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• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
Festival, or the “Murder of the Ox” is an elaborate ceremony celebrated
in Athens and elsewhere in ancient Greece.
It has the peculiar element that the sacrifice was described as a “murder” and
the actual sacrifice was followed by an elaborate judicial proceeding in which
the sacrificer was accused of “murdering” the ox; he blamed it on the other
attendants present who passed the responsibility on to other humans. Finally the
ax used in the slaughter was found guilty and sentenced to death at which point
it was pitched off a cliff into the sea. Oxen were often sacrificed at the
larger community festivals in Greece (and cooked!--the Indo-Europeans almost
never killed anything they weren’t going to eat), but only this sacrifice was
treated as a murder. This version of the ritual is reconstructed from a number
of sources, outlined in both Frazer, see especially Vol. 8, pages 4-8, and also
This sacrifice was said to be an offering to Zeus, however, every offering was considered to be at least partly for Zeus as an important God. The more likely recipients were the honored dead. No explicit statement is known for the liturgy for the Bouphonia festival but the proper Greek prayer for the souls of the dead is known from Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris. The Greeks normally poured a libation of wine into the ground as part of any ritual; here they offer milk, wine and honey as an offering to the dead:
Milk of the mountain kine,
There is also a detailed explanation of the proper way to offer wine at a Daps to the Agathos Daimon (the spirits of the dead who created our world), given in the Deipnosophists.
The Bouphonia festival was set for the 14th of Skirophorion, a month that began in June and continued into July, however the early calendar of the Greeks was set to the lunar schedule, so the exact date (according to the solar year) would have been different each year. The 14th day of the lunar month would have coincided with the full moon so it was a major festival.
There is no exact myth in Greek sources that links the festival of the Bouphonia with the myths of the Indo-European God *Yama (the Primal Cow Creation Myth), but the date (in Mediterranean countries, at the beginning of the dry season), and the peculiar elements of the ritual provide the link, according to Jaan Puhvel. This is the Greek development of the Proto-Indo-European God Yama into various Gods and saints.
The festival is retained in many Christian countries as the feast day of St. James or St. Iacobi, set to July 25 and October 25, depending on the calendar. The two St. James have many features in common with the Indo-European God Yama, but the exact path of transmission is not clear.
This article was originally published on Associated Content, which went out
of business on Feb. 1, 2010. It was then published at pierce.yolasite.com/bouphonia with an update, but Yola was hacked on Nov. 22, 2011. The article is now being republished here.