What is sacrifice for? Many ancient cultures thought that animal offers fed the gods. The situation is more ambiguous for ancient Greeks. As Charles Stocking points out in his Politics of Sacrifice in Early Greek Myth and Poetry, the only explicit evidence for the notion that sacrifice is food for gods comes from comedy (e.g., Aristophanes’s Birds, in which birds prevent sacrificial smoke from getting to the gods).
In texts that claim to describe the origin of sacrifice (Hesiod’s Theogony; the Homeric Hymns; the Odyssey), two things stand out. First, “sacrifice is a site of contest.” This is represented most famously in Hesiod’s account of Prometheus and Zeus, where the former tricks the latter into choosing fat and bones as his sacrificial portion. Stocking notes that “the language of contest and prestige found in these narratives also persists in later sacrificial calendars” (3).
The other constant is gender: “in each poetic text, the protagonist undergoes a gendered trajectory from the female space of birth to the symbolic order of patriarchy. Zeus moves from Rhea’s womb and the cave on Crete to his own patriarchal rule. Both Persephone and Demeter undergo this same movement, from female to male space, despite Demeter’s own efforts at resistance” (3-4).
Stocking states his thesis: “On the one hand, sacrifice may be understood as a site of contest in the symbolic economy of prestige and deference. On the other hand, sacrifice also operates implicitly as a contest between the male and female genders over birth itself” (4).
This, he says, “allows for a broader understanding of sacrifice in Greek culture as a politics of the belly, where ‘belly’ signifies both the male stomach and the female womb” (4).