The Cuisine of Sacrifice

I recently finished another of my favorite sort of book, the sort that brings order and intelligibility to a mass of fascinating facts, many of them new to me: The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks. It is a collection of papers by European classicists and folklorists, mostly French, edited by the eminent scholars Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Three key insights inform everything in the book:

  1. In the ancient world, essentially all the meat available for consumption in human settlements was the fruit of sacrificial rites.
  2. Cookery and sacrifice were therefore aspects of the same procedure. Sacrifice was the way animals were slaughtered and butchered in preparation for cooking; cooking the meat was part of the sacrificial rite.
  3. Participation in the communal feast on the fruits of the sacrifice was the rite of social assimilation. To share the common meal was to declare loyalty to the cult, and to the settlement that it informed. To refuse participation – as with, e.g., vegetarian cults like that of the Pythagoreans – was to refuse membership in the community.

The book examines various aspects of animal sacrifice in myth, history, and down to the present day. It is well worth a read, if only for the factoids that litter its pages by the hundred. What follows are some of my marginal notes, organized not at all. Many of them are speculative; I do not present them as anything more than a record of suggestive associations that occurred to me in reading.

  • There is a striking contrast between the social contract theory of the origins of society and the sacrificial theory. The latter is clearly much more tightly linked to the hunting and sharing practices of primitive hominids. The hunt is socially coordinated – men hunt in packs – and the kill is brought back to camp, placed “in the center” as goods to be offered to the god, shared, dealt out equally to the band. Among the Greeks it was critical that every member of the polis share in the fruits of the altar.
  • Thus it really is literally true that if there is no altar of sacrifice, there is no people, and a fortiori no civilization.
  • Society is not the product of a contract – an absurd idea, when you consider it seriously, for contracts are enforceable in the first place, and thus make any sense, only in the context of an already extant social milieu. Society is rather the product of a donation of goods to a god, in partial payment for the good of being, and in partial recompense and expiation for the pain inflicted upon others in the hunt and in war. It is the shared participation in such donations – in the offering, and in its consumption – that secures society.
  • At root, society is commensality.
  • The hunt comes first, then society – not in the order of time, but in the order of logic, in which the hunt is logically prior to society. The hunter returns to camp with his prey, and shares it with his genetic relatives, his family. No prey, no sharing.
  • Hominids hunt in bands, though. So you don’t get a hunt without society, and you don’t get society without the sacrificial sharing of the kill produced by the hunt. Society and the hunt come as a package deal. Nevertheless the hunt is logically prior to society, for it is possible in principle that a man may hunt alone, and men often do.
  • The hunter shares his kill with his relatives through the mediation of his father, the patriarch, the king (the kinning), who is the heir, the vicar and the angel of the ancestral god of his house and line. He gives the prey to his father, and through him to his other relatives. The father accepts the gift on behalf of the god, sacrifices it, and then sees to its equal distribution.
  • So the family is the root of society, the first and most intimate circle of sharing.
  • The sanctity of the patriarch, and his mana, is secured by his identification with the god of the clan. It is his identification with the god that makes the patriarch authoritative, and terrible.
  • The best hunters and warriors were rewarded not with larger portions of food, but with the choice or honorable bits, and with honors, like laurel wreaths.
  • Society is manufactured then in the ritual sacrifice and sharing of food. The sacrifice pacifies and prevents violent competition for shares of the kill, and recompenses the hunter for the loss of his kill with mana, honor, dignity, status. It obviates and palliates the resentment of the hunter at the loss of his kill, and it obviates and palliates the resentment of the people at the superior skill of the hunter. Thus it allows them to treat him as an authority, to confer mana upon him (or, perhaps better, to recognize it in him) without stint.
  • The tithe is a remnant of this sharing by the hunter. We see it also in the potlatch.
  • We see it also in the sacrifice of the warrior – in the limit, the King himself – who lays down his life for his people or for his friends. We see it in the martyr who lays down his life for the Truth of his people.
  • Men rule – dispense justice, direct war, perform and divide the sacrifice – while women are excluded from these offices, because men as physically stronger are more fit to them. Indeed, their physical might is crucial to the success of these activities. You don’t want a woman trying to control a bullock in extremis. So the butcher and his assistants must be men. Likewise, the division of the spoils of war or the hunt must be overseen by a figure of power, able to impose his will on the other men of the clan.
  • It is this division of responsibility and danger which is the origin of the ancient exclusion of women from the offices and duties of citizenship: war, the hunt, sacrifice, politics, foreign policy, and so forth; but also, derivatively, commerce, which is the foreign policy of the family.
  • Who can have no role in the rite of sacrifice can have no political power. While everyone in the polis shared in the benefits of sacrifice, only citizens – free men – could participate in the sacrificial rite. Participation in the sacrificial feast confers membership in the polis, and exacts duties of loyalty; but it is ontic capacity to participation in the sacrificial kill itself only that procures political power – citizenship, and office.
  • Meat sacrificed to a god as food becomes an outlying bit of the body of the god who eats it. Who thereafter partakes of that meat, then, eats the body of the god, and in digesting it assimilates that body to his own, and vice versa. This is why Paul warns us to be careful about eating meat sacrificed to demons:

… it is significant that the apostle, writing to the Athenians as a true Jew, essentially denounces not sacrificial practice but the cult of idols (Acts 17:16 ff.), and what he condemns in pagan sacrifice is not the sacrificial act itself, but the intended recipient: whatever pagans immolate in sacrifice, “they sacrifice to demons who are not God,” and consequently, Christians who eat meat immolated to idols risk entering into communion with these demons. By partaking in this way “both at the table of the Lord and at the table of demons,” they will provoke the Lord’s jealousy.

Cuisine of Sacrifice, page 194

  • To eat the meat of a foreign god is to join oneself thereto, and so to the people of that god. It is to declare one’s loyalty to a foreign (and ipso facto potentially inimical) tribe or town. Table fellowship is therefore the sine qua non of membership in a polis or clan (although it does not suffice for citizenship – foreigners and slaves partake of the feast, but are not citizens). So Catholics and Anglicans may not eat the food of each other’s sacrificial feasts. This is why during his sojourn at Antioch Peter was ambivalent about table fellowship with Greeks.
  • The sacrificial division is the isonomic – i.e., self-ruling, self-naming, self-specifying, self-defining – operation of the polis. The nomen of the sacrificial cult is the nomen of the polis: no cult, no culture. The cult then is the gnomon of the polis, the rule and standard of its own agreement with its basic apprehensions of reality – with Truth.
  • As isonomic with the polis, sacrifice makes the polis (as opposed only to the person of its human lord) isocorporeal with its god, and thus for the people the palmary object of their worldly loyalty. A lord there will always certainly be, a king and an oligarchy, and a hierarchy of nobility. And dukes will always enjoy the personal loyalty of their retainers. But these offices and their officers are products of the requirements, logistical and economic, of the isonomic sacrificial rite. Their personal aspect, however important, is secondary.
  • The priest faces up to the god. The King faces out to surrounding peoples. The latter hunts, wars, negotiates, gives laws; the former sacrifices and distributes. But both are of the people, arising from them. The political relations with and between them are all familiar.
  • The tithe is the descendant of the sacrificial offering (and property tax the debased successor of tithe). In the familiar society, one pays transaction taxes, tolls, and tonlieux to fund the maintenance of the basic economic order – contracts, markets, weights and measures, laws, adjudication, borders, and so forth – but tithes are altogether different. Like the fruits of the sacrifice, they are for distribution equally, to fund the common minimum welfare of even the poorest members of the polis (as at the monasteries who would take in all who sought shelter at their doors). Thus transaction taxes are paid properly to the King and his agents, while tithes are paid properly to the Bishop and his. Payment of property tax to the sovereign then is a misdirection of funds that ought properly to go to the Church.
  • The Priest must live by the King’s rules; but the King is anointed by the Priest, who otherwise recuses himself from business, war, sex, family life and geniture during the period of his service, devoting himself instead entirely – including sometimes even the donation of all his worldly goods – to the god of the polis. The Priest may anoint an usurper, or an invader; so may he also declare the King illegitimate. Thus the super-eminent authority is not the King, but the Priest.
  • There is nothing to prevent a man holding more than one office – prophet, priest, king.
  • Samuel was a prophet who ruled over Israel. His prophetic office trumped his kingly office. When he saw that his line was failing its kingly office, he foreswore it for himself and his own house in favor of Saul. When Saul went off the rails, Samuel fired him and hired David.
  • The King maintains and protects the community of exchange – the market – while the Priest protects and maintains the commensal community of donation. The King regulates the domain of property and its exchange or transfer; the Priest oversees the donation, sacrifice, oblation, surrender of property to the god, and to the common feast.
  • So basic welfare is the domain of the Priest.
  • The transaction tax is mandatory for all participants in the market, while the tithe is voluntary – ideally, at least. The tithe is voluntary because it signifies a moral commitment to the polis, extending in theory all the way to the expenditure of life itself in her defense. Such moral commitments cannot be coerced.
  • As a tenth, the tithe is in proportion to one’s increase: to one’s capacity to earn a return of and on investment, one’s capacity through the deployment of capital (human or otherwise) to earn a return from Great Creating Nature. Thus it is a function of wealth, of capacity to pay. The rich are expected to pay more in tithes than the poor.
  • Tithes on real property ought therefore to be a function, not of its total value, but of the increase of that value from one year to the next. No increase, no tithe.
  • The voluntary donation of tithe establishes that one is not a rapacious wolf, not an interloper or deceiver. It shows one is not a criminal (crime being the opposite of a gift), nor a tyrant who kills and takes unjustly for himself – not an exploiter, but rather magnificent and munificent, noble, magnanimous, and on account of magnificent giving authoritative to his beneficiaries.
  • A pledge of a tithe is a promise to give. It is a contract analogous to a note of promise given in exchange.
  • To pay is to exchange for value received. To give is to surrender value without expectation of return, for the sake of what is good in itself. It is a gesture of love: of the will to do and secure the good of another, in this case the polis.
  • The obligation to pay transaction tax is legal, while the obligation to tithe is moral.
  • An oligarch who does not give magnificently to the sacrifice is a resented tyrant. He drinks the life blood of the people, rather than giving them meat in due season, as he ought.
  • The merely commercial society is a congeries of selfish aliens. The familiar society is bound by genetics. The commensal society is bound by table fellowship, by sharing.
  • A society can be commercial, familiar, commensal, or any combination of the three.
  • The ideal and default society for man is all three.
  • Familiar society is the superordinate basis of both commensal and commercial society, in their proper forms.
  • The Apostolic Succession is the successor to the familiar succession of the Kohanim.
  • Priests may sometimes marry (it varies from one tradition – from one commensal community – to another), but monks may not, ever. Levites are drawn from the monks, or from the Nazirim, at least for their periods of service in the Temple.
  • The ritual purity required for Temple service is a type of Nazorean purity.
  • One may cycle in and out of Temple service and the concomitant fulfillment of Nazirite vows. Or, one may devote oneself permanently to such vows in a religious life: to ascetic monasticism in a desert retreat or an urban cloister (or, in India, as one of the skyclad).
  • Donation procures status, honor. Exchange procures economic value. These are two different sorts of economic or social influence. They both generate value: status and honor are economically valuable, and wealth is honored. But while other sorts of value can be traded, status and honor are not fungible, and cannot be transferred or exchanged. You can’t transfer your status and honor to anyone other than your own family. They can be got rid of only by being destroyed, or wasted.

24 thoughts on “The Cuisine of Sacrifice

  1. Pingback: The Cuisine of Sacrifice | Neoreactive

  2. Kristor,

    I don’t have time to read all your post right now so I just read the beginning. One question. Can the insights from the book be used to support Memorialism, Real Presence, Consubstantiation, Transubstantiation or any/all of these?

    • Not really. The authors are not thinking in those terms. They do however take it for granted that the ancients thought of the victim’s consecration to the god as imbuing it with the god’s virtues and powers. We see the same thing at work in us when we revere or treasure an object that belonged to a hero or celebrity as somehow carrying something of him. As belonging to the God, the consecrated victim is a member of his household in the heavens, and is as associated with the god as sunglasses that belonged to Elvis are with him. Touching the victim, then, one touches something of the god. One can thereby be healed, as with the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment.

      I gathered from other sources the notion that the ancients understood the victim as also literally a local embodiment of the god, a salient of the god himself. This is how they thought of membership in general: a member of the House of Abraham was as such a piece of Abraham’s body and person – was Seed of Abraham – even at a remove of centuries from the Patriarch. This was so even of adoptive members like Eleazar or Hagar. To be Abraham’s was to be of Abraham, and to be of Abraham is to be Abraham.

      Likewise we say, “I *am* Christian.” Our membership in Christ is not just a matter of our convictions and allegiances, but of our ontological membership in his Body.

      The transformation of the victim into the god at his consecration is echoed in the ontological transformations of priest, king, and prophet at their anointment (and of the Christian at his lustration in baptism and his anointment with chrism). Lustration and anointment are what one does to consecrate a victim, which makes him a vicar. Thus only does his blood have the god’s power to bless, or his body to sanctify.

  3. Rene Girard argues that animal sacrifice is a later development; that the animals substitute for human victims when people acquire ethical squeamishness about cannibalism. Eric Gans, who develops a number of Girard’s ideas in his discourse of Generative Anthropology, sees it the other way around: Human sacrifice is an intensification of animal sacrifice. Later, there is a second substitution of the animal for the human victim. Last week my wife and I visited Montreal. In the archeological museum there was a traveling exhibit from Mexico on the Aztecs, who conducted a human sacrifice in their grand temple at Tenochtitlan every day; and who frequently supplemented the daily single human sacrifice with massacres in the hundreds. Human flesh seems to have been the main source of protein for the aristocracy. The proles had to satisfy themselves on a largely cereal diet with occasional rodent or reptile protein.

    Both Girard and Gans derive the aboriginal human culture from the matrix of sacrifice. Gans is more explicit than Girard in deriving language from sacrifice, but Girard does discuss the victim as the “transcendental signifier” in Things Hidden. For Gans’ theory, see The Origin of Language and The End of Culture.

    • On the question of whether human or animal sacrifice came first, I stand rather with Gans than Girard. Humans have always hunted, but they have not so often hunted each other, if only because it is costly to hunt prey that can hunt right back.

    • I have never thought of this before, but is Aztec human sacrifice related to the fact that the megafauna had been hunted to extinction?

      • All the Mesoamerican societies were heavily sacrificial; there is abundant evidence and direct testimony concerning human sacrifice among the stone-age people of North America, as well. It seems likely that all peoples have passed through a stage of their cultural development during which, perhaps in response to crises and upheavals, human sacrifice became a prominent ritual. We know, for example, that both the Minoans and Mycenaeans practiced human sacrifice. Mass-sacrifice on the Aztec scale is unusual, however; it really only has its counterparts in modernity.

        Very characteristically, the Aztecs put to death foreigners, either soldiers captured in battle with neighboring people or villagers (women and children) captured in purposeful raids, to feed the altars. This fact contributed to the eagerness of the victim-people to come to the aid of the Spaniards during the campaign of Hernan Cortes.

        The main product of human sacrifice is not protein, however, but social stability. Human sacrifice is unanimity-minus-one.

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  5. These are HIGHLY useful ruminations, which should definitely be considered for some kind of essay format.

    Society is not the product of a contract – an absurd idea, when you consider it seriously, for contracts are enforceable in the first place, and thus make any sense, only in the context of an already extant social milieu.

    I think one of the unseen credits that can be given to the Reactionary thought of today is the dismantling of Locke, something that is lacking in the direct sense in previous critiques. I assailed his idea of the ‘state of nature’ in my second article at Social Matter.

    Thus transaction taxes are paid properly to the King and his agents, while tithes are paid properly to the Bishop and his. Payment of property tax to the sovereign then is a misdirection of funds that ought properly to go to the Church.

    Could this immediately solve Zippy’s dilemma of property taxes as sovereign usury?

    Thus the super-eminent authority is not the King, but the Priest.

    From what I understand, this is Guénon’s view of the relationship between the priestly caste and the sovereign, and was one of the points where Evola went in the opposite direction and claimed the relationship was actually the reverse, though his evidences in favor of this position are hard to decipher.

    • Thanks, Mark. I thought about trying to turn the bullet list into an essay, but decided that it would end up somewhere between 50 and 100 pages. No time.

      I’m not sure yet whether deleting property taxes and replacing them with tithes – tithes that, NB, are moral rather than legal obligations – solves Zippy’s problem, but it seems to me that it might. Perhaps Zippy will have something to say on the subject.

      As for Social Contract Theory: yeah. Adducing society to a social contract is just adducing society to society. It seems simpler just to treat society as a Nash equilibrium – i.e., a strange attractor for animals such as we – which may or may not then ever be formalized in contracts.

      Finally, as to whether King or Priest is the final arbiter, it gets fuzzy in practice, because in most cases the King has all the swords (although not always: there is an argument that the Templars were a threat to the kings who destroyed them through false accusations of heresy and apostasy (and through a witch hunt with wild testimony to acts just as lurid and fantastic as anything from the Salem witch trials or the Amirault case) because they were the most potent military (and financial, and religious) force in Europe, answerable only to the Pope). Much depends upon the vigor of the cult that founds the kingdom. Weak cult, weak Priest. But *ideally* it would seem that the Priest should have the final say.

  6. Kristor, here’s a way-out-there comment.

    Demonic possession/possession by spirits appears to be a fairly common phenomena in the NT and thus, I assume, in the ancient world (common, that is, compared to modern times.)

    I assume this could be because of the common practice in ancient times of eating meat sacrificed to demons, thus incorporating oneself into the thing and the thing into oneself.

    • This is an interesting comment, and I eagerly await Kristor’s reply. In the meantime I think I reject the notion that demonic possession was more common in ancient than in modern times. That we do not, in modern times and in general, recognize demonic possession as such, does not mean it is less common these days. Indeed, if the mass populace eats the sacrificial meat of liberalism/modernism, what is this but to take the thing into oneself?

    • If we take the eucharist seriously, and take Paul seriously, then we must admit that what Bruce suggests is possible. Exorcists say that demons cannot gain entry where they are not first somehow admitted. Eating them would do the trick, I should think.

      I don’t know that we can say however that demonic possession is less common than of old. There are other ways to admit demons – like watching TV.

    • Somewhere on a Catholic website I recently read that there’s multiple categories. Completely from memory, there’s demonic influence (which is less than possession), demonic possession (which means control of your person) and something even more severe where the person willingly gives himself to the Enemy knowing fully what he’s doing and where he’s going.

      I’d guess that demonic influence is the more common phenomenon today that results from the sort of thing Terry describes. I wouldn’t be surprised if possession is found today mostly among serious occult practitioners of which there are relatively few.

      • That’s a perfectly legitimate distinction to make, and one I myself have made many times. However, I would add a couple points: (1) the one almost certainly precipitates the other, which is to say demonic influence unchecked will e entually lead to demonic possession; (2) what we today diagnose and attempt to control with radical drug treatment is probably, more often than most of us would care to admit, demonic possession.

  7. Does this book apply to Greeks only or are Greek customs taken to be typical of all the ancient world? Was there nothing unique or atypical Greek custom?

    Did Greeks pay tithe?

    How is the relation of tithe to property tax made?

    “The merely commercial society is a congeries of selfish aliens. The familiar society is bound by genetics. The commensal society is bound by table fellowship, by sharing.”

    The Greek notion of polity was a society that has overcame its tribal roots, if I am not mistaken.
    I have previously pointed out various lacunae in “familiar society” concept. It has no word for a neighbor or of civic friendship. These concepts are not modern, not Lockean, not commerical but already well known to Plato and Aristotle.
    In Politics, Aristotle keeps the City and the Family as two distinct levels or components of the human organization. The individual being the third component, none of these reducible to any other.

    • Does this book apply to Greeks only or are Greek customs taken to be typical of all the ancient world?

      The book is only about the Greeks and their forebears on the steppes. I generalize to the rest of the ancient world by inference from the ubiquity of animal sacrifice and the reflection that even today kosher meat must be ritually slaughtered, with a rabbi present. Blessing food before eating is a survival of the ancient sacrificial rites: to bless is literally to sprinkle with blood.

      Was there nothing unique or atypical Greek custom?

      There were many, many differences in sacrificial practices from one village to another. But some things, such as the proscription of women from the actual slaughter, were universal. I’m sure there were many differences in rubric with other peoples, too.

      Did Greeks pay tithe?

      I don’t know. Good question. But they gave animals for sacrifice, which is likewise the sort of donation that interested me. The priests got certain parts of every sacrifice, such as the hide, which they could then sell. In any case, the stuff about tithes in the speculative notes came from me.

      How is the relation of tithe to property tax made?

      This was my association. It is a theory, but based on other reading I am pretty confident in it. Property tax is a monetization of corvée labor. And corvée labor seems in the ancient world to have been given in connection with great religious festivals – which is to say, feasts – which is to say, sacrifices, at which donations to the common pot were shared out.

      I have previously pointed out various lacune in “familiar society” concept. It has no word for a neighbor or of civic friendship. These concepts are not modern, not Lockean, not commerical but already well known to Plato and Aristotle.

      To say that there is a more or less elaborated and emphasized familiar aspect to society is not to say that there are no others.

  8. Aristotle is where the reaction ought to build upon, if one does not like Locke.
    However, Locke had valuable insights. His classification of state of war, state of nature and state of laws is correct. The idea of society as a voluntary compact between citizens is correct, if taken in a proper sense. One chooses to bestow one’s primary loyalty to a City and this primary loyalty defines a particular City. Thus, Americans are those that are loyal to America.

    • It’s not that I dislike Locke. The OP wasn’t about him. It’s just that “society is a voluntary compact” is correct because it is a different way of saying “society is society.”

  9. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/07/26) | The Reactivity Place

  10. “In the ancient world, essentially all the meat available for consumption in human settlements was the fruit of sacrificial rites.”

    I think this is extremely important to remember. The ritual sacrifice of animals strikes moderns as barbaric and cruel — but that was how they slaughtered animals for meat back then. The ancients made animal slaughter a meaningful religious ritual; we have made it a meaningless industrial process. They sacrificed animals to their gods; we sacrifice them to our bellies alone.

    • And this disenchantment of slaughter – ergo, of eating – was contemporaneous with the modern disenchantment of the whole of life. By commensal sharing in the fruit of sacrifice the whole life of the polis was consecrated to the god. This was so also of the eucharist, which made of all life a sacrament (albeit often attenuated). Reject the sacrament of sacrifice, and you profane the whole social order; and this is in the truest sense to empty life of meaning and final significance; and this is to disorder it.

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