Smoke Signals | Review

FRED S. NAIDEN received his Ph.D. in classical philology at Harvard in 2000, and wrote his dissertation on Greek Supplication. While his main interests lie with Greek law, religion, and warfare in the Archaic and classical periods, he has also written on Akkadian and ancient Hebrew religion. His first book, Ancient Supplication (2006), reworks his dissertation and deals with both Roman and Greek supplication. In 2012 he published Greek and Roman Animal Sacrifice, an edited volume that questions both the centrality of animal sacrifice to Greco-Roman ritual practice and the usefulness of the category “sacrifice” to modern scholarship. Which are questions of ongoing interest to Naiden. Finally, his forthcoming edited volume, Mercury’s Wings, will explore various modes of communication in the ancient world. NAIDEN is currently a professor of History at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

In his book, Smoke Signals for the Gods (2012), Naiden charges previous scholars, particularly Burkert, Vernant and Detienne, with writing the gods out of Greek sacrificial rituals by using a methodology that is decidedly atheistic in framework. Naiden suggests imagining sacrifice as a “smoke signal,” a means of two-way communication [theuin means “to make smoke”]. Specifically, Greek sacrifice is about communing with “gods that are there.”

In the opening chapter, Naiden lays out two main points. First, in Greek Sacrifice, the gods should not be reduced to mere visitors at a human occasion (14). In his estimation, the psychological and sociological theories of sacrifice minimized the import of prayers, priests, and “moral factors,” while focusing on the moment of death [as Burkert does] or concentrating on the community-forming meal [as did Vernant and Detienne] (11-15). What actually brings men before gods, according to Naiden, is the attempt to garner divine favor & response by means of proper procedure and attitude. Ritual should not be treated simply as a way to achieve a certain effect, like muddying of guilt or justifying socio-political organization. Which leads us to Naiden’s second point, that sacrifice is only one element of a more extensive ritual context, “an episode, not a self-contained act” (25).

In chapters two and three, Naiden lays out the main elements that could affect a favorable divine disposition toward sacrifice. In other words, accepting the smoke, hearing the prayer, answering the request, or arranging the entrails. On the one hand, the esthetic or the physical kalos of the animal and worshiper was important and, on the other hand, so was the kalos of the worshiper as a moral agent. In addition to these esthetic and moral concerns, the worshiper’s own belief in divine power was an important factor in affecting the gods (129). Of course, much of Naiden’s argument here relies on supposition and interpretation because, as he himself concedes, the source material in not interested in the same things we are (129). Still, his deduction of the importance of animal sacrifice in Greek life is based mainly on the prevalence of cakes and vegetal offerings in drama and comedy, which alone is not totally convincing.

In chapter 4, Naiden presents one of his central points: that the gods could and did reject normal sacrifice on occasion. For Naiden, the fact that the sacrificial ritual could fail is a key to understanding it. Naiden enumerates the esthetic, moral, and systemic reasons for such rejection, which could to take the form of divine departure, rebuff, tacit refusal, or epiphanic rejection. As Menander bemoans, “I sacrificed and the gods paid me no heed” (142). Regrettably, all of Naiden’s examples of rejected sacrifices come from literary sources, and these still largely focus on the moral experience of sacrifice and omit reference to divine response or acceptance. Also, while Naiden rightly notes that the lack of inscriptional evidence might reflect a desire to avoid recording negative outcomes, one might also conclude that worshipers and cultic leaders rarely interpreted sacrifices as being rejected. Still, Naiden has refreshingly pointed out that sacrifice is not just a human affair: both human and divine powers can undermine and subvert the ritual’s success.

Chapters 5 and 6 of Naiden’s book deal with communal sacrifice, a key aspect for Vernant and Detienne. Naiden corrects the 20th century emphasis on sacrifice as communal, pointing out the importance of individual sacrificers and those who sacrificed on behalf of another or a group. He also addresses meat consumption and sacrifice, arguing that the restriction of consumed meat to sacrificial animals could only be a preference not a rule because sacrificial meat could only account for a limited portion of Greek diet (240).[3] His challenge of the frequency and economic possibility of large meat-eating feasts is striking, especially his evidence from Sparta, but still there’s a lot of room for inaccuracy in his numbers and estimates.[4]

In chapter 7’s detective story, Naiden traces scholarship of sacrifice, noting both a Christian bias and atheistic undertows, and he suggests that modern conceptions of sacrifice have been distorted: they are ritualistic when they should be theistic.[5]

“Greek sacrifices…were rites, not just ritualistic occasions. To some degree, they promoted solidarity, and they sometimes included slaughtered animals. Above all, they were theistic” (316).

In the book’s final chapter, Naiden frames the two fundamental beliefs of ‘native’ Greek worshipers with comparisons to Christian and Hebrew beliefs about God.

“First, Greeks believed that the gods observed them, whether at sacrifice or elsewhere. Second, they believed that the gods also wished to observe themselves, through rituals, literature, and art—that the gods were vain as well as attentive” (321)

In this last chapter, Naiden once again picks at the axis of evil, [7] for their etic rather than emic approach and for seeing sacrifice as a ritual instead of as the native Greek did: “an episode in a relation with a god” (320). Because of the conceptual errors and historical complications tied to ritual of sacrifice, Naiden suggests using offering, a term he argues better captures the essence of what Greeks actually thought they were doing.[8] And he may be right, sacrifice is certainly a loaded term and it might be easier to use a category better suited to Greek thought and practice. The comparative material in this chapter is fascinating, but it doesn’t seem crucial to his larger argument. I would have preferred Naiden to have taken more time to flesh out his argument for suspending the use of the term sacrifice. And, on a side note, Naiden’s distinction between Greek vs Hebrew and Christian beliefs about the gods was too neat, and his analysis not always fair.[9]

Though Naiden’s exploration of Greek sacrifice was engaging and articulate, there are a few lingering issues and gaps. Perhaps, the most looming of these is Naiden’s treatment of Detienne and Vernant. He seems to overstate their positions for effect and contrast. For instance, they don’t necessarily deny the import of things like the centrality of the gods or the role of prayer and priests (13). Additionally, in Vernant’s discussion of the myth of Prometheus and its significance, the gods were very central to the meaning and implications of the sacrificial ritual. He repetitive attacks wore thin by the end of the book. Another issue, is that at times Naiden overcorrects and seems to take the gods too seriously (315-19). He is almost too emic in his approach.  Some of his statements are oddly formulated and there are moments where it’s as if Naiden actually believes in the gods. [11] For instance, he frames the rejection of sacrifices in terms of the god’s wishes, dissatisfaction, and thoughts (146-7). A line seemed to get crossed. Finally, are we to assume that all Greek worshipers believed they were trying to communicate with the divine in making an offering? Some might not have taken the gods all that seriously and some might have found themselves at the alter because of social or political obligations.  It seems as through Naiden has fallen into the same sort of rut as his predecessors, in that he implies he has hit upon the thing that sacrifice is across the board. But, sacrifice is a complex phenomenon that has multiple “stories of meaning” depending on where you start and who you ask.

Still, Naiden’s book is thought-provoking and there’s a lot to admire about it. He effectively disassembles twentieth century theories of sacrifice while offering a satisfying, if rather simplistic, alternative paradigm that takes into consideration a vast range of literary and visual accounts of sacrifice. Naiden’s fluency in hundreds of years of Greek literature, iconography and inscriptions is truly impressive, especially the attention he pays to genre aims and author bias in using this literature for data (168-73). Without a doubt, Naiden shakes animal sacrifice from is pedestal of preeminence amidst other Greek rituals. Also, Naiden’s itemizing of the Greek vocabulary of prayer, like thusia and hiera rezein, was really insightful. Finally, Naiden rightly and successfully avoids relying on strict categories like animal versus vegetable sacrifice. He successfully disabuses some lingering conceptions of Greek sacrifice, tries to get at what the Greeks themselves actually thought, and reminds us that we cannot ignore the gods.

[3] Evidence suggests that consumed meat wasn’t always of sacrificial (236-37), regulations about selling carrion imply it was a source of meat (237-38); literary evidence in Longus and Athenaeus suggests pigs—more often than cattle or sheep—escaped Schoemann’s rule (238-39), and both non-sacrificial & sacrificial pork meat could be found in meat markets (239-40).

[4] The estimates and figures, especially the weight of cattle meat or frequency of sacrifices in Athens and Sparta, are impossible to be at all certain of.

[5] See Sarah Hitch,

[7] Thanks to Stephen A. Long who coined this,

[8] Naiden suggests that since the term “ritual of sacrifice” is a blinder—a conceptual error and historical complication—we shouldn’t retain it. Naiden suggests “offering” as more appropriate, considering it is still a religious term, presumes a divine recipient, and better resembles the Greek terms thusia and hiera rezein. ἱερός – what belongs to divinity | the opposite of profane; θυσία, ας, ἡ sacrifice, offering.

[9] I’m a little skeptical of some claims made about HB meaning and practice. The Hebrew God was a ruler while Christian God was savior? This is certainly a blanket statement. Were sacrifices really always occasions for Hebrew worshiper to repent (326)?

[11] For instance, on page 16-17 he says “For the god, aparchai and prayer merge in a single attempt to gain his or her attention”; or on page 149 where “God wants propriety…”


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