This paper seeks to provide a new approach to Hesiod’s aetiology of sacrifice in light of recent scholarship on the more practical side of Greek Religion. Vernant’s seminal work, “At Man’s Table” presented the Promethean division of the ox at Mecone as a symbolic division between gods and men, where meat “constitutes the diet of thoroughly mortal beings” (Vernant 1989, 36). However, considerable research now seems to indicate that meat was in fact offered to the gods (Detienne and Sissa 1989, Van Straten 1995, Forstenpointner 2003, Berthiaume 2005, Bruit-Zaidman 2005, Ekroth 2008a, 2008b, 2011, Naiden 2012, Naiden 2013). Given these recent findings, we are faced with a basic problem: If Hesiod misrepresents sacrificial ritual, to what extent can we rely on Hesiod’s aetiology in order to account for the cultural logic of Greek sacrifice? Hesiod’s aetiology, I shall argue, remains critical for interpreting Greek sacrifice, but in a manner different from Vernant. Rather than focus on Prometheus’ division as a distinction between mortal and immortal portions, this paper shall focus on Zeus’ anger or cholos, which appears only within the Prometheus episode of the Theogony (Theog. 533, 554, 567, 615). In order to interpret the role of cholos in the Theogony, this paper will rely on the poetics of cholos in Homeric poetry.
Thomas Walsh has demonstrated that cholos in Homeric poetry is understood in conceptual metaphoric terms as food and fire (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, Lakoff and Kövecses, Walsh 2005, 205-225). These conceptual metaphors may serve to explain the logic of Hesiod’s own description of the origins of sacrifice. Achilles described cholos as that which is “sweeter than honey and rises in the chest like smoke” (Il.18.107-110). Similarly, the ritual of sacrifice is born at the precise moment that cholos enters Zeus’ thumos, an emotive organ with the PIE root *dhū- which also refers to smoke (Theog. 554). Thus, just as Achilles’ anger rises in the chest like smoke, so Zeus’ anger, once it has entered the thumos, produces the smoke of sacrifice. A double emphasis on burning and smoke in the description of sacrifice (Theog. 457) suggests that Hesiod’s aetiology does not simply explain the offering of bones as a commemoration of Prometheus’ trick. Rather, the Homeric metaphors for cholos allow us to see that Hesiod’s aetiology explains why bones are burned- as a symbol of Zeus’ own anger.
In Homeric poetry, cholos often arises in contests over social status or deference (Goffman 1967, Nagy 1979, Van Wees 1992, Muellner 1996, Walsh 2005, Konstan 2006, Scodel 2008). This paper suggests that the conflict over status between Agamemnon and Achilles, which causes Achilles’ cholos in the Iliad, will also explain the mechanics of cholos in the conflict between Prometheus and Zeus. Achilles’ own anger results from the fact that Agamemnon has deprived him of the geras that is Briseis. As a signifier of deference, the geras may also refer to a piece of meat at the feast (Il.7.320-21, Od. 14.437) and refers to honorary shares in later sacrificial calendars (LSCG 2, 151, 33; Tsoukala 2009). Based on the social context of cholos in Homer and its relation to the geras, we may infer that Zeus is angry for the same reason that Achilles is angry – both have been deprived of the outwards signs of deference. In place of the geras that would have been Zeus’ due portion of meat, Zeus himself asserts in the Iliad that the gods receive smoke and libations as their geras at the “equal feast” of men (Il. 4.48-49, 24.69-70).
Hence the Homeric poetics of cholos demonstrate how Hesiod’s aetiology presents sacrifice as a symbol and commemoration of Zeus’ anger and further demonstrates that meat is not a mortal portion as Vernant had argued, but a contested portion— a mark of prestige in a symbolic economy of honor that is shared between gods and men.