I was wondering, what happened to animals that were sacrificed in the ancient Greece. For instance, when Pythagoras created his theorem he made a 100 oxen sacrifice.

Was the sacrifice considered a major feast with the animals eaten in the process, or were they left to rot - To be eaten by "gods"?

If the animals were eaten and the bones were burnt, what happened to the ashes?


2 Answers 2


Cthonic sacrifices generally resulted in the animals being burnt entire. Totally cremating doves meant the smell of burnt feathers as well as burning meat.

Normally sacrifices resulted in bones and fat being burnt for the gods on high altars. I suspect the height was not only part of the spectacle but got the greasy smoke above the heads of the crowd rather than driving them away.

Temples had big kettles as part of their normal equipment. The full-time priests took the meat and boiled it like pot roast (no veggies mentioned). They were the cooks. The meat was then shared out among the congregation as a communal sacramental meal. It was said that for poor men this might be the only meat they ate.

So you didn't watch the sacrifice and go home. Waiting for the rest of the ceremony gave you time to socialize with other Greeks and citizens.


Pausanias. Guide to Greece trans by Peter Levy because the notes are so good.

EDIT: About those ashes, the only thing I can find is in one of Pausanias's chapters on Olympia (he has two), where the ashes are mixed with water and plastered onto the hill on top of which the altar stands. This ash-hill was out in the open so it seems it never got too huge. If this had been normal, he would not have remarked on it.

  • 1
    Interesting. I'd heard that the good edible parts were typically kept to feed temple staff, and the rest burnt. I guess that's a myth then?
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 15, 2015 at 19:57
  • @T.E.D. heard that as well. Quite likely, but impossible to prove of course, especially if it wasn't "official policy" and written down anywhere. And of course there's bound to be a lot of difference over time and space, different gods, etc.
    – jwenting
    Apr 16, 2015 at 6:25
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    There's a whole discussion in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians about eating meat sacrificed to idols. I would claim this as support that the animals were sacrificed and the meat made available for consumption thereafter. It's possible (conjecture only) that some people would take the meat to a stall at the market and sell it second-hand.
    – Paul Rowe
    Apr 16, 2015 at 14:18
  • In the Bible there are detailed rules about which portions of the sacrifice are to be taken by the officiating priest and which are to be handed over to the offerer. Presumably the offerer would frequently be sharing his portion with others in order to celebrate the success of the sacrifice. Apr 16, 2015 at 21:51
  • I just had this same interrogation, and really wondered if they were to leave them to rot to be 'eaten by the gods'... i would not want to live next to the temple lol
    – Fredy31
    Jul 8, 2021 at 20:13

It depends on what time period.

In the Homeric period, sacrifice was a big deal. For example, in the Iliad you can read of "hecatombs" (hundreds of heads) being sacrificed at a time. Most sacrifices in old Greece did not happen at temples. You could (and were expected to) sacrifice everywhere. Normally only the less desirable parts were burned, such as the entrails, the rest being eaten. If you did your own sacrifice, you ate the cow. If you sacrificed at a temple, the priests got the cow. In case of a REALLY big deal, you could do a "holocaust" (burn the whole thing) in which case you burned the whole animal, which was expensive both in terms of fuel and time and of course you lost the whole cow (or sheep).

In later "classical" times, Greek sacrifice became more ceremonial. Often just a token chunk of the animal was burned and this was usually done at a temple. When the gods just got the token chunk, often it was one of the choice pieces of the animal (I guess one piece of filet mignon is better than 20 pounds of entrails).

The ashes were dumped into a pit and in some temples and oracles the ash pit could get very big. The ash pit at the oracle of Delphi was known as the "Omphalos", meaning "navel", insinuating it was the center point of the world.

  • 2
    Can you add source/citations please?
    – user69715
    Apr 15, 2015 at 23:48
  • 8
    @user69715 Don't bother waiting, he never does and won't upon request. We're supposed to take his word for everything.
    – CGCampbell
    Apr 16, 2015 at 2:13

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