King of Sacrifice: Ritual and Royal Authority in the Iliad

  Hitch, Sarah. 2009. King of Sacrifice: Ritual and Royal Authority in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies Series 25. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


[In this on-line version, the page-numbers of the printed version are indicated within braces (“{” and “}”). For example, “{69|70}” indicates where p. 69 of the printed version ends and p. 70 begins. These indications will be useful to readers who need to look up references made elsewhere to the printed version of this book.]

Homeric representations of animal sacrifice have often been included in reconstructions and interpretations of Greek ritual practice, but the occurrence of this central action in Homer has not received its own independent, full-length study. As is the case with any ‘type scene’, no two Homeric sacrifices are identical. Within the poems, the emphasis placed on particular aspects of a sacrifice is carefully controlled according to the thematic needs of the context: the sacrificial process can be elaborate, such as the lengthy preliminary rites at Iliad I 436–474, or abbreviated, such as at Iliad I 313–317. This book seeks to provide an examination of animal sacrifice within the larger context of the Iliad, identifying the function of the ritual within the poem’s narrative design and illustrating how the epic’s thematic goals shape the ritual’s presentation.

In Chapter One, I discuss the possible approaches to sacrifice in the Iliad as both a ritual process and a typical compositional device in Homeric poetry. In order to facilitate this discussion, I propose a functional definition for sacrifice in the Iliad: the slaughter of animals in a ceremony dedicated to the gods, which is distinguished throughout the poem from preparations for meals without references to the gods. The focus on the sacrificer and on the sacrificial offering as an address to the gods becomes an emergent pattern among sacrifice scenes. Though three of the poem’s seven enacted sacrifices are followed by shared meals, other meals are not associated with addresses to deities. While single words or whole verses may be shared between sacrifices and these other occasions for feasts, such as those describing the spitting of meat in Agamemnon’s sacrifice in Iliad II or Akhilleus’ feast with Priam in Iliad XXIV, the inclusion of specific rites shifts the meaning of a scene.

I distinguish, in Chapter Two, between ‘enacted sacrifices’, the primary narrator’s descriptions of sacrifice, and ‘embedded sacrifices’, complex narrator and character-speech references to sacrifice. An analysis of enacted {vii|viii} and embedded sacrifices generates a possible range of ritual procedures in the Iliad. It demonstrates, as well, that the performance of sacrifice within the primary narrative-text is designed to emphasize Agamemnon’s dominance over the other troops in Akhilleus’ absence; Agamemnon performs or provides for the primary narrative’s enacted sacrifices, which cease upon Akhilleus’ return in Iliad XIX, the point at which social relationships and hierarchical structures are no longer publicly contested. Other features of sacrifice, those most frequently attested in later literature and iconography, and considerations such as the practical requirements of slaughtering animals are either inconsistently represented or omitted.

A distinction between sacrifices described by the primary narrator and those referred to in character speech is created through their varying emphases on separate stages of the ritual performance. Whereas enacted sacrifices focus on the sacrificer, embedded sacrifices focus exclusively on the reciprocity between men and gods established through sacrificial offerings—the subject of Chapter Three. Embedded sacrifices call into question the efficacy of the ritual in the maintenance of mortal and immortal relations, revealing a tension between the descriptions of the sacrificial process in the primary narrative-text and the frustration of mortals and immortals expressed in character speech. For example, when the Akhaians are suffering, Agamemnon laments that Zeus favors the sacrifices of Hektor, while Zeus laments that Hektor and the numerous Trojan sacrifices cannot avert their own destruction. This tension between different perspectives on sacrifice is further complicated by the absence of descriptions of Hektor performing sacrifice in the primary narrative voice, which focuses exclusively on Agamemnon as the Opferherr.

This book concludes with a discussion, in Chapter Four, of the complex sacrificial framework that surrounds Akhilleus’ withdrawal in Iliad I and return in Iliad XIX. The quarrel between Agamemnon and Akhilleus is expressed through sacrifice: Agamemnon’s superiority over the Akhaians is demonstrated in the enacted sacrifices, while the embedded sacrifices highlight the contrast between the breakdown of communications between mortals and the gods and Akhilleus’ ability to influence the gods through his mother, the goddess Thetis. Akhilleus’ isolation from his community is marked by depictions of Agamemnon and the councilors taking part in sacrifices; after the death of Patroklos, his frustration over his impending death is signaled by both his abstinence from and disregard for animal sacrifice. Preferring to communicate with the gods through his mother’s divine intervention, Akhilleus’ semi-divine status is reflected in his rejection of the standard pattern of mortal requests to the gods. {viii|ix}

This project began as my dissertation at Harvard University, under the direction of Albert Henrichs; it is only thanks to his guidance, and the encouragement and inspiration provided by Gregory Nagy, that this book came into being. Many people provided invaluable support at various stages: I would like to especially thank Ian Rutherford, who helped me with the final draft, and to express my gratitude for the helpful comments from Stephen Instone, Robert Parker, Francesca Schironi, Richard Seaford, the late Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, and Hans van Wees, as well as Leonard Muellner, Marian Demos, and the wonderful publication team at CHS. Invaluable support for this project was provided by Jonathan Katz and Shaun Hullis of Westminster School (London), my husband, Julian, and my parents, Bill and Lucy, to whom this book is dedicated.

Throughout the book, all Greek has been translated, based very loosely on Fagles’ 1990 translation of the Iliad and Lattimore’s 1967 translation of the Odyssey. I have endeavored to transliterate Greek words, except in cases where proper nouns are better known through their Latin spelling. The Greek text used is that of Monro and Allen (1920). {ix|}