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b. Altar of Olympian Zeus

Pausanias 5.13.8–10; 5.14.1–2

The Altar of Olympian Zeus

[5.13.8] The altar of Olympic Zeus is about equally distant from the Pelopium and the sanctuary of Hera, but it is in front of both. Some say that it was built by Idaean Heracles, others by the local heroes two generations later than Heracles. It has been made from the ash of the thighs of the victims sacrificed to Zeus, as is also the altar at Pergamus. There is an ashen altar of Samian Hera not a bit grander than what in Attica the Athenians call “improvised hearths.”

[5.13.9] The first stage of the altar at Olympia, called prothysis, has a circumference of one hundred and twenty-five feet; the circumference of the stage on the prothysis is thirty-two feet; the total height of the altar reaches to twenty-two feet. The victims themselves it is the custom to sacrifice on the lower stage, the prothysis. But the thighs they carry up to the highest part of the altar and burn them there.

[5.13.10] The steps that lead up to the prothysis from either side are made of stone, but those leading from the prothysis to the upper part of the altar are, like the altar itself, composed of ashes. The ascent to the prothysis may be made by maidens, and likewise by women, when they are not shut out from Olympia, but men only can ascend from the prothysis to the highest part of the altar. Even when the festival is not being held, sacrifice is offered to Zeus by private individuals and daily by the Eleans.

[5.13.11] Every year the soothsayers, keeping carefully to the nineteenth day of the month Elaphius, bring the ash from the town-hall, and making it into a paste with the water of the Alpheius they daub the altar therewith. But never may the ash be made into paste with other water, and for this reason the Alpheius is thought to be of all rivers the dearest to Olympic Zeus. There is also an altar at Didyma of the Milesians, which Heracles the Theban is said by the Milesians to have made from the blood of the victims. But in later times the blood of the sacrifices has not made the altar excessively large.

[5.14.1] XIV. The altar at Olympia shows another strange peculiarity, which is this. The kite, the bird of prey with the most rapacious nature, never harms those who are sacrificing at Olympia. Should ever a kite seize the entrails or some of the flesh, it is regarded as an unfavorable sign for the sacrificer. There is a story that when Heracles the son of Alcmena was sacrificing at Olympia he was much worried by the flies. So either on his own initiative or at somebody’s suggestion he sacrificed to Zeus Averter of Flies, and thus the flies were diverted to the other side of the Alpheius. It is said that in the same way the Eleans too sacrifice to Zeus Averter of Flies, to drive the flies out of Olympia.

[5.14.2] The Eleans are wont to use for the sacrifices to Zeus the wood of the white poplar and of no other tree, preferring the white poplar, I think, simply and solely because Heracles brought it into Greece from Thesprotia. And it is my opinion that when Heracles sacrificed to Zeus at Olympia he himself burned the thigh bones of the victims upon wood of the white poplar. Heracles found the white poplar growing on the banks of the Acheron, the river in Thesprotia, and for this reason Homer36 calls it “Acheroid.”

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