BMCR 2006.06.09

Sanctified Violence in Homeric Society: Oath-Making Rituals and Narratives in the Iliad

, Sanctified violence in Homeric society : oath-making rituals and narratives in the Iliad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xi, 244 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521855292 $75.00.

2 Responses

This book focuses primarily on the two extended scenes involving oath-sacrifices in the Iliad (3.268-301 and 19.250-268). Joseph Plescia’s examination of oaths and Peter Karavites’ of promises and treaties are probably the most well known studies in English of similar phenomena in ancient Greece.1 Kitts (K.) strikes out in a different direction, viewing oath-sacrifice as a ritual and seeing allusions to oath-sacrifice in scenes of killing on the battlefield. K. provides parallels throughout to the Iliad from Near Eastern texts and the Bible. The theoretical discussions of how rituals (Homeric or otherwise) work are well organized and researched, but some of the close readings vital to K.’s argument are unconvincing. I first summarize the main points of each chapter and then offer some comments.


Chapter 1, “Epics, Rituals, Rituals in Epic,” suggests examining oath-sacrifices as rituals instead of relating them to a grand theory of Greek sacrifice. K. favors a view of ritual “as communication by means of a coherent pattern of gestures and words” (19); an extended definition of ritual is offered on page 20. Since the poem emerged from a long tradition of oral performance, actual ritual practices informed the depictions of ritual events in the poem. K. offers three further initial steps. First, the language and gestures of oath-making work to counteract the fact that people lie. The formality of a ritual can compel adherence to its performance and its terms. Second, following Stanley Tambiah, K. sees rituals as drawing their authority from references to fundamental cosmological principles. Exhibiting a high degree of formality and having to be enacted anew in all their particulars to be efficacious, oath-sacrifices also exemplify the concept of a “liturgical order,” as defined by Roy Rappaport. Third, ritual scenes are to be classified as type scenes. Michael Nagler’s model of a preverbal template is applicable but so too is the traditional definition of a type scene as an iterable description of a particular event, since oath-sacrifice is the most invariant of all Homeric type scenes. This invariance makes the oath-sacrifice more weighty and binding. Furthermore, when verses linked to oath-sacrifice appear in other scenes, oath-sacrifice comes to mind.

Chapter 2, “Premises and Principles of Oath-Making in the Iliad,” considers oath-making in the Iliad more broadly. The first section, “Oath-Making Premises,” focuses primarily on Achilles’ rejection of conventional behavior in his refusal to make a compact with Hektor and his dismissal of Lykaon’s status as a suppliant with whom he has shared a meal. A ritual that can be classed as a liturgical order reinvigorates communal norms. Characters try to compel Achilles to act in accordance with norms by participating in conventional rituals, but Achilles refuses. Conversely, K. analyses the poinê Achilles exacts for Patroklos’s death as a ritual leitmotif and so “suitable for marking Achilles’ reentry to the sphere of human customs” (67). The second section is entitled “Oath-Making Principles.” The oath-sacrifice between Trojans and Achaians in book 3 illustrates these principles, since it is formal, metaperformative, preserves commitments, and offers moral dicta. K. also looks at Zeus’s oath concerning the birth of Herakles (19.108-113) and examines the gesture of “taking by the hand” in oaths. She then turns to the oath’s connections with philotês and xenia. That those who violate xenia, philotês, horkia and family bonds are all thought to suffer the same punishment shows the connection between the concepts. That the Erinyes punish perjurers emphasizes that “ritualized commitments. . .[are] treated as naturalized” (92), since the Erinyes punish violators of conventions as well as of natural relationships, i.e., murderers of kin. K. discusses other gods and entities called upon in oaths and oaths that do not invoke gods. She offers a reading of Achilles’ oath by the scepter, arguing for an allusion to the death of Patroklos therein. The chapter closes with the point that death is the punishment most consistently promised to those who violate oaths. Perhaps Troy falls because of its inhabitants’ transgression of oaths.

The first half of Chapter 3, “Ritual Scenes and Epic Themes of Oath-Sacrifice,” breaks the two scenes of oath-sacrifice into their component parts: “coming to solemn order, introducing victims, drawing the machaira, cutting the victim(s)’s hair, praying with arms raised, invoking witnesses, pronouncing terms, cursing perjurers, killing victim(s), and disposing of the corpse(s)” (123). K. examines each of these actions as they appear elsewhere in the poem (although not in scenes of oath-sacrifice) and offers comparative material from Near Eastern texts. In the chapter’s second section, “Ritual Performance as Metaphorical Transformation,” K. argues for intersections between scenes of oath-sacrifice and scenes of killing on the battlefield. She looks at Achilles’ cutting the throats ( deirotomeô) of twelve Trojans at the pyre of Patroklos and suggests the presence of a sacrificial motif in Achilles’ killing of Lykaon. Further, the human participants to an oath become avengers of perjurers through a process of metaphorical transformation outlined by James Fernandez. Perjury is regularly said to bring death as a punishment, and so not only do participants become avengers, but perjurers are expected to suffer the fate of the sacrificed animal, a second “metaphorical switch” (176), elucidated by Paul Ricoeur’s analysis of metaphor. Under this model, K. turns to the intersection between the description of the dying lambs in book 3 and scenes of dying on the battlefield. The chapter closes with an examination of how the Trojans are repeatedly “cast as imminently sacrificial victims” (184) by being called oath-violators. Reference is made here again to the impact the actions of a ritual can have even if an actor does not believe in the premises behind the ritual.

Chapter 4, “Homeric Battlefield Theopanies, In the Light of the Ancient Near East,” examines scenes in which gods appear on the battlefield to stir up, defend, or punish warriors. Examples from Near Eastern texts and the Bible are presented alongside those from the Iliad. Although K. discusses the punishments that perjurers suffer, this chapter is tangentially related to the previous three.

A two-page conclusion summarizes the book’s main points, and an appendix collects passages from the Iliad related to oaths.


Some of K.’s comments on aspects of the oath-sacrifice ritual intrigue, such as her comparison of the cutting of the sacrificial victim’s hair to the cutting of hair in funeral rites (140-144) and her discussion of why the Erinyes are invoked (90-92). An occasional intertextual reference is helpful: when Achilles is fed on the food of the gods (19.345-354), he has taken on the attributes of Hesiod’s third age, violent men who abstained from bread (58). An eclipsing of difference, however, undermines K’.s presentation of the two scenes of oath-sacrifice as well as the two detailed analyses in Chapter 3 most integral to the argument for sacrificial undercurrents in killing scenes on the battlefield.

In arguing for oath-sacrifice as a liturgical order, K. contends that the scenes “happen to present the longest formalized aggregates of formulae and verses in the entire Iliad” (46; cf. 121-123, but see “the most fixed configuration of verses of virtually any typical scene” [122 (my emphasis)]). K. neither offers comparisons with other type scenes nor fully explains what qualifies oath-sacrifice as the most rigid of type scenes. If it is formulaic rigidity (see 119), other type scenes can be even more formulaically rigid, such as scenes of cooking and feasting (cf. Iliad 1.457-471, 2.419-443; Odyssey 12.359-365, 3.454-474). If it is a set sequence of events, David Rubin’s examination of scenes of arming, bathing, sacrificing, and guest-hosting shows that these elaborate scenes almost always follow the same sequence.2 That the two scenes of oath-sacrifice are not the most rigid of type scenes leads one to notice that, while they follow the same patterns and while there are significant repetitions between them, there are four important differences that K. passes over.3 K. identifies ten steps in the scenes (116-119). Step 2 is “The animal victims are led into the scene by heralds, wine libations are prepared, and hands are ritually cleansed,” even though the wine-pouring and hand-washing in book 3 does not appear in book 19. Step 4 is “He [Agamemnon] cuts hair from the victim[s] with the machaira.” In book 3, however, the hairs cut from the victims are handed out to the Trojans and the Achaians; this does not happen in book 19. Step 10 is “The fate of the victim is observed.” But how different is that fate! The lambs of book 3 are taken back to Troy; the boar of book 19 is thrown into the sea. In asserting the rigidity of oath-sacrifice, K. does not offer any significant discussion of these differences between the scenes (see 31, 116, 119-120).

In arguing for the presence of a sacrificial motif in Achilles’ slaughter of Lykaon (162-170), K. points first to Lykaon’s claim that Achilles will cut his throat and that of his brother ( deirotomêseis) (21.89) and suggests that Lykaon is thereby depicted “as an ill-fated and vulnerable victim” (163). If we grant deirotomeô an inherent connection with sacrifice, we can conclude from its use by Lykaon that he thinks that Achilles will sacrifice him, but not that Achilles or even the narrator conceives of his killing Lykaon as a sacrifice. But the sacrificial resonance of deirotomeô is not assured. In two of its other six occurrences, characters use the verb in pondering what an attacker will do to them ( Iliad 21.554 and Odyssey 22.349). Lykaon’s use falls within this category. Nor is K.’s argument that “all of these narratives with deirotomeô imply being killed as an unprotesting victim” (166) supported by Phemios’s use of the verb as he begs for his life ( Odyssey 22.349). K. also takes several features of Lykaon’s actual death to mark it as a sacrifice. Yet the language of at least three of these acts—Lykaon stretches out his arms and dies unprotesting, he is cut near the throat, his blood flows and wets the earth—is formulaic and occurs elsewhere either exclusively or mostly in scenes of killing on the battlefield. As in her reading of deirotome K. needs to argue why a particular sacrificial resonance trumps these verses’ associations with generic killing. In addition, citing Leonard Muellner’s observation that ritual scenes tend to have two or three finite verbs per verse,4 K. claims that the use of three indicative verbs at 21.119 gives a “ritualized nuance” to Lykaon’s death (164). The verse’s appearance, however, when Meriones kills Harpalion (13.655) receives no comment, and a characteristic of a whole ritual scene cannot be applied to a single verse to mark it as ritualized. Finally, K. points out that, just as Talthybios throws the boar into the sea to become food for the fish in book 19, Achilles hurls Lykaon into the Skamander and goes on to boast that Lykaon will be eaten by fish and carried out to sea. Although not an exact verbal repetition, the phrase for the sea in each case has the same metrical shape and is in the same spot in the verse. Further, variants of the verbal construction used of Achilles’ boast to Lykaon, hoi epeuchomenos (21.121), are found in prayers offered to the gods and in particular at 19.254-255 during one of the oath-sacrifices. To take these two points in reverse order, one notes that the same participial expression describes Hektor’s boast over the dying Patroklos (16.829). A connection with prayer is not certain. The comparison with Talthybios’s boar is clever, but K.’s reading eventually obscures the main points of Achilles’ tossing it into the river: denying Lykaon a proper burial (21.123-125) and desecrating his corpse (21.126-127). Achilles also leaves the corpse of Asteropaios, his next victim, half-sprawled in the river as food for the fish (cf. 21.122, 126-127 with 21.184, 202-204). K. would need to show why, when Achilles throws Lykaon into the river, a reference to Talthybios’s actions are to be given priority over the more obvious and traditional references to (1) an ignominious burial at sea and (2) the desecration of an opponent’s corpse. K. ultimately suggests that Achilles’ sacrificial killing of Lykaon signals Achilles’ initial reentry into “the collective cultural sphere of the Achaians” (168). Yet Achilles mocks the efficacy of the Trojans’ sacrifices to the Skamander at the end of his speech (21.130-132), and as K. points out not only is human sacrifice anathema to “normal Greek custom” (184) but Achilles’ refusal to respect Lykaon’s status as a suppliant with whom he has previously shared a meal signals his estrangement from communal norms (56-65).

K. also posits a metaphorical connection between sacrificial animals and men killed on the battlefield (176-187). In elucidating why the dying lambs at 3.293-294 gasp ( aspaironta) and are deprived of thumos and menos, K. points to two passages in which a dying and belching or gasping warrior is compared to a dying and belching or gasping sacrificial animal (13.570-575 and 20.403-406) and five other passages in which warriors die gasping. Such passages reinforce the equation according to which the dying of the lambs in the oath-sacrifice in book 3 stands for the fate that awaits human perjurers (e.g. 174). But K. complicates matters in extending her argument by reversing its terms in, for example, the following phrase: “the perception of dying lambs in sacrifice as dying humans in battle and vice versa” (184 [my emphasis]; cf. 187). The italicized portion of this statement implies that even without an explicit comparison to a sacrificial victim a dying warrior is to be thought of as such a victim. Yet while a gasping sacrificial lamb might die like a warrior and while a simile can liken a dying warrior to a gasping sacrificial animal, other dying warriors even when they gasp are not thereby automatically linked with sacrificial animals. Additionally, the suggestion that similes comparing men to animals inform the metaphorical equating of dying lambs with perjurers (183-184) ignores the fact that simile differs radically as a process of comparison from metaphor.

Mistakes vitiate the strength of other points. Jonathan’s giving David his armor (1 Samuel 18:2-4) and Achilles’ loaning his to Patroklos shed no light on Glaukos and Diomedes’ armor swap as a means of solidifying their relationship (83). The first two passages not only do not depict an exchange of armor but also highlight a particular relationship of subordination of one participant to another that is irrelevant to the scene between Glaukos and Diomedes. K. offers a new interpretation of two vases discussed by Alan Griffiths in claiming that Achilles’ oath by the scepter looks forward to the death of Patroklos (108-111).5 A stamnos by the Triptolemos Painter shows on one side a despondent, shrouded Achilles surrounded by Phoinix, Diomedes, and Odysseus and on the other side Aias and Hektor fighting over a ram, most likely a transformed Patroklos. K. speaks of “the upper register where he [Achilles] sits with hands to face in obvious misery over what has taken place in the lower register [i.e. the death of Patroklos and the fight over the corpse]” (109). But Achilles is not lamenting the death of Patroklos, since the scene depicts the embassy to Achilles (Griffiths 1985: 49). The iconography of the vexed Achilles is standard: elsewhere, as here, Achilles is shrouded as he stews over Agamemnon’s having taken Briseis.6

The book suffers from a lack of detailed cross-references: the suggestion “see Chapter 1” on page 169, for example, is not helpful in reference to a chapter of thirty-nine pages.

K.’s book attempts to harness a complex vision of ritual to some scenes in the Iliad. One willingly reads a great deal of preparatory material if it will be put to innovative use to produce convincing readings of a text. K.’s close readings do not consistently offer such a reward.

[For a response to this review by Margo Kitts, please see BMCR 2006.06.29.]


1. J. Plescia, The Oath and Perjury in Ancient Greece (Tallahassee, 1970). P. Karavites, Promise-Giving and Treaty-Making (Leiden, 1982).

2. D. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes (New York, 1995) 210-220.

3. See J.T. Fitzgerald, “Perjury in Ancient Religion and Modern Law: A Comparative Analysis of Perjury in Homer and United States Law,” in J. Fotopoulos, ed., The New Testament and Early Christian Literature in Greco-Roman Context: Studies in Honor of David E. Aune (Leiden, forthcoming 2006) manuscript page 20 n. 13.

4. L. Muellner, The Meaning of Homeric εὔχομαι Through its Formulas (Innsbruck, 1976) 32-33.

5. A. Griffiths, “A Ram Called Patroklos,” BICS 21 (1985) 49-50 and Pl. 4, and “Patroklos the Ram (Again),” BICS 36 (1989) 139 and Pl. 7.

6. LIMC‘Achilleus,’ nos. 442-464, and see H.A. Shapiro, Myth Into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece (London, 1994) 14 and 19.