Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.06

Robert Parker, On Greek Religion. Cornell studies in classical philology, 60.   Ithaca, NY; London:  Cornell University Press, 2011.  Pp. xv, 309.  ISBN 9780801477355.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique – FNRS (Belgium) – University of Liège (

This book is an important step in its author’s scholarly journey in the field of ancient Greek religion. After Miasma (1983), Athenian Religion (1996), Polytheism and Society at Athens (2005), and many articles, On Greek Religion gathers together some of the methodological problems and central issues Robert Parker has been addressing for twenty-five years of research on a topic about which, paradoxically, “We know too much, and too little” (p. viii). Therefore, this is neither a handbook nor an “Introduction to” nor a “Companion to…”. If we try to identify the “literary genre” to which the book belongs, “essay” is probably the best label it deserves, an essay with finely crafted footnotes and up-to-date international bibliography. The seven chapters and five appendixes derive from the Townsend lectures delivered at Cornell during the autumn of 2008.

The first chapter ("Why Believe without Revelation? The Evidences of Greek Religion") analyses the different implications of a religious system without sacred book(s) or reference writings. Since the Greeks did not feel any “lack”, three questions arise: what reason(s) had the Greeks to believe in their gods? how could they know what was pious or impious, pleasing or unpleasing to the gods? what was the role of Homer and Hesiod to whom Herodotus refers when speaking about theogony, divine competences and even divine names? These questions are addressed in turn, with a close look at the connections between ritual acts and representations such as myths (which are “unstable”), pious narratives or speculations. Let us remark, with Parker, that oracles go against the grain of supposing a lack of revelation within the system, since divination is strongly related to divine will. The window on revelation is narrow but does exist. Regarding books, they are attributed to disreputable figures who need legitimization. The legitimacy of the city does without books and is rooted in tradition and the antiquity of its ritual practice.

Chapter two points out a second “lack”: "Religion without a Church. Religious Authority in Greece". The city is the main source of authority, and all authoritative aspects are considered, such as the place of priests and priestesses in the system, the much-debated question of a “polis-religion”, as Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood defined it several years ago, and, finally, what happened outside Athens and when the Hellenistic kings arrived on stage.

Chapters three ("Analyzing Greek Gods") and four ("The Power and Nature of Heroes) throw the door open to a fundamental component of rituals and representations: the gods and heroes who populate the system. The underlying question of the third chapter is “what is a Greek god?”. All current debates on the subject are addressed: plurality or unity of a divine being, relationship between its name and cult-epithets, between panhellenic and local levels, the implications of the so-called “structuralist” approach on the understanding of gods and pantheons. This chapter shows how hard it is to answer the preliminary question, and Parker has not changed his mind since 2005, when he wrote that “polytheism [was] undescribable” (p. 387). Regarding heroes, the fourth chapter deals with their nature (mainly mortals and minor gods at the same time), their relationship to the past of the communities to which they belonged, and with the inconsistencies in their cults, related to the oscillations on the line between their mortal nature and their divine functions. The various Attic calendars are perfect examples of the importance of heroes in local cult. The last part of the chapter questions the motives for their worship, the benefit expected by their worshippers, which is not primarily a “political” one, as sometimes assumed. To quote Parker (p. 123): “… no political explanation of a hero cult will have much power that does not start from the experience of the worshipper who visited the shrine and, where it was not consumed in the flames, ate the sacrificial meat.”

The last sentence is a perfect transition to the next chapter, the fifth one ("Killing, Dining, Communicating"). After dealing with the gods and heroes, Parker scrutinizes sacrifice, the main ritual that achieves communication with them. Two functions are indissolubly combined: sacrifice is “a means of honouring the gods and the most basic form of human sociability” (p. 136). The interpretation built by Vernant in La cuisine du sacrifice (1979) is questioned because of the ontological distinction it makes between flesh-eating men and gods pleased with mere smoke. Parker is not convinced that sacrifice ever expressed such a world-ordering view for two reasons: the Hesiodic myth of Prometheus is never alluded to by any author of the classical period, on the one hand, and on the other, table offerings for the gods were full of food, such as raw meat. Against the first argument, it can be argued that there were no “charter myths” in ancient Greece, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, that Aristophanes’s play The Birds plays on the image of smoke feeding the gods (v. 187-193, 1262-1266), one of whom, Prometheus, is put on stage talking about the lack of smoke for the gods who are hungry (v. 1515-1524). The second argument can be qualified by the fact that sacrifice is a complex process that entails various ways of exploring statuses: meat-offering is a human expression of hierarchy, which adds something else, in terms of definition, to the burnt part of the animal. There are different ways of expressing divine superiority and alterity, and Vernant was probably right in emphasizing this sacrificial function. Be that as it may, the whole chapter is full of insights that usefully question and circumscribe all aspects of sacrifice.

The sixth chapter ("The Experience of Festivals") issues a challenge since “we know and will always know much less that is really useful about Greek festivals than about almost any other aspect of Greek religion” (p. 175). The first attempt is to approach the festivals through ancient concepts, categories and statements: contexts of pleasure and well-being, times of peace, (limited) loosening of social divisions, and some thematic categories such as mysteries, orgia, “women’s festivals”, lamentations (considered as exceptions), theoxeny. Regarding the purposes for the performance, the Greeks were dealing with commemoration of a past event. Telling the first time of a ritual was considered to be the best way of explaining it. Moreover, searching for almost every blessing was a potential exploitation of many festivals: they “were magnets that drew everything toward them” (p. 179). The second attempt is to approach the festivals through their divine plots and the actions performed by humans: the god arrives, the god dies or disappears, the god weds; humans experience new life and the seasons, etiology (commemoration evoked above), self-celebration of the city, disorder and rudeness, social reversal, awe and terror. Parker pays close attention to both levels (divine and human) intertwined in all these contexts. A last problem to deal with is the chronological one. Inscribing festivals in history is a difficult task, even though innovation and evolution are to be taken for granted in many cases. Tradition does not imply fossilization.

The seventh chapter’s title ("The Varieties of Greek Religious Experience") is inspired by William James’s famous book ("The Varieties of Religious Experience"), but nothing in James’s work is equivalent to the Greek “experiences”. This last chapter addresses two questions: “how does the religious experience of an Athenian differ from a Spartan, of a man from a woman, of a free person from a slave?”, on the one hand; on the other, “how, if at all, an individual could choose particular kinds of relation to the gods?”. Various criteria are taken into account. In order to answer the first question, place is a major criterion, and the book then comes back, by another way, to the question of the “stability” of a god’s identity through its local “variations”. Social position and gender are other criteria whose implications are carefully analyzed. To deal with the second question, Parker observes that “public” and “private” initiatives are represented within civic religious life. Individuals chose what public rituals to take part in and which publicly worshipped deities they wanted to honor at a private level. Private associations are another part of the “religious experience”. However, “the role of the small private group in such cults [Dionysiac, Corybantic…] relates more to the way in which civic religion was structured than to hostility on the part of the city to such types of experience” (p. 249). Mysteries and hopes for the afterlife delineate other forms, and “binding and bewitchment” open the door to what we call “magic”. Under the label “what you will”, the final step of this chapter – which can be considered as a kind of general conclusion – refers to the Stoic point of view regarding traditional cult: you have to support traditional practice, seeing behind the performance the gods you want to see, those satisfying your conception of what a god should be. As Parker remarks, this is a perfect illustration of the normal attitude of Greek philosophers, but of ordinary worshippers too. The final variety is “what you will” in this sense.

As usual in Robert Parker’s books, various appendixes close the whole work in addressing specific topics that would have made the main argumentative stream heavier. Five of them present the following issues in turn: 1) the advice of the god on matters of cult in oracles; 2) the introduction of new gods in a city; 3) the worship performed for mortals and what it implies regarding the nature of the gods; 4) the vexing question of “chthonian sacrifice” and its relationship to the so-called “chthonian gods”, with a wise conclusion: “… describing as chthonian only the limited number of gods so described in ancient sources”; 5) the early history of hero cult.

This work is outstandingly well-informed, well-written, clever and also very cautious. Its ideal audience will not be the general public: the flavor of the book can be fully tasted only by people who are already conscious of the debates it promotes and the questions it raises.

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