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Sacrifice as Literary Construct? The Gap Between God and Sacrifice, Poetry and Cult

Sarah Hitch

Why is animal sacrifice a desirable offering for gods? Greek gods are “ageless and immortal” while food, and the difficulties with procurement, production and storage, are often described as the defining condition of humanity. Unlike the relatively straight forward dependence on mankind for food by their Near-Eastern counterparts, the Indo-European heritage of hungry gods and divine foods is fragmented in Greek myth by the association of nourishment with the separation of men and gods and the decarnalization of divinities from the earliest literary and iconographic depictions, embodied in Hesiod’s aetiology of sacrifice and deceptive portions of food as the dividing act between gods and men.

Despite the abundant attention animal sacrifice has received in recent years, the role of the gods as recipients of food offerings, and the tension this creates for Greek notions of divinity, has not been addressed since the structuralist analyses of ‘the Paris School’, which placed the emphasis squarely on the shared meal among mortals, e.g. the comments of Jean-Pierre Vernant to Walter Burkert at a conference in Geneva in 1981, “Sacrifier c'est fondamentalement tuer pour manger ” (Vernant 1981, 26). The need to move beyond the conclusions of Vernant and his school has been the subject of much discussion recently, but the question of how to move on from the ‘grand theories’ of sacrifice predominant in the late 20th century remains a question (e.g. Georgoudi et al., eds. 2005; Stavrianopoulou et al. 2008; Knust and Várhelyi 2011; Pirenne-Delforge and Prescendi 2011; Faraone and Naiden 2012; Naiden 2013).

How important are the descriptions of sacrifice in Greek poetry, particularly epic, in our understanding of the ritual as a communication between gods and men? In all of the recent work on sacrifice, Homer and, to a lesser extent, Hesiod remain central authorities on the ancient Greek practice of sacrifice. Yet, it remains to be asked how unique the epic presentation of sacrifice is among other media and how much of an impact epic descriptions of sacrifice continue to make upon our interpretations. Sacrifice is particularly problematized in epic, in comparison to images on vases, for example those collected by F. van Straten (1995), which often emphasize the presence of the deity at sacrifices.  Looking specifically at Apollo’s role as a benefactor of sacrifice for mortals in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo as typical of poetic representations of sacrifice, I will demonstrate the epic interplay between a kind of enforced divine distance from food offerings alongside a vivid portrayal of the centrality of animal sacrifice in mortal relations with gods. I will explore some reasons adduced by cognitive pyschologists and anthropologists about this kind of paradox in the transmission of religious traditions and the ways people respond to narratives about gods. In conclusion, I suggest that the epic picture should be seen as authoritative in antquity and among modern scholars precisely because of such a paradoxical presentation of sacrifice, but that the marginalisation of gods in epic should not be equated with ritual practice in Greek cities, but rather seen for what it is: a literary construct.

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Written Ritual: Greek Sacrifice in Text and Context

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