BMCR 1997.08.09

Andokides and the Herms

, Andokides and the herms : a study of crisis in fifth-century Athenian religion. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement ; 65. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 1996. 162 pages. ISBN 9780900587726

The mutilation of the herms (and profanation of the Mysteries) in 415 B.C. is one of the few events in Greek history for which we have multiple, contemporary documents: speeches, historical accounts, inscriptions, sculpture, vases. Moreover, the documents reek with intrigue, scandal and politics, and even if he has not provided a definitive account F[urley] deserves our thanks for bring them all together, along with considerable bibliography. The difficulty of bringing them all together is clear from the way the book goes in two directions: on the one hand the thesis that mutilation of herms and profanation of mysteries in 415 B.C. were the work of two distinct groups diametrically opposed in purpose, on the other a number of more or less discrete studies of religious aspects of the events. The thesis is largely explored in the first three chapters and the other questions thereafter, but there is constant, sometimes confusing cross-over.

After an overview of events and sources in the introduction, F. in Chapter one concentrates on herms, first usefully surveying “traceable herms in classical Athens” and then arguing at length that Hermes was mediator between gods and men so the mutilation was “not just as offense against Hermes, the god of travellers; it also affected communication by way of sacrifice and prayer between the Athenians and all their gods the whole Olympian system was damaged” (22). This involves a novel interpretation of a common vase scene showing the sacrifice at an altar with a herm nearby: F. claims that the sacrifice is not to Hermes but that the herm is part of the scenery and indicates Hermes’ role as intermediary to make sure the sacrifice is efficacious. (One problem here is that Thucydides says the herms were “in sanctuaries”, not “in temples” as F. translates it.) He also seeks support in a number of Aristophanic passages showing Hermes as mediator between gods and men and in the offering of the tongue of the sacrificial animal which, he argues, following Aristophanes’Wealth 1110, can be an offering to Hermes even though inscriptions always show it is as the priest’s perquisite. Only in the final pages of the chapter does F. turn to the mutilations, briskly asserting that it was not simply an “undergraduate prank”, knocking off the phallos, but “an assault on the very personage of the god”, cutting off head or face, as a conspiratorial pledge and to shock the public and to attack the Sicilian Expedition. This is not argued in any detail (F. does not even point to splendid cover illustration of a satyr with an ax smashing the head of an overturned herm), and, in the end, F. concedes that mutilators need only have “realized Hermes’ importance in a general sense”, thereby undercutting his whole earlier discussion.

Chapter two turns to the profanation of the Mysteries which “were private affairs performed as a deliberate insult to the cult” not just sympotic entertainment or comic buffonery and asks “What did Alkibiades and his friends have against Eleusis?” The answer is, as the Eleusinian Aparchai Decree shows, that “Eleusinian cult from 423 to 415 became a symbol of peace in Attica”—the Decree may have been “a deliberate political move to thwart Alkibiades”—and since Alcibiades “found himself in opposition to ‘the priests'” on the Sicilian question “by mockery he might seek to minimize this opposition, at least among his circle of friends” (39). This does not seem so far from “comic buffonery”. Also, the theory puts a lot of weight on the undated Aparchai Decree (most recently dated to the 430’s, by M. Cavanaugh, Eleusis and Athens) and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, particularly the several profanations not involving Alcibiades, the timing of the profanations, the possibility of this too being a conspiratorial pledge.

Chapter three addresses a major obstacle to the thesis of two distinct groups: the apparent overlap in the two groups. F. argues first that the best sources, Thucydides and Andocides, keep them apart and that the later blurring came from the deliberate efforts of certain politicians, the conceptual similarity of the two acts, the meshing of legal procedure in both sets of cases, and the notoriety of Alcibiades. His second argument is that only five names out of sixty-five overlap and that while the Attic Stelai seem to involve both profanations this is not necessarily so for there is evidence “that the records of those sold up in connection with the Herms affair were separate from the Attic Stelai” (47). Yet the evidence for a separate listing is very weak (reference in Athenaeus to confiscation stelai on the Acropolis [the Eleusinion is on the slopes of the Acropolis] and reference to one Timanthes, which is the name of one of the mutilators, whose name is to be erased from a stele on the Acropolis—as F. admits “other names in the same inscription relate to Thasos”). Also, four individuals on the Attic Stelai were condemned for profaning the Mysteries and three were condemned “concerning both”; while Furley can cast doubt on two of the cases (in smaller letters hence added later) he cannot explain away the third, which seems on the face of it to be even stronger evidence than Thucydides and Andocides.

The next chapter is a hodge-podge of points about Andocides: (a) Andocides was a Keryx as stated in his Life (supported by Andocides’ statement 132 that he has been initiating foreigners) and was guilty only of mutilating the herms despite the claim in Lysias’ “Against Andocides” and the pseudo-Plutarchian “Life of Andocides”, though he may have been accused of both; (b) there was a “relatively small circle of men friends who at various meetings discussed, planned and executed the mutilation of the Herms in order to make themselves partners in crime”; (c) Andocides was “markedly oligarchic” and opposed to Alcibiades in 415 (as confirmed by Andocides’ “Against Alcibiades”); (d) Diokleides’ story is not totally untrue though one can only conjecture what of it is true; (e) Andocides invented the story of Euphiletos’ lie; (f) the apparent contradiction regarding the testimony of Andocides’ slave can be resolved by assuming that several slaves testified not just one; (g) Andocides publicly confirmed that his father was implicated in Mysteries. From all this F. concludes that Andocides was an oligarch in 415 (and 411) and was involved in the mutilation even if he did not actually mutilate a herm (as he would not, given his background as Keryx, connected with Hermes); the mutilation was not a drunked prank but “a shared crime by which the participants would swear allegiance to a cause” that may have involved as many as 300. The pledge was rightly seen at the time as a bad omen for Sicilian Expedition and sign of an anti-democratic conspiracy.

Chapter 5 attempts to broaden the context by looking more generally at religion during the Peloponnesian war and concludes that there was a crisis in the late fifth century due in part to the plague (which led to purification of Delos and, indirectly, to the Peace of Nicias) and in part to the undermining caused by philosophers, Periclean war policy and stasis. The level of discussion here is very general. (For the complexity of the issues see now Robert Parker, Athenian Religion, chapters nine and ten.)

Chapter 6 puts the mutilation of the herms in the context of other manipulations of signs and oracles during the Peloponnesian War, beginning with the twelve signs listed by Plutarch warning of disaster for the Sicilian expedition, some of which were deliberate manipulation (self-castration on the altar of Twelve Gods, Meton burning his house down, Socrates’ inner voice), and moving on to dubious oracles and manipulation of the sacred calendar (these latter being found in Aristophanes) and ending with a brief discussion of sacrifice (“the sacrificial act had a number of prophetic components”), votive offerings, supplication and binding spells, the last of which the mutilation of the herms resembles with its nocturnal secrecy and black magic (“the guilty men were in effect trying to ‘bind’ the political opposition”).

The final chapter, “Religious arguments at Andokides’ trial”, summarizes in detail the Lysianic “Against Andocides” whose argument about divine intervention in human life is found also in Antiphon’s “On the Murder of Herodes” and probably in the speeches of Socrates’ accusers. Andocides’ response to each point is considered and then his attack on Kallias, whose cynical and illegal actions recall other politically motivated impiety trials such as Diopeithes against Anaxagoras and Meletus against Socrates.

The book ends with two appendices. The first, on dating the events of 415, reveals two new assumptions (the Aparchai Decree is dated to 415, the profanations of Mysteries all took place in 415) and contains some oddities, preferring Dover’s argument for a full moon but then using Merritt’s date for the mutilation, confining everything from Diokleides’ denunciation to Alcibiades’ desertion to about a month, and assuming the Panathenaia was postponed for a month. The second is a useful and informative appendix on six Comic passages relating to the impieties of 415, the most important of which is Eupolis’Baptai, which mentions effeminate dancing of men, dunking in water, Kotyto and Alcibiades: “the play clearly satirized Alkibiades for staging mock mysteries” and so F. wants to date it to 415, showing that “the profanations must have been known (to some) well before the Dionysia of 415” and perhaps “triggered off the actual denunciation of Alcibiades”. (I think it more likely that Alcibiades was notorious for activities of this sort and so the profanations had no political motive.) Birds is said to “extrapolate the notion of impiety to its logical and fantastic conclusion” as a catharsis; the reference to the Adonia in Lysistrata 387 ff. is said to be a “political protest” by the women “framed loosely as a religious rite”, which explains Plutarch’s misdating of the assembly to summer and the mixture of Sabazios and Adonis (but that is a list of examples not a mixture—note the climactic houtos marking off Adoniasmos from others).

Even though I found parts of the main thesis implausible and was vexed by the absence of a sustained, thorough exposition, I commend the author for asking many good questions, providing good bibliography and for bringing together so many different strands of information from so many different fields on one of the few events in Greek history about which we are sufficiently informed to ponder productively.