The altar of Zeus

P099The Olympics were a religious festival, with sacrifices to the gods and meat for men. There were 69 altars in the sacred enclosure of the precinct and once a month the Eleans offered sacrifices at every one of them. The altar of Zeus was by far the most important one. It was located in the middle of the open space between the temples, on a spot which Zeus himself had indicated by hitting it with a lightning bolt. On the third day of the games a great sacrifice took place on this altar, a hekatombe: one hundred oxen were killed in the presence of the athletes, hellanodikai, and spectators.

The altar consisted of a conical heap of ashes on a stone platform. The ash of the burnt offerings and of the hearth in the house of the magistrates was mixed with water of the Alpheios into a kind of paste, which was added to the ever growing hill of ashes. In the time of Pausanias the heap was more than 7 m high. Of this altar of Zeus nothing has been preserved, however.

© KU Leuven, 2012