BMCR 2018.08.07

Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World

, , Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. ix, 340. ISBN 9780521191036. $99.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The study of ritual sacrifice goes back to 19 th century anthropological theories, which were embedded in a set of more general theories about civilization. 1 Ever since, scholarship on this matter has developed into distinct currents and disciplines. Those focusing on ancient Greek sacrifice (and related issues) formulated a series of hypotheses that served as a starting point for more recent examinations of the topic. Some of these hypotheses are currently still in force, but in recent decades a more open and multidisciplinary approach has been undertaken, specifically with regards to animal sacrifice.2 The present book, edited by S. Hitch and I. Rutherford, is an outstanding example of this innovative approach.

Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World consists of twelve contributions, organized into four parts: Victims, Procedure, Representation and Margins. The articles that deal with Victims not only discuss which animals were sacrificed on the altar, usually in the form of thysia, but also the activities performed in such a place, as well as the origin, the use and the consumption of animal meat. Archaeological evidence, specifically bones, has shed some new light on the subject. The link between animal sacrifice and the food system is studied in detail in the contributions by G. Ekroth, J. Larson, and A. Villing through analysis and interpretation of bones deposits. G. Ekroth’s work exchanges the traditional theoretical view about sacrifice for a practical one. In opposition to the prevailing opinion which maintains the impossibility of Greeks consuming non-sacrificial meat, she explores a new possibility, i.e. the combination of sacred with secular offerings (such as meat from hunting).3 Her main sources are the particular zooarchaeological remains of the sanctuaries of Poseidon in Isthmia and the Kommos in Crete. Continuing with this approach, J. Larson’s chapter focuses on the deer, where she emphasizes the large amount of deer bones found in Greek sanctuaries in contrast with the scant evidence for the sacrifice of deer. Important questions arise from her analysis: Is it useful to distinguish between animals sacrificed in sanctuaries and the game carried there apart from the ritual? Do the circumstances in which the animal is killed prevail over the alimentary system? J. Larson tries to answer these questions by suggesting that there was an ecological alimentary system, of which deer were a part, based on the system already established by hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic period. This way J. Larson offers a different point of view to the W. Burkert’s theory.4 Finally, A. Villing closes the Victims part dealing with a controversial topic, bird sacrifice. Through the analysis of three specific cases, he describes the continuous evolution of bird sacrifice linked to the socioeconomic evolution of ancient Greece. All these contributions clearly highlight that the study of animal bones continues to yield important results thanks, on the one hand, to new discoveries of bone material and, on the other, to their systematic examination in recent years. Zooarchaelogical evidence has now become a critical resource to contrast or support literary and epigraphic testimonies.

The second part of the book, Procedure, contains chapters on the sacrificial process and the place of sacrifice within religious rituals and the polis. S. Georgoudi’s contribution brings out one of the book’s main purposes, namely, to expose the all too common inaccuracy in the use of the term ‘sacrifice’ in current scholarship. To this end, S. Georgoudi analyses animal sacrifices that receive the label of ‘purificatory sacrifice’. She emphasises that purification and sacrifice generally differ, despite these acts are usually performed in the same context, and she warns of the dangers of classifying such complex and varied rituals in a binary way. The terminology used in the ancient sources (such as the interaction between verbs kathairô and thuô) provides important support for her thesis. The chapters by F. Naiden and J.-M. Carbon deserve equal attention. Naiden’s study tries to demonstrate, through a systematic study of the evidence, that sacrificial regulations enjoyed autonomy from the Athenian regulations. In addition, he reconfirms that Greeks did not universally accept the Hesiodic aetiology of sacrifice. For his part, J.-M. Carbon provides an in-depth study of the division of the animal’s body parts between the divine and the human spheres, after the sacrificial slaughter. No such study has appeared since F. Puttkammer, Quomodo Graeci carnes victimarum distribuerint, Königsberg 1912, so his systematic analysis of the subject is welcome and overdue.

The third part of the book concentrates on Greek representations of sacrificial rituals in literature and visual art, concretely, in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, votive reliefs, and Aeschylus’ tragedy Seven against Thebes. This section demonstrates how previous scholarship can be used profitably to answer questions regarding animal sacrifice. O. Thomas suggests that the plot of the Hymn to Hermes provides an aition for the local topography and heraldic customs.5 His conclusions lead him to consider this hymn as a precursor of the cult to the twelve Olympic Gods, supporting the hypothesis formulated by W. Burkert in 1984 , who proposed that Olympia is the place where this Homeric hymn was first performed.6 A. Klöckner studies the sacrificial animal reliefs, which are usually framed within the context of processions or altars. She takes a new perspective when she considers these votive reliefs as a cultural form and a restricted representation of the ritual practice.7 Finally, R. Seaford analyses how features of animal sacrifice prior to battle are combined with features of an oath sacrifice within the plot of Aeschylus’ tragedy. Moreover, he studies the oath sacrifice performed in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, whose basis, according to him, is found in Seven against Thebes.

Finally, the section entitled Margins is an appropriate conclusion to the monograph as a whole: its contributions look at contact situations between Greek and non-Greek societies. The chronology of this section ranges from first part of the second millennium BCE (Hittite Empire) to the end of Greco-Roman paganism (Julian the Apostate). The contributions of this section of the monograph emphasize comparative analysis, an indispensable tool of research, so as to clarify many aspects of animal sacrifice as a phenomenon essential to any culture. A. Mouton identifies differences and parallels between the sacrifices performed in the Hittite world and those that took place in archaic Greece. I. Rutherford, for his part, studies Greek testimonies about animal sacrifice in Egypt, from the 5 th century BCE until Roman period. Finally, S. Knipe treats the religious policies of Julian the Apostate, specifically his inclination for animal sacrifice.

Overall, Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World represents significant progress in the study of animal sacrifice, not only regarding its theoretical underpinning, but also in reference to its practical execution. This volume shows the multifaceted nature of animal sacrifice, which has led to confused definitions in recent scholarship. It tries to set limits to the definition of sacrifice with respect to other ritualistic actions while, at the same time, asking whether these limits are always useful. In addition to this main question, there are other issues that recur throughout the book: the link between animal sacrifice and the distribution of meat within the framework of alimentary and socioeconomic systems; the importance of combining and contrasting a wide variety of sources (literary and archaeological) and applying current scholarship on the topic to the ancient sources; the question of what authorities can be assigned a ritual practice (a topic about which contributions differ); as well as the substantial impact of studying the practice of sacrifice beyond the borders of the Greek world on the Greek sacrifice study itself.

The volume does not treat Greek animal sacrifice as a monolithic practice but is aware of the existence of an “important poikilia of Greek sacrificial and ‘purificatory practices’”, as S. Georgoudi asserts in her chapter (p. 108). Thus, theories of earlier scholars are subject to revision and sometimes refuted, while alternative hypotheses are proposed, which are more flexible and aware that new evidence (such as zooarchaeological one) may overturn their validity.

All these qualities make Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World an exciting volume that offers many novel perspectives on animal sacrifice.

Table of Contents

Sarah Hitch, Fred Naiden and Ian Rutherford. “Introduction”. 1-12.
Gunnel Ekroth. “Bare Bones: Zooarchaeology and Greek Sacrifice”. 15-47.
Jennifer Larson. “Venison for Artemis? The Problem of Deer Sacrifice”. 48-62.
Alexandra Villing. “Don’t Kill the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg? Some Thoughts on Bird Sacrifices in Ancient Greece”. 63-102.
Stella Georgoudi. “Reflections on Sacrifice and Purification in the Greek World”. 105-135.
Fred Naiden. ““Polis Religion” and Sacrificial Regulation”. 136-150.
Jan-Mathieu Carbon. “Meaty Perks: Epichoric and Topological Trends”. 151-178.
Oliver Thomas. “Sacrifice and the Homeric Hymn to Hermes ”. 181-199.
Anja Klöckner. “Visualising Veneration: Images of Animal Sacrifice on Greek Votive Reliefs”. 200-222.
Richard Seaford. “Sacrifice in Drama: The Flow of liquids”. 223-236.
Alice Mouton. “Animal Sacrifice in Hittite Anatolia”. 239-252.
Ian Rutherford. “The Reception of Egyptian Animal sacrifice in Greek Writers: Ethnic Stereotyping or Transcultural Discourse?”. 253-266.
Sergio Knipe. “A Quiet Slaughter? Julian and the Etiquette of Public Sacrifice”. 267-283.
Bibliography. 284-326.
Index locorum. 327-333.
General Index. 334-340.


1. Probably the best-known 19 th century studies on the subject are E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, London 1871; W. Robertson Smith, The Religion of the Semites, London 1889; J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, London 1890; H. Hubert – M. Mauss, “Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice”, in L’Année Sociologique 1899, pp. 29-138.

2. To be highlighted are the studies of K. Meuli, “Griechische Opferbräuche”, in O. Gigon (ed.), Phyllobolia für P. Von der Mühl, Basel 1946, pp. 185-288; W. Burkert, Homo Necans, Berlin 1972; M. Detienne – J. P. Vernant, La Cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec, Paris 1979.

3. J. P. Vernant, “At Man’s Table: Hesiod’s Foundation Myth of Sacrifice”, in M. Detienne – J. P. Vernant (eds.), The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks, Chicago and London 1989, pp. 25 and 38; J. L. Durand, “Ritual as Instrumentality”, in M. Detienne – J. P. Vernant (eds.), The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks, Chicago and London 1989; W. Burkert, Greek Religion, Cambridge, Mass. 1985, p. 55; M. H. Jameson, “Sacrifice and Animal Husbandry in Classical Greece”, in C. R. Whittaker (ed.), Pastoral Economies in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge 1988, pp. 87-88; J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, London 1997, pp. 15-16.

4. W. Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthopology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, Berkeley 1983, p. 16 [Orig. pub. In German, 1972].

5. W. Burkert, “Sacrificio-sacrilegio: il ‘trickster’ fondatore”, in StudStor 25 1984; C. Kahn, Hermès passe, ou les ambigüités de la communication, Paris 1978; J. S. Clay, The Politics of Olympus: Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns, Princeton 1989, pp. 116-127.

6. ib. W. Burkert, 1984, pp. 835-845.

7. In contrast to the study of F. T. van Straten, Hiera Kala, Leiden, New York, Cologne 1995, which is still regarded authoritative in this field.