Scholia Reviews 15 (2006) 41.

Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. 322. ISBN 0-415-38649-7. UK£75.00, US$135.95.

Sergio Knipe,
University of Cambridge

The latest work by Ingvild Saelid Gilhus (Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Bergen) is devoted to attitudes towards animals in Antiquity, with particular regard to the evolution of these attitudes in the late Roman period.[[1]] While the twelve chapters of the book are arranged thematically, they also provide a sense of chronological progression from the Roman Republic to the Christian empire. The Roman perception of animals is the main focus of Gilhus's study; Greek literature and philosophy are assigned a significant role only insofar as they operate within the framework of a Roman world. In Chapter 1, which serves as an introduction to the subject (pp. 1-11), Gilhus considers how certain established customs reflect Roman thinking about animals. One example she offers is Roman legislation, which makes use of animals to define a 'categorical boundary' (pp. 14f.) based on the 'underlying presupposition . . . that humans are not animals' (p. 15).[[2]] Besides reviewing Roman attitudes to fish and 'personal animals' (which Gilhus usefully distinguishes from modern 'pets'), and discussing the use of animals in medicine and the arena, Chapter 1, `Animals in the Roman Empire' (pp. 12-36), addresses the central question of whether Romans conceived of animals as having any rights. Despite the contrary opinion of many philosophers, Gilhus suggests that notions of contract with animals were widespread in Roman society, and can be seen to underlie sacrificial practice; sacrificial animals were perceived to be free-acting agents insofar as they were thought to accept their own death.

Chapter 2, `United by Soul or Divided by Reason' (pp. 37-63), further develops the issue of justice by investigating the philosophical discourse on animal rationality -- a subject previously fruitfully explored by Richard Sorabji,[[3]] and most recently addressed in relation to the contemporary discourse on animal rights by Stephen Newmyer.[[4]] Gilhus presents the chief philosophical positions on the matter, and argues that ancient philosophers (not unlike the lawgivers discussed in the previous chapter) shared a tendency to use animals as a means to reinforce cultural and social boundaries; even those writers who articulated a defence of animals did so from 'from a clearly anthropocentric perspective' (p. 42). An anthropocentric perspective also emerges from ancient debates on vegetarianism, discussed in Chapter 3, `Vegetarianism, Natural History and Physiognomics' (pp. 64-77). Here Gilhus suggests that two (often complementary) justifications were commonly adduced in favour of vegetarianism: the notion that humans and animals are part of the same community, and the idea that humans should abstain from consuming meat because they are situated on a higher level. If the first view is informed by a religious belief in reincarnation, the second is based on the perception of meat as something 'polluting'. In both cases, ancient vegetarianism 'was mainly a question of how to relate to tame animals' (p. 68). Chapter 3 also discusses natural history, where animals are described in human terms, and physiognomics, which exploits animals as symbols to describe human types.

'Imagination and transformations' are the subject of Chapter 4 (pp. 78-92). Descriptions of metamorphoses (mainly from Ovid) and of metensomatosis (the passage of a soul into another body) once more betray a strong anthropocentric concern: 'The theme of transformation between humans and animals is often an elaboration of how the bestial aspect of humans represents a degradation of human qualities' (p. 78). But if animals can be seen to stand for what is lowest in man, they can also occasionally partake in the divine. In Chapter 5, `The Religious Value of Animals' (pp. 93-113), the author explores the status of animals as objects of worship in Egypt and their role in mystery cults and myths. Here the value of animals is seen to lie in their 'otherness', which 'gives added meaning to the divine' (p. 113).

Chapter 6, 'Animal Sacrifice: Traditions and New Innovations' (pp. 114-37), discusses the cultural practice which most clearly defined the place of animals within traditional religion. Gilhus's overview of sacrificial customs in the ancient world stresses two points raised in Chapter 1: that sacrifice assumes the consent of the victim and that 'in sacrifices and divinations . . . animals were treated as objects and were more interesting dead than ever they had been alive' (p. 119).[[5]] Here Gilhus first introduces a central idea which she develops in greater detail in the latter part of the book; the notion that soteriological concerns in late Antiquity led to an increasingly instrumental view of animals. In the case of the taurobolium, of Mithraic worship and of Iamblichean theurgy, 'sacrificial animals were reinvented as symbols, while their function as food was downplayed' (p. 136). In Gilhus's view, once combined with an aspiration towards personal salvation, the anthropocentric approach shared by most Roman citizens contributed to make of animals 'instruments of human spiritual progress' (p. 134).

Chapter 7, `"God is a Man-eater": The Animal Sacrifice and its Critics' (pp. 138-60), explores the position of post-Classical authors in respect to sacrifice, starting from its pagan critics. While Lucian's anti-sacrificial stance primarily coincides with a sceptical approach to the notion of do-ut-des, the case of Porphyry is more complex, not least because his view on sacrifice appears to vary considerably from one work to another. Perhaps the greatest problem in Gilhus's analysis of Porphyry lies in its attempt to reconcile the striking differences within the Porphyrian corpus, seeking to accommodate the evidence from diverse texts and to characterise the philosopher's attitude to sacrifice on the whole as 'rather negative' (p. 144). Such a view runs the risk of underemphasising Porphyry's rejection of sacrifice, as it is most forcefully expressed in De Abstinentia.[[6]] After briefly considering Julian, the remainder of Chapter 7 turns to Christian polemic, characterised by 'a downgrading of animals in relation to human' and an attempt 'to exclude them from the religious discourse' (p. 149).

Christian sources are the focus of the last four chapters of Gilhus's book. In Chapter 8, `The New Testament and the Lamb of God' (pp. 161-82), she provides an overview of animals in Scripture, and discusses the Christian shift away from Jewish dietary prescriptions. The early Christian tradition reveals little concern for animals as such, but makes ample metaphorical use of animals, most notably the lamb. If Christ is sacrificed as the Lamb of God, martyrs thrown to the beasts in the arena are frequently described, in their imitatio Christi, as sacrificial animals. In Chapter 9, `Fighting the Beasts' (pp. 183-204), partly through an engagement with the work of Judith Perkins and Kate Cooper (misnamed 'Jane' at p. 187),[[7]] Gilhus provides a highly original interpretation of martyr narratives as a re-definition and reversal of pagan sacrificial practice: 'The martyrs not only refused to sacrifice, they also usurped the role of the sacrificial animals' (p. 188). The animals themselves appear to have been attributed different roles in martyr stories according to whether they were seen to reveal the holy power of the martyr or act as demonic agents. The potentially demonic character of animals could thus be exploited to describe the impulses of the human soul. Chapter 10, `Internal Animals and Bestial Demons' (pp. 205-26), explores the symbolic use of animals in ancient psychology, where animals are assigned the same negative role as in physiognomic treatises: they are primarily representations of the base an irrational impulses in man. Gilhus illustrates the use of the term therion in the Gnostic and Christian literature, where the soul is 'an arena for roaring monsters' (p. 207). In these texts, the battle for salvation is often described as a fight against wild animals, which are assimilated to demons.

Chapter 11, `The Crucified Donkey-man, the Leontocephalus, and the Challenge of Beasts' (pp. 227-44), returns to the idea, first presented in Chapter 1, that animals 'functioned as markers of cultural boundaries' (p. 229). Animals could also be 'used in a negative way in the creation of religious identity' (p. 233): animal-worship, for instance, (a topic already addressed in Chapter 5) was clearly perceived by Christians as something demeaning. In the chapter which follows, the last of the book, `Winged Humans: Speaking Animals' (pp. 245-61), Gilhus turns to consider apparently more positive, albeit problematic, attitudes to animals in the Christian tradition. The first attitude concerns birds: how did Christian writers reconcile the subordinate status of these animals with their possession of wings (a symbol of transcendence)? The second instance regards animals who act like men, something frequently attested in the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. Gilhus argues that while the narrative describes these creatures in friendly terms, it does so by reinforcing the anthropocentric assumption that 'animals that behave like animals . . . are inferior to humanized animals' (p. 254).

If a conclusion is to be drawn from Gilhus's historical overview, it is that in Antiquity 'anthropocentric processes' occurred 'accompanied by a social redefinition of animals in which they were radically devalued' (p. 235). While Gilhus argues that Christianity was unique in bestowing a metaphysical significance on the demeaning of animals, she also suggests that the Christian use of animals as metaphors should be seen as part of a broader tendency towards an increasingly instrumental use of animals as symbols. One of the chief merits of this book lies in its successful attempt to define such tendency and to illustrate it through a heterogeneous corpus of historical material. Gilhus's description of the ways in which ancient perceptions of animals can be said to have changed over the centuries through the influence of philosophy and religion, combined with her at times highly original treatment of more specific issues (such as the use of sacrificial language in martyr narratives), makes of Animals, Gods and Humans a valuable complement to recent studies on religious transformation in late Antiquity.[[8]]


[[1]] On the same subject see (among others) B. Cassin and J.-L. Labarrière (edd.), L'Animal dans l'Antiquité‚ (Paris 1997); T. Gontier, L'Homme et l'Animal: La Philosophie Antique (Paris 1999); R. M. Grant, Early Christians and Animals (London 1999); M. Giebel, Tiere in der Antike: Von Fabelwesen, Opfertieren und treuen Begleitern (Stuttgart 2003); F. Gasti and E. Romano (edd.), 'Buoni per Pensare': Gli Animali nel Pensiero e nella Letteratura dell'Antichità', in Atti della II Giornata Ghisleriana di Filologia Classica, Pavia, 18-19 Aprile 2002 (Como and Pavia 2003).

[[2]] Cf. P. P. Onida, Studi sulla Condizione degli Animali non Umani nel Sistema Giuridico Romano (Turin 2002).

[[3]] R. Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (London 1993).

[[4]] S. Newmyer, Animals, Rights and Reason in Plutarch and Modern Ethics (Abingdon 2005).

[[5]] On the first point, it should be noted that Gilhus here follows J.-L. Durand, who argued that the supposed scarcity of ancient illustrations or literary descriptions of the actual act of sacrificial murder was symptomatic of a desire to mask the violent coercion of the slaughter. Durand's highly influential approach, however, was recently criticised by Stella Georgoudi on the basis of both textual and visual evidence. Cf. J.-L. Durand, 'Greek Animals: Towards a Topology of Edible Bodies', in M. Detienne and J.-P. Vernant (edd.), The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks (Chicago and London 1989) 87-105 (originally published as La Cuisine du Sacrifice en Pays Grec [Paris, 1979]); S. Georgoudi, 'L'Occultation de la Violence' dans le Sacrifice Grec: Données Anciennes, Discours Modernes', in S. Georgoudi, R. Koch Piettre and F. Schmidt (edd.), La Cuisine et l'Autel: Les Sacrifices en Questions dans les Sociétés de la Méditerranée Ancienne (Turnhout 2005) 115-41.

[[6]] Cf., in particular, Porphyry De Abstinentia 2.24-27, 36 and 42.

[[7]] J. Perkins, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representations in the Early Christian Era (London 1995); K. Cooper, The Voice of the Victim: Martyrdom and the Subversion of Roman Power in Late Antiquity (unpublished lecture delivered at the Theological Faculty of the University of Oslo, 25 April 2003).

[[8]] Cf., in particular, G. G. Stroumsa, La Fin du Sacrifice: Les Mutations Religieuses de l'Antiquité Tardive (Paris 2005).