Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Sarah Hitch, Ian Rutherford
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , August
     348 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As an academic who happens to practice a polytheistic religion that includes animal sacrifice, I approached this book rather dubiously. With close to fifteen years of working in classics, I have found that books on religion in antiquity, polytheism, and sacrifice in particular tend to ignore theological concerns, often reducing the complexities of cultusto empty collections of sociological fact. Polytheisms are often met with reductionism, and any considerations of piety and devotion in those who once practiced them are all too often ignored. With all this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World, edited by Sarah Hitch and Ian Rutherford, an erudite, fascinating, and frankly, brilliant examination of the topic. 

Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World is a collection of twelve articles, each in some way pertaining to the subject of sacrifice in ancient Greek religion. The articles are divided into four categories: Victims, Procedure, Representation, and Margins. While none of the articles are written by theologians, the introduction does point out the importance of approaching sacrifice in the ancient world from both a sociological and theological perspective (3). The introduction challenges scholarly omissions of earlier theories of sacrifice, and examines the topic in an organic and cohesive manner, taking into account the impact of regional practices and devotional complexities. Likewise, the practice of religious sacrifice is accurately positioned as a modern practice--part of numerous religious traditions the world over--lending a certain vibrancy to its study in ancient Greece (1). This is a practice that in one form or another, has been a part of religious life since at least the Neolithic. 

This is a remarkably balanced anthology, and all of the articles contribute something unique and interesting to the discussion. For instance, in chapter 1, “Bare Bones: Zooarchaeology and Greek Sacrifice,” by Gunnel Ekroth examines the information provided by the study of bones, filling in the blanks missing from literary and iconographical sources while at the same time, demonstrating the interconnectedness of literature, art, and religious practice in Greek culture (23). By examining the residue of sacrifices--the actual bones--Ekroth provides significant insight into the complexities of varied regional praxis, drawing clear distinctions between sacrifice and votive offerings (33). Ekroth’s article also makes an interesting comparison between the alimentary economy of some sacrifices and contemporary halal and kosher butchering, likewise offering a productive insight into daily religious life (39). 

In the same section (“Victims”), Jennifer Larson’s chapter “Venison for Artemis? The Problem of Deer Sacrifice,” highlights the importance of sacrificial economy for ancient Greek husbandry practices (62). The third article in this section, Alexandra Villing’s “Don’t Kill the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg?: Some Thoughts on Bird Sacrifices in Ancient Greece”notes that modern scholarship on sacrifice tends to focus on that of four-legged animals. Villing attempts to examine the role that the sacrifice of fowl (chickens and geese particularly) played in ancient Greek religion, beginning with a reference to Plato’s Phaidon, wherein Socrates notes he owes a cock to Asklepios (63). She examines literary, iconographical, and osteological evidence for the sacrifice of birds, noting their importance in magic and divinatory practices for the Greeks (71). While Villing’s article would have been somewhat stronger had it looked comparatively at modern bird sacrifice (in African traditional religions, for instance), and the role of divination in determining when, what, and why to sacrifice, it does effectively highlight that sacrificial practices were by no means static (101). 

Section 2 (“Procedure”) includes chapters by Stella Georgoudi, Fred Naiden, and Jan-Mathieu Carbon, and examines the technical minutiae of sacrifice. Of particular interest is Georgoudi’s chapter, “Reflections on Sacrifice and Purification in the Greek World,”which parses the use of blood sacrifice in purification rituals, noting that the sacral context of the rite changes the ontological nature of blood into something with the power to cleanse (126).  Section 3 (“Representations”) looks at sacrifice through the lens of literary and iconographical material, beginning with a chapter by Oliver Thomas (“Sacrifice and the Homeric Hymn to Hermes 112-41”) that offers a beautiful philological analysis of the hymn, particularly the word ὅσιος and describes the nature of Hermes as a God throughout the sacrificial process (184). In the same section, Anja Klöckner’s chapter “Visualizing Veneration: Images of Animal Sacrifice on Greek Votive Reliefs” discusses what images of sacrifice can tell us about Greek religion; and Richard Seaford in “Sacrifice in Drama: the Flow of Liquids” delves into two types of sacrifice: oath sacrifice and pre-battle sacrifice--through the lens of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and Xenophon’s Anabasis, examining libations, “sacrificial pourings,” perceived fruitfulness, and even erotic meanings in the flow of blood (231, 234).

Section 4 (“Margins”) is particularly interesting, offering three different views on cross-cultural religious pollination and influences throughout Greece and the ancient Near East. Alice Mouton’s “Animal Sacrifice in Hittite Anatolia,” part of a larger, work-in-progress on Hittite sacrifice, looks at the intersection of Greek and Hittite practices, the unique aspects of Hittite sacrifice, and addresses specific problems in the study of ancient Near Eastern religions. Ian Rutherford’s “The Reception of Egyptian Animal Sacrifice in Greek Writers: Ethnic Stereotyping or Transcultural Discourse?”examines the different uses of sacrifice in ancient Egyptian religion, and the ways in which these were positioned by Greek (and later Roman) writers. Finally, the collection’s concluding chapter, Sergio Knipe’s “A Quiet Slaughter? Julian and the Etiquette of Public Sacrifice,” looks at Julian’s religious zeal, attitudes toward sacrifice, emphasis on piety and purity, his Neoplatonism, and the impact of these things on his attempts at Pagan restoration. It is a brilliant conclusion to a very exciting collection of scholarship. 

While many of the scholarly conundrums expressed in Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World, particularly in the “Procedure” section, might have been solved by extrapolating from modern practices of sacrifice in surviving polytheisms and African traditional religions, this type of comparative work is not the norm in classics.  This work stands on its own as a valuable contribution to the study of both sacrifice and ancient Greek religion, deftly highlighting the “various cultic realities” (126) and rich complexities of this ancient polytheism, and breaking new ground for future study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Galina Krasskova is a graduate student in Medieval Studies at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah Hitch has held a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Corpus Christi College where she is now the Associate Director of the Centre for the Study of Greek and Roman Antiquity. She has researched and published widely on various aspects of Greek religion.

Ian Rutherford is professor of Greek at the University of Reading. He is one of the foremost experts on ancient religion and has published widely on the topic, including his recent monograph State Pilgrims and Sacred Observers in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 2013).


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.