OMOPHAGIA is an ancient Greek term (ōmophagia, "eating raw [flesh]") for a ritual in the ecstatic worship of Dionysos.
The Raw and the Cooked
All human groups, including the so-called primitives, are aware of their cultural identity by contrast to other, "uncivilized" forms of life. That the opposition of civilization to nature, of human to animal, is most drastically experienced in the dietary code, in the use of cooked food as against "raw-eating" animals, has become popular knowledge in the wake of The Raw and the Cooked (1969), the seminal first volume of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Mythologiques. This presupposes the conquest of fire, which has been decisive in the evolution of humankind and which still looms large in mythology; knowledge of fire goes together with the special importance of the hunt in early and primitive societies. A constant point of reference in human and even prehuman experience are the big carnivores, especially the leopard and the wolf, that are abhorred as well as imitated. Model hunters, at the same time dreadfully dangerous and admirably powerful, the carnivores are the paradigmatic "raw-eaters." They are human-eaters, too: When the problems of civilization and dietary codes are articulated in ritual or myth, the motif of cannibalism usually makes its appearance.
The category of "raw-eating" most generally finds two applications. In mythology, it designates various demons who naturally take the traits of predators—enemies of the gods or even certain uncanny and dangerous gods. On a more realistic level, ethnocentrism and xenophobia combine to mark certain foreign tribes as "raw-eaters," be they neighbors or faraway people known from hearsay. In Western tradition, this cliché has remained attached to Huns and Tatars. As a variant or for reinforcement, the motif of cannibalism easily comes in. It is notable that the concept of "raw-eaters" goes back to Indo-European strata, that is, to the early third millennium bce, as shown by the correspondence of the Sanskrit āmād with the Greek ōmēs-tēs ; in the same vein, a Scythian tribe was known as Āmādokoi. Tribalism also admits of mythical transformations: For the Greeks, the centaurs, hybrids of man and horse, living in the woods but sometimes visiting humans to wreak havoc, were not only hunters but "raw-eaters."
In a more complex way the opposition of "raw-eating" to civilized may appear within one ethnic unity: One special group is set apart by this very characterization. The imitation of carnivores is most evident in secret societies of leopard men as attested in Africa, or the folklore of werewolves in Europe, including ancient Greece. They are expected to kill and eat in a beastlike fashion and especially to practice cannibalism. The oldest evidence for leopard men comes from wall paintings of Çatal Hüyük in Neolithic Anatolia about 6000 bce; details about their function or practice cannot be known, except for their imitating predators through masquerade in the context of hunting.
In more modern times two groups, "raw-eaters" versus eaters of cooked meat, are attested among the Mansi, an Ugric tribe of Siberia, and Andreas Alföldi (1974) has used this attestation to illustrate a similar opposition between two groups of Luperci who performed the ancient festival of Lupercalia at Rome; in both cases it is the group of "raw-eaters" who enjoy the higher reputation as being the swifter, the more vigilant, the more powerful. It seems that in ancient civilizations the opposition of raw versus cooked has sometimes been replaced by that of roasted versus boiled meat, where roasting is more primitive, more hunterlike, more heroic. Thus in a non-Yahvistic ritual mentioned in the First Book of Samuel (2:11–17) the priests require raw flesh for roasting while the sacrificial community feasts on boiled meat.
A similar opposition may be enacted not through the institution of permanent groups but in the dimension of time: "raw-eating" as a transitional stage leading back to normal food, that is, to civilization reconfirmed through its opposite in the dietary code. Thus in initiations that involve a marginal status and make the initiates outcasts for a while, disuse of fire and raw-eating has a place. In Greek myth this is reflected in the figure of Achilles, who as a boy is taken from his parents to the "raw-eating" centaurs and gets his unique heroic strength by feeding on the entrails of the most savage beasts (Apollodorus, Bibliothēkē 3.13.6).
There are communal festivals too that bring about a temporary reversal, an atavistic return to ancient ways of life that sometimes includes the interdiction of fire and thus enforces a diet of uncooked food. In ancient Greece this is attested for a festival on the island of Lemnos and also for some forms of the Thesmophoria, the festival of Demeter. Accompanying myths tell stories about an insurrection of women against men that, however, had to give way to normality again. Of course, initiations, secret societies, and public festivals may be functionally interrelated in various ways; by themselves or in combination they keep alive the consciousness of alternatives to what is considered normal and thus in fact help to ensure continuity.
Dionysos, the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy, is experienced by his followers most deeply and directly in a state known simply as "madness" (mania ). Hence his female adherents are called Maenads (mainades ); Bacchants (bakchoi) and Bacchantes (bakchai), masculine and feminine, respectively, are about equivalent. High points of bacchantic activity are tearing apart a victim and eating it raw. From a pragmatic perspective, the two activities of tearing apart (sparagmos ) and eating raw (ōmophagia ) need not entail each other, but in the Dionysian tradition both combine to form an image of what is both subhuman and superhuman, both beastlike and godlike, at the same time.
The most influential literary text to describe Dionysian phenomena is Euripides' tragedy The Bacchae (405 bce). When the Maenads, who are celebrating their dances in the wilderness, are disturbed by herdsmen, they jump at the herds and tear calves and even bulls asunder "swifter than you could shut your eyes" (ll. 735–747); later on they murder Pentheus in a similar way. Eating is not dwelt upon in this context, except as a horrible prospect (l. 1184); but in the introductory song of the play the god himself, leader of the dances, is presented as "hunting for blood by killing a he-goat, the lust of raw-eating" (ll. 137–139), and the Bacchantes are ready to identify with their leader.
In the Dionysian circle, the imagery of carnivores is ready at hand. Preference is given to the leopard, partly through an overlap with the symbolism of the Anatolian mother goddess, whose distant avatar seems to be the goddess of Çatal Hüyük. Bassarai (Foxes) was the title of a lost play by Aeschylus; it was a name for the Maenads who destroyed Lykurgos, another enemy of the god. Classical vase paintings (fifth to fourth century bce) show dancing Maenads holding parts of a torn animal—a fawn, a goat—in their hands; eating, though, is hardly depicted.
Such restraint is absent from the picture drawn by Christian writers of pagan cult. "You leave behind your breast's sanity, you crown yourselves with vipers, and in order to prove that you are filled with the power of god, with bloody mouths you tear asunder the entrails of goats crying out in protest"—thus said Arnobius in Against the Pagans (5.19), following in part Clement of Alexandria's Protrepticus (chap. 12). In this view omophagia is the extreme of the pagans' folly.
A most serious problem is to decide how much of the picture evoked by Hellenic poetry on the one side and Christian polemics on the other is to be regarded as cultic reality in the context of Greek civilization of the historical period. There are many convergent testimonies, but few to convince a skeptic. A very ancient epithet of the god is Dionysos Ōmēstēs ("eating raw"), attested by the poet Alcaeus about 600 bce. Dionysos Ōmadios, mentioned a few times in connection with human sacrifice, is often considered equivalent; linguistically, though, this epithet should rather belong to ōmadon ("by the shoulder"), which still refers to "tearing apart" in sparagmos. Firmicus Maternus, writing Christian polemics but drawing on some Hellenistic source, asserts that in a Dionysian festival "the Cretans tear apart a living bull with their teeth" (On the Error of Pagan Religions, chap. 6; about 350 ce)—which doubtless includes elements of fantasy. In a poem titled Bassarika, a certain Dionysios has a human victim, clad in a deer's skin, torn to pieces and devoured by Indians on the command of Dionysos; the remains are to be assembled in baskets before sunrise. The mystic baskets are well known from ritual, but the story with its barbarian setting is a ghastly exaggeration. A more reliable witness is Plutarch, who combines the epithet ōmēstēs with another, agriōnios, and thus refers to a well-attested festival, Agriōnia. This in turn is connected with a group of myths that tell about the women of a city growing mad, leaving the town, kidnapping their own children in order to kill and even eat them; the Pentheus myth of Euripides' Bacchae is in fact one exemplar of the pattern. But to bring imagination back to facts of ritual, scholars have nothing but the too short statement of Plutarch that there are indeed in Greek cults "unlucky and dreary days in which omophagia and tearing-apart have their place" (On the Decline of Oracles, 417c).
Modern scholarship has often connected Dionysian omophagia with the apocryphal Orphic myth that tells how Dionysos himself when still a child was slain, cut to pieces, and tasted by the Titans—in consequence of which, the Titans were burned by the lightning of Zeus, and from their smoke humankind arose. This seemed to place the ritual in the context of a marginal Orphic sect. But it has long been seen that this myth explicitly contradicts a strict understanding of the meaning of ōmophagia : The Titans use a knife, and they both cook and roast the remains of their victim. This seems to mirror more complex divisions of marginal groups, Dionysian or Orphic, with differing dietary codes and ideology, as shown especially by Marcel Detienne (1977).
A most interesting text comes from a lost tragedy of Euripides, The Cretans (frag. 472 in August Nauck, Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, Leipzig, 1889), preserved by Porphyry (On Abstinence 4.19): The chorus of Cretans introduce themselves as "initiates of Idaean Zeus"; they have achieved this status "by performing the thunder of night-swarming Zagreus and the raw-eating dinners, and by holding up the torches for the Mother of the mountains." This is a literary elaboration; one might surmise that the poet was not too well informed about the details of Idaean mysteries and liberally added colors from the Dionysian sphere. But he succeeds in giving a meaningful setting to the rite of raw-eating, as a transient phase in initiation to be followed by strict vegetarianism, as the initiates emerge in white clothes from a temple smeared with bull's blood; this is a grim and revolting antidote through which a status of purity is achieved. Zagreus is an epithet of Dionysos, especially in the context of sparagmos.
There remains one nonliterary, realistic testimony for cult practice, a sacred law from Miletus, dated 276/275 bce, regulating the privileges of a priestess with regard to the city as well as to private Dionysian mysteries: "It shall not be allowed to anyone to throw in an ōmophagion before the priestess throws in one on behalf of the city, nor to bring together the group of revelers (thiasoi ) before the public one." This clearly is to ensure some prerogative of the city as against private organizations. Unfortunately ōmophagion, "something related to raw-eating," is a term that occurs only here, and no agreement has been reached among interpreters as to what exactly it should mean in this context. Is a victim (e.g., a goat) being thrown down at a crowd of ecstatic Bacchants assembled in expectation? (This is the most vivid picture, drawn by, among others, E. R. Dodds, 1951.) Or is a victim being thrown down into a chasm, as attested in the Demeter festival Thesmophoria? Or is some kind of symbolic substitute (perhaps only a mere contribution in money) being "thrown into" some box? In the absence of further evidence there will be no final decision. One may still claim that in such a context ideology is more important than reality. One finds, in a major Greek city close to the classical age, the designation of "raw-eating" in a ritual that is meant to ensure the favor of Dionysos on behalf of the city and that takes precedence in the procession. There were points of reference in cult even to the more exuberant Dionysian mythology.
A vivid description of pre-Islamic bedouin is contained in a Christian novel from the fifth century ce, The Story of Nilus, now finally available in a critical edition: Nilus of Ancyra, Narratio, edited by Fabricius Conca (Leipzig, 1983). These barbarians, the text says, delight in sacrificing boys to the morning star; sometimes "they take a camel of white color and otherwise faultless, they bend it down upon its knees, and go circling round it three times"; the leader,
after the third circuit, before the crowd has finished the song, while the last words of the refrain are still on their lips, draws his sword and forcefully smites the neck of the camel, and he is the first to taste eagerly of its blood. And thus the rest of them run up and with their knives some cut off a small bit of the hide with its hair upon it, others hack at any chance bit of flesh and snatch it away, others go on to the entrails and inwards, and they leave no scrap of the victim unwrought that might be seen by the sun at its rising. (3.3, pp. 12f.)
The importance of the text as a description of a very primitive form of sacrifice was seen by W. Robertson Smith (1889), and explicit comparison with Dionysian phenomena was made by Jane E. Harrison (1903); there is no mention of divine possession, but the narrator seems to consider the bedouin madmen anyhow. It is not to be forgotten, however, that this is a novel, and that horror stories belong to the genre; this fact seriously impairs the authenticity of the report.
A more striking parallel has been adduced from eyewitness reports of modern Morocco, collected especially by Raoul Brunel (1926). The Aissaoua form a kind of secret society consisting of several clans, each of which is named after an animal, and the members, in their initiation rites, are made to imitate their emblem. Clans of jackals, cats, dogs, leopards, and lions specialize in tearing apart animals and devouring them raw on the spot; in the words of an informant quoted by E. R. Dodds (1951), "after the usual beating of tom-toms, screaming of the pipes and monotonous dancing, a sheep is thrown into the middle of the square, upon which all the devotees come to life and tear the animal limb from limb and eat it raw." It is said that the flocks of those who voluntarily offer an animal to the sect will not suffer damage from real predators. Thus a marginal existence is provided with a charismatic status. This seems to be the closest analogy to Dionysian omophagia, though the social setting evidently is fundamentally different.
The most common interpretation of ritual "raw-eating" has been based on what James G. Frazer called "the homeopathic effects of a flesh diet": taking in life and strength from a living being in the most direct way. In Hebrew, raw flesh is called "living" flesh. The hypothesis has been added that originally the victim was identical with the god, who is thus appropriated by the worshipers in sacramental communion. A central support of this construct is seen to collapse if omophagia is not directly related to the myth of Dionysos slain. Nor does the hypothesis explain the characteristics of the abnormal usually attached to omophagia, be it a state of madness or a realm of strangers and monsters. Thus it seems preferable to see the rituals in the more general context of precarious civilization struggling with the antinomies of nature, while accepting those antinomies and trying to interpret them within the pertinent cultural systems as a breakthrough to otherness that remains bound to its opposite.
Alföldi, Andreas. Die Struktur des voretruskischen Römerstaates. Heidelberg, 1974. An attempt to trace Eurasian pastoral traditions behind Roman institutions. See pages 141–150 for a discussion of "the raw and the cooked."
Brunel, Raoul. Essai sur la confrérie religieuse des Aissâoûa au Maroc. Paris, 1926. An account that has played some role in interpreting Dionysian omophagia.
Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Berkeley, Calif., 1983. An essay on patterns of myth and ritual, including the Dionysian, as formed by prehistoric hunters' traditions.
Detienne, Marcel. Dionysus Slain. Baltimore, 1979. A structural study on dietary codes of protest groups.
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley, Calif., 1951. A readable and well-documented classic. For a discussion of the Maenads, see pages 270–282.
Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough (1890). 12 vols. 3d ed. London, 1911–1915. An indispensable collection of materials, though criticized today for lack of theory and method.
Harrison, Jane E. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903). Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1981. A seminal study on the primitive foundations of Greek religion. Pages 478–500 offer a discussion of omophagia.
Henrichs, Albert. "Greek Maenadism from Olympias to Messalina." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 (1978): 121–160.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. New York, 1969. A basic book of French structuralism, treating Amerindian myths as a system of nature-culture antithesis.
Nilsson, Martin P. The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age (1957). New York, 1975. A reliable account of the evidence.
Smith, W. Robertson. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889). New York, 1969. A fundamental study on animal sacrifice from a functional perspective.
Astour, Michael C. "Sparagmos, Omophagia, and Ecstatic Prophecy at Mari." Ugarit-Forschungen 24 (1993): 1–2.
Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, Mass., 1987.
Burkert, Walter. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.
Evans, Arthur. The God of Ecstasy. New York, 1988.
Godwin, Joscelyn. Mystery Religions in the Ancient World. San Francisco, 1981.
Hamerton-Kelly, Robert G., ed. Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation. Stanford, Calif., 1987.
Walter Burkert (1987)