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Revealing the Dark World behind Ancient Greek Gastronomy

Food for thought: Think about our dealings with food today and pay attention to the many purposes it is used for. What comes to mind when you think of food? At the back of our heads we’re almost always thinking about the food that we eat daily, aren’t we? Food holds the power to connect people together, create memories, and bring happiness to our otherwise mundane lives. Gastronomy for the Ancient Greeks during the Archaic Greece to Roman Periods (800 BCE - post 100 BCE) wasn’t always solely for survival, and we will discover just why that is in this blogpost.

 Marie-Lan Nguyen,  Bakers kneading Louvre CA804.jpg ,15 January 2009, CC-BY 2.5.  Female workers kneading dough; a flute player sets the work pace. Boeotian terracotta figurine, 525–475 BC. From Thebes.

Marie-Lan Nguyen, Bakers kneading Louvre CA804.jpg,15 January 2009, CC-BY 2.5.

Female workers kneading dough; a flute player sets the work pace. Boeotian terracotta figurine, 525–475 BC. From Thebes.

Before we delve into the main course, let us have a peek into the daily meals of the ancient Greeks. Bread was a staple breakfast item for the Greeks, usually complete with wine. Lunch for them was basically also the same old wine and bread, this time however, they had more varieties such as cheese, olives and salted fish. As for dinner, they had quail eggs, wine, carrots and even porridge. Notice that for all 3 meals, wine was never absent!

Now now, it would seem that the consumption of food was pretty much aimed at survival. In reality, food played more than just a hunger-satiating role. Ancient Greek gastronomy involved the abundant use of wine, relation to sacrificial rituals, and a connection with the dead. What would seem perfectly normal and ordinary to the Greeks, turned out to be particularly intriguing to us. Turn on your torchlights, as we journey along the dark veiled past of Ancient Greek gastronomy.

FOOD AND SOCIETY

Food, especially wine, were an essential ingredient in building camaraderie amongst people. It was in fact, of such great significance that the Greeks worshipped the god of Wine, Dionysus. On top of that, they also constantly held parties- known more colloquially as the Symposium, that were centred around wine.

Wine in the Minds of the Greeks

 Guido Reni,  Dionysus, the god of wine and intoxication , 1 January 1623, Public Domain.  A bare-bodied Dionysus is observed leaning against a pouring wine barrel, simultaneously gulping down a bottle of wine.

Guido Reni, Dionysus, the god of wine and intoxication, 1 January 1623, Public Domain.

A bare-bodied Dionysus is observed leaning against a pouring wine barrel, simultaneously gulping down a bottle of wine.

“Where there is no wine there is no love.”

The Greeks loved their wine. From the very beginning, wine played an important role in the lives of the Greeks, as observed from the daily pairing with meals.

Dionysus (c. 1,350 BCE) was known as the ancient Greek God of Wine, or the God of Joy according to Homer. He bestowed the gift of wine to the people of Greece, but things didn't really go down well when the people were first introduced to something as intoxicating as wine. Despite holding the view that ingesting anything that composed less than fifty-percent of water is considered to be extremely dangerous, the ancient Greeks still ended up consuming more wine than water.

 Biscardi, Denghiù.  Dionysus and Ikario , 2 November, 2010, Public Domain.  Ikarios playing host to Dionysus.

Biscardi, Denghiù. Dionysus and Ikario, 2 November, 2010, Public Domain.

Ikarios playing host to Dionysus.

The Greeks’ very first encounter of wine led to the growing abuse of the beverage. This story of Dionysus as recounted in most books is believed to be true. It goes something like this: The God of Wine had a noble and loyal follower named Ikarios, who was given a vine tree by Dionysus. He in turn presented the wine to passing herdsman, who willingly drank it, and became so drunk, they thought Ikarious had poisoned them! It was indeed the unfortunate fate of Ikarios who harboured not one bad intention, but nonetheless was tragically killed by the intoxicated shepherds.

 

 Hiart,  Black-figure terracotta kylix (wine cup), Greece. late 6th century BCE, Honolulu Academy of Arts , 1 January 2011, CC0 1.0.  Cup that was used mainly to drink wine, mixed with water (usually) at symposiums or male drinking parties.   Food for thought; Is the size/volume of this cup trying to tell us something? Maybe… overconsumption? This cup does not seem to resemble the typical narrow and small wine cups we have today.    

Hiart, Black-figure terracotta kylix (wine cup), Greece. late 6th century BCE, Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1 January 2011, CC0 1.0.

Cup that was used mainly to drink wine, mixed with water (usually) at symposiums or male drinking parties.

Food for thought; Is the size/volume of this cup trying to tell us something? Maybe… overconsumption? This cup does not seem to resemble the typical narrow and small wine cups we have today.

 

Despite their dramatic first experience, wine was still undoubtedly the most significant beverage for the Greeks. It was present in all parties— being regarded as part of any intellectual conversation. Parties further encouraged the misuse of wine as it was considered mandatory that the men had their wine at a similar pace. They got tipsy, slept with women, and gossiped about a ton of things. Known to many as the “Symposium”, this will be discussed further in depth in the next section.

The Greeks had a great deal of respect for the God of Wine. During 700 BCE - 600 BCE they even built temples in the name of Dionysus to worship him. In 600 BCE-550 BCE the festival named “Dionysia” became a major Athenian festival in honour of Dionysus. Evidently, we see how the Greeks valued wine, with the amount of importance and love placed on it.


 

The Symposium

*contains some erotic imagery- readers’ discretion is advised*

Wine itself was an essential ingredient in the Ancient Greek society, and was equally indispensable in the symposium grounds. To be considered someone with a social life as an Ancient Greek, you will definitely need to throw banquets. You might think, YAY PARTAY, but they took parties to a whole new level- with both wine and women, (not their wives though, darn).

You would expect families to feast together during a house party, but that’s not the case here! The men would invite their male friends over to the “symposium”, and women weren’t allowed to join. Furthermore, the invitation was restricted to only the upper class of the Greek society. (wow, thanks for the invite?)

Symposiums were commonplace around 450-300 BCE and was a private, ritualized feast where privileged males will gather for dinner. Wine, mixed in a krater (mixing bowl) with water, is served and people entertained themselves with poetry, music, games, and not surprisingly- sexual activity. The kylix (ceramic vase/cup) used for the wine were often decorated with scenes from the symposium, occasionally including scenes of immoderate, and sometimes violent, group sex.

I guess alcohol being a party essential started out waaaaay long ago.

 

 Egisto Sani,  Symposiast with a male aulos- player , 6 May 2013. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.  A naked young performer playing an aulos (Ancient Greek wind instrument) for a bearded man, who is lying on a table with a kylix on his left hand.   Fun Fact: Refer to the picture, the entertainment was often provided by the symposiasts themselves, where they would show off their skills even though the fact was that they were tipsy half the time.

Egisto Sani, Symposiast with a male aulos- player, 6 May 2013. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

A naked young performer playing an aulos (Ancient Greek wind instrument) for a bearded man, who is lying on a table with a kylix on his left hand.

Fun Fact: Refer to the picture, the entertainment was often provided by the symposiasts themselves, where they would show off their skills even though the fact was that they were tipsy half the time.

 Ellen Fitzsimons,  Kylix , 8 October 2012, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.  A kylix depicting an erotic scene is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA

Ellen Fitzsimons, Kylix, 8 October 2012, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

A kylix depicting an erotic scene is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA

THE SYMBOLIC VALUE OF FOOD

The Greeks not only shared food and wine amongst themselves in these kinds of social activities, but they also made sure to give some to the Gods and the people of the underworld through sacrificial practices.

Greek Gastronomy and Sacrificial Practices/Rituals

 Marie-Lan Nguyen,  Goat sacrifice Louvre K238 , 1 January 2009, Public Domain.  Hermes leads a goat to the sacrifice. Side A of a Campanian red-figure bell-krater.

Marie-Lan Nguyen, Goat sacrifice Louvre K238, 1 January 2009, Public Domain.

Hermes leads a goat to the sacrifice. Side A of a Campanian red-figure bell-krater.

Food was essential in Ancient Greek sacrificial rituals during the Archaic Greece period and remained a prominent practice even into the Roman period! Typically, animal sacrifices were made when one wanted something or felt like they owed something to god. It also signified the act of prayer, where they prayed for different circumstances, be it well or difficult.

Picture1.png

Sacrifices were usually of animals that could be eaten, such as pigs, goats or cows. The victim (the animal sacrificed) would then be eaten after the ritual by the participants. The more that was sacrificed, the larger the group of participants. Participant size could range from as small as a single family to an entire village. Thus, sacrificial rituals formed part of the Ancient Greeks' social life, bringing people together and fostering ties.

It is evident that rituals were done quite often as every house had a stone altar where the victim would be placed and sacrificed for rituals involving only family members. Sacrifices were made out of obligation or when praying for something (such as to recover from a sickness). Having an altar at home eradicated their need to travel great distances just to make an offering.

After the rituals, participants consumed the tasty (edible) parts of the victim, while the bones and fat were sacrificed to the gods. But what gave them the idea that such a methodology of sacrificial practice is correct? Is this not selfish? The Greeks fully utilized whatever they had and didn’t waste resources. Also, they burned the bones and fat (sometimes with wine as well) with the intention for the smoke from it to rise up to the gods. “If the god accepts the offering, request, and worshipper, he signals this response. He will receive the smoke and aroma that arise from the sacrificial fire...” (Naiden, page 2).

 Kraipale Painter, Photographer: Jastrow,  Sacrifice scene Louvre G402 , 13 January 2007, Public Domain.  Detail from an Attic red-figure, sacrifice scene in Ancient Greece.   Fun fact: the smoke was also sometimes read as omens for the people!

Kraipale Painter, Photographer: Jastrow, Sacrifice scene Louvre G402, 13 January 2007, Public Domain.

Detail from an Attic red-figure, sacrifice scene in Ancient Greece.

Fun fact: the smoke was also sometimes read as omens for the people!

 Epidromos Painter, Photographer: Jastrow,  Kylix sacrifice boar Louvre G112 , 7 June 2008, CC BY 2.5  Sacrifice of a young boar. Tondo (art) from an Attic red-figure cup, ca. 510 BC–500 BC.   Food for thought: the fact that these rituals were painted or engraved on vases/cups shows the importance of sacrificial practices to the ancient Greeks.

Epidromos Painter, Photographer: Jastrow, Kylix sacrifice boar Louvre G112, 7 June 2008, CC BY 2.5

Sacrifice of a young boar. Tondo (art) from an Attic red-figure cup, ca. 510 BC–500 BC.

Food for thought: the fact that these rituals were painted or engraved on vases/cups shows the importance of sacrificial practices to the ancient Greeks.

Another interesting aspect is the choice of animal to sacrifice. It is not uncommon that people perceive the taste or the edibility as the reason for choice in post-ritual feasts. Truth is, there lies a legitimate reason behind these choices. It was known that the Ancient Greeks ate a countless number of pigs, but note that these were usually adult pigs, and even boars too. The piglets were associated with filth and were considered ceremonially or morally impure.  As quoted in Donovan’s article, Susan Cole has said that “Ritual sacrifice, then could accomodate a piglet’s nastier qualities, whereas the dining room could not.” This shows that the ancient Greeks did not consume the piglets, but only used them for sacrificial rituals. Ironically, their reason for using piglets is because of their filth! They were used in purification rituals as the ancient Greeks had the thinking that “like was considered to be attracted to like.”. This means that when an impure piglet dies, the impurity of the individual will be gone as well.

 Tarporley Painter, Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen,  Sacrifice pig Tarporley Painter MAN , 14 May 2008, CC BY 2.5  After the sacrifice: a youth prepares the head of a pig in front of a temple (see the column on the right). Apulian red-figure bell-krater.

Tarporley Painter, Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen, Sacrifice pig Tarporley Painter MAN, 14 May 2008, CC BY 2.5

After the sacrifice: a youth prepares the head of a pig in front of a temple (see the column on the right). Apulian red-figure bell-krater.

As for the adult pigs and boars, they were associated with fertility. Women ‘dined for Demeter’, the greek goddess of fertility and agriculture, on female pigs that were barbecued.

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The fun fact above might have been the reason why women had lots of rituals that required the use of piglets...to get rid of their impurity and improve fertility! Thus, we can see here that pigs, whether adults or piglets, were of great importance in Ancient Greek sacrificial rituals due to their symbolism of both fertility and impurity.

More on these spiritual ideas- the Greeks not only sacrificed food to the gods, but also paid tribute to the people who left them for the underworld.

Connecting the dead with the living

In Ancient Greek times, there was usually much more thought to be considered when it comes to death. Food offerings, such as bread and Kollyva (also called koliva)- a mixture of grains are customary, were given to neighbours and brought to cemeteries for the dead. Libations, a liquid offering composed of wine, water, blood (whose blood?) and honey (emergence in the 4th century BCE), was also prepared yearly by the priests who were paid to perform the service. The idea was to scatter the offering over the grave, with the belief that it would flow aground to the underworld and eventually received by the dead. Libations were also drank, although I wouldn’t hope for it to taste any good...(blood!!!)

 Marie-Lan Nguyen,  Naiskos libation Ganymedes Painter MAN.jpg , 17 May 2008, CC BY 2.5.  A man is observed to be pouring a libation onto a bowl held up by another man who is seated on a chair.

Marie-Lan Nguyen, Naiskos libation Ganymedes Painter MAN.jpg, 17 May 2008, CC BY 2.5.

A man is observed to be pouring a libation onto a bowl held up by another man who is seated on a chair.

Note: the fact that libations weren’t handled by the very people who had direct relations to the dead suggests a great deal about the formality of the practice. In today’s world, is it not customary to see to personally prepare food offerings for our loved ones? (It’s the thought that really matters, right?)  Admittedly, we all know food as the outward solution to hunger, and we trust that it applies to the dead as well. For the Ancient Greeks however, you will be thrilled to learn that there were in fact more to food than just being a source of subsistence for the dead.

Food offerings to death were like an applause to the end of a brilliant speech. It not only served to signify death as it happens, but were also indicative of the accomplishments the deceased achieved throughout his/her life. On top of that, a bigger celebration were customary for the fallen heroes. The Greeks held an annual festival called Genesia, as well as an annual commemoration for the deceased who have died in battle.

Lastly, food also paved the connecting path to the afterlife.  Therefore, it seemed that the most important aspect of a funeral was to bury the dead diligently, emphasising the separation of the living from the dead.

Quick Story: Odyssey

In the epic of Odyssey, we see the important role that food plays as Odysseus journeys through the lands of the dead. Steps leading to an eventual connection with the dead had to be first followed through the offering of blood and wine from the living world by Odysseus himself. Thereafter, its vital that the dead proceeds to consume the offerings for communication to be established. The reason for this necessary consumption is that the dead had to consume something from the living world to create a connection! To see the bigger picture, the ceremony carried out by Odysseus happened at the same time libations were executed by the ancient Greeks. This is to allow the connection between the living and the dead when the liquids are poured at the same time.

 

 Jan Styka,  Odysseus wants to embrace the ghost of his Mother , 1 January 1901, Public Domain.  “Odysseus attempting to embrace his mother's spirit in the Underworld.”

Jan Styka, Odysseus wants to embrace the ghost of his Mother, 1 January 1901, Public Domain.

“Odysseus attempting to embrace his mother's spirit in the Underworld.”

CONCLUSION

All in all, the ancient Greeks saw the use of food in many other ways than what anyone could have imagined. The study of how food was perceived in society; how wine played an indispensable role; how food was symbolic of sacrificial rituals and death, was important as we have hoped and believed. It was able to result a change in the mindsets and beliefs that the uninformed majority of readers would have had on Ancient Greek gastronomy, or for the very least, it changed ours.

 

REFERENCES

Austin Cline. Method of Sacrifice in Ancient Greece. (February 11, 2017). Web.

BBC. BBC Bitesize - What was it like to live in an ancient Greek family? (Access date: March 20, 2018) Web.

Fred Naiden. Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods. (2012) Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

James Davidson and Dr David Fearn. Drinking in Ancient Greece. (August, 2011). Web.

John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau. A companion to Food in the Ancient World. (June 29, 2015). ProQuest Ebook Central.

Karen Carr. Ancient Greek Food. (December 21, 2017). Web.

Karen Carr. What is animal Sacrifice? History of religion. (July 16, 2017). Web.

Mark Cartwright. Dionysus. (September 16, 2012). Web.

Nordiana Bakar. Of Grave Importance: Ancient Greece. (March 29, 2018). Hello World Civ Blog. Web.

Patricia Donovan. Hog Wild in Athens B.C.E.! Role of Pigs in Social and Religious Life Provides Insights into Ancient Greece. (August 16, 2000). Web.

Raphael Leitz. The Hungry Dead: food and drink in the afterlife. (Access Date: March 9, 2018) Web.

Francois Pieter Retief and Louise Cilliers. Burial customs, the afterlife and pollution of death in ancient Greece : the Greek world. (2005). Acta Thelogica.

Robin Osborne. Intoxication and Sociality: The Symposium in the Ancient Greek World. (April 19, 2014). Oxford Academic.