Category Archives: Associations

Human sacrifice and cannibalism again — oh, and sexual perversion too

I am in the midst of writing a book on Dynamics of Identity and Early Christianity (for Continuum) which tries to shed some new light on the question by looking to associations, cultural minorities, and ethnic groups in the world of the early Christians.  “Identity” has to do with the way in which individuals and groups answer the questions “who am I” or ‘who are we in relation to others?”  Social scientists emphasize that there are two main processes in identity-construction and re-negotiation: internal self-definitions and external categorizations.  External categorizations involve outsiders’ perspectives on who a group is and stereotypes about that group, and they can play a role in how members of the evaluated group re-negotiate and express their own identities internally.

In previous posts (click here), I have noted a common set of ethnographic stereotypes that were used to categorize other peoples or groups as “barbarous” and dangerous to society, particularly cultural minority groups or ethnic groups.  The early Christians, for instance, were charged with Thyestan feasts (cannibalism) and Oedipean unions (incest), and similar charges went back and forth between social and ethnic groups in antiquity.  Judeans, too, were stereotyped and charged with the same sort of activities when a particular Greek or Roman author disliked them.

Yet, as I said, the charges go both ways.  A good example of this is offered by a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon (first century BCE or CE — in the so called Apocrypha of the Bible) which characterized ‘pagans’ as dangerous and barbarous.  This author describes the ‘detestable’ activities of those who inhabited the ‘holy land’ before the arrival of the Israelites. This gives this Hellenistic Judean author opportunity to critique contemporary associations or ‘societies’ of ‘initiates’ outside of the Judean sphere in the process, calling on the same sort of stereotypes we have seen in Greek or Roman slander against Judeans. God ‘hated them for practicing the most detestable things – deeds of sorcery and unholy rites (τελετὰς ἀνοσίους), merciless slaughters of children, sacrificial feasting on human flesh and blood – those “initiates” from the midst of a “society” (ἐκ μέσου μύστας θιάσου) and parents who murder helpless lives, you willed to destroy. . .‘ (Wis 12:4-5; cf. Wis 14:15-23 [NETS]).

At the same time, personified Wisdom herself is an ‘initiate’ of another, superior kind, an ‘initiate (μύστις) in the knowledge of God’ (Wis 8:4). Elsewhere the author critiques the ‘idolatry’ of Greeks generally, the ‘impious ones’ (άσεβοῦς) who do not know such ‘divine mysteries’ (2:22) and who instead establish their own inferior ‘mysteries and rites’ (μυστήρια καὶ τελετάς; 14:15): ‘For whether performing ritual murders of children or secret mysteries or frenzied revels connected with strange laws, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either kill one another by treachery or grieve one another by adultery’ (Wis. 14:23-24). Once again, ritual murder and sexual perversion converge in this characterization of the associations of another ethnic group.

The process of defining the ‘other’ as dangerous barbarians who will kill and eat you if they can is in fact the process of defining one’s own group as well.  This is the boundary-constructing process of distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’, and virtually all groups in antiquity engaged in such modes of external categorizations and self-definition that are at the heart of identity.

(Sure this post is somewhat long, but at least I’m trying — I’ve lost the knack for short and sweet, it seems, if I ever had it).

For the gods of the homeland: Immigrants from Beirut on a Greek island

The Greek island of Delos supplies the social historian with an unusually rich source of information regarding immigrant associations in the ancient world (especially for the second century BCE). Seldom can one boast of finding communities of Italians, Samaritans, Judeans, and Egyptians to study in one locale. Added to these many groups were guilds of immigrants from two important Syrian towns, Tyre and Berytos (modern Beirut in Lebanon).

Here I would like to briefly discuss two inscriptions involving the guild of Berytian merchants. These monuments illustrate well the expression of ethnic identity alongside adaptation or acculturation to local ways.

On the one hand is an inscription which shows the continuing importance of the gods of the homeland (Poseidon and, likely, Astarte or Ashtoreth) for this group on Delos:

“The association of Poseidon-worshipping merchants, shippers and receivers from Berytos set up the building (oikos), the pillars, and the oracles for the ancestral gods” (IDelos 1774).

On the other is a dedication not to the gods of the homeland but to the goddess Roma, personified Rome, herself.

“The association of Poseidon-worshipping merchants, shippers, and receivers from Berytos honoured the goddess Roma, benefactor, on account of the goodwill which she has in relation to the association and the homeland. This was done when Mnaseos son of Dionysios, benefactor, was chief of the cult-society for the second time. Menandros son of Melas, Athenian, prepared this monument” (IDelos 1778).

This was set up at the time of Roman ascendancy in this area of the Mediterranean, when Rome was further facilitating the flow of goods to important ports such as Delos. What particularly stands out in terms of identity and acculturation here is the fact that these immigrants honour the divine “mascot” of Rome. Yet they do so precisely because she is believed to have shown goodwill to the homeland of Beirut (in Syria) itself, as well as to these Syrian immigrants abroad.

These are just some of the many indications of continuing attachments to the homeland combined with a sense of belonging in a new home among immigrants in the Greco-Roman world. There’ll be more to come on immigrants soon.

Those other (“pagan”) synagogues

Unofficial groups in the Greco-Roman world that I (and others) typically call “associations” used a variety of terms to describe themselves. Some of the favourite Greek terms were synodos (“synod”), koinon, synergasia (“guild”), thiasos (“cult-society”), and mystai (“initiates”). Today, when people (including many scholars) hear the term synagogue or head-of-the-synagogue (archisynagogos) they tend to assume some Jewish group (or building) is in mind. However, the term synagogue (stemming from the Greek synagō, meaning to gather or bring together) was also used by other “pagan” associations and was not necessarily a sign of Jewish connections.

Thus, for instance, one monument from Apamea in Bithynia (northern Asia Minor / Turkey), which involves a group of men and women devotees (thiasitai and thiastides) honouring a priestess of Cybele (the Great Mother), mentions that the inscription was set up in the “synagogue” of Zeus (IApamBith 35). Across the Propontis in Perinthos-Herakleia in Thracia, there was an occupationally-based “synagogue of oar (or small-ware) dealers” that shows no sign of Jewish connections (IPerinthos 59 [first or second century]). At both Beroia and Hagios Mamas in Macedonia there were associations (devoted to Poseidon and a hero-god respectively) whose main leader was known as the head-of-the-synagogue (archisynagogos) (IMakedD 747 [second century]; SEG 27 [1977] 267). And there are many other “pagan” cases where the chief leader of the group, as in some Jewish gatherings, was termed head-of-the-synagogue (e.g. NewDocs I 5; IG X.2 288-289; SEG 42 [1992] 625).

Diaspora Jewish groups (including Jesus-devotees) shared more in common with “run-of-the-mill” associations of the Greco-Roman world than often acknowledged, and their “gatherings” would have been viewed as such by outsiders in some important respects.

To read more about associations in the Greco-Roman world, as well as their relevance to early Judaism and Christianity, go to the Associations in the Greco-Roman World site (under my websites above).

Multiple memberships in the world of the early Christians

Until recently, the suggestion that members of the early Christian congregations may have simultaneously been members in other associations and guilds remained under-explored. In Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (click the Books / Articles tab for a free download), I dealt with the question of multiple memberships in connection with the Christians at Corinth (addressed by Paul in 1 Cor 8 and 10) who were attending banquets alongside non-Christians (“pagans”). I also considered the possibility that the opponents addressed by John’s Apocalypse, especially those accused of eating idol-food (or idol-meat) with “Jezebel”, may have been encountering sacrificial food as members in the guilds of Thyatira (something that William Ramsay suggested, but did not explore, long ago).

In a more recent article dealing with Sardis and Smyrna, which you can read on my publications page, I looked at the implications of multiple memberships for questions of rivalries and competition among different groups.

I have now just read a very interesting article on associations on the island of Rhodes by Vincent Gabrielson, which drew my attention to another interesting case of multiple memberships in associations (dealing with IG XII[1] 155). A man named Dionysodoros, who was an immigrant from Alexandria (in Egypt), was honoured by a number of associations (koina) at Rhodes in the second century BCE, including the “Haliasts and Haliads,” the “Paniasts,” and the “Dionysiasts” (devoted to the god Dionysos). A closer look at this lengthy inscription shows that he was not only honoured by these groups, but was also a member in at least four associations at Rhodes! (See Vincent Gabrielson, “The Rhodian Associations Honouring Dionysodoros from Alexandria, ” Classica et mediaevalia 45 [1994] 137-60.)

And these memberships were not fleeting. Dionysodoros was a member of the “Haliasts and Haliads” for 35 years, and he acted as their chief-of-banquets (archeranistas) for 23 years. Simultaneously he was a faithful member and benefactor of other associations, including the “Paniasts” whom he served as chief-of-banquets for at least 18 years. This is the sort of atmosphere of multiple affiliations and interactions in which the early Christians and diaspora Jews found themselves. So we should not be too surprised if we find some Jews or Christians going to synagogue or church one day, and hanging out with friends in the guild or association the next.

Banqueting under the protection of your gods

Down in a dusty basement of the British Museum, where few will ever see it, is a very interesting monument involving an association devoted to Zeus Hypsistos (“Most High”; GIBM IV.2 1007; from Panormos, near Kyzikos in Asia Minor).

The “three-storey” relief on this monument depicts the gods to whom the association was devoted, with Zeus (left) alongside Artemis (middle) and Apollo (right). All three deities hold out a libation bowl in their right hands, symbolic of the libations (drink-offerings) which humans offer in honour of these figures.

Even more interesting is the rare picture of an association’s banquet which is depicted under the benevolent protection of the gods. Here we see a number of members of the association reclining for the meal in a customary manner as they watch a female dance, perhaps performing in honour of the gods. She is accompanied by a seated man playing a Phrygian flute and a percussionist (using reeds) while, off to the right, a man takes care of the wine bowl for the symposium (drinking party).

A monument like this illustrates well the interconnected social and religious purposes of the associations. Partying and honouring the gods went together quite well in antiquity.

 

The inscription in the triangular shape at the top reads as follows: “To Zeus Hypsistos and the place. Thallos, eponymous official, dedicated this relief.”

There will be more to come from my recent visit to the British Museum, and perhaps more on Zeus Most High, whose connections with Judaism are somewhat controversial. (I would like to thank Dr. Peter Higgs, curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities, for arranging access to the monument).

An invitation from the god Sarapis: Banqueting with the gods

When the members of associations or guilds in the Roman empire gathered together for a meal, much more than simply satisfying the appetite or merely socializing was going on. Things that we moderns might separate into the categories of “social” and “religious” were intimately intertwined in antiquity, and the sacrificial meal is a case in point. The main way to honour the gods or goddesses was to make offerings of food or animal sacrifices, and in the majority of cases this, by default, included the accompanying meal of the worshipers.

In fact, in some cases it was even imagined that the god threw the banquet and was present with devotees as they shared in a communal meal. One banquet invitation on papyrus (ancient paper made from plants in Egypt) shows that the (Greco-Egyptian) god Sarapis sometimes sent out personal invitations for dinner: “The god calls you to a banquet being held. . . tomorrow from the 9th hour” (trans. by G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. I no. 1). And this is one of those rare cases when an upper-class author (in this case Aelius Aristides of Smyrna) happens to clarify how the members of an association devoted to Sarapis might think about their god’s presence, whether in Egypt or in Asia Minor:

“And mankind exceptionally makes this god [Sarapis] alone a full partner in their sacrifices, summoning him to the feast and making him both their chief guest and host, so that while different gods contribute to different banquets, he is the universal contributor to all banquets and has the rank of mess president for those who assemble at times for his sake . . . he is a participant in the libations and is the one who receives the libations, and he goes as a guest to the revel and issues the invitations to the revelers, who under his guidance perform a dance.  Orations 45.27-28; trans. by Charles A. Behr, P. Aelius Aristides: The Complete Works. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981 (second century).

Worshiping the Beast / Honouring the Emperor

Quite well-known is the book of Revelation’s (aka John’s Apocalypse) condemnation of “worshiping the beast” in his writing to the Christians in Asia Minor:

[The beast rising from the sea] was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered (13:7-8 [NRSV]).

Scholars have for a long time recognized in this a reference to worship of the Roman emperor, with the emperor being cast as a chaotic beast in this passage. In the Greek part of the empire (including Asia Minor), in particular, the emperor and the imperial family were granted honours equivalent to those offered traditional deities, like Zeus or Artemis. They were referred to as the “revered ones” (Sebastoi), the Greek equivalent of the title “Augusti”. This worship included temples in their honour as well as sacrifices at both the city and the provincial levels.

Yet quite often those who have studied these “imperial cults” tend to see them as primarily political and lacking in religiosity, or as “public” rather than “private”. This problematic view is partly due to the neglect of the many monuments and inscriptions set up by small, informal groups or associations at the local level in many cities of Asia Minor. Many of these groups worshiped the emperors without anyone imposing that on them. One such association at Pergamum was called the “hymn-singers” (hymnodoi). Once in a while they participated in special provincial celebrations in honour of god Augustus and his heirs, but they also engaged in special “mysteries” that lasted three days in honour of the “revered ones” within their local meetings. Similarly, an association at Ephesus in the time of emperor Domitian had “mysteries and sacrifices” which they performed each year “to Demeter…and to the Sebastoi gods”.

Click on the Books / Articles tab at the top of the page to read some scholarly articles on this topic.

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.