Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.11.02

Polignac on Budin on Pironti.   Response to 2008.08.45



Response by François de Polignac, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (polignac@ehess.fr)

Methodological issues in the study of Greek religion: a necessary mise au point

One may more or less disagree with a review and nevertheless abstain from reacting, leaving the debate open for other arenas. But some reviews raise so important methodological issues and reveal so deep a gap in a field of study that they require a comment. Such is the case of the recent review by Stephanie Budin of Gabriella Pironti's book, Entre ciel et guerre. Figures d'Aphrodite en Grèce ancienne (BMCR 2008.08.45). As a member of the jury who unanimously gave the highest appraisal to Pironti's doctoral dissertation and strongly advocated its immediate publication, I feel compelled to point out some problematic aspects of this review.

One thing to consider is that, in her wish to break with the traditional interpretation of Aphrodite as the goddess of sweet love, easily associated in our minds with the pretty and slender Botticellian long- and fair-haired figure, Pironti may have gone a bit too far here and there or neglected some diverging evidence. Constructive remarks are welcome when the general idea and method of the demonstration are well understood. But the very first lines of the review reveal, on the contrary, a basic misunderstanding. The word "love" opens the review and occurs six more times in nine lines, while Aphrodite is mentioned only twice: would Pironti's book be a dissertation about "the ancient conceptions of love" (p. 1)? Certainly not; it is concerned with the goddess Aphrodite, in a way which does correspond to the soundest interpretations of ancient polytheisms. This means that Pironti does not want to enclose Aphrodite in any rigid category predetermined by our own representations and ways of thinking. Modern scholars have for long identified the ancient gods by one specific and static function, such as "divinity of love", "divinity of war", "divinity of fertility", "divinity of marriage", and so on. Would Budin be unaware that this way of analyzing the ancient religions has been replaced by much more dynamic and contextualized interpretations, where the deities are analysed by considering the relations which were established between them in specific contexts or fields of activity? She repeatedly writes that Pironti wants to show that Aphrodite was a "warrior divinity", a "war goddess", and criticizes her for leaving aside evidence which shows Aphrodite as a "love divinity". Budin obviously missed the point. There is no more a "war divinity" than a "love divinity"; there are deities who, according to situations and circumstances, might have to do in various ways with war or with what we call "love" or both. In the case of Aphrodite, Pironti's thesis is that the power of eros and the power of eris, the mixis of the bodies in love and in war were so closely connected in the ancient Greek representations that the figure of the goddess assumed and articulated both aspects: she had something to do with the world of strength, power and conflict because she embodied the compelling force of sexual desire, and reciprocally. The way one aspect or the other would be made more apparent in cult, ritual, hymns and narratives depended on the variety of contexts, and especially of the relations with other deities such as Ares. But the universal and inescapable power of eros which submits all beings, including the majority of gods, to its law, gave Aphrodite the dimension of a major deity, contrary to the slightly despised figure of a frivole goddess good enough for flower picking and flirtation games.

Another recurrent reproach made to Pironti is her "refusal to consider eastern or even Indo-European influences" (p. 4) which, according to Budin (who wrote a book on The Origins of Aphrodite), might help to explain some aspects of the goddess, of her epithets and of her relations with Ares. We are touching here another crucial methodological issue in the study of ancient religions (and other aspects of ancient societies as well): the use of "origins" or "influences" as a paradigm for interpretation, versus the paradigm of internal coherence of a cultural system. Pushed to their extreme consequences, both naturally lead to absurd positions. The abuse of origins makes a Greek god a conglomerate of poorly-related aspects accumulated through time and space by way of a mere bricolage; conversely, nobody would deny contacts of Greek societies and religion with other worlds and cultures. But what is an "origin" or an "influence"? The processes of contact and their role in constructing cultures and identities are multiple and can certainly not be summarized by a single and vague notion. Some cultural features labelled as "foreign" in a society can be, in fact, "indigenous" practices to which an external identity is confered for specific reasons. Moreover, the whole question of "oriental origins" or "influences" on the Greek religion and thought, on which so much has been written drawing from second hand material and with scarce attention to the diversity and evolutions of the "oriental" world, deserves a careful reexamination in the light of a better contextualisation and interpretation of non-Greek documents. And to conclude on this matter, is it necessary to recall that "origin" and "meaning" are two distinct matters? When the study of ancient religions aims at understanding how polytheist representations and practices functioned as a system within a society, as it is the case with Pironti's book, the question of "origins" is not necessarily relevant.

The third and last methodological issue bears on the use of sources from different periods. Budin blames Pironti for bringing into the discussion, besides Hesiod whom she discusses at length, much later sources (p. 5): epigraphy which is predominantly Hellenistic (but unless one gives up using most of the epigraphic material for the study of Greek religion, it is hard to see how one could avoid using Hellenistic inscriptions), Roman authors, and even, horresco referens, Clement of Alexandria (but there are whole chapters of Greek religion on which we could not write a line without Clement and other Christian polemists). The reproach is somehow contradictory with the former observation: would any material coming from earlier or different cultures be worth considering as long as it reveals "pure" origins, while anything later would not since it should be associated with alterations, decay and loss of meaning? Budin's apparent historicism seems to betray an essentialist background. This notwithstanding, the issue deserves attention. It is true that historians of religions too often elaborated overarching and fragile theories by piling up heterogeneous and decontextualized material. And Budin's criticisms sound also like an echo of the old "history vs. structure" conflict. But this conflict is outdated. Conversing once with Marcel Detienne when he was about to publish his Apollon le couteau à la main, I compared his work to the skill of a jeweller cutting out a perfect multi-faceted diamond, and stressed that no one ever sees all facets of a diamond glitter at the same moment: one has to turn the jewel round to see its various facets shining one after the other. There are two ways to interpret the comparison. Either one considers that the diamond is the structure in the structuralist meaning, a determining, even compelling, and long-lasting mental reality which can be reconstructed from its multiple manifestations through time and space; the historian then can but turn the jewel round to understand which facet appears in which context, or disagree with the whole idea. This is the classical "history vs structure" debate. Or one rather identifies the diamond with the many potentialities that a culture or a religion may offer by associating and combining representations in many a various way; but, due to historical circumstances, some of these potentialities grow out as full realities, others develop only partially or leave almost no trace. Thinking in terms of potentialities thus allows one to combine and reconcile the search of internal coherence -- new associations and representations cannot be totally discordant with the earlier ones -- and the necessity of time and history to explain simultaneously the unity and the diversity of any cultural or religious system. The problem, therefore, is not to decide whether one is authorized or not to use material of various times and places, but to see how it can help understanding both continuity and evolutions, coherence and differences.

Speaking of anachronism: the fifth-century statue of Aphrodite Ourania in Elis is by Pheidias, not by Praxiteles, as Budin puts it (p. 5). It makes a difference.

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