In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sacrifice

  • Introduction
  • General Studies on Ritual
  • General Studies on Sacrifice
  • General Studies on Greek and Roman Sacrifice
  • Essay Collections on Greek and Roman Sacrifice
  • Monographs and Overviews (Greek): Before 1970
  • Monographs and Overviews (Greek): Since 1970
  • Linguistic Evidence (Greek)
  • Epigraphical Evidence (Greek): Text Collections
  • Epigraphical Evidence (Greek): Studies
  • Archaeological Evidence (Greek)
  • Iconographic Sources (Greek)
  • Literary Sources (Greek)
  • Phases of the Ritual (Greek)
  • Animal Offerings (Greek)
  • Non-Animal Offerings (Greek)
  • Occasions for Sacrifice (Greek)
  • Participants (Greek)
  • Monographs and Overviews (Roman)
  • Epigraphical and Archaeological Evidence (Roman)
  • Literary and Iconographic Sources (Roman)
  • Food and Dining (Roman)
  • Gender (Roman)
  • Socio-Political Contexts (Roman)
  • Human Sacrifice in the Greek and Roman World
  • Philosophical Views
  • “Pagans” and Christians

Classics Sacrifice
Fred Naiden, James Rives
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0209


For the purpose of this article, ancient “sacrifice” was the act of making a destructible or perishable offering to a god, hero, or spirit at an altar or other designated place, commonly accompanied by other rituals and activities. Sacrifice was characteristically a composite or nexus central for both Greek and Roman religion, and much introductory bibliography may thus be found in the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles Greek Religion by Angelos Chaniotis and Roman Religion by Elaine Fantham and Emily Fairey. Because it is not possible to separate sacrifice from other cultic practices, frequent reference is made to these more general bibliographies. Besides being more complex than other rituals, sacrifice has a distinctive intellectual history, closely tied to the development of the concept of ritual and to general ideas about ancient (and especially Greek) religion. A bibliography of sacrifice must accordingly have a comparatively large number of entries devoted to the history of the subject, just as it must have Greek and Roman entries that account for differences between these two religions. F. Naiden and J. Rives are jointly responsible for the entries of a general nature; Naiden has primary responsibility for entries dealing with Greek sacrifice, and Rives, for those dealing with Roman.

General Studies on Ritual

Sacrifice became a leading scholarly topic in the late 19th century, thanks to development of the concept of ritual by Smith 1894 and Mauss 1954. Long dominant, this concept has met with criticism by Goody 1961, Asad 1993, Bell 1997, and Bremmer 1998.

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of religion: Disciplines and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Asad shows how priests and other religious leaders use ritual as well as sermons and other religious practices to maintain or increase their authority. To be read in contrast with Bloch 1992 (cited under General Studies on Sacrifice).

  • Bell, Catherine M. 1997. Ritual: Perspectives and dimensions. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Synthesizing decades of refinement of the concept of ritual, Bell contrasts the common definition of ritual as custom involving supernatural beings with a definition of “ritualization,” the use and structuring of customs so that they appear natural or self-justifying, without a necessary divine or liturgical element—a fundamental shift affecting much of the study of Greek religion.

  • Bremmer, J. 1998. Religion, ritual and the opposition ‘sacred vs. profane’: Notes towards a terminological genealogy. In Ansichten griechischer rituale: Geburtstags-Symposium für Walter Burkert. Edited by F. Graf, 9–33. Stuttgart: Teubner.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110962406

    This essay brought to the attention of classicists the intellectual problems of the fundamental category of “ritual,” and thus of the organization of the study of religion according to ritual, as in Burkert 1985 (cited under Monographs and Overviews (Greek): Since 1970).

  • Goody, Jack. 1961. Religion and ritual: The definitional problem. British Journal of Sociology 12:142–164.

    DOI: 10.2307/586928

    This essay raised the issue of the connection between ritual and religion and thus between the topic of sacrifice and the topics of theology and myth, a connection that has remained problematic to the present time, as in Bell 1997 and Bremmer 1998.

  • Mauss, Marcel. 1954. The gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. Translated by I. Cunnison. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

    Originally published as Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques (Paris: Alcan, 1925). An important aspect of ancient sacrifice given the form of a general social principle applicable to ancient Greece or other societies held to be “archaic.”

  • Smith, W. Robertson. 1894. Lectures on the religion of the Semites. First series: The fundamental institutions. New ed. Edinburgh: A. & C. Black.

    Although sacrifice was but one part of this treatment of early Semitic and especially Hebrew religion, the treatment of sacrificial bloodshed and social bonding through sacrifice and feasting set forth themes that have inspired later writers down through the end of the 20th century.

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