This essay uses a focus on meat and animals to illumine ancient and modern discourses about sacrifice and “civilization.” It suggests that attention to recent research on meat-production and the “sociology of the slaughterhouse” might open new perspectives on the range of ways in which the sanctified ritual slaughter of animals has been understood by its proponents, critics, and theorists—both ancient and modern. It begins by historicizing the rise of modern scholarly interest in animal sacrifice, with reference to dramatic shifts in the production and consumption of meat in modern European societies. Then, it looks to the Vedas and the Torah/Pentateuch to reflect upon the place of meat and animals in two of the best documented of ancient sacrificial systems. Lastly, it considers some trajectories in their Nachleben with an eye to the value and limits of dominant narratives about the cessation, interiorization, or spiritualization of sacrifice.
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As Klawans (2006) stresses the purity laws associated with sacrifice in the Torah/Pentateuch exacerbate the problem of a concurrently idealized and rejected primitivity sometimes bifurcated with appeal to the evolutionary trope of the “survival”; confronted with such laws for instance Robertson Smith (1894: 447) asserts that “[r]ules like this have nothing in common with the spirit of Hebrew religion; they can only be remains of a primitive superstition like that of the savage who shuns the blood of uncleanness.”