Mythology in Bits

Tim Whitmarsh

  • The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion edited by Esther Eidinow and Julia Kindt
    Oxford, 736 pp, £30.00, December 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 881017 9

These days, thanks to Google Books, it is possible to find out when people started paying attention to ‘Greek religion’. The phrase first appeared in print in English in 1654; it became more common in the middle of the 18th century, and reached a peak of popularity in the 19th. This is of course a crude index (and the picture is subtly different in other European languages), but it’s a reminder that, whatever its deeper roots, religion as a concept is largely an Enlightenment invention. Some have argued that for this reason it should not be used in connection with ancient or non-Western peoples, particularly since the European Enlightenment is heuristically inseparable from European colonialism. Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion (2013), in particular, argued that the mapping out of the religions of the world went hand in hand with imperial conquest.

As the classicist Sally Humphreys has argued for many years, the Greeks did not think of themselves as possessing a ‘religion’. They acknowledged many gods, of many different kinds: from Olympian deities through river nymphs to abstractions such as Victory, Fortune, Fear and Rumour. They invoked these powers through a great variety of practices, including blood sacrifice, prayer, cursing, libation, oracular consultation and healing rituals. Their sacred world was so capacious that it happily welcomed new gods from elsewhere – a phenomenon discussed by Ralph Anderson in his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion. Athens imported the Thracian Sabazios and Bendis; the Hellenistic world the Egyptian Isis, the Phrygian Cybele and the Syrian Atargatis, as well as inventing the hybrid god Sarapis, whose name derives from the Egyptian deities Osiris and Apis, but who also resembles the Greek Dionysus, among others. Only rarely was this sprawl of gods, rituals and ideas understood as a unified field.

The Greeks wouldn’t have recognised our notion that religions are distinctive to particular peoples. They tended to see other peoples’ gods as versions of their own: the Egyptian Ptah was treated as the equivalent of Hephaestus, the Phoenician Melqart as Heracles. The phenomenon of ‘divine translation’ was characteristic of the polytheistic cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and West Asia, and has been seen as an explanation for the absence of religious warfare in antiquity, at least until the Christians came along and insisted that monotheism was different in kind from every other form of worship.

So religion is not an obvious category to deploy in relation to ancient Greece. And yet there is nothing inherently wrong with using a modern Western vocabulary: I disagree with Nongbri here. Religion belongs – along with art, sexuality, economy and technology – to the category of concepts that, while carrying irredeemably modern Western connotations, also correspond (though inexactly) to areas of experience central to most civilisations. Almost all settled cultures distinguish between the sacred and the profane, even if not always in the same ways: some actions, individuals and locations are seen to be closer to the gods than others. As a category, religion can certainly do an analytical job for us – but it always needs nuance, and we have to be mindful of the ideological baggage.

‘Greek religion’ is, arguably, a modernist project even more than an Enlightenment one. Google identifies 1897 as the pinnacle of its popularity. Foundational publications between 1890 and 1915 include Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Jane Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903), Erwin Rohde’s Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks (1894) and Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). What these works had in common was their attempt to analyse religion as a social process. They presented religious practice as continuous with other forms of normative social activity, liable to change as societies became more complex, and characterised by the same impulses towards maintaining group cohesion and hierarchies. As Durkheim put it, ‘religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities.’

In this story Greek religion had a privileged role. The Greeks had always been central to European intellectual formation: even the non-classicists Durkheim and Weber had studied the ancient Mediterranean (Durkheim was deeply influenced by the historian of Greece Fustel de Coulanges, who taught him at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and Weber wrote his Habilitationsschrift on Roman law and economy). And intellectual modernism was always contemplating, and often attempting to cut away, its own roots in Judaeo-Christian thought. Greek religion was, crudely speaking, what Christianity had replaced in the eastern Roman Empire. It was necessary to understand Greek religion if one wished to understand the formative influence of Christianity on European thought. For some – Nietzsche and the classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, though intellectual foes, had this in common – ‘the Greek faith’, ‘der Glaube der Hellenen’, in Wilamowitz’s phrase, seemed truer, more human than its monotheistic alter ego.

In broad outline, the Oxford Handbook follows the modernist script. Edited by two eminent scholars and incorporating the work of many more, it offers across its 43 chapters a rich account of Greek religion as a complex social phenomenon, a ritual and intellectual framework that held an ancient society together. The focus is on archaic and classical Greece, though Hellenistic and Roman material is included too. Not unrelatedly, the geographical focus is on the Greek mainland and its islands, rather than the extended Greek world (though a concluding section explores the early colonies in Sicily and the Black Sea, contact zones between Greek and non-Greek religions in the Near East, Egypt and India, and makes comparisons between China and Greece). The effect of this relative restriction is to present Greek religion as a unified field within a coherent, stable society. Religion is here understood in Durkheimian terms, as a social phenomenon. The book is divided into sections headed by questions – ‘Where?’ ‘How?’ ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ ‘When?’ – which point to a view of religion as something with distinct components: the objects of veneration, the appropriate techniques, the people involved, the spaces, the timeframes, the legal frameworks.

But a closer look reveals some strikingly un-Durkheimian preoccupations. For a start, there is no sign that the strong move away from prioritising ‘polis religion’ is slowing. Twenty years ago, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood held that archaic and classical religion was primarily an expression of the collective values of the city-state (or polis), making religion the sum of all public cults in the state’s festival calendar. In this volume a much wider range of activities is acknowledged, including afterlife cults (Radcliffe Edmonds), passage rites (Sarah Hitch), household cults (Matthew Dillon) and magic (Sarah Iles Johnston). There are also signs of frustration with the old idea that ancient religions consisted solely of ritual acts and lacked any reflective dimension. Like many caricatures of the pre-Christian world, this misapprehension was rooted in a schematic opposition between Christianity – usually Protestant Christianity – and everything else. It’s true that from early times Christians defined themselves as ‘believers’ and put the expression of faith at the heart of their identity. But as Thomas Harrison observes, this does not mean that there were no beliefs involved in Greek religion. Someone who prays, sacrifices or enacts a magical spell has to believe, at some level, that it is likely to be efficacious. Harrison calls this ‘low-intensity belief’ (in contrast with creedal Christianity).

What did Greeks think they were doing when they took part in religious rituals? Did a core group of beliefs underlie Greek worship? Did it have a theology – another term that has been undergoing something of a renaissance? (One of the editors, Julia Kindt, is among those who have argued for its usefulness.) While there were consistent collections of ideas over time, there was no coherent system, because the Greeks had no systematic theology (unless you count philosophical cosmologies, such as Platonism and Stoicism).

In fact, the search for system in Greek religion is fundamentally misconceived. A couple of chapters here illustrate the point. The first is Ivana Petrovic’s essay on the deification of mortals, something associated particularly with the Hellenistic ruler cult (though there are some earlier instances). As Petrovic points out, before the late 20th century, this phenomenon was seen primarily as a symptom of Hellenistic decline. Then studies by Christian Habicht and Simon Price argued that the ruler cult was in effect a mechanism for dealing with the concentration of vast power in the hands of individuals: the cities extended their traditional honorific system, using the new category of ‘god-like honours’ to incorporate the phenomenon of Hellenistic monarchs. But, as Petrovic argues, this does not explain away ‘the paradox of mortal divinity’. Deified mortals were always the occupants of an interstitial position, and objects of intrigued speculation.

The second is Fred Naiden’s chapter on animal sacrifice. The dominant explanations in the 20th century were those of Walter Burkert, on the one hand, and Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne, on the other. Burkert explained sacrifice in terms of collective psychology and human evolution, seeing the ritual as a relic of guilt at the killing of other beings and a technique for managing aggression. Vernant and Detienne, by contrast, emphasised the distribution of meat in the aftermath, seeing it as central to the enactment and maintenance of group cohesion. Both camps attempted to define the essence of sacrifice, and to explain it in terms of social order. But, as Naiden points out, each concentrated on a different element, so neither offers a complete account. Naiden discusses other features of sacrifices, notably the aspect of performative display, which could make them statements of power or of moderation. As well as the complexity of the sacrificial narrative, its irreducibility to single elements, he highlights two other issues. First, sacrifice was not a fixed ritual, something performed mechanically and identically each time. Second, and perhaps more interesting: we simply don’t have an adequate theology of sacrifice. We don’t know what the gods were supposed to get out of it. We don’t know why – apparently – they accepted some sacrifices and rejected others.

These two examples (others could be produced) demonstrate the problems with seeing Greek religion as coherent. The Greeks did not have full answers to questions like ‘is a deified human a god or a mortal?’ or ‘what is the point of sacrifice?’ Of course, individuals did attempt to answer these questions. Hesiod, for example, saw sacrifice as deriving from a trick Prometheus once played on Zeus (he gave him inedible bones wrapped in tasty fat), while Euhemerus saw the granting of divine honours to humans as the historical origin of all divinity. But there was no single, agreed meaning to either phenomenon.

The urge to decode religions, to make them make sense, is powerful. In the 1970s and 1980s, the dominant approach to Greek religion was structuralism. Vernant was the movement’s most prominent figure (only partly because of his central role in the Resistance during the war). For him it was an article of faith that Greek religion was, if viewed in the right way, every bit as logical and coherent as an Aristotelian tract. ‘A scattered and heterogeneous pantheon,’ he wrote in 1976, ‘a mythology of bits and pieces: if this was the polytheism of the Greeks, how could these men, whose exacting rigour in the realms of intellectual consistency is extolled, have lived their religious life in a kind of chaos?’ He sought to expose the deep structure behind the apparent chaos of religious thought, and express it in terms of polarities: female-male, inside-outside, individual-collective, and (what might be termed the master polarity) nature-culture.

But what if religious events did not have a stable meaning? What if Greek religion was fundamentally sustained by tactical improvisation, opportunist reinvention and reverence for a tradition that no one owned or understood? This suspicion is never fully articulated here; but it lurks behind a number of contributions, from Verity Platt’s brilliant dissection of the varieties of epiphany (and its complex representation in literature and art), through Kostas Vlassopoulos’s analysis of the many different uses of religious discourse to smooth or expose tensions within communities, to Sarah Iles Johnston’s account of the many forms of prophecy and the ways ancients sought to explain it.

The impression of incoherence may of course be a result of the ‘scattered and partial nature of the evidence’, to quote Michael Flower, and the difficulties of interpreting what does exist. The Oxford Handbook contains a whole section on the range of sources (material, literary and documentary) and the challenges they pose. This multifariousness may tell us something about polytheistic religion itself, with its assemblage of gods and practices. One of the book’s most distinguished contributors, Henk Versnel, has argued for some forty years that inconsistency is a structural feature of Greek attitudes towards a complex, plural pantheon, rather than something to be argued away.

But this may also tell us something about religion more generally. Missing from the book – the most significant gap – is any sustained discussion of the cognitive study of religion, an absence felt all the more keenly in the aftermath of Jennifer Larson’s Understanding Greek Religion (2016). Cognitive theories attempt to explain aspects of religion with reference to brain function (sometimes in conjunction with arguments about evolutionary adaptation). Many classicists, trained to detect cultural and historical difference, resist such universalising approaches, but historical and cognitive approaches need not be incompatible. One of the gains of cognitive theory is that it gives a central role to the inexplicable. In Larson’s words, for religious ideas to succeed they need to be ‘minimally counterintuitive’. If they are too counterintuitive – if we are asked to believe something that flatly contradicts our core beliefs – they fail to take hold. But a certain amount of counterintuitiveness is required in order to activate the part of the brain that is stimulated by religious thinking. This, it seems to me, is the best explanation we have at the moment for the ability of religious discourse to sustain paradox, contradiction and aporia. It does not merely tolerate these: it relies on them. Religion does more within societies than generate cohesion: it also creates tensions, mysteries, ambiguities.