Capturing the Animal in Ancient Greek Religion

Professor Julia Kindt explores the often overlooked importance of animals in ancient Greek religious beliefs and practice.

To say that ancient Greek religion brings together gods and humans in a variety of real and symbolic relationships would be to state the obvious: all the major rituals of ancient Greek religion in one way or another negotiate the relationship between gods and humans. The same applies to the beliefs sustaining them. And yet this observation does not tell the whole story. For it leaves out the sustained presence of a third player, besides gods and humans, in all the major aspects of ancient Greek religion: that of the animal.

This applies not merely to the cultural practice of blood sacrifice, in which the role of the animal has traditionally been well-researched. It is also true for a number of other religious beliefs and practices in which the presence of animals has received considerably less scholarly attention to date. Whether in divination, epiphany, temple healing, the setting up of dedications, the writing of a binding spell, or the instigation of other ‘magical’ means – animals feature widely in the different ways in which the ancient Greeks engaged with the supernatural.

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the South frieze of the Parthenon depicting a cow being led to sacrifice. © The Trustees of the British Museum (1816,0610.86, c.438-432 BC)

A few examples: In ancient Greek divination, certain animals featured as intermediaries that allowed humans to access the superior knowledge of the gods and goddesses. This is for example the case in the two most popular forms of divination in the ancient Greek world: extispicy (the reading of the entrails) and ornithomancy (the reading of the flight of birds). While the former deduced insights by exploring certain features in the entrails of sacrificial victims, the latter does so by interpreting the way birds were moving relative to the observer.

Todo of a black figure kylix depicting a rider, accompanied by a winged Nike and auspicious birds © The Trustees of the British Museum (The Rider Painter, BM 1842,0407.7, c.550-530 BC).
Corinthian silver stater (c.390-300 BC) Stater depicting Athena, eagle, & alpha on reverse (Pegasus on obverse). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (40.140). Public domain.

An altogether different role of animals informs their use in ancient Greek representations of their gods and goddesses. Here animals helped to express the – ultimately theological – idea of divine alterity (their difference to humans). The primary mode of divine representation in ancient Greece drew on the human bodily form (anthropomorphism). Yet there were also a number of deities that sported animal features. We only need to think of Pan with his goat’s feet, for example; or of Dionysos with his ram’s horns. Moreover, the so-called called ‘shape shifters’ among the Greek gods could temporarily morph into an animal. Athena’s appearance  in the form of a sea-eagle in book 3 of the Odyssey is a prime example. In all these instances, the animal form allowed the deity in question to illustrate aspects of their identity that were distinctly non-human. If divine anthropomorphism articulates the idea that the gods are fundamentally like humans, divine zoomorphism articulates the idea that they are not.

A third way in which animals feature in ancient Greek interactions with the supernatural becomes evident in certain ‘magical’ practices. Here animals or animal parts frequently served as placeholders – and thus symbolic substitutes – for the human body. Certain ‘voodoo dolls’, for example, originating from different parts of the Greek world, came in animal form. The needles stuck into it were thought to affect the corresponding body parts of the enemies of the person doing the piercing. Here it is the rudimentary physical likeness between humans and animals that was paramount. 

Bronze statuette of Pan from the Greek Peloponnese dated to the late 5th to early 4th century BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1989.281.55. Public domain.

Animals, these examples show, had a pervasive presence in ancient Greek religion, extending from the real into the imaginary, from myth into history, from belief into practices, and from the literary into the archaeological evidence. In one sense, ancient religion appears to have been a symbolic language that draws on gods, humans, and animals to make complex statements about the world and the human place within it. Yet in further exploring the manifold uses to which this language was put, it is important to keep in mind that the symbolic relationship between gods, humans, and animals was flexible and not fixed and took on different forms in different contexts.

Julia Kindt is Professor of Ancient History  at the University of Sydney. Her latest book,  an edited collection entitled Animals in Ancient Greek Religion, has just been published by Routledge.


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