Monday, April 22, 2013


Christopher A. Faraone, F.S. Naiden (ed.), Greek and Roman Animal Sacrifice: Ancient Victims, Modern Observers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 209. ISBN 9781107011120. $95.00.

Reviewed by Alexander Hollmann, University of Washington (

Version at BMCR home site


The editors of this collection ask the question, some forty years after the publication of Homo Necans (1972; English translation 1983) and La cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec (1979; English translation 1989), whether the grand theories of Burkert and Vernant with their insistence on animal sacrifice as the central ritual of Greek (and Roman) religion can still stand and whether the category of sacrifice has ceased to be a "tool" and has become an "obstacle" (10). To this end they have assembled eight contributions from a conference on this theme held at the University of Chicago that survey the historical background to these theories, how they stack up against the archaeological, inscriptional, and visual evidence, and how they connect to and are influenced by the genres of Greek comedy and tragedy.

Part I ("Modern historiography") investigates the theories of sacrifice that preceded and influenced Burkert, Vernant, and Girard and shows these and subsequent theories as creations of their time and reactions to forces and tendencies (generally on the far Right) that their proponents saw as threatening. Lincoln concentrates on three views of sacrifice: that of Hubert and Mauss, who viewed it as "an act of sanctification and civic duty"; of Bataille and Caillois, who saw in it "ecstatic release and energizing dissolution"; and of Meuli, who found "guilt and dread" behind it (30-31). He concludes by suggesting that the modern theories descended from these also have their agenda: "the stakes of theory are real and they are high" (31).

Graf deftly explores these agenda, examining the antecedents of Vernant, Girard, and Burkert, their history and concerns, and their points of contact and difference. Especially interesting is his discussion "Where are these theories now?" (42-51). Girard has faded from the picture and indeed is hardly discussed by subsequent contributors to this volume. Burkert has come in for more criticism than Vernant, who limited himself to Greek evidence and made no pretence of a universal model. Graf does not here discuss extensively the usual criticisms of Burkert (the claim that behind animal sacrifice lies guilt and anxiety is seemingly at odds with the festivity seen in visual evidence (47); the ololyge of women at sacrifice need not be read as lament (46); the Bouphonia is an exceptional festival and described by a vegetarian). Rather, he focuses on the evidence borrowed by Burkert from Meuli for the connection between hunting practices and sacrifice (especially of the Siberian hunters who, he claimed, reassemble the bear after killing it). The problem is that sacrifice involves domestication, presupposing pastoralist or agrarian society. In the light of new archaeological evidence from Northern Syria and Southeastern Turkey, however, Graf finds the idea "that sacrifice is a Neolithic invention among pastoralists and agriculturalists, who adapted hunting techniques for symbolic use, is becoming more and more plausible" (49). As a way forward he ends by calling for an approach that studies the Mediterranean koine of sacrifice as a whole: interestingly, it is an overlooked piece by Burkert he cites as a model for this. 1

In Part II ("Greek and Roman practice") the contributors focus on the epigraphical and archaeological evidence of sacrificial practice. Naiden examines the inscriptional, archaeological, and osteological evidence from Ancient Greece for feeding of the community with the meat obtained from sacrifices performed at civic festivals. Sacrificial animals clearly did not provide enough meat for all festivalgoers to receive a share, let alone an equal one. The distribution of meat was made on a hierarchical basis, with some (e.g. priests, attendants, magistrates) receiving more than others. Naiden (56; cf. 6-7) contrasts this fact with Burkert and Vernant's view that sacrifice provided an occasion for communal and egalitarian eating. Yet I think hierarchical distribution does not exclude the idea of community: portions need not be equal but rather equitable and symbolic of the community's will, as the inscriptions indicate. "Those few who were fed ate for all" (Ando, 198) and did so as representatives of their community.

This seems to be the case with Roman public sacrifices, as Scheid demonstrates: "the sharing of an animal victim constructs a social hierarchy in the human world" (84). By contrast, sacrifice with wine, "the beverage of sovereignty" (94, quoting Dumézil) "immediately creates an absolute difference between human and divine" (84), though the reserving of different portions of the animal victim for the gods of course also underscores the difference between gods and men (93). Scheid sees this and other types of non-animal sacrifice (vegetable and grain offerings, incense) as having the same importance as animal sacrifice, since they make the gods present (95). He claims for the Romans what Vernant claimed for Greek sacrifice: sacrifice is eating, it establishes social hierarchy, all meat is shared with the gods (93), and it is an act of communication with them. But, although sacrifice is at the center of Roman cult, Scheid does not award primacy to animal sacrifice over other types.

Part III ("Visual representation") considers the visual evidence and whether it supports the idea of the centrality of animal sacrifice. Neer is not however concerned to survey the Greek evidence in any consistent fashion. He observes that votive offerings to the gods commemorating sacrifice may in fact be more prestigious than the sacrifice itself: undoubtedly true, but the fact that precisely an animal sacrifice is commemorated still shows the centrality of that ritual, as he admits (100). Neer uses the fact that two major Athenian temples, the Hephaisteion and the Parthenon, apparently had no altars in front of them to problematize the notion of the centrality of animal sacrifice. These, however, are isolated cases, and the exception sometimes proves the rule. There follows a virtuoso reading of Alcamenes' sculptural group from the Athenian Acropolis, Procne and her son, Itys, in which he teases out connections between violence, blood sacrifice, and textile production. His conclusion is that animal sacrifice is a "hollow center" and that the "chief interest was ... not in the animal sacrifice but in everything that went on around animal sacrifice, the discourse that surrounds it or enfolds it, like a textile" (119).

Jaś Elsner, whose paper I found the meatiest, so to speak, and most striking of the collection, shows that imagery of animal sacrifice on Roman monuments in many parts (but, importantly, not all) of the Roman world appears to be in decline from around 200 CE, being replaced by imagery related to "vegetarian" (here libation and incense burning) sacrifice. How to interpret this? An actual reflection of a change on the ground in sacrificial practice? A reflection of a change in ideology? If so, it would mean that animal sacrifice was in fact already in decline before the great Christian polemics against it, which seized on bloody sacrifice as a central image of all that was cruel and misguided about pagan practice. Elsner has grave suspicions that the modern theories that insist on this centrality of animal sacrifice are strongly influenced by the ideological claims of both Christian polemic and the official Roman reaction to Christianity and that we have been duped by this ancient propaganda into overrating the importance of animal sacrifice in actual practice and demoting other forms of offering such as libation and incense burning (see esp. 163; cf. Scheid 95).

In Part IV ("Literary representation") Redfield and Henrichs observe that Greek comedy and tragedy have their own ways of viewing animal sacrifice. In comedy, emphasis is on the eating and feasting that sacrifice promises, both for the gods (the knisa of the fatty smoke) and for humans, and not on the killing that this involves (173). Sacrifice is life affirming, as is marriage (178), another central institution in Old and New Comedy. In tragedy, killing is the focus, as Henrichs points out, and the preparations for it, while the subsequent communal meal receives much less attention. What is more, tragedy (sometimes following clues already present in epic (188-192)) distorts and perverts "normal" sacrifice for its own purposes so that it is "always ambiguous and problematic" (192), blurring the distinction between sacrifice and murder and at times substituting humans as victims. In Henrichs' view, we do not appreciate tragedy's peculiar presentation of sacrifice nearly enough. He criticizes Burkert for relying more on tragic representations of sacrificial killing than on epic and comic ones. The uneasy equivalence between humans and animal victims that Burkert sees behind the institution is, in Henrichs' opinion, simply not there and an erroneous transferal of tragedy's peculiar obsessions onto all representations of sacrifice. Vernant and the Paris school, who focus on Homeric epic, Hesiod, and comedy "at the expense of the tragic patterns" (193), are similarly guilty.

Where does this leave us? The theories of Vernant, Girard, and Burkert are doubtless children of their times and of their creators, reflecting their own personalities and history and implicitly or explicitly reacting against tendencies that troubled and concerned them. In this sense "the notion of sacrifice is indeed a category of the thought of yesterday", as Detienne says (cited 10, originally in Cuisine of Sacrifice, 20, where he does not however question its validity). But is it so "yesterday" that we must throw it out like expired milk? Have we really imposed the concept on the Greeks and Romans? It is worth looking at Graf's reservations on this point (47). The editors leave the answers to the reader (10), though they seem inclined to think the category of animal sacrifice more of an "obstacle" than a "tool". In his "Afterword" Ando is more definite, claiming that the contributors all answer the question of the centrality of animal sacrifice "with an emphatic negative" (195), but it is inaccurate I think to categorize Graf's piece thus and impossible to decide this in the case of the contributions of Lincoln, Redfield, and Henrichs.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking book that encourages us always to be aware of the limits of our evidence and to ask where our ideas have come from. It renders a service to scholarship in doing so.2 Even if some readers (including this reader) may find the editors and some of the contributors to be at times overly skeptical, they can use the book to look more critically at the theories of Burkert, Vernant, and others and come to their own evaluation.3


1.   W. Burkert, "Opfertypen und antike Gesellschaftsstruktur," in Der Religionswandel unserer Zeit im Spiegel der Religionswissenschaft, ed. G. Stephenson, Darmstadt 1976, 168-187.
2.   For another recent overview of (Greek) sacrifice with evaluation of the theories of Burkert and Vernant, see R. Parker, "Killing, Dining, Communicating," in On Greek Religion, Ithaca 2011, 124-170.
3.   The book is generally well edited and contains only a few mistakes and confusing sentences. Page 6: "... both stress solidarity rather than the unequal distribution of interest to Grottanelli." Page 35: "unto" appears for "onto". Page 45: "whether" appears for "that". Page 56n9: for idea that "the priest or other person in charge may receive a larger or better portion" the reader is referred to pages 10-11 of Vernant and Detienne's Cuisine of Sacrifice, but these pages do not contain this information. Page 81: "Something different from classical practice is going awry."

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