he slew the animal; the man who had been sharpening the axe should not have been there. If he had not been there, he would never have been able to slay the ox. And so, the sharpener is heard. He, also, pleads innocence: if the women with the water had not been there, he could not have sharpened the axe, and he would not have been there. The women are called to explain themselves. They, too, claim the death of the ox is not their fault: they would not have been there if the axe had not needed sharpening. And so, the axe is heard, as well as the knife used to cut up the animal, but the objects remain silent. Because they will not defend themselves, they are found guilty of the murder of the ox, and as punishment, are tossed off of a cliff, into the sea below."

Every year on the fourteenth day of Skirophorion, from the time of Erechtheus (1397 - 1347 BC) to--at least--the second century AD, this odd ritual was reenacted. It was called the 'Bouphónia' (βουφόνια), and was part of another festival; the 'Dipolieia' (τὰ Διπολίεια), a feast in honor of Zeus Polieus (Zeus of the City). Philosopher Porphyrios (Πορφύριος) (234 - 305), a Neoplatonist, in book two of his 'De Abstinentia' (On Abstinence) writes the following on its origins:

"...And Diomus, who was a priest of Jupiter Polieus was the first that slew an ox; because, when the festival sacred to Jupiter and called Diipolia, was celebrated, and fruits were prepared after the ancient manner, an ox approaching tasted the sacred cake. But the priest, being aided by others who were present, slew the ox." (2.10)

"The ox, therefore, being killed, Diomus, whose anger was now appeased, at the same time perceived what kind of deed he had perpetrated. And the ox, indeed, he buried. But embracing a voluntary banishment, as if he had been accused of impiety, he fled to Crete. A great dryness, however, taking place in the Attic land from vehement heat, and a dreadful sterility of fruit, and the Pythian deity being in consequence of it consulted by the general consent the God answered, that the Cretan exile must expiate in the crime; and that, if the murderer was punished, and the statue of the slain ox was erected in the place in which it fell, this would be beneficial both to those." (2.29)

"From that time also, even till now, during the festival sacred to Jupiter, in the Acropolis at Athens, the sacrifice of an ox is performed after the same manner. For, placing cakes on a brazen table, they drive oxen round it, and the ox that tastes of the cakes that are distributed on the table, is slain. The race likewise of those who perform this, still remains. And all those, indeed, who derive their origin from Sopater [Diomus] are called boutupoi [i.e. slayers of oxen]; but those who are descended from him that drove the ox round the table, are called kentriadai, [or stimulators.] And those who originate from him that cut the throat of the ox, are denominated daitroi, [or dividers,] on account of the banquet which takes place from the distribution of flesh. But when they have filled the hide, and the judicial process is ended, they throw the knife into 
the sea."(2.29)

Various authors name various people to commit the first slaying; Porphyrios names Diomus, priest of Zeus Polieus; Theophrastos (371 – 287 BC), a student of Aristotle, names a man called 'Sopatros' as the culprit, a métiokos who occupied a farm in Attika; and Androtion, a Hellenic orator from around 350 BC names a man called Thaulon as the killer, although he offers no more details than his name. The myth remains largely the same, though; the man in question slays the ox, flees, and is pursued to stand trial--usually because a drought or famine plagued Athens afterwards and an oracle (usually the oracle at Delphi) decreed that the punishment would only be lifted once the culprit was brought to justice. In all versions, those who witness the murder of the ox eat of the ox's flesh, and otherwise perform tasks in its processing. In most versions, the ox's skin is filled with hay and put in front of the plough. In almost all versions, the axe is eventually blamed for the murder, and destroyed--usually by tossing it off of a cliff; only once, is the axe aquatinted in tribunal. Porphyrios goes on to describe the ritual above and then writes:

"An inquiry therefore being made into the affair, and Sopater [Diomus], together with the deed, having been discovered, he, thinking that he should be liberated from the difficulty in which he was now involved, through the accusation of impiety, if the same thing was done, by all men in common, said to those who came to him, that it was necessary an ox should be slain by the city. But, on their being dubious who should strike the ox, he said that he would undertake to do it, if they would make him a citizen, and would be partakers with him of the slaughter. This therefore, being granted, they returned to the city, and ordered the deed to be accomplished in such a way as it is performed by them at present."

Porphyrios, who was an avid proclaimer of vegetarianism, has two interesting theories: that the ancient Hellenes only sacrificed bloodless offerings to the Theoi before Diomus killed one of Zeus Polieus' sacred oxen, and that is was a criminal offense to sacrifice domesticated animals (like plow oxen) to the Theoi, because these animals had been exposed to us human for so long that they became 'too human' to sacrifice--to do so, and to eat the meat of them, was cannibalistic, according to Porphyrios.

Interesting in this myth and ritual are the miasma occurred in the sacrifice, and the guilt that is evident in it. Mind, this version of the myth stems from the second century AD, and is undoubtedly colored by its time. The death of the ox is always described as 'a kill', or 'killing'; it's not a 'death', or 'sacrifice'. The kill only becomes a sacrifice when the animal is cut up and properly offered to Zeus Polieus. Diomus goes into voluntary exile after his kill--a clear sign that what he has done is a crime, but perhaps not in the way we might look at it; that Zeus Polieus was angry for slaying one of His sacred animals, but more because of the type of animal he has killed, a crime against humankind, not the Theoi--and when he comes back, the community shares the blame for the kill. In Porphyrios' vision, everyone who commits sacrifice and partakes in the meat of an animal, is tainted in some way; they are fundamentally impure--tainted, with miasma.

In true mythic fashion, it takes a drought or plague, as well as an oracular message, to symbolize the ethical struggle of the Athenians: the corruption of morals Porphyrios (and others like him) subscribed to the Athenians in the start of the sacrifice of (domesticated) animals and the relief of said guilt when the Bouphónia became a ritual to relief such guilt and pollution. It's even possible that the few lonely participants in later versions of the annual sacrifice--because sources indicate this festival became rather obscure in later years, and thus likely to be visited only by those who had familial roles in it--absolved this miasma and guilt for all Hellenes who committed animal sacrifice. Of course, these priests might have had absolutely no clue why they performed these rites; it was tradition to do so, and the rite was overseen by a very important Theoi, so they acted it out, year after year.

It seems to me that there is an underlying theme to this myth, and its subsequent festival: that an animal which is slaughtered by a man alone, is killed, yet an animal which is slaughtered by a group becomes a sacrifice. Not really a great case for abstinence of animal flesh, but my take on the myth, regardless. I come to this conclusion from Diomus' demand to become a citizen in exchange for sacrificing the oxen in years to come--a role inherited by his family line, sources say. By joining the Athenians, it is not just Diomus who slays the animal each year, but the community. It's another form of The Blame Game, which is also played with the axe and knife; because everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. No longer is animal sacrifice the act of one man, but it is an act everyone is involved in, because everyone has a part. No longer is one man polluted by the act, everyone is, and because of that, no one is truly polluted by the killing of an animal--when that animal is subsequently sacrificed tot he Theoi.

Although the community shares the blame, the entire ritual is aimed at relieving this blame: in most versions of the myth, it is a métoikos who commits the crime, the ox, the axe, and the knife that is used to cut up the animal, are equally to blame for the death. In some versions of the myth, the animal is buried like a man. The weapons are ritualistically tossed away. There is a term in psychology which applies to what happens in the Bouphónia myth; a term now mostly used in the setting of (domestic) violence. The term is 'reciprocal violence'; it pertains to the cancellation of guilt when two parties inflict the same thing (upon each other or together). In the case of domestic violence, it relates to the notion that partners psychologically cancel out the pain they inflict upon each other, reasoning it away as saying 'but I did it to', or 'he/she did it first, but I did it as well'.

Here, we see the same cycle; everyone is 'to blame' for the death of the ox, simply by being there, and in order to break the circle, an inanimate object--which, obviously, can not defend itself, thus the cycle can not possibly continue--it chosen to bear the blame, thus relieving it off of everyone else. The blame (and miasma) is placed on either the axe alone, or the knife as well, and relieved by destroying the object(s) it is placed upon. I'm reminded of the dog that was sometimes sacrificed to Hekate at the Deipnon--touched by all members of the family so miasma was transfered onto it--although it seems irreverent to compare Porphyrios' main case against animal sacrifice with an animal sacrifice. Yet, it is also telling that the animal is 'resurrected', in a fashion, by stuffing it and putting it back out on the field, in front of a plough. By denying the murder happened, the whole reason to blame anyone is taken away. It's the ultimate break of the cycle.

The Bouphónia is an ancient ritual, archaic even in classical times. Much of it founding is lost to us. We do know that animal--and prior to that, human--sacrifice was committed for a long, long time, probably way before Diomus slayed this fabled ox. Exactly what function it served to the ancient Hellenes, we will most likely never know. When June rolls around, it's most likely best to simply celebrate the Dipolieia, and not the Bouphónia. A simple libation to Zeus Polieus will do. If you feel the need, you could always perform a version of the Bouphónia where no animals are killed, but a (clay or wax) figurine is slain, sacrificed, and the blade that killed it (also clay or wax) is destroyed. If the festival did have to do with the relieving of guilt over animal sacrifice, reenacting the Bouphónia might be a pleasant ritual for those who practice some form of it. Again, I stress that this is one of the few festivals that one can simply leave in the past. It served a purpose we are not sure about today, and while the sacrifice was important to the ancient Athenians, the worship of Zeus Polieus on the same day was more important, even then.

Image source: ox.