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Chew Before You Swallow: Demeter’s Consumption of Pelops in Pindar and Lycophron

Christopher L Gipson

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Greek myth commonly uses the motif of ingesting of human flesh (anthropophagy) to mark a disruption of social norms. The most famous account of a deity feasting on this taboo dish is Demeter’s accidental consumption of Pelops due to grief over Persephone in Pindar’s Olympian 1. Scholars have focused on prohibitions against gods consuming flesh and reversals of sacrificial norms, specifically in the Homeric Hymns (Versnel 2011; Stocking 2017). Likewise, other scholars have recently addressed the sacrifice of Pelops, the use of epithets, and a close familiarity with Olympian 1 in Lycophron’s Alexandra (McNelis and Sens 2016; Hornblower 2018; Kolde 2018). While recent commentaries and scholarship have addressed points of contact between Pindar and Lycophron, I focus how the motif of ritual sacrifice, a primary means through which humans related to the gods, is used to problematize expectations of Olympian and divine dietary practices. In this paper I address the consumption of Pelops’ dismembered body and the further mutilation of the body by chewing in Lycophron. Both Pindar and Lycophron notably utilize sacrificial language surrounding Demeter's anthropophagy. While Pindar uses sacrificial language to describe Pelops’ death, he does not blame Demeter for eating him, however Lycophron later uses sacrificial language to implicate Demeter in the pollution and crime of Tantalos’ sacrifice.

Demeter’s status as an Olympian goddess predicates that she should not eat flesh at all, especially human flesh. While there are other episodes of anthropophagy using sacrificial language in Greek literature (e.g. Polyphemos in Euripides’ Cyclops), Demeter is the only Olympian goddess to successfully ingest human flesh. In Olympian 1, Pindar details the story of Pelops being dismembered by a ritual knife, boiled over a fire, distributed to guests at the dinner table, and eaten. Pindar utilizes sacrificial language, including the butcher’s knife used for sacrifice (μαχαίρᾳ τάμον κατὰ μέλη Ol. 1.49) and the distribution and consumption of sacrificial meat (ἀμφὶ δεύτατα κρεῶν/ σέθεν διεδάσαντο καὶ φάγον Ol. 1.50-51). Pindar denies this action is the explanation for Tantalos’ punishment in the underworld and adds that he will abstain from calling Demeter a glutton (γαστρίμαργον Ol. 1.52). While Pindar seeks to absolve Demeter of guilt, Lycophron implicates the goddess in Tantalos’ crime, using related sacrificial language.

In contrast to Pindar's account, Lycophron casts Demeter’s ingestion as a secondary mutilation by focusing on Demeter’s act of chewing and neglecting any mention of Tantalos’ sacrifice. Nevertheless, Lycophron reinforces the improper use of the μαχαίρα for a sacrilegious meal by returning to the language of when detailing Demeter’s consumption of Pelops. Lycophron repeats the Pindaric account: ἄσαρκα μιστύλασα τύμβευσεν φάρῳ, /τὸν ὠλενὶτην χόνδρον ἐνδατουμένη (Lyc. 154-55). The verb μιστύλλω refers specifically to the process of cutting up meat for roasting during a sacrifice. Consequently, Pelops’ dismemberment is a core element of both Pindar’s and Lycophron’s accounts of his death. Lycophron depicts a transgressive Demeter who not only feasts on polluted, dismembered, human flesh, but serves the role of sacrificial butcher when her own jaws mutilate Pelops’ shoulder to gristle.

Session/Panel Title

Early Greek Poetry

Session/Paper Number

39.6

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