BMCR 2010.12.59

The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks

, The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. xvii, 340. ISBN 97806911400 $45.00.


In The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks, J. McInerney argues convincingly that cattle continued to play a central role within the Greek imaginaire long after it became impractical for Greek households to keep and pasture large herds of cattle. Although by the Classical period the Greeks could no longer be described as transhumanant pastoralists, McInerney discusses how the Greeks retained a “bovine register,” never entirely abandoning “the herder’s habits of mind” (4). Later Greek practices and cultural artifacts evince this “bovine register” and preserve traces of a time in Greece’s history when cows were, indeed, king. On the whole, McInerney’s book is stronger on the historical and religious aspects of Greek cattle culture than on the role cattle played in Greek literary culture, but readers interested in early Greek pastoralism, land management, the evolution of sanctuaries, the ancient Greek economy, and, to a lesser extent, animal studies will discover much of value. Scholars interested in extending the discussion of the role cows played in the Greek imaginaire through analyses of later Greek sayings, literature, and visual art will find McInerney’s demonstration of the deeply embedded importance of cattle in Greek society a solid historical foundation on which to build.

In Chapter 1, “Cattle Habits,” which serves as an introduction, McInerney is careful to stress that the cow is not just a symbol to the ancient Greeks. He employs Pierre Bourdieu’s term habitus “‘a system of internalized schemes that have the capacity to generate all thoughts, perceptions, and actions characteristic of a culture’” as a way of understanding the complex, enduring relationship between Greeks and their cattle (5). This term does two kinds of work for McInerney. It allows for how several Greek cultural institutions “are refracted through the prism of herding” and “it can continue to reflect notions, values, and experiences that inform the individual’s perceptions and the culture’s shared grammar of symbols and ideas long after the empirical circumstances that gave rise to any part of it are changed or lost” (5). In other words, the continued expression of institutions such as marriage in terms of cattle suggests the institutions’ cattle-based past even though herding no longer played a central role in daily life.

McInerney delves into that pastoralist past in Chapters 2 and 3. In Chapter 2, “The Paradoxes of Pastoralism,” he traces the development of pastoralist societies, the breeding of herds, and the differences between killing a wild animal in hunting and a domesticated animal with which one has an ongoing relationship. Unlike hunting, which “depends upon luck or the cooperation of the gods,” killing a domesticated animal is a kind of betrayal that “favors a sacralized treatment” (37). This paradox at the heart of pastoralism, that one kills what one has tended and nourished, gives rise to certain features of Greek sacrifice, the need to trick the sacrificial animal or to gain its consent. The bull, too, complicates the role cattle play in Greek culture. For the bull, though technically domesticated, remains wild and dangerous. McInerney concludes Chapter 2 with a discussion of how bulls and kingship become linked in Near Eastern culture citing the role of the bull in the Epic of Gilgamesh in particular (40-47). The intertwining of bulls and kings is complex and fascinating, and one wishes McInerney had engaged with this topic more deeply.

In Chapter 3, “Cattle Systems in Bronze Age Greece,” McInerney examines how cattle occupied a special place within the Minoan and Mycenaean economies. Because cattle were a “luxury item of enormous value” to the Minoans, palaces like Knossos tightly controlled the cattle system even as they relied on regional cooperation for cattle production (52-53). Knossos also had a monopoly of sorts on bull-leaping, an important religious expression of Minoan cattle culture. The palace employed specialists in bull-leaping whose performances helped make Knossos the center of both real and symbolic cattle culture. Meanwhile, at the palace at Pylos, the social ritual of feasting required a ready supply of cattle. The palace, subordinate communities, and wealthy individuals kept herds (63), but after the palace system came to an end, herding and feasting remained markers of elite status.

The fall of the palace system and with it palace control of herding and feasting lead nicely into Chapters 4 and 5, “Epic Consumption” and “Heroes and Gods.” In these chapters, McInerney explores the literary and mythological evidence for the continued cultural importance of cows, relying mostly on Homer and Hesiod. In “Epic Consumption,” McInerney analyzes the references to cows and cow-related activities such as plowing in the Iliad and Odyssey and discusses the important role feasting played in the lives of the Homeric heroes. In “Heroes and Gods,” McInerney focuses on Odysseus and Herakles as cattle raiders and the associations between the Olympian gods and cattle. While these chapters serve to extend the discussion of cows from the practical into the cultural, they are, in my opinion, the weakest of the book. McInerney makes several excellent points (such as linking the eating of the cattle of the sun to the punishment of the suitors) but these points could have been made very quickly and the remaining discussion offers little that will be new to readers familiar with Homeric scholarship.

In Chapters 6-8, “Gods, Cattle, and Space,” “Sacred Economics,” and “Cities and Cattle Business,” McInerney demonstrates how cattle moved from the heroic household to the Greek sanctuary. In other words, Greek sanctuaries within and without the polis became centers for those important Greek practices: herding, sacrificing, and feasting as a community. McInerney discusses how gods became associated with specific places, how the Panhellenic sanctuary provided a valuable counterpoint to the institution of the city-state, and, most importantly for readers interested in cows, how sanctuaries in cities and in the countryside acquired enough cattle for sacrifice at a time when the individual keeping of large herds as wealth had long passed. In Athens, for example, “the commercialization of the meat supply arose in response to pressure on the sacred economy to keep up with demand” (195).

Having established the importance of sanctuaries, in Chapter 9, “Sacred Law,” McInerney discusses the role sanctuaries played in the development of law, providing plentiful evidence for Greek laws’ origins in sacred law and the retention of traces of the sacred in later polis laws. While McInerney effectively describes how sanctuaries kept and acquired herds of cattle and makes the very important point that commercial and sacred economies intermingle in the sourcing of sacrificial victims, cows take second place to larger historical issues. My biggest beef with this book is that in the second half the author seems to lose track of his cows: I often had the feeling that he was primarily interested in the history of sanctuaries, their relationship to the polis, and their importance to the development of Greek law.

In Chapter 10, “Authority and Value,” McInerney ties a number of cultural components together in his discussion of the role cows and cattle-related accoutrements played in the development of Greek coinage. Rejecting the notion that coinage was a simple adoption by the Greeks of Near Eastern practices, McInerney argues that “cattle wealth spurred the growth of a monetized economy by combining wealth, value, and exchange into a single institution” (233). He suggests that this involved several mental steps, pointing out that “in the sixth century obeloi and drachmai originally referred to handfuls of iron spits, used first for roasting sacrificial animals and subsequently dedicated as valuable objects” and that “wealth could be expressed and measured by coins that depicted cows” instead of by cattle themselves (230). The images of cows on coins are a reminder of a time when living cows were the measure of wealth. In Chapter 11, “Conclusions,” McInerney pushes his thesis concerning the pervasive influence of cattle on Greek culture even further using the idea of sacrifice to tie pastoralism to the founding of Athenian democracy. Cows and citizens both shed blood for the community.

One of the great strengths of this work is the author’s use of contemporary cattle-based cultures to help the reader understand ancient Greek practices. While careful not to suggest that all pastoralist societies or cattle-based cultures are alike or to present a simplistic understanding of the role cattle play in their lives, McInerney refers to the Ao, Bahima, Basotho, Dafla, Dinka, Fulani, Gogo, Herrero, Maasai, Nuer, Tshidi and Xhosa to illustrate a variety of beliefs and practices among cattle-focused people. In Chapter 10, for example, McInerney discusses whether Bronze Age copper ingots were intentionally fashioned to resemble oxhides. After noting that an Ingot God, represented as a man with horns, was associated with precious metal and the mining industry of Cyprus, McInerney shows how cattle can “combine exchange value and symbolic importance” by discussing the Tshidi, who use tokens described as “cattle without legs” for transactions like marriage contract payments, and the Basotho of Lesotho, for whom cattle are a special commodity set apart from the regular cash economy by virtue of their being living creatures (229).

These comparisons with other contemporary cultures, often fascinating in themselves, also raise additional questions about cattle in the ancient Greek context. I lived and taught for a few months in Lesotho myself and was amazed at how the symbolic value of cattle affected so many aspects of daily life. A kindergarten classroom, for example, often combined six-year-old girls and teenage boys. Since boys herded the cattle, they could only begin kindergarten once a younger brother became old enough to take over. NGOs often have difficulty convincing the Basotho to keep smaller herds for a number of practical reasons, because cattle are not a simple economic investment. The symbolic value of cows influences many aspects of day-to-day life in rural Lesotho, and one also wonders about the life of ancient Greek herders far away from towns and cities. McInerney touches on the practicalities of a herding culture when he discusses rural sanctuaries, but many questions remain. For example, if cattle continued to imbue Greek cultural life long after large herds became the business of sanctuaries, did the ancient Greeks experience this transition as a trauma in any way? Is there a sense of loss or nostalgia in the traces of cattle culture that remain in the myths, literature, and coinage of ancient Greece?

If the reader is left with additional questions after an entire book on cow culture in ancient Greece, this is a credit to McInerney’s engaging study. Any reader left wanting more will find McInerney’s extensive bibliography an excellent starting point. While foremost a study of the role cattle played in the development of sanctuaries and the role sanctuaries played in the development of law and a monetized economy in ancient Greece, The Cattle of the Sun also provides a solid contribution to the burgeoning field of animal studies and a historical counterpoint to future discussions of animals in ancient myth, art, and literature.