The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks

The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks

by Jeremy McInerney


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ISBN-13: 9780691140070
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/30/2010
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jeremy McInerney is the Davidson Kennedy Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Folds of Parnassos.

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The Cattle of the Sun

By Jeremy McInerney


Copyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14007-0

Chapter One

Cattle Habits

The greatest and most moral homage we can pay to certain animals on certain occasions is to kill them.... -Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting

Animal Rights

The epigraph above is an example of what Michael Pollan has recently called "hunter porn," an overblown style of writing that assumes "that the hunt represents some sort of primordial encounter between two kinds of animals, one of which is [the writer]." Men face danger, men kill, men provide meat, men rule. Actual hunter-gatherer societies are more likely to survive on the staple supply of grains provided by women, but the symbolic capital vested in the hunt is not based on the scientific measurement of where calories come from in the diet. Understandably, then, with the rise of both feminist critiques and the articulation of animal rights, we are now witnessing the emergence of many more critical approaches to the issue of meat production. Animal rights activists assert that animals have the same inalienable rights as humans, or, following a strand in Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism, that because they are sentient, can feel pain and pleasure, they have interests that deserve to be taken into consideration, investing them with rights. The growth of the deep-ecology movement and dismay over how animals are raised in modern factory-farm conditions have also fueled debates about how we treat our animals, and whether humane butchery is possible, or a hideous contradiction in terms. A widely seen exhibition sponsored by PETA juxtaposing images of the Holocaust with the abuse of factory-farm animals is the latest and most graphic illustration of the assault on the older, Cartesian notion that animals are mere mechanisms to be used for our pleasure and consumption.

It is unlikely that any such debate ever took place in the Greek world. Certainly, Porphyry argued against eating animals and Empedokles asserted that it was a universal law not to kill living things, but Aristotle was closer to the mood of ordinary people when he asserted that Nature had made animals for mankind, "both for his service and his food." For Aristotle, the separation between humans and animals was simply too great for animal behavior even to be judged by human standards. Discussing vice and virtue, he notes,

There is no such thing as virtue in the case of a god, any more than there is vice or virtue in the case of a beast: divine goodness is something more exalted than virtue, and bestial badness is different in kind from vice. (Aristotle, EN 7.1.2 1145a 15, trans. Rackham)

The extremes for humans are a type of goodness that cannot match the goodness of the gods, and a type of badness that rarely reaches the bestiality of animals. In fact, for Aristotle the goal of a life lived properly is to rise above our animal natures, which are equated with our appetites, and to exercise our moral and intellectual abilities so as to be better humans. In such a scheme, animals are subservient to the needs of humans, their inability to communicate clearly with us rendering moot the question of their needs or wants. It was also not a difficult step to see uncivilized people as brutes and to equate them with animals, as Strabo does in commenting on the behavior of Corsican mountaineers brought to Rome: looking at them, he says, you could "see and marvel at the degree to which the nature of wild beasts and grazing cattle is manifested in them."

The Bovine Idiom

Strabo and Aristotle reflect a common paradox in the human interaction with other large mammals: the tendency to insist on the utter difference between us and them, and an equally powerful tendency to see a deep affinity between our species. The former impulse makes possible the scientific study of animals based on empirical observation. Aristotle, for example, was well informed about cows, commenting on the relationship between pasture and milk production, preferred types of feed, and techniques for increasing animal size. He correctly notes that cattle suffer from both ticks and lice, and observes that they are susceptible to diseases of the hoof and lungs. He describes the techniques for castrating calves, and was familiar with both Epirote cattle and Paionian bison, which he describes in close detail. Aristotle's empirical observations represent one approach to investigating the position of cattle in the Greek world. One may ask, like Aristotle, where the cattle were raised, under what conditions, and how the market in meat operated. In answering these questions one can learn a great deal about changes in society. Between 1965 and 1993, for example, cattle numbers in Greece plummeted from well over 1,100,000 head to 608,000. Similarly, the growth of cattle markets may indicate enormous social change. Between 1867 and 1868, for example, Abilene, Texas, went from a smattering of log huts to a railhead capable of handling 1,000 railcars of cattle per month-transformed by the railway and, in the process, transforming the regional geographies of the United States as profoundly as the Civil War.

There is, however, another way of exploring the cattle system of ancient Greece. Empirical matters of the sort explored by Aristotle were of little interest to Homer, for whom cattle were a fixture of heroic society. Instead, cattle in epic function as measures of wealth and status, to be fought over, raided, paid as dowry, and perhaps most importantly, sacrificed to earn the favor of the gods. We glimpse the profound complexity of the web of values and associations surrounding cattle in the Greek imagination in the episode from which this study takes its title: the story of the cattle of the Sun. Immediately before the slaughter of the suitors, Odysseus is interviewed by Penelope and tells her, in his guise as Aetion the Cretan, of her husband's long travails. Explaining Odysseus' absence he says,

... As he was sailing out From the island of Thrinacia, Zeus and Helios Hit him hard because his companions had killed The cattle of the Sun. His men went under, But he rode his ship's keel until the waves Washed him ashore in the land of the Phaeacians, Whose race is closely akin to the gods. (Homer, Od. 19.302-7, trans. Lombardo)

The long wanderings of Odysseus, then, are the result of divine punishment, the explanation for which takes us straight into a world of gods and heroes who, somewhat prosaically, act very much like humans. They sail the seas and tend their herds. This is hardly surprising. Greek gods feel jealousy, lust, and rage as passionately as the humans whose lives they dominate, if not more so. Their attachment to cattle, however, is more complex than a mere extrapolation of human activity into the realm of the divine. Hermes may rustle the cattle of Apollo like a common thief, but humans cannot transform themselves at will, like Zeus, into a fine white bull as a way of seducing Europa. Only gods can inflict a transformation into the form of a cow, as Hera does to Io (Hera herself having some totemic relationship with cattle, as her epithet "cow-eyed" suggests). In the Greek imagination, cattle hold a special place. They can be the objects of veneration, as in the bull cult celebrated on Crete, and their sacrifice, particularly a hecatomb, constitutes the greatest and most sumptuous offering humans may make to the gods. Zeus is well-disposed toward the Trojans precisely because his altars have never lacked for sacrificial offerings, and Poseidon is indignant that the Achaians should build a wall at Troy without offering a hecatomb. Cattle are the preferred medium for exchange between us and the divine.

The relationship between the empirical and the symbolic resists easy analysis, in part because each is constantly in flux and carries the past with it. Take, for example, the particulars of stockraising. These underwent constant change from the Neolithic to the age of Pericles. What began with the domestication of the auroch would culminate in the Panathenaic procession as hundreds of head of cattle were led to the Acropolis, slaughtered to make an Athenian holiday. In the course of these changes cattle assumed a central position in the imaginations of people in the eastern Mediterranean. In part this is because herding is a livelihood unlike any other, yet it is also because cattle lead us down so many interesting paths. They facilitate trade by giving us valuables to barter; they incline us to sacrifice, so as to render their murder more palatable; they foster social stratification by giving us a commodity to control, exchange, or share. If hunting favored the growth of the hominid brain, then herding favored the growth of human culture. Edward Evans-Pritchard coined the term "the bovine idiom" to suggest that under certain conditions the phenomenon of herding might serve as a controlling metaphor for the way a society understood itself. He employed the expression to suggest that the relationship between the Maasai and their cattle was so intimate that it shaped profoundly the Maasai understanding of the world. More recently Bruce Lincoln has noted that among the Nuer, "just as the social idiom is an idiom of cattle, the religious idiom is one of cattle too." The Maasai lived by herding and lived off the products of their cattle-meat, milk, and blood-and their very cosmology was shaped by the cattle experience: the first men, for example, entered the universe having slid down from heaven on a bull's pizzle.

While Classical Greece was not a society of transhumant pastoralists, neither did it ever entirely abandon the herder's habits of mind. Perhaps if not a bovine idiom, then what the Greeks retained was a bovine register. It is important to stress this since we are going to explore not only how and under what conditions stock breeding was practiced, but also the place of cattle in the Greek imaginaire. There, thanks to the operations of metaphor and metonymy, cattle took the blue ribbon. I am not proposing that the cow is simply a symbol of something else (Hera, wealth, docility, the object of desire) but that the accumulation of experience between humans and cattle-hunted, tamed, bred, nurtured, yoked, milked, killed, eaten, worshipped-fixes them firmly within the habitus of the Greeks. Since this is not a matter of deliberate intent on the part of the Greeks, I should explain exactly what I mean by this. In a postface to the 1967 edition of Erwin Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Pierre Bourdieu wrote as follows:

... culture is not just a common code, or even a common repetoire of answers to common problems, or a set of particular and particularized forms of thought, but rather a whole set of particular and particularized forms of thought, a whole body of fundamental schemes, assimilated beforehand, that generate, according to an art of invention similar to that of musical writing, an infinite number of particular schemes, directly applied to particular situations. This habitus could be defined, by an analogy with Noam Chomsky's 'generative grammar,' as a system of internalized schemes that have the capacity to generate all thoughts, perceptions, and actions characteristic of a culture, and nothing else.

This approach to culture reserves a space for human agency within a recursive system, whereby humans are equipped by their society's values and prevailing epistemology to act, and in acting so themselves become full participants within their culture, agents of change within their society, in ways that make sense to them. This is a theoretical approach, then, that allows space for historical contingency, that is, for the values, ideas, decisions, and actions that occur within a cultural matrix that informs an individual's conscious and unconscious choices.

The importance of this for our evaluation of cattle systems is twofold. First, herding foregrounds particular practices and experiences that end up dominating entire cultural fields: institutions from marriage to war, concepts of prestige and value, modes of social interaction, negotiation of social hierarchies, all end up being refracted through the prism of herding. Second, because habitus is neither fixed nor inflexible, it can continue to reflect notions, values, and experiences that inform the individual's perceptions and the culture's shared grammar of symbols and ideas long after the empirical circumstances that gave rise to any part of it are changed or lost. Put differently, it is possible to speak of the Greeks as both a pastoral and post-pastoral society, practicing farming, manufacturing, and trade, yet still wedded to cattle because of their rich accumulation of significance. Such incongruities are not uncommon. Referring to the Gogo people of southern Africa, whom he describes as semi-pastoral, Peter Rigby notes that "the basis of subsistence in Ugogo is primarily agriculture." Yet the society he goes on to describe is one in which cattle underpin cosmology, residence patterns, property, inheritance, marriage, clan structure-everything, in fact, that falls under that difficult term, culture. Similarly, describing the importance of cattle to the pastoral Fulani of Nigeria, Akanmu Adebayo has recently observed, "It is difficult for a non-pastoralist to understand what cattle mean to the Fulani. Everything begins and ends with cattle. The life of their men and women revolve around cattle. All activities, all conversations, and all thoughts center on cattle." The bovine idiom is not as intense in Greek culture as in the case of these African societies, but it remains ubiquitous. The comparison with contemporary pastoral and semi-pastoral societies may help to show how the Greeks continued to live in the shadow of the bull, and so I pursue some such comparisons in the next chapter.

Another feature of Bourdieu's notion of habitus that makes it a useful interpretive tool is that it opens up a space for the operation of memory. Through memory we participate in reformulating our habitus individually and collectively in a covert collusion with a past both imagined and real. Is there any past that is not, at some level, imagined? Like notions of chivalry or courtly love, aspects of our imagined past are woven into the values and imaginings of the present. In fact, the conscious version of this sensation, the feeling that some part of what we were is lost, nostalgia, can be one of the most powerful elements of our habitus. The Greeks of the Archaic and Classical periods were especially prone to experiencing the world this way, not merely because their Bronze Age past was physically manifest around them in Mycenaean citadels or tholos tombs, but also because the unifying cultural product of the Classical world-epic-was an imagining of the heroic past. That heroic past has a stratigraphy as rich and distinctive as the layers of the tel at Hissarlik, and one of those layers, buried deep in the Greek imaginaire, was the cattle stratum.

Closely related to this feature of habitus is the problem facing any diachronic study of the Greeks, namely, the risk of anachronism. One might fairly object that Homer's poems are no guide to fifth-century polis religion. Some feel they aren't even a guide to Greece in the eighth or seventh centuries. But the charge of anachronism is too easily used as an excuse not to look for the threads of culture that bind the practices of one age to another, and to impose sterile boundaries between different times. Certainly Homer's Achaians are not identical to Pericles' Athenians, but neither are they unrelated. In a recent essay on meaning in history, Eelco Runia has called attention to the difficulties created for historians by such elements of the human experience as memory, lieux de mémoire, and trauma, none of which fit neatly with the concern for narrative and emplotment that have dominated history (or at least discussions of the philosophy of history) since the publication of Hayden White's Metahistory in 1973. Runia argues that a way forward is to recognize the existence of "presence" in history, which he defines as "the unrepresented way the past is present in the present." Runia's suggestion may help us to understand the continuing hold of the cattle complex on the imagination of the Greeks. Quite simply, the pastoral experience was ever present, even if pastoralism was only one, very specific and limited aspect of the economic life of the Greeks. Consider, for example, the simple fact that cattle need a good deal of water. It was therefore desirable to pasture them near marshland, a practice that helps to explain the artistic convention of showing cattle with wading birds such as egrets. The same observation has recently helped Thomas Tartaron to identify a Mycenaean industry of processing animal hides on the shores of Glykys Limin in Epiros. Here the large quantities of flint flakes found by the shore are consistent with scraping hides, while the landscape, characterized by what Tartaron calls "flat, swampy terrain," was well suited to grazing cattle and satisfying their enormous need for water. Homer, too, often associates cattle with coastal areas. On the Shield of Achilles, cattle are being released from their byres and graze on reed beds. Similarly, when Telemachos arrives at Pylos he witnesses Nestor's sacrifice of nine times nine black bulls on the shore. Later, Pausanias would note that only cows were allowed to graze by the magical waters of the Milichos River, near Patrai, since the waters caused any animals grazing there to bear only male offspring. Similarly, Aristotle comments on the pernicious effects of the waters of the Sybaris River on cattle, while Pausanias tells the story of the bull of Kerkyra, which wandered close to the seashore trying to alert the locals to the great schools of fish nearby. It is not the veracity of any of the separate stories that matters, so much as the perpetual repetition of the association of cattle and water in folklore and myth. Accordingly, when set against these persistent associations, Zeus' appearance in the form of a bull emerging from the sea as Europa plays by the shore becomes, in one sense, unremarkable.


Excerpted from The Cattle of the Sun by Jeremy McInerney Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

A Note about Spellings and Translations xiii

Abbreviations xv

CHAPTER 1: Cattle Habits 1

CHAPTER 2: The Paradoxes of Pastoralism 21

CHAPTER 3: Cattle Systems in Bronze Age Greece 48

CHAPTER 4: Epic Consumption 74

CHAPTER 5: Heroes and Gods 97

CHAPTER 6: Gods, Cattle, and Space 123

CHAPTER 7: Sacred Economics 146

CHAPTER 8: Cities and Cattle Business 173

CHAPTER 9: Sacred Law 196

CHAPTER 10: Authority and Value 217

CHAPTER 11: Conclusions 241

Notes 253

Bibliography 293

Index 335

What People are Saying About This

David Tandy

Through the Greeks' apparent devotion to agriculture and our modern overvaluing of that agriculture, we have failed to perceive the essential pastoral ethos of ancient Greek life. Once we put aside our blinders, we see that many aspects of Greek culture, most prominently large-animal sacrifice and public feasting, are attributable to a long devotion to bovid production. This engaging and confident book argues the idea convincingly.
David Tandy, University of Tennessee

Robin Osborne

This is a rewarding place of first resort for those interested in ancient Greek cattle.
Robin Osborne, University of Cambridge

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