BMCR 2006.06.13

La cuisine et l’autel: les sacrifices en questions dans les sociétés de la Méditerranée ancienne. Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études, Sciences Religieuses 124

, , , La cuisine et l'autel : les sacrifices en questions dans les sociétés de la méditerranée ancienne. Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des hautes études. Sciences religieuses ; v. 124. Turnhout: Brepols, 2005. xvii, 460 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2503517390. €75.00 (pb).

As the most recent expression of a long-standing French tradition in sacrificial studies, La cuisine et l’autel offers a collection of twenty-three essays exploring ancient Mediterranean sacrifice from both a historical and an anthropological perspective. Many of the articles originate from talks first delivered in June 2001 at a table ronde in the Parisian department of Sciences Religieuses at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. The three editors Stella Georgoudi, Renée Koch Piettre and Francis Schmidt describe the book as a work in the footsteps of Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne, and as an attempt to assess the validity of the conclusions the two scholars reached in their seminal 1979 publication.1 To some extent, La cuisine et l’autel is a tribute to La cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec, exploring as it does similar issues along similar lines; it is also an attempt to broaden the discussion of Greek sacrifice by placing it within a wider geographical and chronological framework. The volume is structured in four thematic sections, each of which is divided into further subsections. The essays allow for a comparative perspective by constantly shifting the focus from Egypt to ancient Israel, from ancient Greece to Rome.

The volume begins (Part I: ‘Questions de définitions’) by exploring anthropological issues pertaining to a general definition of sacrifice. In the first subsection (‘Tuer, offrir, manger?’) Alfred Marx and Folkert van Straten address the question of sacrificial meaning in relation to distinct geographical areas. Marx (‘Tuer, donner, manger dans le culte sacrificiel de l’Ancien Israël’) provides a discussion of the nature of Jewish sacrifice, the essence of which is described as resting neither in the act of killing itself nor in the sharing of sacrificial meat, but in the gesture of homage and submission ( minhah) it offers to God. Van Straten (‘Ancient Greek animal sacrifice: gift, ritual slaughter, communion, food supply, or what? Some thoughts on simple explanations of a complex ritual’) expresses a similar concern for the underlying significance of the sacrificial act arguing for the plurisemiotic nature of Greek sacrifice, where both vertical and horizontal lines of connection are drawn: between men and gods, and between men and their fellow diners.

The second subsection of Part I (‘Sacrifice animal, offrande végétale?’) explores the relations between vegetable offerings and blood sacrifice. Louise Bruit-Zaidman (‘Repas des dieux et repas des hommes en Grèce ancienne’) argues that the opposition between vegetable and animal offerings was a ‘construction théologico-philosophique’ (32) drawn by sectarian movements in antiquity, and that starting with Hesiod, thusiai were seen as containing both blood and bloodless sacrifices. Bruit-Zaidman also explores the dialectic between table ( trapeza) and altar ( bomos), and between thuein and tithenai, emphasizing that through sacrifice men and gods can partake in the same food without becoming actual dining partners. In ‘Le taureau blanc du dieu Min’, Catherine Graindorge focuses on a more specific sacrificial instance: the Egyptian festival of the ithyphallic god Min. By challenging the idea that the white bull led in the festival procession was slaughtered after receiving a vegetable offering, Graindorge reaches a striking conclusion. By adopting a new phenomenological approach, she suggests that through the vegetable offering the bull came to embody the principle of royal regeneration.

Renée Koch Piettre introduces the third and final subsection of Part I (‘Aux limites du sacrifice?’). Her article deals with the little-researched issue of ‘Précipitations sacrificielles en Grèce ancienne’: the kind of sacrifice by which an object or victim was hurled into the sea or down a precipice. The author discusses the special features of this rite, as well as the particular terms used to describe it. By revealing how ‘précipitations sacrificielles’ enrich the semantic field related to sacrificial practice, Koch Piettre’s article helps to redefine the language of Greek sacrifice along broader lines. A very different instance of ‘problematic’ sacrifice is the concern of the following article, which ends this section of the book where it began: in ancient Israel. In ‘Le herem de guerre dans le judaïsme du deuxième temple’, Christophe Batsch discusses the difference between sacrifice and herem, a term which describes both inalienable offerings made to Yahweh and the extermination of idolaters’ cities.

Part II of the volume, ‘Violence, sacralisation, élimination’, is devoted to exploring the controversial topic of sacrificial violence and the nature and function of sacrificial victims. Subsection one (‘Autour de la victime’) opens with Stella Georgoudi’s article, ‘L”occultation de la violence’ dans le sacrifice grec: donées anciennes, discours modernes’, one of the most notable recent attempts to investigate the nature of Greek sacrifice. Through the use of archaeological and iconographic evidence, Georgoudi re-examines one of the central issues in La cuisine du sacrifice : the concealment of sacrificial violence in relation to its three main aspects: the ‘burying’ of the machaira, the lack of restraint in leading the victim and the sense of guilt in killing the sacrificial animal (as commonly exemplified by the Bouphonia). The same question is addressed in different ways in the two following articles, which place the issue of sacrificial violence in a wider cultural framework. In ‘Mise à mort rituelle de l’animal, offrande carnée dans le temple égyptien’, Catherine Bouanich discusses the iconographic metaphor of animal sacrifice as the magical destruction of the enemy at the hands of the pharaoh. In ‘Le bras de Sekhmet’, the same metaphor is viewed by Françoise Labrique in the light of the depictions of the Ptolemaic temple of Khonsu in Karnak, where the goddess Sekhmet is represented as a lioness armed with an iron to brand the animal victims, here portrayed as enemies to be killed.

This second section on sacrificial killing and consumption ends with two articles on the theme ‘Sacralisation, élimination’. In ‘L’espace sacrificiel dans le judaïsme du second Temple’, Francis Schimdt discusses the ways in which Jews interpreted the contradictions which emerge in the Torah regarding the slaughter and consumption of animals; in ‘Élimination rituelle et sacrifice en Grce ancienne’, Athanassia Zografou addresses the unusual question of how, in specific religious instances, Greeks disposed of unwanted things, including corpses, by consecrating them to a god. On the basis of literary texts (particularly Hippocrates’ On the Sacred Malady, and Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris), the author examines how the same object could simultaneously be eliminated and consecrated, and how offering and purification could be made to coincide.

While the theme of the vertical relation between men and gods established by sacrifice emerges throughout the book, Part Three, ‘Entre hommes et dieux: partage et commensalité’, is specifically devoted to the issue. The first contribution to subsection one (‘Des convives séparés?’) is Jesper Svenbro’s article, ‘La thusia et le partage. Remarques sur la “destruction” par le feu dans le sacrifice grec’. Against Gunnel Eckroth,2 Svenbro argues that the notion of ‘destruction sacrifice’ is best avoided: although in the case of the enagismos sacrifice a different kind of communion was established between men and heroes (or deceased humans), in most Greek sacrifices matter was actually conveyed to the gods by combustion. With Jörg Rüpke’s article, ‘Gäste der Götter—Götter als Gäste: zur Konstruktion des römischen Opferbanketts’, the reader approaches the world of Roman sacrifice. Rüpke’s work discusses how ‘Opferbankett’ was distinguished from ‘Bankett für die Menschen’ in a society which, unlike the Greek, was never keen to draw explicit links between sacrifices for gods and banquets for humans. Rüpke first addresses the meaning of the expression inuitare deum, which signified the creation of a cult space for the gods rather than partaking of the same food as them. He then goes on to argue that Romans firmly distinguished between human and divine banquets (exemplified by the conuiuium publicum and the lectisternium respectively), in accordance with their marked respect for social hierarchies: ‘dass Römer nur mit ihresgleichen tafeln’ (234).

While the previous subsection centered on the ‘vertical’ contact between men and gods, subsection two of Part III (‘Découpe et distribution’) focuses on the ‘horizontal’ line drawn in the sacrificial banquet. Not unlike Georgoudi’s article in Part II, Guy Berthiaume’s essay, ‘L’aile ou les mêria : sur la nourriture carnée des dieux grecs’, directly engages with the work of Vernant and Detienne to provide a new discussion of Hesiod’s model ( Theogony 507 ff.) for the division of the sacrificial victim. Archeological rather than literary evidence forms the basis of Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser’s article, ‘Sakrallandschaften und Tafelluxus: Adaptation und Naturinszenierung in Banketträumen Pompejanischer Kultgemeinschaften’, which explores various aspects of the relationship between dining and religious spaces in Pompeian buildings. The author argues that the increased importance of collective dining-rooms in sacred areas (for instance, the sanctuaries of Liber Pater and Sabazius), which present striking similarities with the interiors of private houses, was due not to a change in religious practices, but to the development of a more sophisticated taste among the local community. The last article of Part III also has a Roman theme, and addresses a similar issue to the one discussed by Rüpke in the previous subsection, from a very different perspective. In ‘Manger avec les dieux. Partage sacrificiel et commensalité dans la Rome antique’, John Scheid challenges the widespread assumption that Roman public banquets were largely ‘secular’ events. Against Mika Kajava,3 Scheid argues that any distribution of food ( uisceratio) also entailed the sharing of food with the gods, that ‘manger était, à Rome, une activité éminemment religieuse’ (286).

The fourth and final section of the La cuisine et l’autel is devoted to the transformation of sacrifice: ‘Réinterprétations des sacrifice’. Mareile Haase’s article, ‘Etruskische Tieropferdarstellungen: Bild und Handlung’, opens the first subsection on cross-cultural influences (‘Contacts’), and focuses on the impact of Greek customs on Etruscan society in the fifth century B.C. by interpreting two representations of a ‘Dionysiac’ sacrifice (one from a black-figure amphora now in Dresden, the other from a bronze mirror now in Florence) in the context of the local discourse on Greek culture. Gilles Dorival’s essay, ‘L’originalité de la Bible grecque des Septante en matière de sacrifice’, views the same issue from a different perspective: the Christian milieu of the Greek translators of the Septuagint, who deviated from the Hebrew text in order to render the meaning of the Biblical passages on sacrifice more intelligible for a Greek-speaking audience.

Texts also provide the bases for the following two articles, grouped under the heading of ‘Rhétorique et philosophie’. Laurent Pernot’s, ‘Le sacrifice dans la littérature grecque de l’époque impériale’, warns historians to exercise considerable caution when treating accounts of sacrificial practice in polemical and sensationalist second- and third-century texts such as the works of Aelius Aristides and Lucian, or the novels of Lollianus and Heliodorus. Moving from literature to philosophy, in ‘La théosophie de Porphyre et sa conception du sacrifice intérieur’, Stéphane Toulouse attempts to prove, against Jean Bidez’s classic chronology,4 that Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles was not a piece composed early on in the philosopher’s career, but rather a mature work which betrays the same metaphysical and religious concerns as On Absinence and the Letter to Marcella.

The final subsection of Part IV of the book, entitled ‘Mutations’, contains three articles aimed at elucidating specific political and social changes which affected sacrificial practice in late Antiquity. In ‘ Realia versus leges ? les sacrifices de la religion d’État au IVe siècle’, Nicole Belayche focuses on anti-pagan legislation from Constantine to Theodosius II to argue that no systematic persecution of pagan cults, including sacrifices, took place before the end of the fourth century. In ‘Women as Objects of Sacrifice? An Early Christian ‘Chancel of the Virgins”, Joan R. Branham explores a very different expression of sacrifice in late Antiquity: the Christian sacrifice of Christ and his followers. On the basis of a surviving North African inscription on a ‘chancel of the virgins’ (MA3015 in the Louvre Museum), Branham discusses the role of unmarried women as ‘objects of sacrifice’ within the ecclesiastical community. The final essay of the book is likewise devoted to the exploration of Christian sacrifice, but in one of its most original expressions: the ‘sanctified butchery’ of animals performed in honor of a saint. In ‘Tuer des animaux pour la fête de Saint Félix’, Cristiano Grottanelli considers Paulinus of Nola’s description of the epulum for St Felix ( Carmen 20.67-300), and the way in which Paulinus’ description subtly deviates from accounts of pagan sacrifice. This final article provides a specific case study to illustrate how the practice of ‘sanctified butchery’ constituted not a pagan survival but a Christian reinterpretation of the traditional uotum — an issue Grottanelli had previously addressed.5

Among the many noteworthy contributions which fill this volume, two merit particular attention. The first is Renée Koch Piettre’s article on ‘sacrificial precipitations’, which finally bridges the gaps in Jean Casabona’s important work.6 Koch Piettre’s discussion of semantically opposite terms ( empsucha/apsucha, kathienai/sphazein, peripsêma/horkia, tomia/entoma) contributes towards a more detailed definition of the vocabulary of Greek sacrifice. Thanks to its primarily lexical focus, Koch Piettre’s article represents one of the most significant advances in the study of sacrificial language in several decades. Georgoudi’s article offers a more methodological contribution: it constitutes a warning against interpreting Greek sacrifice on the basis of limited sources. To some extent, Vernant and Detienne’s work is open to this criticism in the formulation of one of its chief claims: that Greek sacrifice concealed violence.7 Quoting Van Straten,8 Georgoudi notes that literary evidence emphasizing the required ‘consent’ of the victim to be sacrificed is scarce and mostly confined to Delphi (118). Likewise, she suggests that it might be wrong to speak of ‘occultation de la violence’ (119) in the case of the disposal of the sacrificial knife described in passages from Euripides ( Electra 800 ff., Iphigenia in Aulis 1565-69) and Aristophanes ( Peace 948-49, 1017-18). The same problem emerges in relation to visual material, where Georgoudi argues that it might be more expedient to allow for a certain iconographic diversity in the representation of sacrificial scenes (not all of which conceal sacrificial violence, particularly in the case of relief). Georgoudi’s chief contribution lies in providing a well-judged criticism of Vernant and Detienne’s argument without dismissing it: by questioning the use of the Bouphonia as a general model for all Greek sacrifices, Georgoudi warns that ‘le sacrifice grec reste irréductible à des modèles’ (136).

La cuisine et l’autel is a vast, heterogeneous and ambitious work. While it presents itself as an ideal sequel to Vernant and Detienne’s La cuisine du sacrifice, it transcends the focus of their study by spanning four civilizations across many centuries, and engaging with a substantially wider range of material. As the editors themselves are keen to point out (xvi), it is inevitable, given the vastness of the subject, that many important questions have been left unaddressed. The twenty-three essays, however, offer a complex and intriguing picture of sacrificial practices across the ancient Mediterranean, and provide a number of highly original interpretations of specific issues. Particularly thanks to Georgoudi’s contribution, the volume supplies a much needed re-examination of the conclusions reached by Vernant and Detienne; more importantly still, it offers the reader a valuable overview of what is at stake in contemporary debates. In short, La cuisine et l’autel is the most significant book on sacrifice to have been published in a long time: not unlike La cusine du sacrifice, it is destined to become a landmark in the study of ancient sacrifice.

List of contributors and titles:

A. Marx, ‘Tuer, donner, manger dans le culte sacrificiel de l’Ancien Israël’

F. Van Straten, ‘Ancient Greek animal sacrifice: gift, ritual slaughter, communion, food supply, or what? Some thoughts on simple explanations of a complex ritual’

L. Bruit-Zaidman, ‘Repas des dieux et repas des hommes en Grèce ancienne’

C. Graindorge, ‘Le taureau blanc du dieu Min’

R. Koch Piettre, ‘Précipitations sacrificielles en Grèce ancienne’

C. Batsch, ‘Le herem de guerre dans le judaïsme du deuxième temple’

S. Georgoudi, ‘L'”occultation de la violence” dans le sacrifice grec: donées anciennes, discours modernes’

C. Bouanich, ‘Mise à mort rituelle de l’animal, offrande carnée dans le temple égyptien’

F. Labrique, ‘Le bras de Sekhmet’

F. Schmidt, ‘L’espace sacrificiel dans le judaïsme du second Temple’

A. Zografou, ‘Élimination rituelle et sacrifice en Grèce ancienne’

J. Svenbro, ‘La thusia et le partage. Remarques sur la “destruction” par le feu dans le sacrifice grec’

J. Rüpke, ‘Gäste der Götter — Götter als Gäste: zur Konstruktion des römischen Opferbanketts’

G. Berthiaume, ‘L’aile ou les mêria : sur la nourriture carnée des dieux grecs’

U. Egelhaaf-Gaiser, ‘Sakrallandschaften und Tafelluxus: Adaptation und Naturinszenierung in Banketträumen Pompejanischer Kultgemeinschaften’

J. Scheid, ‘Manger avec les dieux. Partage sacrificiel et commensalité dans la Rome antique’

M. Haase, ‘Etruskische Tieropferdarstellungen: Bild und Handlung’

G. Dorival, ‘L’originalité de la Bible grecque des Septante en matière de sacrifice’

L. Pernot, ‘Le sacrifice dans la littérature grecque de l’époque impériale’

S. Toulouse, ‘La théosophie de Porphyre et sa conception du sacrifice intérieur’

N. Belayche, ‘ Realia versus leges ? les sacrifices de la religion d’État au IVe siècle’

J. R. Branham, ‘Women as Objects of Sacrifice? An Early Christian “Chancel of the Virgins”‘

C. Grottanelli, ‘Tuer des animaux pour la fête de Saint Félix’.


1. M. Detienne and J.-P. Vernant (eds.), La cuisine du sacrifice en pays grecs (Paris, 1979).

2. G. Ekroth, The sacrificial rituals of Greek hero-cults in the Archaic to the early Hellenistic periods (Liège, 2002).

3. M. Kajava, ‘Visceratio’, Arctos 32 (1998) 109-31.

4. J. Bidez, Vie de Porphyre: le philosophe néo-platonicien (Gand and Leipzig, 1913), 15-16.

5. C. Grottanelli, ‘Appunti sulla fine dei sacrifici’, Egitto e Vicino Oriente 12 (1989) 175-92, esp. 180 ff.

6. J. Casabona, Recherches sur le vocabulaire des sacrifices en grec des origines à la fin de l’époque classique (Aix-en-Provence, 1966).

7. Detienne and Vernant, La cuisine du sacrifice, esp. 18 ff., 178 ff., 234 ff.

8. ‘ … the formal sign of consent of the sacrificial victim clearly was not an aspect of the ritual that was thought particularly interesting or important’ (F.T. van Straten, Hierà kalà. Images of Animal Sacrifice in Archaic and Classical Greece [Leiden, 1995], 102).