Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.59

Valerie M. Warrior, Greek Religion: A Sourcebook. Focus Classical Sources.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing, R. Pullins & Company, 2009.  Pp. xii, 305.  ISBN 9781585100316.  $16.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Benjamin W. Hicks, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (
Word count: 1915 words

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The task of compiling a primary source reader for the religion of the ancient Greeks is a daunting one. The disparate nature of our evidence, never mind the plethora of beliefs and practices throughout the Hellenic world, forces many hard choices on anyone who attempts to do so. Warrior has largely succeeded, however, in creating a noteworthy successor to the current standard, J. Stambaugh's venerable Sources for the Study of Greek Religion. Her attempt to form a "narrative of what the Greeks themselves said about their gods and their worship" guides the structure of the book as well as her choice to leave commentary to a minimum (pp. x-xi). This does not prevent Warrior from providing ample glosses that generally cover many questions which students with no prior exposure to the Greek world would likely have. The format will be immediately familiar to instructors who have used Warrior's sourcebook for Roman religion.1 The headings trace a path from the earliest sources on Greek religion in Hesiod and Homer to the mechanics of Greek religious practice in life during the historical period (i.e. family and community religious practice, prayer and sacrifice, divinations, the role of sanctuaries, festivals and competitions). The final chapters are devoted to challenges to traditional Greek religion, as well as sections on the practice of magic and witchcraft and a final section on "New Cults and New Gods." This approach removes the "jigsaw puzzle" (p. x) quality from the presentation of Greek religion. Right at the very beginning, the sourcebook's abridged presentation of the Theogony does an excellent job of laying out the narrative coherently by alternating passages with snippets of Hesiod's divine genealogy, illustrated in diagrams.2 This pattern of skillful abridgment supplemented by limited but choice commentary is a hallmark of the work.

A difficulty with previous readers of similar scope has been a lack of interpretative help. Although contextualizing readings is obviously a main goal of the instructor in any course, it can be difficult to account for all the many names, places, and historical context that the interpretation of any primary source hinges upon within the constraints of a lecture period, so a reader that helps in this task is very welcome. Warrior provides, in addition to introductory passages for each selection, a list of gods and extensive glossary (pp. 265-75), chronology (pp. 277-9), a set of relevant maps (pp. 281-5), basic information about sources employed in the collection (pp. 287-90), and a thorough bibliography for further reading (pp. 291-4), as well as an admirably complete index of topics and passages (pp. 297-305). There are also well-chosen figures and illustrations throughout that are keyed to the passages. The only passages sometimes left without direct comment are short selections, typically at the beginning of a new topic, which Warrior uses as a preface to her more general comments introducing the subject area. These supplementary materials render the book accessible both to students more acquainted with the ancient world from civilization or language courses and also to those who are encountering antiquity for the first time. Further, Warrior makes a point of using many different types of sources to an extent not found in previous readers on Greek religion, and she takes care as well to provide references to recent scholarship where relevant--a courtesy useful to both students and instructors. She also takes pains, when possible, to point out where to find unabridged versions of texts, particularly in cases where they are less accessible. In her topical chapters, readers will seldom find a subject that does not include several different literary genres and frequently papyrological and inscriptional evidence.

Her chapter on "Magic, Sorcery, and Witchcraft" is a good example of all these points. In addition to selections from binding spells on papyri and curse tablets, Warrior includes selections from Plato's Republic, laws restricting the use of magic preserved from Teos, and examples of magic and witchcraft in literary sources as far back as Homer. For the papyri and curse tablets, she also takes care to provide cross-references to Ogden's 2002 collection of sources on magic and the occult in antiquity.3

Rather than attempt to outline the entire sourcebook, I will instead focus on several noteworthy chapters. Two chapters that take a novel approach make an appearance: "The Gods and Justice from Homer to Aeschylus" and "The Gods in Sophocles and Euripides." Rather than being based around a particular religious topic (i.e. sanctuaries, festivals, sacrifices, etc.) as are the others in the sourcebook, these two chapters instead take a close look at Greek literary sources and the relationship between gods and justice. These two themes are excellent choices around which to organize the somewhat scattered material regarding the moral and ethical dimensions of Greek religion, since the concerns of justice and religious piety form a continuum from the Homeric narrative to the Attic tragedians. To my knowledge, no other reader takes this approach. The chapters are well-suited to be taught as a pair, and the selections are sufficient to have a substantive conversation about the issues but still short enough not to be an overwhelming amount. Nor do they particularly privilege either the Homeric or the Tragic in their presentation of ethical dilemmas as they relate to the gods.

Warrior also demonstrates a deft hand at constructing a narrative account of religious thought in her presentation of Blondell's translation of King Oidipous.4 After a brief summary of the play for students who might be unfamiliar with the plot, Warrior presents a series of selections that highlight the intersections of religious thought as they relate to fate and justice throughout the play. Each one is chosen to convey the essential theme of the futility of mankind's struggle against a fate that has been ordained by the gods. Her choices (ll. 151-215, 498-506, 707-25, 848-58, 863-910, 1186-95), however, focus more on the chorus as the drivers of conventional religious observations than on the main characters of the play, whose speeches are frequently parceled up into other sections of the sourcebook.

As a last example, Warrior's chapter "Challenges to Traditional Religion" includes two clever "case studies:" the mutilation of the Herms and the trial of Socrates. Both of these are welcome additions to the discussion of religion in the polis, and, despite the somewhat Athenocentric focus, make superb explorations into religious dispute in the Greek world. Her discussion of the Herms follows the arc of Alcibiades' fortunes, drawing from a variety of sources, beginning with Thucydides' history and ending with Plutarch's comments on Alcibiades' restoration to generalship and property rights at Athens. Similarly, Warrior traces the charges against Socrates and provides a respectable selection from both Plato and Xenophon, in addition to Diogenes Laertius' treatment of the aftermath. One might question whether some of the selections from the Clouds concerning Socrates, which appear in the section devoted to discussing the Sophists, might be better placed here, but this is a minor quibble at best, particularly since Warrior (p. 225) clearly points out the relationship between the Clouds and the accusations leveled against Socrates in the Apology.

The primary drawback of the approach adopted by Warrior with its broad focus and emphasis on narrow excerpting is that occasionally the coverage of a particular topic is less extensive than one might hope and privileges the sourcebook's "narrative" over that of a particular work in question. For example, the chapter on mystery cults and initiations makes for a good introduction to Greek mystery religions, but instructors who want to spend more time on the topic will need to supplement the readings provided with a more specialized reader or through their own course packs. And, to return to an earlier comment about Warrior's use of King Oidipous, her decision to split key passages into different sections may make it difficult for students previously unacquainted with the play to get a firm grasp of the plot, however thorough her summarizations.5

Having leveled this criticism, I admit that the constraints imposed by the format of a sourcebook for undergraduates and the need to cover so broad a field would have made the frequent use of unabridged translations of sources unwieldy for a one-volume book. So, on the whole, this criticism is more a caution for instructors who wish to adopt the text than a condemnation of Warrior's approach. The choice of excerpts throughout is quite good and will easily make available virtually every "purple passage" that an instructor might wish to discuss with his or her class. Further, the translations provided by Warrior, both her own and those taken from other publications (mostly from the Focus Classical Library with a few exceptions), are clear and contemporary in their language and syntax. The illustrations are not frequent (twenty-four in all), but they are always topical and include explanations of the item shown and of its relevance to the topic at hand set off in a lightly colored box. The page layout is clean and uncluttered, with each passage labeled by a heading number in addition to its relevant citation in the original text. Figures are given adequate space so as not to clash with the source text, and Warrior's commentary is bolded and indented in a smaller font to distinguish it clearly from the ancient sources. My only complaint is that the font size for her commentary is a bit small for reading extended sections comfortably. The editing is thorough given the scope of the sourcebook, though I did note several minor typographical errors.6

This sourcebook sets a very high standard for its competitors to match in the area of Greek religion. Its approach of relying on the ancient sources to speak for themselves, with limited but helpful commentary, is effective and engaging in a way that a dry textbook presentation is not. Given its eminently reasonable price, the accessibility of the translations and the quality of the supporting commentary, anyone teaching a course offering involving the religious practices of ancient Greek civilization ought to consider adopting Greek Religion: a sourcebook.

Table of Contents

Figures and Maps
1. Introduction
2. The Gods in Hesiod's Theogony and Homer's Iliad
The gods in Homer's Iliad
3. Family and Community
From birth to early adulthood
Betrothal, wedding, and marriage
Marriage contested
Death and death rituals
4. Prayer and Sacrifice
Blood and other sacrifice
Ritual purity and pollution
Some ancestral practices
5. Divination
Divination in time of war
6. Sanctuaries of the Gods
Sacred space
Custom and regulations
Incubation and healing
7. Festivals
Organization and regulation
The Anthesteria
The Thesmophoria
The Panathenaea
8. Competitions in Honor of the Gods
The Olympic games
Athenian drama festivals
9. The Gods and Justice from Homer to Aeschylus
10. The Gods in Sophocles and Euripides
11. Mystery Cults and Initiation
Orphic and Bacchic texts
The Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis
12. Challenges to Traditional Religion
The Presocratics
The Sophists
The mutilation of the Herms and the profanation of the Mysteries
The trial and death of Socrates
13. Magic, Sorcery, and Witchcraft
Binding spells
Sorcery and witchcraft in the literary sources
14. New Cults and New Gods
Ancient Literary Sources
Index of Texts Cited
General Index


1.  Valerie Warrior, Roman Religion: a sourcebook (Focus: 2002).
2.  The trees as illustrated follow Caldwell 1987. Warrior's contribution is instead the choice to key each portion of the genealogy to its appropriate passage from Hesiod.
3.  Daniel Ogden, Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook (Oxford: 2002 ; 2nd ed., 2009).
4.  The less standard transliteration here follows that of Blondell. Warrior chooses to use the more standard transliteration of Oedipus in all other instances throughout the sourcebook.
5.  Selections from the play appear in four separate chapters, though in fairness the majority do fall within one chapter ("The Gods in Sophocles and Euripides").
6.  There are missing spaces twice, "everyplace" (p. 10) and "asthe" (p. 142). Missing punctuation appears once on p. 56 ". . . be it public or private Gifts ranged . . .," and there is one apparent typographical mistake in the following sentence from p. 141: "Pausanias tells the story of how his [Theagenes'] statue was thrown into the sea and the Delphi [sic] oracle ordered the people of Thasus to worship the athlete as a god." I noted no other problems after a thorough review.

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