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As we enter high summer in much of the northern hemisphere, a little rumination about the barbecue seems particularly appropriate.

The barbecue did not actually exist, per se, in ancient Greece. Evidence from literature and domestic interiors suggest that much of day-to-day Greek cuisine was not particularly meat-filled and instead consisted mostly of barley bread, stewed vegetables, legumes, and olives, and prepared in an oven such as the one from Delos shown (not unlike the ‘Mediterranean diet’ of modern lore).

A Domestic cooking assemblage, with oven. Delos Archaeological Museum, ca. 4th – 2nd c. B.C.

But the barbecue at its the core (grilling meat outdoors) is arguably universal, even primal, and the best evidence for this activity in Ancient Greece comes from rich visual evidence (especially on vase painting), most of it pertaining to dedications made to the gods and taking place in their sanctuaries.

Slabs of the Parthenon Frieze showing sacrificial victims led by youths. London, British Museum. Originally decorating the cella of the Parthenon on the Athenian Akropolis, ca. 447 – 432 B.C.

There are myriad variations such sacrifices could take, but at their core they typically involved ritually slaughtering a carefully selected animal (or animals plural with the hekatomb being the most extravagant and referring to anywhere between a dozen to one-hundred cattle), butchering the carcass, and grilling the flesh, organs, bones, and fat on open flame at an altar.

A Red-Figure Oinochoe (attributed to the Kraipale Painter). A youth sacrificing at an altar. Musée du Louvre, G402. Ca. 430 B.C. From Vulci.

The ancient Greeks were eminently pragmatic. Rationalizing that the Olympian gods lived above them and could not realistically participate in an earthly sort of feast (best to keep two realms separate anyway), it was instead the smoke from burnt fat and bones that would be their divine sustenance. The grilled meat not so accidentally left behind would then be divvied up and consumed by the mortal community. A win-win all around: the gods honoured, and their worshippers fed.

– L.B. Stoner, July 3, 2023