Animal sacrifice is often thought to be one of the essential practices of ancient Hellenic religion. Frequently the practice is given a central role in the religion, acting conceptually, if not in practice, as the premier ritual of ancient Greek religion. However, what if the act of sacrifice has even greater significance to Hellenes? In short, Walter Burkert tells us that “the fundamental structure [of animal sacrifice] is identical and clear: animal sacrifice is ritualized slaughter followed by a meat meal” (Burkert 2006, 57). As such, we can discern that the act of sacrifice played a significant role in Hellenic dietary habits, but what was it exactly? In this essay, I will argue that sacrifice played an integral part in the consumption of meat in the ancient Greek world, with meat being expected to be sacralized through the performance of sacrifice before it was made consumable. I will argue this by giving an overview of what animal sacrifice meant, address the form that it is popularly thought to have assumed, and from there address objections by broadening the understanding of what animal sacrifice could mean in the ancient world. From this, I will conclude what these dietary practices should mean for modern day Hellenes, and how these dietary customs should direct the aspirations of the growing Hellenic community today.
Sacrifice: the method of acquiring meat
The speculation that the Hellenic world was one where, under most normal circumstances, meat was unsuitable to be consumed unless it was within the bounds of a sacrificial context is the topic of Marcel Detienne’s and Jean-Pierre Vernant’s book The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks. Here, we are told that the presence of the divine sanctifies the consumption of meat, but only to the extent that we provide the Gods with sacrifices, where we offer the animal to the divine (Detienne & Vernant 1989, 25). Fundamentally, sacrifice is a gift to the Gods, and is part of a reciprocal relationship between Gods and mortals that is based around the exchange of gifts (Parker 2011, 137). This gift is one where an animal had to be killed and eaten (Parker 2011, 136). It is an act through which something is placed into the possession of a God, and thus sacralized. Even Robert Parker, a scholar on Greek religion who is highly skeptical of the idea of the existence of any “Greek kosher,” admits that there exists a few references to the consumption of unsacrificed things as a type of sacrilegious and barbaric behaviour that is an affront the Gods in various inscriptions and poems (Parker 2011, 131-132).
This practice’s presence is so significant that it came to dominate the culinary concerns of early Christians, who saw the consumption of meat that had been acquired through this Pagan religious butchery as potentially spiritually harmful, as sacrificial meat frequently was sold in the marketplace of their era. This was so concerning to ancient Christians that it is even addressed in the bible within the Christian apostle Paul’s writings. Here, writing from the Hellenic city of Corinth, Paul writes “concerning food offered to idols…” (1 Corinthians 8:1) and informs early first-century Christians that they should “eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience… But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:25). Early Christians’ concerns about their neighbour’s dietary habits allow us a glimpse into the dietary practices of the world that they lived in– one where religious butchery was an integral feature of ancient Hellenic cult practice.
This is a sacrifice, right?
To develop an argument on religious dietary laws concerning meat consumption, we must first try to understand how meat was acquired, which means learning what animal sacrifice was in the ancient Greek world and making sense of what it entailed. The specifics of sacrificing an animal varied widely, given that ancient Hellenic religion had no centralized form and was so localized, and as such, rites and practices varied widely across the Hellenic world. When people think of what typically entailed an animal sacrifice, however, there exists a broad uniformity in how it was performed:
- The sacrificial act destination, the altar, is selected, and a suitable animal for sacrifice is found (Petropoulou 2012, 41). The grandest of these could be the ox, especially a bull (Burkert 2006, 55). What could also be sacrificed are sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry (Burkert 2006, 55).
- The sacrifice is adorned with a garland and then escorted to the altar (Petropoulou 2012, 41).
- The priest overseeing the sacrifice raises their hands skywards in a praying position, prayers are spoken, and lustral rites are performed (Petropoulou 2012, 41).
- The sacrifice is slaughtered. If the animal is large, then they receive a blow to the head with an axe to first stun the animal, and then their artery in their neck is cut with a sacrificial knife (Burkert 2006, 56). If the animal is small, they are raised above the altar, and their throat is cut (Burkert 2006, 55). The sacrifice’s blood is collected in a basin and poured onto and around the altar, a sign of great piety that lets people know that the altar is in active use by the city (Burkert 2006, 55).
- The sacrifice is skinned and carved up (Petropoulou 2012, 41) (Burkert 2006, 56). Their entrails can be examined (Petropoulou 2012, 41), and splanchna, organs such as the heart and liver, are roasted at the altar fire and eaten by the sacrificers while the bones and inedible fats are consecrated on the pyre (Burkert 2006, 56-57).
This “paradigmatic” bloody act is called a thysia by Detienne and Vernant (Detienne & Vernant 1989, 89), and denotes the spilling of sacrificial blood over the altar and the burning of their bones (Detienne & Vernant 1989, 25). Following this “paradigmatic” bloody act was the banquet, a fundamental feature of these more formal sacrifices. While the Gods received the bones and inedible fat, the edible meat was prepared for consumption by the mortal participants of sacrifice through boiling or roasting (Burkert 2006, 57). This allowed for communion between God and man, where the Gods joined with mortalkind in an act that brought them closer together. As Fred S. Naiden writes, “if there was communication through sacrifice, and thus a discourse or practice, there was also communion, an experience distinct from any such form of expression” (Naiden 2015, 316). Detienne and Vernant try to describe this by pointing back towards Hesiodic narratives of the origin of sacrifice when God and man were first divided with an event that marked the first sacrifice. They write that “by eating the edible pieces[,] men, even as they reinvigorate their failing strength, recognize the inferiority of their mortal condition and confirm their complete submission to the Olympians” (Detienne & Vernant 1989, 25). However, as Robin Osborne points out in his article Sacrificial Theologies, Detienne and Vernant make themselves wholly reliant on the narrative of a single author that was not given universal acknowledgement for their report on the origin of sacrifice in the Hellenic world, and thus it shouldn’t be used to ascribe qualities to the entire practice of sacrifice in the Hellenic world (Eidinow, Kindt, Osborne 2020, 236-237). During the sacrificial banquet, it was forbidden for meat to be removed from the sacred premise (Burkert 2006, 57). However, if the ritual feast ended and there was an abundance of sacrificial meat that remained, we know that it was then sold on the market, probably as a means of avoiding waste (Parker 2011, 158).
More to sacrifice than an altar
However, considering animal sacrifice was supposedly the primary source of food for ancient Greeks, was the described thysia ritual format the only paradigm of animal sacrifice that existed? The very question is invoked by Naiden, who objects to the idea that animal sacrifices as a whole were the entire means through which Greeks obtained their meat, writing that the claim that “all beef, mutton, and pork came from sacrificial animals . . . [is] a view that goes too far”, as according to him few acts of these formal sacrifices at the altar could feed citizen bodies of tens of thousands, let alone hundreds of thousands (Naiden 2015, 34). However, as J. C. B. Lowe points out, most meat of the ancient world likely would have been coming from sacrifice as meat would have been consumed conservatively (Lowe 1985, 73). After all, livestock was as much a currency in the ancient world as it was inventory, and raising livestock for the purpose of sacrifice and consumption would have been a substantial and hefty expenditure. As Parker writes, “there is therefore in sacrificial killing an element of surrender of wealth” (Parker 2011, 137). But more importantly, this brings into question whether there may have been a more considerable diversity of understanding of what counted as a sacrifice in the ancient Greek world. There is a degree to which I agree with Naiden’s assessment that the highly idealized model of sacrifice where blood spilled at the altar was not capable of feeding every single person in a city. It is not only likely, but in a decentralized religion, pretty much a given that sacrifice could come in many shapes and sizes, and it is likely that the model of sacrifice I had detailed above would not even count as the only model of sacrifice in the minds of Greeks. This is probably what is alluded to in the lex sacra, an inscription set up by an Orphic cult, that encourage acolytes to abstain from the paradoxical “unsacrificed sacrifices” (Hellholm & Sänger 2018, 1770).
Both Lowe and Parker claim that some animals would not be sacrificed because the animals were killed during a hunt, rather than the formal ritual at the altar. Parker especially emphasizes this fact in his push against the idea of all meat needing to derive from sacrifice before consumption, deeming the claim “extreme” and asserting that it can be refuted by pointing out how “Greeks ate game animals killed in no special way” (Parker 2011, 131). But Parker’s points are relatively weak, as he works off the base assumption that the highly ceremonial ritual of blood at the altar was the only paradigm for sacrifice in the ancient Greek world. Both Lowe and Parker forget how important it was for hunters to make vows to the Gods before their hunts, where the Gods are frequently described as playing a substantial role in the preparation for a hunt, as described in Xenophon’s Cynegeticus:
Let the huntsman go out to the hunting ground in a simple light dress and shoes, carrying a cudgel in his hand, and let the net-keeper follow. Let them keep silence while approaching the ground, so that, in case the hare is near, she may not move off on hearing voices. Having tied the hounds separately to the trees so that they can easily be slipped, let him set up the purse-nets and hayes in the manner described. After this let the net-keeper keep guard, and let the huntsman take the hounds and go to the place in the hunting ground where the hare may be lurking; and after registering a vow to Apollo and Artemis the Huntress [gr. Agrotera] to give them a share of the spoil, let him loose one hound, the cleverest at following a track, at sunrise in winter, before dawn in summer, and some time between at other seasons. As soon as the hound picks up a line from the network of tracks that leads straight ahead, let him slip another. If the track goes on, let him set the others going one by one at short intervals, and follow without pressing them, accosting each by name, but not often, that they may not get excited too soon.Xen. Hunt. 6.11-14
In short, what we see here is that the Gods are still an integral part of the hunter’s trade, and that the hunter’s killing of game is legitimized through the sacrificing of other animals. These accounts continue centuries after Xenophon, and can be found in the works of Arrianos of Nikomedia (sometimes styled as the “younger” or “second” Xenophon). In his own similarly titled Cynegeticus, Arrianos tells us about the critical role the Gods are understood to play in the hunt, and that even the most skilled of hunters who does not make a vow to the Gods may suffer from being unable to find game at all:
Teucer, he [Homer] says, the best bowman of the Greeks, in the arhcery-contest hit the cord only, and cut it asunder, because he had offered no vow to Apollo; but that Merion, who was no archer at all, by having invoked Apollo, struck the bird when on the wingArr. Hunt. 32-36
Not only are the Gods given vows by hunters, receiving a share in the game and sacrifices after that in exchange for substantial amounts of game, but we see in Arrianos’ account that to not offer vows to the Gods when hunting was synonymous with finding no success. So in what way is hunting not a potential form of sacrifice in the Greek paradigm? We might extend this to meat acquired from domesticated animals that didn’t go through a typical sacrificial procession. For example, early on in his book Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods, Naiden objects to the fact that all meat came from sacrifice by claiming that the pork that was served in the Spartan messes did not come from sacrificed animals (Naiden 2015, 34), but later admits that “the Spartan messes were not secular. When the butcher [mageiros] killed his pigs, he may have said a prayer over them” (Naiden 2015, 257). But while chastising Detienne and Vernant, Naiden himself writes that they “assume that sacrifice is a ritual, but the worshipper conceived it as an episode in a relation with a god” (Naiden 2015, 320), so why then are mageiroi not placed in a relationship with a sacrificial God when they pray over the animals they kill? In no way does Naiden address the inconsistency, aside asserting the fact that these butchering did not take place at an altar, which is simply how his opponents Detienne and Vernant define animal sacrifice. But then why should we assume that just because an animal was not slaughtered at an altar that it was not sacrificed, especially if the institution of butchery is a one where a butcher proficient in religious slaughter was, like with priests or hunters, invoking the Gods in prayer during the taking of a life? Infact, Lowe’s description of how the mageiros functioned paints a more in-depth picture that Naiden would find difficult to argue against, with the mageiros holding a combination of culinary and ritual functions, their role being that of a professional sacrificer proficient in butchering, cooking and ritual slaughter (Lowe 1985, 73). Thus it can only be discerned further that the consumption of meat held religious significance to the ancient Greeks (Lowe 1985, 72).
In conclusion, it is fair to conclude that in Hellenism, one must ideally acquire all of their meat through a type of religious butchery. Sacrifice was how the ancients acquired and consumed flesh. However, it is important to keep in mind what sacrifice means. All of the arguments made by Naiden and Parker opposing animal sacrifice as the fundamental way in which Greeks acquired their meat are formulated as direct responses to Detienne and Vernant’s work. However, rather than challenge Detienne and Vernant’s assertion that animal sacrifice in the ancient Greek world was synonymous with the thysia, which they define as the slaughter of an animal over an altar and the burning of their bones, Naiden and Parker affirmed the narrative by denying that animal sacrifice, which they also held to be synonymous with Detienne and Vernant’s thysia, to be the only means through which Greeks acquired meat. Evidence shows, however, that the gathering of meat from animals was always associated with giving of life to the Gods in one way or another– the fundamental feature that Parker admits as a defining feature of sacrifice to the Gods (Parker 2011, 136).
Given this information, practitioners of Hellenism today should be wary of where their meat comes from. It is important to be cautious of miasma coming from unsacrificed meat, especially from the meat industry. Further, it is essential for communities that can afford it to make efforts towards opening religious butcheries to accommodate for Hellenic dietary practices.
Arrian. Arrian on Coursing: The Cynegeticus of the Younger Xenophon, Translatd from the Greek, with Classical and Practical Annotations, and a Brief Sketch of the Life and Writings of the Author. To Which Is Added an Appendix, Containing Some Account of the Canes Venatici of Classical Antiquity. Translated by William Dansey. London: J. Bohn, 1831.
Brettler, Marc Zvi, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
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Detienne, Marcel, and Jean Pierre Vernant. The Cuisine Of Sacrifice Among the Greeks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Eidinow, Esther, Julia Kindt, and Robin Osborne. Theologies of Ancient Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
Hellholm, David, and Dieter Sänger. The Eucharist, Its Origins and Contexts: Sacred Meal, Communal Meal, Table Fellowship in Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity. Mohr Siebeck, 2018.
Kleijwegt, Marc. Beans, baths and the barber… A sacred law from Thuburbos Maius. In: Antiquités africaines, 30,1994. pp. 209-220.
Lowe, J. C. B. “Cooks in Plautus.” Classical Antiquity 4, no. 1 (1985): 72-102. Accessed April 3, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25010825.
Naiden, F. S., Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic Through Roman Periods. Erscheinungsort Nicht Ermittelbar: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Parker, Robert. On Greek Religion. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.
Petropoulou, M. Z. Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Religion, Judaism, and Christianity, 100 BC to AD 200. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 7. E. C. Marchant, G. W. Bowersock, tr. Constitution of the Athenians. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1925.
Love it sooooo beautiful and Holy the way you do this.
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I found this most interesting, and as a Pagan polytheist currently involved in academic study particularly helpful by providing proper citations and bibliography. You might be interested in a blogpost of my own on the theme of sacrifice, polite comment always appreciated. Here: https://pandorasjar.org/making-sacred