Roman Sacrifice

I just finished my semester, so apologies for the radio silence since October.

I’m not getting into a major argument about sacrifice and one’s own relationship with the higher powers that be.  Each tradition has a different methodology in regards to the context of application of what it is to be a “sacrifice”.

In a Heathen/Germanic perspective, this post by Grumpy Lokean Elder is probably one of the best ones I have found.  If anyone is confused or interested in how traditional Germanic practice involves sacrifice, wander over that way.

However, I wanted to bring up a point about Tacitus. Quote GLE’s page:

“Tacitus is extremely vague about the details of sacrifices and offerings in Germania. The best one can find is that “…[the Germans] appease [their Gods] by offerings of animals, in accordance with ordinary civilized custom.” Human sacrifices are also mentioned. It’s also worth mentioning that the root of the word “sacrifice” comes from the Latin sacrifico, which is a combination of sacer and ficio – or, “to make holy”. This doesn’t necessarily imply loss or destruction of an object like the term “sacrifice” often is used for in colloquial modern English, but it certainly could, as with the “ritually destroyed” objects that have been found in bodies of water. I have no expertise on the boundaries and norms for sacrifices among Romans, so if you’re curious about the etymology and Roman ideas about sacrifice, I would suggest asking someone who specializes in Roman practices.”

When Tacitus writes that the Germans are sacrificing in accordance with “ordinary civilized custom”, he’s obviously speaking from a Roman point of view.  There’s no notion of factual representation in the Ancient world.  His writings are pretty straight forwardly influenced by both his idealized views of civilization, which he felt that the Germans embodied (against the socially generate classes of Rome) and his own natural repulsion for “Barbarians” in the light of civilization.

I wanted to bring up some points about Roman sacrifice for those Heathens and Germanics who might not be “in the know”, such as it is.  And if I get any of this wrong, I apologize.  This is taken exclusively from John Scheid’s book, An Introduction to Roman Religion, since it is the only one I have on hand right now.

Official sacrifices were, like in many other societies, complex rites that were enacted in one of two roles – one of community, and one of domestic devotion.  Rituals fulfilling a community requirement were taken outside in a public place, most notably before a temple or close to an altar set up within a religious precinct (Scheid, Pg. 79).  Domestically, it was set up in a similarly “public” space of the house, usually the atrium of peristyle, depending on the style of domus.  There is a class of private sacrifice which was connected with divination or magic, but those were performed in isolated areas, which were seldom visited.  Those sacrifices that were ‘civic’ were performed during the day, while the more superstitious ones were performed at night (Scheid, pg. 80).

Sacrifices were performed by someone in a position of authority, either a magister in the college or public priests, or from the father of the household.  Cato (the Elder) writes about sacrifice in De Agri Cultura, for those who are interested in original source material.

The Roman system has a large formula for sacrifice, which I will not directly cover here.  After performing ritual cleansing, wearing a special ceremonial attire, the participants and presiding leaders would enact a preface rite, which held wine and incense to be burned in a brazier (Scheid, pg. 82).  John Scheid is very clear to say that, in this case, sacrifice is an action.  It is not a passive offering, but a direct verb. Goods that were offered were associated, closely, with the deity in question and the nature of the gods.  Incense, representing their immortality and supremacy, while wine represented divine sovereignty (Scheid, pg. 82).  The initial rite of sacrifice utilized these concepts to proclaim the recognition of the deities in a respectful manner.

Fast-forward past the purification, past the procession, to the goods of the sacrifices themselves.  The victim (or non-victim in this case, since many of us do not sacrifice our own slaughtered animals), would be divided up.  The ‘seat of life’ would go to the Gods, that is, the organs and entrails, and would be cooked in pots or grilled, before being given to the fires (Scheid, pg. 84).  They would then be deposited according to the nature of the deity: aquatic deities would have their offerings thrown in the water, chthonic deities would have their offerings thrown in a hole or ditch and burned.  This followed with a banquet to the deities, modeled after a human meal, depending on the nature of the deity.

It is important to note that, in this context, the animal/offering that was consumed was specifically seen to have been profaned by coming into contact with a human hand after the ritual purification.  Quite literally, it was made suitable for human consumption (Scheid, pg 85).  There is a distinction here that needs to be understood: The human celebrant was not consuming sacred food; it was food that was “given back” to them by the deity, akin to a gift from a patron to a client.  The Gods are the patrons, you are the client.

There are some distinctions in the outcome of sacrificial offerings:

  1. Chthonic deities had their sacrificial victims completely and utterly incinerated. The living had no place at the table with the gods of the Dead.
  2. Sacrifices that were offered as a way to gain influence were often incinerated in a holocaust as well.
  3. Sacrifices made during private and public meals were offered between the first and second course, with incense and wine offered for the above reasons. In this way, the role of the divinity was sort of reversed, where they are taking part specifically at the human table, and receive a gift from their host/ess.

Public consumption of the food was based on hierarchy in that painfully obnoxious Roman way of thinking about logic.  There’s far too much there to go into here.

Sacrifice made use of the forms of Roman dining and banquet (Scheid, pg. 94).  Through dividing the food in the way that the Romans did, between Gods and man, it established a hierarchy reminiscent of mortal society.  Sacrifice firmly established and represented the superiority and immortality of the gods, and reinforced the mortal nature of the practitioner as well as their own piety.  But, recall, this is in context with Roman institutions that we might find abhorrent today, most notably the institution of slavery.  The hierarchy between sacrificial recipients takes this into account, and should be remembered.

There needs to be a distinction made between the offerings specific to a “sacrifice”, and offerings given at other times.  It appears, from what I understand, that a sacrifice was specifically food goods and homage paid to the deities in question following the convoluted ritualistic formula and banquet hinted at above.  In essence, all sacrifices were offerings, but not all offerings were sacrifices.  Offerings were gifts, tokens, and appeasements made to keep the relationship between man and deity cordial and friendly.  Many of these things were not consumable, but if one were to make an offering, and then consume it, that would be as if someone gave you a gift and then used it themselves.  Rude.

As we can see, Roman sacrifice is a bit more involved than standing before a personal altar and giving an offering in a bowl, and then wondering what is to be done about it. I would argue that, in a Roman context, the only time it would be appropriate to join in with the deity in consuming the food one offers is in one of the two ways above:

  • By performing an actual sacrificial ritual and receiving part of the sacrifice as a “gift” from the deity.
  • When eating, offering the deity a place at your table. But then, that’s not technically a ‘sacrifice’, is it?

When Tacitus writes that the Germans are “sacrificing” in the “ordinary way”, he largely means that they follow in the same spirit, and processes.  As Grumpy Lokean Elder stated: That means that it was conditional on the purpose of the ritual, which deity the Germans were sacrificing to, and cultural mores of the time.  Each deity in question will offer different feelings of the matter, of course.

And in the only direct response to the whole “debate” about sacrifices, I’ll just say this: I’d rather err on the side of caution than I would be presumptuous and arrogant.  The wrath of a deity who finds you to have eaten their goods without permission is greater than the displeasure they might feel for turning down a gift, I think.

I would also like to point out in the context of the Roman studies: We don’t really know how these rituals were placed outside of Rome itself.  The writings we have, the extant literature that survives, is literally a Roman-lens.  There’s nothing surviving (that I’m aware of) of what happened in the colonies or in other municipalities elsewhere.  At that point, your guess is as good as mine.

Thanks for reading.


Schied, John. Trans. Lloyd, Janet. An Introduction to Roman Religion. Indiana University Press: Indianapolis, 2003.


~ by thelettuceman on December 22, 2013.

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