Its been a while since I wrote about animal sacrifice on this blog. It was a favoured subject for a while because I find the concept so intriguing, but you know, there is only so long you can talk about theoretically killing and butchering animals before it gets weird. That said, I was tagged in a Facebook discussion about the subject yesterday, and the question is such a good one, I am reviving the subject on Baring the Aegis.

"Does anyone have a list of what animals the Gods preferred for their sacrifices? I know Artemis preferred wild game but I can't find a list for the rest of them."

First a little background on the practice: The principal kind of Greek sacrifice was called 'thysia' and consisted of the killing of a domestic animal, usually cattle, sheep, goats or pigs. It was followed by the division of the meat between the divine recipient and the human participants. This practice was most definitely the cornerstone of the ancient Hellenic faith. It included animals for a reason: the act of killing, of taking the life of an animal, is a difficult one. It brings us closer to our own mortality and must have given many of the men flashbacks of combat situations. Many ancient Hellenic households killed animals for meat, but there is something special about killing in sacrifice, I wager.

Sacrifice was the highlight of ancient Hellenic ritual. Like me, the ancient Hellenes sometimes fasted or otherwise abstained before ritual. They processed to the ritual site, leaving the mundane behind. Incense would have filled the air, and hymns would have been sung. The ritual that took place took the celebrants out of the regular world and the animals they brought with them stepped out with them. When they came upon the altar, the mood would have been tense: a death was about to occur. We are supposed to feel friction with our emotions when we take a life, animal or otherwise. Our instinct to preserve life is one of the strongest we have. Hymns would have continued, building the tension. Water was dripped on the head of the animal, trying to get it to say 'yes' to being sacrificed and purifying it in the process.

All participants threw barley groats onto the animal, the ground and the altar--perhaps roughly, like an attack, or perhaps softly, like a blessing. The barley came from a single basket and by the time everyone had had a handful to throw, the ritual knife would have been displayed at the bottom of the basket. The person who would kill the animal would have taken the knife and cut a lock of the animal's hair. Swiftly, the lock would be tossed into the fire as a warning of the impending sacrifice. The tension would have reached its height at this time and with a swift motion, the animal's throat would have been cut. All of its blood was collected and later dripped onto the fire or--in case of a smaller animal--dripped onto the fire directly. Women would scream, possibly to cover up the dying sounds of the animal, and then the tension would have most likely been broken and the ominous mood turned festive: while the entire animal belonged to the Gods, They saw fit to give much of it to Their followers for rare meat consumption.

There are two types of sacrifice, be they of animals or some other (food) item. Holokautein (ὁλοκαυτεῖν) were sacrifices in which the sacrifice--domestic animal, fruits, cakes, wine, etc.--was utterly destroyed and burnt up, as opposed to thyesthai (θύεσθαι), in which the sacrifice was shared with the Gods in question and one's fellow worshippers. In the case of a latter animal sacrifice, the edible parts of the sacrificed animal were roasted or boiled and distributed for festive celebration, whereas the inedible parts were burned or placed on the altar, those being the Gods' share. There is no list of which deity got which type of sacrifice, because the lines blurred quite often. That said, I can make a general working formula for you: Ouranic deities (so any deity (!) who lives on the Earth, on Olympos, or in the sea) were honoured with thyesthai. The Khthonic, or Underworld, deities, malign deities, heroes, the dead, ghosts and nymphs and their ilk received holókautein.

While we associate animal sacrifice with large-scale festivals, many sacrifices were family affairs, conducted in times of need. If someone was sick, for example, one or two chickens might be sacrificed around the family altar while the entire family attended. After the portion for the Gods was cut and sacrificed, the chickens were cooked for dinner.
Other sacrifices were larger; a chicken really was the smallest animal one could sacrifice in good conscience. A swine/pig came after, followed in desirability by sheep, goats, and oxen/cows. For home sacrifices, it would have been rare for any of the latter to take place: the sacrifice of a pig, sheep, or goat would have been shared with a whole residential block or maybe your very extended family. An ox was usually enough to satisfy an entire village. Meat could be stored, saved or sold, but especially in smaller towns, it was customary for all the meat to be eaten on the spot.

So which deity was offered which animal? There are a few generalized rules I can give you that seem to hold up through the city-states, but there were undoubtedly instances where these 'rules' did not apply. Like I said before, nothing smaller than a chicken; male animals were gifted to male deities, female animals for female deities; and black animals were given to khthonic deities, while white animals were given to Ouranic deities. The most complete information on the exact animals comes from Attica (and mostly Erkhia), but I think money was usually the defining factor for the exact animal, along with the need for the prayer to be honoured. In general, the more important the occasion, the more expensive and large the animal. We have a few examples (oxen for Athena at Athens, for example, and pigs to Demeter at Eleusis), but in other city-states, or even within the city-state, this is turned up-side-down again: at Erkhia, both regularly got sheep. Aphrodite is another exception, as she often received doves in sacrifice, and many other Gods have 'quirks' like these. Doves, by the way, were an acceptable offering of the poor, but were greatly down looked upon unless in connection to Aphrodite.

A factor seems to be the promise made to the deity at hand, as that promise was honoured above all else. Especially in situations of war, generals of armies made large boasts of sacrifice to come if only the Gods would help them be victorious. Afterwards, arrangements were made to actually perform said sacrifices. These promises were sometimes so outlandish that they were only accomplished with great difficulty. The Kharisteria is a festival that takes place on the sixth of the month of Boedromion and commemorates the battle of Marathon which took place in 490 BC. During the battle of Marathon, around 11,000 Hellenes stood their ground against a Persian force between 30.000 and 100.000 men. 203 Hellenes fell, opposite 6,400 Persians. That was quite a victory--especially if you consider that the Hellenes were the attacking side. The casualty numbers are known because the Hellenes set up a memorial for their fallen comrades. The Persian dead were counted for a very specific reason: the Hellenes had promised to the Theoi a sacrifice of one goat for every Persian killed. In the end, they discovered they'd killed so many Persians that they couldn't find enough goats. A payment plan of sorts was devised, and over the course of thirteen years, roughly 500 goats per year were sacrificed. The choice of a goat sounds a practical one to me: they probably knew the death count would be high, so offering oxen was going to be impossible, but they also did not want to undercut themselves and loose the battle because Artemis felt short-changed. A goat is a nice 'in-between' offering.

I feel that the Gods don't prefer any type of sacrifice; what they are looking for is sacrifice, period. It's up to the giver to decided what to give, and that depends on a multitude of factors, most of which I have tried to go into here. In the end, the ancient Hellenes gave the maximum they could spare, and that would be a good measure for us as well.