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Animals, Gods and Humans

Routledge | ISBN: 0415386497 | edition 2006 |336 pages

Ingvild Saelid Gilhus explores the transition from traditional Greek and Roman religion to Christianity in the Roman Empire and the effect of this change on the concept of animals, illustrating the main factors in the creation of a Christian conception of animals. One of the underlying assumptions of the book is that changes in the way animal motifs are used and the way human-animal relations are conceptualized serve as indicators of more general cultural shifts. Gilhus attests that in late antiquity, animals were used as symbols in a general redefinition of cultural values and assumptions.

Animals are beings with which we may have social relations. We feel sympathy and affection for them, but we also exploit them for our own benefit, for company, sport or nourishment. They are persons and things, friends and food. We communicate with animals, but we also kill, cook and eat them. Animals are similar to us as well as different from us, which encourages us to imagine ourselves as them to conceptualize our own being and to use them as symbols to make sense of our world.

Our thinking about animals is not simple, any more than our feelings for them are straightforward. There is a conflict between our friendliness for some animals and our fear of others, also between our economic interest in them and a natural empathy for living beings when we have the imagination to think of ourselves in their place. By arousing contradictory thoughts and a multitude of emotions, animals become natural symbols and such stuff as myths are made of.

The relationship between animals and humans is a relationship between one species and a tremendous variety of others. Even if we feel that there is an unbridgeable gap between our species and all others, this gap is viewed differently  with regard to different species, which contributes to making the relationship between humans and animals extremely complex (Midgley 1988). How kinship and otherness, closeness and distance between humans and animals are experienced and expressed varies in different types of discourse, and different cultural interpretations may be made of the same animal.

In religions, animals appear as the third party in the interaction between gods and human beings, often as mediators. In this trinity, animals and humans share a flesh-and-blood reality, while gods are creatures of human imagination and tradition. This does not necessarily mean that gods are seen as less real than humans and animals – usually they are thought of as more real. Rituals function above all to establish and confirm the reality of the gods. Killing animals in honour of them and offering them part of the meat from the sacrifice was one way in which their reality was established.

At some points in history, major changes occur in the religious meaning and functions of animals. This was so in India nearly three thousand years ago, when the sacrificing of animals was replaced by bloodless offerings, eating meat was deemed less pure than a vegetarian diet, and doing no injury to any living being became a universal ethical command in Brahmanical lawbooks (Jacobsen 1994). In England, attitudes to the natural world changed in the early modern period. Animals were viewed with increasing sympathy, and even writers in the Christian tradition no longer saw animals as made solely for human sustenance (Thomas 1984: 166). In late antiquity, a major change appeared, when the main religious institution, the animal sacrifice, was replaced by Christian rituals, which no longer included any offering of animal flesh. At the same time, Christians continued to employ a sacrificial terminology. They regarded the death of Christ as fulfilling the sacrificial rites of the Old Testament and used the sacrificial lamb as a symbol for Christ (Snyder 1991: 14–15). With Christianity, the human body became the key symbol in a religion that focused on the death and resurrection of Christ, and the ultimate hope of believers was their own bodily resurrection.

This change from a sacrificial cult, where the animal body had been a key symbol, to the Christian cult, where the human body became the new key symbol, is one of the dramatic changes in the history of religions. What this change implied for the way human beings, through symbols, myths and rituals, imagined their relationship with the rest of the living world has been remarkably little investigated.

Few have found it strange that the bloodless cults of Christianity replaced the sacrificial cults of the Roman Empire. The reason why the worship of gods by means of animal sacrifices gave way to the cult of Christ has not been discussed very much. This curious lack of research may be due to a combination of assumptions based on evolutionism and implicit Christian beliefs.

That the religious significance of animals was discussed for so long in the context of cultural evolutionism has associated the problem with an outdated way of thinking. The religious significance of animals is still mainly associated with earlier stages of cultural development, even if the evolutionistic paradigm on which these ideas were originally based has been rejected. Therefore, one reason why few have seriously asked why the bloodless cults of Christianity replaced the sacrificial cults of the Roman Empire is simply that this problem was regarded as solved. The solution was enlightenment and civilization. The slaughter of sacrificial victims is more primitive than bloodless cults, the worship of gods in animal form is a less advanced type of religion than the worship of gods in human forms, and polytheism is more primitive than monotheism. Seen from this perspective, Christianity stands for cultural progress. In the case of animal sacrifice, furthermore, there has been a tendency to give universal answers to phenomena that in reality are extremely varied and perhaps have only a superficial resemblance (Bloch 1992).

In the present study, we are dealing with a limited period in human history, the first to the fourth century CE, and a limited geographical area, the Mediterranean. Animal sacrifice did not originate in this period; on the contrary, it was brought to an end – at least in its traditional form. After it had been banned, people managed very well without killing their animals in a sacrificial and religious setting. The end of sacrifice did not mean that people stopped killing animals or that they declined to eat meat, only that they no longer did these things in religious settings. One difference between the earlier and later periods was that the butchering of animals, which had been a religious activity, was now secularized. However, the end of animal sacrifice did not mean the end of sacrificial ideology, which was continued in Christianity.

The transition from paganism to Christianity offers us an opportunity to look at the much debated question of the origin of sacrifice in a different way and ask other questions instead. We will not ask why people started to sacrifice animals (about which, when all is said and done, we can know very little) but rather why they stopped doing so. Why did the bloodless Christian cults replace animal sacrifice? We are better equipped to suggest reasons why sacrifice came to an end in late antiquity than to give a reason for its origin in prehistory.

If it is strange that the sacrificial cult came to an end, it is likewise strange that the change from a sacrificial non-Christian cult to a Christian cult was not accompanied by essential changes in diet, for instance by a turn to vegetarianism similar to the one we witness in India in the last millennium BCE – even more strange since the question of purity of food was an issue among the different religious factions and sects in the empire.

Representatives of various religious elites, for instance the Stoic Seneca (1–65 CE), the Neopythagorean Apollonius of Tyana (c. 40–120 CE) and the Neoplatonist Porphyry (234–305 CE), abstained from eating flesh. Why was the sacrifice of animals discontinued apparently with no other dietary consequences for mainstream Christianity than that meat was desacralized? Sacrifice is only one element in Graeco-Roman human–animal relations.

As animal sacrifice lost its significance, the religious and moral value of animals was reduced in general. The lowering of the status of animals is reflected in philosophical debates between Aristotelians, Epicureans, Platonists, Neopythagoreans and Stoics in which the Stoic position gradually became dominant. According to the Stoics, logos is the categorical boundary marker between humans and animals, animals are aloga – creatures without reason. The degradation of animals is also to be seen when animal worship was used as an example of barbarism and regarded as a primitive form of religion. The growing importance of the arena with its massacres of animals could also reflect a devaluation of animals.

Two complementary religious processes that concerned the relationship between animals and humans were at work in the Graeco-Roman world. One was a sacralization of the human form, seen in several of the new cults, among them Christianity. The other was a desacralization of animals, a process that can be observed when the traditional sacrificial cult came to an end. The desacralization of animals is also to be seen in the criticism of people who were suspected of animal worship. It is as if animals and humans had been placed on two scales, and the scales had started to move apart. The humans were given greater religious value, the animals less. But even if the process of sacralization of humans and desacralization of animals was not Christian in origin, Christianity developed these processes further. They were given a final form and incorporated into the continuous cultural work of building a new Christian identity.

The present study owes much to several branches of cultural research. One includes the classic studies of animals in religions. In the heyday of evolutionism, totemism and the religion of hunters and gatherers were the main contexts for the discussion of the religious function of animals (Willis 1994: 1–24). This discussion focused on totemism as a social system, but it sometimes also stressed the nutritional value of the animals involved in this system.

However, the debate about totemism took a new course in 1962, when Claude Lévi-Strauss said that natural species are chosen, not because they are “good to eat” but because they are “good to think” (Lévi-Strauss 1962: 127–8). From that point on, totemism has mainly been regarded as a system of symbols where animals appear as “chiffres” and as illustrations of human thought processes. However, it must be pointed out that the structuralist turn initiated by Lévi-Strauss, although it offered a fruitful new perspective, also implied a reduction in the broader significance of animals. One point was that economic factors in the relations between animals and humans were downplayed; another was that emotional factors were overlooked. Animals are not only good to think, they are also good to “feel”, and they give emotional value and impetus to anything they are linked with. That at least is one of the reasons why they are so effectively used as symbols and metaphors.

Like totemism, sacrifice has been treated in recent research as a system of signs and as an institution that links and divides elements in the social fabric (Detienne and Vernant 1989). Animal sacrifice has further been linked with economic factors and, above all, the distribution of power (Gordon 1990; Jay 1993; Stowers 1995).

Research on animals in antiquity is the second branch of research that has been of value to this study. This is a wide field that includes ancient debates on the status of animals as well as veterinary medicine; studies of animals in art as well as the analysis of ancient physiognomics; and studies of animals in the Roman arena as well as ecological treatises. Three books have been a special inspiration to the present study. These are J.M.C. Toynbee’s survey of the Roman use of animals, Animals in Roman Life and Art; Urs Dierauer, Tier und Mensch im Denken der Antike. Studien zur Tierpsychologie, Anthropologie und Ethik and Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate. Toynbee’s book takes its point of departure from the study of Roman art, while the books by Dierauer and Sorabji are based on close readings of Greek and Latin texts and investigations of the ancient debate on the status and value of animals.

The flourishing field of research on religion/Christianity in late antiquity has been vital for the present study. This research is characterized by a willingness to see Christianity and paganism synoptically, which implies taking Christianity out of Church history and into the wider ancient world of which it was part.3 It also implies looking at the different branches of Christianity without automatically applying an orthodoxy/heterodoxy perspective. Some of these more recent studies are characterized by a certain subversive perspective: the texts are not only to be read with the elite that produced them but also against it (Burrus 2000).

Antiquity and late modernity have in common an increased interest in the status and value of animals. Contemporary studies of the cultural and moral value of animals is the fourth branch of research from which this study has profited. The modern debate has focused on ethical issues surrounding the treatment of animals by humans. Peter Singer argues for a radical change in the treatment of animals and bases his arguments on the principle of equality and the idea that we should minimize suffering. Singer compares “speciesism” to racism and equates human and animal suffering (Singer 1975, cf. also Regan 1983). A more moderate stand on “speciesism” is taken by Mary Midgley in her Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1995), where she persuasively attempts to set humans within their animal context. These authors are alike in their call for respect for non-human animals, their claim that suffering of sentient beings matters and their extension of the principle of equality across species barriers.

Complementary to these “pro-animal” authors are Mary Douglas’ criticalperspective and searching questions about why compassion towards animals has become an issue in late modernity. She points out that it is simplistic to stop at identifying some people as being more compassionate towards animals than others. One must ask what sort of ideology and social structure generally produces such attitudes in the first place. How we think about the relations between animals is based on our own relationships (Douglas 1990, 2001). Concepts of animals reflect human concerns, and animal categories are moulded on principles of how humans interact with each other, which means that human social categories are extended to the animal world. According to Douglas, “animal categories come up in the same pattern of relations as those of humans because the said humans understand the animal kinds to be acting according to the same principles as themselves” (Douglas 1990: 33). And, she asks, “how could we think about how animals relate to one another except on the basis of our own relationships?” (ibid.).

Douglas is certainly right in pointing to a fundamental connection between how humans think of themselves and the ways they think of animals. But it must be added that the animal world does not consist of non-intentional objects on which human relations can be projected as on a blank slate. Animals have their specific ways of behavior and own interests to pursue that contribute to determining how they are conceived of. Animals also interact with humans, at least some animals do, and their societies are not only parallels to human ones but extensions of them as well. All the same, a cultural analysis of animal categories must include the references of these categories to the world of humans.

Steve Baker, who has written about late modern depictions of animals, has attempted to show the meanings that animal metaphors give to humans; at the same time, he is attentive to the views of animals that are conveyed by means of these metaphors (Baker 2001). The idea that animal representations, which may be literary or social constructions, reveal something about the way living animals are perceived and treated is not uncontroversial. Baker recalls that when he spoke at a conference in Oxford in the mid-1980s, called “Animal Images of Sex, Race, and Class”, and at the end of the paper suggested “that animal representations may indirectly reveal something about how a culture regards and thus treats living animals, the suggestion was considered, to be frank, bizarre” (cf. ibid.: xvii). At a conference fifteen years later, “many speakers took for granted that the ‘real’ and the representational can no longer be regarded as conveniently distinct realms” (ibid.).

Baker makes several interesting points. I will especially mention his warning against drawing a sharp distinction between representations and reality – the representational, symbolic and rhetorical use of animals deserves, according to him, as much conceptual weight as any idea about “real” animals (ibid., 10). In The Treason of Images, the famous picture by René Magritte of a pipe accompanied by the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, the difference between an object and its representation is visualized. A picture of a lion is not a lion, but a picture of a lion may help us to recognize a lion when we see one. The challenge is to understand when and to what extent representations of animals make comments on animals, and what they say about them.

In relation to animals and cultural expressions of contempt in relation to animals, Baker points out that “it may be that the practice somehow accounts for the rhetoric; it may be that the rhetoric sustains and substantiates and consolidates the practice, leading us to continue to hold animals in contempt; I contend only that they run in parallel, and that it is rash to assume that the parallel is without significance” (ibid.: 90). In this cautious observation, there lies an appeal not to see the different contexts where animals appear totally in separation from each other but to see them and the conception of animals that they generate as somehow connected.

Finally, I will mention Baker’s point that we have a tendency to deny animals. Animals in fairytales and cartoons are read as humans. They are not animals in any meaningful way, only a medium for messages that concern humans (ibid.: 136–8). In other words, their animality is denied. Something similar may be at work in Christian antiquity, when texts about animals are explained as if they did not concern animals.

One challenge is to track the relations between a society’s metaphorical systems based on animals and that society’s treatment of them. I do not mean that animal metaphors are related to a society’s evaluations and practices towards animals as a one-to-one relationship, and not in each and every case. But as an overall “mechanism” I will suggest that metaphors are dependent on how animals are evaluated, and further that the evaluation of them is interconnected with practices towards them. When, for instance, Achilles is spoken of as a lion, the metaphor will say something not only about the object it is used to describe (Achilles) but also about its original referent (the lion).

Furthermore, it is important to stress that a representation of an animal does not mirror the actual animal; nor is it a “true” description of that animal but reflects popular conceptions of it. Mary Midgley has pointed out that “Actual wolves, then, are not much like the folk-figure of the wolf, and the same is true for apes and other creatures. But it is the folk-figure that has been popular with philosophers” (Midgley 1995: 27). Midgley has also poignantly revealed how the folk figure of the wolf has influenced the actual treatment of wolves.

However, there is a danger in confusing representations of real animals with animal symbols and metaphors. This problem is not new but was realized in antiquity. In his refutation of the Ophites, a gnostic sect, Epiphanius, archbishop of Salamis on Cyprus, struggles with a saying in Matthew: “Be ye wise as the serpents and harmless as the dove” (Matthew 10:16; Panarion I, 37.1–9). It is well known that serpents have a problematic standing in Christian religion, but neither do doves escape Epiphanius’ criticism, as he says that in many ways doves are not admirable. They are incontinent and ceaselessly promiscuous, lecherous and devoted to the pleasures of the moment, and weak and small besides. But because of the harmlessness, patience and forbearance of doves – and even more, because the Holy Spirit has appeared in the form of a dove – the divine Word could have us imitate the will of the Holy Ghost and the harmlessness of the harmless dove, and be wise in good but innocent in evil.(Panarion I, 37.8–9)

The dove is here depicted in anthropomorphic language as a disgusting animal, which clearly makes the bird unsuitable as a Christian ideal. In Epiphanius’ enumeration, the bird’s bad qualities far outdo its good ones. Epiphanius contrasts one positive folk figure of the dove with what he takes to be real doves and shows that the connection between “real” doves and symbolic ones is slight and selective indeed. The common properties of a dove and the Holy Spirit do not cover the totality of the dove but consist of only a few characteristics.

The selection of animals that are used as metaphors is governed by certain interests in the first place. It is also true that different characteristics of an animal are used in different contexts – an animal may be mapped in several ways, as Epiphanius (who does not especially like allegorical readings) shows in his characteristics of ordinary doves in relation to the dove that is used as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. When Christ is described as a lion, his wrath, manliness and rulership appear in the context of his saving power, while in relation to Satan the lion describes his wrath and rulership in the context of evil. Different animals can be used as metaphors for the same entity: Christ is both a lion and a lamb, and Satan is described as a wild boar, a serpent, or a lion. Some animals tend, to a higher degree than others, to have a fixed range of metaphorical meanings in Christian discourse, for instance the lamb and the dove.

Thinking about animals, experiencing them and interacting with them is done in certain cultural contexts. A context may be mental as well as physical. The point is that an animal – be it a real one or a metaphorical one – is never a transparent object and accordingly can never be grasped in isolation; animals are always woven into specific contexts. There are pagan contexts for animal concepts, such as arenas, sacrifices and philosophical debates; Jewish contexts, such as the Genesis account of creation and the dietary laws based on purity and impurity; and Christian contexts, for instance, martyrdom, asceticism and the Christian interpretations of paganism and heresies – contexts in which animals appear as symbols and metaphors. One aim is to show how animals were contextualized during the Roman Empire, what meanings they were given and what changes Christianity made.

In the Graeco-Roman world, animals were described in an anthropomorphic language and often in moralizing ways. Similarities and differences were always emphasized in this language: animals were similar to humans but at the same time radically different from them. How, in what ways, and by what means the interplay between similarities and differences between animals and humans was construed varied with context and purpose. Such variations are closely connected to the fact that when texts mention animals they are often referring to humans in a sort of code. However, this code is only comprehensible if the evaluation of animals that it is dependent upon is known and shared. When texts are talking about humans by means of animals, what is the specific issue? On what conditions are animals present? What do these texts say about animals?

The theme of this book is the transition from traditional Greek and Roman religion to Christianity in the Roman Empire and the effect of this transition on the conception of animals. The changes in the religious evaluation of animals, the effects of these changes and the cultural processes that these involved will be investigated. The disappearance of animal sacrifice is the most visible sign of more general changes in the relationship between animals and humans. However, the use of animals in symbols, myths and rituals and the value they were given also changed profoundly in these centuries. One of the underlying assumptions of the book is that changes in the way animal motifs are used and the way human–animal relations are conceptualized serve as indicators of more general cultural shifts. In late antiquity, animals were used as symbols in a general redefinition of cultural values and assumptions. Cultural issues were focused through them. We will trace the changes in the religious significance of animals in the centuries when Christianity grew from a minority sect to a world religion and look into the significance of these changes, to understand not only the conception of animals but also its functions in the development of a new Christian identity.

The present study of animals and religious changes in the first to fourth centuries CE is intended as a contribution to research on religion in late antiquity. I will investigate changes in the concept of animals during the transitionfrom a non-Christian to a Christian culture. The aim is to see how people in the Graeco-Roman world imagined, interpreted and dramatized animals and how they related to them. Key texts consulted range from philosophical treatises to novels and poems on metamorphoses; from biographies of holy persons such as Apollonius of Tyana and Antony, the Christian desert ascetic, to natural history; from the New Testament via gnostic texts to the Church fathers; from pagan and Christian criticism of animal sacrifice to the acts of the martyrs.

The texts consulted will be treated as equally valuable. They reflect parallel or interlocking discourses on animals that all have an equal right to be heard. One of the project’s aims has been to bring these various texts together and confront them with each other. A second has been to present the dominant themes and developments in people’s conception of animals without losing their complexity. Both the pagan and the Christian conception of animals remained rich and multilayered through the centuries. Furthermore, it has been an ambition to give an outline of the main factors in the creation of a Christian conception of animals.

The book is intended as a macro-investigation based on selected texts, aiming at an understanding of the dominant religious and cultural processes relating to animals in the first to fourth century CE and at creating an overall picture. The selection of texts has been made on the basis of which texts were estimated to be most helpful. Geographical differences and variations due to social strata will be commented upon only to some degree.5 As for the relationship between non-Christian religions and Christianity, Christianity will be viewed as both a continuation of general religious developments in these centuries and a religious innovation in itself.

In the first part of the book, the concept of animals will be described in relation to public institutions, thought, imagination and religion. Chapter 1 is a broad survey of the various contexts in which living animals appeared in the cultural and religious landscape of the early Roman Empire. Three of these are singled out as being especially significant. These are sacrifice, divination and the arena. In Chapters 2–4, the role and function of animals in philosophy and literature will be discussed. Considering how much time was spent, how much cultural work was done to keep up the categorical boundaries between humans and animals, a number of interesting questions arise: when, in what way, in which media and for what purposes were these boundaries overstepped, as they most certainly were.

The theme of Chapter 5 is the religious value of animals. While animals and humans share a flesh-and-blood reality, gods and animals have in common the fact that they are not human. They also have it in common that humans relate to them and define themselves in relation to them. Furthermore, both gods and animals are usually described as if they were human, with human attributes and consciousness. The mysteries of Mithras, Cybele and Attis, Isis and Osiris are examples of cults in which animals appeared. Alexander of Abonouteichos had his sacred serpent, and in the temples of Asclepius serpents and dogs were present. Animals appeared in magic, and in several other systems of expertise such as divination and astrology. How and in what ways were animals associated with the divine world in antiquity?

In Chapters 6 and 7, animal sacrifice as the old religious key symbol will be analysed and compared with the appearance of the human body as the new Christian key symbol. In the change from a pagan to a Christian culture, a great symbolic burden was lifted from sacrificial animals and laid upon Christian bodies. What does this shift of key symbols imply? Why did it come about?

The second part of the book will be a more systematic investigation of how animals appear in Christian texts. Its point of departure is the New Testament. From these biblical texts we will proceed to the discourse that took place on martyrs and then on ascetics. Next to the animal sacrifice, the arena was the most significant context in which animals appeared in the empire. In the arenas, Rome played out its superiority and might. Rome had conquered the world and continued symbolically to conquer it in the spectacular hunting of wild animals in the arenas. In Chapter 9, we will look into the acts of the martyrs and the Christian narratives about the arena and see what meaning animals were given in relation to Christian martyrs.

In addition to their discourse on martyrs, ascetic discourse was one of the main Christian contexts for talk about animals. In Chapter 10, this subject will be investigated through Egyptian sources – the Nag Hammadi texts and the Life of Antony. In Chapter 11, the use of animals to characterize other beings will be discussed, while in Chapter 12, we will proceed from bestial humans to humanlike animals. Here the anomalies within the neat Christian hierarchical system, the lack of winged humans and the presence of speaking animals will be scrutinized.

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