A Book Review
I read this book a few months ago, when there was a lot of discussion on the subject in the blogosphere, and am at last getting around to putting this review up. I think it is relevant not only to those interested in Greek and Roman practices and attitudes, but for the wider Indo-European field, including Celtic.
Greek and Roman Animal Sacrifice: Ancient Victims, Modern Observers,
edited by Christopher A. Faraone and F.S. Naiden. Cambridge: 2012.
This book focuses on Greek and Roman practices but has wider implications. In the latter part of last year ‘discussion’ flared up on the issues of animal sacrifice in pagan/polytheist contexts today. One can hear some proponents of the practice stating that it is “central” to their particular tradition. In fact it’s widely thought as of being the case among the two cultures of the title. The editors begin the book with an interesting statement, “In recent scholarship, animal sacrifice ranks as the central ritual act of the Greeks and Romans, yet this was not always so.” They go on to show how it was Walter Burkert and J. P. Vernant. (with Marcel Detienne) that gave it this central placement, and that their views became the norm. The French and German schools of interpretation were distinct but both agreed that animal sacrifice was a distinct practice and served social functions of political solidarity.
In recent years, many scholars have challenged Burkert’s and Vernant’s views, questioning its centrality. The Greeks lacked a word specific to animal sacrifice. The usual term thuein/thusia means to make smoke. The basic Roman words were sacrificare, meaning “any act by which something was put into the possession of a god.” 4 Also immolare, which meant to sprinkle meal. The central act of Roman worship, the authors say, was the burning of incense. Those who were suspected of refusing worship of the emperor were required to make an offering of incense and wine. The Christians like certain NeoPlatonics (see Porphyry, for example) were against the sacrifice of animals. I came away from this reading thinking it may have been the Christians who made it a separate category with heated disapproval (they believed Christ’s sacrifice was the only sacrifice), and then leading pagans to defend it, creating a conceptual category that had not previously been there.
Bruce Lincoln gives a history of modern western thoughts and theories on sacrifice from the late 19th century to the present. Fritz Graf discusses the abandonment of ‘great theories’ a generation after Burkert’s and Vernant’s works. John Scheid writes all acts of eating and drinking were shared with the gods, whether plant material, meat, wine.…” Certain vegetable offerings, like the pure wine and the incense, were themselves a representation of the gods, and were in a certain sense even more important than animal sacrifice, because by offering them the Romans made the gods present, and opened a space for ritual communication with them.”
F.S. Naiden problematizes the idea that the Greek animal sacrifice was a widely shared communal meal by marshaling a vast amount of archaeological evidence from recent years based on faunal remains, size of ancient animals, which were much smaller than contemporary ones, and other osteiological evidence. He concludes that with certain exceptions there just wouldn’t have been a enough meat for it to have been shared by a whole community.
Jas Elsner writes complexly on the evidence of Roman art and warns of the tendency to take it as realistic representation. Something striking though is in a change from 200CE, one of mostly depicting vegetal sacrifice and libations, although this is the period of the mounting Christian attacks on the bloodiness of Roman rites. The historical evidence does suggest a lessening of the animal sacrifice during the later Empire and he notes one religion of the time, Judaism had turned away from it after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. I found his last sentence eye-opening: “The bigger ‘theological’ argument, however, that we as a scholarly community have systematically overrated the significance of animal sacrifice within the general ritual complex of ancient religions and specifically within Roman religions, by contrast with other elements within the sacred system (such as libation). In doing so we have effectively not only followed but swallowed hook, line, and sinker the suggestions made by our polemical Christian sources in their brilliant rhetorical rant against the religious world that preceded them” (my emphasis).
Richard Neer, an art historian reminds readers that what was often sacrificed were treasures, objects made by humans, and that some of the most famous temples of all including the Parthenon and the Hephaestium in central Athens show no signs of a much looked for altar for animal sacrifice, the buildings themselves being expensive offerings. I note that archaeological evidence from the Celtic world shows a similar propensity for the sacrifice of beautifully wrought human-made objects.
James Redfield writes on sacrifice in comedy and Albert Henrichs on the situation in tragedy, where sacrifice gone awry, especially human sacrifice like that of Iphigenia, what he calls sacrificial perversion becomes a common theme. Henrichs also reminds us that while English has the one term sacrifice, ancient Greek had half a dozen. Sacrificial perversion includes sacrificing animals for the wrong reasons to the substitution of a human victim. Animal sacrifice is central to Greek tragedy, and Burkert focused on the evidence of tragedy for his theories of the sacrificial in general. According to Henrichs, Burkert in some of his publications make “the intriguing equivalence of animal and man…that casts the shadow of human sacrifice over al those holy altars in front of the temples.” Henrichs counters “Nothing could be further from the truth…human victims and animal victims are treated the same as far as the sacrificial language and the ritual process are concerned, but from an ethical point of view, they are worlds apart, as the tragedians make crystal clear”.
In the conclusion Clifford Amdo writes “When the Arval Brethren adapted earlier ritual forms to find a place for divinized emperors within pre-existing conceptions of the world, various forms of cognitive and communicative work were performed, and new forms of social differentiation and corresponding patterns of deportment were granted the dignity of legitimation in light of such antiquity and authority that orthopraxis treasured and could bestow.” A bit dense, but carries an important insight for those of doing reconstruction, I think. Overall the books dislodges blood sacrifice from centrality, and on the other hand does not deny its importance; the reality was complex, differentiated, nuanced in time and place, and the evidence we have always comes through interpretative and partial lens. I recommend this work for any polytheist who really wants to know what scholarship currently has to say about this topic. It clearly shows that there is no one way for this practice.