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A sacrificial tripod[1] was a type of altar used by the ancient Greeks. The most famous was the Delphic tripod, on which the Pythian priestess took her seat to deliver the oracles of the deity. The seat was formed by a circular slab on the top of the tripod, on which a branch of laurel was deposited when it was unoccupied by the priestess. In this sense, by Classical times the tripod was sacred to Apollo. The mytheme of Heracles contesting with Apollo for the tripod appears in vase-paintings older than the oldest written literature.[2] The oracle originally may have been related to the primal deity, the Earth.

Another well-known tripod was the Plataean Tripod, made from a tenth part of the spoils taken from the Persian army after the Battle of Plataea. This consisted of a golden basin, supported by a bronze serpent with three heads (or three serpents intertwined), with a list of the states that had taken part in the war inscribed on the coils of the serpent. The golden bowl was carried off by the Phocians during the Third Sacred War; the stand was removed by the emperor Constantine to Constantinople (modern Istanbul), where it still can be seen in the hippodrome, the Atmeydanı, although in damaged condition, the heads of the serpents disappeared however one is now on display at the nearby Istanbul Archaeology Museums. The inscription, however, has been restored almost entirely. Such tripods usually had three ears (rings which served as handles) and frequently had a central upright as support in addition to the three legs.

Tripods frequently are mentioned by Homer as prizes in athletic games and as complimentary gifts; in later times, highly decorated and bearing inscriptions, they served the same purpose. They also were used as dedicatory offerings to the deities, and in the dramatic contests at the Dionysia the victorious choregus (a wealthy citizen who bore the expense of equipping and training the chorus) received a crown and a tripod. He would either dedicate the tripod to some deity or set it upon the top of a marble structure erected in the form of a small circular temple in a street in Athens, called the street of tripods, from the large number of memorials of this kind. One of these, the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, erected by him to commemorate his victory in a dramatic contest in 335 BC, still stands. The form of the victory tripod, now missing from the top of the Lysicrates monument, has been rendered variously by scholars since the eighteenth century.

The scholar Martin L. West writes that the sibyl at Delphi shows many traits of shamanistic practices, likely inherited or influenced from Central Asian practices. He cites her sitting in a cauldron on a tripod, while making her prophecies, her being in an ecstatic trance state, similar to shamans, and her utterings, unintelligible.[3]

According to Herodotus (The Histories, I.144), the victory tripods were not to be taken from the temple sanctuary precinct, but left there for dedication.



  • Herodotus, The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley), Book I.CXLIV:
"Just as the Dorians of what is now the country of the 'Five Cities'--formerly the country of the 'Six Cities'--forbid admitting any of the neighboring Dorians to the Triopian temple, and even barred from using it those of their own group who had broken the temple law. [2] For long ago, in the games in honor of Triopian Apollo, they offered certain bronze tripods to the victors; and those who won these were not to carry them away from the temple but dedicate them there to the god. [3] Now when a man of Halicarnassus called Agasicles won, he disregarded this law, and, carrying the tripod away, nailed it to the wall of his own house. For this offense the five cities--Lindus, Ialysus, Camirus, Cos, and Cnidus--forbade the sixth city--Halicarnassus--to share in the use of the temple. Such was the penalty imposed on the Halicarnassians." [1]


  1. ^ The tripod as seat or stand is the only form stable on uneven ground, hence its use is universal and ancient.
  2. ^ Vase-paintings with the mythic motif begin in Geometric Style, but the identifications of Heracles and Apollo become certain only in the sixth century. (Walter Burkert, Homo Necans (1982) translated by Peter Bing (University of California Press) 1983, p 121, and bibliographical note.
  3. ^ Martin Litchfield West, The Orphic Poems, p.147. "The Pythia resembles a shaman at least to the extent that she communicates with her god while in a state of trance, and conveys as much to those present by uttering unintelligible words. It is particularly striking that she sits on a cauldron supported by a tripod. This eccentric perch can hardly be explained except as a symbolic boiling, and, as such, it looks very much like a reminiscence of the initiatory boiling of the shaman translated from hallucinatory experience into concrete visual terms. It was in this same cauldron, probably, that the Titans boiled Dionysus in the version of the story known to Callimachus and Euphorion, and his remains were interred close by". See also Mircea Eliade, Spirit Language.


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