Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods

Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods

Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods

Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods


Animal sacrifice has been critical to the study of ancient Mediterranean religions since the eighteenth century. More recently, two leading views on sacrifice have dominated the subject: the psychological approach of Walter Burkert and the sociological one by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne. These two perspectives have argued that the main feature of sacrifice is allaying feelings of guilt at the slaughter of sacrificial animals. However, both approaches leave little room for the role of the priests and the gods they hope to communicate with. Nor do they allow for comparisonbetween animal sacrifice and other oblations offered to the gods. F. S. Naiden redresses the omission of these salient features to show that, far from being an attempt to assuage guilt or achieve solidarity, animal sacrifice is an attempt to make contact with a divine being, and that it is so important for - and perceived to be so risky for - the worshippers thatit becomes subject to regulations of unequaled extent and complexity. Sacrificial priests are the most closely regulated of all Greek officials, and sacrifice itself is the most closely regulated public business. All this anxiety and effort invites some explanation, yet to date scholars have paidlittle attention to these regulations. Smoke Signals for the Gods addresses these, while drawing on recent work on Greek sacred law and Greek religious terminology. Furthermore, it seeks to explain how mistaken views of sacrifice and animals arose, and traces them farther into the past, often backto early Christianity. Drawing on a wealth of sources, this book provides a complete picture of ancient animal sacrifice.


This book deals with a subject that evokes the slaughter of animals and the feasts of the Homeric poems and Classical Athens. Yet the most common Greek word for killing an animal for a god was thuein, “to make smoke.” English “dusky” is a cognate. So are Latin fumus, or “smoke,” and Latin thus, or “incense.” a Greek worshipper used smoke to send a message to a god, just as an American Indian used smoke to send a signal to a distant point. the two leading views of Greek sacrifice say little of this smoke. One of these views, Walter Burkert’s, supposes that Greek ways of making animal offerings descended from Stone Age hunters. As implied by the title to one of Burkert’s books, Homo Necans, the Greek worshipper was a prototypical killer. the most important part of the rite was the killing of the animal. the other leading view, that of Marcel Detienne and the late Jean-Pierre Vernant, supposes that Greek ways of making animals offerings, and also eating them, unified the citizenry of the Classical city-states. the Greek worshipper was the prototypical democrat. the most important part of the rite was feeding the worshippers. the same conclusions would hold for religions with similar rites, such as the religion of pagan Rome, or even of ancient Israel.

Scholars of Greek religion had other reasons to doubt these views, and even to doubt the importance given to animal offerings. Burkert, Vernant, and Detienne trafficked in social science with more or less staying power; and Burkert did the same with natural science. Archaeologists had always known there was more to worship than animal sacrifice. Literary critics knew that the stress on rituals, coupled with a divorce of ritual from mythic antecedents, had done a kind of

1. Thuein: dir s.v. dheu, ii.5, which is the extended form, dheus. Thus and fumus derive from dheu; English “dusk” from dheus. Further discussion at chapter 6 here. in contrast, Greek tuphein and its English cognate, “smoke,” have no sacrificial character.

2. Burkert (1983), a translation of a 1972 original, followed by Burkert (1985) and other works discussed in chapter 1 here.

3. Vernant and Detienne (1989).

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