Here’s my outline for a group ritual (if you want a ritual for a single person, click here).
NOTE: Text directly from Walter Burkert’s description of the thusia on pages 55-59 in his book Greek Religion is in black. Anything that has been changed or adapted for the modern day in any way shape or form is in blue. Details which are uncertain or require more research are in green.
- People wash, dress in clean clothing, and wear garlands on their heads. The garlands in ancient times were made by weaving twigs together. See my dos and don’ts for more information.
- Before the start of the ritual, the hearth fire is lit.Indoors, you can use a tall pillar candle. In ancient times in any home, the hearth fire to Hestia was always kept lit (p. 61). For safety reasons, you may not want to do this. If you want to try, I recommend using seven day candles. If this is an outdoor ritual, the fire was not kept going continuously and was only lit during the festival during a special ceremony. For this, I would use a hymn to Hestia (I prefer Homeric Hymn #24).
- You will also need a fire in which to burn the offerings–I recommend an iron cast cauldron filled with epsom salts and isopropal alcohol which is then set on fire.
- Processional. The participants go to the altar lead by the following:
- The sacrificial basket is carried on a “blameless maiden’s” head. This basket contains the knife to be used for the sacrifice concealed beneath barley or cakes.
- A vessel containing water carried by the water-bearer or hydrophoros.
- An incense burner.
- Torches. Lacking torches one can use taper candles.
- One or several musicians–in ancient times, a flute-player.
- Circumambulation. The circle is marked out by the carrying of the sacrificial basket and vessal of water by the people who brought them in. All stand around the altar as the people who brought in the basket and water walk around the participants, the animal to be sacrificed, the altar, and the site itself. “The sacred is delimited from the profane” (p. 56).
- Beginning the preparation for the sacrifice
Katarchesthai (or “a beginning”):
- Water is poured from the vessal over the hands of the participants. (For more information on purification, see my purification ritual.) The animal is also sprinkled with water. In ancient times, the animal was supposed to shake or nod, which they took as a sign of assent to be sacrificed. Instead of an animal, one can substitute part of the feast that is about to be eaten–meat is obviously recommended–or something to represent the animal.
- The participants each take handfuls of barley and throw it at the animal and onto the altar in union.
Aparchesthai (or the “last beginning”):
- The sacrificial knife is uncovered
- The sacrificer (this is the priest/ess of the ritual) conceals the knife and goes to the animal and cuts part of its hair and throws it onto the fire.
- Prayer or Hymnodia. This is where you can recite an appropriate hymn of the god or gods from Homer or from the Orphic hymns. Usually one is chosen which is appropriate to the occasion or festival. This is essentially the meat of the ceremony, where you make your intentions known as to how and why you are holding this ritual for the god, thank them for past aid and presence, and possibly offer your own hopes and prayers for the future, again as appropriate. See the prayer page and dos and don’ts section for further details on how to pray.One small note: Drew Campbell in Old Stones, New Temples places this section right before the barley is thrown onto the altar and the animal, but in Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion, he lists the order as follows:
- “First there is the carrying of the basket, the water vessel, the torches, and the leading of the animals; then come the stages of the beginning, the praying, the slaughter, the skinning, and the dismemberment; this is followed by the roasting, first of the
- (liver), then of the rest of the meat, then the libations of wine, and finally the distribution of the meat” (p. 59).
In this order, the praying clearly happens after the stages of beginning as outlined above.
- Smaller animals are raised above the altar, otherwise they were left standing by the altar.
- The throat is cut. This is when I would cut the meat or food offering–perhaps one can be creative and find a way to fill or cover a steak or a chicken with olive oil.
- The blood is collected in a basin and sprayed over the altar (usually made of stone). Olive oil would come in handy for this as described above.
- The woman cry out in “high, shrill tones.”
- The animal is then skinned and butchered, inner organs roasted on the fire. If you are not outdoors, I would think of perhaps including a small countertop grill on top of the altar next to the fire where the offerings are being burned.
- The first taste of the meat was the “privilege and duty of the innermost circle of participants,” including the priest/sacrificer (p. 57). What was eaten at this point was a small part of the animal. This can be duplicated by cutting off a piece of whatever food item you are sacrificing.
- The bones and other inedible parts of the animal were consecrated by being put into the fire. According to Nilsson’s Greek Folk Religion, it was a custom to offer the first portion of the sacrifice to Hestia.
- Food and other offerings were burned, including wine, cakes, and broth.
- Libations. Milk, honey, wine, olive oil, or water were traditional. The most common was wine. Traditionally, a person pours the offering, calls out “Sponde!” (pronounced spawn-DAY), which means “a drink offering!” If it is done outside or if you’re using the iron cauldron I described above, the libation is poured into the fire. Otherwise, you can pour it into a container which is taken outside later. A variation on this is to have each of the participants receive individual glasses of wine. They call out “Sponde,” take a sip, then libate. It was often customary to offer the first and last of the libation to Hestia as noted in Homer’s hymn to Hestia.
- The ritual meal. At this point, you declare that the ritual is over, and at this point you eat a special feast, either alone or with guests. This is where the rest of the meat is distributed to the rest of the participants of the ritual.
Rituals can even be less complicated than that. One way to honor the gods is by sacrificing a portion of your meal or drink every time you eat–perhaps a small portion at the beginning and end for Hestia, as the first and last offerings always went to her. Here’s a small dinner ritual for Hestia that people might find useful. You can pour a little of your drink on the ground, in the sink, or if you’re at a restaurant, dab a few drops of the drink onto your napkin. If people notice, who cares? You’re being a religious Hellenic polytheist. Jewish people can say barukas over their meals; who is to say that we can’t pray or do our own form of sacred meals too? Especially since Socrates would always make libations of his drinks. If it’s good enough for Socrates, it’s good enough for us!