Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.53

Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, Francesca Prescendi (ed.), "Nourrir les dieux?": sacrifice et représentation du divin. Actes de la VIe rencontre du Groupe de recherche européen "Figura, représentation du divin dans les sociétés grecque et romaine" (Université de Liège, 23-24 octobre 2009). Kernos. Supplément, 26..   Liège:  Centre International d'Étude de la Religion Grecque Antique, 2011.  Pp. 214.  ISBN 9782960071795.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Benedikt Eckhardt, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (

[List of contributions at the end of this review]

The study of Greek and Roman sacrifice has received so much attention since roughly the 1970s, and has been treated from so many different angles, that one may ask what can be expected from yet another edited volume on the subject, even if the editors are known capacities in the field. But such skepticism is unwarranted: this is an excellent volume on Graeco-Roman sacrificial ritual and an important contribution, as well as, in some regards, a correction to the large body of literature published in this area.

A great advantage of this book is the thematic coherence of the contributions. Some papers are directly complementary to each other, but all of them are concerned with the same general question, which is—at least to the degree achieved here—unusual for an edited volume. This question is not, however, the one posed in the volume's title, namely, whether or not the gods had to be nourished (only Ekroth and Estienne really touch on this issue). Rather, this "question lapidaire" (p. 14) seems to be a substitute for the real central problem addressed in the volume, which might be posed somewhat differently, namely (by an ancient observer), "What kind of ritual offering is appropriate for a specific divine being in a specific context," and (by a modern observer) "How can considerations on the appropriateness of offerings be used to interpret Greek and Roman sacrificial ritual."

The first contribution by G. Ekroth discusses the origins and significance of theoxenia and trapezomata—rites where meat was offered that could also have been eaten by men, in contrast to normal sacrifice, where the gods only receive the portions men would not eat. Unimportant in the Archaic period (note p. 20 on the Eumaios-episode in the Odyssey), both rites are well- known in the classical period. Ekroth offers some explanations, the most interesting of which is the proposal to reverse the common theory that men in Homer were honored like gods, to the effect that honors for gods (and priests as their representatives) were in fact modeled on honors for humans (choice portions of meat). The gods were incorporated into a chain of honor known from human social relations, to some extent bridging the gap between humans and gods. The important differentiation between the treatment of meat in thysia-sacrifice and other rites is highlighted well, although the different genealogical explanations for theoxenia and trapezomata are, of course, hypothetical.

As Ekroth does for theoxenia, S. Estienne singles out the differences between lectisternium and normal sacrifice (vegetarian offerings, invitations, duration, visibility, although the last point may be debated). In line with traditional opinion, she sees a banalization of lectisternia in late Republican and Imperial times, but insists that although pulvinaria were now on long-term display in sanctuaries and used for different rites, the special character of hospitality towards the gods was still present. Hospitality and the unusual temporal and spatial dimensions of the ritual would make the presence of the divine different from normal sacrifice, even if the gods were not represented in a special way (against the view that they were represented as statues).

A. Tsingarida studies monumental vases, which are too big for daily use and were therefore probably used in ritual contexts. Tsingarida thinks of theoxenia as a possible context and points to some inscriptions, none of which is really decisive evidence (pp. 71-72). Vase paintings presumably show preparations for theoxenia (p. 73), but this is also insecure. While the theory is certainly plausible, it is very difficult to argue, and it is wise that Tsingarida includes other festivals as a possible context for these vases. The μέγα ποτήριον mentioned in Athen. 11.494f is used at the Apaturia (p. 71); the ephebes use it for offering wine to Heracles. The general conclusion that these vases are attributes of the divine is plausible especially if the theoxenia-context is accepted, but should be phrased more carefully. It is possible that in a good number of cases, they were used for representing the human side of ritual ceremonies (at the Apaturia, it seems to be important that the ephebes offer wine together, using the same—large—vessel), or simply as visible attractions.

W. van Andringa gives a valuable report on archaeological insights into Roman sacrificial rituals, based on findings from Pompeii. He notes the variety of findings: while the kind of offerings (both animals and meatless offerings) remains stable in different locales, the composition varies considerably—presumably because different gods and rituals made different demands (pp. 84-85). Official sacrifices are more splendid than sacrifices in private houses, as may be expected; thus, while fruits are omnipresent, bones of cattle are found mainly in sanctuaries. Private sacrifices were mainly to the Lares, who received pork. Van Andringa's call for diligent publication of this evidently important material from other sites is justified, although one may hardly expect this evidence to be as complete as in Pompeii.

E. Kearns' study on sacrificial cakes opens a series of three contributions concerned with seemingly deviant forms of sacrifice, namely, meatless or wineless offerings. After the valuable introduction on ancient cakes, Kearns convincingly argues that the advantage of cakes in cultic usage is that they can be formed in almost infinite ways; they can therefore be made to conform to a specific ritual, but they can also make a ritual specific. The rest of her paper tackles the different dimensions of cake-communication: cakes may say something about a god, about a god's relationship to other gods, and about the sacrificer's relationship to a god. Especially the first argument can only be made on the basis of ancient rationalizations, and not every reader will agree with all of her conclusions. The second (translated into a hierarchical order, pp. 97-98) and third point are easier to make. This is a fine study combining epigraphic and literary data. But the probability that meatless offerings were often chosen with a view to personal finances (p. 102) shows that many questions which appear essential to us may not have bothered the average Greek sacrificer.

While Kearns sets cake-offerings apart from meat-offerings, J. Scheid argues against this distinction, at least for a Roman context. His point that bloodless offerings are treated in no different manner than animal sacrifice is generally plausible, but debatable in the details. Some of the characteristics of "normal" sacrificial rites only find parallels in bloodless offerings if wine is included among the latter (as Scheid explicitly requires, p. 108). On the grounds that wine is not meat, Scheid evidently has logic on his side, but other categories could be employed; on the face of it, the comparison of the treatment of meat and cakes would seem more promising than comparing any of these with the treatment of a liquid. Scheid's final question is whether or not Romans could regard a meatless offering as a killing, which would complete the parallel. The only testimony adduced (Plut. Quaest. Rom. 109) states that flour is grain that has been killed. There is no relationship to sacrifice, thus I would doubt that the passage can be used to this end.

V. Pirenne-Delforge gives a detailed evaluation of the evidence on wineless libations, often combined with meatless sacrifice. Her approach explicitly focuses on the question of appropriateness: the correct identification and treatment of the addressee are central to ritual performance. In a reconsideration of the known evidence, she isolates three main thematic fields where wineless libations are prominent, all related to the most basic needs of a human community: food-supply, fecundity of women, and cohesion of its members (p. 140). These categories are perhaps too broad for straightforward conclusions, but this shows well that wineless offerings could be used in a variety of contexts. Pirenne-Delforge does what is possible to bring order into the material, which is difficult enough. She thereby creates a system which is less stringent than the olympian/chthonian-dichotomy, but more suitable for the evidence (although some of her classifications are unavoidably more plausible than others).

A. Zografou studies a fourth century magical recipe. Her text demands the killing of birds in a three-staged ritual, the aim of which is making Eros one's personal assistant. A number of connections to the popular tale of Eros and Psyche are highlighted, most of which are plausible (I am not sure about the supposed direct influence of Apuleius, pp. 155-156). The birds function as a double of winged Psyche, given to Eros. As Zografou points out, the text contains some unique elements unparalleled in the other magical papyri, but the concluding observations on the intimate relationship with the divine, made possible by the informed choice of the correct sacrificial animals, should be valuable for the study of other rites as well.

The final contribution by N. Belayche proposes to read Lucian's De sacrificiis "seriously," i.e. not as a mere parody, but as testimony to its author's peculiar and radical conception of the divine. Lucian's originality is seen in his rejection of any form of offerings, not just blood-sacrifice, without any philosophical compromise (like hypostatization). Sacrifice is the vehicle for a general critique of a ritualistic system that does not take into account the total alterity of the divine, but resorts to anthropomorphism. Belayche is certainly correct in her evaluation of how a conceptualization of the divine that takes Lucian's hints seriously might look. However, as she notes, he has nowhere systematically stated this position. It may therefore be asked if her choice of philosophical tradition as the point of reference (and not, say, the comic tradition of Aristophanes or Menander) does not lead to a petitio principii concerning Lucian's seriousness.

The cover of the book states that the contributions permit the reconstruction of a "théologie," and this is certainly true, given their quality and the tight framework of the volume, but also the due attention paid to private and meatless offerings, the importance of which was sometimes overlooked in earlier research. However, such a reconstruction would have to pull the strings together and make methodological decisions.

Two areas may be highlighted at the end of this review. One concerns the relevance of ancient interpretations of rituals to modern analysis, namely the question of what belongs to a ritual, and what does not. Thus, Scheid denies that there existed any difference between meatless offerings and animal sacrifice "sur le plan des rites" (p. 114), by which he means the technical procedure and the position of the offerings in larger ritual complexes. He therefore attaches no significance to ancient interpretations. Pirenne-Delforge, in contrast, uses ancient interpretations— historically accurate or not—to establish the basis of ritual codification. Thus ancient interpretation is in this case seen as an integral part of the ritual process (because codification is a necessary part of sacrificial ritual), while Scheid focuses solely on the technical aspects of ritual. Maybe the different types of sources facilitate the differentiation of approaches to Greek and Roman rituals, but a reconstruction of the "theology of sacrifice" would certainly have to make a decision here.

The other area is terminology. What a "sacrifice" is on ancient terms is discussed in the introduction (p. 8 on the words θυσία and sacrificium). But it seems that ancient, especially Greek, terminology was more varied, so the modern word "sacrifice" is, in part, a unifying construct. While for the Roman context, Scheid can point to the use of sacrificium fecerunt for both bloody and meatless offerings at the ludi saeculares (p. 113), θυσία seems to have a more narrow meaning. Calling θυσία and all other offerings "sacrifice" may therefore lead to linguistic oddities not reflected upon. Thus, Zografou discusses "neuf sacrifices" of birds in a text that demands μὴ θύε, "ne les sacrifie pas" according to her translation immediately following (p. 157; instead, they are strangled, so the difference is between two different ways of killing). It is of course legitimate to consider all kind of offerings as part of the same ritualistic system, but a comparative theory on Greek and Roman sacrifice might take terminological differences into account.

But this standardization of methods could only be achieved in a monograph. For the present, this volume, provided with a detailed index of subjects, is essential reading both for a first approach (because almost all contributions interact with traditional theories) and for further study on the way to a "theology of sacrifice" in Greece and Rome.


G. Ekroth: Meat for the Gods
S. Estienne: Les dieux à table: lectisternes romains et représentation divine
A. Tsingarida: Qu'importe le flacon pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse! Vases à boire monumentaux et célébrations divines
W. van Andringa: À la table des dieux: offrandes alimentaires et constructions rituelles des cultes de Pompéi
E. Kearns: λιβανωτὸς εὐσεβές καὶ τὸ πόπανον: the rationale of cakes and bloodless offerings in Greek sacrifice
J. Scheid: Les offrandes végétales dans les rites sacrificiels des Romains
V. Pirenne-Delforge: Les codes de l'adresse rituelle en Grèce: le cas des libations sans vin
A. Zografou: Des sacrifices qui donnent des ailes: PGM XII, 15-95
N. Belayche: Entre deux éclats de rire. Sacrifice et représentation du divin dans le De sacrificiis de Lucien
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