Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice

Jennifer Knust and Zsuzsanna Varhelyi (co-editors)


Oxford University Press

Examining the diverse religious texts and practices of the late Hellenistic and Roman periods, this collection of essays investigates the many meanings and functions of ritual sacrifice in the ancient world. The essays survey sacrificial acts, ancient theories, and literary as well as artistic depictions of sacrifice, showing that any attempt to identify a single underlying significance of sacrifice is futile. Sacrifice cannot be defined merely as a primal expression of violence, despite the frequent equation of sacrifice to religion and sacrifice to violence in many modern scholarly works; nor is it sufficient to argue that all sacrifice can be explained by guilt, by the need to prepare and distribute animal flesh, or by the communal function of both the sacrificial ritual and the meal.

As the authors of these essays demonstrate, sacrifice may be invested with all of these meanings, or none of them. The killing of the animal, for example, may take place offstage rather than in sight, and the practical, day-to-day routine of plant and animal offerings may have been invested with meaning, too. Yet sacrificial acts, or discourses about these acts, did offer an important site of contestation for many ancient writers, even when the religions they were defending no longer participated in sacrifice. Negotiations over the meaning of sacrifice remained central to the competitive machinations of the literate elite, and their sophisticated theological arguments did not so much undermine sacrificial practice as continue to assume its essential validity.

Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice offers new insight into the connections and differences among the Greek and Roman, Jewish and Christian religions.