BMCR 2011.04.48

King of Sacrifice: Ritual and Royal Authority in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies 25

, King of Sacrifice: Ritual and Royal Authority in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies 25. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University Press, 2009. ix, 235. ISBN9780674025929 $17.95 (pb).

Considering the innumerable books and articles that have explored various themes in Homer, it is surprising that there is to date no independent, comprehensive study of the poems’ representations of animal sacrifice. Sarah Hitch has to a large extent rectified this situation by her interesting and well-written volume on the role and function of sacrifice in the Iliad.

A short preface presents the scope of the study, followed by four chapters exploring different themes, a bibliography, a brief general index and an index locorum. The overall aim is to explore the function of sacrifice within the context of the Iliad, and how the objectives of the poem shaped the representation and meaning of sacrifice. Sacrifice serves to bring out Agamemnon’s prominence among the Achaians by his role as the principal sacrificer, while Achilles almost semi-divine status is underlined by the fact that he does not sacrifice. Furthermore, the descriptions of sacrifice bring to the fore what seems to have been a constant preoccupation of the Greeks, the doubt that the gods would pay attention to the offerings given.

Chapter 1 outlines the possible approaches to sacrifice in the Iliad. Hitch argues that the construction of the Homeric text making use of formulas, formulaic phrases and type scenes has led scholars to overestimate the degree of repetition in the description of sacrifice scenes. Even if the sacrificial scenes are type scenes, there are distinctions in ritual procedure and contents that served to adapt the descriptions to each context in order to underline a particular purpose.

After an outline of Greek animal sacrifice as reconstructed by modern scholarship from primarily Classical texts, inscriptions and images, Hitch demonstrates how Homeric sacrifice does not match this view. Preliminary elements such as processions, music, kanephoroi and garlands are missing in the Iliad. There are no indications of hiding the violence inherent in sacrifice, a notion fundamental to the modern theoretical models of Greek sacrificial rituals, though this particular element has in fact recently been questioned also for the Classical period.1 There are no sphagia sacrifices on the battlefield or divination by animal entrails, and priests do not play a prominent role. In all, the Homeric ritual landscape may in fact correspond better to Mycenaean cult practice than to Classical, Hitch suggests.

The local variations of sacrificial rituals so clearly evidenced in the later leges sacrae have no correlation in Homer, who instead offers a generic picture of sacrifice understandable for all audiences and all times. The descriptions of sacrifice in the Iliad do not only have a different purpose, the long process of composition and transmission of the texts makes it impossible to match its contents to a particular time or place. That Homeric sacrifice must be seen as a separate entity and that even the Iliad and the Odyssey cannot be lumped together, is an important methodological starting point.

Fundamental for Hitch’s analysis is a distinction between sacrifices and feasts, the latter not having any references to the gods. Depending on the emphasis desired in a scene in a particular context, the killing of an animal can be marked as a sacrifice or be unmarked, if it was only to provide meat for consumption. The Homeric sacrificial terminology is here argued to be more fluid than the Classical one. The use of hiereuein and sphazein for the killing of an animal at a feast do not necessarily have to imply that a sacrifice was made, unless this is clarified by other ritual details or actions. This is an important and valid observation, but does perhaps not fully take into consideration that animals may have been ritually killed in a less elaborate manner than that found in the explicit sacrificial scenes, if the purpose primarily was to procure food and not to contact the gods.2

Chapter 2, “The ritual process”, focuses on the different narrative levels of the text, allowing for the distinction between enacted sacrifice – the primary narrator’s eyewitness description, and embedded sacrifice – references to sacrifice made by the secondary narrators, usually as character-speech. The perception of sacrifice differs according to the narrator, characters relate to sacrifice as a means for communication with the gods, while in the primary narrative, sacrifice highlights the person performing the sacrifice.

The seven enacted sacrifices, often described at length, all occur as part of the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles, and they all enhance the sacrificer Agamemnon, his actions, provision of the animals, initiation of rituals and prayers. They aim at articulating his social importance, authority and power, and there is little interest in the divine recipient of the sacrifice. The 39 embedded sacrifices usually only refer to the ritual in an abbreviated manner by mentioning the burning of thigh bones. They focus instead on the relations between gods and humans, and refer to a group offering sacrifice to achieve divine goodwill.

Hitch structures the discussion of the sacrifices by the phases pre-kill, kill and post-kill, pointing out a number of distinctions from the Classical period. The concept of sacred space in Homer is complex, as neither it nor temples are linked with sacrifice, but with the honouring of the gods or the storing of offerings. Primary narrative localizes sacrifice not with a particular sacred space, but with the sacrificer Agamemnon, further bringing out his importance. In the embedded sacrifices, altars figure more prominently, often linked to the notion of the gods taking pleasure from the offerings, as the altar constitutes a means for creating reciprocity mortals-immortals. Homeric heroes perform the sacrifice themselves, professional mageiroi are not employed. Preliminary rituals are almost absent (the throwing of barley grains is only found twice) and there is no mention of collecting blood in the sphageion.3 There is little concern for ritual purity or for the pollution of sacred space and actions. Contrary to tragedy, sacrifice is never used as a metaphor in the Iliad.

The post-kill phase is explored in Chapter 3 from the point of view how sacrifice constituted both gifts for the gods and food for men. A central notion is reciprocity, which in the Iliad is ascertained or challenged depending on the perspective of the narrative. Primary narrative stresses the killing and cutting of the animal’s throat, thereby emphasizing the role of the sacrificer, and is less concerned with the relation to the gods. Secondary narrative, on the other hand, addresses sacrifice in its function for creating reciprocity immortals-mortals, and focuses on what the gods are actually offered, epitomized by the mention of sacrificial smoke and thigh bones (though the term hecatomb is almost excludingly found in embedded sacrifices). The preparation and consumption of meat plays a more prominent role in the enacted sacrifices, though the distribution of meat, so important in Classical time, is not accentuated. Eating is commonly described, but far from all such meals are connected to sacrifice, though they still serve an important social function.

Interestingly, the embedded sacrifices of the secondary narrative often vent a frustration concerning the relation men-gods, linked to doubts about the efficacy of the rituals to create a bond between immortals and mortals. Such negative connotations of sacrifice can be seen as is part of the poetic construct, aiming at bringing out man’s vulnerability and uncertainty in the communication with the gods, certainly an issue also in later Greek sources.

Chapter 4 looks at the poem’s representation of Agamemnon’s authority within the Achaian community as a background to the role of sacrifice in the description of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles. The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles is framed by sacrifice, starting with the purification sacrifice in connection with the return of Chryseis, which leads to Achilles’ withdrawal ( Iliad I) and ending with the oath-sacrifice after which Achilles rejoins the battle ( Iliad XIX).

The Iliad only selectively includes sacrifice and renders it as a special event performed by Agamemnon and restricted to an elite group, in contrast to unmarked occasions of feasting, as well as other ritual actions for the gods, such as libations and prayer. Agamemnon is seen as supreme king while at Troy, his ritual authority being part of his special powers, and Hitch here draws a parallel to the Mycenaean use of sacrificial feasts, for example as reconstructed at Pylos. Seen within the structure of Homeric society and its correspondence to historical reality, Agamemnon must constantly identify and define his authority, the most conspicuous way being animal sacrifice. His control over the distribution of food to a select elite (though not the entire army), sometimes at sacrifice, is an important symbol of his hegemony.

If Agamemnon’s supremacy and ritual authority is demonstrated by him performing sacrifice, Achilles’ isolation is expressed by his rejection, and he neither remembers sacrifices, nor performs them in the poem. The two heroes are thematically linked to sacrifice, Agamemnon by the manipulation and control of the rituals, Achilles by absence or deviation, illustrated by his savage slaughter of Trojan youths at Patroklos’ funeral and his perverted relation to feasts. Hitch convincingly argues that Achilles’ abstinence from normative sacrifice is to be taken as a sign of his unique status between gods and men. He is the son of a goddess, receives special divine treatment and has direct access to the gods through his mother, and therefore does not need sacrifice as a means for communication with the divine sphere. At the same time, these traits serve to emphasize his mortality, as he is equally distanced from the gods, and Achilles’ semi-divine status constantly contrasted with his imminent death.

“King of sacrifice” illustrates how the descriptions and references to sacrifice are used as sophisticated focusing devises that bring new depths to the narrative and expand our understanding of Homer. Depending on what actions are included, who takes part and what is consumed, the social relations, status, atmosphere and emotional state of the participants are brought out. Hitch’s analysis constitutes a compelling argument for the importance of animal sacrifice as a frame of reference, showing the importance of taking such rituals into account when we try to understand different aspects of ancient Greek society.

One of the main contributions of the study is demonstrating the extent to which the Iliad differs from later evidence for sacrifice. This is a methodological point that should be kept in mind by any scholar working on Greek religion. Still, Homer contains some of the most detailed accounts of animal sacrifice and it would have been interesting to have Hitch elaborate on how or if this fascinating text could be used as a source for Greek cult practice, especially as there are references to Homeric sacrificial practices both in later texts and inscriptions.


1. See, e.g. P. Bonnechere, ‘“La machaira était dissimulée dans le kanoun ” : quelques interrogations’, REG 101, 1999, 21-35; S. Georgoudi, ‘L’“occultation de la violence” dans le sacrifice grec : données anciennes, discours modernes’, in S. Georgoudi, R. Koch Piettre & F. Schmidt (eds.), La cuisine et l’autel, Paris 2005, 115-147; S. Georgoudi, ‘Le consentement de la victime sacrificielle : une question ouverte’, in V. Mehl & P. Brulé (eds.), Le sacrifice antique, Rennes 2008, 139-153.

2. On the distinctions between full-scale and scaled-down sacrifices, see G. Ekroth, ‘Meat in ancient Greece: sacrificial, sacred or secular?’, Food & history 5:1, 2007, 249-272.

3. There is a mix up on p. 90, the vessel referred to in n. 74 (Louvre C 10.754 and not 10.574 as stated) is a stamnos and not a kylix. The vase actually described in the text is not in the Louvre but in Ferrara (T 499 VT) and shows the attempted sacrifice of Herakles by pharaoh Busiris.