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This cogent and superbly researched volume forms a major contribution to the study of animals and their significance in classical religion and early [End Page 712] Christianity. Ingvild Saelid Gilhus captures with nuance the inherent ambiguity of animals resulting from their frequent status as mediators between the gods and humanity, sharing flesh and blood reality with humans, yet having in common with the gods the fact of not being human. Chapter 1 surveys the various contexts in which animals appeared during the early Roman Empire, especially sacrifice, divination, and the arena. Chapters 2 through 4 tackle the perception of animals in classical philosophy, culture, and natural history. In chapter 5, the places of animals in Egyptian and Greco-Roman religion are compared, prior to detailed engagement with pagan and Christian views of sacrifice in chapters 6 and 7, of which more later. Chapter 8 addresses the role of animals in the New Testament, following a brief discussion of Jewish antecedents. Chapters 9 and 10 explore negative portrayals of animals, confronting Christians in the arena and appearing in demonic form to desert fathers like Antony of Egypt. Chapter 11 reflects on the symbolic and metaphorical use of animals as boundary markers by early Christian communities and against those communities, then chapter 12 presents positive images of animals based often on their adoption of human behavior.
Gilhus shows just how selective modern perceptions of particular animals typically are owing to the deeply rooted historic meanings they bear. These are often of Christian origin. She quotes, for instance, Epiphanius’s description of the dove as “incontinent and ceaselessly promiscuous, lecherous and devoted to the pleasures of the moment, and weak and small besides.” Yet it is the dove’s “harmlessness, patience, and forbearance” that Christian tradition exalts in associating it with the Holy Spirit (7, 8). Contrarily, the serpent bore many positive meanings in Graeco-Roman culture, represented as the guardian of houses, temples, and tombs; a symbol of transformation, or with tail in mouth, of cyclical eternity; and a means of healing (108, 109). In Ophite celebrations of the eucharist, the bread would be consecrated by a live serpent crawling over it.
The conflation of real and fictional animals in single organisms in Roman natural histories demonstrates how animals become sites contested by a range of biological and didactic narratives (70). Sirens, satyrs, centaurs, and other fabulous mutations equally accentuate a real truth about animals: that they “represent a sort of otherness and make the divine more than merely the superhuman, something that clearly surpasses human limitations” (113). Many are either stronger, run faster, swim lower or fly higher than humans, or seem to possess a variety of knowledge that humans lack. Gilhus continues: “so at the same time as animal symbols refer to living animals, they in fact point away from them. When animals are used to characterize gods, the point is not that a divinity is like an animal but that the animal gives added meaning to the divine.”
Gilhus laments with good reason the declining importance of animals in evolving Christian tradition, through which a “great symbolic burden was lifted from sacrificial animals and laid upon Christian bodies” (10). In Graeco-Roman religion, real living animals bore such an intense complex of meanings [End Page 713] that many dimensions of human life could not have been interpreted without them. The same cannot be said of Christianity: the desert fathers were, for instance, more likely to wrestle with internal demons represented in animal form than with live flesh-and-blood animals. When animals appear, they tend to be servants of human needs, and if they acquire any further importance in human eyes this is most likely by adopting human patterns of behavior like speech or devotional piety. Yet by contrasting Christian attitudes to animals with their Graeco-Roman heritage, Gilhus suggests that the more common feature is not subordination or domination as so often asserted by critics, but in fact the opposite: the curious invisibility of animals resulting from the...