εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνός γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖειν
If all existing things became smoke, the nose would discern them.
Heraclitus Fragment 7 DK (reported in Aristotle, On sense and sensible objects 5, 443a24-25)
Scent was a prominent part of the experience of ritual animal sacrifice in Greco-Roman antiquity. Literary sources of the period typically describe the experience as pleasant, focusing on the scent of the animal meat roasting on the altar fire. This scent, called knisa in Greek and nidor in Latin, is one of the primary purposes of the ritual, being not only pleasant in itself but also the offering presented to divine beings (as in Homer):
οἳ δ' ἀπελυμαίνοντο καὶ εἰς ἅλα λύματα βάλλον, ἕρδον δ' Ἀπόλλωνι τεληέσσας ἑκατόμβας ταύρων ἠδ' αἰγῶν παρὰ θῖν' ἁλὸς ἀτρυγέτοιο· κνίση δ' οὐρανὸν ἷκεν ἑλισσομένη περὶ καπνῷ.
They cleansed themselves and threw the dirt into the sea. Then they offered a perfect sacrifice of bulls and goats near the shore of the barren sea. And the knisa (the scent of fat and meat) reached heaven, whirling within the smoke.
Homer, Iliad I 314-317 (tr. Coughlin)
αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ' εὔξαντο καὶ ἔσφαξαν καὶ ἔδειραν, μηρούς τ' ἐξέταμον κατά τε κνίσῃ ἐκάλυψαν, δίπτυχα ποιήσαντες, ἐπ' αὐτῶν δ' ὠμοθέτησαν. οὐδ' εἶχον μέθυ λεῖψαι ἐπ' αἰθομένοισ' ἱεροῖσιν, ἀλλ' ὕδατι σπένδοντες ἐπώπτων ἔγκατα πάντα.
Now after they prayed, slaughtered the animals, and skinned them, they cut out the thigh-pieces and covered them with knisa (here the fat and meat themselves), having prepared and placed a double layer of fat and meat onto them. They had no wine to pour over the blazing sacrificial fire, but they made libations with water and roasted in addition all the entrails.
Homer, Odyssey XII 359-363 (tr. Coughlin)
The scent of guts would have been inescapable during ritual animal sacrifice. The viscera and entrails of animals would have contributed distinctive compounds to the chemical environment in the air around participants. Literary, epigraphic and iconographical sources allow us to reconstruct in more detail the way that environment would change during the ritual, starting from compounds associated with blood, to those released during removal of the entrails, to the degradation products produced when they are cooked. Without modern antibiotics, bacterial processes that contribute to odour-related compounds may have been more common in domesticated animals in the past and scents related to decay could also have progressed more quickly.
Ancient Greco-Roman literary sources offer few descriptions of how this changing chemical environment was experienced. They focus mostly on the odour of knisa, the scent of smoke and roast meat which was said to be pleasing to both human and divine beings. We can assume, however, that the scent of ancient guts would likewise have been experienced. How participants at these sacrifices would have described such experiences remains unclear.
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