The word thysia, which comes from the terminology of religious practice, literally means the offering of something to the gods, with the aim of placating them, securing their assistance, or simply as an expression of thanks.
Together with prayer, sacrifice, whether bloody or bloodless, was the main means by which the individual or group communicated with the gods, and was at the heart of every religious ceremony. In practice, at least in the Greece of historical times, the sacrificial victim slaughtered was always an animal. In mythology, however, which moves on the level of archetypal symbols and also reflects earlier ritual practice, the theme of the sacrifice of a virgin occurs with striking frequency.
Most commonly before a battle, sometimes after it, and more rarely in other circumstances, men are obliged to deliver a virgin girl to death. In accordance with the axiom of magic that 'the highest deserves the best' it is usually the best, the most beautiful, the most noble maiden, the daughter of the leader, who has to be offered for the appeal to have the desired effect.
The virgin girl is led to the altar. Her death will mean the beginning of war and slaughter. She who, while still alive, was the dark object of desire, a source of erotic tension and conflict between the men in the group, now becomes the connecting link that binds them together in a joint enterprise. The shed blood of the girl demands revenge and ignites the aggressive nature of the men. The image of the virgin, who lives on in another dimension, leads the men to battle.
For the sacrifice to be acceptable, however, the victim must acquiesce in it, and offer herself of her own free will, thereby absolving society of a sense of guilt and the fear of retribution. In order to honour and also to propitiate the maiden who has offered herself for the salvation of all, the group establishes a posthumous cult, with offerings.
These myths are interwoven with primeval rituals and connected with 'events' set in the remote heroic past. They are found in many parts of Greece with different actors, and are recorded in the earliest Archaic epic poetry (8th-7th centuries BC) or can be detected in local cults.
In addition to its literal meaning, however, sacrifice is also used in the broader sense of the surrender of something of personal value, such as individual, personal fulfilment, happiness, or even life, which is offered up in the name of a widely accepted ideal.
A necessary precondition in this case is the possibility of free choice and a conscious intellectual process leading to the final decision. It is no coincidence, of course, that issues of this kind make their first appearance in the context of Classical tragedy, which lives off the dilemmas and internal conflicts of its heroes.
The great tragedians adapted the old myths and 'created' a series of heroes and, above all, heroines who sacrifice themselves, furnishing models of virtue that accorded with the prevailing perceptions of the time and were accordingly highly popular.
Euadne, who threw herself on her husband's funeral pyre in order to follow him to the grave, and Alcestis are perfect embodiments of conjugal fidelity, while Antigone and Electra are models of the good sister and the devoted daughter. They give the clearest possible expression to the mythical female model that so suited the patriarchal society of Athens.
From Medea to Sappho - Radical Women in Ancient Greece
Athens, National Archaeological Museum - 20 March - 30 June 1995