Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.26

Peter Eich, Gottesbild und Wahrnehmung: Studien zu Ambivalenzen früher griechischer Götterdarstellungen (ca. 800 v.Chr. - ca. 400 v.Chr.). Potsdamer altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd 34.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011.  Pp. 532.  ISBN 9783515098557.  €79.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Joannis Mylonopoulos, Columbia University (

Table of Contents

This book is based on the author’s habilitation from 2007. It has seven chapters – all subdivided into subchapters, a long bibliography, and indices. Its aim is to examine the ways in which “the majority of average ancient Greeks” between the eighth and the early fourth centuries perceived images of gods.

From the very outset (“Einleitung,” p. 11-14), Eich reveals his lack of interest in art historical questions, which he characterizes as “unworthy of study”. The bibliography on the subject does not support his claim that Greek divine images have thus far been discussed exclusively from the perspective of materiality. Although it is true that several monographs have dealt with the iconography of certain deities, a general art historical study of Greek divine images remains to be written. Unfortunately, Eich’s study suffers from his rejection of invaluable art historical and archaeological insights.

In Chapter I (“Die Entwicklung der Fragestellung”, p. 15-55), Eich explains his methodology – a fusion of religious phenomenology and literary criticism. He insists that his understanding of “perception” is based on that of M. Merleau-Ponty. He then provides a helpful overview of scholarly works on the topic by H.G. Niemeyer, S. Bettinetti, T.S. Scheer, F. Graf, D. Steiner, A. Schnapp, J.P. Vernant, B. Gladigow, and A. Donohue. Dismissing structuralist approaches and C. Faraone’s seminal study on the talismanic functions of Greek images, Eich argues above all that the assumed magical functions of divine images contradict modern and ancient intuition. He is also skeptical of using later authors, such as Pausanias or Plutarch, to reconstruct religious attitudes of the Classical period. However, the distinction he draws between Hellenistic and Roman Imperial ‘story-tellers’ who were deeply interested in statues, and the ‘objective’ fifth-century authors who refer to statues only en passant is overstretched. Categorically excluding an image-based approach, Eich considers iconology a highly problematic methodology. Towards the end of the chapter, he addresses the notion of Greek religion, the possible existence of a Greek religious koine, and the highly debated problem of continuity from the Bronze Age to the Archaic period. Strangely enough, Eich makes no clear distinction between Minoan and Mycenaean religions and suggests without offering any evidence that divine images had been “an important component of the cult” since the Late Palatial period. He devotes the rest of the chapter to discussing terms, such as “magic,” “fetishism,” “animism,” and “idolatry.”

In Chapter II (“Religion und Wahrnehmung,” p. 56-92), Eich presents theoretical approaches to perception, focusing on those of E. Durkheim, S. Freud, P. Boyer, M. Donald, and J. Cauvins. He seems to be influenced primarily by Freud’s theory on religious phenomena as creations of projection and Donald’s concept of images as means of external symbolic storage. He does raise the important question on whether the Greeks identified images with gods. Far too often, however, he postulates that only ancient Greeks suffering from “elementary cognitive limitations” would have been incapable of distinguishing a god from his image and that they were intellectually advanced enough to have made this distinction. In my view, the question is not whether Greeks were capable of doing so but whether they were willing to distinguish between the two. Towards the end of the chapter, Eich repeats his conviction that divine images cannot be analyzed thoroughly with the methods of Classical studies and certainly not through art historical or archaeological means. Indeed, Eich has a tendency to repeat his theses, especially his hypothesis that the Greeks never believed that gods inhabit images, which were inanimate representations, always distinct from the divine beings they were supposed to portray.

Chapter III (“Götterbilder in archaischer und klassischer Zeit,” p. 93-280) is the longest and, with respect to the material, the most helpful. In it, Eich organizes literary sources according to genres (epic poems, philosophical treatises, lyric poetry, historical works, Attic tragedy, Old Comedy), and ancient authors mostly in alphabetical order. Once again the omnipresent questions in this chapter are 1) whether or not Greeks identified images with gods, and 2) whether or not they thought of the images as being inhabited by the gods. Eich’s negative answer to both is crystal clear from the outset. Strangely enough, he discusses the sources with a series of preconceptions about what they would have to relate about divine images and how they would do so were they to prove his assumptions wrong. Eich’s approach requires from ancient authors explicit statements on gods inhabiting their images, unambiguous discussions of wondrous images performing counterintuitive acts, sources placing statues of gods at the center of attention, and texts describing statues as the dominant means of communication between human and divine spheres. Needless to say, no pre-fourth-century author fulfills the above criteria. Eich therefore claims that “statues may have been confined to the role of a cult instrument” (p. 143). Texts that seem to point in the direction that he is so forcefully opposing Eich explains away with occasionally labyrinthine or platitudinous arguments. For example, after discussing at length Heraclitus’ famous passage on his contemporaries praying before statues without realizing that they, like buildings, are lifeless, Eich dismisses the text’s validity because its precise context is unknown. Furthermore, he interprets the well-known passage in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, which describes how the statue of Artemis turned its gaze away from Orestes and Pylades, as a reference to the intellectual simple-mindedness of the barbaric Taurians who, unlike the Greeks, easily believed Iphigenia’s lie. In this chapter, Eich also introduces his firm belief that at least during the fifth century BCE the majority of the Athenians did not practice cults that involved idolatry. If Classical Athenian religion was not idolatrous, however, then what exactly was it?

At the beginning of Chapter IV (“Gottheit und Bild in öffentlichen Ritualen mit Massenbeteiligung,” p. 281-321), Eich attempts to define the term “ritual” in eleven pages. His understanding of a ritual as a repetitive, stereotypical, spatially and temporally defined religious act that follows a script is outdated, especially in light of the collaborative research program on the dynamics of rituals organized by the University of Heidelberg. Eich devotes a large part of the chapter to the use, or rather absence, of divine images at festivals characterized by “mass participation.” Here, he focuses particularly on the City Dionysia and the Eleusinian procession. Nevertheless, he offers neither a clear definition of the term “mass participation” nor the reasons why this kind of festival is as indicative for the use of statues in cult as he assumes. With respect to the Dionysia, Eich’s speculation that vases depicting the procession with Dionysus’ ship are actually depicting an actor impersonating the god is unconvincing due to the lack of visual hints pointing in this direction. He also seems to imply that any participant in the Dionysia who identified the image of the god with the god himself would only have done so under the influence of wine.

Chapter V (“Vom Hellenismus in die Kaiserzeit,” p. 322-370) opens with the well-known thesis that ancient authors began to demonstrate a striking interest in images of gods from the third century on. Here, Eich discusses various authors and works – Callimachus, Plutarch Pausanias, Apollodorus, the writings of the Second Sophistic as well as Christian polemics against pagan idols. According to Eich, Callimachus became interested in divine images due to the influence of Egyptian culture and its significant regard for representations of the divine. To him, the passages in Plutarch’s work on wondrous statues represent Hellenistic inventions, while Pausanias’ obsessive concern with statues originated in his desire to emphasize Greek identity under the Romans. Eich concludes that “the peak of a cult of the gods, which was primarily a cult of the image” should be dated as late as “the Roman Imperial period” (p. 370). Yet, one might ask, why had the Greeks spent all this time, energy, and money in producing countless statues of gods earlier on had they been so peripheral?

Chapter VI (“Gefesselte Götter und kollektiver Bildzauber,” p. 371-399) is dedicated to bound images. Eich explains the binding of an image as an attempt to constrain the ambivalent powers of specific gods symbolized by but not present in their statues. If this type of image had reflected merely the ambivalence of divinities, then there should have been more bound statues and certainly not only of such divinities as Aphrodite, Ares, Artemis, or Dionysus. Like F. Graf, Eich overemphasizes the unbinding of statues at festivals of reversal. He suggests that such festivals evoked emotions that equaled ecstasy, so that during climactic moments of confusion worshippers may have mistaken statues for gods.

In the final chapter (“Reale, imaginäre, artifizielle Präsenz: ein Resümee,” p. 400-455), Eich reiterates his main theses that 1) wondrous divine images were not important and cannot be used to argue a Greek belief in statues inhabited by the gods (one cannot help but wonder how he would interpret Michael Psellos’ report of the wondrous icon of Mary in Blachernai, which changed its “appearance and form” every Friday after experiencing “the real and animate visitation” by the Virgin), and 2) the frequency of references to the importance of divine images in the Imperial period suggests that idolatry became central only then (a similar statistical approach would infer the same about the importance of temples).

The bibliography is impressively long (pp. 457-510) and yet contains remarkable lacunae. I mention only I. Petrovic’s work on Callimachus, V. Pirenne- Delforge’s study on Pausanias, C. Kunze’s analysis of Hellenistic divine images, N. Himmelmann’s brief but important study on Greek divine imagery, as well as W. Oenkbrink’s and M. de Cesare’s studies on statues depicted on vases.

Although typos are rare – most of them are in Chapter VII –, the author repeatedly refers to Michael (instead of Christopher) Faraone, Catherine (instead of Christiane) Sourvinou-Inwood, Richard (instead of Robert) Fleischer, and confuses J. Mylonopoulos with G. Mylonas. Apparently the reference to Kykosoura instead of Lykosoura (p. 343) is not merely a typo, since the mistake is repeated in the index. In general, the language tends to be convoluted and very often unnecessarily complex.

In Chapters II and VII, the author demonstrates his commendable interest in broadening the perspectives of ancient history by including the methods and theories of fields, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, and neuroscience. For this reason, his neglect of epigraphic sources seems all the more surprising. Just how unfortunate is his unconditional rejection of both visual evidence and the methods as well as approaches of relevant disciplines, is revealed by the example of an oinochoe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ( 08.258.25), which portrays a statue of Athena atop a column turning its head towards a bearded man who approaches the monument from behind with a gesture of adoration. Does the vase-painter imply the presence of an image inhabited by the goddess? I think so.

The title of Eich’s book as well as his brief introduction promise an overview of how “the majority of average ancient Greeks” perceived images of gods. Unfortunately, the study does not live up to this expectation. Despite an impressive collection of relevant literary sources, the author never questions the interpretations he presents already in the first pages of his book. A less apodictic and more inclusive approach towards the fellow disciplines of epigraphy as well as Classical archaeology and art history could have turned this book into an important contribution to the study of ancient Greek divine images.

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