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 sacrifice.is 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.


About

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.