Banquets of the anti-associations: “They sacrificed a human being and partook of the flesh”

Quite well-known are the accusations of cannibalism (Thyestan feasts) and incest (Oedipean unions) made by some Greeks, Romans, and others against Christians in the second century (as reflected in the letter written by Christians at Lyons in Gaul [France] to those in Asia Minor [Turkey] in 177 CE). Yet such allegations were part of a common set of stereotypes for describing the “other” (that is, foreign or “barbarian” peoples and groups) that were also used by ancient writers of history and fiction concerning “foreign” religious associations or criminal “lowlife” guilds.

Some Christian authors in later years would draw on the same stockpile of accusations in their fight with other Christians that they considered “heretics” (e.g. Epiphanius on the Phibionites). The same “rituals of atrocity” would be leveled against supposed heretics and “witches” in the middle ages, and most recently recurred in stories about the supposed ritual murders performed among Satanist groups in the 1980s. I am now in the midst of writing a paper that explores such accusations of wildly transgressive rituals and banquets in antiquity (for the Society of Biblical Literature Greco-Roman meals seminar).

Among the more interesting and deliberately shocking accounts in ancient Greek novels is the episode from Lollianos’ (or Lollianus’) A Phoenician Story (Phoenikika – second century CE), which describes a criminal guild of initiates engaging in ritual murder:

Meanwhile another man, who was naked, walked by, wearing a crimson loincloth, and throwing the body of the pais (child or servant) on its back, he cut it up, and tore out its heart and placed it upon the fire. Then, he took up [the cooked heart] and sliced it up to the middle. And on the surface [of the slices] he sprinkled [barley groats] and wet it with oil; and when he had sufficiently prepared them, [he gave them to the] initiates, and those who held (a slice?) [he ordered] to swear in the blood of the heart that they would neither give up nor betray [——–], not [even if they are led off to prison], nor yet if they be tortured
PColon 3328, B 1 Recto, lines 9-16. Translation from Susan A. Stephens and John J. Winkler, Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 338-341.

What might be missed by a modern reader is just how normal this episode would be if not for the fact that the sacrificial victim is human. Greeks and Romans regularly engaged in sacrifices of animals in order to honour their gods, and the procedure described here would not be considered out of the ordinary. The sacrifice was accompanied by a communal meal sharing in portions of the sacrificed animal (including the innards, which were somewhat of a delicacy). Greeks and Romans alike would be utterly shocked and outraged, however, at the idea of a human victim. (The quotation in this post’s title comes from Plutarch’s Life of Cicero 10.4 and speaks of Cicero’s political opponent Cataline and his supposed co-conspirators in the 60s BCE.)

Perhaps this is less bland than my introductory post.

UPDATE: Now you can read a draft of my article that deals with novels and accusations of human sacrifice and cannibalism in the Greco-Roman period here. For further posts on banqueting in the Roman world in this blog, see other entries in the banqueting sub-category.