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Occasions for Sacrifice and Festivals

The ritual of sacrifice1 provided the primary occasion of contact between the gods and their worshippers. The great majority of sacrifices took place as regularly scheduled events on the community's civic calendar. At Athens, for example, the first eight days of every month were marked by demonstrations of the citizens' piety toward the deities of the city-state's official cults. The third day of each month was celebrated as Athena's2 birthday; the sixth as that of Artemis3,the goddess of wild animals, who was also the special patroness of the Athenian council of 500; her brother, Apollo4, was honored on the following day. Athens boasted of having the largest number of religious festivals in all of Greece, with nearly half the days of the year featuring one, some large and some small. Not everyone attended all the festivals, and hired laborers' contracts would specify which holidays they received to attend religious ceremonies. Major occasions such as the Panathenaic festival, whose procession was portrayed on the Parthenon frieze, attracted large crowds of men, women, and children. The Panathenaic festival honored Athena not only with sacrifices and parades, but also with contests in music, dancing,poetry, and athletics. Valuable prizes were awarded to the winners. Some festivals were for women only, such as the three-day festival for married women in honor of the goddess Demeter5, the protectress of agriculture and life-giving fertility in general.

Large Animal Sacrifice

The sacrifice of a large animal6 both provided an occasion for the community to reassemble to reaffirm its ties to the divine world and, by the sharing of the roasted meat of the sacrificed animal, for the worshippers to benefit personally from a good realtionship with the gods. The feasting that followed a blood sacrifice was especially meaningful in this latter sense because meat was comparatively rare in the Greek diet. The actual sacrificing of the animal proceeded along strict rules meant to ensure the purity of the occasion. The elaborate procedures required for a blood sacrifice show how seriously and solemnly the Greeks regarded the killing of animals for sacrifice. The victim had to be an unblemished domestic animal, specially decorated with garlands, and induced to approach the altar as if of its own volition. The assembled crowd had to maintain a strict silence to avoid possibly impure remarks. The sacrificer sprinkled water on the victim's head so it would, in shaking its head in response to the sprinkle, appear to consent to its death. After washing his hands, the sacrificer scattered barley grains on the altar fire and the victim's head and then cut a lock of the animal's hair to throw on the fire. Following a prayer, he swiftly cut the animal's throat while musicians played flute-like pipes and female worshippers screamed, presumably to express the group's ritual sorrow at the victim's death. The carcass was then butchered, with some portions thrown on the altar fire so their aromatic smoke could waft its way upwards to the god of the cult. The majority of the meat was then distributed among the worshippers.

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