BMCR 2021.03.28

Animals in ancient Greek religion

, Animals in ancient Greek religion. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 304. ISBN 9781138388888 $155.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This collective volume, edited by Julia Kindt, offers an overview of the complex question of the place of animals in ancient Greek religion. Considering the scholarly progress made in understanding Greek religion in the past few decades and the recent focus on animals in antiquity in the wake of the animal rights movement, this is a timely contribution to the field. The team of contributors includes leading scholars as well as early and mid-career academics, which is a good way to represent both established and emerging voices in a relatively new sub-field of classical studies. Two of the twelve papers are written by Julia Kindt herself, in addition to the introduction and conclusion. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

The volume is unified under the general suggestion that ancient Greek religion is not simply a two-way system of communication and mediation between gods and humans, but rather, a tripartite system with animals as a third point of reference. As several contributors note, animals were critical to the Greek understanding of the divine. They also helped to frame the human condition, in particular, as Hannah Willey argues in chapter 4, the distinctiveness of special individuals such as heroes.

Yet this tripartite structure is not strictly a triangular relationship between entities conceptualized as different. As Jeremy McInerney persuasively argues in chapter 1, animals, humans, and gods are entangled in Greek religion. The three categories are perceived to have permeable boundaries, as for instance in cases of divine and human metamorphoses, such as those of Demeter, Poseidon, Dionysus, and Gryllus. In each case, the animal form opens the door to an experience that is beyond the capabilities of humans to account for. While animals, especially domesticated species, are familiar to humans, they are also, just like the gods, radically and irremediably different from humans. This mix of similarity and difference leads to a perception of entanglement among these three categories of living beings, and it allows for the identities of each group to be in a constant state of flux.

Several contributors offer a history of the scholarship on the particular topics they explore as a way to frame their chapters. Emily Kearns begins chapter 2 with a thorough review of the different approaches and conceptualizations of animals in the study of Greek religion, starting with the Cambridge ritualists. Jan Bremmer introduces his study of divine theriomorphism in chapter 5 with an overview of the different scholarly takes on the animal shapes of the Greek gods since the beginning of the 20th century. Fritz Graf starts chapter 8 with a discussion of the most influential views of animal sacrifice since the end of the 19th century, paying particular attention to Walter Burkert, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Marcel Détienne. These chapter sections are very useful for the reader to situate the arguments made in the volume within the broader frame of scholarship, and they will prove particularly interesting as teaching materials, for instance in graduate seminars on Greek religion. In this way, the volume functions as something of a brief but thorough status quaestionis, which is useful.

In the same way as Robert Parker and other scholars have commented on the lack of codification of Greek religion and its multifarious nature, the role of animals in the Greek religious experience can hardly be categorized or summarized. As Fritz Graf and Emily Kearns observe in their contributions to the volume, the roles of animals in cultural constructs are complex and even contradictory, and no simple answers are available to researchers. Julia Kindt adds that there is too much diversity to speak of “the animal” and that each species conveyed a particular set of meanings to the Greeks within particular contexts. For this reason, the most successful contributions address the role of particular animals in particular religious settings, such as Florian Steger and Frank Ursin’s discussion of the snake in Asclepian medicine in chapter 11, or Jan Bremmer’s focus on the equine and bovine theriomorphism of certain Greek gods in chapter 5, or Fritz Graf’s thorough investigation of sacrifice, including its vocabulary and the specific animal species used in each context in chapter 8, or again Milette Gaifman’s focus on bronze animal figurines dedicated at Olympia in the eighth century BCE in chapter 10.

Korshi Dosoo’s contribution in chapter 12 stands out as particularly engaging and insightful. Dosoo sets out to demonstrate how the tripartite structure of communication among humans, gods, and animals functions in the context of ancient Greek magic, in particular in animalizing humans. He argues that magical practices question the boundaries between animals and humans, and in this way conceptualize humans and animals as both different and alike. This contribution gains in being read in parallel with Jeremy McInerney’s methodological discussion in chapter 1. Korshi Dosoo’s discussion of Circe’s transformation of Odysseus’ companions into pigs and Lucius’ transformation into a donkey in the Pseudo-Lucian’s Onos and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses is particularly interesting. Following Keith Bradley (‘Animalising the Slave: the Truth of Fiction’, JRS 90, 2000: 110-125), Dosoo suggests that Lucius’ metamorphosis may be understood as a metaphor for slavery, a concept he returns to throughout the chapter to elucidate many aspects of the practices he discusses.

As for the minutiae, there are a few typos and lapses of editorial attention throughout the volume, such as the “horses of Geryon” on p. 93. The publisher might also have considered placing the complete bibliography at the end of the volume rather than at the end of each chapter. While endnotes for each chapter are convenient, some bibliographical entries are repeated among chapters, and it would be helpful to have a full set of references for further investigation.

Authors and chapter titles

Julia Kindt: “On gods, humans, and animals”
Jeremy McInerney: “The ‘entanglement’ of gods, humans, and animals in ancient Greek religion”
Ingvild S. Gilhus: “Sources for the study of animals in ancient Greek religion”
Emily Kearns: “Approaches: The animal in the study of ancient Greek religion”
Hannah Willey: “Gods and heroes, humans and animals in ancient Greek myth”
Jan N. Bremmer: “The theriomorphism of the major Greek gods”
Julia Kindt: “Greek anthropomorphism vs Egyptian zoomorphism: Conceptual considerations in Greek thought and literature”
James H. Collins II: “Philosophers on animals in ancient Greek religion”
Fritz Graf: “Caloric codes: Ancient Greek animal sacrifice”
Julia Kindt: “Animals in ancient Greek divination: Oracles, predictions, and omens”
Milette Gaifman: “Animals in ancient Greek dedications”
Florian Steger and Frank Ursin (trans. D. Hanigan): “Animals in Asclepian medicine: Myth, cult, and miracle healings”
Korshi Dosoo: “Circe’s ram: Animals in ancient Greek magic”
Julia Kindt: “Gods, humans, and animals revisited”