Throwing barley

I’m again a bit too short on time for a complete post, so I’ve decided to fall back on an article summary (+ some thoughts). Today we will be discussing the ancient custom of throwing barley during sacrifice through an article written by Stéphanie Paul and titled “Les grains du sacrifice: le lancer d’orges dans la pratique sacrificielle en Grèce Ancienne“, published in Kernos 31 in 2018. You can read the whole thing here.

The context of throwing barley
In homeric epic, all except one occurences of throwing barley occurs before a blood offering. It would be performed before killing the animal. One would cup the grain in their hands, say the prayer and throw the grains forward.

In Euripide’s Electra and Iphigeneia In Aulis, the grains are respectively thrown towards the altar and towards the fire with both hands. The burning grains are then described as “purificating”.

Interestingly, the Odyssey tells us of a replacement for barley, should one not have any at hand: Ulysses’ crew, upon sacrificing Helios’ cows, use oak leaves instead (XII, 356–363). However, one could argue that the dire ending of the myth is due to the fact the crew had to turn to whatever they could find in nature (oak leaves instead of barley and water instead of wine) to replace civilized ingredients. However, an inscription from the city of Cos does confirm the use of leaves in a similar context for the sacrifice to Zeus Polieus. In one of the preliminary rituals, the inscription states to start the sacrifice of a piglet with “olive and laurel”. It is unsure in what ways they were used. Was it branches or only the leaves and what was their exact purpose?

The place of cereal in offerings
While literature seems to stick to whole barley, epigraphical sources give proof of the use of a wider range of produce, such as wheat or barley flour. Unlike the Romans, the Greeks did not seem to use spelt.

Aside from the practice of throwing grain on the altar or the sacrificial victim, the use of cereal under different forms is also something to pay attention to. This could be in the form of porridge or cakes which would either placed on the altar or burnt, on its own or with meat, as part of a bigger meal.

It is important to note that barley was the most cultivated grain in Ancient Greece thanks to its ability to grow in dry climates compared to wheat. It is possible that cereal in ritual serves as a symbol of civilization and humanity through the mastery of agriculture.

From a reconstructionist point of view, I am torn on the relevance of bringing this practice back. Most, if not all of modern practitioners do not partake in blood sacrifice nor are interested in doing so. The practice seems too linked to the killing of the animal to be of interest for us today. However, we should pay more attention to cereals in worship as a whole (especially for our agricultural deities!), which can take the form of baking cakes and bread.


3 thoughts on “Throwing barley

  1. Very insightful!

    My practice is Greco-Roman, but my perspective might offer some *cough* additional food for thought on this subject.

    During the Vestalia festival each June, the Vestal Virgins prepared a mix of coarsely-ground, toasted spelt flour with salt, which was called mola salsa. The was mixed with water from a sacred well and baked into thin cakes, which were crumbled for use at animal sacrifices and offered whole for bloodless sacrifices.

    Since cakes of mola salsa were offered daily at the lararium, I’ve sometimes kept about a half teaspoon of coarse salt mixed with wheat flour in a tightly-covered container on my altar to both sacralize the altar and serve as a bloodless offering.

    There is, however, the additional problem of availability of grain in the home, because not everyone keeps grain on hand for baking or barley soup – or can justify the expense of keeping rarely-used grain on hand for offerings, especially since it can be difficult to purchase in small amounts. Prayer and divination can help individuals decide whether what grains they have on hand – such as popcorn, oatmeal, or pancake mix – would be an acceptable substitute.

    Which brings us back to the practicality of offering a few crumbs of whatever one happens to eat at mealtime and disposing of it afterwards outside or down the drain, with a prayer that any residual blessings may enrich the soil or augment the water system.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! There is certainly a parallel between mola salsa and the action of throwing barley. When I went through the article I remember reading that it’s been discussed whether or not the Greeks also used salt on the sacrificial victim in a similar fashion. As far as I know, the link between the two practices is unsure (and also scholars tend to be careful about doing interpretatio romana on older Greek practices, which is understandable), but for someone like yourself who has a more syncretic approach this is definitely a nice link to consider!

        Liked by 2 people

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