Did the Ancient Greeks Engage in Human Sacrifice?

The remains uncovered at an altar to Zeus on Mount Lykaion may confirm legends about human sacrifice at the shrine

Greek Skeleton
The remains of a teenage boy found near an altar dedicated to Zeus at Mt. Lykaion Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs

The ancient Greeks are associated with music, philosophy, logic and storytelling. So tales of human sacrifice in the works of ancient writers including Plato are often chalked up as myths. But the discovery of the remains of a male teenager at Mount Lykaion, the spot where some Greeks made animal sacrifices to Zeus, may lend credence to those tall tales.

Mizin Sidahmed at The Guardian reports that the 3,000-year-old remains were discovered in an ash altar on the mountain that is the earliest known site of worship for the god Zeus. The area of the altar has been under excavation since 2006, and finds indicate it was used by humans early as 5,000 years ago, even before the “birth” of Zeus in the Greek world. Archaeologists have discovered lots of animals bones, as well as pottery shards, metal objects and tripods in the area.

But until this summer, no hint of human remains were found at Lykaion. “Several ancient literary sources mention rumors that human sacrifice took place at the altar [of Zeus, located on the mountain’s southern peak] but up until a few weeks ago there has been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site,” David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona who has worked at the site tells Nicholas Paphitis at the AP. “Whether it’s a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar ... so it’s not a place where you would bury an individual. It’s not a cemetery.”

One of the more prominent stories about human sacrifice on the mountain comes from the early Greek geographer Pausanias in his Description of Greece. He tells the tale of Lycaon, the first King of Arcadia, who according to one version of the story sacrificed one of his sons and served him to the god Zeus at a dinner party. Zeus was enraged, and he turned Lycaon and his other sons into wolves. Supposedly this led to an annual tradition at the altar of Lykaion in which a boy would be slaughtered along with animals. The meat would be cooked all together, and whoever ate the human flesh would be turned into a wolf for nine years. If they did not eat human flesh in that time, they were allowed to return to their original form. If they did, they would remain a wolf forever.

The remains on Lykaion were found deep in the ash pit, Sidahmed reports. They were laid in an east-west direction with two lines of stones along the sides and other stone slabs on the pelvis. Part of the upper skull was missing.

Jan Bremmer, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands tells Sidahmed he is skeptical that the remains are from a human sacrifice. He said the idea of Greeks conducting human sacrifice is intriguing because it contradicts widely held notions about the ancient society. “On the one hand there’s this picture of Greece as the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of democracy, of philosophy, of rational thinking,” he says. “But on the other hand we have these cruel cruel myths.”

The researchers have not speculated publicly on why, if the body is not a sacrifice, it was buried in the ash pit. Future excavations at the site will show whether the skeleton is an anomaly or if the area around the altar contains other human remains.

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