Ancient Mediterranean Religions

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ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN RELIGIONS. Religion shaped both the use and conceptualization of food in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean world. This was true of the consumption of animals, cereals, and other plants. Because of the central role that food played in exchanges between gods and human beings, and between human beings themselves, food contributed to social and group identity. Ethnographers such as Herodotus distinguished Greek sacrifice from Persian, Egyptian, Scythian, and Libyan sacrifice; others distinguished Jewish and Christian rites. Ancient Greek religion located the practitioner in Greek culture and in a particular Greek community. This was important because by the end of the sixth century b.c.e., Greek cities were found around the Black Sea, along the coast of Asia Minor, in North Africa and southern Italy and Sicilyand after 300 b.c.e. in Syria, Persia, and Egypt. Similarly, as Rome came to distinguish itself from its Italic and Greek neighbors and to expand first throughout Italy and then throughout the whole Mediterranean world, it became necessary to establish how Roman culture might relate to cultures indigenous to the territory it now governed. There is ample epigraphic and literary evidence that people ate together in groups with religious affiliations throughout antiquity (orgeones in Greek, collegia in Latin), and that structures of power adapted the groups to reflect their influence, but did not greatly change the practices of eating. A major example is provided by the Ptolemys, who supported their new monarchy in Egypt after the death of Alexander by reinventing the Greek civic festival of Dionysus, with the monarch now at the center.

The basis of social and political life was the animal sacrifice, for which Prometheus supplies the most important foundation myth: he brought fire, therefore culture (in Greek thought), to mortals. Greeks and Romans slaughtered animals at altars outside the temple, with all citizens or relevant parties participating in the death and the consumption of meat. The offering to the god, combined with a communal act that reinforced equality (everyone in theory had an equal share, with special parts for the priests), provided an opportunity to eat meat. It is generally thought that in Greece little meat was eaten that had not been sacrificed. In Rome, so much meat appears to have been butchered in the imperial period that commercial slaughter may have predominated. Even in the Greek world, however, the sacred and commercial were not rigidly separated. Animals were bought for sacrifice, their skins were sold, and meat that was not distributed to participants at the temple could be taken to market and sold.

Sacrifice was a major part of many civic festivals, private associations, and family occasions. Offerings of one hundred cattle (known as a hecatomb) or more were made on major state occasions, while a piglet or lamb might be offered by a small community or family. Festivals were major occasions that shaped the civic year, and calendars specifying dates, types of offering, and the names of participants and beneficiaries survive on inscriptions and in Ovid's poem the Fasti.

This was the form of animal sacrifice to Olympian gods. For the gods of the underworld, the whole animal was burned, and there was no consumption by human beings. Offerings of food were, however, made to the dead, and funeral feasts in their honor were eaten. The dead were also portrayed dining on couches, as they had done in life.

Cereals as well as animals played a major role in religion. They were the responsibility of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone in the Greek world, and of Ceres and other equivalents in Rome and Italy. Perse-phone in the related myth represented the corn. As she was abducted by Hades and later released to the upper world, so the grain is sown and sprouts in spring. The provision of grain was a major priority in all ancient states. Major festivals of Demeter were known in Sicily and Italy; there was also the Thesmophoria in many Greek cities, a festival for women only, which promoted the growth of corn and the conception of babies. (Sex and agriculture, human and plant reproduction, were often linked in Greek culture.) This festival was one of the few in the Greco-Roman world in which fasting was an element prior to feasting (in the myth, Demeter brought famine to mortals when her daughter was lost). There are a few other parallels to the formal fasting found in Judaism or the fasting to near death found in the early Christian church. Demeter also presided at the Eleusinian Mysteries, where corn (grain) and the afterlife were central concerns. Legumes were also linked with the dead, both in Pythagorean belief and in such festivals as the Roman Lemuria, while mixtures of grains and beans represented the precivilized diet in such Greek festivals as the Anthesteria and Pyanopsia.

The other major god of food was Dionysus (or Bacchus), who presided over the growth of noncereal plants. His cult was closely linked with agriculture, and his most important plant was the vine. Wine was central to the libation, the pouring of liquids to a god, which was a widespread practice in the Mediterranean world from early times and accompanied sacrifice, prayer, and many social-religious acts. The consumption of wine was circumscribed by ritual in the "symposium," where gods received drink-offerings of neat wine, and human drinking was in equal measures of wine and water, which were blended in the mixing bowl.

Animal sacrifice was complemented by nonblood sacrifices of cereals, honey, fruit, and vegetables, first fruits in particular. (The celebration of abundance, in art in particular, was often represented by the cornucopia.) Some cults specified nonblood offerings, particularly the Orphics and strict Pythagoreans, who abstained from the sacrifice and consumption of meat and fish. Less strict Pythagoreans allowed the sacrifice of some parts of some animals, since strict vegetarianism marked people as marginal and not participating in civic sacrifice.

New cults regularly arrived in the Greco-Roman world, such as the festival of Adonis, a Syrian god who died before maturity and was linked with the rapid growth of herbs and spices. Some foods rarely entered the sacred sphere. The most notable is fish. Greek and Roman authors noted the sacred fish of Syria and Egypt; in their own world, they often linked fish with luxury, since they belonged to the marketplace, and consumption was not regulated by religious constraints.

See also Byzantine Empire; Greece, Ancient; Herodotus; Hippocrates; Mediterranean Diet; Pythagoras; Rome and the Roman Empire.


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John Wilkins

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Ancient Mediterranean Religions

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Ancient Mediterranean Religions