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sacrifice in Greek literature reveals its symbolic importance. At a time when politics and religion were one in the same, sacrifice was crucial in regulating governmental issues. Tragedies manipulate rituals in order to portray a community’s current sense of order or disorder. The pattern of sacrifice typically entails conflict between the needs of an individual and those of a community in crisis, ultimately resolved in favor of the community through willing participation of the sacrificial victim (Easterling 188). Rites of sacrifice serve to rectify corrupted relations, and maintain moral balance. The social order of Greek life is constructed, by sacrifice, through irrevocable acts; religion and political existence were thoroughly integrated forcing all other life functions to reflect this foundation. In Greek literature, the role of sacrifice served many functions. The literal meaning of sacrifice, in most instances, juxtaposes the consequences of its perpetrations, ultimately establishing beneficial results. Most importantly, sacrifice was the basis of the relations maintained between men and gods, establishing a means of contact and interaction. Additionally, the practice of ritual sacrifice helped to classify the gods, and differentiate them from one another: double aspects of a single deity, hierarchical relations between two dietes, or the outstanding nature of one particular deity. And finally, sacrifice functions directly to clarify the political rights of each individual and reveal the structures of their social body (Sissa and Marcel). However, various implementations of sacrifice can possibly induce different results depending on the direction of the interaction. For example, sacrifice can take place between a god and animals, humans, or another god thus revealing rites both of, and to mythological gods. Mortals made sacrifices at any time, to any god during the occurrence of something that fell with that deity’s’ jurisdiction, or as a payment of a vow (Sissa and Marcel). Rites of sacrifice were also the focus of many cultural festivals in which additional purposes were combined, such as rites of initiation, purification, fire, blood and oath. These rites presented themselves in all facets of Greek culture, producing ritualistic transfers of virtue, possessions, and power seeking to redress past injustices or to return existence to the status quo.Mikey Ritualistic Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Mythology The ritual of sacrifice in Greek literature played a prominent role in societal influence, defining many aspects of their culture. Sacrifice was the foundation of moral concern, as well as an effective means of narrative development in Greek tragedy. The thematic reoccurrence of
However, blood, oath, and fire rituals are simply additional aspects, or traditions connected with rites of sacrifice that exemplify the detail once exhibited surrounding previous experiences. For example, the power of blood in belief and superstition exits only when it is warm running blood- as it is also necessary that the altars become bloody, in adherence with ritualistic protocol. Occasionally human blood rituals were performed, yet limited to only two reasons: before battle and at the burial of the dead (Burkert 60). Although instances of sacrifice in Greek literature are not limited by their purpose or triviality, as can be seen in exchanges of virtues or material belongings, the traditional premise of ritual sacrifice is ceremonious in conduct and essentially religious. Typically, the sacrificial victims are almost always animals—customarily Greeks chose the bull, the sheep, the ox, the goat, or the pig as honorable subjects (Burkert 55). Humanistic ritual, contrastingly, was not as prevalent due to societal disapproval, though instances of human sacrifice did occasionally take place in Ancient Greece. The moral decision pertaining to blatant human sacrifice creates a double-standard in mythological theory: on one hand it is nothing more than the sacrifice of a victim as a means to satisfy the vengeance of the gods; but on the other hand it is a violent sacrilege resulting in the murder of another human. Greek mythological accounts of human sacrifice reflect the hesitancy of society towards killing one of their own. Rene Girard, a Civilization Professor at Stanford University presents the rationalization of this position in his novel, Violence and the Sacred: “this dividing of sacrifice into two categories, human and animal, has itself a sacrificial character, in a strictly ritualistic sense. The division is based in effect on a value judgment, on the preconception that one category of victim—the human being—is quite unsuitable for sacrificial purposes, while another character—the animal—is eminently sacrificeable” (11). Girard further maintains that both forms of sacrifice are unnecessarily violent in nature contributing to a misunderstanding of value categorization. In order to remain morally sound, there must be a unified set of specifications regarding individual’s appropriateness for sacrifice. Typically, Greek mythology portrayed the current moral standards of society, thus creating the prominence of animal sacrifice in ritual. Yet, in the Oresteia, the story of Agamemnon revolves around human sacrifice as a secondary motif. Simultaneously, however, epitomizing public reaction to such types of ritual. The first instance of sacrifice, and the cause of all following retribution, begins when Agamemnon resolves to sacrifice his daughter, Iphpigenia, because of constraints being placed upon him by Artemis and Zeus. And because Agamemnon is blinded by his determination for his Army’s success, he commits the sacrifice fervently. The chorus then provides the appropriate reaction to this, announcing that the King “has had a change of heart that is impure, sacrilegious: he is prepared to dare anything, his mind is made up…He dares to become the sacrificer of his own daughter in order to help an army recapture a woman and to open up the sea to his ships” (Aeschylus). The fact that Agamemnon willingly sacrifices his daughter so quickly, shows that her life meant nothing to him once it began to infringe upon his military progress. In tradition with other works by Aeschylus, the corruption of sacrifice taints all interaction. The tragedy resolves itself through further acts of immoral sacrifice motivated by vengeance. Agamenmnon’s own wife, Clytemnestra, becomes his murderer due to orders from the gods as well as out of her own hatred for him. Thus, the play ends morally reversed, resulting in the triumph of corruption. Yet the remaining trilogy in the Oresteia resolves the issues of ‘perverted-sacrifice,’ once again establishing order. This play conveys the degree by which the social order in Ancient Greece was constructed by sacrifice. The irrevocable acts in Agamemnon produce a series of consequential events that essentially aid in stabilizing the city’s foundation. The strength of a city in Greek literature was typically attributed to the blessings or vengeance inflicted by the gods. Strong discipline, in Ancient Greece, prevented chaos and disorder as can be seen in Agamemnon. Failure to observe and respect the absolute power of a god eventually overturned his entire life. The punishments typically given out by gods were not set to any scale or limit—a spiteful mood might provoke a decree of death for no particular offense at all. But alongside rites of sacrifice, gods often punished by means of metamorphosis or definitive sentences of torture. Regardless of the actual consequences surrounding the sentence, the primary means of compensation and communication between gods and mortals, further shown through punishment, was sacrifice. The complete integration of religion and law in Ancient Greece inevitably reinforced their social hierarchy, further unifying their sense of foundation. Although similar in purpose and ritual, human and animal sacrifices differ completely in societal reputation. Whereas human sacrifice epitomized the ultimate rite of corruption, animal sacrifice marked a festive occasion for the whole community. In Ancient Greece, society honored sacrificial ritual very highly. The very essence of “the sacred act,” according to Greek myth, is defined simply as the “slaughter and consumption of a domestic animal for a god” (Burkert 55). This definition portrays the symbolic value and prominence of social functions in Greek culture. They were extremely concerned with all of the various aspects of a perfectly executed gathering. Most considered a meal, “as an opportunity par excellence to put on a cultural performance. Because a dining table implies fair distribution, invitations, and an alternation of roles, it is a place where symbolism is rampant, where men talk and reveal themselves, and where the cooked fare introduces an aesthetic that satisfies a hankering rather than an appetite”(Sissa and Marcel 68). And the “hankering,” an insatiable desire for the great ritual of the expiatory sacrifice. The actual sacrifice, depicted in great detail, is considered such an honorable rite; the brute violence involved is overlooked. The hypocrisy portrayed in this situation reveals the existence of sacrifice as an incorrigible proposition, completely inherent in its foundation of Greek Mythology. The ritual varies in detail, dependant upon local custom, however the basic structure and purpose is clear: “animal sacrifice is ritualized slaughter followed by a meat meal” (Burkert 57). This particular rite also places an equally heavy emphasis on preparation (a central act of killing, attended with weapons, blood, fire, and shrill cries), in attempts to further appease the gods by sensationalizing each act of sacrifice. The gods derive much pleasure from these festivals in a variety of ways: savoring the aromas that rise up from the sacrificial altars, sharing their coveted ambrosia with the mortals at their tables (Sissa and Marcel 69). Walter Burkert stated that, “Such a sacrifice is performed for a god, and yet the god manifestly receives next to nothing: the good meat serves entirely for the festive feasting of the participants . . .poets recount how the god remembers the sacrifice with pleasure or how he rages dangerously if sacrifices fail to be performed” (Burkert 57) Following the sacrificial acts and festivities, the remainder of the ritual consists of two moments representative of the ultimate purpose of the sacrificial feast: speaking to the god, and appeasing his wrath. Essentially, the “feasting of the sacrificers goes hand in hand with the homage—both poetic and in the form of nourishment—offered to an immortal” (Sissa and Marcel 70). Yet despite the circumstantial results of each festival, rites of sacrifice momentarily established a means of communication, and relations between mortals and gods. The fact that humans must rely solely upon sacrificial rites in order to maintain contact with the gods succeeds in further solidifying the social foundations created by these very rituals. Additional occurrences of animal sacrifice take place in the Dionysiac religion, which is centered on Dionysus—the god of vegetation, consists of the Bacchae (female worshippers of Dionysus), and Satyrs (the male counterparts). In mythology, however, both groups of followers appear slightly more than human. They worship Dionysus through crazed periods of ecstatic dancing, and ravage the raw flesh of a sacrificial animal, a ritual believed to bring the worshippers closer to the god, as he was believed to be present inside the victim (Girard 119). In the Bacchae, by Euripides, the primary structural plot of the play revolves around Pentheus, and his tragic misfortune. Yet his ultimate demise left him a sacrificial victim to the worshippers of Dionysus. The story portrays Pentheus and his progressive failures leading to his sacrifice. He left the city disguised as a female worshipper of Dionysus, yet decides to stay and defend his right to rule what was intended to be his. But eventually, he was hunted down and defeated by genuine Bucchae members; and finally he was dismembered, and symbolically devoured by his own mother. The frenzy of this animal-sacrificing group, led by Pentheus’ mother, was so vehement; that she ate her son before realizing what had happened. This instance of sacrifice, constructed through immutable acts, functions as a means of reciprocracy—balancing utility in the community (Euripides). The pattern of sacrifice in Greek tragedy provides a means of objectivity with which to measure the levels of morality amongst a city-state. During the Homeric era, the Olympians reined the world of Ancient Greece; and they communicated ethics through engravings and wise words of wisdom. However, because the Olympians did not create laws, the presence of sacrifice as a moral component was a vital addition to the Greek religion. Ideally, the city was a sacrificial community, “watched over by its protecting deities who guarantee its duration and thus the continuation of their own honors: city and gods are mutually dependent on each other” (Burkert 256) Ultimately, the social order of Greek life came to depend on the foundation of sacrifice as a crucial tool in regulating governmental issues. The inter-dependence of numerous thematic elements in Greek tragedy has constructed a society directly indicative of its contrasting influences, “In ritual and mythology there is obviously a no to every yes, and an antithesis to every thesis: order and dissolution, inside and outside, life and death. The individual development of the moral personality, reflected in a coherent system, is overshadowed by supra-personal constraints. More important than individual morality is continuity, which depends on solidarity” (Burkert 248)
Works Cited: Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. Easterling, E. P., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Euripides. The Bacchae. Trans. Philip Vellacot. London: Penguin books, 1954. Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Jon Hopkins University Press, 1972.
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