Plato mentioned it in his writings and another tale by the early Greek geographer Pausanias tells the story of Lycaon, the first King of Arcadia, who according to one version of the story sacrificed one of his sons and served him to the god Zeus at a dinner party.
The stories of human sacrifices are amongst the darkest tales of antiquity of a people largely associated with democracy, science and the arts. Up to now, no hint of human remains had ever been found at Lykaion to lend credence to these tales of human sacrifice which are rarely associated with the ancient Greeks.
“Several ancient literary sources mention rumors that human sacrifice took place at the altar [of Zeus, located on the mountain’s southern peak] but up until a few weeks ago there has been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site,” David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona who has worked at the site, according to an interview with Associated Press.
Greece’s Culture Ministry announced the findings of a skeleton of a Greek adolescent boy, found in the center of a 100-foot ash altar, nestled in between a man-made stone platform.
“Whether it’s a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar … so it’s not a place where you would bury an individual. It’s not a cemetery,” Romano continued in The Associated Press interview.
A very unusual detail, he said, was that the upper part of the skull was missing, while the body was laid among two lines of stones on an east-west axis, with stone slabs covering the pelvis.
Less than 10 per cent of the altar has been excavated and several years remain, which could uncover more such remains. But despite this finding, researchers will not speculate why, if the body is not a sacrifice, was buried in an ash pit.
The dig at Lykaion is a collaboration between the Greek Ministry of Culture’s Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities in Tripoli, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the University of Arizona and is under the auspices of American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
Most scholars have considered the stories of human sacrifice at Mount Lykaion to be legends, despite Pausanias’ writings.
In the 2nd century A.D., the ancient traveler Pausanias scaled Mount Lykaion in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece and found a mound of earth fronted by a pair of Doric columns that were once topped by golden eagles. “On this altar they sacrifice in secret to Lykaion Zeus,” he wrote. “I was reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice; let them be as they are and were from the beginning.”
In spite of his reluctance, however, Pausanias did record a gruesome story passed down from antiquity in which a king sacrificed a human baby upon the altar and transformed into a wolf after pouring the slain child’s blood on the shrine. Plato, also wrote that Mount Lykaion was the scene of human sacrifices to honor Zeus, who according to one version of Greek mythology, was born atop the remote mountaintop.