The Wikipedia article about Zeus contains these two sentences:

Certain modes of ritual were held in common as well: sacrificing a white animal over a raised altar, for instance.

Olympian gods, by contrast, usually received white victims sacrificed upon raised altars.

But there's no reference after neither of them. Does someone know Greek (or maybe Latin) sources for these claims?

  • 1
    While not having exhaustive knowledge, I doubt it. I've read passages talking about sacrifices that do not discuss color at all, and also passages talking about why certain practices were done ("Why can't you bring ivy into this temple?") that would make it implausible at least they did not ask "Why are all sacrificial animals white?"
    – Mary
    Nov 25, 2021 at 3:35

2 Answers 2


Those two sentences are based on the differences that scholars have observed in the ritual practices associated to Olympian and Chthonic gods, i.e. respectively the sky and earth deities. Indeed, there seemed to be a tendency to sacrifice white animals on raised altars to the heavenly gods, and black animals in pits to the subterranean ones. See for example what W. Burkert says about these practices in his book Greek Religion:

White cattle or sheep may be sacrificed to the heavenly ones and black to the subterranean ones.


Frequent is the antithesis of offering pit or ground level hearth and raised stone altar, corresponding to a Chthonic and an Olympian sacrifice

For the first sentence, he provides a (non-exhaustive) list of references, including passages from the Iliad and the Odyssey:

Bring ye two lambs, a white ram and a black ewe, for Earth and Sun, and for Zeus we will bring another
Hom. Il. 3.103


And do thou earnestly entreat the powerless heads of the dead, vowing that when thou comest to Ithaca thou wilt sacrifice in thy halls a barren heifer, the best thou hast, and wilt fill the altar with rich gifts; and that to Teiresias alone thou wilt sacrifice separately a ram, wholly black, the goodliest of thy flock. But when with prayers thou hast made supplication to the glorious tribes of the dead, then sacrifice a ram and a black ewe, turning their heads toward Erebus but thyself turning backward, and setting thy face towards the streams of the river.
Hom. Od. 10.524–7

As well as a passage from Eusebius' Praeparatio evangelica:

For gods of earth and gods of heaven each three:
For heavenly gods pure white; for gods of earth
Cattle of kindred hue divide in three
And on the altar lay thy sacrifice.
Euseb. Praep. ev. 4.9.2

Explicit mentions of sacrifices of white animals to Zeus are provided by J. W. Hewitt in his paper The Propitiation of Zeus, in which he gives some examples. One is a marble board found in the Magnesia region of Greece, of which you can see the ancient greek text in Leges Graecorum Sacrae e Titulis Collectae (p245, N.82) by Prott and Ziehen, who comment (text translated from Latin):

The white color of the sacrifices is best suited to the worship of the god of nature on the top of the mountain.

Another example given by Hewitt is from Demosthenes, and relates to a sacrifice to Zeus Ktesios:

To Dionysus pay public sacrifices and mix a bowl of wine and set up dances; to Apollo the Averter sacrifice an ox and wear garlands, both free men and slaves, and observe one day of rest; to Zeus, the giver of wealth, a white bull.
Dem. 21, 53

However, it should be noted that, as the Wikipedia page you linked says, a subterranean form of Zeus (called Zeus Chthonios, among other names) was worshipped at various times and locations in Ancient Greece, to which black animals were typically sacrificed. For more on this, in addition to the above-mentioned book by Burkert and paper by Hewitt, see for example Olympian and Chthonian by S. Scullion.

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    Thanks! I searched Iliad for "white" in the Greek text, but didn't see this: οἴσετε ἄρν᾽, ἕτερον λευκόν, ἑτέρην δὲ μέλαιναν,. I'll check the other references too. I bet this has to do with the snowcap on most mountains e.g. Olympus. Nov 25, 2021 at 14:37

The "white" probably comes from Hesiod's Theogony 557 about Prometheus tricking Zeus:

So said Zeus whose wisdom is everlasting, rebuking him. But wily Prometheus answered him, smiling softly and not forgetting his cunning trick: “Zeus, most glorious and greatest of the eternal gods, take which ever of these portions your heart within you bids.”

So he said, thinking trickery. But Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, saw
and failed not to perceive the trick, and in his heart he thought mischief against mortal men which also was to be fulfilled. With both hands he took up the white fat and was angry at heart, and wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out: and because of this the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars.

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