The Sacrificial Share

The image you are looking at is an amphora – that is, a multipurpose storage unit. The subject is Herakles driving a bull to be sacrificed, presumably at an altar. The Greeks practiced animal sacrifice. Unless the sacrafice was a holocaust, the tail, the fat thigh-bones and the gall-bladder were the only parts of the animal burnt in honor of the god to whom the people were sacrificing. The rest of the meat was eaten by the pious people making the sacrifice. The Greeks told themselves stories about this practice.  exhibit introduces the division of meat between gods and men in animal sacrifice - that is the sacred share.

This sacred share was significant - it determined what people ate at a feast, and there is a very serious relationship for the Greeks between religion, food, and being a member of society. We can see this in a comedy by Menander. 

By the time of Menander (who wrote comedy in the third century) there must have been at least a few with the entirely inappropriate and cynical attitude that sacrificing in this manner was not pious. The unpopular Cnemon, a grouchy man for whom Menander’s Dyskolos (Bad-Tempered Man or the Grouch) is named, presents just that opinion. In fact, he says:

“Look at them all! In they come with their beds and their flasks of wine… for themselves, of course, not the god! All it takes is a bit of incense and some flat cake to toss over a small fire on the altar, with reverence. That’s all the god needs. This bunch of thieves toss the worst part of the meat to the god -the bony bit of the tail- some offal and they chomp down the rest! Some piety!” (Menander, Lines 447-453, from the translation included in the source section).

Cnemon, though, is hardly a sympathetic character. In fact, throughout the play, his inability to engage in society’s reciprocity causes him nothing but trouble. Cnemon’s comments show us something significant: 

There is also serious link between pleasure and sacrifice, as Cnemon points out. So what stories did the Greeks tell themselves about why they could give junk to the gods and still be engaged in an act of worship?