Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.04.15


H.S. Versnel, Ter Unus. Isis, Dionysos, Hermes. Three Studies in Henotheism. Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion 1. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990. Pp. xiv, 268. ISBN 90-04-09266-8.


Reviewed by Richard Hamilton, Bryn Mawr College.

The title, we learn in the final pages of the final essay, is a joke, taken from an epigram by Martial (5.24) for the gladiator Hermes. (V. likes to tie things up at the end -- the source for the title of the first study is revealed in the third; the source for the second on its last page.) The epithet, V. teaches us, does not refer to the Christian Trinity or to Hermes Trismegistos but is, like much of the poem, a send-up: "Ter unus is not 'really real'. That is fatal to the person who is indicated by it. He is not real either: the invincible divine gladiator does not exist" (250f). Likewise the unity implied by the title is not 'really real': the divine Hermes is hardly essential to V.'s reading of the Martial epigram and the possibility of Hermetic henotheism is not even raised. While Isis has a obvious claim to henotheism ("the tendency to direct one's affectionate devotion to one particular god, without, however, denying the existence of other gods" 1), V.'s first essay has a much narrower topic, using the paradox found in an imperial Isiac aretology (she "destroys the mastery of tyrants" while being herself "tyrant of all the land") as a reason to discuss at length the concepts of the (evil) awful tyrant and the (good) awful tyrant, seeing a similar duality in Hellenistic kings (benefactors and tyrants) and their relationship to their free but subject cities, and concluding that this "unheeded inconsistency" becomes a "conscious ambiguity" only in the Empire where "man paid for his new freedom by deeper subjection to his divine liberator" (88) such as Isis. That is, henotheism is in the first essay discussed at such a level of abstraction that Isis is at best exemplary. It is only in the second essay, that henotheism is fully described, in order to make the argument that "the Dionysos of the Bacchae is pictured as a Hellenistic god avant la lettre. The truly Hellenistic poet of the fifth century has sensed the first signs of a new religious atmosphere and projected them onto the only Greek god who could bear the burden" (205).

That definition is perhaps the most successful sustained argument in the book. V. outlines nine "well-known features of the religious mentality of the Hellenistic and Roman period" which though found individually are not found together in the Classical period except in the Bacchae (190-204): (1) "claims to universal worship" are typical; (2) "miracles or epiphanies serve as evidence of a god's greatness"; (3) beatitude "does not allude to expectations of afterlife" but "is effected by the immediate divine presence, here and now"; (4) the dogmatic elevation of one god above all others and the concomitant affective exclusion of other gods" is typical [a slightly different definition of henotheism than on p.1]; (5) worship is seen as "personal submission or devotion to the god"; (6) "the refusal of worship is an unknown phenomenon in the archaic and classical period"; (7) "gods are invincible and the human rebel is doomed"; (8) "Historically the punishment of mortals who resist (the coming of) a god does not become topical until the Hellenistic and imperial periods"; (9) "public confession of guilt toward the god" is typical. Now some of these can be collapsed into one (6, 7, 8) and not all are found in the Bacchae (not 4 or 8) and many can be found in Euripides' Hippolytus (1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7), and the questions remain whether we are talking about the Theban maenads or the Bacchic chorus and whether this complex belongs to Euripides or Dionysus, Athens or Macedon, but still the basic claim does seem persuasive.

The argument of the central Bacchae study as a whole is less successful. We are given a valuable survey of foreign gods (Adonis, Cybele, Bendis, Kotys, Sabazios, Isodaites) to show that "the very notion 'foreign' evoked various unpleasant associations: the smell of magic and profit-making, connotations of licence or ecstasy, revelry and sexual promiscuity and a special appeal to women and people of low social status. Foreign cults also tended to be associated with private or secret ritual, which in its turn fostered all kinds of suspicions, especially when it involved participation by Athenian citizens" (121f). But in actuality only Adonis and Cybele fit even the majority of these categories, and later we are told "whenever foreign cults were admitted at all, their incorporation tended to entail a radical denaturation of their original character: Cybele, for instance, was tamed and indeed literally encaged in her Metroon. No other exotic deity (perhaps with the sole exception of Bendis) came to stay in the official cult of the polis; private forms of worship were subject to severe restrictions" (156). That is, two of the six examples cannot be counted and, since we know virtually nothing about two others (Kotys, Isodaites), we are left only with Adonis and Sabazios, both of which could be said to be exceptions since they are private forms of worship that are not subject to severe restrictions. (We might also wonder why Hecate, Ammon and Isis were not included, though we are told the first absolutely firm evidence for Isis in Athens is mid-4th C.) Also, V. has the disturbing habit of appropriating evidence from anywhere in Greece and applying it to Athens -- not surprisingly he does not worry about where the Bacchae was composed or performed. Finally, in his treatment of the Bacchae, V. disobeys the cardinal rule about literary texts he was so careful to follow with Martial: "the failure to find a satisfactory solution to this problem so far is caused by the fact that the formula ter unus has been treated as a religio-historical document by scholars whose preoccupations and specific interests made them neglect the satirical nature of its context" (244). First, the play is not treated carefully: Euripides has stacked the cards against Pentheus, who is identified as a theomachos from the beginning and who receives no support from anyone for his intransigence and is repeatedly warned by people to whom he should listen. His charges against Teiresias are the usual ones: the Sophoclean kings Oedipus and Creon when threatened by the prophet say the same thing. Thus it is difficult to assent in V.'s "final" (!) conclusion: "the tragic theme of the Bacchae is the conflict between two asebeiai" (173). Secondly, the play is not put in the context of the whole Euripidean corpus. I have already mentioned how closely the Aphrodite (and Artemis) of the Hippolytus match Dionysus in many "Hellenistic" characteristics, and there are other Euripidean plays to consider. Finally, there is the context of Athenian drama in general: Aeschylus dramatized much the same plot fifty years earlier. This does not mean that Euripides' treatment is not different, but this issue needs to be set out and explored.

This incompleteness and incoherence is the negative side of an approach that is loathe to discard "the anomalous, the marginal and the inconsistent" (26) and prefers "a history of inconsistency to the myth of coherence" (95). The positive side is that the work is packed with interesting and informative details. V. has read everything, and everything finds mention in this book -- the citations run well over two thousand and range from 1989 back to the seventeenth century. (My favorite is the pun between Hermes Trismegistus, Martial's ter unus and the magister two lines before: "apud Latinos magistri a magis ter videntur dicti" 219 n.67). Moreover, about a quarter of the citations are within the last decade. So this is the place to start if you want to know a bout the most recent treatment of Adonis, Cybele, Bendis, Kotys, Sabazios, Isodaites, Athenian asebeia trials, maenadism and Bacchic thiasoi, gladiators, hymn form, the phrasing of Hellenistic aretalogy, Hermes Trismegistus, trinitarianism, mystery religions, Ego-proclamations. The specialist in any aspect of Greek or Roman religion will find at least one reference he had overlooked, often conveniently summarized and summarily evaluated.

V. speaks of his introduction as an "impressionistic, unsystematic and highly inexpert hotch-potch" and one might apply that description to the whole (minus the in-), but the adjectives that more obviously come to mind are provocative, suggestive, judgmental, self-indulgent, learned. A work to be viewed with some scepticism and considerable admiration.