One of their chief myths, about Zeus and Prometheus, demonstrates the significance religious offerings and sacrifices held among the ancient Greeks. Prometheus -- said to have given fire to man -- had little love for the gods of Olympus. So when Zeus ordered that mortals must present parts of sacrificed of animals to the gods, Prometheus devised a trick. He created two piles -- one with bones covered in fat and the other with the good meat obscured -- and asked Zeus to pick. Zeus picked the offering piled high with fat, only to discover that beneath it was only the scant offering of bones. The mythology stuck and was used as a template for all sacrifices.
Not renowned for their benevolence, Greek gods were believed to possess human flaws. They could be vain and vindictive. Accordingly, the relationship between humans and deities was based on an exchange, with the divine expected to provide services, such as prosperity, fertility and health, and mortals expected to express their appreciation through gifts. Due to the delicacy of this arrangement, religious worship was highly ritualistic, and sacrifices played a large role. Worship took place at temples or sanctuaries dedicated to individual gods and goddesses. Within these temples were images of the deity and offerings to the gods -- sometimes sculptures or precious metals. An altar, to be used in the sacrifice of animals, stood outside each temple.
The center of Greek religious rituals was the animal sacrifice, hence the presence of the altar at the temple. Most often, the animals were oxen, goats, bulls and sheep. Some gods were thought to prefer certain animals -- Athena was believed to have liked cows as sacrifices. No matter the animal, it had to be healthy prior to the sacrifice, or the gods would take offense. These animals were often decorated with painted horns or ribbons to even further add to their worth in the eyes of the divine. At the altar, the sacrificial victim would be sprinkled with water, a symbol of purity.
When the priest sprinkled the animal, it would naturally shake its head, which those gathered took as a sign that it offered itself as a sacrifice. To perform the ritual, the priest then stunned the animal with a sharp blow to the head or neck before slitting its throat. The altars were usually made of stone or brick that ringed a fire. A metal plate sat atop the fire, and here the priest conducting the sacrifice placed meat from the animal to cook. Later, the bones and fat of the animal were placed above the fire as the offering to the god, in accordance with the myth of Zeus and Prometheus, while the rest of the meat was left to feasting for worshipers.
More than just religious exercises, sacrificial ceremonies were community events. All members of the village or community partook in the feast from the animal. In this way, the sacrifice was a matter of both religious significance and civic engagement. These events were carefully planned and timed. Just as each detail about the act of the sacrifice itself was delicately choreographed to please the gods, the occasion, too, had to be worthy. The appropriate occasions could be the gods' individual annual festivals or after the completion of battles or voyages thought to have been made successful through the gods' intervention.
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