Neoclassical Sacrifice

Ta Hiera

General Celebratory Ritual Outline

Apollonius Sophistes
© 1994


i. Purpose:

The sacrifice (Grk. ta hierá, hê thusía, Lat. sacra) is a communal meal; through it, Gods and mortals are bound together by the ties of guest-friendship.[1] Plato says, "the sole concern of every rite of sacrifice and divination - that is to say, the means of communion between Gods and mortals - is either the preservation or the repair of Love."[2]

ij. Garb:

Wash and dress in clean garments, typically an ungirded khitôn (tunic) of white, purple, or white with purple borders. Festive adornment is appropriate, including a white woolen band (Lat. infula, Grk. mítra) or a garland (Grk. stephanos, Lat. corona) woven from twigs or wreaths of flowers, particularly those sacred to the God). Cleanliness is crucial; bathing in running water is best.[3]

iij. Attitude:

During the ritual, stand with a bare head (Greek style).[4] (For Roman style, the Priest works with head covered: capite celato.[5]) In general, the worshipper's attitude should be one of trust, not humility or fear.[6] In times of extreme need, it is appropriate to grasp the feet of the divine image.[7]

iv. The Sacrificial Offering:

The sacrificial offering (Grk. hiereíon, Lat. sacrificium) should be perfect and have no blemishes; white is best for Olympian Gods; it may also be decorated with garlands, white ribbons and the like.[8]

In modern practice, the sacrificial offering is usually meat, fruit, flowers, grain, vegetables or cakes (perhaps in the shape of animals sacred to the Gods for whom the sacrifice is made). It is especially appropriate to return a token of what the God has given us. Fruit or flowers are usually accompanied by incense, burned in a censor or on the altar.[9] In modern Greece candles have usually been used instead of meat. Nowadays it is generally inappropriate to sacrifice a live animal; even in ancient times, Empedocles, Varro, Seneca and others argued that the Gods do not demand blood-sacrifice.[10]

v. The Altar:

The altar (Grk., bômós, Lat. ara) may be a brick or stone table, pillar, heap of stones, a stack of sod cut for the occasion, or simply a pile of the remnants of previous sacrifices. It may be from a few inches to several feet high; it may have steps if it is very high. The altar must provide a hearth (usually metal) for the sacred fire. The altar should not be moved once it has been used.[11]

vi. The Sanctuary:

The sanctuary (Grk., temenos, Lat. templum) is often defined by a rock wall, though that is not necessary. The altar may be in the center of the sanctuary, or against the wall opposite the entrance to the sanctuary, or in front of the sanctuary temple. If there is a temple, it usually has its door facing east and has the divine image at the west end, though orientation may vary. The sanctuary may be devoted to more than one God and may contain several altars.[12]

vij. Iron Taboo:

According to Roman tradition, iron should not be used for ritual implements or for any other purpose in the sanctuary; if it must be used, a piaculum (sacrifice made in apology, Grk. katharmon) is advisable.[13]

viij. The Fire:

The altar fire (Grk. hestía, Lat. focus) should be pure and undefiled by death or other pollutions (míasma). If the fire has been defiled, then a new fire must be procured from the hearth.[14]

ix. Pompê (The Procession):

A procession should accompany the sacrifice to the altar, in which, preferably, a maiden (the kanêphóros, or basket carrier) bears on her head a basket with the knife (Grk. sphagís, Lat. secespita, culter) or other ritual implement concealed under grains of barley or cakes. She or another may carry a jug or bowl of lustral water. The procession may be accompanied by music (especially music of the aulos, a reed instrument), singing, torches and incense (Grk. libanôtos, Lat. tus). (In Roman ritual, the sacerdos (priest/ess) carries the knife in his or her belt.)[15]

x. Perierkhesthai (To Circumambulate):

The sacred circle shall be marked, and the Priest (Grk. Hiereús, Lat. Sacerdos), Priestess (Grk. Hiéreia, Lat. Sacerdos), or whoever is directing the ritual, shall say:

"Bear the sacred objects round the altar."
The basket containing the sacred implement and a bowl of lustral water shall be carried to the right around the altar, the sacrifice and the other participants. This will delimit the sacred from the profane.[16] While the Circumambulation takes place, an invocation such as this may be recited:
We circle round creating sacred space,
invoking from the Heavens holy grace.
We call the Gods to guard our solemn rite,
and ward this hallowed ground with walls of light.
Let sky above and earth below unite,
a bond established by Olympic might.
Let fear and discord leave without a trace,
and peace prevail within this holy place.

Let word be deed by this decree.
As it is said, so must it be!
(Sit verbum factum hoc decreto.
Ut dictum est, sic statim fiat!)

The sanctuary is thus consecrated by holy words and becomes a fanum (Grk. hierón). When the circumambulation is complete, the priest may declare:[17]
"Hékas, hékas, éste bébêloi!" (Greek)
"Procul, o procul, este profani!" (Latin)
Begone, whatever is unholy!
All then stand around the altar (in a semicircle, if a circle is not possible). Usually the priest shall stand to the right of the altar (from his or her perspective), facing east, with the temple (if there is one) at his or her back. An assistant holding the incense box (Grk. thumiatêrion, Lat. acerra, turibulum) may stand on the same side; other assistants stand to the left or behind. If the sanctuary is a permanent one, then it is better if the participants other than the priest and assistants wait outside the sacred circle until they can be purified when they enter (step xij below). [18]

xi. Arkhesthai (To Begin):

The priest shall take a brand from the sacred altar fire and thrust it into the lustral water (Grk. khérnips, Lat. aqua lustralis); this consecrates the water, making it húdôr theíon (Greek, holy water) or aqua igne sacra inflammata (Latin, water inflamed by sacred fire).[19]

xij. Kherniptesthai (To Purify by Holy Water):

The worshippers undergo purification (Grk. khérnibes, Lat. lustratio); they may dip their hands in the khernips, or it may be poured over the hands of each in turn; they are dried on linen cloths.[20] Consecrated water should also be sprinkled over the altar, the sacrifice, and those offering the sacrifice; for this purpose an aspergillum (Grk. perirrantêrion) or the firebrand can be used.[21]

xiij. Katarkhesthai (To Begin the Sacrifice):

Each participant shall take a handful of (roasted) barley groats (oulai, oulokhutai) or salted barley corn or bits of salt-cake (Grk. maza, Lat. mola salsa) from the basket (oulokhoeion).[22] The priest or crier shall call for silence:[23]

"Euphêmeíte!" (Greek: Speak no evil! Quiet!):
"Favete linguis!" (Latin: Hold your tongues!):
The music, however, can continue.[24]

If the sacrifice is being done Roman style, the priests shall cover their heads with their hoods or folds of their togas.[25]

xiv. The Prayer (Litê or Preces):

The priest shall turn to the right and face the sacred image of the God (i.e. toward the temple, if there is one). For Olympian Gods the priest shall raise his arms to the sky with upturned palms. For sea Gods he may stretch out his hands horizontally to the sea. His palms are turned down for Gods of the underworld, but there are special measures for Them.[26] The priest shall recite the prayer, invocation, wish and vow, which should be done ceremonially and resoundingly.[27] When addressing Gods it is common to add Their epithets and conclude with a formula such as "or by whatever name it pleaseth Thee to be addressed." This is a typical prayer (Grk. litê, Lat. preces):

"Demeter Chloê (Verdure), Persephone Korê (Maiden), Ye Thesmophoroi (Bringers of Treasures) and all Ye Gods, receive these offerings because Ye have granted many favors and as an expression of thanksgiving for granting me guidance by omens. And I abundantly return You thanks, for I have been sensible of Your care and protection, and because, in the course of my prosperity, I never was exalted above what becomes mortals. I implore You now to bestow all happiness on my children, my wife, my friends and my people; and for myself, that I may die as I have always lived."[28]
The prayer should be recited perfectly; if there is an error (vitium), the whole sacrifice must be repeated (called an instauratio), along with a katharmon or piaculum (an additional offering as an apology).[29]

In Roman prayer, especially in extreme need, one places the right hand on the lips, turns completely around to the right and falls to the knees or prostrate, grasping the altar or image of the God. When out of doors, face east; when indoors, face the sanctuary.[30]

xv. Oulokhuteisthai (To Throw Barley):

At the conclusion of the prayer, all shall throw their groats onto the altar, sacrifice and earth (immolare, to throw the mola). They may say,

Macte hoc [mola et] vino et ture esto.
Be thou blessed by [barley,] wine and incense.
while sprinkling wine, incense and barley.[31]

xvi. Aparkhesthai (To Begin the Sacrificial Cutting):

The sacrifical instrument shall be uncovered, which the priest shall grasp and conceal.[32]

A small piece shall be cut from the sacrificial object and burned on the fire. A libation (usually of wine and water) may be poured on the altar or on the sacrifice from a patera (flat dish) held in the right hand with the palm held upward; the patera is tilted forward.[33]

xvij. Preparation for the Sacrifice:

Silence is again ensured, and the music (especially the aulos) may begin again.[34]

xviij. The Ololugê (Ritual Cry):

If women are attending the sacrifice, they should raise a shrill cry, like a flute trill, "ololololololo... lugAY!" as the cut is made. (This is the traditional cry by which women invoke the Gods, and may be an imitation of the cry of a small owl, perhaps recalling the Mediterranean witches, the "owl-women" - Greek strix, Latin striga. The Latin word for making the ololugê is ululo, which is also the origin of ulula, another word for owl.[35])

xix. The Cut:

The cultrarius (knife-holder), if different from the priest, may ask, "Agone?" (Do I strike?). When the priest says "Hoc age!" (Strike!), the sacrifice shall be cut with a single stroke. The cut should be clean, or the sacrifice is not considered auspicious.[36]

xx. Presentation on the Altar:

The cut should be made so that the pieces of the sacrifice fall on the altar, or it can also be cut or broken in a bowl, which shall then be emptied on the altar.[37] The priest may say something such as this [38]:

Behold! The cut is made!
The grain must be cut down and ground to flour;
the grapes are crushed to ferment into wine;
a beast must die so we may eat its meat.
So life is built on life by Nature's law.
The stuff of life is passed to us from them,
as we return it when our time has come.

xxi. Inspecting the Sacrifice:

The sacrifice should be inspected to ensure that it is also perfect on the inside; if some defect is found (especially in the part to be given to the Gods), the sacrifice must be repeated.[39]

xxij. Sacrifice to Hestia:

The priest shall say, "We always start with Thee, Hestía" ("Vesta," for Roman ritual), and burn a small portion of the sacrifice on the altar fire; cake, incense and wine may be added.[40]

xxiij. Tasting the Sacrifice:

The remainder of the sacrifice shall be cut up, and the priest and inner circle of participants shall taste a bit of the sacrifice.[41]

xxiv. Offerings:

Parts, especially inedible parts, of the sacrifice may be burned on the altar fire for the Gods, or at least held up for the Gods to see. Food offerings, such as cakes, broth, wine and incense (especially frankincense) may also be burned at this time.[42]

The priest and others may say "Hílathi" (Be Thou propitious), "Hílate (Be Ye propitious), or "Be kind" as they make their offerings.[43] In Latin one could say "Propitius/a esto" (Be Thou propitious) or "Propitii estote" (Be Ye propitious).

Whenever incense is offered, a prayer such as this may be recited:

We burn sweet incense to the Gods above,
to carry to Olympos' heights our prayers,
ascending skyward on these fragrant airs.
We ask Their blessings, guidance, strength and love.

xxv. Libations:

Libations of wine or oil shall be poured on the altar, and it is considered very auspicious if the fire flares up, for it is a sign of the God's presence. Libations may be accompanied with cries of "Spondê!" (Greek, spon-DAY) or "Libatio!" (Latin, lee-BAH-tih-oh): Drink-offering! Libation![44]

xxvi. Final Libation to Hestia:

The rites are brought to a close by making a last libation to Hestia [45]. The priest says, "We always end with Thee, Hestía."

xxvij. Final Prayer:

The offerings may be followed by a final prayer such as this:

We thank You Gods for being here with us,
to hold Your rites in perfect love and trust.
Return to Your fair halls, if go Ye must,
or linger here, and share this feast with us.
Blessed be!
The priest declares the formal end of the sacrfice by saying:[46]
Hierá eisi téleia. (Grk., The rites are complete.)
Ilicet. (Lat., You may go; it is done.)
The Rites are done.

xxviij. The Sacred Feast:

The sacred meal (Grk. hestíasis, euôkhía, Lat. epulum) should follow when the altar fire dies down. Food may be roasted or boiled, if necessary, on the altar or another fire. The feast should be accompanied with joyous music and dance. Normally, all food should be consumed in the sacred precincts or left for the Gods. If this is not possible, then the celebrants may take it home, leave it with the priests, or give it to poor people.[47] It is also appropriate to have games and contests (Grk. agônes, Lat. ludi) of all sorts in honor of the Gods.

Pronunciation Guidelines

The Neoclassical Sacrifice includes various words and phrases from ancient ritual practice. In most cases these are given in Greek, Latin and English. Each Priest must decide, based on their experience as well as the knowledge of the other participants, what balance to use between English, which is immediately comprehensible, and ancient words imbued with power through ancient Pagan practice. One reasonable compromise is to say the word or phrase twice, in English and in one of the ancient tongues. Following are guidelines for reasonably authentic ancient pronunciation.

Ancient Greek

Contemporary scholarship has established the following pronunciation for Ancient Greek, as transcribed here in the Roman alphabet (see also
A Brief Guide to Ancient Greek Pronunciation). Vowels: a = o (as in "not"), e = ay (as in "bay"), ê = long eh, i = ee, o = oh, ô = long aw (as in "awe"), u = ü (like German u-umlaut or Spanish y-grec), au = ow ("cow"), ei = long ay, eu = eh-oo (blended), oi = oy ("boy"), ou = oo ("boot"). Consonants: mostly as in English, with the following exceptions: kh (or ch) = aspirated k (as in Scottish "loch"), ph = aspirated p (alternately, f), th = aspirated t (alternately, th as in "thigh"), z = dz, r is rolled. In many cases the accented syllable (which should be at a higher pitch) is marked (á etc.); if it is not, the syllable with the circumflexed vowel (e.g. ê) often bears the accent; this is perhaps the best that can be done in a simple Roman transcription of Ancient Greek.


Vowels and consonants are in general pronounced as in modern Romance languages such as Italian and Spanish. However, note that in Classical Latin c, g, t are always hard (even in "tio"), r is rolled, and v = w. Accent is on the second to last syllable (penult) if it is long (or there are only two syllables), otherwise on the third to last (antepenult).


  1. Fairbanks 98; Nilsson, Greek Folk Religion 74-5.
  2. Symposium 188b5-c2.
  3. Burkert GR 56; Fairbanks 100; Ogilvie 47; Guhl & Koner 285; Ramsay 167.
  4. Fairbanks 89.
  5. Ogilvie 48.
  6. Fairbanks 89.
  7. Fairbanks 89.
  8. Burkert GR 56; Fairbanks 100.
  9. Fairbanks 103; Guhl & Koner 284.
  10. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion 336-7; Burkert HN 8.
  11. Burkert GR 87-8; Fairbanks 69.
  12. Burkert GR 87-8; Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion 191.
  13. Laing, op. cit. 219-20.
  14. Fairbanks 100.
  15. Burkert GR 56; Burkert HN 4; Guhl & Koner 537.
  16. Burkert GR 56; Burkert HN 4; Fairbanks 100; Aristophanes Peace 956-7; Euripides Iphigen. Aulis 1568.
  17. Ogilvie 47; Guhl & Koner 545; Ramsay 157-8.
  18. Burkert GR 87; Ogilvie 51; Guhl & Koner 544.
  19. Burkert GR 77; Fairbanks 100.
  20. Burkert GR 56, 77; Fairbanks 100; Ogilvie 47; Ramsay 167.
  21. Burkert GR 56; Fairbanks 100.
  22. Burkert GR 56; Fairbanks 101; Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion 166; Guhl & Koner 283-4; Burkert HN 4.
  23. Ogilvie 48; Burkert HN 4.
  24. Ogilvie 48.
  25. Ogilvie 48.
  26. Burkert GR 56, 75; Ogilvie 48; Guhl & Koner 283.
  27. Burkert GR 56.
  28. Adapted from a prayer attributed to Cyrus in Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.7.3.
  29. Ogilvie 48, 51.
  30. Ramsay 165.
  31. Burkert GR; Burkert HN 4; Fairbanks 101; Ramsay 167.
  32. Burkert GR 56.
  33. Fairbanks 101; Ogilvie 48; Ramsay 167-8.
  34. Fairbanks 101.
  35. Burkert GR 56, 74; LSJ s.v. ololugaios, strix; OCD s.v. striga.
  36. Ogilvie 48.
  37. Burkert GR 56; Burkert HN 5; Ogilvie 49.
  38. Burkert HN 45.
  39. Fairbanks 102; Ogilvie 49.
  40. Nilsson, Greek Folk Religion 75; Ramsay 167.
  41. Burkert GR 57; Fairbanks 101.
  42. Burkert GR 57, 62; Fairbanks 103.
  43. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion 336.
  44. Burkert GR 57, 61, 71.
  45. New Larousse Encyc. Myth. 136.
  46. Fairbanks 120; Ramsay 167.
  47. Burkert GR 57; Fairbanks 102; Ogilvie 50; Guhl & Koner 545.


  1. Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1985.
  2. Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, Univ. of California Press, 1983.
  3. Fairbanks, Arthur. A Handbook of Greek Religion, New York: American Book Co., 1910.
  4. Guhl, E., & Koner, W. The Life of the Greeks and Romans, London: Chatto & Windus, 1877.
  5. Ogilvie, R. M. The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus, New York: Norton, 1969.
  6. Ramsay, William. An Elementary Manual of Roman Antiquities, 10th ed., London: Charles Griffin & Co., n.d.

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