May 17th, 2006

Dionysus

Hecatomb

Out walking this afternoon, I spotted another building that's about to be up for sale that would be an excellent candidate for a Temple of Dionysus at St. Louis, the Rothman Furniture warehouse outlet store on the Rock Road near I-170. This is a game I play with myself all the time, because I just can't get the idea out of my head. But anyway, while thinking about what it would be like, I imagined answering for someone the question of what should they do if they wanted to offer a sacrifice to Dionysus? And I would explain to them that it's not about the blood, or the death of the animal. Athenian temple law showed that the Athenians themselves were very squeamish about that part of it, even living in a culture where virtually every family butchered and dressed its own meat. The animals were killed as humanely as possible. In fact, they went beyond kosher law in that the animal had to (be tricked into appearing to) have volunteered for the sacrifice. And even so, the Greek work for that part of the sacrifice is "ox murder." (See Burkert, Greek Religion.)

No, the point of temple sacrifice is that when you receive a windfall, or are hoping for one, it's appropriate to take part of what the gods have already blessed you with and feed the community without any regard, on your part, as to who eats. So I would have sent them down to Shop-n-Save, down the street, to buy how ever much in the way of groceries they wanted to donate, for the potluck and free meals we would be setting out regularly in the public socializing area, our equivalent of a "fellowship hall."

But that got me to thinking ... what if somebody actually knew what they were talking about, and wanted to trap me? What if they offered to sacrifice a hecatomb to Dionysus?

For those of you who don't know the word, a hecatomb is a specific, very special sacrifice ... a sacrifice of 100 cattle. The sacrifice of a hecatomb was a very, very rare thing until the late, decadent part of the empire when the Athenians were funding their sacrifices off of money plundered from what they euphemistically called their "allies." (Very shortly thereafter the Athenians were conquered, first by the Spartans, then by the Macedonians, then by the Romans, then by the Turks, and didn't get their independence or freedom back for over two thousand years. Beware of impious sacrifice.) Prior to that time, when the Greeks actually remembered how the gods had taught them to live, a hecatomb acted as a combination progressive income tax and a windfall profits tax. Members of the highest income category, who voluntarily registered for that category and proved their earning power in hopes of winning certain political positions that were set aside for them, were subject to a random drawing from time to time to see who would be legally required to sacrifice a hecatomb. It was also a matter of religious law, on pain of being thrown out of the country by popular vote (ostracism), that if you received a windfall profit from the gods in excess of the value of a hecatomb, it was your obligation to sacrifice a hecatomb. These were pretty rare spectacles, when the religion was being practiced according to its own precepts.

So I asked myself what would I do if I were the priest of Dionysus at St. Louis and someone offered to sacrifice 100 cattle to Dionysus?

Well, I had to think about that one for a while. Heck, I didn't grow up on a ranch, so I didn't have any clear idea of how much meat we were talking about. Fortunately, almost every question like that has been answered, somewhere on the Internet, and Google turned up a consensus estimate of about 500 pounds of dressed, prepared meat per cow - enough to feed a family of five for a year. So we'd be talking about roughly fifty thousand pounds of hamburger, steaks, chops, and stew meat. That is way more than any one temple or charity in America could even process. So I would ask for a couple of weeks of lead time, and require them to see to it that the animals were humanely butchered and the meat packaged, and for them to bring it to the temple on a specific day in refrigerated trucks. And I would pull out a phone book, and I would call every charity that ever feeds people, either for free or to raise money for their own charitable purposes. I would offer that meat to every food pantry in St. Louis. If there were leftovers, I would offer it to the Lions Clubs, and the Kiwanis, and every charitable organization that holds barbecues to fund their charity. And if I couldn't get a commitment to pick up the whole fifty thousand pounds of beef, I'd start calling the township clubs of both political parties, if my lawyer told me that was permissible under 501(c)(3) law. And if after all of that I still couldn't give away twenty five tons of beef in a day, I would start calling restaurants and see how many would take the beef in exchange for offers to hold fund-raisers for theater and arts groups and treatment centers for the mentally ill and substance abusers. And if there were still meat left over, I would call the newspapers and offer it to all, first come first serve.

And when the day came, I would stand on a small platform at the doors of the first truck with the person who offered the hecatomb, and he and I would loudly ask loud-roaring Dionysus, the twice-born son of Zeus and Semele, that this sacrifice would find favor in his eyes. And then we'd open the doors on the trucks, and implement the plan. I imagine it wouldn't happen very often, especially at a temple of Dionysus. Half a million pounds of beef at today's prices is what, a hundred and fifty "k" to two hundred thousand dollars? Hardly anybody in St. Louis, I imagine, would think that they will ever need that much of a favor from the god of theater, intoxication, and madness.

(Edit: And it occurs to me, a little later, that I didn't even think about what to do with a hundred cattle's worth of leather.)

(Second edit: I shouldn't trust myself to do math in my head. The earlier draft of this dropped a decimal point.)