As the chief religious centre of the life of the city, the Acropolis was the scene of many ancient state rituals. The altar of Zeus was the scene of a curious annual sacrifice known as “the murder of the ox,” which took place each year at the end of June or beginning of July, when threshing was nearly over. According to an ancient tradition, it was originally instituted to bring an end to a drought which had once afflicted the region, but the manner in which it was carried out strongly suggests that the early Athenians may have entertained some nagging doubts about the morality of the common practice of animal sacrifice.
At the beginning of the ritual, cakes of barley mixed with wheat were laid on the bronze altar, and then several oxen were repeatedly driven around it. The beast which first ventured up to the altar to eat the offering was chosen for the sacrifice. The ancients would probably have said that the beast had “chosen itself,” or that it was “fated” to die.
A double-headed axe and a knife, with which the beast was to be slain, were first wetted with water by girls especially chosen for the purpose, then sharpened, and finally handed to the butchers. One of the butchers felled the ox with the axe, while another cut its throat with the knife. As soon as the ox was dead, those who had killed it would flee the scene. The carcass was skinned and its flesh was eaten. The ox’s hide was filled with straw and sewn up. Then the stuffed animal was set on its feet and attached to a plough, as if it were ploughing.
After this, a solemn mock trial was held, presided over by a very important state official, the king-archon, to determine who had murdered the ox. First, the maidens who had brought the water to wet the axe and the knife would be accused of the crime. They would accuse the men who had sharpened the instruments. These in their turn would accuse those who had handed the implements to the butchers. They would accuse the butchers themselves. Finally, the butchers would lay the blame on the axe and the knife. These objects would then be found guilty of the crime of the murder of the ox, formally condemned, sentenced, and cast out to sea.
It has been suggested by some experts in the history of religions that the rationale behind this ritual is a very ancient one indeed, and may even go back to the customs and attitudes of prehistoric hunting tribes. There is some evidence that early hunters treated their game in some ways as the equals of the hunters themselves, and tried to placate the spirits of the animals they killed. Sometimes they formally, and very courteously, apologised to their victims following the kill. In this ceremony at Athens, the community which offered the sacrifice laid the ultimate blame for the death of the animal upon the instruments of sacrifice themselves. In this way it seems that they hoped to divert the ill-will of the potentially dangerous spirit of the dead ox away from themselves and the city, and towards the objects cast into the sea.