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Ancient Greek and Zulu Sacrificial Ritual a Comparative Analysis

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In this paper, ancient Greek and Zulu sacrificial ritual are compared in order to test the validity of Burkert's hypothesis about the origins and function of sacrifice. Similarities and differences between the two ritual systems are analysed. The Zulus do not clearly differentiate between Olympian and chthonic deities and sacrifices and seem to sacrifice exclusively to or for the shades or ancestors. The absence of a fully-developed ancestor cult in ancient Greek religion (the cult of heroes and the cult of the dead bear some resemblance to one) seems to reflect the nature of a pólis culture which cuts across the boundaries of tribes and phratries: no such culture is evident amongst the Zulus and ancestor cult thus reflects the lineage and kinship system characterising Zulu life. Burkert believes that sacrifice has its origins in the ritualisation of the palaeolithic hunt. Crucial aspects of the theory do not seem to be validated by Zulu thought-patterns: e.g. there is little or no trace of guilt or anxiety at ritual killings, a guilt which might be expected from a people deeply attached to their animals, often personified in praises addressed to them. Following G.S. Kirk, this paper attempts to illustrate that composite accounts of both ancient Greek and Zulu sacrifice acquire misleading emotional resonances which individual sacrifices might not have. This comparative study does not disprove Burkert's theory, but attempts to demonstrate that explanations offered in terms of origins or formative antecedents are fraught with speculative problems and throw no light on the motivation for sacrifice.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Classics University of Natal P.O. Box 375 Pietermaritzburg 3200 South Africa


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