The Highest Altar: Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece

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The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn: fresco by Giorgio Vasari and Cristofano Gherardi. (1560) Sala di Cosimo I, Palazzo Vecchio (Public Domain)

The Highest Altar: Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece

In the Greek Peloponnese, high atop the summit on Arcadia’s Mount Lykaion (Wolf Mountain) lies an altar at one of the oldest and most revered of all primordial sanctuaries. Towering at nearly 5,000 feet (15 meters), with vistas of the entire Peloponnese peninsula below, it is easy to understand the intimacy the ancients must have felt towards the god of sky and thunder at this sacred site.

The Fall of the Titans by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1596–1598) (Public Domain)

The Fall of the Titans by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1596–1598) (Public Domain)

Weather God Zeus

Purportedly Zeus’ birthplace, experts now believe that the altar may predate Zeus by over 1,000 years, originally paying homage to a chthonic, more primal god. Indeed, Zeus’ birth atop Mount Lykaion may signify the very inception of ancient Greek religion itself. A weather-god, Zeus was entreated during times of scarcity, not infrequently high above the clouds on Mount Lykaion. In a land prone to drought, famine and a thousand injustices, carnivorous gods loomed large, ravenously roaming the earth in search of sacrificial victims. Zeus, one of the earliest gods of the Greek pantheon, was the most brutal and blood-thirsty amongst them.


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