Sacrifice and Ritual (A. Augoustakis)

Already in early Greek epic, ritual and sacrifice feature prominently in the narrative, with a special emphasis on their performance surrounding death. From the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles and Agamemnon’s fight is framed by sacrifice; at the end of the poem, Achilles sacrifices men in honour of Patroclus. The pattern of ritual sacrifice continues in the Odyssey, as Odysseus, for instance, performs sacrifice during the nekyia in a form of necromancy. One does not fail to notice the role of lament in death scenes, especially burial, in connection with ritual, in this case ascribed to women. In Hellenistic epic, Apollonius’ description of ritual in connection with death and sacrifice presents a rather complex image: Jason’s and Medea’s ritual mutilation of Absyrtus results in the purification ritual performed by Circe.

When we turn to Roman epic, Virgil’s Aeneid presents many instances of ritual purification, sacrifice, and death: Dido’s and Turnus’ death can be read as acts of devotio, a sacrifice that becomes a catalyst for the epic protagonist’s, Aeneas’, development. Conversely, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Fasti ritual and sacrifice punctuates the narrative in important moments, such as the Theban cycle, the Trojan war, and recent Roman history. Even though in Lucan’s Bellum Ciuile the narrator keeps a distance from matters of religion and ritual in general, Pompey’s murder can be read as a ritual sacrifice, a bull led to the altar. With the Flavian epicists, ritual, sacrifice, death, and burial are privileged, as the macabre and grotesque take over the narrative. For instance, Statius’ Thebaid features prominent scenes of necromancy, chthonic ritual, sacrifice, and death accompanied by ritual lamentation through the very end of the epic narrative.