A Review of Walter Burkert's

Homo Necans

The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth

(c) 1997, John Opsopaus

Burkert, Walter: Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. University of California Press, 1983, pbk. 334pp, 9 B&W plates, indices.

I highly recommend this study to anyone interested in ancient Greek religion. By tracing sacrificial ritual back to its roots in hunting ritual, Burkert illuminates the structure of many Greek rituals and throws light on an astonishing number of myths. Burkert is well known for his scholarly works, including Greek Religion, The Creation of the Sacred and Ancient Mystery Cults, which are definitive in the field. Although scholarly and very well-documented, his books are generally well-written and readable; Homo Necans is no exception. In the following I will summarize its major theses, but the book offers much additional information, as well as a wealth of supporting documentation.

Chapter I (82 pp.) is devoted to the anthropology of hunting rituals and draws on comparative material from around the world. He traces sacrificial ritual back to the ambivalence inherent in hunting and, later, in the slaughter of livestock. The hunter understands that his quarry is alive like himself, and even sees it as a brother. Therefore the hunter must steel himself to the necessary act of killing and nevertheless must feel guilt for his action. Yet the slaughter provides sustenance, which brings pleasure, so the killing is celebrated as a renewed affirmation of life.

According to Burkert, sacrificial ritual derives from the practices of hunting brotherhoods. Hunting is primarily a male activity because it is based on a redirection toward the quarry of the aggression of mating fights among male primates. Humans are not by nature predators (we do not have the claws, large muscles etc.); it is a behavior acquired and retained by culture. Thus the archetypal psychologist Wolfgang Giergerich, building on Burkert, has observed that humankind created its own soul be learning to kill in order to hunt. As Burkert says (p. 212), "Nourishment, order and civilized life are born of their antithesis: the encounter with death. Only homo necans can become homo sapiens." (Although Burkert doesn't discuss it, it's worth noting that the establishment of dominance among men is closely related to testosterone levels, both as cause and effect. In women testosterone levels do not seem related to dominance behavior.) This redirection involves a preparatory renunciation of male sexuality. Therefore, before the hunt, hunters may abstain from sex or there may be a (real or mock) maiden sacrifice; after the hunt, there is often a compensatory period of sexual license (as part of the celebration of life reborn).

As a result, the basic structure of the sacrifice is triadic: (1) sacralization in preparation for the act, (2) the "unspeakable act" itself, and (3) joyous reaffirmation of life (often involving a sacred feast, and symbolic reconstitution of the victim through trophies etc.; so skulls or horns are displayed in the sanctuary, the thigh bones are wrapped in fat and fur, etc.). This basic pattern of sacrifice is later transferred to non-hunting ritual. For example, the basic structure of an agricultural festival is: (1) preliminary renunciation (plowing, sowing, etc.), (2) aggressive act (cutting, grinding, pressing; cutting or breaking bread), (3) gratification (eating).

After the sacrifice comes the Agôn (contest), in which aggressive instincts are directed back toward their primary biological function: establishing dominance for purposes of mating (perhaps the reason that married women, but not maidens, were prohibited from attending the Olympics). Also integral to the ambivalence surrounding sacrifice is a "comedy of innocence," by which the victim is made responsible for its own death, or at least willing to die. (Thus the victim chooses itself by wandering into a sacred precinct, or it must go willingly to the sacrifice, or nod its head in assent.)

So far the emphasis has been on hunting brotherhoods, but Ch. II (52 pp.) begins to explore the complementary role of women. The hunter is well aware that he depends on the rebirth of the prey if his hunting is to continue - another source of ambivalent feelings, and part of the reason for rituals that reconstitute the victim. Women however are seen as the source of new life, and the Lady of the Beasts must be propitiated to ensure the return of the prey. Therefore women's rites, concerned with birth and the nurturing of new life, commonly parallel men's rites, which focus on killing and slaughter. In this way the circle of life is completed and sealed by the complementary powers of men and women. The dread of death complements the certainty of continuing life.

Young men must be initiated into this fundamentally unnatural practice of killing (necessary in both hunting and warfare), as women must be initiated into the mysteries of birth; both are essential to the continuation of the community. Thus we learn why there was an initiatory transformation of young men into "werewolves" at the Lykaia and of young women into bears at Brauron. We also learn the significance of the tripod kettle (e.g. at Delphi) and of the symbolic cannibalistic dissolutions that take place in it (e.g. Pelops, Thyestes, Dionysos). Ultimately sacrificial rituals transcend the gender roles based in human biology: the whole community must atone for its collective guilt in slaughtering the victim, and the whole community must cooperate in the restoration of nature.

The triadic pattern of the sacrifice reappears in New Year celebrations (discussed in Ch. III, 78 pp.), where we find triples of festivals (preparation, unspeakable act, restitution), each with its own triadic structure. Thus we may have three sacrificial festivals: renunciation (e.g. symbolic sacrifice of a maiden), savage act (e.g. symbolic regicide, parricide or infanticide), and renewal (e.g. celebration of the younger generation). For example, in Athens there are the Arrhephoria, Skira/Buphonia and Panathenaia.

These triads of festivals reflect the dissolution of order at the end of the old year and its re-establishment at the beginning of the new. As in hunting rituals, the "maiden sacrifice" is anticipatory, to ensure victory in creating a new order. The period of dissolution typically involves exceptional, abnormal practices: separation of the sexes, abstention from ordinary foods, no sacrifices, no hearth fires, no working, closed temples, etc. This abyss between old and new is often celebrated in nocturnal festivals, so rebirth comes as inevitably as the new dawn.

Renewal may be accomplished by symbolically punishing the guilty one - driving him out of town as a scapegoat or stoning him. Thus Hermes was "stoned" (with voting pebbles) by the other Gods to punish Him for committing the "primordial crime": killing Argos (who had himself incurred guilt by killing the bull to wear its skin). Hermes expiated His guilt by accepting the Gods' judgment. The old power (Argos) must be destroyed, but only after expiation can the new power be established. The killing is necessary but terrible, therefore the stain must be removed before ordinary life can resume.

The sea plays an important role in the renewal of life: the "unspeakable sacrifice" often disappears into the sea, which, as a symbol of the womb, reestablishes purity and innocence. Therefore the God often returns from the sea (e.g. Dionysos' arrival on the ship-chariot), and there are many "fish advents" in mythology. After restitution, the scapegoat may return as a Hero or God.

Chapter IV (35 pp.) is devoted to the Anthesteria, an important Dionysian festival. In it the "bloody sacrifice" takes the form of sacramental drinking of wine, and restitution takes the form of a sacred marriage, in which the victim (Sacrificed God) is appeased by being given a woman (the queen) and is revitalized by her embrace. The well-known but poorly understood sacred idol, in which the mask and clothing of the God are hung on a cross, is a symbolic restoration, analogous to the bull-skulls hung in the sanctuary. As is common in rites of restitution after the sacrifice, the people enjoy a panspermia (boiled whole vegetables and grains), since it requires no "aggressive" acts (killing or grinding). There are also contests, in which young men take the largest role, because establishing the new order is the responsibility of the younger generation.

The final chapter (V, 50 pp.) is the most enlightening I have read on the Eleusinian Mysteries, but I can mention only the highlights. We have the usual triad: preliminary renunciation (the maiden's tragedy: the abduction of Persephone), nocturnal "unspeakable rites" in the Telesterion, and subsequent celebration of rebirth (enjoying the gifts of Demeter). Rebirth complements sacrificial killing: "Side by side with the peril of death and blood we find the miracle of new life in birth" (p. 289). The Great Goddess gives birth to the Child as the earth engenders the grain. The Child God, like the blade of wheat, arises and, like it, is cut down again (cf. Attis, Dumuzi, Dionysos, Triptolemos). "The collective experience that life and nourishment result from terror, the encounter with death and destruction, binds the mystai together and adds a new dimension to their lives" (pp. 291-2).

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Last updated: Fri May 30 18:40:42 EDT 1997