On a mountain top in southern Greece, in a nearly 3,000-year-old religious site, archaeologists have made a macabre discovery: human remains nestled inside an altar dedicated to Zeus. The burial is unprecedented. How did the bones of this adolescent boy end up in an altar made of sheep bones? Potentially, the discovery is evidence that the Greeks, like many other ancient societies, engaged in human sacrifice. This is shocking news for those who think of ancient Greece as the birthplace of civilization and culture.
The discovery was made on Mount Lykaion in southwestern Arcadia. We know from ancient authors like Thucydides and Plato that the site was associated with Zeus, the most illustrious of the ancient Greek deities.
But Mount Lykaion wasn’t just famous for athletics, it has a more sinister history too. According to legend a young man would be sacrificed before both his and animal flesh were consumed together as part of the ritual. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates asks his conversation partner Adeimantos if he had heard the rumors of human sacrifice and cannibalism at Lykaion, to which Adeimantos replies that he has. Pausanias, an ancient travel writer who lived some five hundred years later, seems to allude to the same legend when he writes ,“on this altar they sacrifice in secret to Zeus” but says that he was “reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice.”