BMCR 1997.05.01

Athenian Religion: A History

, Athenian religion : a history. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. xxv, 370 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780198149798

This substantial contribution to the study of Athenian religion was originally intended, Parker tells us (9), “as a brief historical introduction to a thematic study of Athenian religious practices and attitudes.” Given Parker’s attention to detail, his concern to summarize old and new theory on a multitude of social, religious, archaeological, and historical points, his interest in setting out almost each option for each argument, and his very thorough coverage of a very large bibliography, it could not remain brief. Nor did it. The words of text in the nearly 350 tightly packed pages are closely matched in number, it would appear, by the words in the footnotes. It is historical in the sense that it traces, or attempts to trace, or records others’ attempts to trace the origins and new developments in Athenian religious institutions (including cults, sites, festivals, and religious authorities) and links, or describes attempts to link religious phenomena with historical events and persons from the Mycenaean period down to—well, down to “after the death of Alexander.” More on the endpoint of this history of Athenian religion later. The orientation is strongly political and sociological, and those more interested in the ethical, ritual, and other aspects of Greek religion will await eagerly Part 2, the thematic study of practices and attitudes.

In the Introduction (Chapter 1) Parker states clearly (in fact, a distinguishing feature of this book is that he states everything concisely and clearly) his adherence, for this book, to the Durkheimian scheme of concentrating on the social function of religion, on the “worshipping groups,” and on fitting his account “of rites and gods upon the underlying social framework” (3). He stresses, rightly, the value of focusing on one city, especially when that city is as well known (comparatively) as Athens, and of linking developments in religion to their historical context. He introduces what becomes a persistent concern of the book, the not wholly valid, but not completely invalid distinction usually made between “private” and “public” in discussions of Greek religion. All “private” cults—even domestic cults in his argument—have some greater or lesser degree of state involvement or oversight, and they should not be imagined too differently from “public” cults.

In Chapter 2 (“Out of the Dark Ages”) Parker treats the very murky beginnings of Athenian religion, from the Mycenaean period to ca. 700 B.C. This involves him in a host of historical and archaeological questions, including four possibilities for the date and nature of “Theseus'”synoecism, three current theories about the political structure of Dark Age society in Attica, the recent controversies about the origins of the “polis,” and the uncertainties of the nature of the early tribes and gene. He lays out the evidence and the issues for each meticulously, but with appropriate agnosticism draws few conclusions, and even these very circumspectly. The following is a not atypical result of such discussions:

If there was a king or a paramount chief in Attica before the synoecism (to assume for the moment that one occurred), there was also some measure of centralized authority. But even if there was not, it is entirely possible that men from all Attica engaged in some activity in common, provided, of course, that they had some sense of a shared cultural or ethnic identity.

More strictly on the religious side, Parker gives the evidence for Zeus on Hymettos and Parnes, Artemis at Mounichia and (“perhaps”) at Brauron, and for the cult house near the Academy, all from the tenth to ninth centuries. By 700 B.C. we have evidence, however meager it might be, also for cults on the Acropolis, at Eleusis, Sounion, and Rhamnus. At p. 26 he offers a “conjectural restoration” of the fragments of the religious evidence for Athens in 700, bringing together the bits and pieces previously treated. The central point is that, now, “at the centre of public cult was the ‘king'” (27). But having learned for many pages the multitude of uncertainties that involve “the centre,” “public,” and “the king,” we wonder, as we often do in this book, what we do know.

In Chapter 3 (“Mountain Peaks and Tombs of Heroes”) we survey the eleven known Attic mountain and hill top sanctuaries whose “boom time” was the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. The deity, Zeus when named, is usually thought a “rain god,” but there are slight indications of other activity, and, to accommodate these, Parker offers the possibility that mountain peak deities may have met needs of every kind” and “were in fact a principal context of religious activity” (33). Heroes appear first, if in fact these are true hero cults, with the eighth and seventh century offerings at the tholos tombs at Menidi and Thorikos, the heroon in the Academy (if it is that), and with deposits in the Agora. Four theories (with their variants) are offered on why heroes become prominent just now, but none suffices entirely. Heroes, Parker properly observes, are in fact “of a spectacular diversity,” and these theories “tend to give primacy to a single type” (38).

Chapter 4 is devoted to “Solon’s Calendar” (if it is really his!), “one of the great landmarks in the history of Greek religion” (43). Parker reconstructs, as best one can, what little can be known of it from the late fifth century evidence about Nicomachos’ work on the sacred calendar. The sacrifices on the kyrbeis were probably Solonian, the others, “from the stelai,” being later additions. For the ἐκ τῶν μὴ ῤητῇ rubrics he suggests as a possibility “movable feasts” which by the classical period were given assigned days. He offers four possible reasons why Solon limited ostentation at funerals, none of which can be “eliminated” (50). He describes, rather harshly, the “totalitarian side of the city” (50) in these attempts at funerary legislation. In a concluding section on the use (and non-use) of writing on religious matters, Parker speaks somewhat lyrically of the purpose of Solon’s calendar, moving from it being a vehicle for recording the deities, dates, and expenses of sacrifices to a document that, “in a sense,” defines “the pantheon of the city” (53), to a use of writing that records publicly the city’s “commitment, financial and so moral, to the cult of particular gods” (54).

Chapter 5, “Archaic Priesthood: The Problem of the Gene,” might more accurately have been subtitled “The Problems of the Gene,” for the “problems” are legion. For Athenian religious history the critical point is that gennetai held most, and all early, priesthoods of state cult from earliest times right through the Hellenistic period. How they got this power—and this chapter is very much about “power” and “authority” in Athenian society—is a historical question, but what this power meant in practice raises the issue of the relationship of “private” and “public” since, at least in the classical period, state cults were in most ways public but with the gene still controlling the priesthoods. But first we need to know what these gene were in early times, and that question comes to dominate the chapter. They are, of course, best known from the fourth century, and Parker reasonably chooses to begin there. Then he attempts to move backwards in time to the archaic period. As usual, when evidence begins to fail, theory abounds, and Parker summarizes and criticizes current theories on the nature of the early gene, especially that distinguishing between oikoi and gene. In the end Parker comes, as he often does, back to the “orthodox” view, tentatively stated, that “we have no absolute reason to deny that a closed Eupatrid order once existed” (65), that gennetai, and only gennetai, held public priesthoods in the archaic period, and that gene were were largely responsible for the state festivals of the time. Here it would have been helpful for the author to restate his strong view (24) that, in the dialogue between “private” and “public,” the cults which we eventually see as major state cults were even in the earliest times primarily “public” and their gennetai priests were merely a type of magistrate or functionary.

In Chapter 6 (“The Sixth Century: New Splendours”) Peisistratos and his sons, who controlled Athens in varying degrees from 561 to 510, are the focus, and the persistent question for each religious datum of the period is whether, or to what extent, it can be associated with the Peisistratidai. The building of the Telesterion at Eleusis can be, but not necessarily an expansion of the cult. The temple of Zeus Olympios, of course, must be, but not necessarily a development of the Olympieia. Serious questions are raised about linking, even in time, with the Peisistratids each of the following: development of the Agora; the Panathenaia; the foundation or expansion of the City Dionysia; the development of Theseus’ myth cycle; various sanctuaries and temples, including those of Apollo Pythios, of Apollo Patroos and of Zeus in the Agora, and of a stone temple of Athena on Acropolis. One is left with, as assuredly Peisistratid, the Telesterion, the Olympieion, the Altar of Athena Nike, the altar in the Pythion, the Altar of the Twelve Gods, the temple at Brauron, and the partial purification of Delos. In more general terms, it is distinctive of the Peisistratid period (in Parker’s careful formulation—and such careful formulations are a very valuable element of the book) not “that public religion was in some sense made more open to all” (75). Rather, “festivals were opened up in the sense, perhaps, that elite practices were given a more popular setting, which may have encouraged broader participation” (76). On the important question of whether the new, more spectacular festivals were still “religious,” Parker properly says that “putting on a show in a way ‘worthy of a god’ was an act of piety” (79) (though neither here nor elsewhere does he define what “piety” is—that, no doubt, will be featured in Part 2), and that “the distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ aspects of festivals … was one not drawn by the Greeks” (80). After brief discussions of Peisistratid ties to herms, to Hermes and Theseus, oracles, and Delos, Parker closes this chapter with a 12 page “Annexe” on the sixth-century Panathenaia, City Dionysia, Thargelia, Olympieia, Eleusinia, Heracleia at Marathon, Anakeia, and Eleusinian Mysteries.

Chapter 7 (“Before and After Clisthenes”) opens with the strong claim that “Attic religion in its familiar shape is a creation of Clisthenes no less than is the democracy” (102). If one conceives of religion as primarily or solely a social/political phenomenon, then of course the Cleisthenic social and political reforms might justify this claim. Parker lays out in detail the activities of the tribes, the phratries, the gene, the citizen orgeones, and the multi-deme groups such as the Marathonian Tetrapolis, in both immediately post- and pre-Cleisthenic times (in that order). Parker’s own discussions reveal how very much of the religious substructure was maintained, despite the reshuffling of the Athenian population into the ten tribes. In a sense a new intermediate layer (ten tribal) of religious activities and in some cases an administrative reorganization of parts of major festivals resulted, but the primary religious structures (families—little treated in this book—phratries, gene, demes, priesthoods, etc.) were little changed. Even now, abandoned political structures, like the four Ionian tribes, persisted in places, like geometric decorations on red figured pots, and one wonders if Cleisthenes’ reforms really did shape all that much classical Athenian religion, in either structure or content. Against Parker (although he is well aware of the “conservative” position and argues against it), one might even claim that the major new cultic innovation, the ten eponymous heroes, was of relatively modest importance religiously, the cult of each hero, perhaps, now of less importance to its devotees (apart from its priestly genos, if it had one) than it had been before it was brought into the government bureaucracy and assigned to 1/10 of the citizens. Hence the tribes and heroes later could be again reshuffled, and Macedonian benefactors could be made into such eponymous heroes.

With Chapter 8 (“The Fifth Century: Democracy and Empire”) the theme of changing religious authority and power reaches its conclusion. “Religious authority now lay with the council and assembly” (124), with the Demos. Henceforth no new priesthood was given to a genos, but of course there were very few new priesthoods in the fifth century (or later) to be allotted democratically—those of Athena Nike and Bendis being the most notable. The now compulsory festival liturgies “transformed generosity, for the rich, into an obligation” and were the “institutionalization of old patronal practices” (128). Parker sees in the financial audits and religious committees the reduction of traditional priesthoods into minor magistracies—perhaps a bit too strongly. After describing the uncertain history of changing practices of burying the war dead—and what it may have meant socially, Parker, following Loraux, outlines the “patriotic mythology” in the funeral orations, with the themes (much more familiar from the fourth century), of autochthony, grain for all the world from Eleusinian Demeter, valor in defense of piety (cf. E. Heracleidai and Suppliants), and the Persian Wars. Political ideology is also apparent in the grand temples, “I exist, and it was power that built me” (141). In the realm of international power politics lies Athens’ demand that the subject states send victims and panoplies for the Greater Panathenaia, and the later request to its subjects for first-fruits for Eleusis. The currently popular theory that Athens placed cults in border or foreign lands as markers or claims (e.g. Amphiaraos at Oropos) is set out (see also pp. 25-26), but its significant problems are noted. Delos is reasonably held forth here as the prime example of Athens’ imperial use of religion.

Chapter 9 (“The Fifth Century: New Gods”) reminds us, with its 47 pages on new and “foreign” gods (vs. the 30 pages of Chapter 8 on other fifth-century matters) how, despite occasional caveats, Parker concentrates on change over continuity. This is in part, no doubt, because change is of greater interest to the historian, but also because evidence is now more abundant and we have more of it for the new than for the old, familiar deities. The innovations, in isolation, may seem important (and, as in the case of Asclepios, may well turn out so to be), but they do need also to be weighed on the scale of the underlying continuity. In any case, Parker sees some “minor” cults raised to new prominence, some because of association with historical events (Heracles at Marathon, Artemis Agrotera, Ajax on Salamis), some with new temples (Poseidon at Sounion, Nemesis at Rhamnous, Ares at Acharnai—if, in fact, there was a temple there—Hephaistos in the Agora). Themistocles founds a cult of Artemis Aristoboule, and Eukleia, Pheme, and even the mythological Boreas appear, all again associated with military victory. A few deities are adopted from other Greek states, Zeus Kenaios of Euboea, Poseidon of Kalaureia, Athena Itoneia of Thessaly—all regions that wax large in the pages of Thucydides, but all deities of minimal significance in the pantheon of Athens. In discussing “new gods” in the Greek context, we commonly and casually speak of “foreign” gods, and Parker helpfully points out that this is largely a modern concept, and “many complications have to be recognized” (159). Truly “foreign” deities from the east might early (Aphrodite) or late (Magna Mater) be largely or completely Hellenized, and other “foreign” deities, like Asclepios, were in no real sense foreign. For Parker, the crucial distinction is “not between foreign and native but between established and non-established cults” (163). To me, the more critical distinction is whether, in Athens, the deity was being worshipped by Athenians or non-Athenians. Those being worshipped by non-Athenians would truly be “foreign.” In any case, Parker gives full and good treatment to the “new” fifth-century cults of Pan, Theseus, Bendis, and Asclepios (but it is highly unlikely that Asclepios’ patron Telemachos was himself an Epidaurian)—all imports that were widely accepted and in some cases modified. To the chapter is appended an “Annexe” of further imports, including the exceptionally problematic Mother of the Gods and the Corybantes, Adonis, Sabazios, Adrasteia, Ammon, and Aphrodite Ourania. Despite this seemingly long list of “new gods,” on p. 196 Parker makes the statement, correct and very important for the history of Athenian religion, that “the common supposition that the last quarter of the fifth century saw a sudden outburst of interest in barbarian gods is simply false.”

The question mark in the title of Chapter 10 (“The Trial of Socrates: And a Religious Crisis?”) is important and welcome. Parker reviews and reweighs the religious and political issues of Socrates’ trial from the familiar sources, with special attention to the Clouds and the interrelated issues of atheism, immorality, and the Sophists. Was there a religious crisis in the late fifth century? “In the sense that traditional religion was seriously undermined, certainly not” (210)—surely the correct answer in view of what we know of religion in the fourth century and later. But, in terms of intellectual if not religious history, now “speculative thought was perceived by some as a threat” (210) and the prosecutions of scientists and philosophers (if they really did occur) begin in the fifth century because by then “they were common, and influential, enough to be felt as a threat” (212).

“Financial difficulties, a thoroughly conservative ‘modernization'” (220) characterize “The Fourth Century” of Chapter 11, a “modernization” in which “no fundamental structure or principle was affected” (221). Parker takes up again Nicomachos’ very late fifth century revision of the sacrificial calendar, looking now forward and not backward. He then offers a much needed political / religious historical account of Athenian dealings with Delos, with some special attention to Hyperides’ fragmentary Deliakos. He then devotes 16 more pages to new deities of the time, mostly the personified abstractions Demokratia, Eirene, and Agathe Tyche. He asks (the author asks many questions in this book, usually on points for which he will offer no, or no simple answer), whether the worship of these personifications represents “in any way a new phenomenon, as has often been supposed” (235). The answer is no, and yes. Abstractions are common in archaic (and, I would add, poetic) thought, but now in the 330’s “were claiming a substantial share of the public ritual budget” (236), but then again figures such as Demokratia are “givers of blessings” much like traditional gods. Some new (or, better, newly attested) Olympians also appear, e.g. Hermes Hegemonios, Aphrodite Euploia. Zeus Soter and Zeus Philios receive new prominence. Parker concludes this chapter with a detailed study of the religious activities of Lycurgus, that exceptionally important post-Chaeroneian Athenian statesman. He has, as I do (and will argue in a forthcoming book on Religion in Hellenistic Athens), a positive view of Lycurgus’ many contributions to the religious aspects of Athenian life, a view espoused first by F.W. Mitchel against the long prevailing hostility of W.S. Ferguson.

The title of the final chapter (12), “Beyond the Death of Alexander,” reflects Parker’s discomfiture at having to find a suitable date at which to end his historical introduction to Athenian religion. He recognizes that the death of Alexander, less than decade after Lycurgus’ rejuvenation of Athenian religion and sixteen years before the Athenian reaffirmation of Lycurgan reforms in the Stratocles’ decree will not suit. In my book I will argue for the sack of Sulla in 86, an event followed by two generations of desperate circumstances and then a revival, in an antiquarian spirit, of many old traditions. Parker chooses the middle of the third century, largely because from that time on our evidence becomes almost solely epigraphical. Quite remarkably, perhaps whimsically (?), he, a historian of Athenian religion, ultimately decides that the critical date is the death, in the late 260’s, of another historian of Athenian religion, Philochoros. I may think that he kills off Athenian traditional religion prematurely, but I strongly agree with his general approach to and characterizations of religion in the early Hellenistic period. He details, as a historian should, the changes but avoids facile and usually misleading degradation of them. In the Athenian context the notorious hymn to Demetrios of Phaleron is “quite atypical” (262), even of this period. In terms of “ruler cult,” “saviour kings could be assimilated to saviour gods precisely because saviour gods still had power” (263). He discusses the gradual disappearance (at least from our record) of some religious centers such as the deme and phratry. Here he might have mentioned Philip’s ravaging of the rural sanctuaries in 200 B.C. which must have contributed significantly to the decline or have been the fatal blow. He rightly notes that the foreign cult associations attested for the early third century “do not indicate a revolution” (266), a revolution much touted in the handbooks. Public funds for public religion are now being regularly replaced, or better, supplemented by private wealth. Many major festivals disappear from the record, but other new ones, e.g. the Theseia and Ptolemaia, take their place, and these offer even more opportunity for the public (or at least the rich public) to participate. Some new festivals, like the Delphic Soteria, are linked closely to recent historical events, but this is not new: “the novelty here is simply the explicitness with which the festival’s commemorative function is recognized” (274). Here and elsewhere Parker stresses rightly how commonly festivals throughout Greek religious history were founded as, essentially, war thank offerings and memorials.

The text is followed by four appendices. The first is a brief appendix on the “Rattle Shakers” depicted on late Geometric vases. The second, “The Gene: A Checklist,” is a major contribution, providing (in 43 pages) discussion and all the evidence on religious affairs for A) forty-seven “Certain and Probable Gene” and B) thirty-three “Uncertain and Spurious Gene.” Chapter 5 and Appendix 2, together, can easily be thought of as a separate monograph, a welcome parallel to E. Kearn’s valuable discussion and catalogue of Athenian heroes in BICS Supplement 57 (1987). Appendix 3 treats eight “local” religious associations, most being, like the Marathonian Tetrapolis, made up of two or more demes. Appendix 4 (“Private Religious Associations”) offers a more general discussion, set out chronologically, of the nature of groups whose members were called, variously, orgeones, thiasotai, and eranistai. Included among them are the Dipoliastai, Paianistai, Sabaziastai, dining club members such as the Noumeniastai and the notorious Kakodaimonistai, and the Eikadeis, and various other citizen, non-citizen, and mixed groups of the Hellenistic period.

It must be remembered that this is the first book (or, we hope, set of books) that undertakes a comprehensive history of Athenian religion. Only those who have seriously contemplated such a project will be aware not only of its magnitude but also of the even more daunting structural difficulties involved. Athenian History (Part I) lays a solid and important foundation, and my survey of its contents, eclectic and necessarily superficial, gives little indication of the wealth of evidence and discussion to be found there. This is a book for scholars, not for students, for those who are more comfortable with questions than answers. Scarcely anything that was considered a “fact” about Athenian religious cults, festivals, officials, institutions, or chronology twenty years ago escapes unscathed.

New evidence, historical Quellenforschung, shifting archaeological and artistic dating, and more critical and historical attitudes touch them all. Parker lays out all this material and carefully and thoughtfully picks his way through it. A typical discussion will ask a question, introduce the evidence, flirt with one, two, or more modern theories, gently find reason to disagree with but not completely reject most of them, and then, tentatively, reassert or more precisely state the traditional view. Parker, unlike so many writing on matters of “Greek religion” these days, presents his arguments, as it were, linearly, treating hypotheses one by one on ground level, and not, vertically, piling untested hypotheses into an airy castle. His conclusions are, for the most part, tentative, very carefully and precisely stated, and modest in spirit, certainly not radical, but this gives greater credence to important conclusions which he does state with some confidence on, among many other matters, the origins of cults and festivals often as war memorials, the lack of a real religious crisis in the late fifth century, the relative unimportance of “foreign cults” as indicators of a religious revolution, and, finally, to his appraisal of religion in the Hellenistic period. But, perhaps, one’s strongest impression from the book may be how insecure our evidence is for determining most of what we thought we knew of Athenian religious history.