BMCR 2020.01.13

The Politics of Sacrifice in Early Greek Myth and Poetry

, The Politics of Sacrifice in Early Greek Myth and Poetry. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. x, 198. ISBN 9781107164260. $99.99.


As Stocking explains in his introduction, his book represents an attempt—and a very successful one in the opinion of this reader—to address an anomaly: why do mortals sacrifice to gods if they have no physical need of food? Working with aspects of the social-anthropological findings of two theorists from the 1990s,1 Stocking reveals how both the origins of sacrifice (context and content) and its continued use in ancient Greek practice remained a situation in which patriarchal deference, timē, is contested and awarded. Beginning with the contest between Prometheus and Zeus as told by Hesiod in his Theogony (553-616), Stocking tracks the place of sacrifice in three additional archaic hexameter poems: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (ch. 2); Homeric Hymn to Hermes (ch. 3); and Homer’s Odyssey (ch. 4). Each chapter contains three sub-headed sections and concludes with a summary section in which the author articulates how the results of the contest in each poem gains expression in ancient Greek societal practices. In studying the poems in chronological order according not to date of composition but rather to mythological event, Stocking reveals how who eats what and with whom becomes an expression of deference or dishonour that renders the alimentary sacrifice in particular a site charged with the potential for conflict as well as commensality on both the divine and human levels. In his study’s conclusion, Stocking calls these interrelated aspects of feasting, ‘the politics of the belly’ (p.156), given that the hunger satisfied (or denied) is not solely (or even primarily) for food but for socio-political standing in one’s community.

Chapter One considers the confrontation between Zeus and Prometheus over the division of portions at Mekone. Here, Stocking reveals cholos (anger) to be the fuel upon which Zeus feeds while the nature of this ‘fuel’ simultaneously parallels that of an all-consuming fire. He further shows that anger and fire share a similar relationship in Homeric poetry and appear in similar contexts: that is, at moments in the narrative where the requisite degree or portion of deference or honour has not been shown or given. The practice of giving ‘sacrifice’ to Zeus and the other the gods by mortals is thus revealed to be a continuing show of deference and a bestowal of honour on them—a form of the geras that Prometheus failed to offer to Zeus. Significantly though, it also serves as a commemoration, not only of the first unequal division of contested portions between gods and men, but also of the angry response of Zeus. That anger is itself forever symbolized by the all-consuming flames that devour not the honourary ‘best cut of meat’ but the inedible portions as deliberately chosen by Zeus.

Underlying the contest between Zeus and Prometheus is the issue of divine succession and, in particular, of which offspring from which divine parent will succeed to rulership. Clearly, the Olympian branch is the one that overcomes the Iapetids to crown Zeus, not Prometheus, as the father of gods and men; however, a key element in each of the preceding storylines is ‘deception’ or mētis, beginning with that between Rhea and Cronos in which the term nēdus serves to equate the ‘womb’ of Rhea with the ‘stomach’ of Cronos. Thus, in his second chapter dealing with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter’, Stocking reveals how deception is employed by each gender in contests for authority over one’s own and another’s stomach/womb. After explaining how Zeus’ consumption of Mētis and the subsequent birth of Athena represents the usurpation of the female birthing prerogative, Stocking considers the ways in which Demeter makes use of the now-established sacrificial practices to bring pressure to bear on Zeus because of his presumptuous gifting of her womb’s produce, Persephone, to Hades as his wife. As Stocking notes, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ reveals that threats to Zeus’ patriarchal rule were not all eliminated at Mekone. Nevertheless, although he demonstrates the ways in which sacrificial practices are involved in the establishment and maintenance not only of patriarchal order but also of gendered relationships, his analysis reveals that women function in the ‘symbolic economy of deference’ (p.55) as does meat, insofar as each can serve as a geras bestowed on one male by another. Stocking then goes on to link the outcome of the confrontations with Zeus in Theogony and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ with the patriarchal symbolic significance of the various sacrifices performed at the Athenian Apatouria through which paternal descent is acknowledged and affirmed.

In his third chapter, Stocking examines the ways in which Hermes’ symbolic act in the slaughter, roasting and apportionment of two of fifty stolen cows, expresses his desire to be recognized as an Olympian god: Hermes wants to be shown deference—in particular, as a son of Zeus—and thereby to become (along with his mother) a recipient of honorific gifts and sacrifices. However, as the son sired on Maia, an Iapetid, by Zeus, he represents a potential threat to his father as a second Prometheus.2 So Hermes makes his desires known indirectly by initiating a contest with his brother, Apollo, and seeking to share in his timai. Stocking offers a particularly insightful reading of Hermes’ desire to spend his days ‘wealthy, rich, and with many fields’( Homeric Hymn to Hermes 171), as a reference to his longing to have sanctuaries with abundant pastures, upon which the sacrificial animals might graze, and temples at which sacrifices and dedications might be given to him. He also notes that Apollo offers to honour Hermes with gifts only after the new god has been recognized by Zeus as his son. Significantly, however, that recognition and promise come only after Hermes has performed his own honorific hymn to the Olympian side of the family.

Having considered the value of sacrifice in the divine realm, Stocking’s fourth chapter turns to Homer’s Odyssey to assess the importance of sacrifice for the human participants. Recalling his designation of Hermes as “the god of patriarchal transitions” (p.118), Stocking begins by revealing how Hermes’ confrontation with his aunt Calypso in book 5 rehearses elements of the conflict between Zeus and Prometheus at Mekone. As Ogygia is an island devoid of sacrifice, Stocking draws attention to the focus on food in the exchange between Hermes and his aunt, revealing how differences between Odysseus’ diet when with Calypso and when among men relate to elements in his homecoming and recovery of his patriarchal position. Key to his analysis is the reappearance of terms and phrases used in the Theogony ’s Mekone incident in conjunction with the emphasis given to the place of Odysseus’ return—ἐς πατρὶδα γαῖαν (‘to the fatherland’); once there, he will again participate in the ‘equal feasts’ of men, becoming, first, the recipient and ultimately the giver of gera.

Overall, Stocking offers an original and stimulating analysis of the changes brought about through the ‘politics of sacrifice’ and feasting as represented in early hexameter poetry. Whereas previous studies have noted how the geras is used to bestow honour or how seating can reflect and establish ranking, this present investigation deepens and advances our understanding by offering a more subtle appreciation of the symbolic nature of the geras. Stocking raises the larger implications of being invited (or excluded) from a feast and the ways in which eating together could be utilized to create and maintain ‘patrilineal kinship structures’, including those institutions of the Athenian polis, such as the phratry, deme and tribe. I would recommend this study to anyone whose interest lies in the relationship(s) between and among hexameter poems, ancient Greek patriarchal structures, or one of the particular texts on which this study is based, as it offers valuable fresh insights into the ways in which sacrifice is used to negotiate patriarchal concerns over matters of birth and kinship, which also affect matters of honour and prestige.


1. Michael Dietler, (1996) ‘Feasts and Commensal Politics in the Political Economy: Food, Power and Status in Prehistoric Europe,’ in P. Wiessner and W. Schiefenhövel (eds) Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 87-125; Nancy B. Jay, (1992) Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2. Although a somewhat different interpretation of Hermes’ sacrifice was entertained, the maternal connection with the Iapetids, which renders Hermes a potential threat to Zeus, was recognized and discussed in the reviewer’s 2004 Exeter PhD, ‘The Lyre, the Whip and the Staff of Gold’ (pp130-33), as was Hermes’ use of sacrifice and his theoxenia -like ‘meal’ to gain recognition of his sonship from his father in addition to the honours that come from mortals with the recognition of divinity.