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by H. Crosthwaite



THE Greeks (and many others) tell us that strange objects appeared in the sky, often with unpleasant consequences for the earth. If we assume that they were telling the truth as they saw it, then their reactions appear to have a certain logic behind them.

I suggest that imitation, better still imitation with slight alterations to portray a safe outcome, was the reaction of the peoples of the world; in fact, sympathetic magic. The hope must have been that a celestial object which, from previous experience, might be a threat to survival, would go away, assume a safer orbit, etc.. Since it was not possible to repel such gods or monsters by ordinary physical means, sympathetic magic and prayers were the only possibilities. Here we have one explanation of sacrifice.

This is not a modern interpretation. Plutarch, in his Isis and Osiris, 362 E, tells us that "the Egyptians sacrifice to Typhon with the intention of soothing his anger, yet at some festivals they insult red-headed men, and throw an ass over a cliff, because Typhon was red-headed and like an ass in colour." In 363 B, he says that the Egyptians sacrifice red cattle because Typhon was red.

The Greek verb sphazo means slaughter, Hebrew zabhach. The thuoskoos was the priest who slew and offered the victim. Thusiue are rites, or offerings. Thrustas boe is the cry uttered in sacrificing [1] . 'Thuo', usually translated as "I sacrifice", implies 'I offer part of a meal as first fruits to a god, by throwing it on the fire'.

The hiereus was a priest who divined from the victim's entrails. The procedure was that an ox would have its horns gilded. Hair was cut from the forehead of the ox and thrown on the fire before it was killed. At Rome a fillet, a band of red and white wool, was worn by both priest and victim. The victim was bedecked with garlands, and some of the hair burnt. The vitta, fillet, was worn by poets, brides, Vestal Virgins, tied round altars [2] , and on sacred trees.


The goat Amalthea was foster mother to Zeus. The monster Tiamat, according to an old tradition, had the appearance of a goat. The animal was clearly of great importance to the Greeks, and a he-goat was sacrificed in March at the start of the Great Dionysia, the drama festival in honour of Dionysus.

The goat was used for removing guilt from a community, and the term scapegoat is still in use today. "And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness" [3] .

"And he shall go out into the altar that is before the Lord, and make an atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about" [4]

"And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness" [5] . Goat and horse sacrifices are mentioned in the Rig Veda. In Greek a pharmakos is a sorcerer, also a human scapegoat. The word occurs in the Agamemnon, line 548, "pharmakon blabes", a scapegoat against harm, and in Aristophanes, The Frogs, line 733. In the festival of the Thargelia at Athens two men were driven out. Originally two men had been put to death in an expiatory sacrifice. In Chaeronea, hunger, boulimos, was whipped out of the door in the form of a slave. At Massilia, in time of plague, a poor man was feasted for a year, then expelled (see Greek Religion, by Walter Burkert). In Greece, an ox was driven out, across the city boundary, or towards enemies [6] .

The aegis was the shield of Zeus, and seems to have been made of goatskin. It appears on statues of Athene as a short scaly cloak. It is fringed with tassels, thusanoessa. 'Thusanos', tassel, is also the arm of a cuttlefish. It is described by Homer: "phobos estephanotai", crowned, or surrounded, with fear [7] . Strife, Might, and Rout are shown on it, and it is set with the head of the Gorgon. The combination of goatskin and snake-like arms suggests a connection with Tiamat, the cosmic serpent mentioned above. There are plenty of accounts of monsters with writhing limbs, etc., so the derivation of aegis and of aix, a goat, from the verb 'aisso', to move with a quick darting motion, is easy.

If we turn to Norse myth, we find confirmation. Thor, the sky god who wielded his hammer Myollnir, lightning, with iron gloves on his hands and wearing a belt of strength, rattled through the sky in his carriage drawn by goats. His hammer had a handle slightly too short. This is normally explained by reference to throwing hammers with a hole in the end of the shaft, but another interpretation is possible, since in mountainous country, if one sees lightning strike the cairn on a peak it seems to fall short.

Thor was provided with gigantic cauldrons, which remind us of the seething pot in the sky (Old Testament Jeremiah 1: 13). Thor had a red beard, and there is probably a connection with what the Greeks say they saw in the sky. There is a story that the giant Thrym stole Thor's hammer. To recover it, Thor disguised himself as Freya, to be married to the giant. At the wedding feast Thrym tried to kiss the bride, but was disconcerted to see the fierce glare of the bride's eyes under the veil. When the hammer was passed round to bring good luck, Thor got his hands on it, and the crisis was over. Incidentally, a feather suit such as Freya wore is also worn by Quetzalcoatl-Kukulcan, the feathered serpent of Central American myth.

Thor's encounter with the Midgard Serpent is well known. The Tarnhelm, or helmet of invisibility, may be a link with Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.

The Greeks commonly used two words for an altar: 'bomos', and 'eschara'. Eschara means especially a hearth, such as there was at the shrine at Delphi by the Pythia's tripod.

An altar was of stone and had horns at the corners. It was sometimes decorated in relief with a serpent. There is a Celtic example, showing a ram-headed serpent, at Lypiatt Park, Gloucestershire. There was an altar to Apollo at Delos, his birthplace, made entirely of horn, according to Plutarch:

"I saw the horn altar, celebrated as one of the seven wonders, for it needs no glue or other bond, but is fixed and fitted together only by horns taken from the right side of the head" [8] .

It is obvious that this altar, and any other with horns of real horn as opposed to stone representations, would not be used for an ordinary fire. The aim was to induce a lightning strike on the victim. Electrical action from the sky would be more likely if water or blood were poured over the victim and round the altar, and this is in fact what was done. There are remains of altars on the island of Samothrace. A temple precinct there had a 'bothros', or pit, and an eschara or hearth altar, and at Thera there is an open air temenos dedicated by Artemidorus, a Greek from Perge. It is cut in the rock of a low cliff. The altar to the Samothracian gods (who are closely connected with magnetism and electricity) has a hole six inches in diameter cut in the top, a channel from this to ground level, a distance of forty inches, and a shallow depression in front of the altar in the stone floor of the temenos. It is well designed for conductivity.

The altar constructed by Elijah has been mentioned, but there is so clear a description of the technique that it deserves to be quoted at greater length.

"And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under. And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud; for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked. And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any answer, nor any that regarded. And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down. And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be thy name: And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood. And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time. And the water ran around about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water. And it came to pass at the tune of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art god in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again. Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, the Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God" [9] .

If electrical effects began to fade the design would be changed, altars and horns would be of stone throughout, to allow an ordinary fire to be used to stimulate or to replace the electrical fire from the sky.

There is another word for an altar in Greek --thumele. It was analtar-shaped platform with steps, practically a mini-ziggurat, which was placed in the middle of the orchestra, the circular area in front of the stage in a Greek theatre. 'Thumele' suggests the verb 'thuo', sacrifice by burnt offerings. It is also called 'eleos'. The Greek writer Julius Pollux, fl. A. D. 180, tells us that it was an ancient table; before the time of Thespis a man mounted it and spoke to the chorus. Yet another name for an altar is thuoros. Presumably it is from thuo, sacrifice by fire, and oros, mountain. It means a sacrificial table, for offerings. According to Pherecydes, a 6th century B. C. logographos or chronicler, it is the gods' word for trapeza, the usual word for a table. Opinions differ as to whether a trapeza originally had three legs or four. Trapeza also means a part of the liver.


Iliad XVII: 520: Just as when a strong man with a sharp axe cuts behind the horns of an ox, cutting right through, and the ox jumps forward and collapses, so he (Aretus) jumped and fell on his back.

Odyssey III: 418: Nestor gave orders for a heifer to be brought from the field. The goldsmith Laerces gilded the heifer's horns. Wood was brought to go round the altar, and fresh water. The smith beat the gold into foil and laid it round the heifer's horns. Aretus brought a flowered lustral bowl and a basket for barley grains. Thrasymedes held a sharp axe (pelekus), and Perseus held the dish (amnion) to catch the blood. Nestor started the sacrifice by sprinkling lustral water and grain, and throwing a lock from the ox's head into the fire ... They prayed and threw grains of barley, and Thrasymedes struck (elasen). The axe cut the tendons of the neck and the heifer collapsed. The women raised their cry. The men lifted up the heifer from the ground and Peisistratus cut its throat (sphaxen). When the blood had run out and it was dead, they cut up the body, cut slices from the thighs, wrapped them in folds of fat and laid raw meat on them. The old man burnt them on the faggots, and sprinkled fiery wine on them. The young men beside him held five-pronged forks. When the thighs were burnt and they had tasted the inner parts, they cut up the rest and skewered it on spits over the fire.

Odyssey III: 464 ff.: Polycaste gave Telemachus a bath, rubbed him with olive oil, and he looked like a god. He sat down to the feast. When they had roasted the flesh on the spits, they ate and drank. Then Nestor, mindful of the laws of hospitality, ordered horses and chariot to be prepared so that Telemachus would not have to start on his journey alone.

Aeneid II: 268 ff.: Aeneas is asleep while the Greeks are mounting the final attack on Troy. Hector appears to him in a dream, and urges him to leave at once with the Penates. He brings out from their shrine the fillets (vittas) and mighty Vesta and the eternal fire.

Aeneid IV: 54 ff.: Dido confides in her sister Anna, and consults the gods about her hoped-for marriage with Aeneas. They visit the shrines, asking for the favour of the gods. They sacrifice selected sheep to Ceres, to Phoebus and to Bacchus, especially to Juno, who presides over marriage. Dido herself holds the dish and pours the wine between the horns of a white cow, or walks up and down before the faces of the gods' statues at their altars covered in offerings, and celebrates each day anew with gifts. She studies the open breasts of victims, gazing with parted lips at their steaming entrails. Alas for the ignorant minds of seers! What help to the infatuated woman are prayers and shrines? The flame consumes the soft marrow of her bones, the wound in her heart is silent yet alive. Unhappy Dido burns; she wanders, out of her mind, all over the city.

Aeneid IV: 450: Bad omens on altars: The sacred water turns black and the wine turns into blood.

V: 84: At the funeral games for his father, Aeneas sees a huge snake, writhing in seven coils, creeping over the burial mound and altars. It consumes the offering, then departs.

Pausanias I: 16: 1: When Seleucus set out from Macedonia with Alexander, the firewood on the altar moved and burned spontaneously.

II: 5: 5: Between Corinth and Sicyon is a burnt temple to Apollo. One story is that it was dedicated to Olympian Zeus, and sudden fire fell on it and burnt it down.

GOATS Iliad IV: 166: Agamemnon consoles the wounded Menelaus: Zeus who lives high up in heaven will be angry at the Trojan's treachery and will shake his dark aegis at them all. Pausanias III: 15: 9: The Laconians sacrifice goats to Hera the goat-eater. Herakles founded the sanctuary and was the first to sacrifice goats.

Iliad XVII: 593: Apollo inspires Hector, and the son of Kronos takes up his glittering tasselled aegis, veils Mount Ida in cloud, and sends a lightning flash with a great clap of thunder. He shakes his aegis, and gives victory to the Trojans, putting the Achaeans to flight.

Herodotos IV: Greeks took the aegis for statues of Athene from Libya. The dress of Libyan women is of leather and has tassels of leather instead of snakes. Libyan women also wear goatskins dyed red, fringed.

Aristotle refers to the fall of a meteorite at Aegospotami (goat's river), when a comet was in the sky.

Frazer, The Golden Bough XLIII, mentions Dionysus as "The one of the black goatskin." When the gods fled to Egypt to escape the fury of Typhon, Dionysus was turned into a goat.

At Rome a she-goat was sacrificed to Jupiter Vedijovis. At Tenedos the new born calf sacrificed to Dionysus was shod in buskins.

At Delphi the dragon Python had a son called Aix (goat). ALTARS Aeneid IV: 219: Iarbas, the unsuccessful suitor, prays to Jupiter Ammon with complaints against Aeneas, this second Paris, wearing a Phrygian cap tied under his chin and over his oiled hair, accompanied by the train of effeminates. As he prayed, he held his hand on the altar.

Iliad XX: 402: A bull is dragged round the altar. The Contest of Homer and Hesiod, line 325: Homer crossed to Delos to the assembly (paneguris), and standing on the horn altar he recited the Hymn to Apollo.

Notes (Chapter Seven: Sacrifice)

1. Aeschylus: 'Seven Against Thebes' 269

2. Vergil: 'Eclogues' VIII: 64

3. Old Testament Leviticus XVI: 7-10

4. Ibid. Verse 18

5. Ibid. Verse 21

6. Plutarch: 'Quaestiones Graecae' 297

7. Homer: 'Iliad' V: 738 ff.

8. Plutarch: 'The Intelligence of Animals' 983

9. Old Testament I Kings XVIII: 25 ff.

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