Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.23

Response: Hughes on Hamilton on Hughes

Certainly a valuable and stimulating feature of the new Bryn Mawr Classical Review is its space for responses, which extends to authors a rare opportunity to reply to reviews of their work. I should like to avail myself here of this opportunity and respond to Richard Hamilton's review of Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece (BMCR 3.1 [1992], 36-8). Not that I found the review unfavorable (or at least not entirely so); and, considering some of the drubbings I've seen administered by reviewers in our field in the past, perhaps I should be thankful to have gotten off so lightly. Still -- although some distortion in so brief a summary is inevitable -- I feel that Professor Hamilton has in several instances misrepresented what I had to say, and I fear that readers of the review (but not the book) may come away with an inaccurate impression of the work as a whole.

In his discussion of my archaeological chapter (2) Hamilton writes: "Seven of the nine alleged slave burials on Cyprus only show that 'occasionally the citizens of Geometric Lapithos buried their dead in the doorways of tombs'." In fact, I wrote these words (p. 42) only of two burials, both from Lapithos, found partially beneath the door packing; the rest of the Cypriot burials I discuss (from Salamis, Tamassos, and Vouni as well as Lapithos) were not made in the doorway but in the dromos, often far from the chamber door, and in one case in an unconnected shaft grave located between two chamber tombs.

In my third chapter, I did not dismiss Lucian De luctu 14 as mere "literary invention"; rather, I argued (and still would argue) that Lucian generalizes here from Scythian practices known from Herodotus and that in any case the passage is of doubtful value as evidence for Greek custom, early or late. More importantly, Hamilton seems to have misunderstood what I wrote about vengeance killings performed at funerals. The evidence for such killings is not extensive (there is only one sure historical case, and Iliad 23, as imaginative poetry, must be approached cautiously). But in characterizing these apparently infrequent acts as vengeance killings I certainly do not deny, as Hamilton implies I do, that they are ritual killings: on the contrary, I explicitly term them "ritualized vengeance killings" and acts of "ritual revenge" (pp. 54-6; as for killing in battle, see my brief remarks pp. 203-4 n. 8).

Hamilton writes that Herodotus' account of human sacrifices at Alos (discussed in Chapter 4) "is said to describe a ritual drama of initiation, despite the author's earlier, correct warning against haphazardly labeling anything an initiation". In fact, I made this suggestion only very tentatively (p. 95; by the way, my cautions about identifying rituals as initiations1 come later in the text, p. 103, not earlier), where, faced with a description which does not make a great deal of sense on the surface, I pointed to similarities between elements of the ritual and familiar elements of "rites of passage". The interpretation of ritual activity -- even of modern rituals for which we have detailed eyewitness accounts -- is a hazardous (but I hope not altogether haphazard!) business, with formidable theoretical pitfalls at every turn.2 Still, surely there are some Greek rituals (and not just in mystery cults) which conform closely to the initiatory programs documented more fully and more certainly in other cultures, and I find Hamilton's scepticism here rather depressing for those of us who believe that it is useful (even if the future of the study of ancient ritual does not lie herein) to detect where possible common sequences and structures in the varied, bewildering, and mostly summary descriptions of ritual that have come down to us.

Also in Chapter 4: I do not question (Hamilton says "dismiss") the evidence for human sacrifice on Mt. Lykaion solely "because excavation has revealed no human remains on the site", but also because of the contradictory and often fantastical nature of the literary sources. Hamilton objects: "Could they [the human remains] not have been intentionally removed?" But I myself wrote that "conceivably the remains of the human victims would be removed for separate burial elsewhere [i.e. not in the sacrificial deposit itself, which contained abundant animal bones]" and further suggested the possibility that the remains, especially if of infants (one of many points on which the testimony is unclear), may not have survived (p. 105). In short, while the excavations do not show conclusively that human sacrifices were never performed here, they do fail to confirm what is to my mind an already dubious literary tradition.

Two smaller points. Hamilton "misses" some reference to Hastings, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, in my bibliography: indeed he does, for I include A. C. Pearson's article on "Human Sacrifice (Greek)" (p. 226 n. 1 and p. 271 of the bibliography), although I do omit Woodhouse's "Scapegoat (Greek)", as this can be found in Gebhard's bibliography, to which I steer the interested reader (p. 241 n. 1). Also, Hamilton writes that I conclude "that tragedy was instrumental in promoting the idea of human sacrifice"; I conclude no such thing, although two of our later sources, Clement and Porphyry, do cite instances from Attic tragedy. Rather, my point here (p. 191) was that the written evidence for human sacrifice and pharmakos rituals had gradually accumulated over the centuries -- but largely from the fourth century onward -- and that the great majority of the instances preserved in late writers will have come from Hellenistic books on religion, local histories, miscellanies, etc. (cf. p. 115), an important group of works which in Hamilton's quotation of the passage falls victim to one of his frequent ellipses.

Finally, Hamilton finds my closing words about the present lack of connection between the archaeological finds and literary sources a "depressing conclusion for those of us who believe that a future for Classics lies in bringing archaeology and literature closer together". My quarrel at this point was with some of the more arbitrary and far-fetched attempts to connect archaeological material with literature, and in my actual concluding sentence (p. 193), which Hamilton does not quote (but which he may find somewhat reassuring), I warned only against using the written evidence to interpret material remains where no "convincing case for a direct connection can be made". We should not hope to look upon the face of Iphigeneia, or to identify the skeleton of a pharmakos (fig-necklaces, I imagine, will have decomposed).3 Nor is it very likely that a human skeleton will be found whole and in situ on a sacrificial altar (unless you believe that one has been found already at Anemospilia; but this is not an altar). The most we can reasonably expect to uncover are substantial human remains in a clear sacrificial context (and clearly not intrusive), at a site where there is a literary tradition of human sacrifice, or, just as likely, at a site where there is not (I am not convinced that this is what we have at Ephesus; the prospects for uncovering evidence of some form of funerary ritual killing are inherently much better, and I myself make a modest effort to bring together literary and archaeological material here: pp. 65-70). Hamilton also criticizes my failure to bring in the Carthaginian material, "which shows what a combination of archaeological and literary evidence can look like in an undisputed case"; but it is precisely my point that such a combination is lacking for the Greeks.4 The Arcadian Tophet remains undiscovered; and while the absence of archaeological confirmation on Lykaion and (to my knowledge) elsewhere can hardly be said to prove that human sacrifices were not performed at any place and any time in Greece -- for this can never be proven -- still, the archaeological silence, taken together with a complete epigraphical silence, an iconographical silence (excepting rare representations of mythical scenes), and the questionable quality of much of the literary tradition, may give some of us reason to pause. It may be depressing, but I hope it will not jeopardize the future of the discipline to acknowledge that in this area the archaeological and written records are both woefully incomplete, and that -- if indeed there are human sacrifices awaiting discovery in the Greek soil -- any "bringing together" of the two in the future will owe as much to the whims of Tyche as to our own ingenuity.


  • [1] Cf. the similar remarks of K. Dowden, Death and the Maiden. Girls' Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology (London and New York, 1989), 6.
  • [2] See now C. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York and Oxford, 1992).
  • [3] For a Middle Helladic (intramural!) burial of a "pharmakos" see J. L. Angel, The People of Lerna (Princeton and Washington, D.C., 1971), 44 and 93.
  • [4] And not even this case would I call undisputed (what is?!): see C. Shaeffer in CRAI 1956, 57, and L. E. Stager and S. R. Wolff, Biblical Archaeology Review 10 (1984), 38 with refs. 51 nn. 5-6.