Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice

Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice

Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice

Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice


Examining the diverse religious texts and practices of the late Hellenistic and Roman periods, this collection of essays investigates the many meanings and functions of ritual sacrifice in the ancient world. The essays survey sacrificial acts, ancient theories, and literary as well as artistic depictions of sacrifice, showing that any attempt to identify a single underlying significance of sacrifice is futile. Sacrifice cannot be defined merely as a primal expression of violence, despite the frequent equation of sacrifice to religion and sacrifice to violence in many modern scholarly works; nor is it sufficient to argue that all sacrifice can be explained by guilt, by the need to prepare and distribute animal flesh, or by the communal function of both the sacrificial ritual and the meal.
As the authors of these essays demonstrate, sacrifice may be invested with all of these meanings, or none of them. The killing of the animal, for example, may take place offstage rather than in sight, and the practical, day-to-day routine of plant and animal offerings may have been invested with meaning, too. Yet sacrificial acts, or discourses about these acts, did offer an important site of contestation for many ancient writers, even when the religions they were defending no longer participated in sacrifice. Negotiations over the meaning of sacrifice remained central to the competitive machinations of the literate elite, and their sophisticated theological arguments did not so much undermine sacrificial practice as continue to assume its essential validity.
Ancient Mediterranean Sacrificeoffers new insight into the connections and differences among the Greek and Roman, Jewish and Christian religions.


Stanley Stowers

The program of this chapter springs from the intuition that much of both ancient and modern writing about animal sacrifice wrongly assumes some sort of essence that ties the practice intrinsically to an idea or symbol through time and across cultural areas. I wish to explore a hypothesis, namely, that it might illuminate this assumption about the relations of the relevant practices and ideas to think in terms of different modes of religiosity. Can it be useful, instead of thinking of religion as one thing, to think of different ancient Mediterranean modes of religion through which to make sense of sacrificial activities and concepts of sacrifice? I can only suggest the bare outlines of this analytical exercise here.

Like all worthwhile intellectual enterprises, typology and classification in the study of religion is fraught with difficulty. I find the following past attempts both suggestive of helpful intuitions and full of unworkable difficulties: routinized and charismatic, great and little traditions, urban and rural, private and public, literate and nonliterate, elite and mass. As I have advocated elsewhere, instead of focusing on institutions, supposed social wholes, or individuals and their minds, as the dualities above variously do, I want to focus upon practices and the ways that they link together. But in order to make this an exploration about religion and not just human sociality more generally, I will have to ask how these patterns of human activity involve beliefs and inferences about gods and similar beings. I will focus on Greek examples because the evidence is so rich; but I believe that the patterns are much broader.

I want to talk about two modes and then offer a modification and overlay of each mode so that one might think perhaps of four modes. These modes are ways of organizing activities that involve beliefs and inferences about gods and similar beings in the organization of those activities. This approach denies that one can understand animal sacrifice by isolating that practice and asking about its “meaning” across the temporal and cultural areas that I have mentioned. I also do not want to talk about religious or social “systems.” That language misses the unbounded and open-ended quality of the social, of human activities. Instead . . .

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