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Dionysian Theology and Anthropology: Animal Sacrifice in Greek Comedy

Bartek Bednarek

University of Warsaw, Institute of History

Our understanding of animal sacrifice in ancient Greece has recently undergone a dramatic shift resulting from much wider use of epigraphic, iconographic and archaeological data than ever, along with the use of newly applied and relatively recently developed zoo-archaeology and osteology. As a result, two paradigms of theoretical approach that have dominated thus far (the so-called Paris school and the Burkert-Meuli paradigm) have undergone severe criticism. This revisionist tendency, however, has had relatively little impact on research on the literary sources, which has been traditionally taken as the point of departure in the study of ancient Greek sacrifice. Comedy, perhaps the most eloquent witness of ancient everyday life, has especially been neglected by scholars recently. No systematic research on the subject matter has been undertaken, given that only one essay that attempts to offer a synthetic overview of the problem has been published in recent years (by James Redfield in 2013). Its author rightly emphasizes that the sacrifice in comedy is drastically different from that presented in tragedy and other genres. In comedy, sacrifice is virtually all about human pleasure and satisfying mortals’ greed for meaty meals, whereas other genres emphasize other aspects. Thus, tragedy underlines the violence that lurks behind the ritual, whereas epics emphasize sacrifice’s role in creating and negotiating the social structure and bonds. This bias of what may be called the “comic theology and anthropology” makes the research on the comic passages particularly arduous (and even more so for the research on the fragmentary extant plays). Unfortunately, it seems that students of the Greek comedy barely take into consideration the rapid development in the field of research on animal sacrifice. At the same time, scholars interested in sacrifice still tend to take comedy at face value; this becomes especially clear in works that cite the comic material as second-hand quotations from other scholarly texts. Quite obviously, such a use of the sources seriously hampers a true understanding of both the religious reality reflected by these texts and of the comic texts themselves.

            In my paper I focus on the way in which the “comic theology and anthropology” shape the image of the animal sacrifice. Of particular importance is the distinction between the two subgenres of Old and New Attic Comedy. The latter offers occasional glimpses of ritual practice. It also contains criticism of what was perceived by poets as a perversion of the religious attitude, allegedly characteristic of their contemporaries, who used the acts of piety as a pretext for hedonistic consumption. Also, Old Comedy offers what has been perceived by many scholars (in line with the evolutionist or Durkheimian approach) as a description of the social reality in which priority was given to human pleasure and the divine sphere was largely neglected. Yet, the intentions of the authors of Old Comedy appear to be radically different. With respect to the way in which Aristophanes and his rough contemporaries depict sacrifice, there seems to be little criticism of the supposed social practice (unless some particular individuals or social groups, such as itinerant religious specialists, are mocked). Instead, the distortion of ritual ideals (as, arguably, these ideals are distorted in the Old Comedy) belongs not that much to the reality the poets intend to criticize as to the “carnivalesque” vision of the world characteristic of the subgenre. It is tempting to attribute this feature of Old Comedy to the well-known and yet highly problematic ritual background of this subgenre, which originated in the cult of Dionysus and seems to have retained a large part of its primordial religious character until the end of the period in which it flourished.

Session/Panel Title

Laughing with the Gods: Religion in Greek and Roman Satire Comedy Epigram and other Comedic Genres

Session/Paper Number


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