Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.65 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.65

Cécile​ Bost-Pouderon, Bernard Pouderon (ed.), Les hommes et les dieux dans l'ancien roman: actes du colloque de Tours, 22-24 octobre 2009. Collection de la Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée, 48. Série littéraire et philosophique, 16​.   Lyon:  Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée – Jean Pouilloux​, 2012.  Pp. 349.  ISBN 9782356680297.  €35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Frederick G. Naerebout, Leiden University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collection of papers is the fifth in a series emanating from as many colloquia dedicated to the ancient novel (and to its sources and avatars). All papers are in French, and have short summaries in French and in English. A critique of the volume, together with an extensive summary of all papers, from the point of view of a literary scholar, has been published online in Agora: les comptes rendus de Gaia: revue interdisciplinaire sur la Grèce archaïque), by Stephen Rojcewicz, who is in the PhD programme in Comparative Literature at the University of Maryland. I will approach Les hommes et les dieux from a different angle: as a student of ancient religion, I will ask whether this volume has something worthwhile to contribute to the field of religious history. That it has a lot to say on the ancient novel, some of it innovative, I take for granted; it seems to me that the papers are, in this respect, a rather mixed bag (also qualitatively — one might compare Froma Zeitlin’s review of the proceedings of the fourth colloquium, BMCR 2011.11.05). Certainly they are all heavily annotated and thus guide readers to other research in the field, especially the previous four volumes in the series.

The book is divided into two main parts, the one, with eleven papers, on religion as a literary device, the other, with nine papers, on what is labelled “the religious background”. The first part is divided into three subparts: the structuring role of religion in narration, the meta-literary role of gods and priests, and religion as a means of characterisation. The second part also includes three subparts: philosophical and spiritual approaches, allegory, and re-appropriation of divinities. I find the contents of the first part clear enough from the titles of its subparts, while the actual contents of the second part are not so easily grasped. According to the Introduction, in the first part the relation between man and the divine in the novels is mainly studied as a metaphor for the relation between author and reader (I am not certain that this is what all the contributors intended to say). It is about the uses made of religion for the purposes of literary composition (that seems more to the point). In the second part, religion is not so much looked at as a set of building blocks for the novel writer, but as his subject matter: what religiosity or spirituality is being portrayed in novels, and what does this tell us about the beliefs of their authors? (One should add: and their audience.) That would imply that, for the purpose of my historical enquiry, the second part would be the most profitable. But let us not jump to conclusions, but rather judge every paper on its own merits.

I will limit myself to the sixteen papers that deal with the ancient world (another four deal with post-antique Greek novels and will be left out of account — which does not so much reflect on their quality as on their insufficient integration into this volume); and of these, I will highlight nine. Of the other seven, the ones by Hélène Frangoulis on Heliodorus, Giovanni Garbugino on the Risus festival in Apuleius, Françoise Léblouton and Nicolas Boulic on the imagery surrounding Eros, Christophe Cusset on Eros in Longus, and Marie-Ange Calvet-Sebasti on the apocryphal Acts of Andrew, seem to me to be instances of literary analysis where the presence of religion is merely incidental; that is to say, these papers are not, or not substantially, about religion as a narrative tool. In the second part, two relatively minor contributions by Sébastien Montanari and John R. Morgan discuss respectively Euhemeros as a renewer of mythology, and Heliodorus, whose description of the cult of the Nile parallels the structure of his whole novel. As to Morgan, his paper seems to fit the first part of the book better than the second.

In the first part, we begin with Alain Billault, who shows in much detail how in Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius religious occurrences and convictions set the action going and determine its shape. The protagonists live out their religion, and the mythical stories inserted into the novel (“partie du folklore qui remplace les dogmes dans le paganisme”, p. 27) comment on and even steer the action. Billault interestingly hints at the fact that religion functions as a façade behind which the author can hide his storytelling: the story seems not an invention but the logical outcome of divine interference in human affairs. Jean-Philippe Guez also addresses Leucippe and Clitophon, and compares it to the Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus. There Artemis and Aphrodite are in harmony, but with Achilles Tatius they are in conflict. Guez traces the antagonism between the two goddesses throughout the novel in the conflict between sexual desire and chastity. The supposedly happy ending — marriage resolving the conflict — is denied by Guez, who interestingly sees the antagonism between the two goddesses as irreconcilable. Romain Brethes shows that priests and prophets, who play an important part in ancient novels, are — in distinction from the gods — not always portrayed with reverence but may be depicted irreverently or even parodied. This depends on their role in the novels’ narrative structure. According to Brethes, these priests worship Fiction rather than any ‘real’ gods: are not all miracles in the stories the storyteller’s invention rather than the workings of the divine? Michel Briand, on Longus, promisingly opposes two main kinds of interpretation: the novel seen as fiction and a more “anthropological” approach. Briand interestingly wants to reconcile the two, with the god Eros as “une sorte de médiateur entre ses deux poles interprétatifs” (p. 104).

These four papers I find the most interesting of the first part, but at the same time they clearly illustrate the limitations of the literary approach: it does seem rather obvious that in a fictive story religion can be used to motivate the intrigue and structure the plot, or to help characterise the protagonists, This last aspect is addressed in two other papers: the first, by Koen de Temmerman, shows that the protagonists, especially the male ones, frequently and actively use divine and semi-divine exempla to (de)construct their “auto-presentation” (interestingly, his convincing analysis flies in the face of much accepted ideas about the ancient novel), while the second, by Cécile Bost-Pouderon on the religious festival as the occasion where the young lovers of the ancient novel meet, is less obviously about characterisation — she ranges much more widely. Of course, religion can be made to do other things as well: as Bost-Pouderon shows, religious festivals can be mentioned as mere chronological markers or to sketch the circumstances summarily and without any special significance. Some authors give a description, but actually only Heliodorus goes on to give us a true ekphrasis of a festival. But however religion is inserted into fiction, it always raises questions concerning the relationship between actual belief and cult and religious life in the world of the novel. Certainly in the reception of the story by its intended audience the overlaps and gaps between the one and the other must have been instrumental in the novel’s understanding.

Almost all authors reject, I think rightly, Merkelbach’s reading of ancient novels as coded sacred texts of mystery religions. But in the interpretations in the present volume these texts no longer seem to have a link to any world exterior to the text at all. In the words of Billault quoted above, actual religious life makes an appearance only to disappear behind the fiction and never to be mentioned again. Guez states: “je n’ai pas cherché à distinguer deux théologies, mais deux conceptions de la sexualité”. I can readily belief that Achilles Tatius wants to express his rather sombre vision of human sexuality, a vision probably shared by others (though that is not discussed). But in order to understand his use of Artemis and Aphrodite to do this it seems rather essential to establish whether this is an idiosyncratic, narrative ruse or an antagonism ingrained in (or at least part of) general religious thought. In the same way, the analysis by Brethes invites the question: how then are priests and prophets regarded in society? Indeed, a certain distrust seems common: after all, human intermediaries have human weaknesses. And the miracles that Brethes foregrounds: are those merely good story-telling, or are they recognized by the novels’ audience as the kind of miracle that everybody could experience? And alas, Briand’s anthropology is limited to the Merkelbach cultic-allegorical approach. The more obvious anthropological issue, as to whether the religious elements in the novel are (partly) shared by the fictive and the real world of author and audience, is never addressed.

The second part of the book, however, should ask whether an existing world is mirrored, in some way, whenever a fictive world is created. This can be the interior world of the author or of the audience, or the world of cultic realities. Most interesting is Dowden on Apuleius and cult. Apuleius shows himself rather less interested in cultic behaviour than the Greek novelists. Dowden presents a helpful chart of the number of occurrences of Greek gods, and of divinities or the divine in general, in ancient novels. It appears that Apuleius’ story — not counting the myth of Amor and Psyche — has little affinity with cult. It deals rather with more abstract, philosophical ideas. Even the myth of Amor and Psyche appears to function on that level. Other than the myth, the story deals with magical, not regular cultic practices, and with false religions that will lead astray. At the very end, of course, Lucius turns to Isis — but that is not to say that Apuleius wants his audience to convert to the cult of Isis: here too we are directed to a truth that lies beyond cult, and which only the philosophically minded can grasp. Slighter, but comparable in its conclusions, is the paper by Mariangela Scarsi Garbugino on Amor and Psyche. In her opinion Apuleius’ re-writing of the myth gave it a new and deeper meaning comparable to Gnostic mythology; Apuleius comes out as an heir to Neoplatonic ideas and a precursor of Christian thinking. A very substantial contribution is Tim Whitmarsh’ paper on Joseph and Aseneth. In his view Joseph and Aseneth is not a simple piece of religious propaganda but a sophisticated literary work which uses narrative strategies in order to examine the conflict between Jewish ideology and the human sexual drive. Whitmarsh argues that instead of looking for the origins of the story (a popular pastime), we should address the reasons for its popularity. He suggests plasticity, “sa capacité à fonctionner comme tableau blanc sur lequel les peuples multiples pouvaient projeter leurs souhaits et leurs anxiétés” (p. 239). In this case, those anxieties concern sexual desire versus religious constraints, treated with a subtlety that helps explain the story’s continuing success.

From the above, it will be obvious that as a historian of ancient religions I especially appreciate Dowden and Whitmarsh, who not only analyse the religious element in the ancient novel but also relate this to the world the authors and their audience lived in. Whitmarsh’s blank screen onto which people project their wishes and anxieties steers us squarely in the direction of reception issues. In the same vein Whitmarsh stresses that so-called marginal Greek novels, such as Joseph and Aseneth, the Alexander Romance and the Life of Aesopus, were more widely read in the ancient world than what we now call the ‘core novels’, “c’est-à-dire, du point de vue historique, plus significatifs” (p. 238). I also find quite important his plea for looking at a text such as Joseph and Aseneth from all directions: Jewish, Christian, pagan, literary, historical. Some of the more interesting papers in the first part of the book open up beckoning vistas, but the authors never take a closer look and their approach remains one-directional. Of course, this is what the Introduction had prepared us for. Nevertheless, I think an approach such as Whitmarsh’s (or Briand’s for that matter, even if I do not share his enthusiasm for the allegorical mode) will ultimately be the most fruitful one.

The book has high production values: it is well-edited and properly proofread, excellently printed, and provided with two indices (an index locorum and an index of names — where some subjects are hiding as well; a separate subject index would have been welcome.

Table of Contents

PART 1. Les potentialités littéraires de la religion (ou le fait religieux et l’écriture romanesque)
[1.1] Rôle structurant du divin ou du religieux dans la trame romanesque:
— Alain Billault: Cultes, rites et récit dans le roman d’Achille Tatius
— Jean-Philippe Guez: Le royaume d’Aphrodite et la grotte d’Artémis: amour et chasteté chez Achille Tatius
— Françoise Létoublon et Nicolas Boulic: Éros doux-amer
— Marie-Ange Calvet-Sebasti: La relation au « Seigneur » dans les Actes apocryphes d’André
[1.2] Fonction méta-littéraire du fait religieux ou du « personnel religieux » (divinités ou clergé):
— Romain Brethes: Hommes sacrés, sacrés hommes : fonction du prêtre dans le roman grec
— Michel Briand: L’érotique (et le dionysiaque) dans les Pastorales de Longus, ou la fiction comme rite et thérapie
— Christophe Cusset: Éros parmi les hommes: une divinité très poétique dans le roman de Longus
— Hélène Frangoulis: Hommes et dieux chez les Éthiopiens d’Héliodore
— Giovanni Garbugino: La fête du Dieu Rire dans les Métamorphoses d’Apulée
[1.3] Dieu/religion et caractérisation des personnages:
— Koen De Temmerman: Dieux humains et hommes divins dans le roman grec ancien
— Cécile Bost-Pouderon: Leurs yeux se rencontrèrent . . . ou Les fêtes religieuses des romans grecs et l’ἔκφρασις χρόνων (καίρων) des traités de rhétorique

PART 2. Le fond Religieux
[2.1] Approches philosophiques ou spirituelles:
— Sébastien Montanari: Les dieux-hommes d’Évhémère
— Ken Dowden: Apulée et le culte
— Mariangela Scarsi Garbugino: Nostalgie et déclin du mythe dans la « fable » d’Amour et Psyché
— Tim Whitmarsh: Joseph et Aséneth: érotisme et religion
[2.2] Lectures allégoriques:
— John R. Morgan: Le culte du Nil chez Héliodore
— Michel Lassithiotakis: Foi et reniement, vie régulière et séculière : une lecture du roman d’Imbérios et Margarona
[2.3] Réappropriation des figures divines et évolution du sentiment religieux:
— Corinne Jouanno: Du roman grec au roman byzantin: réflexions sur le rôle de la tyché
— Florence Meunier: Polythéisme et christianisme dans le roman byzantin du XIIe siècle
— Henri Tonnet: La religion dans le roman grec au XIXe siècle
Index locorum
Index nominum
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