Category Archives: Meals and banqueting

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort

On previous occasions I have discussed some common ethnic stereotypes that were at work when a given Greek or Roman author described the worldviews and practices of other peoples, and sometimes these views were reflected in novels as well (go here or here, for instance). Sometimes peoples outside of one’s own cultural group were viewed as inferior, barbarous, and dangerous. In particular, a common accusation against minority cultural groups was the claim that such “dangerous” people engaged in human sacrifice followed by a cannibalistic meal.

Judeans (Jews) and Christians were among the minority cultural groups accused of such fiendish activity. Thus, for instance, the Roman historian Dio Cassius (writing in the early third century) describes the revolt of Judeans in Cyrene, who were “destroying both the Romans and the Greeks”: he claims that “they would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing” (Roman History, 68.32.1-2 [Loeb translation]).

There were times when Christians, too, were on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes which tried to underline just how dangerous certain peoples were. Minucius Felix‘s second century dialogue presents the view of a critic who claimed that the Christians’ rituals involved the following:

An infant, cased in dough to deceive the unsuspecting, is placed beside the person to be initiated. The novice is thereupon induced to inflict what seems to be harmless blows upon the dough, and unintentionally the infant is killed by his unsuspecting blows; the blood – oh, horrible – they lap up greedily; the limbs they tear to pieces eagerly; and over the victim they make league and covenant, and by complicity in guilt pledge themselves to mutual silence (Octavius 9.5-6 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian, a second century Christian author from North Africa, responded to similar rumours regarding human sacrifice and cannibalism among Jesus-followers with some sarcasm:

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby, nobody’s enemy, guilty of nothing, everybody’s child. . . catch the infant blood; steep your bread with it; eat and enjoy it’ (Apology 8.2 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian tries to defend the reputation of Christians by drawing attention to how ludicrous he thought such accusations were and by striking to the heart of the reasons for such accusations. He gets at the “rationale” behind the accusations, so to speak. Namely, if one feels that some other group of people are dangerous or threatening, what better way to encapsulate that danger than in depicting the minority cultural group as murderers of “nobody’s enemy” and “everybody’s child”. If they’ll do this to an innocent child, goes the thinking, then imagine how dangerous they are to the rest of us as well. The notion of eating the human body, a child no less, is symbolic of destroying humanity or human society itself.

Similar patterns of demonizing “the other” have been at work throughout western cultural history.

Bandits and their wild banquets: Lapiths and Centaurs

Bandits or pirates play an important role within many of the ancient Greek novels. In essence, these thugs come to embody just about every improper social and religious activity you can imagine, including human sacrifice and cannibalism (as I discussed in earlier entries on ethnography. They are also depicted as engaging in improper banqueting activity in other respects.

Apuleius’ Golden Ass (aka Metamorphoses) relates the story of a man who is turned into an ass through magic and goes on adventures towards his ultimate salvation from the goddess Isis. In the mean time, his adventures include capture by a guild (collegium) of bandits (6.31), whose meal etiquette is characterized thus:

They ate and drank in utter disorder, swallowing meat by the heap, bread by the stack, and cups by the legion. They played raucously, sang deafeningly, and joked abusively, and in every other respect behaved just like those half-beasts, the Lapiths and Centaurs (Metamorphoses 4.8, trans LCL).

According to Greek mythology, the wedding celebration of Peirithous, a Lapith, ended in utter violence between the two peoples due to the drunken behaviour of a Centaur (cf. Homer, Od. 21.285-304). So these mythical figures became the epitome of terrible and violent banqueting behaviour ever since, as evidenced in the title of Lucian’s satirical Symposium, or The Lapiths, and in many artistic representations (cf. Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1.17.2; 1.28.2; 5.10.8).

(A Lapith struggles with a Centaur, Parthenon metope, now in the British Museum).

The brigands in Apuleius’ novel have “principles,” by the way, which are manifest in their (foiled) plan to punish the girl and the ass in the most humiliating manner: by having the living girl sewn inside the executed animal and leaving them both in the hot sun for dogs and vultures to devour.

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).

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.