Sacrifice was the central rite in Greek religion (see religion, greek), but there is no single Greek equivalent to the English word ‘sacrifice’. The practices we bring together under this heading were described by a series of overlapping terms conveying ideas such as ‘killing’, ‘destroying’, ‘burning’, ‘cutting’, ‘consecrating’, ‘performing sacred acts’, ‘giving’, ‘presenting’. As occasions for sacrifice Theophrastus distinguished ‘honour, gratitude, and need’, but his categories do not correspond to fixed types, and in fact the rite could be performed on almost any occasion.
Vegetable products, esp. savoury cakes, were occasionally ‘sacrificed’ (the same vocabulary is used as for animal sacrifice) in lieu of animals or, much more commonly, in addition to them. But animal sacrifice was the standard type. The main species used were sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. In a few cults fish and fowl were offered, wild animals still more rarely; dogs and horses appear in a few sacrifices of special type that were not followed by a feast. Human sacrifice occurred only in myth and scandalous story. The choice between the main species was largely a matter of cost and scale, a piglet costing c.3 drachmae, a sheep or goat 12, a pig 20 or more, a cow up to 80. Within the species symbolic factors were sometimes also relevant: the virgins Athena and Artemis might require unbroken cattle, fertile Earth a pregnant sow. See animals in cult.
The most important step‐by‐step accounts of a standard sacrifice are a series of Homeric scenes, of which the fullest is in Homer's Odyssey, 3. 430–463. Attic practice differs or may have done from Homeric in details, but the basic articulations of the rite are the same in all sources. Vase‐paintings and votive reliefs provide important supplementary evidence, though by their nature they rarely depict the full succession of actions. Three main stages can be distinguished:1. Preparatory. An animal was led to the altar, usually in procession. An aulos played. The participants assembled in a circle, rinsed their hands in lustral water, and took a handful of barley grain from a basket. Water was sprinkled on the victim to force it to ‘nod’ agreement to its own sacrifice. The main sacrificer (not necessarily a priest) then cut hair from the victim, put it on the altar fire, and uttered a prayer which defined the return that was desired (e.g. ‘health and safety’) for the offering. The other participants threw forwards their barley grains.2. The kill. The victim's throat was cut with a knife; larger victims had been stunned with a blow from an axe first. Women participants raised the cry known as ololygē. In Attic practice it was important to ‘bloody the altar’; small animals were held over it to be killed, the blood from larger ones was caught in a bowl and poured over it.3. Treatment of the meat, which itself had three stages. First the god's portion, typically the thigh bones wrapped in fat with (in Homer) small portions of meat cut ‘from all the limbs’ set on top, was burnt on the altar fire. Wine was poured on as it burnt. (Further portions for the gods were sometimes put on a table or even on the knees or in the hands of their statues; in practice, these became priests' perquisites.) Then the entrails were roasted on skewers and shared among all the participants. Finally the rest of the meat was boiled and distributed (normally in equal portions); in contrast to the entrails, this boiled meat was occasionally taken away for consumption at home, though a communal feast on the spot was the norm (see dining‐rooms). Omens (see portents) were often taken both from the burning of the god's portion and from the condition of the entrails.Certain ‘quasi‐sacrifices’ contained several of the actions listed above and could be described by some, though not all, of the group of words that denote sacrifice. The killing of animals to ratify an oath, for instance, followed many of the stages mentioned under 1 and 2 above; stage 3, however, was omitted entirely, the carcass being carried away or thrown in the sea. And similar ritual killings occurred in certain purifications and before battle.