When people in the ancient world offered a sacrifice to Yahweh or to the gods, they took the best living animal they owned and offered it as a gift. They killed the offering, making it impossible for the gift ever to be taken back or reclaimed. It was the best they had, and they gave it to God.
The Israelites believed that everything belonging to a person acquired something of that person's personality. Therefore, in making a gift, a person gave something of themselves.
To do this, they used an altar as a linking point between God and
themselves. The gift being offered was placed and burnt on the altar, while the climax to the sacrificial ritual came when the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled there.
There were six stages in the ritual:
The religions of the Graeco-Roman world included observance of the 'thusia' which in some respects resembled the 'zebah' or communion sacriﬁce of the Hebrews. The thusia was a rite in which a portion of an offering was solemnly and ceremoniously offered to the deity and burnt upon the altar, after which the remainder was eaten by priests or worshippers in a common meal. The thusia was a ﬁxed element in the Mycenean culture and was continued by the Greeks.
vase painting showing attendants handling the meat with ﬁve pronged forks;
Worshippers at a thusia were not passive onlookers, but active participants. The rite began with lustrations and the scattering of barley grains, followed by prayers in the form of vows and thanksgiving, culminating in the immolation of the victim and often concluding with processions. The central act was the solemn burning on the altar ﬁre of pieces of the thigh of the animal wrapped in fat and covered with other pieces of meat, as in this vase painting (above) which shows the attendants handling the meat with ﬁve-pronged forks (the priest is standing on the left). Organs below the diaphragm were also eaten or at least tasted. After the priests had taken the portions of the animal belonging to the god, the roasted victim was eaten in a banquet to the accompaniment of libations of wine, oil and honey, music and dancing.
The thusia was used increasingly among the ancient Greeks to express thanks to the gods. Over the centuries a more elaborate ritual and new accessories came into use. Magniﬁcent temples took the place of open-air altars and spontaneous acts of devotion to the gods were replaced by the formal worship offcially adopted by the different city-states and kingdoms of the Graeco-Roman world.
The Greeks also practiced special rites against evil demons in which sacrificial victims were wholly burned at night and in complete silence, but these rites were carefully distinguished from the thusia, performed in daytime as an act of worship of the gods of Olympus.
The Hebrew 'olah' or holocaust was peculiar to Israel and it had no parallel among contemporary peoples. Its special signiﬁcance of complete surrender of the worshipper to God marked a speciﬁcally Hebrew spiritual development.
scene of sacrifice on a Roman terracotta plaque.
All Roman sacriﬁcial rites were intended to propitiate friendly and avert hostile powers. The rites were conducted by the priests with the utmost precision according to a ceremonial which preserved their mystical character. The main features of the rites were the ceremonial preparation and immolation of the animal being sacriﬁced, a careful examination of the vital organs to make sure they were in perfect condition then the burning of the victim on the altar. The whole rite was conducted in complete silence, music being played on pipes to drown any sound (see above). Once the animal had been burnt, it lost its ritual sanctity and became the property of the priests.
Sacriﬁcial ceremony on a Roman bas-relief
Because the Roman cults were concerned with propitiation and aversion, the Greek sacriﬁcial meal shared with the gods was never widely adopted by them.
Bible Study Resource for Archaeology
The ceremony, choice of sacrificial victim, Jewish sacrifice: what happened? The altar at Megiddo, Greek and Roman sacrificial rites, offerings to the gods