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The Character of Sacrifices

Different cults had differing rituals, but sacrifice1 served as their centering experience. Sacrifices ranged from the bloodless offering of fruits, vegetables, and small cakes2 to the slaughter of large animals. The tradition of animal sacrifice may have descended from the practice of prehistoric hunters, who perhaps felt that they might somehow suffer retribution from supernatural powers for taking the lives of animals, living creatures like themselves, to feed themselves and their human community. The rite of sacrifice perhaps expressed their uneasiness about the paradox of having to kill animals in order to secure the means to keep themselves alive and their consequent attempt to show respect and honor to the divine forces concerned with animals. The Greeks of the classical period often sacrificed valuable domestic animals such as cattle, which their land supported in only small numbers. Looking back on fifth-century Athens, the orator Lysias explained the necessity for public sacrifice: “Our ancestors handed down to us the most powerful and prosperous community in Greece by performing the prescribed sacrifices. It is therefore proper for us to offer the same sacrifices as they, if only for the sake of the success which has resulted from those rites.”3

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