Cannibals & Their Lightning God


Two things the gringa loves most are science and history. When the two collide I believe I am in Paradise.  Add the spice of controversy and there is simply no going back for the gringa. Archaeologists in Greece have made this dream combination come true for the gringa.

Let us travel back 3,000 years to the bleak mountaintop of Mount Lykaion in southern Greece, which some ancient Greeks believed to be the birthplace of Zeus, rather than Crete. This is the revered resting place of an altar featuring a grisly design of sheep bone construction. This is where the religious leaders of Greece hoped to pacify their god of gods, Zeus himself. Offered up are the bloody sacrifices of what one would expect to be sheep or goats, considering what the altar is made of. Think again dear readers.

For those schooled in literature and philosophy, when Greece is mentioned, you hearken back to the days of Plato and Socrates. You believe these sophisticated thinkers of Greece gave birth to civilized society as we know it. As you cruise about town, passing homes with columned porches, you remind yourself that this bit of architecture was passed down from an exceptionally cultured society. Or not. Not when the skeletal remains of a teenage boy near Zeus’ altar indicates that young, human sacrifices were being bled out on top of a table made from sheep bones in efforts to gain favor with a god that might rain down lightning if he got pissed.

But Mount Lykaion is historically linked to Greek athletic festivals, isn’t it? Isn’t it one of the ancient sites with a stadium and hippodrome, all indicators of a culture that appreciated athletic competitions? The gringa wonders, was death the price for losing or, could it have been the price for winning, or, could it have been the “opening ceremony” after which a priest turns around and commands, “Let the games begin!” Who really knows at this time because this is a recent discovery.

And some scholars are not too happy about revelations of human sacrifice as part of ancient Greek religious ceremonies. I mean, after all, Greece way back then liked to call rival foreign nations nasty names like barbarians and cannibals. But, really, who do they think they are fooling? Remember, Socrates asked Adeimantos if he had heard the latest gossip about religious zealouts feasting on the remains of their human sacrifice. Socrates includes a gruesome description of a terrible recipe of mixing the entrails of different victims which, if ingested by some hapless cannibal, transforms them into a wolf. Considering that Adeimantos had already heard the story, it seems that the nasty religious practices going on atop Mount Lykaion were no big secret among the ancient Greeks. It’s just big news to us.

So what kind of science goes into the decision that the remains of this young man belong to a specific era and culture? Scientists have to analyze the composition of the altar itself. Considered an “ash altar”, the gringa’s depiction of it being constructed in the fashion of, say, a dining room table and made completely out of sheep bones is not an altogether clear picture of what scientists are dealing with. Imagine, if you will, that ancient priests led sheep and goats to a sacred place, slit their throat, then burned the remains. Each sacrifice slaughtered and burned atop the ones that went before. Eventually a mound of ash accumulates and becomes a ritual platform. At Mount Lykaion the mound was almost five feet high.

So, the scientists use their handy-dandy equipment to measure remains of bones to see which animal (or human) they belong to. If human, they measure the pelvis to see if it is male or female. Then they need to determine the age of the remains. The first thing that comes to mind is ye aulde carbon dating technique. But there are other methods that can be used on other objects and archaeological sites to determine age:

  • Stratigraphical: The science of geology comes into play with a method that relies on the accumulation of soil to calculate the passage of time. The premise is that the area where people live results in layers of earth becoming deposited. Gives a whole new meaning to the saying that a particular area sure has “built up”.
  • Astronomical Chronology: Astronomers have used their knowledge to study the fluctuations of solar radiation to calculate when ice ages have occurred. The common argument is that 5 have occurred.
  • Dendrochronology: This science was pioneered in 1904 by A.E. Douglass who created the technique of analyzing tree rings to determine not only the age of a tree but to find indicators of drought, disease and hearty growing seasons.

So, if history, science and drama are appealing to someone you know, remind them that there are still exciting discoveries to be made, particularly in Greece. For young people who long for the curiosities that are found in archaeological digs, remind them that not every ancient puzzle has been solved. Along with history, they should also have a strong foundation in STEM studies.  And lucky for me this archaeological site has its own website keeping fascinated individuals like myself up-to-date on their latest discoveries. Because the gringa really wants to know just went on up there.

Sources:

www.greekmythology.com

www.biblicalarchaeology.org

www.oocities.org

lykaionexcavation.org

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