When their people are in danger, good men and women will find a way to help, even if it means sacrificing themselves. According to Pliny the Elder, human sacrifice in Ancient Rome was abolished by a senatorial decree in 97 BCE, although by this time the practice had already become so rare that the decree was mostly a symbolic act. The Vedic Purushamedha (“human sacrifice”) is already a purely symbolic act in its earliest records. This was then followed by a period of embarrassment about violence in rituals of this sort as this period corresponds to the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which place emphasis on ahimsa (“non-violence”). This period also corresponds to the composition of the Chandogya Upanishad (c. 8 – 6 BCE) which lists non-violence as a virtue. The Yasiitomi-ki, a diary of the fifteenth century CE, contains an old tradition called Hitobashira (“human pillar”) in which maidens were buried alive at the base or near some constructions to protect the buildings against disasters or enemy attacks. Therefore, apparently for a time, a very very long time ago, virgin sacrifice could be done for a number of widely accepted reasons – from winning a war, appeasing an angry deity, to architecture. Of course, the question of why there would be any need to sacrifice a virgin at all is a rather difficult one to answer as we are only left with traces of this practice. But, like with anything in history, we are never short of stories to help us understand the reason behind it.
Greek tragedy gives us a number of examples in which virgins are sacrificed – most of these virgins were of noble birth as they are often daughters of the king sacrificed to ensure victory in war. Also with remarkable frequency, their death scenes include details concerning their dresses. Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia to enable the Greek fleet to set sail from Aulis to Troy. The lines in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (lines 228-43) describes Iphigeneia as being “wrapped round in her robes”. The lines that follow discussed Iphigeneia’s saffron robe “falling to the ground.” In Euripides’ version of the story, Iphigeneia at Aulis, Iphigeneia, thinking she was on her way to her wedding, was dressed as a bride. Although Iphigeneia first begged for her life, she later went willingly to be sacrificed, reminding her distraught mother that in doing so she would save Greece. “You bore me for all the Greeks, not yourself alone”, she said – reiterating the sentiment of Praxithea that, just as boys go to war, girls get sacrificed, both for the good of the polis. This would have also explain to us the preoccupation towards the virgin’s dress. The virgin sacrifice would have been seen as somewhat of a “rite of passage” in the time of war. Where boys become men by donning their military gears and dedicating their young lives to their polis, girls became women by dressing for their sacrifice – also for their polis.
Queen Cassiopeia was known as the beautiful wife of King Cepheus. One day, she boasted that her daughter, Andromeda, was far more beautiful than the fifty Nereids, the sea nymphs daughters of Nereus (the old man of the sea) and Doris. This boast angered Poseidon, who was married to Amphrite – the eldest of the Nereids. Poseidon had the sea monster Cetus, destroy the city where Andromeda lived with the king and queen. Cetus’ task was to wreak havoc in his pursuit and to not stop until the city was in shambles. The only way to stop Cetus was to sacrifice Andromeda to him. King Cepheus obeyed Poseidon and chained his daughter to a rock to save the land until the hero Perseus killed Cetus, freed Andromeda from the chain and took her back. He eventually married her and they settled in Tiryns in Mycenae where they had seven sons and one daughter together. Legend has it that his children went on to be the rulers of Mycenae until the civilization’s ultimate decline.
Euripides first took up the theme of human sacrifice in his Herakleidai, where a virgin must be sacrificed to save Athens from the forces of Argos. Makaria, daughter of Herakles, volunteered. She reasoned that if the Athenian soldiers were willing to die on her behalf she should be ready to die on theirs. Erechtheus is known as early as the Iliad where we learn that Athena settled him in her own temple on the Acropolis where he received annual sacrifice of bulls and rams. According to Herodotos, Erechtheus and Athena were worshipped in close connection.
The story of Erechtheus’s victory over Eumolpos, the first outside aggressor to launch an attack on Athens, is known from Thucydides who tells us that the towns of Attica used to be independent of the king and even made war upon him, as Eumolpos and the Eleusinians did against Erechtheus. Eumolpos was motivated by a desire to settle his father Poseidon’s claim upon Attica as his own land. While the story of Erechtheus and Eumolpos is known from many sources, it is the orator Lycurgus who informs us of the centrality of the myth within the consciousness of the Athenians by quoting the speech of Erechtheus’s wife, Praxithea, in Euripides’ play who recounts how her daughter will be sacrificed to save Athens.
Euripides’ play is set in the heroic past when the city was threatened by Eumolpos, who claimed possession of Attica and rallied a large force of Thracians to help him take it. Eumolpos was the son of Poseidon. Poseidon, at this time, was still bitter at losing the patronage of Athens to Athena whose gift of an olive tree bested his offering of a sea spring. Erechtheus and Eumolpos found themselves continuing the rivalries of the divine older generation of Athena and Poseidon.
Erechtheus consulted the oracle at Delphi to learn how he might protect Athens from the impending siege. He was told that he must sacrifice one of his daughters to save the city. However, Erechtheus’ three daughters had made an oath that if one sister should die the others would die as well. Erechtheus shared the bad news with his wife, Praxithea, who made the stirring speech quoted by Lycurgus, “The ruin of one person’s house is of less consequence and brings less grief than that of the whole city. If there were a harvest of sons in our house rather than daughters and a hostile flame were engulfing the city, would I not have sent my sons into battle, fearing for their death? … I hate women who in preference to the common good, choose for their own children to live.” This is a very telling speech as it relates to Andromeda and Kushinadahime’s role as the “saviors” of their homes and cities through their sacrifices.
In the end, Erechtheus sacrificed his daughter. The battle ensued and, as promised by the oracle, the Athenians were victorious although Erechtheus himself died swallowed up by a chasm caused by Poseidon. The way in which the other two daughters die is not preserved in the surviving fragments of the Erechtheus, but it is clear that they kept their oath and died as well.