Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.08


Jon D. Mikalson, Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Pp. xv + 359. $39.95 (hb). $14.95 (pb). ISBN 0-8078-2005-9 (hb). ISBN 0-8078-4348-2 (pb).


Reviewed by John C. Gibert, University of Colorado.

In Athenian Popular Religion (Chapel Hill, 1983), M. used fifth and fourth century prose authors, and inscriptions of all kinds, to reveal a corpus "not surely of all religious beliefs of the time, but of a good number which Athenians expressed publicly and for which they expected to find widespread acceptance" (Honor Thy Gods, p. 1). While reviewers generally welcomed the compact and well-argued volume, some regretted the absence of drama from the sources used to illuminate popular religion. Now M. has continued his project with a much longer book on popular religion in Greek tragedy. Comedy is still excluded, on the grounds that its purposes are so different from tragedy's as to require a separate study (p. 16).

Two arguments form the main thrust of the new book. First, the passages which have been used over and over again to establish one playwright as exceptionally pious, another as rationalistic and enlightened have not been used with proper sensitivity either to their own dramatic contexts or to actual popular belief. Second, views which pertain to serious matters and conflict with the corpus of popular belief described in M.'s earlier book are extremely hard to pin on any of the three tragedians. M. recognizes that the tragedians "had the inclination and license to alter, transform, and challenge current and traditional religious views and practices" (p. 2). But, if I understand him correctly, they did not actually do this, or at least, to get to the heart of the matter, they did not throw the least bit of personal support behind their characters' frequent challenges to popular belief on serious matters. They invented cultic prehistory to support plot variations, or for the sake of economy and theme. For similar purely literary reasons they conflated divine attributes and functions and manipulated "religious" phenomena such as dreams, oracles, and the power of the dead. But the audience recognized all of this as within the conventions of the tragic festival, and we cannot show that it affected their belief or practice, or even made them a little uncomfortable. M. argues that the same is true of the representation of characters who speak or act in a religiously un-popular way. He shows that with few or no exceptions, such characters suffer terribly or are proven wrong, though of course their suffering is only sometimes explicitly presented as divine punishment. By thus concentrating on outcomes, M. concludes that the "popular religion" of tragedy is essentially compatible with the "real" Athenian popular religion. Conflicts involving morality and justice remain at the heart of many tragedies. M.'s strategy is not to settle or eliminate these by throwing religion into the balance, but rather to separate them entirely from the "religion" implied by tragedy. He does this by arguing that the Greeks saw morality and justice as human inventions and did not expect divine behavior to correspond to human norms.

Chapter 1 anticipates some of the angles from which a reader might find the conclusions just described surprising, and offers a defense of the author's cautious methods. For example, M. explains here why he pays little attention to fragments, on which previous writers have relied heavily in describing religion in tragedy. (It is because they lack context.) He also launches what will be a sustained campaign against ironic readings of Euripides. Fragments and ironic readings have been the driving forces behind the anti-religious Euripides M. wants to debunk. Another section cautions against identifying (and thus expecting consistent behavior from) every entity named "Athena" or "Apollo," both because cult epithets and locations distinguish altogether different objects of worship in popular religion, and because the Athenians themselves expected consistency at most within individual plays.

The four sections of Chapter 2 identify basic categories into which tragic characters sort divine phenomena. We learn when characters expect a god to take an interest in their affairs, and what they take as evidence that one has. M. shows that unless they have a personal relationship with a particular god, such as that enjoyed by some Homeric characters and sometimes imported from that literary source into tragedy, characters typically attribute good things to a god or the gods, while they blame misfortune on chance, fate, or a daimon. He provides a thorough and thoughtful discussion of tragic heroes, including their relation to gods and to the heroes who received cult in democratic Athens, their differences from the ordinary dead, and the special case of certain dead kings (whose quasi-heroic status in tragedy M. judges a literary fiction). A section on divine intervention tackles, among other things, the question of the deus ex machina (also a literary convention, in which the "religion" of tragedy diverges sharply from the religion of Athenian life).

Chapter 3 illustrates challenges to popular beliefs in tragedy, while chapter 4 sketches pious and impious individuals (and in one case, cities). After what has already been said, M.'s conclusions are unsurprising and may be summarized as follows: the overall context of individual surviving tragedies never supports, and usually undermines, challenges to popular religious beliefs. The challenges involve the rights of asylum, the obligations of the guest-host relationship, the sanctity of oaths, the veracity of divine signs and oracles, and the observance of burial ritual. We recognize in this list not just religious topics, but some of the most common issues on which whole plots turn. To sustain interest in its plots, tragedy contains statements on all sides of the religious issues. But for determining the "popular religion" implied by tragedy, the good or bad character of the speakers and the outcomes of their situations are decisive.

Chapter 5, entitled "Piety and Honor," contains a long catalog of acts and attitudes, in which it is shown once again that the consensus of the tragedians matches the popular religion established in M.'s earlier book. Though there is much repetition here of categories treated in earlier chapters, the new arrangement leads to new questions on a more abstract level, for instance the relation of piety and justice. Here M. repeats a key argument from chapter 1 (and from his earlier book), that the evidence of popular religion does not show a concern that the gods be just by human standards. He then works his way around to the admittedly not new conclusion that honor (time), in all its variety of meanings, is the essence of Greek religion. The book closes with a chapter which discusses each tragedian in relation to popular religion. Though many of the conclusions have by now been anticipated, these brief sections make their case effectively. The one on Sophocles deserves special notice. M. considers Sophocles "the tragedian least interested, in his plays, in popular religion and the one most willing to distort it for literary purposes." His use of religion is "neither pious nor impious, but essentially opportunistic" (219).

I don't know of another book which gathers as much evidence as M. has gathered on the fundamental issues of religion as represented in tragedy. The continuity of the project with the author's Athenian Popular Religion and the cross-referencing are valuable assets of the new book, which is also equipped with a good subject index and a full index locorum. I found the brief historical sketches and examples preceding some of the sections (for example, the one on asylum, pp. 69-70) especially useful, and some sections would be hard to improve on (e.g. "Death, Burial, and the Afterlife," pp. 114-28). The combination of M.'s close reading of the texts and his enviable knowledge of Greek religion as actually practiced can yield shrewd insights where they are not even looked for. For example, he notes on p. 262 n. 68 that Aeschylus is often traditionalist and innovator at the same time, as when he has Clytemnestra (at Agam. 1431-4) swear by a triad of deities (realistic and traditional), two of whom are abstractions (innovative).

Scholars will be able to rely on Honor Thy Gods as a collection of material and as a check on fanciful interpretations they may entertain before weighing all the evidence. It is another question whether this book will inspire new interpretation or revision of orthodoxies. Readers already familiar with Greek attitudes towards asylum, xenia, and the sanctity of oaths, or already in the habit of trying to see characters like Antigone, Pentheus, and Polyphemus against the background of the social and religious institutions they either support or undermine, may benefit more from treating Honor Thy Gods as a reference work than from reading it straight through. At the same time, unlike Athenian Popular Religion, the book is probably too long for most students and general readers.

An aspect of the book which, though meant to keep its focus on its stated subject "pure," nevertheless sets distinct limits on its usefulness to the specialist, is the sparseness of references to modern secondary literature. M. carefully marks off areas where he believes that what seems to be a religious issue is really a purely literary one, and he always leaves literary interpretation to others. One wonders if this division can really be maintained so neatly, and it is at least disappointing that M.'s few references to literary criticism are mostly to general books now 25 or 50 years old (e.g. Grube and Conacher on Euripides, Bowra and Kirkwood on Sophocles). It is downright alarming that the crusade against irony is waged almost exclusively against Verrall and Nestle. (The casual claim on p. 238 n. 21 that "Verrall's fundamental operating principle ... remains a basis for much of modern criticism" is not enough to justify this.) M. completely ignores the modern study of myth, religion and society by the "Parisian School" and the many English-language scholars influenced by it. While these omissions occur in areas M. can say he is not really interested in, others directly affect his argument. For example, when he is extolling the virtues of Admetus as giver of hospitality (pp. 78-9), he cites Burnett's standard 1965 article (along with a 1948 TAPA article by D. M. Jones) in support, but neither text nor notes give the slightest indication that Burnett argued against mainstream opinion or that the issue is still hotly debated.

In the same discussion I find an example of M.'s occasional tendency to over-argue his case. He knows that Admetus' house-slave finds his master's hospitality so soon after his wife's death inappropriate, and he duly refers to 747- 72. He goes on to say that this man "could not be expected to appreciate" his master's aristocratic behavior. A like condescension shows up on one or two other occasions. For example, M. is so eager to belittle the importance of the sole exception to the rule that perjurers suffer that he denigrates the messenger of Antigone as nameless, minor, lowly, and menial (pp. 85 and 167). This attitude sits uncomfortably with M.'s professed interest only in what the common Athenian believed and his high-minded rejection of 19th century scholars' sneers (cf. pp. 8-9).

Perhaps this possiblity of conflict between the aristocratic world-view usually represented in tragedy and that of the "masses," whose religion interests M., is related to a larger paradox about this book. A reviewer of Athenian Popular Religion wished drama had been included because, unlike some other sources, it allows for highly nuanced personal expression. He had in mind something like what Dover did for "popular morality." But Honor Thy Gods has not in fact revealed a more nuanced corpus of popular belief. This is in part because of what M. relegates to the realm of literary fiction, in part because he allows an expression of belief to bear on popular religion only if it is corroborated by plot outcome and ethopoiia. But are there really no unsettling effects associated with "religion" in tragedy? Can we believe that the Athenian audience reacted only in accordance with a simplistic "poetic justice"? Lichas, in Sophocles' Trachiniae, is a perjurer who suffers. But he came clean before his lies had any effect, and M. admits that his death is not designated as punishment. Neoptolemus, in Euripides' Andromache, made impious demands on Apollo, but Apollo colluded in his violent death even as Neoptolemus sought to make amends. For me, these deaths remain disturbing, and I don't see the one as demonstrating that Sophocles agreed with popular religion that perjurers should suffer any more than I see the other as ruling out that Euripides intended criticism of the Delphian Apollo and that the Athenian masses (like the "menial" messenger at Andr. 1161-5) may have found such criticism both warranted and relevant to their religious beliefs. (Indeed, M. passes up the opportunity to mount a "tragic" case against Delphian Apollo, who by his own account is the only god to encourage perjury (A. Eum.) or to give a false oracle (E. Ion), as well as being involved in other shady doings such as his advice to Adrastus in E. Supp.)

The confusing conclusion to M.'s chapter 4 underscores the difficulty of enforcing "poetic justice" in the tragic corpus. M. describes the famous piety of Nicias, who nevertheless suffered a miserable death. Nicias is seen as parallel to pious characters in tragedy, but with the "important difference" that the Athenian soldiers described in Plutarch (Nic. 26.6) "suffered a crisis of religious faith in seeing a religious and pious man suffer" (164). M. concludes, "Life is not as tidy as literature. In the everyday world pious men like Nicias may suffer" (ibid.). Now, M. tries hard to show that in tragedy the impious always suffer or are proven wrong. Of course he knows that many essentially pious characters also suffer. Any crisis of faith this may have produced in the audience remains necessarily indemonstrable, but characters and choruses are forever complaining of the gods' injustice, harshness, or faithlessness in such cases. But we have seen that M. excludes an expectation of just or moral divine behavior from popular religion.

Honor Thy Gods measures the words and action of Greek tragedy against a corpus of popular belief which M. previously established using documentary sources. It is not about religious thought and expression in tragedy in the widest sense, nor does it attempt at all to situate popular religion within the discussions of social function and civic self-definition from which so much recent tragic criticism has profited. On its own terms, the book makes a valuable contribution by combining well-defined aims with comprehensive and learned examination of the texts.