The ancient Greek pantheon of gods is still familiar to us today, with names like Zeus and Apollo being instantly recognisable. Sacrifices were made to these gods for one of two main reasons – either to thank and please them (in return for a favour), or to ask for guidance on the future. Few things are as uncertain as an upcoming battle, so beforehand the sphagia was performed to seek the approval of the god or gods; for example it was the custom of the Spartans to sacrifice to Artemis Agrotera, the goddess of the hunt, just as the battle was about to start.
The sacrifice itself would be performed by priests, called hiereus in Greek. They would know what rituals to perform to maximise the effect on the god, and they would also interpret the signs if the sacrifice were to provide an omen for the future. The first and last figures pictured above are these priests, dressed in long robes (himatia) with a crown of leaves on their long, plaited hair. The priest on the left is perhaps actually calling on the gods, and looks suitably dramatic. In his right hand he holds a skewer used for the sacrifice, and in his left he has the walking stick (bakterion) with its characteristic T-shaped head to allow the owner to lean on it for a rest. The second priest is very much at the dirty end of the job as he is in the act of killing a ram. Sacrificial animals could be all sorts of animals, but oxen, sheep and goats were particular favourites.
The man with the helmet is identified on the box as a Molossian general. The Molossians were one of the Greek tribes in the north-west of the country, in Epirus, and their most famous son by far is Pyrrhus (319 – 272 BCE). The more sophisticated Greeks in the southern city states tended to think of these northern tribes as only semi Greek and almost barbarians, like the Macedonians, but their religious practices were typical Greek, and their costume was much the same. This general is clearly based on a figurine from the Oracle at Dodona. He wears a linen cuirass and large greaves with garters, and he has a crested Corinthian helmet perched on his head, which was normal when not in battle as it severely restricted hearing. He holds something, which could well be a liver from a sacrificed ox, used for divination.
The smaller figure is labelled as a royal page, and he wears a simple tunic, short cloak and boots that are typical. He is clearly assisting in the sacrifice, and holds a long skewer with animal entrails on the end, perhaps to be burnt as an offering, or again to be read for omens.
The sculpting of these figures is good, with lovely expressive faces, and the hair and beards of the adults are particularly pleasing. Details such as the general’s armour is very nicely done, and the loose clothing too looks very realistic. The priest killing the ram is a single piece with his victim, but this works well and as with the rest of these figures there is no unwanted extra plastic. There is a fair amount of flash, however, but these are certainly well-sculpted.
The poses are all taken from illustrations to be found in the Osprey titles listed below, but we thought all were well-chosen and believable. The small plinth also included in the set is less likely to be to hand when a battle is due, but as an element in a temple or similar it is perfectly useful. Obviously such sacrifices did not guarantee success, and not all Greeks believed in the gods even at the time, but presumably a commander felt he had to continue with them as some form of insurance, or at least to boost the morale of the men, so this little set illustrates an interesting aspect of Greek warfare that makes a change from the usual combat figures.