Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.06.07

Robert Garland, Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. $47.95. ISBN 0-8014-2766-5.

Reviewed by Richard Hamilton, Bryn Mawr College.

Although aimed primarily at the beginner, this selective survey of Attic cults established in the 5th C. will be useful also to more advanced students, despite its lack of developed argumentation, because of its control of the modern bibliography -- at least in English -- and appropriate attention to the non-literary archaeological evidence. Its status as the first "to align Athenian religion with Athenian politics" makes it a legitimate complement to Parke and Simon, although this goal leads too often to hyperbolic claims of great changes and re-hash of great moments in 5th C. Athenian history.

Between introduction and conclusion come chapters describing the establishment of Pan, Artemis Aristoboule, Theseus, Bendis, Asclepius and Socrates' impiety trial, bracketed by general discussions of ancestor worship and the function of ritual aitia. [Some obvious missing gods: Attis, Aphrodite Ourania, Adonis, Meter, Sabazios.] To G. political history is the history of great men, with the result that the evidence, which is fully described, is as far as possible made to tell a story with a hero (Pheidippides, Themistocles, Kimon, Pericles, Socrates) even when the evidence is lacking ("as usual we are left to forge that link [between sponsor and deity] for ourselves" 84). Hence, the most obvious confluence of religion and politics in 5th C. Athens, the impiety trials of 415, are never discussed. The advantage of the historical frame is that the reader never gets lost; the disadvantage is that important ideas and themes often do. Because each chapter is self-standing, chronological links are muted even to the point of radically different interpretations of the same phenomenon (e.g. foreign gods, the plague).

Chapter 1 ("Ancestral Rites") surveys Attic cult from the exiguous Bronze Age remains through the sixth century in "an artist's impression of the origins of Athens' ancestral rites" (25). G. argues that the synoecism of 750-700 caused a "radical transformation in the structure of Athenian worship" (28) and made Athena chief deity. The effect of hero cult, which often did not last (an important idea, only fitfully pursued), is hard to assess, but the cults of gene and phratries are likely to be old. Solon produced the first civic religious acts, making the Genesia public, establishing a cult calendar. The Peisistratids may have been involved with the Panathenaia and City Dionysia and temple-building but only their establishment of the altar of the twelve gods is sure. Kleisthenes established the tribal heroes. The chapter concludes with the disarming admission (or disclaimer) that "before the introduction of public records on stone from c. 450 onwards, it was virtually impossible to ascertain the era-date of any cult" (46).

Chapter 2 ("Pheidippides and the Magic Mountain") discusses Pheidippides' vision of Pan as wish-fulfillment (Borgeaud), as aition for the victory ("Pheidippides was the medium by which the Athenians reckoned on receiving outside assistance" 51), and as explanation for the Persian panic and metaphor for Athenian morale ("heightened sensory condition") but never as fulfillment of a vow, like Kallimachos' to Artemis Agrotera (55), perhaps because G. reads public scepticism in Herodotus' statement that "when their affairs had recovered they believed Pheidippides' story and built a shrine." He argues on extremely weak grounds that, despite the lack of pre-Marathon dedications at his sanctuaries, Pan was worshipped pre-490 in the area.

In "Themistokles and the Cult of the Intellect" we move on to the battle of Salamis, Themistocles' statesmanship and the shrine he erected near his home to Artemis Aristoboule (now excavated). G. argues that despite Athenian suspicion of self-worship and Plutarch's of exploitation, Themistocles was "inherently susceptible to divine influences" (74) as we can see from his temple to the Didymean Mother of the Gods, his rebuilding of the Telesterion at Phlya (administered by his own genos), and the shrine he set up to -kanes before Salamis in the Piraeus, which G. oddly considers another "cult of the intellect." (G. notes that the Melite shrine was soon abandoned but in the 4th C. was refurbished and the cult now administered by the deme, but does not use this as a parallel for Asclepius later.)

"Theseus' Old Bones" sees Kimon's retrieval of the bones of Theseus in 476 BC, described in Plutarch but otherwise unattested, "as a response to Themistokles' promotion of the cult of Artemis Aristoboule" and as a sign of the emergence of Marathon rather than Themistocles' Salamis as "the supreme victory over the barbarian." Vase-painting shows us that the previously obscure Theseus rises to prominence after 510 as "the epitome of an emergent and self-conscious Athenian nationalism" but it is his appearance at the battle of Marathon that assured his "meteoric rise to prominence" and public cult, especially in the 470s at the expense of Heracles because of "the growing tide of anti-Spartan sentiment" (92) found also in the Tyrannicides, of whom new statues were created in the 470s. We may be uneasy at the three different periods G. discusses and by the lack of identifiable cult (i.e., priest, annual sacrifices) especially given a rival "ancient cult" established by Theseus himself and managed in historical times by the Phytalidai and also given the neat fit between pre-510 vases showing Theseus and the Minotaur (86) and no fewer than four cults (Kybernesia, Aphrodite Epitragia, Oschophoria and Pyanepsia, 91). Why then G.'s focus on the bones? Perhaps be cause there is a protagonist, hence a cause.

"Transfiguration and the Maiden" outlines "a radical change in the traditional system of the ordering of religious affairs in line with Athens' democratic revolution ... the Demos utilized religious worship for the furthering of its foreign policy" (115 ). Here a concept has been made protagonist, but the evidence is not compelling. First although the Praxiergidai inscription shows that "even the oldest privileges depend on the will of the people" there is no "radical change" but re-affirmation. G.'s interpretation of a second inscription c. 448, describing the allotment of a priestess of Athena Nike from all Athenian women, as "state takeover of a private cult" (103) requires imagining a pre-existent priesthood. Then G. discusses the Demos' "impressive series of monuments" to the battle of Marathon: an Ionic column, the painting of the battle commissioned for the Stoa Poikile, Pheidias' Athena Promachos and the Parthenon. Two examples of Athens' imposition of cult on allies follow; then the Periclean (re)building program (admitted to have no explicit religious goal), a number of religious taxes, and the entry of Bendis c. 432, assumed to be "public from the start" (as opposed to Asclepius, although we have the same absence of grant of land ownership and the same private sanctuaries both in the city and outside). Is all this radical change?

"Asklepios and his Sacred Snake" presents the best-documented case of a new deity coming to Athens. G. again looks to an individual (Telemachos) to explain the arrival, setting up (117) then rejecting (122) the idea of Epidaurian proselytising because "there is no evidence of embellishments to the mother sanctuary" and because the pattern of votive offerings varies at different sanctuaries (though later the conventional portraiture of Asclepius is attributed to "the powerful, centralized control excercised by the Epidaurian priesthood" (134). The god is "upwardly mobile" (120, 133) and "within twelve months a second shrine had been established on the Acropolis." G. well argues that the Eleusinion is the obvious place for Asclepius to stay in Athens not only because it was "one of the few sanctuaries not to have been occupied during the Archidamian War" (123) but also because of ritual similarities (mystic rites, hierophantes, special drinks, sacrifice piglet). G. then carefully and convincingly traces the gradual transformation of both Asclepius cults from private to public. The plague as possible cause of Asclepius' arrival is discussed and challenged so G. concludes interestingly that worship of Asclepius with its focus on the needs of the individual may have "sanctioned a new concept of self, and in so doing offered an antidote to conventional, polis-centered religion." Yet G. does not test this against the concommitant introduction of Sabazios, which is noted in the following chapter, or the Mother of the Gods, mentioned on p.159, or Socrates' daimonion.

"Socrates and the New Daimonia" goes over now familiar ground: the charges; the definition of asebeia; Xenophon vs. Plato; the decree of Diopeithes (which fits "the increasingly proprietary attitude manifested by the Demos toward religion in this period" [139] and Athens' need for the gods -- though one may wonder if indeed "at no time since the Persian Wars had Athens' been more dependent"). G.'s main point is that the issue is Socrates' religious practices not politics: first "the charge of non-conformity in religious practice was fully justified, notwithstanding Xenophon's claim to the contrary" (144); secondly Socrates had clearly introduced a new god, and his daimonion undermined "three of the basic tenets of Greek religion" "first because it made its communication exclusively to one individual, secondly because it demonstrated not the slightest interest in the welfare of the rest of the citizen body, and thirdly because it could be contacted without recourse to the traditional channels of communication ... sacrifice, votive offering, prayer and so on" (149).

The story stops here despite "further innovation and the presence of more not less to investigate" because "the year 399 marks an important watershed" (thereby joining the synoecism, Marathon, Salamis and Ephialtes' reforms as great moments). But we have a further chapter on "The World of the Athenian Aition." G. starts well, noting that "few aitia are demonstrably as old as the cult or ritual itself," that they increased when "the dramatic rise in Athens' metic population gave rise to the entry of numerous foreign gods" and that they show "at least four different impulses behind any decision to establish a new cult or ritual." But we immediately go off on a tangent describing the Hymn to Demeter (perhaps to match the equally irrelevant discussion of the Oedipus at Colonus ending the chapter). Euripides and the Atthidographers are identified as purveyors of aitia (though this cannot be used for chronological argument since Euripides' contemporary Sophocles is no more interested than Aeschylus) and Pausanias is credited with "the first law of aetiology" that rival groups offer rival aetiologies, which makes me wonder why this chapter is in this book -- we can't identify the groups; they reflect no cultic reality. We then go through the four impulses: (1) atonement, called "the most dramatic scenario" but also "anything but paradeigmatic for the study of religious innovation in Classical Athens" (which is arguable, especially when matched against the other three impulses -- atonement being the converse of vow); (2) gratitude and relief (the model offered here is the Choes, which says nothing about gratitude or relief and explains the actions of the ritual more than its origin), especially gratitude for military intervention (but why are Theseus and Boreas included and how is this different from a vow?); (3) epiphanies and heroic exploits, with one bad example (Athena and Poseidon on Acropolis) and one good one (Demeter at Eleusis); (4) cultural evolution: Prometheus "in Attic myth the culture-bringer par excellence" (cult not described), Triptolemos ("agriculture was probably the most commonly celebrated invention in the aetiological record" says who?), and Theseus (!).

This study could have been improved by editorial intervention. The irrelevant chapter on aitia would have been discarded; a superstructure would have been demanded that could include Theseus' bones and Socrates' daimonion as well as certified cults. An editor might have eliminated some flaccid paragraphs such as those beginning "The impact of an epiphany upon the observer depended somewhat upon the majesty of the divinity" (16), "Theseus was no copybook hero" (98), "It is pertinent to inquire whether a god who was initially rejected would have functioned as obligingly as one who was greeted with open arms" (161). Most important, an editor would not have let interesting ideas such as the effect of demographic change, the varying half-life of different cults and the votive impetus in cult get lost in the author's enthusiasm for narrative. But this only means that one will want to start, not end, with this book if interested in Pan, Theseus, Bendis, Asclepius or Socrates. The plates are admirably crisp.