Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.55

Jan N. Bremmer, Andrew Erskine (ed.), The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations. Edinburgh Leventis Studies 5.   Edinburgh: :  Edinburgh University Press, 2010.  Pp. xxi, 528.  ISBN 9780748637980.  £95.00.  

Reviewed by Frederick Naerebout, (Leiden University)

This volume is the fruit of the fifth A.G. Leventis Conference held in Edinburgh in November 2007 (the Greek-Cypriot A.G. Leventis Foundation, officially based in Liechtenstein, supports Greek studies in Europe as part of its wide-ranging charity work, including a bi-annual professorship and conference at the University of Edinburgh). From the title it is not immediately apparent that these are conference proceedings.1 The volume is disguised as a monographic publication. Not only because the word ‘proceedings’ is not on the title page, but also because the editors at least suggest that this is a carefully planned, and thus coherent, volume. See its description in the preface as “a synchronic and diachronic view (my italics)… generating new approaches” (p.viii) and see the lay-out of the book in four parts labelled ‘systematic aspects’, ‘individual divinities and heroes’, ‘diachronic aspects’ and ‘historiography’. In fact, it very much is what it is: conference proceedings; and thus a rather mixed bag. That is not to say that it does not indeed generate new approaches: it does, and it is important because of that.

The volume contains an introduction, 25 papers and an epilogue (see the contents listed below). It is impossible to mention, let alone discuss in detail all of these within the confines of this review. Let us first of all have a look at the subjects covered: there is an introduction by Jan Bremmer which, although also discussing the prehistory of the Greek gods, is mainly a piece of historiography, dealing with international scholarship in the 20th century, and thus it really belongs in section 4, with the historiographical paper by Konaris (on 19th- and 20th-century German and British scholarship), which languishes there all on its own. In fact, it would have been helpful to have both papers at the front, together with the first chapter by Albert Henrichs, titled ‘What is a Greek god?’ – which seems to be the true introduction. Albert Henrichs’ paper is in many respects the most interesting in the book, and the one which most explicitly addresses the main issue – what is a Greek god? It is marred somewhat by its polemic tone, maintaining that Henrichs (and the other contributors) provide what has been neglected for at least a century. An overstated claim, to which we will return below.

Next, we come to the systematic section, dealing with issues of the pantheon (the 12 gods in particular), inscriptional evidence (which turns out to be not very informative about gods – but Fritz Graf’s discussion of epikleseis is important), metamorphosis, sacrifice, epiphany (mainly in votive reliefs), and statues (epiphany, or pseudo-epiphany, again). An odd omission – for the subject is very interesting in the context of this volume – is deification and ruler cult (as indeed Andrew Erskine notes, somewhat curiously, in his epilogue to the volume). I would also have liked to hear something about the dead and their possible super-human status (some relevant information is hidden away in Bernabé’s paper on later Orphism).

The second section deals with individual divine creatures, who turn out to be Zeus (twice), Hephaistos, Artemis, Herakles and not so much an individual, as a whole category, of goddesses with heroic parhedroi (Calame). One can understand why these divinities have been selected; it is less easy to understand why others have been left out – especially heroes, now rather underrepresented, might have shed more light on the nature of divinity itself.

The third section is headed ‘diachronic aspects’, but the papers do not deal with developments over time. Diachrony is confused with chronology. All papers, except for Auffarth’s whose theorizing about statues and the materiality of images does not belong here, but in the systematic section, address a phenomenon at a particular moment in time. They are arranged chronologically on a time line from pre-Socratic philosophers to Christian apologists. Of course, if you read through all of them, and do a lot of mental work, you will have some sort of do-it-yourself diachrony, but an extremely sketchy one.

So, does this rather haphazard collection do what it claims to be doing, does it help us to understand what this elusive being, a Greek god, actually is? I daresay it does: it contains a wealth of information and of interesting observations. I could single out Georgoudi on the affinity between sacrificial victim and god, Lapatin about the dubious categorization of ‘cult statues’ versus other representations, Barringer on the background of military dedications at Olympia, Seaford on the idea of divine ubiquity and omnipotence being predicated on the monetization of Greek society, Calame on ‘rites de passages’, and Faraone on the reframing of gods in the context of magical spells. But in doing so, I feel somewhat unjust towards the other contributors: some papers may be quite substantial, and others a bit slight, but the overall quality is very high.

As I just said: the volume helps us in understanding the nature of Greek divinity. Still, as one can see from my ultra-short summaries above, some papers deal more directly with the gods and their characteristics (Seaford, Faraone), while others do it in a more roundabout way (Georgoudi, Lapatin, Barringer, Calame). Some papers have actually little to say about gods, and rather more about cults or about sources. It is all a question of emphasis: e.g. with Dickie on Lucian and Dowden on the antique novel, it is less about what we can learn from these sources about the ancient image of the divine, and more about what divinities, as literary personae, do for Lucian’s oeuvre or for the novel.

I repeat: this is a very rich collection of papers which no one interested in ancient Greek religion can afford to miss. It is not the coherent study we would like to have on the subject, but maybe cannot have as yet. It is definitely pointing the way to much of what such a study should address. So why spoil this by claims that can hardly be substantiated? In the epilogue Andrew Erskine, echoing Albert Henrichs (esp. pp. 24-27), again stresses how new all this is: attention has been focused exclusively on ritual, and the gods have been left out. This is obviously untrue.2 Even those not explicitly discussing the gods in their studies of ancient Greek religion have been speaking about the gods nevertheless. And there are plenty of publications on individual gods – especially the new Routledge series (which Henrich does not like, p.27), but also much older work (see the introduction by Bremmer and the paper by Konaris!). The editors, however, say that the study of individual gods is not their intent (why then the six papers on individual gods, one by one of the editors?), but that they seek to answer more fundamental questions. Well, again, they are not the first to do so. We even have another set of proceedings not advertising themselves as such, titled What is a god? Studies in the nature of Greek divinity.3 One should not dismiss this, as Albert Henrichs does in his paper (p.38), with a single line: “the book never lives up to the lofty promise of its title”. In fact, with its 11 papers on 180 pages, it is much like a ‘light’ version of the present volume, and they are quite complementary – both very useful, both somewhat unsatisfactory. And when we look beyond titles dealing explicitly with the divine, where does that leave the innovation supposedly provided by this volume? Sacrifice, votive reliefs, epiphanies, statues, dedications, divine hierarchies, discrepancies between literary and cultic imagery, heroes and burial practices, apotheosis, divination, initiation, ‘rites de passage’, and so on and so forth: it is completely unnecessary to enumerate the enormous amount of work done on all these subjects before the appearance of this volume – indeed, its own rich annotation testifies to it all.

Still, this is a book that pushes at the boundaries of our research, and, although I reject its claim of drastic renewal of the field, I recommend it warmly. It is not only an important, but also a very well-produced book: I did not notice any misprints, there is an index (a general one which includes some ancient sources; a true index locorum would have been helpful) and the illustrations are of a very decent quality. The price is hefty, however, and one would hope for a paperbound edition which could assure this volume of a wider dissemination.

Contents [adapted from the publisher’s website]

List of illustrations
Notes on Contributors

Introduction: The Greek Gods in the Twentieth Century, Jan N. Bremmer

1. What is a Greek God?, Albert Henrichs

Systematic Aspects
2. Canonizing the Pantheon: the Dodekatheon in Greek Religion and its Origins, Ian Rutherford
3. Gods in Greek Inscriptions: Some Methodological Questions, Fritz Graf
4. Metamorphoses of Gods into Animals and Humans, Richard Buxton
5. Sacrificing to the Gods: Ancient Evidence and Modern Interpretations, Stella Georgoudi
6. Getting in Contact: Concepts of Human/Divine Encounter in Classical Greek Art, Anja Klöckner
7. New Statues for Old Gods, Kenneth Lapatin

Individual Divinities and Heroes
8. Zeus at Olympia, Judith M. Barringer
9. Zeus in Aeschylus: the Factor of Monetisation, Richard Seaford
10. Hephaistos Sweats or How to Construct an Ambivalent God, Jan N. Bremmer
11. Transforming Artemis – From the Goddess of the Outdoors to City-Goddess, Ivana Petrovic
12. Herakles between Gods and Heroes, Emma Stafford
13. Identities of Gods and Heroes: Athenian Garden Sanctuaries and Gendered Rites of Passage, Claude Calame

Diachronic Aspects
14. Early Greek Theology: God as Nature and Natural Gods, Simon Trépanier
15. Gods in Early Greek Historiography, Robert L. Fowler
16. Gods in Apulia, Tom H. Carpenter
17. Lucian's Gods: Lucian’s Understanding of the Divine, Matthew W. Dickie
18. The Gods in the Greek Novel, Ken Dowden
19. Reading Pausanias: Cults of the Gods and Representation of the Divine, Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge
20. Kronos and the Titans as Powerful Ancestors: A Case Study of the Greek Gods in Later Magical Spells, Christopher A. Faraone
21. Homo fictor deorum est: Envisioning the Divine in Late Antique Divinatory Spells, Sarah Iles Johnston
22. The Gods in Later Orphism, Alberto Bernabé
23. Christian Apologists and Greek Gods, Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
24. The Materiality of God's Image: Olympian Zeus and Ancient Christology, Christoph Auffarth

25. The Greek Gods in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century German and British Scholarship, Michael Konaris

Epilogue, Andrew Erskine
Index of names, subjects and important passages.


1.   I was not present at the conference, but in the published programme I noticed two papers that are not in the proceedings (by Gabor Betegh and Richard Janko). There is also a paper in the book by an author who was not listed as a speaker (Simon Trépanier). The preface is silent on the history of the volume; apparently, there has been quite some opportunity for editing between 2007 and 2010: references include publications that appeared in 2008 and 2009.
2.   Disproving this claim is not difficult: Albert Henrich states that before Robert Parker used it in the title of his Polytheism and society at Athens (2005), ‘polytheism’ had become a ‘proscribed word’ (p.24). Was it? I list a few titles: C. Picard, Les origines du polythéisme hellénique: l’ère homérique, Paris 1932; G. François, Le polythéïsme et l’emploi au singulier des mots theos, daimon dans la littérature grecque d’Homère à Platon, Paris 1957; G.J. Aalders, The tolerance of polytheism in classical antiquity and its limits, Amsterdam 1965; M. Detienne, Apollon le couteau à la main. Une approche expérimentale du polythéisme grec, Paris 1998 (Detienne is quite fond of the word); S. Fine, Jews, Christians and polytheists in the ancient synagogue. Cultural interaction during the Greco-Roman period, London 1999 (in studies on Judaism and early Christianity in their pagan surroundings, the word is common). Books which do not carry ‘polytheism’ in their title, can nevertheless be replete with it: e.g. B.N. Porter (ed.), One god or many? Concepts of divinity in the ancient world, s.l. 2000 (a book which for other reasons might have been discussed at some length in the present volume).
3.   A.B. Lloyd (ed.), What is a god? Studies in the nature of Greek divinity, London/Swansea 1997 (reprint 2009); the proceedings of a 1994 conference at the University of Wales Institute of Classics and Ancient History, 1994 / Contents: From Knossos to Homer, by B. Dietrich. From epiphany to cult statue: early Greek theos, by W. Burkert. Heraclitus and the rites of established religion, by C. Osborne. The moral dimension of Pythian Apollo, by J. Davies. Gods and mountains in Greek myth and poetry, by M. Clarke. Aspects of Athena in the Greek polis: Sparta and Corinth, by A. Villing. Herodotus and the certainty of divine retribution, by T. Harrison. Divinity and moral agency in Sophoclean tragedy, by S. Schein. Thunder, lightning, and earthquake in the Bacchae and the Acts of the Apostles, by R. Seaford. Athena and the Amazons: mortal and immortal femininity in Greek myth, by S. Deacy. Orphic gods and other gods, by A. Morand.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 08:03:12, Friday, 29 April 2011