The recipe for animal sacrifice in ancient Greece

By Flint Dibble

We’re so used to modern, twenty-first century recipes. Everything is spelled out to a tee: ingredients, amounts, instructions. But, even if you look at earlier 20th century recipes, the detail is sparser. Techniques and amounts could be optional or elided over since certain knowledge was assumed. Ancient recipes, like those by the Roman chef Apicius, are even worse. There’s so much assumed knowledge, and we’re at such a cultural distance that it’s difficult to know exactly how a meal was prepared (though that doesn’t stop us from trying).

The recent online trend in recipes is recipe-blogging. For these, the detail can be excruciating. You need to read (or scroll) through a personal story about the recipe to get to the ingredients, amounts, and process. Understanding ancient Greek food from literary sources is like having access to the story part of a recipe-blog, without the recipe itself.

The recipe for animal sacrifice in ancient Greece is deceivingly simple: wrap a few bones in fat and burn them to a crisp. But, like many ancient recipes, the closer you examine it, the more questions you have. When you put together all our sources of evidence for ancient sacrifice – literary texts, artistic depictions, and ancient animal bones – the variability in ancient practice refreshes old research angles.

The epic poet Hesiod first described the reasons behind ancient animal sacrifice in a story about Prometheus tricking Zeus. Having chopped up an ox, he arranged two portions: 1) for mortals, Prometheus assigned the meat stuffed in the unappetizing stomach, and 2) while Zeus chose the white bones hidden beneath delicious, glistening fat. Hesiod ends this tale of deception with the offhand comment that ever since then, people have burned white bones for the gods (Hesiod Theogony 557).

But animal sacrifice was everywhere in ancient Greece. At every twist and turn of the story, Homeric heroes sacrificed mythical herds of big, beautiful bulls. In Book 3 of the Odyssey, the sacrificial recipe for a cow at the Palace of Nestor at Pylos is described in epic detail. After it was struck with an ax, and its blood collected in a bowl:

They butchered her, cut out the thighs, all in the proper place, and covered them with double fat and placed raw flesh upon them. The old king burned the pieces on the logs, and poured the bright red wine. The young men came to stand beside him holding five-pronged forks. They burned the thigh-bones thoroughly and tasted the entrails, then carved up the rest and skewered the meat on pointed spits, and roasted it (translation from Wilson 2017).

This scene is an exception. Most of the time, the gory details of sacrifice were assumed knowledge. That said, when mentioned, most often, the thigh-bones were mentioned as burned for the gods.

There are only a few exceptions to this pattern of thigh-bone burning in ancient Greek literature. In Aristophanes’ comedic play Peace (1055), the protagonist notes, after burning the thigh-bones of a sacrificed sheep, that the tail is curling. Scholars have connected this line with the many scenes of sacrificial curling tails painted on Athenian pots. Without this iconographic evidence, we wouldn’t have a clear context for this enigmatic mention in literature.

Pottery: red-figured stamnos depicting a an altar on a double plinth, on which two rows of sticks set crosswise, are burning, with a large hook or the horn of an ox and a square object in the midst of the flames; beside it stands a bearded, wreathed man, in a mantle, inscribed.
Athenian red-figure stamnos depicting a tail curling on a flaming altar (British Museum 1839,0214.68 CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

A second exception is in the epic myth, the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (115-137). Hermes steals a herd of cattle from Apollo, and – to avoid being tracked – he marches them backwards to a cave. Wanting to make it up to the other gods, Hermes slaughters two of the cattle and distributes the meat into 12 portions. Cleaning up the mess, he burns the feet and heads of the cattle in the fire.

This scene is troublesome. There are no parallels in the artistic or literary record. To some scholars of ancient Greek religion, this is an inversion of a typical sacrifice. A literary construct of sorts. After all, the gods here were assigned the meaty human portion. Everything’s mixed up.

But this whole picture is turned on its head when you look at ancient trash: the food remains found in archaeological sites. For a long time, bits of animal bone were ignored in favor of the study of monumental temples or beautiful art. As a zooarchaeologist, I can tell you that when you start looking at ancient trash, the whole picture of ancient Greek animal sacrifice gets messy.

On the one hand, animal bone evidence does somewhat match patterns from literature and art. Most of our burned bones at sanctuaries and temples were thigh-bones. At a few temples, we even have examples of burned tails. More surprisingly, recent evidence shows several sites where the feet (and sometimes heads) of animals were burned. Maybe that scene in the Hymn to Hermes reveals actual ritual practice and not a literary inversion. 

Burned ankle joint
Burned ankle joint from Azoria, Crete. Photography by Jonida Martini.
Feet bones of sheep and goat.
Feet bones of sheep and goats from Azoria, Crete. Photograph by Jonida Martini.

On the other hand, the evidence is also more complicated. Most of the animal bones from ancient Greek sites aren’t burned, including many unburned thigh-bones found in many settlements. Whether this means most animals weren’t sacrificed or that some sacrifices didn’t involve bone burning is unclear.

Plus, even among a pit of burned bones, most of which match one of the patterns above, there are large numbers of exceptions: other anatomical parts that were burned. For example, bones in archaeological deposits from the Palace of Nestor at Pylos do provide evidence for the burning of cattle thigh-bones in feasting contexts, but burned in equal numbers were the jaws and upper-forelimbs (humerus).

The variability presented by this new source of evidence alongside the ambiguities of assumed knowledge means that we need to re-evaluate our evidence. While the burgeoning study of food trash won’t let us recreate all the details of a recipe, it’s an opportunity for us to look upon recipes in old texts with fresh eyes.


Flint Dibble is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow in the School of History, Archaeology, and Religion at Cardiff University. His project ZOOCRETE will be examining the role of animals and foodways in ancient Greece, with a specific focus on Crete. His research touches on topics of urbanism, climate change, religious ritual, and everyday life. Flint is also a public scholar with a strong commitment to sharing knowledge widely. He is active on Twitter (@FlintDibble) where he regularly writes Twitter threads with footnotes that present archaeology to the broader public.  

The Pressure Cooker was Not an Instant Success

Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin's "Digester of Bones," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Denis Pepin’s “Digester of Bones,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Jennifer Egloff

“What’s in your Pot tonight?”

This question is often asked on Facebook pages dedicated to the Instant Pot and other electronic pressure cookers.  While many people know that the pressure cooker existed prior to becoming trendy during the past few years, it may come as a surprise to learn that it was invented in the 1670s by a man named Denis Papin.  Although Papin is not a household name or textbook staple like his colleagues Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, or Isaac Newton, he was a noteworthy member of the European knowledge community during the second half of the seventeenth century. (For more on Pepin and his connections to early modern scientists, technicians, machine-makers, natural scientists, and philosophers, see Thony Christie’s super post at The Renaissance Mathematicus!)

Born in Blois, France in 1647 he studied medicine and utilized patronage connections with Marie Charron, the wife of Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in order to receive a position assisting the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens with physical and chemical experiments at the Louvre in 1673.  In 1675, Papin relocated to London—equipped with a letter of introduction from Huygens—where he soon began assisting Boyle with his air pump experiments.  While doing so, Papin designed his pressure cooker, which was a sealed container, in which water could be heated to create internal pressure that was many times greater than that of the earth’s atmosphere.  By experimenting on food, Papin was applying the principles of temperature, pressure, and volume to practical problems, while simultaneously formulating additional theoretical principles from his observations. 

After having demonstrated his device to the Royal Society, Papin published an account called A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones in 1681.  His text contained a description of the experiments he did with his Digester, and how it radically decreased the time required to cook meat, soften bones, ferment wine, prepare confections, dyes, and chemicals, and even incubate eggs.  He also included an account of the cost to build his engine, and provided some cost-benefit analysis, highlighting the potential for large profits. 

Papin especially highlighted how valuable his device would be at sea, both logistically—because one could cook with sea water in it—and with regards to nutrition.  Scurvy, which has the symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems, was a habitual problem for early modern English mariners.  While medical professionals now understand that scurvy is caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid, also referred to as vitamin C, during the seventeenth century there were many competing theories about the causes.

Calling upon his medical training, Papin claimed that mariners’ high instances of developing scurvy was related to overconsumption of salted meat, which was a staple of mariners’ diets.  Papin considered his Digester’s ability to quickly and easily turn bones—which might have otherwise been discarded—into nutritious and flavorful jellies to be one of its most significant applications.  He claimed, “that Gellies being made of volatile parts, and easie to be digested, would be apt to correct that defect of the salt meat.”[1]  Papin thought that jellies would be nutritious for people on land as well, and he focused on jellies when making his financial arguments about the profitability of his Digester.

Although some of his contemporaries, including the diarist John Evelyn, enjoyed his jellies, Papin made it clear in his 1687 text, A Continuation of the New Digester of Bones, in which he detailed additional experiments that he had done, that “very few People have been willing to make use of it.”[2]  Throughout Continuation, Papin made efforts to promote his device to a wide variety of people.  He even performed a weekly live demonstration of his device—kind of the seventeenth-century equivalent of an infomercial.  However, his stipulation that anyone who attended needed “to bring along with them a Recommendation from any Members of the Royal Society” may have been working against his objective of trying to get more quotidian people interested in utilizing his Digester for practical purposes.[3]

There are many reasons why the pressure cooker may not have been immediately successful, including the temporal and monetary investment required to build the device, the fact that they did occasionally explode, and that preparing food was traditionally a female task, whereas Papin advertised his new technology toward men.  Nevertheless, Papin serves as an illustrative example of a member of the seventeenth century European knowledge community.  Similarly to many of his counterparts, Papin’s intellectual interests spanned many disciplines.  He studied medicine, performed physical and chemical experiments, taught mathematics, and knew multiple languages. 

The fact that Papin, and many of his counterparts, sought to apply theoretical principles to practical problems, such as food preservation and nutrition, while in turn utilizing their observations of these quotidian problems to further develop and refine their physical and chemical theories, can help us to understand that the equations written on the pages of our textbooks, and the quotidian events of our daily lives—such as preparing our daily bread—are not as disparate as we may have been lead to believe.

Resources and Further Reading

Papin, Denis.  A continuation of the new digester of bones its improvements, and new uses it hath been applyed to, both for sea and land : together with some improvements and new uses of the air-pump, tryed both in England and Italy. London: Printed by Joseph Streater, 1687.

Papin, Denis.  A new digester or engine for softning bones containing the description of its make and use in these particulars : viz. cookery, voyages at sea, confectionary, making of drinks, chymistry, and dying : with an account of the price a good big engine will cost, and of the profit it will afford. London: Printed by J.M. for Henry Bonwicke, 1681.

Shapin, Steven. “The Invisible Technician.” American Scientist 77, no. 6 (1989): 554-63.

Shapin, Steven.  A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2016.

[1] Papin, A New Digester, 21.

[2] Papin, Continuation, A3-A3v.

[3] Papin, Continuation, A3v.

Jennifer Egloff earned her PhD in History from New York University in 2015.  Combining her undergraduate training in Mathematics with her graduate training in History, Egloff’s dissertation “The Cultural Life of Numbers in the Early Modern English Atlantic” incorporates elements of Atlantic History and the History of Science to explore the multivalent ways that Anglophone individuals utilized numerical methods and mathematical techniques to attempt the face the challenges brought on by the opening of the Atlantic to increased exploration and commerce, competing religious philosophies, and the increased availability of information.  A strong advocate of interdisciplinarity, Egloff recently held a short-term fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, and she will be joining the History Department of Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in August 2019.