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Human Sacrifice and the Athenians January 29, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

 

Human sacrifice does survive in literate cultures – the Aztecs, various medieval Indian states… But in Europe, at least, it melted away at about the time of the first extensive surviving texts. The result is that Greeks or Romans or Gaels or Germanic types rarely end up putting a knife into a sacrificial victim: though often the custom hangs around as an uncomfortable memory in classical and early barbarian works, from the plays of Euripides to the saints’ lives of northern Europe. However, there are hints of the real thing. Gladiator fights – probably bad habits borrowed from the Etruscans – besmirched Roman life and gave the plebs something to cheer about up until the late Empire. Then, just now and then, a society under stress returned to older, all but forgotten blood-shedding ways.

Beachcombing brings the reader to the waters on the Bay of Salamis in 480 where the Athenians are about to fight and win one of the dozen most important battles in human experience, trashing the Persian fleet with their ‘wooden wall’. However, there is an interesting prelude that most Greek-loving scholars – and who takes the Persians’ side? – pass over very quickly.

When Themistocles [the Athenian war leader] was about to sacrifice [an animal], close to the admiral’s galley, there were three prisoners brought to him, fine looking men, and richly dressed in ornamented clothing and gold, said to be the children of Artayctes and Sandauce, sister to Xerxes. As soon as the prophet Euphrantides saw them, and observed that at the same time the fire blazed out from the offerings with a more than ordinary flame, and a man sneezed on the right, which was an intimation of a fortunate event, he took Themistocles by the hand, and bade him consecrate the three young men for sacrifice, and offer them up with prayers for victory to Bacchus the Devourer; so should the Greeks not only save themselves, but also obtain victory. Themistocles was much disturbed at this strange and terrible prophecy, but the common people, who in any difficult crisis and great exigency ever look for relief rather to strange and extravagant than to reasonable means, calling upon Bacchus with one voice, led the captives to the altar, and compelled the execution of the sacrifice as the prophet had commanded.

Plutarch, from whom this extract is taken, tells us that his source here is Phanias the Lesbian: that rarest of things ‘a philosopher well read in history’. Phanias lived in the late fourth century BC and is at further remove from Herodotus (obit 425 BC) who does not mention this incident. But then Beachcombing has never trusted Herodotus who is far more interested in exoticism in neighbouring peoples than among the pristine Greeks. Of course, there is a thin line between killing Persians to satisfy Bacchus the Devourer and just killing them because the Athenians didn’t particularly like the invaders at this point: Athens was smouldering on the horizon. But there are good reason here for talking of sacrifice rather than lynching: altars, sneezes, prophets…

Beachcombing has many examples of private human sacrifice from antiquity filed away: where the sacrifice of a boy or a slave was carried out under the pliant authority’s very noses. But he is far more interested and has far fewer references to civic sacrifice, where Rome or one of the Greek states momentarily lost their collective heads and strangle or, on two memorable occasions, bury alive sacrificial victims in the full and appalled light of history. Certainly, what Beachcombing remembers best about this passage is always Themistocles, a veteran of Marathon and the quintessential ‘civilised’ Mediterranean man, being ‘very much disturbed’.

Other examples of civic sacrifice please let Beachcombing know: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com