Sunday, August 21, 2005

The logistics of sacrifice (1)

The Temple of Minerva SulisLooking at an artist's rendition of the Roman temple of Minerva Sulis at Bath, UK, you will see a thin plume of smoke arising from the altar outside the temple. There appears to be no fuel, just smoke.

I got to thinking about animal sacrifice, not the whys and wherefores but the logistics.

My frame of reference here is the ancient Mediterranean, thus ruling out contemporary Santeristas, etc., contemporary extreme Kali worshippers, or even the 16th-century Aztecs, known for their (dis)assembly-line approach to human sacrifice.

For all that, go read René Girard's Violence and the Sacred.

First of all, the altar. One you have graduated from a pile of unhewn stones to a nice block of marble, are you going to build a fire on it? The heat will lead to cracking, spalling, etc. Even if you have just a small fire into which you sprinkle wine, tufts of hair clipped from the victim, handfuls of barley, or whatever, it would be destructive. So do you line the top of the altar with disposable bricks or set a brazier on it? What do the archaeologists say? Has anyone looked at altar stones for signs of fire damage?

One friend suggests looking at Book 23 of the Iliad for suggestions: the sacrifices at the funeral games of Patroklos. I tend not to trust Homer on these matters, though: he was telling An Amazing Tale of Long Ago, with larger-than-life characters who did things in a larger-than-life way.

According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, some chthonic deities got their sacrifices burned in pits. That makes sense.

As a hunter, I have cut up animals ranging in size from squirrels to elk. I know about blood and guts. After the haruspex has looked at the liver, what then? Is it burned? It won't burn fast! (Lots of fuel needed--who supplies it?) Intestines if fatty would burn better than an ox's stomach, for example. Or all those parts disposed of elsewhere? You don't just burn blood, unless you have a monster bonfire going.

In most cases, the worshippers ate the muscle meat. Fat was often burned: the smell was pleasing the gods and definitely increased the worshipers' appetites. In Fishcakes and Courtesans James Davidson discusses how to the classical Athenians, red meat-eating was all mixed up with religious taboos and sacred violence, whereas fish was "secular," and they could eat all they wanted, when they wanted.

Who gets the hide? The priests (for sale to the tanners, presumably)? If bones are burned, what about horns? The smell! The flies! The ashes!

If you wanted a constant fire going, olive oil would be a better fuel than wood. I suppose you would not want to be downwind either way.

Lots of questions. More later.


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