Gods, Altar, Sacrifices, Offered, Consisted, Offerings
The Greeks worshipped their gods without any visible representations of them until the time of Cecrops. The most ancient of these representations consisted of square blocks of stone, upon which the name of the deity intended to be represented was engraved. The first attempts at sculpture were rude stocks, with a head at one end and a shapeless trunk at the other, tapering slightly down to the feet, which, however, were not divided, the limbs being in no way defined. But the artists of later times devoted all their genius to the successful production of the highest ideals of their gods, some of which are preserved to this day, and are regarded as examples of purest art.
On a pedestal in the centre of the edifice stood the statue of the divinity to whom the temple was dedicated, surrounded by images of other gods, all of which were fenced off by rails.
The altar in a Greek temple, which stood in the centre of the building and in front of the statue of the presiding deity, was generally of a circular form, and constructed of stone. It was customary to engrave upon it the name or distinguishing symbol of the divinity to whom it was dedicated; and it was held so sacred that if any malefactor fled to it his life was safe from his pursuers, and it was considered one of the greatest acts of sacrilege to force him from this asylum.
The most ancient altars were adorned with horns, which in former times were emblems of power and dignity, as wealth, and consequently importance, consisted among most primitive nations in flocks and herds.
In addition to those erected in places of public worship, altars were frequently raised in groves, on highways, or in the market-places of cities.
The gods of the lower world had no altars whatever, ditches or trenches being dug for the reception of the blood of the sacrifices offered to them.
In ancient times the priests were recognized as a special social caste, and were distinguished not only by their sacerdotal vestments, but also by their piety, wisdom, and blameless life. They were the chosen mediators between gods and men, and offered prayers and sacrifices in the name of the people, whom they also instructed as to what vows, gifts, and offerings would be most acceptable to the gods.
Every deity had a different order of priests consecrated to his worship, and in every place a high-priest was appointed, whose duty it was to superintend the rest of his order, and also to carry out the more sacred rites and religious observances.
Priests and priestesses were permitted to marry, but not a second time; some, however, voluntarily adopted a life of celibacy.
There is no doubt that a feeling of gratitude to the gods for their protecting care, and the abundance with which they were believed to bless mankind, has induced men of all nations and in all countries to feel a desire to sacrifice to their divinities some portion of the gifts so generously lavished upon them.
Among the Greeks, sacrifices were of various kinds. They consisted of free-will offerings, propitiatory offerings, &c.
Free-will offerings were grateful acknowledgments for benefits received, and usually consisted of the first-fruits of the field, or the finest of the flocks and herds, which were required to be without spot or blemish.
Propitiatory offerings were brought with the object of appeasing the anger of the gods.
In addition to those above enumerated, sacrifices were made, either with a view of obtaining success in an enterprise about to be undertaken, or in fulfilment of a vow, or at the command of an oracle.
Every sacrifice was accompanied by salt and also by a libation, which usually consisted of wine, the cup being always filled to the brim, indicating that the offering was made without stint. When sacrificing to the infernal gods the cup containing the libation was filled with blood.
The animals offered to the Olympian divinities were white, whilst those to the gods of the lower world were black. When a man offered a special sacrifice for himself or his family it partook of the nature of his occupation; thus a shepherd brought a sheep, a vine-grower his grapes, and so forth. But in the case of public sacrifices, the supposed individuality of the deity was always consulted. For instance, to Demeter a sow was offered, because that animal is apt to root up the seed-corn; to Dionysus a goat, on account of its being destructive to vineyards, &c.
The value of offerings depended greatly upon the position of the individual; it being regarded as a contempt of the gods for a rich man to bring a sordid offering, whilst from a poor man the smallest oblation was considered acceptable.
Hecatombs consisted of a hundred animals, and were offered by entire communities, or by wealthy individuals who either desired, or had obtained some special favour from the gods.
When a sacrifice was to be offered, a fire was kindled on the altar, into which wine and frankincense were poured, in order to increase the flame. In very ancient times, the victim was laid upon the altar and burned whole; but after the time of Prometheus portions only of the shoulders, thighs, entrails, &c., were sacrificed, the remainder becoming the perquisites of the priests.
The officiating priests wore a crown composed of the leaves of the tree sacred to the deity they invoked. Thus when sacrificing to Apollo the crowns were of laurel; when to Heracles, of poplar. This practice of wearing crowns was, at a later period, adopted by the general public at banquets and other festivities.
On occasions of special solemnity the horns of the victim were overlaid with gold, and the altars decked with flowers and sacred herbs.
The mode of conducting the sacrifices was as follows:—All things being prepared, a salt cake, the sacrificial knife, and the crowns, were placed in a small basket, and carried to the sanctuary by a young maiden, whereupon the victim was conducted into the temple, frequently to the accompaniment of music. If a small animal, it was driven loose to the altar; if a large one, it was led by a long trailing rope, in order to indicate that it was not an unwilling sacrifice.
When all were assembled, the priest, after walking in solemn state round the altar, besprinkled it with a mixture of meal and holy water, after which he also besprinkled the assembled worshippers, and exhorted them to join with him in prayer. The service being ended, the priest first tasted the libation, and after causing the congregation to do the like, poured the remainder between the horns of the victim, after which frankincense was strewn upon the altar, and a portion of the meal and water poured upon the animal, which was then killed. If by any chance the victim escaped the stroke, or became in any way restless, it was regarded as an evil omen; if, on the contrary, it expired without a struggle, it was considered auspicious.
At the sacrifices to the aërial divinities music was added, whilst dances were performed round the altar, and sacred hymns sung. These hymns were generally composed in honour of the gods, and contained an account of their famous actions, their clemency and beneficence, and the gifts conferred by them on mankind. In conclusion, the gods were invoked for a continuance of their favour, and when the service was ended a feast was held.
|Written By E. M. Berens|
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