Burnt Animal Sacrifice at the Mycenaean `Palace of Nestor', Pylos

By Isaakidou, Valasia; Halstead, Paul et al. | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Burnt Animal Sacrifice at the Mycenaean `Palace of Nestor', Pylos


Isaakidou, Valasia, Halstead, Paul, Davis, Jack Leonard, Stocker, Sharon, Antiquity


Introduction

Burnt sacrifice to the gods in the Archaic and Classical Greek world is well known from literary, epigraphic and iconographic sources (Bergquist 1993; Durand 1989; Jameson 1988; Marinatos 1988; van Straten 1994). Typically the gods received specific parts of the carcase (e.g. the tail, thigh bones stripped of meat, gall bladder), which were burnt for their delectation, while most of the animal, including the principal meat-cuts, was consumed (cooked rather than burnt!) by human participants in the sacrifice. This inequitable distribution of the carcase was linked in antiquity to the mythical precedent of Prometheus tricking Zeus into choosing inedible bones in preference to edible meat. Hesiod's accounts of this myth have, in turn, been interpreted as a multi-faceted mirror on early historical Greek society: the sacrificial burning of bones and human consumption of cooked meat defined humanity as distinct from both animals and gods, while related elements of the myth made clear the subordination of women to men and underlined the central role in civilized society of cereal cultivation, hard work, cooked food and marriage (Vernant 1989; Vidal-Naquet 1996). Recently, osteological evidence for such sacrificial practices, in the form of burnt bones from restricted parts of the skeleton, has been reported from Archaic and Classical (and perhaps Geometric) sanctuaries: for example, thigh (femur, patella) and tail (sacrum, caudal vertebrae) bones at Asea (Vila 2000), Athens (Reese 1989) and Zeytin Tepe near Miletos (Peters 1993); thigh bones and hind-quarters at Kommos (Reese 1984); right hindlimbs at Kourion (Davis 1996); and horncores or horned skulls at Ephesos (Bammer 1998). A different type of offering is indicated by the marked over-representation of astragali, mostly unburnt, at the sanctuary of the Kabeiroi near Thebes (Boessneck 1973) and at Zeytin Tepe (Zimmermann 1993), while indirect evidence for some form of offering is provided by unburnt assemblages, with obvious under-representation of thigh and tail bones, from the Heraion at Samos (Boessneck & von den Driesch 1988) and the temple of Athena Alea at Tegea (Vila 2000). Selective deposition of thigh bones has also been noted, however, in a funerary context at Early Iron Age Theologos on Thasos (Halstead & Jones 1992).

Similar burnt sacrifices of selected carcase parts, including bones stripped of meat but wrapped in fat, are described in the Odyssey, when Odysseus' son Telemachus visits King Nestor at Pylos (Odyssey iii, 447-63). Although the Homeric epics describe a heroic age ostensibly equating roughly to the Mycenaean Late Bronze Age, as defined by archaeologists, they seem to contain a mixture of practices and motifs dating from the Late Bronze Age to the time, perhaps in the 8th century BC, when the epics largely acquired their present form (Sherratt 1990) and so cannot be used as evidence for Mycenaean sacrificial practice. Conversely, it has been argued that there is neither iconographic nor osteological evidence for burnt animal sacrifice in Mycenaean Greece (Bergquist 1988). In contrast to Archaic and Classical Greece, Mycenaean iconography is relatively uninformative on animal sacrifice and its aftermath. Animals are clearly shown trussed for slaughter on a wall-painting in the Mycenaean `Palace of Nestor' at Pylos or trussed and bled on the only slightly earlier sarcophagus from Late Minoan III Agia Triada in Crete, and there are some indications that sacrifice was accompanied by feasting (Marinatos 1988). It is unclear, however, which part of the carcase, if any, was given to the gods, or in what form, and, indeed, Marinatos has argued, albeit for a Minoan rather than Mycenaean cultural context, that libations of blood formed the core element of animal sacrifice (Marinatos 1988). Likewise, while Linear B texts or inscribed sealings from Knossos, Pylos and Thebes clearly record palatial mobilization of animals for feasts or religious offerings (Killen 1994; Godart 1999), they shed no light on the nature of sacrifice or on the relationship, if any, between sacrifice and feasting.

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