Conceptions of the Animal

This is an attic red figure amphora depicting a sacrificial animal being adorned with (sacrificial fillets) stemmata by two women before it is to be slaughtered. The context is a little later than our period of primary interest (the archaic period). The context of the scene is probably a festival in a sanctuary of Dionysos. 

For themselves, the Greeks had myths like that of Prometheus to explain some of their practices. Those were the stories they told themselves. But what other explanations for the Greek sacrificial share are there?

Animal sacrifice is ritualized slaughter followed by a meat meal. And to have this ritualized slaughter, you need the perfect animal– unblemished, adorned, with gilded horns. When this beautiful animal was being led to sacrifice, there was a parody of innocence – the community could pretend that the animal wanted to go. Everyone wanted the animal to go to sacrifice as though of its own initiative. This idea of the animal going willingly to sacrifice is an old one – enough so that some scholars use it as a link to ancient hunting practices. Archaic Greeks during ritual sacrifice sprinkled the animal with water which caused it to jerk its head as though nodding in assent to its death – there’s that comedy of innocence again.

What this tells us about the history of the sacrificial share is that it probably comes from an era where killing animals for food was necessary – a pre-agricultural era where rituals among hunters were necessary for mutual safety. Ideas conserved like the comedy of innocence show us a glimmer of this older, anthropological explanation for why the Greeks at the animal and gave the inedible parts of a sacrifice.