animals in cult

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Numerous features of Greek religion attest links between animals and gods, usually between one animal or group of animals and one divinity. Thus Athena is associated with various birds (in Athens esp. the owl); Dionysus is called ‘bull’ in an Elean hymn and seen as a bull by Pentheus in Euripides' Bacchae. There are traces, too, of a closer identification, in which gods (and/or their worshippers) appear in animal or part‐animal form. Arcadia was in historical times the special home of theriomorphic deities; here we find a myth of Poseidon's rape of Demeter in equine form along with Pausanias' 3 reference to a horse‐headed statue of Demeter. But rituals involving the imitation of animals are found in other parts of the Greek world, a well‐known example being the arkteia of Brauron, where little girls played the part of bears in a ceremony for Artemis.

By far the most important religious role of real animals in both Greece and Rome was that of sacrificial victim. Animals for sacrifice were normally domesticated; sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle were the commonest species used, and it is likely that throughout antiquity most of the meat consumed from these animals would have been sacrificial meat. Deviant sacrifices, as of horses, fish, and also of wild animals more normally killed in hunting, are rare. The actions of some animals (esp. birds) were often seen as supplying omens, and prophecy from the entrails of sacrificial victims was also practised, in Greece, but more esp. by the Etruscans and thence the Romans (see divination). See also animals, attitudes to.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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