Taurians and Greeks: Clement of Alexandria [III] on human sacrifice (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Taurians and Greeks: Clement of Alexandria [III] on human sacrifice (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 5, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=12573.

Ancient authors: Various authors in Clement of Alexandria (late second century CE), Exhortation to the Greeks 3.36-37 (link).

Comments: In the first post on Clement’s Exhortation to the Greeks (link), I have clarified the overall purpose of Clement’s work, which is to undermine, and call for the abandonment of, Greek ancestral customs and the acceptance of the Hebrew prophets’ direction towards Jesus. In this section, Clement tries to associate Greek ancestral customs with the most abhorent and barbarous rites imaginable to a Greek, namely human sacrifice. He does so by ambiguously claiming that the human sacrifices of the Taurians (usually a subset of Scythians) were in fact human sacrifices to a Greek deity, or Greek lower spirit (daimōn) as Clement likes to express things, Artemis. Clement then compiles a number of other ritual practices that can be twisted to suggest Greeks participating in human sacrifice, and he cites a number of Greek ethnographic writers to support the claim.

Clement of Alexandria ethnographic series (primarily dealing with Exhortation to the Greeks but also with Tapestries) in order:

  • part 1 on Scythians (link)
  • part 2 on Egyptians (link)
  • part 3 on Taurians and Greek human sacrifice (link)
  • part 4 on Persian Magians and Scythians (link)
  • part 5 on barbarian and Hebrew / Judean wisdom (link).
  • part 6 on barbarian and Hebrew philosophy, dealing with Tapestries (link)
  • part 7 on Brahmans and other Indians (link)

Source of the translation: G. W. Butterworth, Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[For the previous substantial ethnographic engagement in Clement, with discussion of Egyptian and Greek animal worship, go to this link]

Book 3

[Greek (and Taurian) customs of human sacrifice]

(36) . . . Come then, let us add this: that your gods are inhuman and man-hating lower spirits (daimones) who not only celebrate at the insanity of men, but go so far as to enjoy human slaughter. They provide for themselves sources of pleasure, at one time in the armed contests of the stadium, at another in the innumerable rivalries of war, in order to secure every possible opportunity of glutting themselves to the full with human blood. Before now, too, they have fallen like plagues on whole cities and peoples (ethnē), and have demanded drink-offerings of a savage character.

For instance, Aristomenes the Messenian slaughtered three hundred men to Zeus of Ithome, in the belief that favourable omens are secured by sacrifices of such magnitude and quality. Among the victims was even Theopompos, the Lakedaimonian king, a noble offering. The Taurian people, who inhabit the Taurian peninsula [north shore of the Black Sea, near Chersonesos], whenever they capture strangers in their territory, that is to say, men who have been shipwrecked, they sacrifice them on the spot to Taurian Artemis. These are your sacrifices which Euripides represents in tragedy upon the stage [Iphigeneia among the Taurians].

Monimos, in his Collection of Amazing Things, relates that in Pella of Thessaly human sacrifice is offered to Peleus and Cheiron, the victim being an Achaian. Thus too, Antikleides in his Homecomings, declares that the Lyktians, a Cretan people (ethnos), slaughter men to Zeus. Dosidas says that inhabitants of Lesbos offer a similar sacrifice to Dionysos.

As for Phokaians – for I won’t pass over them either – these people are reported by Pythokles in his third book On Concord to offer a burnt sacrifice of a man to Taurian Artemis. (37) Erechtheus the Athenian and Marius the Roman sacrificed their own daughters, the former to Persephone, as Demaratos relates in the first book of his Subjects of Tragedy; the latter, Marius, to the “Averters of evil,” as Dorotheus relates in the fourth book of his investigation of Italian Matters.

To be sure, the lower spirits (daimones) are kind beings, as these instances plainly show! And how can those who fear the lower spirits help being holy in a corresponding way? The former are hailed as saviours; the latter beg for safety from those who plot to destroy safety. Certainly while they suppose that they are offering acceptable sacrifices to the lower spirits, they forget that they are slaughtering human beings. For murder does not become a sacred offering because of the place in which it is committed, not even if you solemnly dedicate a man and then slaughter him in a so-called sacred spot for Artemis or Zeus, rather than for anger or covetousness, other lower spirits of the same sort, or upon altars rather than in roads. On the contrary, such sacrifice is murder and human butchery. . .  [remainder of section omitted, followed by book four critiquing the idea of images of the gods].

[For the next substantial ethnographic engagement in Clement, with a discussion of the Persian Magians’ concern with fire, go to this link]

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