BMCR 1995.06.02

1995.06.02, Bremmer, Greek Religion

, , Greek religion. Greece & Rome. New surveys in the classics ; no. 24. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. x, 111 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780199220731.

In the preface to this “survey of developments” since Burkert’s Greek Religion (1977), we are invited to unmask the author’s cultural bias and immediately told the answer. Indeed, this volume’s combination of comprehensive annotated bibliography and blunt, eye-catching and sometimes baffling text seems quintessentially Dutch; except for its preference for poetry over epigraphy (or anything archaeological) it could have been written by H. Versnel.

The bibliography is obviously the key feature and it is excellent—no scholar of religion, perhaps excepting Burkert himself, will recognize all the references. Since the bibliography is nestled in endnotes (why not footnotes??), it is probably best to read straight through, no problem since the chapter headings are clear and the prose direct; and that way one is not too inconvenienced by the shorthand references following an initial citation no matter how many notes earlier. An index of “names, subjects and passages” helps a bit (and includes a surprisingly large number of Americans given their low ranking in the “importance sweepstakes” of the preface).

The text itself is brisk, dogmatic, often illuminating, sometimes eccentric. “General Characteristics” (I) are reasonably said to include intermingling of sacred and profane (“embeddedness”), concern with the here and now, male domination, lack of religious establishment. B. rightly highlights regional and chronological variation here, though not later. Poets are given pride of place among the religious specialists, fairly shocking until it becomes clear that B. is thinking about the archaic age where poets provide the only evidence. Not surprisingly, Chapter II “Gods” concentrates on the poets’ view (mostly Homer) and constructs an avowedly panhellenic pantheon (“from which we should not automatically extrapolate”) with Zeus, Athena and Apollo at the center, Poseidon and Demeter “off-centre” (disorderly because female, not because agricultural, pace Burkert), along with Dionysus, who is not the masked Other combining opposites ( pace Vernant) but a god of ambiguity and disorder, as if that is wildly different. Oddly B. stresses “the point of departure should be the god’s festivals” which he then ignores; even more oddly Sophilos’ vase showing the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (not illustrated; no ABV reference) is made the key to the whole pantheon.

The shortest chapter, III “Sanctuaries”, gives only two pages to buildings (“some temples always remained roofless”), statues (goddesses sit, gods stand; aniconism indicated the abnormality of the cult) and personnel (initiatory cults sometimes had adolescent priests; on vases priests are distinguished from worshippers but sometimes not from the god). Location confirms the pantheon: “outside the polis we usually find sanctuaries of Poseidon, Dionysus, Hera and Artemis”. (Earlier Artemis was at the center of the pantheon, as in Sophilos.) Sanctuaries served as reserve banks, repositories of law codes, and in specific cases as hospitals, oracles and mystery sites but mainly “to enable worshippers to sacrifice and to make votive offerings”.

IV “Ritual” is a modern category, elaborate rituals being called heortai, “good food, good company and good entertainment”. Major festivals comprised “dances, musical and athletic contests, prayers and hymns, processions and, most important of all, animal sacrifices,” differing from the Christian in lack of gratitude (rather praise and honor), loudness, sung hymnic prayers oddly said to include dithyrambs. Processions made symbolic statements about power relations; the preferred sacrificial victims were sheep and goats. Though sacrifice was not filled with fear and guilt, pace Burkert, the killing itself was unpalatable and marginalized (Vernant). (The apparent contradiction here may reflect B.’s unease with such “reductive formulas”, and he calls for further research “based on literary, epigraphical, iconographical and archaeological evidence”.) Fully half the chapter describes initiation, mostly Cretan, and cyclical ritual, basically a rehash of Burkert’s description of the Anthesteria, here said to be an (unofficial) New Year celebration.

Chapter V “Myth” begins with a short historical survey of approaches and a definition, “traditional tales relevant to society”. Combining Indo-European origins and oriental imports, myths were foremost pure entertainment but also “defined gods and illuminated rituals, supplied arguments in debates, served as models of ethical and religious behaviour, helped to establish political identities or advance political claims, and contributed towards the Greek mentalité“. Examples of each are given, ending with a nod to the visual arts and LIMC. The bibliographic coverage here is particularly impressive.

In Chapter VI “Gender” initiation once again appears, here as the closest parallel for female rituals such as the Arrhephoria and Arkteia, which are described at length, even though “after the disintegration of the puberty rites the wedding seems to have become the main rite dramatizing the transition from youth to adulthood for girls of all classes”. Women were associated with “dirt” hence marginalized from most ritual activity, though female festivals such as the Thesmophoria (described at length), maenadism (!), and the Adonia, “enabled women to move among other women for a limited period” and women “played an important role in the new cults and ‘sects’ that gradually infiltrated the Greek world”. Attic vases present us with positive roles of women but always being subject to or serving men. Mythology supplied few females as attractive role models: women tend to betray husband or family, women are frightening, goddesses cross gender boundaries (crafts, war, hunting).

We end with a chapter surveying mystery cults (Eleusinian, Orphic, Bacchic) and the transformations in Athens at the end of the 5th C. suggested by atheism trials and ecstatic cults, and then an appendix on the Indo-European “genesis” of Greek religion.

This “booklet” is essential for libraries, students of Greek myth and ritual and probably anyone interested in Greek culture, primarily for the bibliography but also for the challenging, wide-ranging text. Specialists will be infuriated by the (mis)representation of their particular positions but at the same time forced to acknowledge the value of the work in general. Let us hope B. is willing to give us an update in a decade.