Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.06.13


Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City. Translated by Paul Cartledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xxiv, 278. ISBN 0-521-41262 (hb). ISBN 0-521-42357-0 (pb).


Reviewed by Jon D. Mikalson, University of Virginia.

Louise Bruit Zaidman (LBZ) and Pauline Schmitt Pantel (LSP) published La Religion grec in 1989 to fulfil a need in France for an introductory textbook on ancient Greek religion and modern theoretical approaches to it. Paul Cartledge (PC) recognized, as have all who have taught the subject, that there was the same need in the world of English readers, and he undertook, with the full cooperation of the authors, to remodel and translate the book. For the general audience and for most undergraduates Walter Burkert's magisterial Greek Religion is too much, and little else of a general nature is available. The team of LBZ/LSP/PC have filled the gap, and very nicely. Religion in the ancient Greek city will serve, for at least the immediate future, as a core text for undergraduate courses on Greek religion and Greek civilization.

The book is divided into fifteen chapters (1-15), themselves divided unequally into four parts (I-IV). The brief introduction (I) positions the book theoretically, arguing strongly for the "alterity" of Greek religion, especially vis-à-vis Christianity, as a "symbolic system with its own peculiar logic and coherence," and for the "functionalist" synchronic rather than the "evolutionary" diachronic orientation (1). Chapter 2 treats basic notions of the sacred, pollution, and piety, and Chapter 3 surveys the sources, giving four pages to literary, epigraphical, and archaeological materials and four pages to J. Rudhardt's and J.-P. Vernant's methodological prescriptions. The eight chapters of Part II cover the cult practices, including rituals of sacrifice, libation, and prayer (4), religious personnel (5), sanctuaries (6), rites of passage, including birth, maturity, marriage, and death (7), religious life in the home, deme, tribe, phratry, genos, and in private associations (8), religion and the polis as a whole (9), the Athenian festival calendar (10), and the Panhellenic centers of Olympia, Delphi, Epidauros, and Eleusis (11). In the tradition of Durkheim the book is primarily concerned with the social role of religion, and the movement of chapters 8-11 is from the OI)=KOS, the smallest unit treated, to the international cult centers. The social focus, although useful, seriously limits discussion of the personal and individual side of religion, a weakness particularly apparent in the treatments of, e.g., piety (pp. 11-15) and the afterlife (p. 78). Part III, Systems for representing the divine, opens with an encomiastic presentation of French theory and interpretation of mostly Hesiodic myths (12), then, under the title "A polytheistic religion", introduces the divine categories of gods, daimones, and heroes, gives structuralist readings of Apollo and Dionysos, and concludes, rather disappointingly, with what is scarcely more than Pausanias' description of the cults of Mantineia (13) that does little to suggest the real richness of cults in a Greek polis. Chapter 14, with the imposing title of "Forms of imaginative projection," turns out to be a brief summary of sculptural types and of paintings of deities and rituals on pots. Part IV is the brief conclusion (15) which reiterates themes and offers an excellent two page essay (pp. 233-234) on post-classical developments. The Appendices provide very elementary information on temple parts and styles (I) and on the buildings of the Athenian Acropolis (II). There are no footnotes but an extensive bibliography arranged according to the topics of discussion. The bibliography is rich and useful, and very French. Under the first listing, "Encyclopaedias, handbooks and sourcebooks," e.g., seven of the fourteen items are written in French or translations of French originals. But few important items are missing, most noticeably J. Fontenrose's The Delphic Oracle, whose significant contributions are presented, without attribution, on pp. 122-124. Some who have worked in the field will probably be sorry not to see their own work explicitly credited in places but will be less distressed that their views are also criticized anonymously.

The structure of Parts I and II is logical, basic information is simply and attractively presented, and there is a good selection of examples and primary sources for illustration. Part III is much more theory driven, and since the theory posits, e.g., that every myth must be interpreted at many levels, with all variants included, and in relationship to all other myths (Lévi-Strauss, 147-148), and that gods must not be treated individually, but, e.g. for Athena and Poseidon, one must establish in precisely what respects the functions, modes of intervention, myths and rituals of these ... pairs of gods are similar to or opposed to each other, what are the frontiers of their respective fields of operation, what are their reciprocal relationships, and what logic governs their being invoked" (LBZ/LSP/PC summarizing Dumézil, p. 184), it is hardly surprising that the organization here is a bit chaotic. The general reader will be relieved to find that the authors do not undertake such Herculean tasks in applying theory to myths and deities but are content, usually, to give a sampler of Vernant's essays. In Part III the preferred primary sources are Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns, both of which, not coincidentally, seek, as the Paris School does, to impose upon the diverse and complicated Greek religious data a logical and symbolic coherence.

The book brims with enthusiasm for the subject and for current theoretical approaches. The excitement is welcome, even though it occasionally spills over into hyperbolic misstatement. E.g., "Every day, in short, several hundred animal sacrifices were taking place in different contexts within each of thousand and more separate political communities of the Greek world" (pp. 30-31). If we conservatively take "several hundred" to be 300, we would have at least 109,500,000 animals sacrificed annually in Greece -- and that's a lot of meat. Or, "Every sanctuary, no matter how small, had its cult-image of the relevant god or goddess, around which his or her temple was built" (p. 60). That's a lot of temples. Or, "The consultation of oracles such as that of Apollo at Delphi before a city took any important decision, whether narrowly religious or not" (p. 95). Or, "Thucydides, for example, equated the 'mythical' (muthodes) with the fabulous and totally excluded it from his historiography" (p. 144). In the wide range of the book some errors of fact understandably crop up. An uncharacteristically bad run is in the Athenian sacred calendar (p. 103) where the Lenaia and Kallynteria are omitted, the Eleusinian Mysteries are misnamed the Eleusinia, Dipolieia is misspelled, and the Theogamia slips (by typographical error?) from the 27th to the 2nd of Gamelion. The chronology of the City Dionysia (p. 106) is also muddled.

The occasional promise is also unfulfilled. On p. 99, e.g., the reader is told that "the long description of the Parthenon sculptures in Appendix II may make it possible to grasp precisely how their iconographic programme expressed the mentality of the Athenians of the Periklean age." Turning to Appendix II with a fast beating heart, the reader will find just one page (244-245), and that purely descriptive of the sculpture. As in literary theory, however, one feels the most disappointment that, in most cases, the promise and the promises of the theory still largely remain to be fulfilled. In the duality of great variety and complexity of religious data on the one hand and of symbolical and logical coherence on the other, the variety is obvious but the promised coherence is slow to emerge.

In general, however, given the purposes and ambitions of the book, it succeeds and its merits far outweigh any faults I might have suggested. The nuts and bolts of Greek religious ritual and practice are laid out well and attractively in Parts I and II. The authors also, in contrast to so much work on Greek religion, focus on the common, ordinary, and usual practices and cults and recognize fringe elements as fringe. Their concentration on the archaic and classical periods, to the exclusion of the prehistorical and Hellenistic, also gives a sharp focus. Despite its English title, the book is really a general introduction to Greek religion and gives only intermittent attention to, specifically, the polis. For experts the book promises and has little, if anything, original to contribute to the study of Greek religion, but it does serve as a convenient and welcome marker for the current status of one important approach to the subject. Those devoted to the French school will embrace the book, delighted to find their heroes (L. Gernet, J. Rudhardt, J.-P. Vernant, P. Videl-Naquet, G. Dumézil, C. Lévi-Strauss, M. Detienne, et autres) hymned throughout. The pervasiveness of their influence is such that even the Greeks begin to look suspiciously like members of the School, especially since, in the authors' view, "To be eusebes, in sum, was to believe in the efficacy of the symbolic system that the city had established for the purpose of managing relations between gods and men, and to participate in it, moreover, in the most vigorously active manner possible" (p. 15). But even the asebeis, or, better, the uninitiated will find in the book much of use and interest for themselves and their students.