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Rings, Pits, Bone and Ash: Greek Altars in Context

In: Acta Archaeologica
Author:
Gunnel Ekroth Professor, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University Uppsala Sweden

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Abstract

Greek altars have received ample attention in scholarship as to their appearance, construction, and location within a sanctuary, as well as their importance as the central feature for the rituals allowing communication with the gods. The immediate surroundings of altars have not been considered to the same degree. This paper explores the context of Greek altars and some of the features located here, for example, rings for fastening animals, stone-lined pits, and remains of previous sacrifices. Of particular interest is the use of the top of the altar for ritual purposes in relation to the space surrounding the altar. A study of the wider contexts of altars, as to their use and the material remains found here, may provide a better understanding of the complex ritual reality of the ancient Greeks.

1 Introduction

The importance of the altar for the performance of Greek sacrificial rituals has been demonstrated beyond any doubt by modern research.1 A Greek cult-place needed to be set off from the surroundings, to be a temenos, but also to have an altar or a sacrificial installation. This was the bare minimum for its effective use as a location where communication with the divine sphere could be achieved. A temple or a statue of the god was not a prerequisite.

The altar formed the center of Greek ritual practice, and humans could establish contact with the gods by the actions performed here. This communication was effectuated most of all through animal sacrifice, thysia, where a victim was consecrated to the god and certain bones were burnt in the altar fire.2 The gods were perceived as inhaling and enjoying the fatty smoke, knise, rising to the sky, but on the altar, a fire also grilled the splanchna, the edible intestines, later eaten by the worshippers standing closest to the altar. To be one of those that got to taste the splanchna, the sysplanchneuontes, “those eating intestines together,” was a marker of being a member of the group.3 The altar not only brought together mortals and immortals on a vertical plane, but it also joined men on a horizontal level.

The importance of the altar in Greek cult is evident from how often it is depicted on vase paintings and reliefs, as well as mentioned in literary and epigraphical sources. An altar, therefore, constitutes the emblem for holy ground, the presence of the gods and the connection with the divine. Still, altars tend to float in space, somehow. If we look at Attic vase paintings, we get very little information about the immediate surroundings of altars, which are, as a rule, rendered alone apart from the occasional herm, tree or column.4 The impression of the altar as an isolated feature is reinforced by modern plans of sanctuaries, which present the altar in the middle of a white space. In real life, the altar did not exist in a vacuum within a temenos, but functioned in a context in relation not only to buildings and installations present but, most of all, to its immediate surroundings, where the actions making use of the altar took place.5 This broader yet close context of the altar deserves further attention. What do we find next to the altar – in front of it, behind and alongside it, and why? To what extent can the immediate setting of the altar be connected to the rituals performed? Such issues have not really attracted much attention in scholarship, and this article constitutes an attempt to explore some aspects of the contexts of Greek altars.

Greek sanctuaries and cult places were prime locations for putting up votive monuments, statues and other kinds of commemorations. Spaces close to the altar must have been attractive and therefore highly desired, though presumably, each sanctuary regulated what could be put up where, to avoid interference with the practiced cult.6 Next to the altar we find tables for the deposition of offerings, meat, cakes and garlands, perirrhanteria for purification and offering boxes, thesauroi, for the payment of fees.7 There are also bases, which could have supported votives or other kinds of monuments, such as the suggested baldachin over the triglyph altar at Perachora.8 Altars could be placed next to each other, forming quite complex assemblages in connection with other features and installations. As an example, we can take the small Hellenistic Sanctuary of Poseidon on Delos, partly truncated by the Salle hypostyle, which housed an anta altar with a perirrhanterion and a stone table in front of it. Within the precinct, to the north, was also another foundation, perhaps a second altar, while at least two monument bases were located a few meters to the west.9

2 Rings for Fastening Animals

The altar was meant for sacrifices, and this activity must have directed the use and planning of its immediate space. Vegetarian offerings were easily handled – you just carried them to the altar or the cult table. Animals were another matter. That a sacrifice had to be performed in peace and quiet with a voluntary victim has often been claimed by scholars, foremost Walter Burkert, as part of his theoretical understanding of Greek animal sacrifice as aiming at hiding the violence of killing, an Unschuldskomödie.10 The animals were to proceed calmly to the altar and wait there to be killed. They were not to be restrained or at least any such indications were suppressed.

The immediate surroundings of many altars suggest another scenario. At a number of sanctuaries, rings of bronze or iron have been discovered near altars, used to fasten the sacrificial victims with ropes, presumably to organize the actions taking place.11 Rows of stones, each one with a ring, have been found in front of the large altars in the sanctuaries of Apollo at Klaros and Zeus at Dion, while at other sites, rows of previous unexplained cuttings near the altar most likely contained such stone blocks with rings or attachments.12 On Thasos, a still preserved iron ring is attached to the lowest step of the monument of the local hero Theogenes (Fig. 1).13 In the Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Amathus, U-shaped channels had been cut in the rock, presumably serving the same purpose, while the holes cut in the steps of the so-called Heraion at Olympia could also have been made for fastening animals.14

Figure 1
Figure 1

Iron ring for fastening a sacrificial victim. Monument of Theagenes on the Agora of Thasos

Citation: Acta Archaeologica 93, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/16000390-20210023

Photo archive no. 14180, courtesy of École française d’Athènes

The notion of the peacefulness of animal sacrifice has been questioned lately, partly due to the presence of these rings.15 The calm and solemn ritual depicted on vases and reliefs, where the animal waited patiently next to the altar, was apparently wishful thinking and reality must have been substantially more noisy and messy as the animals had to be attached and restrained. This is evident also from the fact that some reliefs actually show the animals as tied to rings.16 In some instances, the rope running from their horns to the ring can be clearly seen, and the bent-down position of the head is, therefore, a result of it being dragged towards the ground by the rope. This position was necessary when larger animals were to be sacrificed, as they needed to be stunned by striking them with an axe over the neck or in the forehead before the throat could be slit.

The rings at altars also help explain a particular kind of coin iconography, usually known as the “butting bull” (Fig. 2).17 These coins depict bulls with their heads bent to the ground in a position thought to be the animal charging. However, these bulls are not attacking, nor are they victims willingly lowering their heads to be killed, but rather representations of the actual handling of the animal next to the altar in order to facilitate the killing by the help of a rope and a ring fastened to a stone.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Butting bull, silver stater from Thurioi dated ca. fourth century BC

Citation: Acta Archaeologica 93, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/16000390-20210023

Photo by and courtesy of Gabriel Hildebrand, Kungl. Myntkabinettet, Stockholm

3 Altar and Pit

At the altar, the animal would be consecrated to the gods. Some hairs were cut off from its forehead, it was besprinkled with water, and grains were scattered. A prayer was said, and then the animal was killed. Some blood was splashed on the altar, the bones to be burnt were cut and placed in the fire and the rest of the meat divided, distributed and consumed.

For these actions, the upper surface of the altar is the center of interest, although some blood hits its front.18 However, a closer look at some preserved altars suggests a wider variety of actions and installations. One feature of interest is pits or rectangular depressions found in a number of sanctuaries. Often the inside is lined with gneiss, terracotta or another kind of heat-resistant material, in some cases with clear traces of burning, but in other instances the pits are constructed solely of marble or limestone plaques.

At the Sanctuary of Poseidon and Amphitrite on Tenos, the earliest phase, the second half of the fourth century BC, is evidenced by a few walls and seven such pits dispersed in the area, which in the following century was covered by temples and monuments.19 On Thasos, in the so-called Passage des théores, a pit, ca. 1.20 by 0.72 m filled with ash-mixed soil and some sherds, dating to the last quarter of the sixth century BC, was excavated.20 The outer case was of marble, but the inner gneiss lining was heavily marked by fire. When the actual pass-way was constructed around 480 BC, the pit was hidden below the paving, but there may have been some kind of continuity in (ritual?) activity in the form of an altar constructed in a niche in the southeastern wall just above, between two reliefs showing Hermes and the Charites.21 In the wall around the reliefs were the remains of nails, suggesting that the worshippers here could have hanged wreathes, fillets or possibly the sculls of sacrificial victims.22 The function of the pit is unclear, but we can imagine an installation for burnt sacrifices, although we cannot exclude that the pit was a hearth used for cooking in connection with a cult.23

It is of interest for my present purpose to establish when such pits occur together with altars constructed of cut blocks, i.e. when the two kinds of installations are found next to each other. On Delos, just outside the peribolos surrounding the Temple of Hera on the western slope of Mt Kynthos there is a late-fourth-century marble altar constructed of large slabs placed on a marble basis, presumably the altar of the Sanctuary of Hera (Fig. 3AC).24 At the north-eastern corner of the base of the altar, there is a construction of four marble slabs, 0.25 m high, forming a square, 0.70 by 0.70 meters, which is lined with gneiss on the inside, framing an opening that measures 0.36 × 0.36 m. The floor of the pit is made up of natural soil.

Figure 3A
Figure 3A

Altar of Hera, Mt Kynthos on Delos with a small pit at the north-eastern corner

Citation: Acta Archaeologica 93, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/16000390-20210023

Photo archive no. 1459, drawing courtesy of École française d’Athènes
Figure 3B
Figure 3B

Altar of Hera, Mt Kynthos on Delos with a small pit at the north-eastern corner

Citation: Acta Archaeologica 93, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/16000390-20210023

Photo archive, drawing no. 1545, drawing courtesy of École française d’Athènes
Figure 3C
Figure 3C

Altar of Hera, Mt Kynthos on Delos with small pit at the north-eastern corner

Citation: Acta Archaeologica 93, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/16000390-20210023

Photo archive no. 3497, photo courtesy École française d’Athènes

The excavator suggested that the pit was an installation for libations. There is, unfortunately, no information of any finds of bones or ash or traces of fire, but the fact that the pit is lined with gneiss, just as the ash-filled pit on Thasos, suggests that some kind of burning took place here. The base on which the altar stands is wider on the western side, and this must have been where the worshippers approached the altar table. Any use of the pit would have been made from the other direction.

On Thasos, there is another example of an altar and pit in the north-eastern part of the Sanctuary of Dionysos (Fig. 4).25 The rectangular pit, probably of Archaic date, measures 3.00 × 1.82 m and is built of 30 cm high marble slabs covered with gneiss on the inside. During the late fifth or early fourth century, a high marble antae-altar was constructed just to the west of the pit. There is no information of any ash or bones, but the lining of the marble pit with gneiss suggests an attempt to protect the stone from the heat also here. The relation between the pit and the altar is less clear than in the example from Delos. The western corner of the stone lining of the pit carried an inscription dated to the fourth century BC dedicating the altar to Agathos Daimon while forbidding the worship of Agathe Tyche.26 That the pit and the altar belonged together is suggested not only by their closeness to location but also by the fact that the large-scale monument to musicians and playwriters erected in the later fourth century in the north-eastern corner of the sanctuary seems to have been oriented so that it would have an intimate connection to the sacrificial installations but still respect their position.27

Figure 4
Figure 4

Altar and pit from the Sanctuary of Dionysos on Thasos

Citation: Acta Archaeologica 93, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/16000390-20210023

Photo archive no. 7760, photo courtesy of École française d’Athènes

A third case is found in the Greek sanctuary at Kommos on western Krete, and here, for once, we actually have more information since this site has been recently excavated and is well published. Around 800 BC, the so-called Temple B was built, and inside this building was constructed a hearth of rough stones, which gradually came to overflow with ash.28 The function of this hearth is not entirely clear, but it seems to have been used for more prestigious cooking for high-status participants in the rituals than for the actual sacrifices, and Temple B rather functioned as a hestiatorion than as a temple.

Around 700 BC, in the space in front of Temple B, two installations connected to this building were constructed. Facing the entrance was Altar U, and about three meters to the north of this altar was built a construction of upright stone slabs, ca. 2.00 by 0.85 m, forming two square pits, ca. 0.20 m deep.29 The eastern compartment was badly preserved and contained no ash, but layers of ash and bones were found outside it to the east and north. The western pit was filled with ash and bones, many of them burnt.

It is interesting that this construction, labelled a double hearth by the excavators, contained different kinds of animals than did Altar U. In and around Altar U were found almost 40 kg of burnt bones of cattle, sheep and goats, most of all thighbones and tails, that is, the typical remains of sacrifices of the thysia kind.30 In the double hearth, on the other hand, were recovered mainly bones of young pigs, fish and seashells, many of them burnt. Four iron knives were found in the hearth as well.31

At Kommos, the osteological evidence indicates that Altar U and the double hearth had diverse functions. Altar U seems to have been used for regular thysia sacrifices, while the double hearth had a different use. They may represent two kinds of sacrifices or two phases of one sacrifice, but also a sacrifice and an installation for cooking. In particular, the presence of burnt pig bones, fish and seashells, species which are hardly ever found in thysia deposits, suggests that the double hearth may have been a cooking installation rather than an altar. The stone-lined pits on Delos and Thasos, on the other hand, are less well understood, as we have no information of any ash, bones or other finds. Judging from the location of these pits so near the built-up altars, they are better taken to be features for some kind of sacrificial activity than for regular cooking.

Scholars have more or less automatically labelled pits found in sanctuaries as bothroi, no matter their appearance or location, and interpreted them as chthonian sacrificial pits for blood libations or holocausts, where animals and offerings were completely burnt.32 Little consideration has been taken to their context, however.33 The pits on Delos and Thasos presented here rather suggest a division of the burning of the animal victim between the altar and the pit, especially as the pits are lined with a heat-resistant material.

Written sources occasionally mention sacrifices where the animal was to be burnt partly on the altar, partly on the ground. Pausanias (2.11.7) describes the rituals at the Asklepieion at Titane, where a bull, a lamb, and a pig were offered to the god. At these sacrifices, Pausanias clarifies, it was apparently not enough to cut up and burn the thighbones, as was the usual procedure at a thysia sacrifice, but also some other part, probably some of the meat from the three animals, was to be burnt as well. This burning was effectuated on the ground. Birds were also included in this extended burning, but they were placed in the altar fire.34 An epigraphically attested burning at two locations is found in the regulations for the sacrifices to Zeus Polieus on Kos, outlined in great detail in a sacred law from the mid-fourth century BC.35 The main sacrifice to Zeus consisted of an ox, but this ritual was initiated by the sacrifice of a piglet. The heralds were to burn this animal and its intestines, the splanchna, on the altar, and pour out a milk and honey libation, melikraton. The bowels of the piglet, entera, were then to be cleaned out and burnt next to the altar. At these two rituals, at Titane and at Kos, the burning was performed both on the altar and next to it. A sacrificial environment consisting of both a regular altar and a pit fitted out for effective burning, such as the installations on Delos and Thasos, would match such a scenario.

4 “Parabomia” Rituals

These activities next to the altar could perhaps be labelled parabomia, rituals taking place next to the altar, and the Koan lex sacra uses the phrase παρὰ τὸ[μ βωμὸν] (line 35, if the restoration is correct).36 The term parabomia is not very frequent in texts or inscriptions and usually refers to hymns sung at the altar but occasionally also to sacrificial actions.37 One highly interesting but complex instance is found in an epigram from Patmos dating to the fourth century AD.38 Here a young woman, Vera, is honored for having performed the traditional rituals for Artemis, where she sacrificed the fetuses or newly born offspring of pregnant goats to the goddess next to her altar (line 4: παραβώμια ῥέξαι σπαιρόντων αἰγῶν ἔμβρυα καλλιθύτων). The terminology describing the ritual is unusual, especially the verb, and the kind of victim chosen is more or less unique, but the action apparently took place next to the altar.39

That parabomia could refer to sacrifices next to or beside an altar is clear also from a decree by the orgeones of Bendis in Piraeus, dated to the second half of the fourth century BC.40 Members of the cult association could sacrifice for free in the sanctuary, while private individuals had to pay the priestess by giving her a share of the sacrificial victim. No one was allowed to sacrifice beside the altar, παραβώμια δὲ μὴ θύειν, however, and if they did, they were to pay a fine of 50 drachmas. “Next to the altar” here concerns a very concrete aspect of ritual performance, that the sacrifice was effectuated near the altar instead of on top of it. Interestingly, to sacrifice next to the altar was apparently as valid and effective a place for a sacrifice in a sanctuary as on the altar. The problem rather lay in the fact that the priestess was less in control of the rituals executed on such occasions, which might have been problematic for cultic reasons, and in the case of private individuals, may not have allowed her to demand the traditional perquisites.41

I want to close this section by mentioning two iconographical items that might be of interest. The first one is a black-figure Siana cup attributed to the Burgon Group now in the British Museum (Fig. 5).42 Side A shows a seated woman facing a group of women and a youth dancing towards an altar, next to which stands a woman holding a liknon. Side B depicts a man ploughing and a youth sowing. The motif has been linked to rituals of Demeter.43 The liknon held by the woman next to the altar on side A contains various objects, perhaps fruits or ears of corns and what Bernard Ashmole identified as a phallus.44 Is the woman performing or preparing some kind of parabomia ritual?

Figure 5
Figure 5

Attic black-figure kylix by the Painter of the Burgon Sianas, ca. 560–550 BC. London, British Museum inv. no. 1906.12–15.1

Citation: Acta Archaeologica 93, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/16000390-20210023

© Trustees of the British Museum, London

The second item is an Athenian red-figure kylix by the Brygos Painter also in the British Museum (Fig. 6).45 Seen here is Iris fleeing from the altar of Dionysos with the osphys, the tail of the victim, in her hand while being attacked by a gang of satyrs. To the left of the altar is a low construction of unknown function. From the sketching on the vase, it is clear that the painter originally intended to draw a platform on top of which Dionysos would be seated in his folding chair. Later he changed his mind, and we now see the god standing among the satyrs, but the low construction is still there.46 Why this was the case is difficult to ascertain, but the structure as it appears may represent a low platform used for the butchering of the sacrificial victim, a kind of installation seen on other vases.47 A more daring but admittedly more speculative suggestion is to here recognize a high altar and the stone curb of a pit, the same combination of altar and pit as found in the Dionysion on Thasos discussed above.

Figure 6
Figure 6

Attic red-figure kylix by the Brygos Painter, ca. 490–480 BC. London, British Museum inv. no. E65 (1873.8–20.376)

Citation: Acta Archaeologica 93, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/16000390-20210023

© Trustees of the British Museum, London

Be that as it may, the combination altar-pit seems to reflect a particular kind of sacrificial ritual, where the burning of the sacrificial victim did not only take place on the altar but also next to it. Judging from the written evidence, we may imagine a modification of the standard thysia sacrifices, at which not only thighbones and tails were burnt but also other parts or even separate victims. How common such a handling of the animal was, we cannot know, as in most instances, these installations were excavated long ago and are not well enough published for a full understanding of their use.48 Their vicinity to the altar, however, points to the pits constituting an important component of some altar environments.

5 Bones and Ash on or at the Altar

Burning was the essential element of thysia sacrifice. The thighbones and the tail of the sacrificial victim were placed in the altar fire, and the gods enjoyed the smoke, while omens were taken from observing the curving of the tail and the smoke rising from the fat-wrapped bones.49 The ritual was terminated by a libation over the burning bones. The god’s part of the sacrifice was now completed, and the human worshippers could focus on the division, cooking and consumption of the meat. But what happened to the burnt bones and the ash on the altar?50

When looking at ash and bones in sanctuaries and their relation to altars, we need to distinguish between the bones deriving from the gods’ share burnt on the altar and the leftovers from the meals that the worshippers consumed.51 The former consist of heavily burnt, calcined and fragmented remains of mainly thighbones, sacra and tail vertebrae, while the dinner debris is unburnt, chopped up into sections or portions, and usually derives from the most meat-bearing parts of the body. Dinner debris has been recovered in substantial quantities in some sanctuaries, though usually away from the altar. A clear example is the Poseidon sanctuary at Isthmia, where the leftovers from the meals were dumped in a large pit southwest of the temple, presumably in the area where the dining took place.52 The burnt thighbones and tails, on the other hand, were left in the altar area.

At first glance, the ash and burnt bones from the god’s portion could be seen as a kind of waste that needed to be dealt with in Greek sanctuaries. The Hekatompedon inscription restricts the discarding of the contents of the bowels and stomachs of the sacrificial animals, so-called onthos, and perhaps also animal dung, kopros, on the Athenian Akropolis.53 A late-third-century BC regulation from Delos states that no one is allowed to throw anything in the newly cleaned areas belonging to Dionysos and Leto, either dung, ash or anything else.54 Violation of the rules resulted in fines for free men and whipping of the slaves. A newly discovered inscription, also of Hellenistic date, from a sanctuary of Artemis in the territory of Alyzia in Aitolia, stipulates μὴ ἀποστεύειν ἐν τῶι ἱερῶι – “Don’t throw bones/butcher in the sanctuary!” presumably referring to the handling of the bones remaining when animals were butchered in connection with sacrifices and the following meals.55 The epigraphical evidence suggests that there was a need to regulate the handling of bones and ash; still, the archaeological situation shows that bones and ash were not always cleared away from the altar area. In most sanctuaries, remains of the god’s burnt portion have been found near the altar, on top of it or even inside it, as was the case with Altar U at Kommos and the altar of Aphrodite Urania at Athens.56 After the fire on the altar had died down, the bones and ash seem to have kept something on their holiness and intimate link with the altar.

A fascinating example of sacrificial debris in relation to altars has been found at the so-called L’aire sacrificielle to the northwest of the Temple of Apollo at Eretria on Euboia, a small cult-place probably dedicated to Artemis.57 Here was excavated a cylindrical altar of unworked stones dated to the Late Geometric period (Fig. 7).58 The hollow construction was originally filled with soil and sand and topped by a layer of clay. The zooarchaeological material indicates that at least 32 sheep or goats were sacrificed and had their thighbones and kneecaps burnt on the altar. After the conclusion of the ritual, either at each time or on certain occasions, the burnt bones were apparently swept down from the altar onto the ground and mixed with various kinds of offerings, most of all pottery, that had been deposited either on the altar or next to it. Gradually bones, ash and sherds in huge quantities were trampled into the ground and levelled. After almost a century of use, so much material had accumulated around the altar that its top, where the sacrifices took place, had become level with the surrounding ground surface. In a sense, the altar was allowed to drown in sacrificial debris.

Figure 7
Figure 7

Late eighth-century BC stone altar at the Aire sacrificielle au Nord, Eretria

Citation: Acta Archaeologica 93, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/16000390-20210023

Photo courtesy of the Swiss School of Archaeology, Athens

Altars were to be kept neat and proper, judging from inscriptions that speak of repair and regular re-whitening,59 but the altar at Eretria provides an unexpected insight into how they could be handled as well, actually being covered by the remains of consecutive sacrifices. Such a scenario may, in fact, be rendered on some Attic vase-paintings and reliefs, showing altars constructed of loose fieldstones. Some of these altars are remarkably low (F