Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.17

Saskia Peels, Hosios: A Semantic Study of Greek Piety. Mnemosyne. Supplements, 387.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xiii, 295.  ISBN 9789004294639.  $149.00.  

Reviewed by Irene Salvo, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen​ (

[Table of Contents is listed below.]

[The reviewer offers her apologies for the lateness of this review.]

Readers of this review should not follow my example and procrastinate in reading Saskia Peels’ informative book since its benefits exceed expectations. It freshly reassesses the semantics of the Greek adjective hosios, a key lexeme for understanding ancient Greek mentalities and ritual practices. It is a product of what I would call the Dutch School, which is creating groundbreaking work on social history—often from female scholars.1

In Chapter One, Peels sets her goals and illustrates the theories underpinning the analysis. The aim of the book is to identify the “semantic and pragmatic circumstances” under which hosios and cognates competed with other lexemes and was chosen to express the concept of piety. ‘Pious’ is the translation traditionally given in dictionaries and previous scholarly work, but Peels intends to refine its meaning and usage further. I can say now that she successfully achieves her goals. To examine the lexicon of a Greek speaker in the Classical period, she assumes that “his linguistic input is all the literature between Homer and the end of the fifth century.” This assumption, heavily dependent on literary sources, is inevitable since there are only eleven attestations of the term in inscriptions (p. 24, n. 110).

Chapter Two presents the distribution of occurrences in sources and contexts. Hosios and cognates most commonly describe “the who, what, where, when and how of ritual practice” (p. 36), while a second large area of usage entails the relationship between family members, guests, and suppliants as well as the honouring of dead and oaths. It most frequently refers to the behaviour of someone else. Peels asks whether the adjective identifies something that is “pleasing to the gods” rather than something that is “religiously neutral, acceptable to the gods.” Stressing the cultural frame of exchange and reciprocal charis (“voluntary gift-giving,” p. 52), she convincingly persuades the reader to accept the first meaning: hosios orientates towards a positive argument on an evaluative scale, and it comprises a religious and an ethical connotation. The more frequent appearance of hosios in fifth- and fourth-century sources does not testify to a shift in mentality: in Homer and Hesiod, the same semantic meaning is covered by lexemes evaluating moral piety like themis, dikê, and dikaios. The following two chapters further assess the meaning of hosios against other related concepts.

In Chapter Three, the comparison between hosios and eusebês (pious) reveals a close semantic contiguity between the two adjectives, since they can correspond in the description of certain religious behaviour. However, their negative counterparts, anhosios (unholy) and dussebês/asebês (sacrilegious, ungodly), diverge especially in their affective dimension: anhosios is usually charged with emotional and aggressive connotations, while dussebês/asebês are more descriptive, as examples from Attic tragedies show.

Chapter Four offers a re-analysis of hosios in relation to dikaios (righteous), in particular when the latter evaluates the legal, religious, social, and political aspects of dealing with a suppliant seeking asylum. Previous scholars stressed that hosios expresses the observance of duties towards the gods and dikaios of those towards men. Stressing that dikaios implicates not just non-religious frames, Peels specifies in what ways these two terms can activate different associations even when describing the same behaviour. This chapter also provides an excellent and up-to-date treatment of supplication. When in Eur. Heracl. 107-8 (p. 139) the Chorus states that “it is godless for a city to give up a suppliant band of strangers,” I am struck by the contrast between ancient Greek piety towards foreigners and suppliants and the current alarming rise in xenophobia and racism.

Taking advantage of cognitive linguistics, Chapter Five illustrates the exceptional use of hosios for framing gods’ behaviour. The markedness theory identifies when a word is used in an improper context, creating an effect. Passages from Pindar and Euripides (e.g., Eur. Alc. 10) elucidate how using hosios and cognates for a divinity produces a more human depiction of the gods.

In Chapter Six, the epigraphical material enters into the picture. The accent here shifts from semantic to historical analysis. Peels investigates the usage of hosios in the absence of evaluation, and its persuasive value when included in ritual norms. From prohibitions about pasturing animals and cutting wood within the sanctuary to exclusions of foreigners and women from certain cults,2 several situations might have been considered not hosios. However, this and related lexemes hardly occur in inscriptions of the fifth and fourth century BCE. When terms like hosios were explicitly selected, they acquired a persuasive force as a deterrent against transgressing essential cultic norms and as an alert to avoid divine retribution.

Chapter Seven deconstructs scholarly misconceptions about hosios (and derivatives) being translated as both “sacred” and “profane,” as if it was an auto-antonym, a rare and “uneconomic usage of language” (p. 210). Peels discusses the modern historiography on this problem, which notoriously emerges in the alleged opposition between sacred and profane in the expression ta hiera kai ta hosia. Building on previous works and reassessing the evidence, she compellingly concludes that, even in controversial cases, the meaning of hosios can be inscribed within the semantics of piety and of a behaviour that pleases the gods.

Greek sources are well selected to build up a cogent argumentation, expanding our knowledge of Greek language. A significant number of passages come from tragic plays, which often are interpreted not just by isolating a few lines, but by taking into account the context of the whole plot. The book is carefully edited, and I have found only minor typos, as on p. 137 (read Orestes instead of restes), or on p. 154 (read hosioi and anhosioi Gods instead of hosios and anhosios Gods), and on p. 108 where “not” is missing before “feasible” (in the sentence “Studying the distribution of dikê and derived adjectives, nouns and verbs by examining all individual cases in the corpus is feasible here, due to the high frequency of occurrence of these lexemes”). One should note that this is a book for advanced or informed readers, and it may as a result be difficult for non-specialists, since sometimes Greek terms remain untranslated in the translations, as in the discussion of anhosion/dussebês (pp. 85–105).

The book demonstrates a philological eye alerted to textual problems as well as to historical analyses on religions and ideas. It proves how language is essential to understanding everyday life and mentalities, and how cognitive linguistics can fruitfully explore semantic categories and competitive lexemes. A belief in the cardinal position of language in grasping cultures and human experiences is central to the work of scholars like Rudhardt and Freyburger.3 The novelty of Peels’ method lies in her use of the latest developments in linguistics and cognition, and in this respect she sets a model for future research. Her book offers new and convincing solutions to vexed questions, and it has already established itself as the point of reference for explaining the meaning of hosios and cognates with substantial implications for the history of religions.

Table of Contents

Preface, ix
Acknowledgements, xi
Abbreviated Sources, xii
1. Introduction, p. 1
2. The Semantics of Hosios. A Preliminary Investigation, p. 27
3. Hosios vs. Eusebes, p. 68
4. Hosios vs. Dikaios, p. 107
5. Pious Gods. The Marked Usage of Hosios for Divinities, p. 149
6. Hosios vs. Ø. Religious Evaluation in Ritual Norms, p. 168
7. The Semantic Paradox, p. 207
Conclusion, p. 252
Bibliography, p. 257
Index Locorum, p. 281
Index of Greek Terms, p. 291
General Index, p. 293


1.   See e.g. Sara Wijma, Embracing the Immigrant: The Participation of Metics in Athenian Polis Religion (5th-4th c. BC), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2014; Ineke Sluiter & Jeremy McInerney (ed.), Valuing Landscape in Classical Antiquity: Natural Environment and Cultural Imagination, Leiden: Brill 2016; Josine Blok, Citizenship in Classical Athens, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017.
2.   E.g. LSCG 136 and 150a, ID 68 a and b, LSS 88.
3.   Jean Rudhardt, Notions fondamentales de la pensée religieuse et actes constitutifs du culte dans la Grèce classique, Paris: Picard 19922; Gérard Freyburger, Fides. Étude sémantique et religieuse depuis les origines jusqu’à l’époque augustéenne, Paris: Les Belles Lettres 1986. ​

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