BMCR 2001.08.20

Worshipping Virtues: Personification and the Divine in Ancient Greece

, Worshipping virtues : personification and the divine in ancient Greece. Swansea: Duckworth, 2000. xiv, 274 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 071563044X £40.00.

In Worshipping Virtues Emma Stafford (hereafter S.) provides a wealth of useful information and perceptions that reward the careful reader. Since F. Hamdorf’s thorough documentation of Griechische Kultpersonifikationen der vorhellenistischen Zeit (1964) there has been need for a critical analysis of cult personifications as a group. S. has understandably chosen to concentrate on a handful of personifications, rather than all or one, in order to draw out broader issues, but ends up concluding that each must be investigated on a case by case basis. This book attempts to discover “the place of deified abstract ideas in the Greek pantheon and their reality for the worshipper” (36). S. doesn’t quite find this place, but in searching for it provides a wide-ranging overview of the issues encountered in studying personifications, and discussions of some of the major personifications of the Classical period.

After an introductory chapter, S. focuses in each of six chapters on a single cult personification. Five of these six appeared between the sixth and fourth centuries BC—Themis (Order), Nemesis (Retribution), Peitho (Persuasion), Hygieia (Health), and Eirene (Peace).1 The overall focus might have been tighter without the inclusion of the seventh chapter, on Eleos (Mercy), who is earliest attested as a cult figure in the first century BC and is the only masculine personification of the six. A short “Conclusion” is followed by a five page “Bibliographic Note” (appendix), which itself is followed by a wide ranging bibliography that might have been more useful had it been divided into thematic categories. After a brief synopsis of each of the chapters, I conclude with my own general comments and editorial quibbles.

The introductory chapter, “Personification, allegory and belief,” poses some important questions—e.g. “… whether the kind of personality possessed by personified abstract ideas is equivalent to that of other gods, or whether they were recognized as somehow more intellectual or artificial” (3)—that are never answered because the author soberly concludes that cult status and its epiphanies depend on specific circumstances, such as regional and chronological issues. In “Interpretations” S. introduces various theories—epithet theory, the development of personification in the Archaic period, the restriction of cults to particular localities, the relation of personification cults to historical circumstances, the connection between myth and religion, the close association with Olympians, whether an allegorical figure can be a seriously worshipped deity, the matching of literary personifications with the archaeological record—and forms of evidence to be investigated. After subdivisions on “Poetry and drama” and “The visual arts,” she concludes that “For more direct attestation of cult we need to turn to other forms of material evidence [mostly inscriptions] and to various genres of prose literature written in the Roman period” (16-17).

S. begins each case study with an excellent discussion of the ways in which the noun behind each personification is used in literature. The first case study surveys the appearances of Archaic Themis in literature and art, Thessalian Themis (unattested in cult before the fourth century), Themis at Rhamnous, and finally Ge Themis, at Delphi and Athens, which purports to be a test of the epithet theory—the idea that each personification began as an epithet of another god. The chapter on Nemesis naturally focuses on her cult at Rhamnous, with a small, heavily iconographic section devoted to the plural Nemeseis at Smyrna (for which there is no pre-Hellenistic evidence, but which was heavily represented the Roman world). S. concludes with an interesting proposal that Agorakritos’ fifth century Nemesis was an aberration, a decorous version of the goddess that suited the fashions of the times.2 In the next chapter, S. quickly debunks the epithet theory in the absence of evidence that Peitho became independent from Aphrodite at Lesbos, and concludes, as did Pirenne-Delforge,3 that we can see Peitho as close to Aphrodite, with the exact nature of the relationship subject to local variation.4 A thorough review of the evidence for Peitho cults includes a rejection of Rubensohn’s assertion that Paros houses the oldest attested cult of Peitho (113) and the suggestion that Peitho’s cult at Thasos may have been an import from Athens. As for Peitho’s Athenian involvement with Aphrodite Pandemos, which leans heavily on iconography, S. argues that Peitho’s role in the erotic sphere is intimately concerned with her rhetorical persona, though she is elsewhere content to treat Peitho’s political and erotic spheres as mutually exclusive.

In chapter 5, S. suggests that the sole evidence for Athena Hygieia’s worship at Athens, a prayer to health ( IG I3 824, B 4), might have been just a dedication to Apollo Paian, or to Hygieia, rather than to Athena Hygieia. She dismisses M. Robertson’s theory that the statue of Athena Hygieia should be identified with that of Athena Promachos, while she asserts the actual cult status of Hygieia’s sisters (Akeso, Iaso, Panakeia, and Epione). S. rescues Eirene from Burkert’s damnation—”no more than dusty, aesthetic, antiquarian interest”—in chapter 6—arguing persuasively that propaganda and religion are not mutually exclusive. The inevitable focus on the Attic cult pays particular attention to Kephisodotos’ statue of Eirene and Ploutos. She rightly argues against (a) assigning the original date of the statue to the inception of the cult in 375/4 and (b) calling it a cult statue (as in E. La Rocca, “Eirene e Ploutos,” JdI 89 [1974] 122). In the study of Eleos, S. plausibly suggests that the inscription on a second century AC votive relief ( IG II2 4786) might be translated as “[Zeus]… we are suppliants at your wild olive altar” (rather than “… we are suppliants at your altar of Mercy”) (208). She essentially agrees with the longstanding view that conflates the Altar of Eleos and the Altar of the Twelve Gods, following Pausanias’ siting of the Altar of Eleos where the Altar of the Twelve Gods has been found (1.17.1), but argues that both altars would have shared the same function, as places of refuge. She concludes that the “Altar of Eleos (Mercy)” came to be a Roman nickname for Altar of the Twelve Gods, popularized among orators and writers of the second century AC, who appreciated its emotive potential.

In chapter 8, “Conclusion”, S. rightly notes that her concluding comments must remain provisional until more case studies have been done. She concludes that (a) the epithet theory doesn’t work (although it wasn’t tried in each case) and (b) Burkert’s suggestion that personifications get eased into cult (through a transition from literary figure to visual form to cult entity) is equally invalid.5 S. suggests that the rise in personifications in late fifth century Athens might be attributed to (a) the rise in drama, (b) the enthusiasm shown by the workshop of the Meidias Painter for personifications, (c) escapism (an angle not discussed elsewhere in the text), and (d) the search for new deities to compensate for the dissatisfaction with traditional gods. The rise in personifications in the fifth century at least coincides with the rationalization of these deities. S. finally weighs in on the “myth to reason” debate, asserting that the evolution of personifications in art, literature, and religion, enhanced through the acquisition of attributes (especially in the Hellenistic period) is a “…spelling out of messages previously left implicit rather than a radically new development” (231).

S. introduces more issues than she can thoroughly explain, particularly in the introduction. Despite the introductory chapter title, “Personification, allegory, and belief” allegory is never so much as defined, and indeed barely mentioned. The ramifications of theoretical issues are barely discussed, so when S. suggests that each case study exemplifies one or more of these theoretical questions, or will test out some of these theories (35), the uninitiated reader might be left wondering what exactly those theories are. S. promises a test of the epithet theory in the chapters on Themis and Peitho, but in each case dispels the theory without any theoretical discussion. S. even stops short of fully exploring her own good ideas: her new translation of IG II2 4786 (referring to wild olives rather than Eleos) would have been strengthened by an investigation of similar phrases in related Greek texts.

In diction and source material S. ranges broadly, from Homer to Dickens, from Archaic inscriptions to Britannia on the 50p coin. While she is to be commended in having confronted the broad range of written and material evidence, the sources are more complex than her text suggests. More might have been done to explain the context of the cited literary references. In chapter 7, S. adheres strongly to her Roman sources, at the expense of any attention to Eleos’ significance in the fifth and fourth centuries BC (when eleos meant something closer to pity than to mercy). Despite an emphasis on iconography in the chapters on Themis, Nemesis, Peitho, and Eirene, S.’s treatment of visual sources is uncritical. Images with attested labels are treated on par with images that do not depict a personification with certainty: this problem particularly mars the discussion of Athenian Peitho. In a similar vein, critical determination of what even constitutes a personification is lacking: Kraipale (on a chous in Boston) is cited as a personification with comic intent, although most writers on the subject have taken this figure to be a maenad and not a personification at all (14).

My few editorial criticisms are not intended to detract from the importance of S.’s contribution. The few black-and-white figures, interleaved with the text, mostly illustrate well known art works rather than details that are relevant to the present study. Some depict Roman art, which is mentioned on an ad hoc basis, with insufficient detail and references to warrant its inclusion in most cases. There are some misleading statements. It is noted, for example, that personifications appear the same size as gods on reliefs, whereas they are usually shown at a scale intermediate between that of humans and the Olympians, e.g. Kios and Athena on EM 6928/ IG I3 124 (229). Inconsistencies include a claim in the introduction that Ploutos’ placement in the arms of this figure of Eirene was his first appearance (31), although S. rightly mentions his predecessor, a boy labelled Ploutos on an Attic chous dating to the last decade of the fifth century (Berlin F 2661) in chapter 6. The citations for visual arts are also marred by inconsistency regarding inclusion of inventory numbers, painter attributions, and Beazley references (fabric, origin, or findspot are almost never mentioned). When dates for art works are provided, they usually take the form of a specific year (e.g. “c. 410”), rather than the customary range of ten years, or even 25, that properly conveys to the uninitiated that we can’t precisely date these objects. There are errors in citations of ancient sources: Isokrates’ mention of Peitho is at Antidosis 259, not 249. Abbreviations generally follow those in l’Annèe Philologique, as the author notes, but variant abbreviations have crept in: citations for comic fragments are alternately referred to as Kassel/Austin or PCG. There is occasional lack of correspondence between endnotes and bibliography. Duckworth’s preference for translated Greek names and passages instead of, rather than in addition to, the original Greek or Latin, might be intended to satisfy a broad audience. Yet both classical scholars and Greekless readers would have benefited from the inclusion of Greek names, at least in transliterated form, to prevent confusion.

Despite its inconsistencies, this relatively slim volume is a useful overview of personifications as religious phenomena, and to a lesser degree, their representations in literature and art. Its relatively uncritical use of the sources reveals the need for more in-depth studies of the evidential basis. Yet it dispels many unfounded arguments that have wrongly asserted great antiquity for some of these cults and simultaneously brings attention to the seriousness with which these personifications were treated, as cult figures, under certain conditions. As S. suggests, shouldn’t this encourage us to relax the hitherto sharp distinction between “abstract, personification and goddess” (231) and consider personifications in Greek art and literature as something more than a “‘dusty, aesthetic'” interest?


1. These are the translations provided in the introduction, where S. explains that she has adopted one-word translations for each personification for “ease of working.” Yet neither does she adhere to the one-word translation rule nor does she stick to one translation for each personification. Theoria, for example, is Festival-going on p. 35, but merely Festival on p. 13. Especially with such multifaceted figures as Themis and Nemesis, a simple transliteration would avoid confusion and misrepresentation.

2. Only two of at least 13 known Roman copies of Agorakritos’ cult statue of Nemesis are noted (106, n. 42). It is also unfortunate that B. Knittlemayer’s 1999 article on that subject could not be taken into consideration: “Kultbild und Heiligtum der Nemesis von Rhamnous am Beginn des Peloponnesischen Krieges,” JdI 114 (1999) 1-18.

3. V. Pirenne-Delforge, L’Aphrodite Grecque. Contribution à l’étude de ses cultes et de sa personnalité dans le panthéon archaique et classique. Kernos Suppl. 4 (Liège 1994) 456.

4. S. notes that a cult of Aphrodite Peitho is suggested by the dedication of a relief to Aphrodite Peitho ( SEG 12.42) “now in a school at Resadiye” (near Knidos). Unfortunately the residents at Resadiye disclaimed any knowledge of this relief when I looked around for it in 1996.

5. W. Burkert (J. Raffin, trans.), Greek Religion. Archaic and Classical (Cambridge MA 1985) 185-86.