Type of Holiday: Ancient
Date of Observation: Late June or early July
Where Celebrated: Athens, Greece
Symbols and Customs: Ox


The Greek religion flourished in the ancient Greek city-states and surrounding areas between the eighth and fourth centuries B . C . E . The city-state of Athens was the center of ancient Greek civilization and major ceremonies took place there. Within Athens, the Acropolis was the religious center, consisting of temples dedicated to the gods and goddesses. However, smaller sanctuaries to the gods and goddesses also existed throughout the region.

Ancient Greek religion pervaded every aspect of life, and there was no concept of a separation between sacred and secular observances. Thus, ancient Greek festivals were religious occasions conducted in honor of the deities in the pantheon. Ritual and sacrifice, athletic games, dramatic performances, and feasting were all elements of festivals.

The ancient Athenian ritual known as the "murder of the ox" or Bouphonia took place at the end of June or beginning of July, the time of year when the threshing of the grain was nearly over. According to legend, the custom of sacrificing an OX at the altar of Zeus on the Acropolis can be traced back to an incident in which a man named Sopatrus killed an ox who had eaten the grain he was offering as a sacrifice. He was so overcome by remorse afterward that he buried the animal and fled to Crete. But then a famine set in, and the people of Athens instituted the custom of sacrificing an ox to Zeus in the hope that it would bring the famine to an end.

The ritual that eventually became known as the Bouphonia has been described in great detail. Barley and wheat cakes were laid upon the altar of Zeus. Oxen were then driven around the altar, and the ox that went up and ate the offering was the one selected for sacrifice. The ax and the knife used to kill the beast were wetted with water, sharpened, and handed to butchers, one of whom struck the ox while the other cut its throat. As soon as the animal had been killed, both men dropped their weapons and fled. The ox was then skinned and everyone shared in eating its flesh. The ox-hide was later stuffed with straw and sewn up again, so that it stood upright and could be yoked to a plow-perhaps a means of bringing it "back to life."

After the ritual killing, a trial was held to assign responsibility for the murder of the ox. The young maidens who carried the water used to wet the weapons accused the men who had sharpened the ax and the knife, who in turn blamed the men who had handed the implements to the butchers. The butchers themselves laid the blame on the ax and the knife, which were accordingly found guilty, condemned, and cast into the sea.



Because the ox is the domesticated (i.e., castrated) counterpart of the wild bull, it symbolizes patience and strength, representing all who bear their yoke while laboring in silence for the good of others. It was for this reason that the ox was popular as a sacrificial animal.


Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian Books, 1994. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Parke, H.W. Festivals of the Athenians. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Bouphonia (Buphonia)

End of June
The ancient Greek ceremony Bouphonia was held in Athens each year as part of the festival known as Dipolia or Diipolia . Wheat and barley, or cakes made from them, were placed at the altar of Zeus on the Acropolis. Oxen were driven around the altar, and as soon as one of them nibbled on the grasses or ate the cakes, he was killed with an ax, which was then thrown into the sea. The flesh of the ox was eaten, but his hide was stuffed with straw and sewn together. Then the stuffed animal was set up and yoked to a plow.
According to legend, a man called Sopatrus killed an ox in anger after the animal had eaten some of the cereal he was offering as a sacrifice. He felt so much remorse that he buried the ox and fled to Crete. When a famine ensued, the festival known as Bouphonia was instituted. It was customary for the killing of the ox to be followed by a ceremonial trial for those who had participated in its murder, after which the knife used to slit its throat and the ax used to fell it were thrown into the sea.
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 158
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 126
NewCentClassHandbk-1962, pp. 222, 410
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
"Tiptoeing through the Corpses: Euripides' Electra, Apollonius, and the Bouphonia." GRBS 31.3: 255-80.
One might speculate that Pausanias, retelling itself constitutes a literary but still religiously meaningful repetition of the ritual act.(33) Certain details of the ritual -- for instance the mixture of barley and wheat, the use of an axe for the slaughter, the animal being bovine rather than, say, a sheep (the ritual was called the Bouphonia, after all) -- are clearly important to its nature, others (for instance the number of priests involved in this sacrifice, which Pausanias does not specify) are perhaps not essential and could be varied.
(31) This ritual, the Bouphonia, is also described as length by Theophrastus, quoted by Porphyry, De Abstinentia 2.29f.