(n): an extensive loss of life for a particular cause

Standing among them with lifted arms Chryses prayed in a great voice: ‘Hear me, lord of the silver bow, who set your power about Chryse and Killa the sacrosanct, who are lord in strength over Tenedos; if once before you listened to my prayers and did me honour and smote strongly the host of the Achaians, so one more time bring to pass the wish that I pray for. Beat aside at last the shameful plague from the Danaans.’ So he spoke in prayer, and Phoibos Apollo heard him. And when all had made prayer and flung down the scattering barley first they drew back the victims’ heads and slaughtered them and skinned them, and cut away the meat from the thighs and wrapped them in fat, making a double fold, and laid shreds of flesh upon them. The old man burned these on a cleft stick and poured the gleaming wine over, while the young men with forks in their hands stood about him. But when they had burned the thigh pieces and tasted the vitals, they cut all the remainder into pieces and spitted them and roasted all carefully and took off the pieces. Then after they had finished the work and got the feast read they feasted, nor was any man’s hunger denied a fair portion. But when they had put away their desire for eating and drinking the young men filled the mixing bowls with pure wine, passing a portion to all, when they had offered drink in the goblets.

A literal translation would be “the sacrifice of 100 oxen”.

In Ancient Greece or Rome, a Hecatomb was any great public sacrifice or feast.

Parthenon frieze: bulls led to sacrifice

If you’re like me [why would you be?], you’d think the word hecatomb is a compound word that it is made up by combining some word “heca” with the word “tomb”.

And if you’re like me [there’s really no reason you should be],  you’d best keep your thoughts to yourself. [Freedom of speech has its rewards, but it has also its complications.]

Because chances are, that as we open our mouth, we’ll say just what it is that we think. Look before you leap is preferred to laughed right out of town …

hecatomb (n.) 1590s, from Latinized form of Greek hekatombe (ἑκατόμβη), properly (and literally) “offering of 100 oxen”, but generally “a great public sacrifice”. It is a compound of hekaton “one hundred”, which perhaps is dissimilated from *hem-katon, with hen, neuter of eis “one” + *katon “hundred”. The second element is bous “ox” (see cow). The first month of the Attic calendar (corresponding to July-August) was Hekatombaion, in which sacrifices were made.

Hecatomb is not a combination of “heka” and “tomb”, after all.

“Hecato” is Greek for “100”. No less, and no more.

And “bous” is Greek for “ox”, not antelope or rhinoceros.

And so a hundred (castrated) bulls it is for the slaughter.


But enough of the Greek. What of the Israelite?

In the Book of Chronicles, King Solomon proffers 220 hecatombs:

Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the Lord. And king Solomon offered a sacrifice of twenty and two thousand oxen, and an hundred and twenty thousand sheep: so the king and all the people dedicated the house of God.

That’s a lot of bull. Later, King Hezekiah has a go at three score and ten. Or is it 600? Regardless, it is an order (or two) of magnitude less than Solomon. But it is still a handful for the Cohenim:

32 And the number of the burnt offerings, which the congregation brought, was threescore and ten bullocks, an hundred rams, and two hundred lambs: all these were for a burnt offering to the Lord. 33 And the consecrated things were six hundred oxen and three thousand sheep.

[Ed: Importantly, the word holocaust (Gk: “burnt whole”) also has connotations of a sacrifice to God. Using it to refer to the atrocity suffered by the Jews at the hands of the Nazis is highly problematic, to say the least. The Hebrew word Shoah, meaning destruction, is the preferred term here.]

The water was rising. The poor creatures were crowding the ratlines, clinging to the masts, struggling under the water. It was a human ant-heap overtaken by the sea. Paralysed, stiffened with anguish, my hair standing on end, with eyes wide open, panting, without breath, and without voice, I too was watching! An irresistible attraction glued me to the glass! Suddenly an explosion took place. The compressed air blew up her decks, as if the magazines had caught fire. Then the unfortunate vessel sank more rapidly. Her topmast, laden with victims, now appeared; then her spars, bending under the weight of men; and, last of all, the top of her mainmast. Then the dark mass disappeared, and with it the dead crew, drawn down by the strong eddy. I turned to Captain Nemo. That terrible avenger, a perfect archangel of hatred, was still looking. When all was over, he turned to his room, opened the door, and entered. I followed him with my eyes. On the end wall beneath his heroes, I saw the portrait of a woman, still young, and two little children. Captain Nemo looked at them for some moments, stretched his arms towards them, and, kneeling down, burst into deep sobs.

In most jurisdictions today, offerings to gods are a distant memory, if not completely erased from the broader cultural meme. And so, in modern usage, hecatomb would represent a massacre, carnage, slaying, annihilation, liquidation, rapine, mass murder, or extermination. A bloodbath.

Get that right, and you won’t be the laughing stock.


Further Reading


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