Hellenic blood and purification rituals
by: R. Aurelius Orcus
History of Blood rituals

The power of blood in belief and superstition has often been the subject of ethnographic discussion. Among the Greeks what is striking is, if anything, a certain reticence towards blood magic; there is nothing of a universal blood taboo as in the law of the Jews. Animal sacrifice is the shedding of blood; that the altars become bloody (haimassesthai) is a characteristic of the sacrificial act. On vase paintings there are white-chalked sides of the altars that are always shown splashed with blood in testimony to the sacred work. An altar in Didyma is said to be made from the blood of the victims.

Significantly, the victims which are pleasing to the Gods are warmblooded animals, mostly large mamals; fish, though much more important for everyday sustenance, are rearely if ever sacrificed. What counts is the warm, running blood which arouses fear and suspicion. Unbloody sacrifices are described with special emphasis as pure. The sacrificer however, is not in some sense impure, but enjoys a sacred, exceptional status in accordance with the divine ordinance which sanctions and demands the shedding of blood at the sacred pot.

Of course today this isn't really necessary unless you use your own blood without killing yourself. For this reason a man who sits on or next to a altar cannot be killed or harmed; this would be a perversion of the sacred and would inevitably plunge the whole city into ruin. The asylum of the alatar stands in polar relation to the shedding of blood; the shedding of human blood constitues the most extreme, yet dangerously similar contrast to the pious work.

In a number of cults human blood is shed. This human sacrifice can be traced back to the barbaric origines as to the dark ages of the Greek history. The image of the Taurian Artemis, which is presided over the human sacrifices in Kolchis and was later brought to Greece by Orestes along with Iphigeneia, is mentioned in particular as provoking as such rites. It is said to be preserved in Halai Araphenides in Attika where at the sacrifice for Artemis Tauropolos a man has his throat scratched with a knife or else with Ortheia in Sparta where the epheboi are whipped at the altar.

There are sacrificial rituals in which the shedding of blood appears to be carried out for its own sake and not as the prelude to a meal. This type of blood sacrifices can be found in two extreme situations, before battle and at the burial of the dead; the other context in which they occur is at purification. Before battle the Spartans slaughter a goat for Artemis Agrotera, usually, however, the reports mention no god, but just the fact that on the battlefield, in view of the enemy, the general or the seers who accompany the army will cut the throats of animals; whole herds are driven along for this purpose. From certain signs in the victims the seers determin the prospects of success in the battle. The quasi-harmless and manageable slaughter is a premonitory anticipation of the battle and its unforeseeable dangers. It is a beginning.

It is said that before the battle of Salamis, the captured Persians were sacrificed in place of the animals. Myth knows many variants of the ideally willing sacrifice of maidens before battle; Iphigeneia of Aulis can also be placed in that category. In Aeschyles' Seven against Thebes the threatening anticipation of bloodshed is presented as a binding oath: before the walls of Thebes, the Seven slaughter a bull 'into a black-rimmed shield', touch with their hands the blood of the bull, and swear 'by Ares, Enyo and bloody Terror' to win or die. Otherwise rites of blood brotherhood and the communal drinking of blood are generally attributed to barbarians or groups at the edge of society.

At the burial of the dead, animals are slaughtered and burned ont he funeral pyre. At the funeral pyre of Patroklos, Akhilles slaughters many sheep and oxen, four horses, two dogs and 12 captured Trojans. This can be understood as an outburst of helpless fury: 'if you are dead, the others should not live'. Nevertheless, when it is related that 'about the dead man flowed blood to reach the dead man in some way, to give him back life and colour; red colouring is used in burials as early as the Paleolithic. Sacrifices of this kind are also repeated in honour of the dead man. Here no altar is set up; but a pit is dug in the ground, into which the blood flows. The idea arises that the downard flowing blood reaches the dead: 'satiating with blood'. In the earliest texts of literature, this is used to conjure up the dead man.

Today animal sacrifice isn't accepted by law nor is shedding the blood of a fellow man or your own with the intention of doing harm to either someone else or yourself.

Purification Rituals


A ritual is usually used to make sure the deity will listen to what you will say in your prayer. Usually food or items are burned that are dedicated to the deity or deities in question. It begins by chanting a hymn, than the burning while you are praying. At the same time the rituals are our gratitude and trust that we have put in them. Rituals are theologicaly speaking a relationship based upon voluntary mutual aid. One honours the Gods and they help us get through the challenges of life. There were different kind of rituals; the ones in honor of the Olympians and those in honor of the Underworld deities. Rituals for Earth deities were performed in the same manner as for the Underworld deities. A ritual for the Olympians must be performed on an altar, not touching the ground. Rituals for the Underworld or Earth deities were performed on the ground. Libations were flown onto the ground while libation for a Olympian had to flow into a bowl on the altar.

This is more or less the general outline for any Hellenic ritual to any deity. However purification rituals were different. It rids us from pollution or any harmful element or ritual miasma. It can mean everything to birth, death, murder, blood, etc.. contact with these things are considered ritual miasma. Purification through ritual differ. There are two kinds of purifications: one through blood and another through water. Purification through water is explained below, but purification through blood is different. One doesn't wash their hands in clean water, but this method is more or less derived from the blood ritual where the blood flows on the head and hands. Afterwards these are washed. This was usually done for the insane, muderers, etc.. These persons must be left alone until they are purified.

It can be performed whenever the person thinks it is needed to rid itself of the traditional forms of ritual pollution as before festival or sacrifice. It can also be used for seeking emotional or psychological cleansing from pain, regret or sorrow. A presence of a priest might be assumed for the ritual, but is not necessary. It can be performed alone as well. Here the supplicant laves her/his hands seven times in a bowl of salt water and prays to Apollo on her/his own behalf.

Purification ritual:

The supplicant- person to be purified-- sits on a black cloth. The priest places a white cloth over the supplicants head. Holding out a bowl of seawater (or spring water with 1 tablespoon of sea salr added) and say:

Priest: "Lord Apollo, this person comes before you to be purified of [name type of miasiam] [His/ her] heart is humble and wishes nothing more than to return to the service of the Gods in this community. Cleanse [him/her] of this taint, and [he/ she] will made thank- offerings to you in return. "

The priest than sprinkles the water of the supllicant. The supplicant dips his/ her hands in the water seven times and says a prayer from the heart, silently or aloud. The priest then removes the cloth from the supplicant's head and says:

Priest: "You are pure and fit to serve the Gods. Ready yourself for sacrifice."

The supplicant should than withdraw to change clothes. Upon return, make a offering to Apollo and to any Godw hom you feel may have played a role in the situation that lead to the miasma. A feast provided by the supplicant may fellow.

Of course one doesn't need a priest to do this as this can be latered to suit the purposes.
  • Drew Campbell: Old Stones, New Temples
  • Walter Burkert: Greek Religion
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