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Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice$

Jennifer Wright Knust and Zsuzsanna Varhelyi

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199738960

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199738960.001.0001

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The Theology of Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World

The Theology of Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World

Origins and Developments

(p.187) 9 The Theology of Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World
Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice

James B. Rives

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

James Rives addresses the monolithic theological role attributed to animal sacrifice in modern accounts of ancient Greek religion. Emphasizing the importance of a careful chronological perspective, he suggests that it was only in the philosophers of the imperial era that philosophers developed an actual pagan theology of sacrifice—likely in the Neopythagorean circles of the first century CE. It was likely the new importance of animal sacrifice in the imperial cult and in the rituals associated with euergetism that required those who did not wish to participate in civic worship to develop a more sophisticated reasoning for their rejection of sacrificial ritual: Rives especially points at the works of Porphyry of Tyre (3rd c. CE) as an example of such a critique. He also underscores that such developments confirm that the cultural meaning of ancient sacrifice did not remain stable throughout the ancient world.

Keywords:   animal sacrifice, theology, Roman religion, Neopythagoreans, Porphyry

That animal sacrifice held a central place in the Greek religious tradition throughout its history has long been accepted as a given, and this has in recent decades been reinforced by the work of some of the most prominent scholars of ancient Greek religion.1 The ritual slaughter of an animal, followed by the communal consumption of its flesh, has been widely regarded as a defining feature of Greek culture, embodying and likewise reinforcing many of its core assumptions.2 But the monolithic place of animal sacrifice in accounts of ancient religion is now starting to be called into question. Recent scholars have pointed out that rituals involving the slaughter of an animal varied widely in terms of their goals and constituent elements and so do not constitute a single coherent category; they have stressed that sacrificial rituals comprised a number of steps and that the main interpretations of sacrifice tend to overemphasize some and neglect others; and they have emphasized that offerings to the gods took a whole range of forms, of which those involving the slaughter of animals were only one group—and perhaps not the most important. Some scholars have even raised the question whether “sacrifice” remains a useful category of analysis at all.3

In this chapter I hope to contribute in a small way to this discussion by considering the cultural significance of animal sacrifice in its diachronic dimension. An important corollary of its assumed centrality to Greek religion is that its cultural meaning remained constant over time. I would argue instead that its meaning changed in tandem with other social, political, and cultural developments. Here I will focus on only one particular facet of these shifts of meaning and trace changes in philosophical reactions to animal sacrifice. The core of my argument is that philosophers of the imperial period took animal sacrifice much more seriously than did earlier philosophers and that only in this period did they develop a real theology of sacrifice—that is, a philosophical analysis that focused on the role of sacrifice as a cult act meant to establish connections between humans and the divine and that located it within a large-scale and coherent understanding of the cosmos.

(p.188) I take as my starting point Porphyry of Tyre’s treatise On Abstinence from Killing Animals, which he wrote sometime in the last decades of the third century CE.4 Porphyry devotes the second book of this treatise, a quarter of the whole, to a discussion of the problem that the practice of animal sacrifice poses for those who wish to avoid eating meat. After a brief introduction, he provides in the first half of the book (Abst. 2.5–32) an exposition of Theophrastus’s arguments against animal sacrifice, taken from that philosopher’s now-lost treatise On Piety. (I will return to Theophrastus later in this chapter.) Porphyry then presents a theology of sacrifice, according to which different types of sacrifice are appropriate to different levels of deity (Abst. 2.33–43); lastly, he makes the argument that even if at times it is necessary to sacrifice animals, it does not necessarily follow that we must also eat them (Abst. 2.44–57). The last two arguments are closely linked to one of the main elements of Porphyry’s philosophical agenda, the idea that the true philosopher must do everything he can to dissociate himself from the corruption and passions of the sensible world and to assimilate himself to the divine realm of the intelligible, from which the soul originally derives.

Porphyry’s theology of sacrifice involves some interesting ideas, and it is worth considering it more closely. First of all, he is careful to point out that he is not “trying to destroy the customs which prevail among each people: the state,” he says, “is not my present subject” (Abst. 2.33.1).5 That is, a rejection of animal sacrifice does not mean a rejection of sacrifice altogether. On the contrary, he says, philosophers will also sacrifice;

but we shall make, as is fitting, different sacrifices to different powers. To the god who rules over all, as a wise man said, we shall offer nothing perceived by the senses, either by burning or in words. For there is nothing material which is not at once impure to the immaterial. So not even logos expressed in speech is appropriate for him, nor yet internal logos when it has been contaminated by the passion of the soul. But we shall worship him in pure silence and with pure thoughts about him. (Abst. 2.34.1–2)

For his offspring, [however,] the intelligible gods, hymn-singing in words should be added. For sacrifice is an offering to each god from what he has given, with which he sustains us and maintains our essence in being. (Abst. 2.34.4)

[Lastly,] for the gods within the heaven, the wandering and the fixed [ … ], we should kindle fire which is already kin to them, and we shall do what the theologian says. He says that not a single animate creature should be sacrificed, but offerings should not go beyond barley-grains and honey and the fruits of the earth. (Abst. 2.36.3–4)

The basic principle behind this theology is obvious. Porphyry has taken the Platonic notion of a divine hierarchy and has correlated it with a hierarchy of sacrifices, so that the offering corresponds in nature to the deity being honored. In doing (p.189) so, he seems to have taken the principle of correspondence that informed much traditional sacrificial practice (e.g., male animals to male deities) and to have translated it into a Platonic framework. But if the gods at the bottom of the hierarchy, the visible gods, are to receive inanimate offerings, what place is there in this schema for animal sacrifice?

The answer, of course, is that the visible gods are not the bottom of the hierarchy: “there remains the multitude of invisible gods, whom Plato called daimones” (Abst. 2.37.4). Porphyry makes a sharp distinction between two classes of daimones: those that subject their material part, their pneuma, to reason and act as the beneficent rulers of the material world, and those that do not control their pneuma but are instead controlled by it, with the result that they are subject to the appetites and passions of the material world; the latter, he says, “may reasonably be called maleficent” (Abst. 2.38.4). These maleficent daimones are responsible for many of the physical evils of human life, but they fool people into thinking that they are the beneficent daimones. “It is they who rejoice in the ‘drink-offerings and smoking meat’ [Hom., Il. 9.500] on which their pneumatic part grows fat, for it lives on vapors and exhalations, in a complex fashion and from complex sources, and it draws power from the smoke that rises from blood and flesh” (Abst. 2.42.3). Accordingly, “an intelligent, temperate man will be wary of making sacrifices through which he will draw such beings to himself. He will work to purify his soul in every way, for they do not attack a pure soul, because it is unlike them” (Abst. 2.43.1).

Porphyry’s analysis is striking in a number of ways, but the particular aspect to which I want to call attention here is the extent to which he takes sacrifice seriously as a ritual that establishes a connection between the human and superhuman spheres.6 Porphyry assumes a correspondence between sacrificial ritual and the structure of the cosmos; his objection to animal sacrifice is that by its very nature it establishes a connection between the person who performs it and a particular segment of the cosmos, namely, the maleficent daimones. These daimones work against the proper goal of the philosopher, which is to ascend upward into the realm of the intelligible, by involving us more deeply in the world of matter and the passions. Animal sacrifice, therefore, has serious consequences that ought to concern philosophers deeply and that they can appreciate only by understanding the relationship between sacrificial ritual and the structure of the cosmos. Porphyry’s theology of sacrifice arises from the serious philosophical consequences that he attributes to sacrificial ritual, and it is this, I would argue, that represents something not found in earlier Greek tradition.

This argument may seem problematic, however, because it is widely accepted that many earlier thinkers also paid serious attention to the practice of animal sacrifice: the followers of Orpheus and of Pythagoras, most famously, as well as Empedocles and Theophrastus. Yet there is no good evidence that any of these earlier figures developed a theology of sacrifice; in my view, none of them did so because none of them was actually much interested in sacrifice as a ritual meant to establish a connection between the human and divine spheres.7

(p.190) We may first consider the followers of Orpheus. That they refused to eat meat is fairly certain, although the evidence is more meager than many people might assume. The earliest piece of evidence, which we can date quite precisely to the year 428 BCE, is a passage from Euripides’ Hippolytus. In it, Theseus derides his son as one who ostentatiously eats only inanimate food (δι’ ἀψύχου βορᾶς), has Orpheus for his lord, and reveres a smoke of writings (Hipp. 952–54 = 627 Bernabé, PEG).8 From two or three generations later we have a passage in Plato’s Laws (Leg. 782c–d = 625 Bernabé, PEG), in which the Athenian is discussing how people’s customs with respect to eating and drinking have changed over time. He says that

the custom of men sacrificing one another is, in fact, one that survives even now among many peoples; whereas amongst others we hear of how the opposite custom existed, when they were forbidden so much as to eat an ox, and their offerings to the gods consisted, not of animals, but of cakes of meal and grain steeped in honey, and other such bloodless sacrifices, and from flesh they abstained as though it were unholy to eat it or to stain with blood the altars of the gods; instead of that, those of us men who then existed lived what is called an “Orphic life,” keeping wholly to inanimate food and, contrariwise, abstaining wholly from things animate.9

These two passages constitute the only clear evidence prior to the imperial period for the Orphic refusal to eat meat.10 Nevertheless, the casualness of the references suggest that both Euripides and Plato expected their audiences to be familiar with people who claimed to follow Orpheus and refused to eat animal flesh. It is important to note three particular aspects of these passages, two negative and one positive. First, in neither passage is there any explicit indication of why followers of Orpheus abstained from eating animal flesh. Second, a key term in both passages is psyche: followers of Orpheus must eat food that is apsychos and avoid that which is empsychos. Third, and for our purposes the most important point, in neither passage does animal sacrifice per se seem to have been a focus of Orphic attention. Euripides does not mention sacrifice at all, and Plato, who does, does not associate the Orphic life with any particular doctrine about sacrifice, but only with abstention from animate food.

For the Pythagoreans, we have evidence that is both more abundant and more inconsistent. Since the Pythagorean avoidance of meat is so familiar, it is first of all worth noting that some early and weighty evidence points in the opposite direction. Aristotle, it seems, claimed that Pythagoras “abstained from the womb, the heart, the akalêphê, and some other things of that sort, but made use of the rest.”11 Likewise, Aristoxenus asserted that Pythagoras enjoined abstention only from the plow-ox and the ram, but allowed the eating of all other animate things; he evidently went so far as to claim that Pythagoras had a particular fondness for little piglets and tender young goats.12 Scholars have been uncertain what to do with these finicky yet carnivorous Pythagoreans, but we should at least keep in mind the existence of this early, alternative tradition.13

(p.191) The more familiar tradition, that Pythagoras and his followers completely abstained from animate food, is one that we can also trace back relatively early, to the first half of the fourth century BCE. According to Porphyry, Eudoxus said that Pythagoras so avoided contact with slaughter that he not only abstained from animals (ἐμψύχων ἀπέχεσθαι), but never even came near butchers and hunters.14 Similarly, the comic poets of the fourth century BCE made much of Pythagorean vegetarianism, which they apparently regarded as something that could always evoke a laugh from their audience; we have references to it in Mnesimachus, Antiphanes, and Alexis, all of whom employ almost the identical phrase ἐσθίειν οὐδὲν ἔμψυχον, “to eat nothing animate.”15 Lastly, Strabo quotes a passage from Alexander’s steersman Onesicritus in which he claims to have explained to an Indian Brahman, who inquired whether doctrines similar to his own were taught among the Greeks, that Pythagoras had taught people to abstain from animate beings, ἐμψύχων ἀπέχεσθαι.16

We can make virtually the same observations about the evidence concerning Pythagoreans as we did about that concerning followers of Orpheus. First, none of it specifies the reasons why Pythagoreans abstained from meat. Second, those writers who do attribute to Pythagoras and his followers a total abstinence from meat consistently use the same terminology that was applied to the followers of Orpheus: abstinence from that which is empsychos, animate or “ensouled.” Finally, in virtually none of these quotations is there any reference to the ritual of animal sacrifice. The only exception is a couplet of Mnesimachus preserved by Diogenes Laertius: “To Loxias we sacrifice: Pythagoras his rite / of nothing that is animate we ever take a bite.”17 And even here the emphasis is on the consumption of meat, not on the ritual of sacrifice per se.

Given this evidence, I would propose the thesis that these groups were not concerned with the ritual of animal sacrifice at all, but instead simply with the consumption of food from “ensouled” sources. Now there are two strong arguments against this thesis, one derived from reason and the other from authority. The argument from reason is that it denies or at least downplays the crucial and integral connection that existed in ancient Greek culture between normal sacrificial practice and the consumption of meat. The argument from authority is that Marcel Detienne has forcefully and repeatedly explained that the Orphic and Pythagorean rejection of meat is really all about the rejection of normative Greek sacrifice and, consequently, of the normative Greek politico-religious system of the polis embodied therein.18 I will deal first with the argument from authority before turning to the argument from reason.

Detienne’s analysis is elegant and persuasive, but his project is of a very particular kind. His focus on structure leads him to subsume the diachronic dimension within the synchronic; according to Detienne, historical change is simply one kind of variation and can accordingly be treated atemporally.19 As a result, he tends to downplay or even disregard questions about the date and provenance of his evidence. When dealing with teachings attributed to Orpheus and Pythagoras, this (p.192) seems to me highly problematic. These are traditions that extended over some eight centuries or more, with by far our fullest evidence coming from the third and fourth centuries CE or, in the case of the Orphic poems, even later. Since Greek culture in general changed drastically over this long span of time, it is not unreasonable to assume that the Orphic and Pythagorean traditions also changed. Moreover, there was no structure of authority within these traditions, no fixed body of texts that could lend them a measure of stability and coherence. On the contrary, the names “Orpheus” and “Pythagoras” seem to some extent simply to have functioned as hooks on which people could hang a variety of ideas and practices.20 For all these reasons, Detienne’s atemporal and associative use of evidence makes me deeply uncomfortable. In my own project, accordingly, I want to insist on the diachronic dimension and be as scrupulous as possible about the date and source of the evidence. It is true that sources for the Orphic and Pythagorean traditions from the imperial period have more to say about animal sacrifice; it is likewise true that some of this later material may derive from earlier sources.21 Yet in the absence of other evidence, it is generally difficult to date a particular statement or tradition without becoming involved in a petitio principii. If we confine ourselves to evidence that can be firmly linked to pre-Hellenistic sources, we get a fairly consistent picture that contemporary observers did not particularly associate Orphic and Pythagorean doctrine with the ritual of animal sacrifice.

But, of course, the foundation of Detienne’s analysis is the argument from reason that I have already mentioned.22 It does seem to have been true that in ancient Greek culture there was an integral connection between animal sacrifice and the consumption of meat, insofar as anyone who refused to eat meat ipso facto had to reject animal sacrifice; the connection is explicit in the passages of Mnesimachus and especially Plato that I have already discussed. To that extent Detienne is surely right: the conscious decision to avoid eating meat must inevitably have meant the rejection of Greek animal sacrifice. Nevertheless, two things are worth stressing. First, a refusal to eat meat did not mean the rejection of the entire Greek sacrificial system, much of which took the form of nonblood offerings. We may in fact be reasonably certain that contemporary observers did not perceive any rejection of the sacrificial system on the part of Pythagoreans; if they had, the comic poets who so mercilessly mocked the social deviance of the Pythagorean diet would surely also have fastened on their impiety in refusing to offer sacrifice. Second, we should not arbitrarily reverse the logic of the practice as the sources present it: the problem for the followers of Orpheus and Pythagoras was not, it seems, that people were attempting to establish a connection with the divine by killing animals and roasting their flesh, but rather that people were consuming food from animate sources. The actual ritual of animal sacrifice seems to have been of concern only by implication, simply because eating meat typically took place in that context.23

If the followers of Orpheus and Pythagoras were not concerned with animal sacrifice, why were they so concerned with abstaining from meat? The usual assumption is that this followed from their belief in the transmigration of souls, the doctrine (p.193) that psychai can pass after death from the body of a human to that of an animal; to eat animals, therefore, is tantamount to cannibalism.24 Although the earliest extant author to make an explicit connection between abstinence from animate food and the doctrine of reincarnation is Ovid (Met. 15.453–78), that explanation is surely correct. Not only is it consistent with the regular emphasis that we have noted on the terminology of food that is apsychos or empsychos, it also receives corroboration from what we know of the teachings of Empedocles.

Extant citations of his work allow us to be fairly certain that for Empedocles, at least, the reason for abstaining from killing and eating animals was indeed a belief in the transmigration of souls between humans and animals.25 A particularly celebrated passage, quoted at varying length by Plutarch, Origen, and Sextus Empiricus, seems to make this quite clear:

  • A father lifts up his dear son, who has changed his form,
  • and prays and slaughters him, in great folly, and they are at a loss
  • as they sacrifice the suppliant. But he, on the other hand, deaf to the rebukes,
  • sacrificed him in his halls, and prepared himself an evil meal.
  • In the same way, a son seizes his father and the children their mother,
  • and tearing out their life-breath devour their own dear flesh.26

As in Plato, we have here reference to sacrifice as the specific context for the slaughter and consumption of animals; I would again argue, however, that the underlying concern is with the sheer consumption of animate food and not so much with its ritual context. This is suggested by a couplet quoted by Porphyry and preserved in slightly different form in the Strasbourg papyrus: “Woe is me! That the pitiless day did not destroy me / before I devised with my claws terrible deeds for the sake of food.”27 In my view, Empedocles uses sacrificial imagery primarily as a means of heightening the emotional impact of his teachings, employing a literary strategy very similar to that used by the tragic poets who were his contemporaries.28

Whatever the precise nature of Empedocles’ relationships to the Pythagorean tradition, the evidence for his ideas provides corroboration for the interpretation of Orphic and Pythagorean views that I have already advanced. That is, the thinkers of the late archaic and classical period who are commonly said to have rejected animal sacrifice were in fact not concerned with animal sacrifice as a cultic practice intended to establish a connection between the human and divine spheres; their concern was instead with the practice of eating meat, which they regarded as problematic because of their belief in the transmigration of souls between humans and animals.

Now, when we turn to Theophrastus, writing in the latter part of the fourth century BCE, we find something very different. It is quite clear from the passages quoted by Porphyry that Theophrastus was indeed interested specifically in animal sacrifice and how it relates to the gods, and not more generally in the practice of eating meat. Porphyry first gives us Theophrastus’s cultural history of sacrifice, in which primitive offerings of grasses were succeeded by offerings of progressively more sophisticated agricultural products; war and famine, however, brought about human sacrifices, for (p.194) which animal sacrifices were eventually substituted (Abst. 2.5.1–9.1). This historical sketch is followed by a series of arguments against animal sacrifice as an appropriate way to honor the gods. The main thrust of Theophrastus’s arguments is that it is not right to honor the gods by acting unjustly, which is what we do when we deprive an innocent animal of its life. In one particularly striking extract, Theophrastus develops this argument in the form of a logical dilemma. On the one hand, since there is agreement that it is right to kill people who are evil-doers, “[p]erhaps, then, it is also right to exterminate those of the irrational animals that are [ … ] evil-doers” (Abst. 2.22.2). But it would not be proper to offer animals like this to the gods, any more than it would be to offer them defective animals. On the other hand, “we agreed that those of the other animals which do us no wrong should not be killed, so they too should not be sacrificed to the gods. If, then, neither these nor the evil-doers should be sacrificed, is it not obvious that we should in all cases abstain, and that none of the other animals should be sacrificed?” (Abst. 2.23.2).

Unlike the followers of Orpheus and Pythagoras, then, Theophrastus was interested specifically in the ritual of sacrifice: he provides a fully developed history of the ritual and presents a case against it that makes much of the fact that it is directed toward the gods. Nevertheless, I would argue that Theophrastus’s real concern was not with the effects of the ritual or its relation to the structure of the cosmos, but with a problem of ethics. The reason that he puts so much stress on the gods as the recipients of sacrifices is that it allows him to focus on the ethical question of whether it is just to kill animals; the underlying assumption throughout is that the gods are concerned above all with “the quality of the sacrificers [rather] than the quantity of the sacrifice” (Abst. 2.15.3; cf. 2.19.4–5). Although Porphyry himself never mentions the title of the work from which he took these extracts, a comparison of one of them with a brief citation in a scholium to Aristophanes proves that it was Theophrastus’s treatise On Piety, Περὶ Εὐσεβείας.29 Even though we have no other certain evidence about the arguments of this work, it is likely that Theophrastus regarded piety as an ethical virtue, akin to or perhaps even a species of justice; this is certainly a view that is attested in later Peripatetic sources.30 For all that Theophrastus emphasized the gods as the recipient of animal sacrifices, then, his real interest lay not in the way that sacrifice established a connection between humans and gods, but rather in the way that it expressed the internal disposition of the sacrificer, that is, the ethical virtue of piety or, more precisely, its lack.31

I hope that this discussion of earlier philosophical responses to animal sacrifice helps to bring out the distinctive features of Porphyry’s treatment. It is of course true that Porphyry was deeply indebted to these earlier thinkers. The overarching subject of his treatise after all is specifically abstinence from eating animal flesh, something that he quite explicitly characterizes from the start as “the philosophy of Pythagoras and Empedocles” (Abst. 1.3.3); throughout he uses what we have seen is the characteristic vocabulary of food that is empsychos or apsychos. Yet despite the fact that Porphyry’s main focus is not animal sacrifice but rather the practice of eating meat, his critique of animal sacrifice is logically independent of this particular context and (p.195) derives instead from his wider philosophical program. He devotes much of Book 2 to developing a specific argument why animal sacrifice is bad in and of itself, regardless of whether we should or should not eat the animals that are sacrificed; moreover, as we have seen, he advances a fully developed theology of sacrifice, something in which the early Pythagoreans and Orphics apparently had no interest. Seen in this context, Porphyry’s focus on the materiality of animal sacrifice as a cult act that brings people into association with maleficent daimones appears radically different from the concern of the early Pythagoreans and Orphics that eating animate food is tantamount to cannibalism.

Similarly, Porphyry makes great use of Theophrastus. The question that seems to lie at the center of Theophrastus’s analysis, whether or not it is just to kill animals, is one that occupies Porphyry’s attention for large parts of his treatise: not only in the extracts from Theophrastus himself in Book 2, but also in the first half of Book 1 (Abst. 1.4–26) and in the whole of Book 3. Yet it is striking that Porphyry’s discussion of justice is framed entirely in terms of refuting the arguments of earlier philosophers; it is an issue that he addresses because it is central to the preexisting debate, not to his own philosophical concerns. When he comes to present his own arguments for abstaining from animate food, he grounds them not in the demands of justice but in the overarching need to free the soul from the sensible world in which it is enmeshed and restore it to the realm of the intelligible from which it has fallen (Abst. 1.27–57). It is within this same framework that he advances his theology of sacrifice. Sacrifice for Porphyry, as we have already seen, was a ritual that corresponded to the structure of the cosmos and thus had serious consequences for the attainment or nonattainment of the central goal of philosophy; it was not, as it seems to have been for Theophrastus, important simply because of the ethical problems involved in killing animals.

I have used Porphyry as an example of the new philosophical interest in sacrifice that we can observe in the imperial period largely because his treatment is both full and also relatively straightforward. But Porphyry was hardly the only philosopher to show this kind of interest in sacrifice. His younger contemporary, Iamblichus, presents a theology of sacrifice that in its fundamentals is very similar to the one we find in Porphyry’s On Abstinence, although more complex and subtly developed. The main difference between their ideas is that Iamblichus did not regard animal sacrifice in a negative light, as Porphyry did, but as a ritual that was good and entirely appropriate in its proper place.32 Moreover, the idea of a hierarchy of offerings correlated with a hierarchy of divinities was by their day apparently already an old one. We find traces of it, for example, in the systematic attack on Christianity that the philosopher Celsus wrote about a century before Porphyry. Celsus reproved Christians for refusing to offer animal sacrifice by invoking a similar theology. Like Porphyry, Celsus evidently believed that animal sacrifices were offered not to gods but to daimones; unlike Porphyry, however, he saw these daimones not as maleficent, but as the legitimate rulers of the material world, to whom the supreme god has assigned the various provinces of nature (Origen, (p.196) C. Cels. 8.24–36). Like Iamblichus, then, Celsus was able to justify animal sacrifice by claiming that it was the appropriate offering for a particular level of divinity.

Can we say anything about the origin of this theology of sacrifice? I would suggest that we can find some hints in Porphyry’s own account. Porphyry in fact presents two slightly different accounts of the various levels of divinity with which offerings must be correlated. In the first, he begins with the supreme god, proceeds first to the intelligible gods and then to the visible, celestial gods, and ends with the daimones (Abst. 2.34–36). In the second, he again begins with the supreme god, but then proceeds to the world soul before continuing to the visible, celestial gods and the invisible gods, here identified with daimones, without mentioning the intelligible gods at all (Abst. 2.37). This second account, which leads into his detailed discussion of good and bad daimones, he explicitly attributes to “certain Platonists” (Abst. 2.36.6), by which he seems to have meant various philosophers of the second century CE.33 The first account, by contrast, he does not explicitly attribute to any named individual or group, although at one point he refers to the Pythagoreans.34 He does, however, cite two unnamed authorities: at the beginning of his exposition, he attributes the idea of worshipping the supreme god with pure thought alone to “a wise man,” τις ἀνὴρ σοφός (Abst. 2.34.2); and at the end, he refers to the teaching of “the theologian,” ὁ θεολόγος, that nothing animate should be sacrificed to the visible gods (Abst. 2.36.3–4). He seems to be continuing with the teaching of this theologian in what follows, when he asserts that anyone who gives thought to piety knows that animate offerings are not made to any gods, but only to daimones. He then concludes by invoking holy silence as a reason for not proceeding further with the exposition of the first account; it is in fact the obligation not to reveal a mystery that causes him to turn instead to the second account, the one that he attributes to the Platonists (Abst. 2.36.5–6).

What was Porphyry’s source for the first account? His explicit reference to Pythagoreans and his use of the language of mysteries at the end of it has led some commentators to suppose a Neo-Pythagorean source; some have identified “the theologian” as Pythagoras himself.35 I think that we can be more specific. It has long been recognized that the “wise man” to whom Porphyry attributes his ideas about the worship of the supreme god at the beginning of this section is Apollonius of Tyana. We know this thanks to Eusebius, who, after discussing this passage of Porphyry, goes on to quote a passage from Apollonius’s treatise On Sacrifices, Περὶ Θυσίων, that is quite obviously Porphyry’s source.36 Now it seems to me entirely plausible that not only the particular idea about the supreme god but the account as a whole derives from this same source. Apollonius was in Porphyry’s day certainly regarded as an authority on the Pythagorean tradition; Porphyry in fact used Apollonius’s biography of Pythagoras as one of the sources for his own Life of Pythagoras.37 The theologos whom he cites at the end of this section could just as well be Apollonius as Pythagoras—or, even more probably, Apollonius’s “Pythagoras.”38 Moreover, the account that Porphyry presents fits perfectly well with what we know of Apollonius’s treatise, which Philostratus describes as explaining “how to (p.197) sacrifice to each of the gods appropriately and acceptably” (VA 3.41.2; cf. 4.19). It is true that Philostratus’s claim to have found Apollonius’s treatise “in many sanctuaries, many cities, and the homes of many wise men” (VA 3.41.2) does not fit too well with Porphyry’s elaborate refusal to reveal a mystery, but the latter seems much more appropriate when we consider that the alternative title of Apollonius’s treatise, according to the Suda (A 3420), was Τελεταί, Initiations. There is thus some reason to think that Porphyry’s first account of the correlation of offerings with the divine hierarchy derives from this treatise of Apollonius.39

Given the enormous uncertainties about the historical Apollonius, I would not want to press this argument too far. Yet the combined evidence of Eusebius and the Suda indicates that a treatise on sacrifices circulated under Apollonius’s name, and the similarity of the idea that Porphyry attributes to his “wise man” and the passage from this treatise quoted by Eusebius suggests that Porphyry was familiar with it, at least indirectly, and was to some extent influenced by it. The treatise itself may well have been pseudonymous, and thus later than the historical Apollonius; by the same token, the idea of a divine hierarchy correlated with a hierarchy of offerings may well antedate him. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the Neo-Pythagorean circles of the first century CE, of which we may take Apollonius as emblematic, is the most likely context for the origin of this kind of theology of sacrifice.

Since it is not possible here to develop this suggestion at any length, I will limit myself to two suggestions. First, the revival of the Pythagorean way of life, with its emphasis on abstention from animate food, provided a context in which its adherents would have reason to reconsider the purpose and effects of sacrifice and to develop a theology of sacrifice that would justify their own particular practice. As we have seen, Detienne was right to point out that a refusal to eat meat would also entail a refusal to take part in the most common forms of animal sacrifice, and such a refusal might well invite comment or explanation.40 But abstinence from eating animate food is on its own clearly not enough to account for the appearance of a theology of sacrifice; as we have seen, the Pythagoreans of the archaic and classical periods seem to have rejected the practice of eating meat without feeling a need to develop such a theology. I would thus also suggest that in the early imperial period the practice of animal sacrifice was becoming invested with greater cultural significance than it had in earlier times. We might consider, among other things, the spread of large-scale civic animal sacrifices as a form of euergetism and the role played by animal sacrifice in defining the relationship between the Roman emperor and the inhabitants of the empire. As a result of developments like these, the particular ritual of animal sacrifice came to acquire a more prominent role within the larger sacrificial system, so that there were consequently greater pressures to justify its rejection.

Regardless of the date and reasons for this new theology of sacrifice, however, the development that I have traced here should at least call into question the assumption that the cultural meaning of animal sacrifice remained stable throughout Graeco-Roman antiquity. I am of course dealing here primarily with a discourse (p.198) about sacrifice, the product of what Stanley Stowers and Daniel Ullucci in their contributions to this volume characterize as literate-cultural producers, and not to any significant extent with the practice itself. Yet in the fundamental transformation of religion that took place with the development and spread of Christianity, it was precisely this philosophical discourse, the theology of animal sacrifice, that came to be central to debates over its cultural role.


(1) . Most notably Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, translated by Peter Bing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), and Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, La cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec (Paris: Gallimard, 1979).

(2) . For a particularly thorough and elegant development of this approach, see Stanley Stowers, “Greeks Who Sacrifice and Those Who Do Not: Toward an Anthropology of Greek Religion,” in The Social World of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, edited by L. M. White and O. L. Yarbrough (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 293–333.

(3) . See David Frankfurter’s contribution in this volume. For other work, see, for example, Kathryn McClymond, Beyond Sacred Violence: A Comparative Study of Sacrifice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); F. S. Naiden, “Rejected Sacrifice in Greek and Hebrew Religion,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 6 (2006): 189–223; Naiden, “The Fallacy of the Willing Victim,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 117 (2007): 61–73; Naiden, “Sacrifice and Self-Interest,” in Violent Commensality: Animal Sacrifice and Its Discourses in Antiquity, edited by Ian C. Rutherford and Sarah Hitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

(4) . Porphyre: De l’abstinence, Tome I: Introduction, Livre I, edited with French translation and notes by J. Bouffartigue and M. Patillon (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1977), xviii–xix. The treatise is certainly later than 268 CE, when Porphyry left Rome, and probably later than the death of Plotinus in 270, but it is impossible to be more precise.

(5) . Quotations from On Abstinence (De Abstinentia) are taken from the translation of Gillian Clark, Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

(6) . Philippa Townsend, in her contribution to this volume, addresses another aspect of Porphyry’s complex and multifaceted critique of animal sacrifice; whereas I concentrate on the role of sacrifice in linking the human and superhuman spheres, she focuses on its role in constructing relationships among humans. I share her doubts concerning Porphyry’s participation in Diocletian’s scheme of enforcing animal sacrifice.

(7) . As should be clear from my arguments, I am fully in agreement with Daniel Ullucci’s insistence (see chapter 2, this volume) that we must analyze ancient statements about sacrifice (p.199) within the specific context of the individual writer’s program, and not as examples of a generalized critique of animal sacrifice. I differ from him, however, in arguing that the ritual of animal sacrifice becomes a distinct focus of discursive interpretation, as opposed to being incidental to discussions whose primary focus lay elsewhere, only in the imperial period. I am not convinced that Plato, for example, paid serious philosophical attention to traditional ideas about the gods and traditional practices for establishing contact with them, since he makes little attempt to explain their relation to the central concepts of his metaphysics (strikingly unlike his later interpreters in the imperial period); the same is obviously true of Epicurus and also, I suspect, of the Stoics. I hope to develop this argument more fully in later publications.

(8) . Earlier editors regarded the text here as problematic—see I. M. Linforth, The Arts of Orpheus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941), 50–53, and W. S. Barrett’s notes in his edition of Euripides’ Hippolytus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), 342–44—but recent editors accept it as transmitted.

(9) . ἀψύχων μὲν ἐχόμενοι πάντων, ἐμψύχων δὲ τοὐναντίον πάντων. Plato, Laws, Greek text with English translation by Robert G. Bury, 2 vols. (1926; rev. ed., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

(10) . Some scholars also cite Ar., Ran. 103 (= 626 Bernabé, PEG: Orpheus taught men φόνων ἀπέχεσθαι), but others rightly point out that the context strongly suggests that the reference here is to murder or possibly cannibalism (Linforth, The Arts of Orpheus, 68–70; Barrett, Hippolytus, 344). The chorus in a fragment of Euripides’ Cretans (ap. Porph., Abst. 4.19.2 = 567 Bernabé, PEG) claims to avoid the eating of animate food, but the lack of any reference to Orpheus makes its relevance uncertain at best. The next definite reference to Orphic abstinence from animal food is in Plutarch (Conv. sept. sap. 16, 159C = 629 Bernabé, PEG).

(11) . We have this on the authority of Plutarch, as quoted by Aulus Gellius, who also helpfully explains that the akalêphê is a kind of marine animal (NA 4.11.11 = Arist. F 194 Rose); cf. Diog. Laert., 8.19, who cites the authority of Aristotle for the womb and the red mullet (triglê), and the list given by Porphyry (Vit. Pyth. 45), who does not cite Aristotle but names the womb, the red mullet, the akalêphê, “and practically all other sea creatures.”

(12) . Diog. Laert., 8.20; according to Aulus Gellius (NA 4.11.6–7), he got his information from a Pythagorean friend of his named Xenophilus.

(13) . Marcel Detienne, Les jardins d’Adonis (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 78–88, assumed that the conflicting accounts concern two different groups of Pythagoreans: the theoretikoi rejected meat entirely, the akousmatikoi or politikoi ate it selectively; Christoph Riedweg, Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching, and Influence, translated by Susan Rendall (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), 69, suggests a similar solution. Walter Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, translated by E. L. Minar, Jr. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 180–83, however, had already proposed that the muddle in the sources reflects the fact that the Pythagorean life “developed from living custom, with all its complexity and paradox, rather than from clearly articulated doctrine,” and that the attribution of total abstinence to the theoretikoi and selective meat-eating to the akousmatikoi was merely an attempt by Nicomachus of Gerasa, writing in the second century CE, to resolve the contradiction that he found in his own sources. C. H. Kahn, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), 9, tentatively suggests that strict vegetarianism became the rule only after the collapse of the Pythagoreans as an organized political power.

(p.200) (14) . Porph., Vit. Pyth. 7 = Eudoxus F 325 Lasserre.

(15) . Mnesimachus F 1 Kassel-Austin = Diog. Laert. 8.37; Antiphanes F 133 Kassel-Austin = Ath. 4.161a; Alexis F 223 Kassel-Austin = Ath. 4.161b.

(16) . FGrHist 134 F 17 = Strabo, Geog. 15.1.63–65, C 715–16.

(17) . Mnesimachus F 1 Kassel-Austin = Diog. Laert. 8.37; English translation, Diogenes Laertius: Lives, Teachings and Sayings of Famous Philosophers, translated by R. D. Hicks, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925).

(18) . Pythagoreans: Detienne, Les jardins d’Adonis, 71–114; Orphics: Detienne, Dionysos mis à mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), 161–217; summed up in Detienne, Dionysos mis à mort, 138–57, and more briefly in Detienne and Vernant, La cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec, 7–16.

(19) . See, for example, Detienne, Dionysos mis à mort, 43.

(20) . Orpheus: Linforth, Arts of Orpheus, esp. 291–306, and M. L. West, The Orphic Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), esp. 2–3. For followers of Pythagoras, see, for example, the brief survey of Kahn, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans.

(21) . There are in fact few explicit statements about sacrificial practice in the Orphic tradition; Detienne relies instead on the myth of the Titan’s dismemberment and cooking of Dionysus, which he reads as a critique of the practice of animal sacrifice. Although Detienne dates this myth to the sixth century BCE (Dionysos mis à mort, 165), there is no evidence for its existence prior to the third or at most the fourth century BCE (Linforth, Arts of Orpheus, 307–64; West, Orphic Poems, 140–75). The earliest explicit statements about sacrificial practice in the Pythagorean tradition appear in sources of the third century CE (e.g., Diog. Laert., 8.33; Porph., Vit. Pyth. 36; and Iambl., Vit. Pyth. 85, 150, and 152–53).

(22) . “Dans une société où la consommation de la nourriture carnée est inséparable de la pratique du sacrifice sanglant, qui constitue l’acte rituel le plus important de la religion politique, refuser de manger de la viande ne peut être une forme d’originalité purement individuelle ou simplement gastronomique: c’est rejeter d’un coup tout un système de valeurs véhiculé par un certain mode de communication entre les dieux et le monde des hommes” (Detienne, Les jardins d’Adonis, 86).

(23) . It is also worth noting that a refusal to eat food from “ensouled” sources had much broader implications than a refusal to participate in animal sacrifice, since not all animals that were eaten were slaughtered in sacrificial rituals; fish and game, for example, virtually never figured as sacrificial victims; J. N. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 12–16; I owe this reference to Fred Naiden. Nevertheless, these were presumably also avoided by Orphics and Pythagoreans.

(24) . See, for example, Burkert, Homo Necans, 180; Riedweg, Pythagoras, 36–37.

(25) . For example, G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 318–20; B. Inwood, The Poem of Empedocles: A Text and Translation with an Introduction, rev. ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 64.

(26) . DK 31 B 137 = F 128 Inwood, Poem of Empedocles, translated by Inwood.

(27) . DK 31 B 139 = F 124 Inwood, Poem of Empedocles, translated by Inwood; cf. Porph., Abst. 2.31.5.

(28) . Sacrificial imagery is used to great dramatic effect, especially by Aeschylus; see, for example, Froma Zeitlin, “The Motif of Corrupted Sacrifice in Aeschylus’ Oresteia,” TAPA (p.201) 96 (1965): 463–508. It was also used very effectively by Euripides; see, for example, David Sansone, “The Sacrifice Motif in Euripides’ IT,” TAPA 105 (1975): 283–95; Robin Mitchell-Boyask, “Sacrifice and Revenge in Euripides’ Hecuba,” Ramus 22 (1993): 116–34; and Albert Henrichs, “Drama and Dromena: Bloodshed, Violence, and Sacrificial Metaphor in Euripides,” HSCP 100 (2000): 173–88.

(29) . Σ Ar., Av. 1354: Κύρβεις […] ἀπὸ τῶν Κορυβάντων, ἐκείνων γὰρ εὕρημα, ὥς Θεόφραστος ἐν τῷ Περὶ Εὐσεβείας. Cf. Porph., Abst. 21.1: ὐπὸ τῶν κύρβεων, αἳ τῶν Κρήτηθέν εἰσι Κορυβαντικῶν ἱερῶν οἷον ἀντίγραφα.

(30) . For example, in the summary of Arius Didymus preserved by Stobaeus 2.7.25, and in the ps.-Aristotelian treatise On Virtues and Vices 5.2–3, 1250b22–4; see William W. Fortenbaugh, “Theophrastus: Piety, Justice and Animals,” in Theophrastean Studies, Philosophie der Antike 17 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2003), 190.

(31) . See Dirk Obbink, “The Origin of Greek Sacrifice: Theophrastus on Religion and Cultural History,” in Theophrastean Studies on Natural Science, Physics and Metaphyscics, Ethics, Religion and Rhetoric, edited by W. W. Fortenbaugh and R. W. Sharples (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1988), 282–83, and, more generally, Fortenbaugh, “Theophrastus.”

(32) . Iambl., Myst. 5, esp. 5.14; for discussion, see Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 146–52, and Emma C. Clarke, Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis: A Manifesto of the Miraculous (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 39–57.

(33) . See further Porphyre: De l’abstinence, Tome II: Livres I et II, edited with French translation and notes by J. Bouffartigue and M. Patillon (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1979), 35–36, who discuss various proposals for identifying these Platonists more precisely.

(34) . Abst. 2.36.1–2; the context is his discussion of the proper offerings to make to the intelligible gods. The general principle is that people should offer to the gods that which the gods have given them, and thus hymns in words and contemplation are appropriate for the intelligible gods. The Pythagoreans, who regard the gods as numbers, consequently make offerings of numbers to them.

(35) . See the discussion in Bouffartigue and Patillon, Porphyre, 10–11 and 35.

(36) . Euseb., Praep. evang. 4.13.1: “One might best therefore, so I think, pay the fitting attention to the divine, and in consequence more than any human by comparison find him favorable and kindly, if he was not to sacrifice in any way to God (to Him whom we so name), who is one and superior to all, second to whom we must necessarily suppose the other gods, nor address any perceptible thing to him at all, for he needs nothing even from those who are superior to us, nor is there any plant or animal at all that the earth grows or that the air nourishes to which no pollution is attached. One should always use with Him the superior kind of discourse, I mean that which does not issue through the mouth, but ask for His blessing with the noblest element in us, and this is Mind, which needs no instrument. For these reasons one should in no way sacrifice to the great God who is above all”. (Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana: Letters of Apollonius, Ancient Testimonia, Eusebius’ Reply to Hierocles, translated by C. P. Jones (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), T 22. See further Bouffartigue and Patillon, Porphyre, 30–34, and Clark, Porphyry, 152–53, for comparisons of this passage with that of Porphyry.

(37) . Porph., Vit. Pyth. 2. Apollonius’s biography of Pythagoras was used more extensively by Iamblichus: I. Lévy, Recherches sur les sources de la légende de Pythagore (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1926), 104–10.

(p.202) (38) . Bouffartigue and Patillon, Porphyre, 11, note that precepts similar to those attributed to this theologos are elsewhere explicitly attributed to Pythagoras both by Porphyry himself (Vit. Pyth. 36) and by Diogenes Laertius (8.20 and 8.22). Porphyry elsewhere in this work uses the term theologos in the singular only once, at Abst. 2.55.1, of a certain “Seleucus the theologos”; when he uses it in the plural, which he does much more frequently, he seems to have in mind the Chaldean Oracles (Bouffartigue and Patillon, Porphyre, 39–46).

(39) . For a very different view of this treatise’s possible contents, see the chapter by Fritz Graf in this volume; given the lack of evidence, certainty is impossible. Our two suggestions are not necessarily incompatible, however, since the broad theology of sacrifice that I propose might well have been sketched out as a sort of preface to a more detailed manual of rituals.

(40) . We may note, for whatever it is worth, that these are the circumstances in which Philostratus depicts Apollonius as expounding on sacrifice (VA 1.31–32 and 5.25).