Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.52

F. S. Naiden, Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xiii, 421.  ISBN 9780199916405.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Sarah Hitch, University of Oxford (


The quiet period during the domination of reconstructions and interpretations of sacrifice by Walter Burkert, Marcel Detienne, and Jean-Pierre Vernant has not only been broken, it has been shattered by an avalanche of studies aimed at dismantling their theories.1 Such dismemberment of their sociological and psychological approaches to animal sacrifice can now be laid to rest in this rich study by Fred Naiden. The early chapters cover the elements of sacrificial practice, building up to his central tenet about the possibility of divine rejection of sacrifices and the reasons for this in chapter four. The remaining chapters tackle the usual questions: how sacrifice is managed by communities (Chapters five and six) and how the modern critique of sacrifice developed (Chapters seven and eight). The best part of this work is his valiant effort to discuss sacrifice without recourse to typology or strict categorization (e.g. animal/vegetable, polis religion, ritual procedure). Rather, he discusses the ways and whys of making sacrifices acceptable and attractive to the deities, treating the complex of details in terms of modes of interaction. He covers the minutiae of sacrificial ritual in a sophisticated framework that is neither dull nor overwhelming. Although this more sophisticated organization of material allows Naiden to create a consistent narrative outlining ancient Greek sacrificial practice in a variety of contexts, this narrative is often based on suppositions.

Chapters one (‘The Invention of a Ritual”), two (“Venues and Offerings”), and three (“Prayers and Answers”) outline the fundamentals of sacrifice, starting with examples in Homer as paradigms before sweeping through hundreds of years of testimonia in literature, iconography, and inscriptions throughout the Greek world up through the imperial period. He interprets sacrifice as an appeal by a worshipper (a term he prefers in a move away from the secularized sociology promoted by Burkert and Vernant) towards a god by means of proper attention to procedure and attitude. Chapter two is the most interesting, looking at the ways worshippers might access deities to whom they offered sacrifice: sacred locations, sacred times in the calendar, sacred objects, and some factors in their collective establishment, including epiphany and oracular instruction. This account is very well illustrated, a showcase of the enormous breadth of Naiden’s knowledge and control over detail. A small example of his range in this excellent chapter comes in his outline of prayers for gods to accept offerings in Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Delphic inscriptions, Euripides, the Greek Anthology, Heliodorus, Herodas, Homer, Lucian, the Orphic Hymns, Pindar, the Sybilline oracles, and Zosimus (p. 54-5). Although Naiden minimizes variations in context and details, some great revelations emerge. For instance, he notes the relative lack of divine responses to dancing, as opposed to music (p. 61), the lack of evidence for ‘daily’ animal sacrifice (p. 79), and that only ten of the Olympians receive incense (p.70). Unusually, chapter three includes votive statues of animals, an overlooked aspect of sacrifice, broadly defined, and in keeping with his solid attempt to fuse archaeological material with literary and epigraphic.

The climax comes in Chapter four, “A God Says No”, where Naiden pushes instances of divine rejection of offerings as the key to understanding Greek worship. He details various types of rejection and reasons therefore, arranged in terms of severity with a concluding section on divination, also laid out in tabular form in appendices A and B. Naiden frequently relies on a concept of ”tacit denial”, in which the divine response is not described, but can be inferred. Two such examples are the “tacit refusal” of the Achaean sacrifice in Iliad I.315-17 and records of incubation without epiphany at Epidauros (p.137). In Iliad I, this sacrifice concludes with a description of smoke swirling to heaven without any reference to divine response. Naiden later explains this “refusal” on the grounds that Agamemnon is “unacceptable” (p.153), part of his interpretation of divine rejection for social and moral reasons. From Iliad I, Naiden moves to records of incubation at Epidaurus in which the god did not appear to the worshipper as a “sign of tacit rejection”, which was “seldom reported” but “must have been common” (p.137). Such reasoning reflects the constant slippage in Naiden’s study between ancient evidence and assumptions that can be made for practical reasons. Naiden’s inferences may be fair, but if the goal of acceptable offerings and the uncertainty of their acceptance is tantamount in the minds of Greeks, as he proposes, why is this implicit in these sources rather than explicit? A key passage for Naiden throughout is Plutarch Non pos.suav.1102c-d, which describes the downcast feeling of the man whose sacrifices are not received because the god is absent, concluding with a quote from Menander, “I sacrificed and the gods paid me no heed” (p.142). This quote reflects an anxiety about sacrifice as an effective method of beseeching gods, which does not require or necessarily imply a conceptualization of rejection on moral or social grounds. There is some testimony for such rejection, collected by Naiden, but he expands this type of denial too far to include silences on the topic, more ambiguous expressions of uncertainty, and complaints that sacrifice has provided no benefit. Naiden follows this discussion with examples of worshippers anticipating divine rejection, such as Il.X.46 (p.143). He does not point out that Agamemnon is mistaken when he imagines Zeus as favoring the sacrifices of Hector over those of the Greeks. The audience knows that the Greeks are suffering because of the request of Thetis; Trojan sacrifice had nothing to do with it. Descriptions of the acceptance or refusal of sacrifice in Homer (outlined on p.169) depend on the perspective of the narrator, and reflect the presentation of individual characters and overall narrative goals of the poems. Almost all later literary accounts describe only the mortal experience of sacrifice without reference to divine acceptance. This curious omission guided the focus in earlier scholarship towards the social importance of sacrifice without much attention to higher powers. One possibility is that the idea of gods receiving or consuming sacrifice is uncomfortable, a notion briefly raised by Naiden but not developed (pp.56, 69, 109). Another approach finds the uncertainty of life reflected in the uncertainty of gods, imagined in the Greek context as individual personalities encompassing good and bad aspects, who are above all else unpredictable and uncontrollable. (He briefly cites Bremmer’s work in p.163 footnote 166, but not Sourvinou-Inwood.).2 Naiden is aware of artistic bias in different media, and makes an eloquent statement about the need for better awareness of the impact of aesthetics in interpretation (p.37). He realizes that much of his own interpretation depends on supposition, due to the focus of the source material on select aspects (p.129), but this bias must be taken at face value: divine acceptance is not explicit in most sources, and whether they are misrepresenting or underestimating the central factor in the experience of sacrifice is probably less important to our understanding than an appreciation of the way Greeks wanted this rite to be represented, which consistently minimizes divine reception. A further strand which needs to be incorporated is the rejection of sacrifice by worshippers, as in the Pherecydes anecdote in Aelian (VH 4.28). Naiden avoids the concept of reciprocity throughout, and his emphasis on divine misgiving breathes new life into a debate that was becoming staid, but both mortal and immortal parties can reject, deny, ignore, or subvert the successful performance of sacrifice.

The book picks up speed again in Chapter five, “Rules, Rewards, Experts”, which treats community sacrifices, the backbone of the theses of Vernant and Detienne about the social significance of sacrifice in communal feasting. His overall point about the role of individual sacrificers and sacrifices made on behalf of others is an important correction to the twentieth-century emphasis on group solidarity. Chapter six, “Markets and Messes” addresses the puzzling question of meat consumption and sacrifice, drawing together evidence and concluding that restricting edible meat to sacrificial animals was “not a rule but a preference” (p.240). His focus on Sparta in the second half of the chapter fills a welcome gap, and the comparison between meat distribution in large and small cities is new and interesting.

Naiden covers relevant scholarship on sacrifice throughout chapters 2-6, leading up to Chapter seven, “A Detective Story”, which seeks to unravel the appeal of sacrifice as a topic of study through the ages, and the historical and social factors in the promotion of blood sacrifice to the exclusion of the larger ritual complex. He cleverly accommodates the well-trodden ground of sacrificial terminology and the notorious objections to animal sacrifice attributed to certain groups and in Christian authors into this discussion, while deftly covering hundreds of years of thinking on a complex topic. He gives unusual emphasis to the contribution of Hegel to modern discourse, an important topic not much studied by Classicists. Other recent studies have equally realized the modern creation of sacrifice, both as a topic per se and its use as a window into the mindset of its practitioners, particularly work by Douglas Hedley and Ivan Strenski.3

Chapter eight, “The Demise of a Ritual” gives a nice overview of what might be termed Greek theology, although Naiden does not advocate such a phrase, framed in a general discussion of neighboring ancient religions. The title points to the atheism of modern scholarship on Greek religion, particularly under the cover of ‘ritual’. He provides a nice summary of his work, concluding that the distance of Greek gods from their worshippers did not lessen a perception of constant divine observance. He refers to Hesiod’s aetiology of sacrifice only here, in keeping with his light emphasis on the often discussed accounts of sacrifice so as to provide broader coverage of less familiar examples, a technique which showcases his unique perspective and prevents tedium, given the amount of attention to this topic in the past decade. Naiden concludes with the sentiment that ritual obscures not only what Greeks did, but what they assumed, and advocates the term ‘offering’ over ‘sacrifice’ to better reflect religious thinking, as opposed to scholarly exegesis.

Naiden is the first scholar to pull together so many accounts of sacrifice in such a sophisticated fashion, and he exhibits a masterful range. His collection of anecdotes and testimonia will benefit generations of scholars, who previously could only look to the abbreviated entries in lexica or handbooks like ThesCRA, which do not aim to be comprehensive. Naiden embraces the full spectrum and is able to collapse it all into an accessible paradigm based on human desire for divine approval and assistance. It’s brilliantly simple, and the narrative he creates renders a dizzying variety of ancient testimony and criticism into a bite-sized format. He has effectively dismantled the twentieth-century theories, creating a new point of reference for Classical studies on this topic. But, as with the relatively reductive approaches based on typologies or specific contexts, Naiden has to cut corners somewhere to fit it all in, and he tends to fill in gaps in his source material to smooth out the rough edges.


1.   Burkert, W. 1983. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. trans. P. Bing. Berkeley; Detienne, M. and J.-P. Vernant, eds. 1989. The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks. Trans. P. Wissing. Chicago. Recent critique: e.g. Georgoudi, S. et al. eds. 2005. La cuisine et l’autel: les sacrifices en questions dans les sociétés de la Méditerranée ancienne. Turnhout; Faraone, C. and F. Naiden, eds. 2012. Greek and Roman Animal Sacrifice: Ancient Victims, Modern Observers. Cambridge.
2.   Bremmer, J. 1994. Greek Religion. Oxford. C. Sourvinou-Inwood. 2003. Tragedy and Athenian Religion. Lanham.
3.   Hedley, D. 2011. Sacrifice Imagined: Violence, Atonement, and the Sacred. Cambridge; Strenski, I. 2003. Theology and the First Theory of Sacrifice. Leiden.

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