meals, sacred

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Either as part of a religious festival or functioning as religious festivals. The notion that a divinity is a participant in the meal with mortals distinguishes these meals from those in which acts of devotion are part of the standard ritual of dining.

The notion that a divinity could share in a meal with mortals was common to many cultures in the ancient Mediterranean and near east. In some cases, invitations would be issued in the name of the divinity, e.g. ‘Sarapis invites you to dine at his temple’; in other cases the invitation would be issued by a priest. Homer may illustrate the ideology of these events when he says that the gods could be seen eating with the Phaeacians. In all such cases, a god would participate with humans at a sacrificial banquet. The underlying principle was that the divinity shared the sacrificial food with those who had offered the sacrifice. Under such circumstances a specific portion of the sacrificial meal that was thought to be appropriate to the divinity in question was set aside, burned, or otherwise disposed of. A place might be set at the table for the divinity, and the divinity was the titular master of the banquet: thus numerous references in the sources to such items as ‘the table of Zeus’, the ‘couch of Sarapis’, or ‘the meal of the gods’.

The concept of the ‘sacred meal’ was important in classical polytheism since it represented the direct involvement of the divinities in the life of a community and generated numerous associations of worshippers who celebrated their own meals with divinities for their own benefit, in addition to those meals held in conjunction with state cults. It is also symbolic of the essential connection between group dining and the concept of community in the ancient world. See dining‐rooms; lectisternium; sacrifice, greek and roman; sanctuaries; theoxenia.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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