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Sacrificing to hungry gods: Lucian on ritual

Inger Kuin

Dartmouth College

Sacrificing to hungry gods: Lucian on ritual


The dominant scholarly narrative about animal sacrifice in Lucian’s lifetime used to be one of decline: alongside traditional religious practice as such animal sacrifice was thought to have become less important and less frequent (e.g. Nilsson 1945). Building, however, on the growing appreciation starting in the 1980s of the continued vitality of Greek and Roman cult practices in the first and second centuries CE (MacMullen 1981), it is now accepted that sacrificial rituals continued to be a prominent feature of everyday life (Petropoulou 2008, 32-111).

            Large-scale civic sacrifices as a form of euergetism and the imperial cult bolstered the persistence of animal sacrifice (Zuiderhoek 2009, 1-36; Price 1984, 209-220; Chaniotis 2003, 10-11). There is a steady decline in the popularity of sacrifice only from the third century CE onwards, and even after the interdiction of the 390s sacrifices were still performed (MacMullen 1997, 42-5; Stroumsa 2009, 56-83; Cameron 2011, 59-74; Jones 2014, 61-77).

            In this paper I consider Lucian’s comic treatment of animal sacrifice. The topic is at the forefront of four Lucianic pieces (On Sacrifices, Prometheus, Tragic Zeus, and Icaromenippus), and scholars have traditionally viewed Lucian’s treatment of sacrifice as clear-cut criticism. The author, allegedly, considered it a primitive and antiquated practice, and this, in turn, has been a major argument for attributing skeptic views to Lucian (Caster 1937, 269-73; Pernot 2005, 323-324; Belayche 2011; Berdozzo 2011, 71-94; McClure 2018, 26). Seemingly divergent views of sacrifice in some of Lucian’s pieces have also created confusion (e.g. Graf 2011, 205).

            I propose that Lucian’s approach to sacrifice humorously engages first and second century CE debates, which attest to ‘the practice of animal sacrifice (…) becoming invested with greater cultural significance’ (Rives 2011, 197). We find philosophical discussions of animal sacrifice in Lucian’s contemporaries, like Maximus of Tyre, and immediate predecessors, like Plutarch and Dio Chrysostom (Rives 2011, 195-197; Graf 2011, 206-210). Responses to animal sacrifice from Christian intellectuals may also have been part of his framework of reference (Nasrallah 2011, 150; Bozia 2014, 106). Lucian depicts animal sacrifice in different ways in his works simply in order to approach it from different angles.

            At the core of Lucian’s humor about the gods is his interest in their humanness, through exaggerated anthropomorphism, and sacrifice is an ideal topic: ‘[T]he only way of knowing what gift a supernatural power likes is to presuppose that the supernatural power shares the likings of the giver. Sacrifice is built upon the assumption that gods are like humans’ (Osborne 2016, 248). The author’s humorous rendering of hungry and frazzled gods is rooted in the nature of sacrifice.

            I begin with the extreme fantasy of a cessation of sacrifices in Icaromenippus and Tragic Zeus, which Lucian borrowed from Aristophanes’ sacrificial strikes. This fantasy hones in on the difficult philosophical question of what humans’ gifts mean to the gods. Next, I discuss On Sacrifices, which addresses hard questions about the mechanics of ancient animal sacrifice, such as the transfer of goods from humans to gods, the size of sacrifices, and their preferred contents.

            In his works Lucian turns the ritual of sacrifice upside down and inside out. In doing so he participates in the philosophical debates of sacrifice of his time in his own idiosyncratic, comic register. Lucian’s audience members, themselves most likely regular participants in ritual, would have derived a range of meanings and messages from this comedy. Imagining the gods as hungrily awaiting their offerings was an invitation to reflect on sacrifice, not to reject it.


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God and Man in the Second Sophistic

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