Ritual Scenes in the Iliad: Rote, Hallowed, or Encrypted as Ancient Art?


Based in oral poetic and ritual theory, this article proposes that ritual scenes in Homer’s Iliad reflect unique compositional constraints beyond those found in other kinds of typical scenes. The focus is on oath-sacrifices and commensal sacrifices. Both ritual scene types exhibit strong identifying features, although they differ in their formal particulars and cultural implications. It is argued that both sorts of sacrificial scenes preserve especially ancient ritual patterns that may have parallels in Anatolian texts.


Chart 1: Commensal sacrifice
(1) 1.447-8:
... They swiftly set in order the sacred hecatomb for the god around the well-built altar,

(1) 1.447-8
...τοὶ δ’ὦκα θεῷ ἱερὴν ἑκατόμβην
ἑξείης ἔστησαν ἐΰδμητον περὶ βωμόν,

(2) 1.449
They washed their hands and took up barley.

(2) 1.449
χερνίψαντο δ’ ἔπειτα καὶ οὐλοχύτας ἀνέλοντο.

(3) 1.450 [prayer]
On their behalf, Chryses held up his hands and prayed;...

(3) 1.4501
τοῖσιν δὲ Χρύσης μεγάλ’ εὕχετο χεῖρας ἀνασχών· ...

(4) 1.458 (ditto 2.421)
But once they prayed and threw barley,

(4) 1.458 (ditto 2.421)
αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ’εὔξαντο καὶ οὐλοχύτας προβάλοντο,

(5) 1.459 (ditto at 2.422; cf. 24.622)
They held up the [victims’ heads] first, and then cut the throats and flayed them,

(5) 1.459 (ditto at 2.422; cf. 24.622)2
αὐέρυσαν μὲν πρῶτα καὶ ἔσφαξαν καὶ ἔδειραν,

(6) 1.460-1 (ditto 2.423-4)
They cut out the thigh pieces and hid them under the fat, making two folds,

(6) 1.460-1 (ditto at 2.423-4)
μηρούς τ’ ἐξέταμον κατά τε κνίσῃ ἐκάλυψαν
δίπτυχα ποιήσαντες,

(7) 1.461 (ditto at 2.434)
They placed raw strips of flesh over [the thighs];

(7) 1.461 (ditto at 2.434)
...ἐπ’ αὐτῶν δ’ ὠμοθέτησαν·

(8) 1.462-63
The old man burnt them over split wood, and poured shining wine

(8) 1.462-633
καῖε δ’ ἐπὶ σχίζῃς ὁ γέρων, ἐπὶ δ’ αἴθοπα οἶνον

(9) 1.463
By him the young men held forks in their hands.

(9) 1.463
...νέοι δὲ παρ’ αὐτὸν ἔχον πεμπώβολα χερσίν.

(10) 1.464 (ditto at 2.427)
But when they had burned the thighs and tasted the innards

(10) 1.464 (ditto at 2.427)
αὐτὰρ ἐπὶ κατὰ μῆρε κάη καί σπλὰγχνα πάσαντο

(11) 1.465 (ditto 2.428; cf. 7.317, 9.210, 24.623)
they cut the rest into bits and pierced it with spits,

(11) 1.465 (ditto at 2.428; cf. 7.317, 9.210, 24.623)
μίστυλλόν τ’ ἄρα τἆλλα καὶ ἀμφ’ ὀβελοῖσιν ἔπειραν,

(12) 1.466 (ditto 2.429, 24.624; cf. 7.318)
They roasted it expertly, and drew it all off [the spits].

(12) 1.466 (ditto 2.429 and 24.624; cf. 7.318)4
ὤπτησάν τε περιφραδέως, ἐρύσαντό τε πάντα.

(13) 1.467 (ditto 2.430, 7.319)
But once they had ceased their labor and prepared the feast,

(13) 1.467 (ditto 2.430, 7.319)
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ παύσαντο πόνου τετύκοντό τε δαῖτα,

(14) 1.468 (ditto 2.431,7.320)
they feasted, and no spirit went lacking the equally divided feast.

(14) 1.468 (ditto 2.431,7.320)
δαίνυντ’, οὐδέ τι θυμὸς ἐδεύετο δαιτὸς ἐΐσης.

15) 1.469 (ditto 2.432, 7.323, 9.222, 24.628)
But when they had sated their desire for food and drink,

(15) 1.469 (ditto 2.432, 7.323, 9.222, 24.628)
aὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἐξ ἔρον ἕντο,


1 Compare Agamemnon’s prayer for Priam’s total destruction, which initiates the commensal sacrifice at 2.410-18. The response of the deity is noted in both prayers (a positive in Book 1, a negative in Book 2).
2 There is slight variation in Achilles’ sacrifice at 24.622: σφὰξ’· ἕταιροι δὲ δερόν τε καὶ ἄμφετον εὖ κατὰ κόσμον.
3 Compare the slight variation in Book 2: καὶ τὰ μὲν ἂρ σχίζῃσιν ἀφύλλοισιν κατέκαιον (2.425).
4 Books 9 and 24 have additional steps of bread being laid out in baskets and hands stretched out to the refreshments.
9. 216-222 Πάτροκλος μὲν σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς. …
οἳ δ’ ἐπ’ ὀνείαθ’ ἑτοῖμα προκείμενα χεῖρας ἴαλλον.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἐξ ἔρον ἕντο …
24. 625-27. Αὐτομέδων δ’ ἄρα σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν· ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς.
οἳ δ’ ἐπ’ ὀνείαθ’ ἑτοῖμα προκείμενα χεῖρας ἴαλλον.

Chart 2: Oath sacrifice

(1) 3.268-70
… But the high-born heralds led up the trusted oath-sacrifices for the gods, and mixed wine in bowls, then poured water over the hands of the kings.

(1) 3.268-70
… ἀτὰρ κήρυκες ἀγαυοὶ
ὅρκια πιστὰ θεῶν σύναγον, κρητῆρι δὲ οἶνον
μίσγον, ἀτὰρ βασιλεῦσιν ὕδωρ ἐπὶ χεῖρας ἔχευαν.

(2) 3.271-72 (ditto 19.252-53)
Atreides, drawing with his hands the machaira, which always hung by the great sheath of his sword,

(2) 3.271-72 (ditto 19.252-53)
Ἀτρεΐδης δὲ ἐρυσσάμενος χείρεσσι μάχαιραν,
ἥ οἱ πὰρ ξίφεος μέγα κουλεὸν αἰὲν ἄωρτο,

(3) 3.273
he cut hairs from the heads of the lambs,

(3) 3.2735
ἀρνῶν ἐκ κεφαλέων τάμνε τρίχας·

(4) 3.273-74
… and then the heralds distributed them to the best of the Trojans and Achaeans.

(4) 3.273-74
…αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
κήρυκες Τρώων καὶ Ἀχαιῶν νεῖμαν ἀρίστοις6

(5) 3.275
Before them Atreides prayed, holding up his hands;

(5) 3.2757
τοῖσιν δ’ ’Ατρεΐδης μεγάλ’ εὔχετο χεῖρας ἀνασχών·

(6) 3.276-80
“Zeus Father, counselor from Ida, best and greatest,
and Helios, you who see all and hear all,
and the rivers and earth, and those who from beneath punish men having toiled, whoever swears a false oath,
you be witnesses, and protect the trusted oaths.”

(6) 3.276-808
“Ζεῦ πάτερ, Ἲδηθεν μεδέων, κύδιστε μέγιστε,
Ἠέλιος θ’, ὄς πάντ’ ἐφορᾷς καὶ πάντ’ ἐπακούεις,
καὶ ποταμοὶ καὶ γαῖα, καὶ οἳ ὑπένερθε καμόντας9
ἀνθρώπους τίνυσθον, ὃτις κ’ ἐπίορκον ὀμόσσῃ,
ὑμεῖς μάρτυροι ἔστε, φυλάσσετε δ’ ὅρκια πιστά·”

(7) 3.292 (ditto 19.266)
So he said, and he cut the neck of the lambs with the pitiless bronze.

(7) 3.292 (ditto 19.266)
Ἦ, καὶ ἀπὸ στομάχους ἀρνῶν τάμε νηλέϊ χαλκῷ·

(8) 3.293-94
And he put them on the ground, gasping, depleted of life, for the bronze had taken away their strength.

(8) 3.293-9410
καὶ τοὺς μὲν κατέθηκεν ἐπὶ χθονὸς ἀσπαίροντας,
θυμοῦ δευομένους· ἀπὸ γὰρ μένος εἵλετο χαλκός.

(9) 3. 295-96
Drawing wine from bowls with cups, they poured it out, and prayed to the gods who always are,

(9) 3.295-96
οἶνον δ’ ἐκ κρητῆρους ἀφυσσόμενοι δεπάεσσιν
ἔκχεον, ἠδ’ εὔχοντο θεοῖς αἰειγενέτῃσιν·

(10) 3.297
and this is how each one of the Achaeans and Trojans prayed;

(10) 3.297
ὧδε δέ τις εἴπεσκεν ’Αχαιῶν τε Τρώων τε·

(11) 3.298-301
“Zeus best and greatest, and all the other immortal gods, whosoever should first violate the oaths,
so let their brains run to the ground like this wine, and those of their children, and let their wives become the spoil of others.”

(11) 3.298-30111
“Ζεῦ κύδιστε μέγιστε, καὶ ἀθάνατοι θεοὶ ἄλλοι,
ὁππότεροι πρότεροι ὑπὲρ ὄρκια πημήνειαν,
ὧδέ σφ’ ἐγκέφαλος χαμάδις ῤέοι ὠς ὅδε οἶνος,
αὐτῶν καὶ τεκέων, ἄλοχοι δ’ ἄλλοισι δαμεῖεν.


5 Cf. 19.254, which has simply “cutting hairs from the boar” (κάπρου ἀπὸ τρίχας αρξάμενος).
6 This step is missing in Book 19.
7 Note the close match in book 19: “raising his hands to Zeus / he prayed” (Διὶ χεῖρας ἀνασχὼν / εὔχετο [19.254-55]). In Book 19 the communal mood is emphasized—τοὶ δ’ ἄρα πάντες ἐτ’ αὐτόφιν ἥατο σιγῇ—as it was just before when all the Achaians rejoiced that Achilles had renounced his isolation and wrath (19.74-75; 19.173-74). This is clearly context driven.
8 The prayer at 19.258-59 is thematically similar: “Let Zeus see first, who is highest and best of the gods, / and then Ge, and Helios and the Erinyes, who from under earth / punish men, whosoever should swear a false oath” (“ἴστω νῦν Ζεὺς πρῶτα, θεῶν ὕπατος καὶ ἄριστος, / Γῆ τε καὶ Ἠέλιος καὶ Ἐρινύες, αἴ θ’ ὐπὸ γαῖαν / ἀνθρώπους τίνυνται, ὅστις κ’ ἐπίορκον ὀμόσσῃ”). The wine-pouring is omitted in Book 19; this is not a collective oath, and it is much abbreviated.
9 καμόντες is given as a variant: toiling Erinyes or, as above, toiling humans? Kirk (1985: loc. cit.) interprets as “when dead” (Cf. Leaf 1900: loc. cit.: those who have completed their toil) and sees it as applying to humans.
10 Cf. 19.267-68: And Talthybios hurled him, whirling, into the great abyss / of the sea, as food for fish (τὸν μὲν Ταλθύβιος πολιῆς ἀλὸς ἐς μέγα λαῖτμα / ῥίψ’ ἐπιδινήσας, βόσιν ἰχθύσιν).
11 Cf. 19.264-65: “But if I have sworn these things falsely, then let the gods give to me pains / very many, as many as they give to anyone who transgresses in swearing” (εἰ δέ τι τῶνδ’ ἐπίορκον, ἐμοὶ θειοὶ ἄλγεα δοῖεν / πολλὰ μάλ’, ὅσσα διδοῦσιν ὅτὶς σφ’ ἀλίτηται ὀμόσσας).

Chart 3: Funeral Feast of Book 23

. . . αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσι τάφον μενοεικέα δαίνυ.
πολλοὶ μὲν βόες ἀργοὶ ὀρέχθεον ἀμφὶ σιδήρῳ (30)
σφαζόμενοι, πολλοὶ δ’ ὄϊες καὶ μηκάδες αἶγες·
πολλοὶ δ’ ἀργιόδοντες ὕες, θαλέθοντες ἀλοιφῇ,
εὑόμενοι τανύοντο διὰ φλογὸς Ἡφαίστοιο·
πάντῃ δ’ ἀμφὶ νέκυν κοτυλήρυτον ἔρρεεν αἷμα.
Αὐτὰρ τόν γε ἄνακτα ποδώκεα Πηλεΐωνα (35)
εἰς ̓Aγαμέμνονα δῖον ἄγον βασιλῆες ̓Aχαιῶν
σπουδῇ παρπεπιθόντες ἑταίρου χωόμενον κῆρ.
οἱ δ’ ὅτε δὴ κλισίην ̓Aγαμέμνονος ἷξον ἰόντες,
αὐτίκα κηρύκεσσι λιγυφθόγγοισι κέλευσαν
ἀμφὶ πυρὶ στῆσαι τρίποδα μέγαν, εἰ πεπίθοιεν (40)
Πηλεΐδην λούσασθαι ἄπο βρότον αἱματόεντα.
αὐτὰρ ὅ γ’ ἠρνεῖτο στερεῶς, ἐπὶ δ’ ὅρκον ὄμοσσεν·
“οὐ μὰ Ζῆν’, ὅς τίς τε θεῶν ὕπατος καὶ ἄριστος,
οὐ θέμις ἐστὶ λοετρὰ καρήατος ἆσσον ἱκέσθαι,
πρίν γ’ ἐνὶ Πάτροκλον θέμεναι πυρὶ σῆμά τε χεῦαι (45)
κείρασθαί τε κόμην, ἐπεὶ οὔ μ’ ἔτι δεύτερον ὧδε
ἵξετ’ ἄχος κραδίην, ὄφρα ζωοῖσι μετείω.
ἀλλ’ ἤτοι νῦν μὲν στυγερῇ πειθώμεθα δαιτί·

But he prepared a spirit-soothing funeral feast for them.
Many white oxen bellowed around the iron as they were
slaughtered, and many sheep and bleating goats;
many white-toothed swine teaming with fat
being singed were stretched across Hephaestus’ flame;
all around the corpse ran blood, cupfuls of it.
But the kings of the Achaeans led the swift-footed lord,
son of Peleus, to godlike Agamemnon
With difficulty they persuaded him, still vexed at heart
for his companion. When they led him to the hut of
Agamemnon, at once they ordered shrill-voiced heralds
to set around the fire a great tripod, if the son of
Peleus would be persuaded to wash off the bloody filth.
But he refused vigorously, and swore an oath:
“Not by Zeus, who is the highest and best of the gods,
it is not sanctioned for water to come near my head
before I put Patroklos in the fire and pour a sêma
and cut my hair, since not a second time will
such grief come to my head while I go among the living.
But come and let us be persuaded to the hateful feast.

(Charts updated October 23, 2013)

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