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  • The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks
  • Gary D. Farney
The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks. By Jeremy McInerney. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. 360 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

In this fascinating study, Jeremy McInerney argues that cattle had a central place in the earliest Greek cultures we know of, and that, long after they had lost their economic and practical place in the Greek household in the Classical and later periods, they continued to have an important one in the Greek psyche and religion. McInerney explores this interest by looking at the cow and cattle-related activity in Greek religion, myth, economy, and (as far as can be ascertained) everyday life. He starts in the prehistoric period (especially the Bronze Age cultures of Crete and Mainland Greece) and continues into the Hellenistic Age (down to the first century B.C.E.). This study is very strong on the role of cattle (the cattle habitus, as he puts it) in Greek religion and economy, and speculates a great deal about the cow and bull in Greek myth and literature. Though he talks about the prominent role of cattle in art, specific examples aren't common, and there are very few images of any kind (only about ten) used in this book. The book is nonspecialist-friendly in that all ancient texts quoted are translated, though a specialist would like to see the Latin and Greek sometimes, in an endnote if not the main text. I think most nonspecialists would also find useful some sort of translation of the acronymic dating system used for the Aegean Bronze Age (e.g., LM II, LM III) and a map of Greece and/or the Mediterranean, neither of which are provided. The index (six pages) is disappointingly basic. It seems to have been edited excellently.

After an introductory chapter laying out McInerney's thesis, chapter 2 describes the development of pastoralist societies and describes what we know about prehistoric pastoralism. He discusses theories of the origins of animal domestication and husbandry, and notes useful [End Page 152] anthropological observations of other pastoral societies, like the Dafla of modern Bhutan. Unlike hunting, pastoralism requires the herder to kill an animal that he has raised and nurtured, which in many societies requires a sacralized action to ease the process. In Greece, the animal's consent was gained by a trick at a sacrifice (dropping a handful of grain on its nose so it would nod), and this eased the act of "betrayal" for the herder (pp. 34-38). The bull remained a complicated animal for the Greeks and other cultures, since it was still dangerous though domesticated. Bulls and kingship become connected in Near Eastern cultures, and McInerney has an interesting discussion of the Gilgamesh myth here (pp. 40-47).

After these preliminaries, McInerney turns to the Aegean Bronze Age. There is much one could dispute here, especially in McInerney's rather subjective discussion of the bull in Minoan Crete. With so much bull iconography in Bronze Age Crete but so little firm evidence for what it might mean, McInerney must speculate a great deal, and he does. For example, he assumes that the famous "bull-leaping" representations in Minoan art are depictions of real activities performed by Minoans and that they must have some religious significance (pp. 54-59). McInerney certainly follows many other scholars in making these claims, but he also presents them as though they are undisputed facts in his narrative, when that is not the case. He is only less certain that the leaping must have taken place in the central courtyards of the Minoan palaces (pp. 56, 58)—for which there is no evidence whatsoever. His discussion of the Mycenaeans, on Crete and the mainland, is sounder, thanks to written records revealed by Linear B. In them we see a palace culture tightly controlling cattle production, cattle being a useful commmodity but also a luxury item necessary for Mycenaean, aristocratic feasting culture. After the end of the palaces, cattle raising and feasting continued and remained a marker of elite status...


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