During animal sacrifice in ancient Hellas, a very specific portion of the sacrifice is given to the Theoi. This part of the animal is the mēria (μηρια), consisting of both thigh bones in their fat, which was placed on the altar, sprinkled with a liquid libation and incense, and then burned. The scented smoke was said to sustain and please the Theoi, and the sacrificial smoke also carried the prayers of the worshippers to Them. The mēria is a very specific portion, and today, we will discuss how it came to be so, and how it related to actual sacrifice.

Mythologically speaking, we have Prometheus to thank for the mēria, as I have mentioned before:

After the Titanomachy, Zeus claimed His throne as rightful King to the Deathless Ones. Humanity did not yet exist. While most Titans were locked away in Tartarus by Zeus, Prometheus and Epimetheus--who were brothers--had been either neutral or on the side of Zeus during the Titan War and were therefor given a task. Prometheus was given the task of creating man and Epimetheus was ordered go give good qualities to all creatures of earth. Prometheus shaped man out of clay and Athena breathed life into him. Epimetheus spread swiftness, cunning, fur and wings but ran out of gifts when he came to man. Prometheus remedied the situation by allowing men to walk upright and gave them fire.

It soon became apparent that Prometheus loved man more than the Olympians. When Zeus decreed that man must give sacrifice to the Deathless Ones, Prometheus stood ready to aid humanity. He butchered an animal and divided it into piles; the bones and fat formed one of them, the good meat wrapped in the hide of the animal, the other. Zeus vowed that he would abide by the choice He made now, and picked the tasty looking pile of bones. Zeus was angered but could not take back his vow. What he could take back, was the gift of fire, and this He did.

This, of course, led to the famous bit in the story of Prometheus where he retakes the fire from Zeus and is punished by being tied up on mount Olympos and having his liver eaten out by a giant eagle everyday, as the appendix grew back overnight. Prometheus was eventually set free, but the mēria remained.

Evidence shows that thighbones must be considered as the oldest and most common form of burnt sacrifice. The preference for thighbones may be a practice inherited from the Late Bronze Age, as this part is found in Mycenaean sacrificial deposits and also mentioned in Hómēros. Since the term mēria can mean both thigh and thighbone, it has been suggested by scholars that in many cases the entire, fleshy leg would be burnt as the god’s portion and not just the bones, the choice depending on the piety or generosity of the individual worshipper. Other scholars have said that it were only the thigh bones and the fat which were burned, because the meat on the thigh was given to the priest or priestess who aided in the sacrifice.

There is still a lot unclear about animal sacrifice in ancient Hellas, and about the mēria specifically. Since much of the information gathered on these subjects comes from examinations of bones found in votive-pits, anything else is pure speculation. Most of the ancient writers who mention animal sacrifice do not get beyond the basics of sacrificial etiquette: they did not have to, everyone knew how these sacrifices were supposed to be performed. We know that thigh bones were a standard offering, but then there are also writers who mention no bones at all. An example of this is from Hómēros' Iliad, where we find this:

"When they had offered their petition and scattered grains of barley, they drew back the victims’ heads, slit their throats and flayed them. Then they cut slices from the thighs, wrapped them in layers of fat, and laid raw meat on top. These the old man burnt on the fire, sprinkling over them a libation of red wine, while the young men stood by, five-pronged forks in their hands. When the thighs were burnt and they had tasted the inner meat, they carved the rest in small pieces, skewered and roasted them through, then drew them from the spits. Their work done and the meal prepared, they feasted and enjoyed the shared banquet, and when they had quenched their first hunger and thirst, the young men filled the mixing-bowls to the brim with wine and pouring a few drops first into each cup as a libation served the gathering." [I:428-487]

Needless to say, these accounts complicate things for scholars and modern practitioners alike. Luckily, for many of us, deciding on the practice of mēria is something most Hellenists will never have to ponder, as they have no desire or possibility to offer an animal in sacrifice, regardless. It's also foolish to expect a uniform practice from loosely united peoples over the span of centuries. Still, my mind loves to compartmentalize and label, so the mēria will be on my mind for a time to come.