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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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Page 16

A Sacrifice on the Acropolis


    Across the sacred plateau advances the little party. As it goes under the Propylæa a couple of idle temple watchers[19] give its members a friendly nod. The Acropolis rock itself seems deserted, save for a few worshippers and a party of admiring Achæan visitors who are being shown the glories of the Parthenon.[20] There seems to be a perfect labyrinth of statues of gods, heroes, and departed worthies, and almost as many altars, great and small, placed in every direction. Phormion leads his friends onward till they come near to the wide stone platform somewhat in the rear of the Parthenon. Here is the "great altar" of Athena, whereon the "hecatombs" will be sacrificed, even a hundred oxen or more,[21] at some of the major public festivals; and close beside it stands also a small and simple altar sacred to Athena Parthenos, Athena the Virgin. Suitable attendants have been in readiness since dawn waiting for worshippers. One of Phormion's party leads behind him a bleating white lamb "without blemish."[22] It is a short matter now to bring the firewood and the other necessaries. The sacrifice takes place without delay.

    First a busy "temple sweeper" goes over the ground around the altar with a broom; then the regular priest, a dignified gray-headed man with a long ungirt purple chiton, and a heavy olive garland, comes forward bearing a basin of holy water. This basin is duly passed to the whole company as it stands in a ring, and each in turn dips his hand and sprinkles his face and clothes with the lustral water. Meantime the attendant has placed another wreath around the head of the lamb. The priest raises his hand.

    "Let there be silence," he commands (lest any unlucky word be spoken); and in a stillness broken only by the auspicious twittering of the sparrows amid the Parthenon gables, he takes barley corns from a basket, an sprinkles them on the altar and over the lamb. With his sacred knife he cuts a lock of hair from the victims head and casts it on the fire. Promptly now the helper comes forward to complete the sacrifice. Phormion and his friends are a little anxious. Will the lamb take fright, hang back, and have to be dragged to its unwilling death? The clever attendant has cared for that. A sweet truss of dried clover is lying just under the altar. The lamb starts forward, bleating joyously. As it bows its head[23] as if consenting to its fate the priest stabs it dexterously in the neck with his keen blade. The helper claps a bowl under the neck to catch the spurting blood. A flute player in readiness, but hitherto silent, suddenly strikes up a keen blast to drown the dying moans of the animal. Hardly has the lamb ceased to struggle before the priest and the helper have begun to cut it up then and there. Certain bits of the fat and small pieces from each limb are laid upon the altar, and promptly consumed. These are the goddess's peculiar portion, and the credulous at least believe that she, though unseen, is present to eat thereof; certainly the sniff of the burning meat is grateful to her divine nostrils. The priest and the helpers are busy taking off the hide and securing the best joint—these are their "fees" for professional services. All the rest will be duly gathered up by Phormion's body servant and borne home,—for Phormion will give a fine feast on "sacred mutton" that night.[24]

    Meantime, while the goddess's portion burns, Phormion approaches the altar, bearing a shallow cup of unmixed wine, and flings it upon the flame.

"Be propitious, O Lady," he cries, "and receive this my drink offering."[25]

    The sacrifice is now completed. The priest assures Phormion that the entrails of the victim foretokened every possible favor in future athletic contests—and this, and his insinuating smile, win him a silver drachma to supplement his share of the lamb. Phormion readjusts the chaplet upon his own head, and turns towards the Parthenon. After the sacrifice will come the prayer.


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