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Greek and Roman Animal Sacrifice: Ancient Victims, Modern Observers

Reviewed by Alexander Hollmann

The editors of this collection ask the question, some forty years after the publication of Homo Necans (1972; English translation 1983) and La cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec (1979; English translation 1989), whether the grand theories of Burkert and Vernant with their insistence on animal sacrifice as the central ritual of Greek (and Roman) religion can still stand and whether the category of sacrifice has ceased to be a “tool” and has become an “obstacle” (10). To this end they have assembled eight contributions from a conference on this theme held at the University of Chicago that survey the historical background to these theories, how they stack up against the archaeological, inscriptional, and visual evidence, and how they connect to and are influenced by the genres of Greek comedy and tragedy.

Part I (“Modern historiography”) investigates the theories of sacrifice that preceded and influenced Burkert, Vernant, and Girard and shows these and subsequent theories as creations of their time and reactions to forces and tendencies (generally on the far Right) that their proponents saw as threatening. Lincoln concentrates on three views of sacrifice: that of Hubert and Mauss, who viewed it as “an act of sanctification and civic duty”; of Bataille and Caillois, who saw in it “ecstatic release and energizing dissolution”; and of Meuli, who found “guilt and dread” behind it (30-31). He concludes by suggesting that the modern theories descended from these also have their agenda: “the stakes of theory are real and they are high” (31).

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