There are many different types of Thesia within the ancient Hellenic religion and an understanding of these categories and their usage within the art of sacrifice will illustrate to us not only how to sacrifice but also what to sacrifice and when to sacrifice it. The following section is an easy to use guideline outlining firstly the central ideas concerning sacrifice, secondly the main categories of Thesia and secondly the sub-categories of Thesia that offer us an understanding of when sacrifice is required.
The Ideology of Sacrifice in the Ancient World
The word sacrifice is derived from a Latin compound meaning 'to make holy or sacred' and within its English meaning refers simultaneously to offerings made in religious ceremonies as well as a loss or relinquishing of something valuable or prized. Thus in English, sacrifice is almost always associated with the idea of loss. This leads to the concept that self-sacrifice is an adequate substitute for any other form of sacrifice because of the loss incurred. Hence in a modern mind unaccustomed to the Art of Thesia, sacrifice will always be equal to loss. Hellenic Thesia is different though and although a loss may result from the sacrifice, the purpose of sacrifice is not personal loss or punishment. The ultimate purpose of Thesia is offered by Salustius:
SALUSTIUS: ON THE GODS AND THE WORLD
Concerning sacrifices and other worships, that we benefit man by them, but not the Gods.
I think it well to add some remarks about sacrifices. In the first place, since we have received everything from the Gods, and it is right to pay the giver some tithe of his gifts, we pay such a tithe of possessions in votive offering, of bodies in gifts of (hair and) adornment, and of life in sacrifices [blood sacrifice]. Then secondly, prayers without sacrifices are only words, with sacrifices they are live words; the word gives meaning to the life, while the life animates the word. Thirdly, the happiness of every object is its own perfection; and perfection for each is communion with its own cause. For this reason we pray for communion with the Gods. Since, therefore, the first life is the life of the Gods, but human life is also life of a kind, and human life wishes for communion with divine life, a mean term is needed. For things very far apart cannot have communion without a mean term, and the mean term must be like the things joined; therefore the mean term between life and life must be life. That is why men sacrifice animals; only the rich do so now, but in old days everybody did, and then not indiscriminately, but giving the suitable offerings to each god together with a great deal of other worship.
From Salustius, we may understand that the ideology underlying Thesia was very specific and governed by what we now call the Law of Reciprocity. The Law of Reciprocity is specific in that it declares that a sacrifice is only Thesia if it is an action appropriate to a particular relationship with the Gods. Thus a good deed or act of self-sacrifice is only an appropriate Thesia when the specific action is appropriate for a specific God at a specified time. Hellenic Thesia does not include Christian notions of self-sacrifice in the form of either literal or figurative 'hair-shirts' or 'self-flagellation' as appropriate Thesia to the Gods unless specified otherwise. It should be noted that the Roman cult of Cybele, commonly associated with the Hellenic worship of Rhea, did call for self-mutilation during the time of Augustus although there is no mention of such castrations, as far as we can find, in the original Asia Minor/Phrygian cult of Cybele or the neighbouring Thracian cult of Ipta (Rhea) that was comprised mostly of women. The castrated phallus in ancient Greece was a Symvolon and not a Synthema calling for men to castrate themselves.
Thus in a capacity of serving one's country in a war, it was considered virtuous and altruistic to offer one's life for the good of one's homeland. In fact, any act of sacrificing one's life for patriotic, familial or religious principles so that others may live was highly praised as an ideally virtuous state of existence. But it did not fall under the ancient category of Thesia. Thesia refers specifically to 'offerings' to the Gods in whatever form is appropriate to the God being worshipped or petitioned. The purpose of Thesia was to create, repair and maintain a relationship with the Gods.
Thesia has five main categories that denote different types of dedicatory offerings. It should be noted at the outset that only the highest quality sacrifices (as appropriate to the means of the worshipper) were offered to the Gods. The ancient idea was that if one called to or upon the Gods, they should be treated like honoured guests and offered the best of what one had.
- Blood Thesia
- Bloodless Thesia
Although blood sacrifice is very rare in Hellenismos, its practice is not forbidden provided the customs and rituals of sacrifice are completely obeyed. Blood Sacrifice falls under three central sub-categories: Olympian, Khthonic and Symbolic Blood Sacrifice.
a. Blood Thesia to Olympian Gods
Blood Sacrifices to Olympian Gods are called Communion Thesia and are specific to only the Olympian Gods where an animal is sacrificed, specified inedible portions are offered to the Gods and the flesh of the sacrificed animal is consumed in a celebratory dinner to commune with the Gods. Hecatombs of one hundred animals were offered at major festivals with thousands of attending worshippers.
Customs and Laws of Blood Sacrifice for an Olympian Deity in Communion Thesia:
Usually white animals were carefully chosen and selected.
A sacrificial animal was not allowed to be a domestic pet or an animal that served you by providing transport, dairy products, assistance in ploughing or provided companionship
The soul of the sacrificed animal is guaranteed immortality
Sacrifice to Olympians takes place at dawn
The sacrifice begins with the presiding Priest addressing the prayer and petition to the God/Goddess. As the altar is usually in the 'Temenos' (courtyard/garden) of a temple, the Priest says the prayer from the altar facing the Naos (inner sanctum of the Temple where the cult statue is enshrined).
Those congregated for the Thesia throw Barley or perform other purificatory rites over the sacrificial animal and the altar. The animal is adorned with garlands and flowers. The animal is thus blessed and purified as is the altar. Those responsible for blessing and purifying the animal are not permitted to be responsible for performing the actual sacrifice.
The sacrificial animal must walk willingly to the altar as if it is forced or dragged the sacrifice is not acceptable to the Gods. To sacrifice an unwilling victim is considered a bad omen.
The presiding Priest produces the sacred knife and turns the animal's head skywards in honour of the Olympians and slits its throat.
At the moment of sacrifice, an announcer will call the congregated worshippers to order and pray for peace in the minds of those present.
The entrails and liver were inspected by the Diviner (Mantic Priest) to see whether the Gods had accepted the sacrifice. Divination could not be performed by the Priest/Priestess who had sacrificed or carved the animal
If the offering was accepted, the blood from the animal is sprinkled upon the altar by the presiding Priest. An altar to any Olympian God is called a Vomos and is a high altar raised upon the ground.
The assisting Priest now takes over and separates the Thesia or Gods' portion (the long bones, fat and entrails) of the sacrifice and carves the carcass.
The carcass is given to the Cook-Priests or Priestesses who will cook the flesh.
The Thesia is burnt upon the altar while those congregated feast upon their own portions. The Thesia is roasted until its 'incense' rises into the air. Thus could the Olympians partake of the feast and commune with their worshippers
The rest of the meat is eaten by the gathered worshippers with a special portion (the thigh) allocated to the presiding Priest who had sacrificed the animal.
All meat had to be eaten at the festival and by a certain hour. People were not allowed to take the meat home with them. This prevented sacrificing more than was appropriate.
b. Blood Thesia to the Khthonioi (Gods of the Underworld, certain Heroes and the Ancestors)
Blood sacrifice to the Khthonioi differed in the follow manners from Communion Thesia:
Animals were usually black in colour
Thesia took place at sunset or during the night
The head of the animal was turned to face the ground in honour of the Khthonioi so that the blood could run into the earth.
The blood was sprinkled onto specific Khthonic altars. The Eskhara was a low altar that was close to the ground upon which the animal's blood would run. The Vothros was a trench or sacred pit into which the blood flowed.
The Thesia is offered to the Khthonioi whole and thus 'sacred'.
It is forbidden to eat the meat of a Khthonic Thesia. Thus a blood sacrifice to the Khthonioi is not a 'Communion Thesia'
Sacrifices to the Khthonioi date back much further than Olympian Thesia
c. Symbolic Blood Thesia
Symbolic Thesia were specific blood offerings to very specific Gods. This type of Thesia was not acceptable to all Gods and thus only the specified Gods may be sacrificed to in this unique way. They differed from Olympian and Khthonic Thesia in the following manners:
The animal intended for sacrifice was a substitute for the God it was being offered to.
The animal was selected a specified amount of time before the sacrifice.
The animal was cared for and fed by the community until the time for the Thesia.
The animal was consumed by the worshippers after the sacrifice and was seen as 'eating' the God. This was the most intimate form of communion.
The meat of the Thesia was usually eaten raw.
(Continued in Part Two)