Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.04.33

Jon D. Mikalson, Ancient Greek Religion. Blackwell Ancient Religions, 1.   Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing, 2005.  Pp. xiv, 225.  ISBN 0-631-23223-0.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Gabriel Bodard, Institute of Classical Studies, London (
Word count: 1814 words

Mikalson's Ancient Greek Religion belongs to the growing bibliography of general or introductory volumes on Greek religion, focusing, as most do, on the classical period and the Athenian world. Within this genre, the current title competes with Bremmer's Greek Religion (1994), as an introductory tome aimed at students, rather than, say, with Burkert's Greek Religion (English trans. 1985) or Parker's Athenian Religion: a history (1996), which -- while they also can and have been recommended to students -- both aim at a certain degree of comprehensiveness and contain significant original research. M. assumes a less advanced student than Bremmer, includes very few references to primary sources to back up his claims, and demonstrates a pedagogical flourish that may have some very interesting results. The content of this volume inevitably reflects the author's research interests: there are chapters on personal religion and the Hellenistic period, but I would not call this content particularly idiosyncratic.

In the preface, M. indicates that he does not intend to engage with "modern theoretical interpretations" (xii), but rather will attempt an objective description of ancient sources ("what the Greeks themselves did and said"). Clearly a beginners' introduction to this subject requires careful grounding in evidence rather than ambitious theorising or generalisation, but it is already a truism to point out that objection to "interpretations" is itself a theoretical stance. Both heavy reference to primary evidence (which is absent from this tome) and recognition of the interpretative biases and influences of the scholar would be healthy ways to give the reader more opportunity to escape the writer's subjectivity. Indeed, I should go so far as to say that an 'objective' reading of the primary evidence without an interpretive strategy is only safe if one assumes that the Greeks were 'just like us'. I am not saying that M. is so naïve (although this attitude is also taken in his more academic publications1), since he clearly is trying to protect his students from being discouraged or confused by complex theoretical jargon and speculative evolutionary or psychological theories.

A further complaint arising from the preface: Mikalson constantly offers dollar equivalents for all Athenian monetary values, at a fixed rate of one drachma to $100 (xiii). Not only does this currency limit the value of the comparison in an international context, but the sum itself is problematic. In fact any sum would be, and most teachers of ancient history very wisely avoid setting any such conversion rates at all. (This may seem like a minor point, but I think it instantiates a deeper trend in this volume, to which I shall return later.)

Chapter one gives an overview of ancient Greek worship, based on the description of a sanctuary. M. warns that this section is going to be simplistic, and indeed he creates an imaginary, 'typical' Greek sanctuary (based loosely on that at Sounion in Attica). This model is meant to be the norm against which unusual features of other cults can later be contrasted. I would be interested to debate whether the best way to go about communicating the complexity of Greek cult practices is by this sort of contrast of the 'typical' and the 'exceptional', but the imaginary building of the sanctuary is an excellent pedagogical exercise which -- while it may not always be an accurate representation of the diachronic development of all sanctuaries -- stresses the differences in scale between cult sites that consist of little more than an altar for sacrifices, and those where this altar has been supplemented by the addition of a grant of land, a wall, treasury, statues and votives, professional priesthood, festivals and huge sacrifices, and so forth.

The second chapter, 'Greek gods, heroes and polytheism', in contrast to the archaeological basis of the first, relies in large part on literary sources and is illustrated by a number of citations (these citations, like the illustrations, are not always well-integrated into the narrative of the chapter, however). Again some of the information in this section is by necessity rather simplistic, but M. does not shy away from discussion of the thorny problem of 'ouranic' and 'chthonic' deities, observing that some deities are worshipped in different contexts with both forms, sometimes even using 'chthonic' as an epithet. This fits in well with his observation that a Greek deity is identified by a name in three parts: individual name, such as Poseidon, functional epithet, such as "Soter", and cult toponym such as Sounion; thus there may be several Poseidons in the cult pantheon of a single city. While this is also a tidier pattern than ancient sources provide, it is a useful mental exercise for students who may come to this subject thinking that Zeus is always the paternal god they read of in Homer. Having taken pains to blur this line, however, M. goes on to retain the distinction between 'ouranic' and 'chthonic' gods, while it has been shown repeatedly that this distinction is only really applicable (and even then not altogether without ambiguity) with reference to individual ritual acts. It is presumably with a view to finessing these problems of consistency that it is later argued that "in the abstract, the difficulties and exceptions seem overwhelming ... [but with reference to] ... individual cults, we will find them little troubling" (45).

The third section, 'Seven Greek cult myths', offers good but very brief summaries of a handful of myths, illustrating and discussing the significance of such aetiological stories on cult practice. The chapter after this goes into more detail, discussing 'Five major Greek cults' which all have exceptional features and as a group do an excellent job of countering the illusion of uniformity which may have been built up so far. The first cult discussed is that of Athena Polias/Parthenos at Athens, with a lot of archaeological data and examples from art and literature; the Parthenon Frieze is described in particular as an illustration of the great Panathenaic procession that it represents. The second example is the Eleusinian Mysteries and cult of Demeter, in which our various and not altogether comprehensive sources are summarised as if they were a coherent narrative. M. recognises that we know little if anything about the central mystery of the festival, but beyond suggesting the obvious educated guesses such as revelation of an ear of corn, he shows no curiosity or willingness to draw analogies from other mystery religions -- which is probably wise. The third example is the worship of Dionysos Kadmeios of Thebes, an even more thinly attested cult. The cult is described from whatever sources are available, since archaeology is little help; I was slightly uncomfortable about the phrasing of the assertion that "Euripides' dramatized account of Dionysiac activity in Thebes is, on the whole, accurate" (96). The description of the cult of Apollo Pythios at Delphi again mixes foundation myth (he has long quotations from the Homeric Hymn) with description of the oracle. I am not sure how the hApol proves that Delphi was "from its beginnings panhellenic" (102). M. spends a long paragraph discussing a "physical explanation" for the Pythia's trance (105-6), without suggesting that there might be some religious interest in the phenomenon regardless of its psycho-chemical origin. Here also the lack of reference to inset images and quotations is particularly striking; for example the lead tablets containing private enquiries for the oracle at Dodona (109) could have been better assimilated into the narrative of the chapter. Finally the description of the cult of Zeus Olympios of Olympia includes archaeological discussion of the site, the famous ash altar and chryselephantine statue, and the classical Olympic Games.

Chapter five, 'Religion in the Greek family and village', tells more of the family than of the village, being separated into sections on the religious roles and lives of the father, mother, daughter, son, and slave respectively. These sections do a good job of highlighting the important role of religion at all stages of life, times of passage, and social occasions. Chapter six, 'Religion of the Greek city-state', does not really focus on polis religion in the sense that it is usually discussed, but rather emphasises the fact that the concerns of Greek religion and prayer -- namely war, trade, politics and the like -- are both private and public concerns. The very separation between the three topics of chapters 5-7 seems to reinforce the distinctions that many are now trying to problematise: not that there is no difference between religious practice at the individual, family, deme, and city levels, but that the government of the polis is the ultimate authority behind all legitimate religious activity. The seventh chapter, 'Greek religion and the individual', does not contradict this view either, but focuses on morality (as a combination of fear of the gods and adherence to the customs of the city) and beliefs about life after death.

The final chapter, 'Greek religion in the Hellenistic period', feels a little 'tacked-on' to this introductory volume. M. is clearly an expert on this subject and presumably felt that the Hellenistic period should not be left out of a student's introduction to Greek religion altogether, as indeed it should not. But this chapter is too brief to do the subject justice, although a series of case studies including Athens, Delos and Alexandria do a good job of showing what the changes and the issues are.

Throughout M.'s tone is dogmatic, indeed repetitive, leaving little room for discussion or alternative interpretations of the evidence. I have already noted my dissatisfaction with the argument that facts should supersede interpretations in a work of this level. This is a pedagogical strategy, and while it may not appeal to all readers, there are other pedagogical approaches in this volume which are both innovative and very successful.

There are few outright errors in the book. It is a small and pedantic complaint that an inscription which reads στεφανηφόρος is translated as "Stephanophoros" (215); while the spelling with omicron is not unattested, it is extremely uncommon, and certainly should not be considered the normalised form in either language. On the other hand, I am still trying to disentangle the level of irony in M.'s claim in the chapter on heroes that the "Theseus" recovered by Cimon probably dated to the time of the Trojan War (40)!

The current volume is clearly meant for an audience of beginners, perhaps (although this is not stated) even students at the high school level. As such, it has its pedagogical value, although I would hesitate to recommend it as a main reading text for a university undergraduate course on Greek religion, since I demand more attention to primary sources from even first year students than this book offers. I can imagine recommending this book to students with no classics or ancient history background who are about to take an elective module in Greek religion; although they would need more rigorous reading once classes begin.


1.   See, e.g. Athenian Popular Religion (1983), x.

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