BMCR 2001.10.06

The Light of the Gods: The Role of Light in Archaic and Classical Greek Cult

, The light of the gods : the role of light in archaic and classical Greek cult. London: Duckworth, 2000. 256, [24] pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715629344

This book is an examination of light, lamps, and torches as they were used in cult, in representations of the gods in art, and in literary descriptions of religious scenes. Parisinou gathers evidence, mostly but not totally archaeological, from all over the Greek world from the time of Homer to the end of the Classical period. The discussion ranges from the first mention of a lamp in Greek literature, a disputed section of the Odyssey, through the use of torches in foot races and in rites of passage, images of fire held by various deities in art, and the employment of torches in cult. Parisinou provides a large collection of citations for these uses without venturing into much new theoretical or factual territory.

The book, which bills itself as “the first synthetic study of the use and significance of light in ancient Greek cult,” is actually somewhat less than its claim. The quite interesting Studies in the Use of Fire in Ancient Greek Religion by William D. Furley (1981) certainly covered some of these same matters earlier. But the main problems of the book stem not from any overweening claims but from the presentation of arguments and evidence. The book is poorly written and edited, with enough errors and confusion to make its usefulness questionable.

After a brief introduction, Parisinou plunges the reader into textual arguments about the authenticity of the passage of the Odyssey (19.34) in which Athena lights the way for Odysseus and Telemachus with the first lamp ever mentioned in Greek literature. Parisinou first presents the arguments of critics who say this passage is a later interpolation. Their disputes are both textual and archaeological. The archaeological evidence is the apparently total lack of lamps from sites of the eleventh to eighth centuries. But before she attempts to contradict this view, Parisinou slips into a discussion of the symbolism of Athena’s light in this passage. The reader needs to go over this section several times to try to follow the threads of the author’s thought. Finally, Parisinou does present evidence for the fact, which should have been obvious a priori, that lamps did exist. They were, as one would expect for the period, simple and crude, lacking the spout common into later examples, but they did exist. The problem here is not the conclusion, but the unnecessarily convoluted and complicated manner of getting to it. This confusing mixture of archaeological evidence with literary discussions will recur.

The second chapter begins with a discussion of Callimachus’ perpetually burning lamp in the Athenian temple of Athena Polias. Parisinou presents every imaginable theory for the placement and look of this marvel, without coming to any conclusion or offering any new evidence or interpretation. This chapter is filled out with a presentation of the literary and archaeological evidence for lamps associated with Athena on the acropolis and torch relay races. Parisinou sees the races as symbolic of the handing on of eternal values to a new generation, represented by the ephebes running the race.

Chapter three examines light in rites of passage. There is some work of value here, especially in the section on death. Parisinou compares the moving of torches held by Hekate in art with the torches used during the initiations at Eleusis and adds some nice nuance to the discussions of those secret rites. Other parts of the chapter, however, particularly the sections on nursing and pre-nuptial ceremonies, are much too involved and confusing. One example of the book’s confusion and errors must be given. On pages 63-4, Parisinou states “The famous tablet ( pinax) of Ninnion and 4.25 (both dated to the first half of the fourth century; Pl. 17) depict a youthful long-haired male figure…” However, catalog item 4.25 and Plate 17 are both the tablet of Ninnion; there is only one piece of evidence here, not two. Mistakes like this, and they are too common, must inevitably undermine the reader’s faith in all the other evidence presented.

The fourth chapter deals with pollution-repelling fire. This section contains a suggestive discussion of torches used in purification ceremonies, as they are represented in drama. Parisinou, following the lead of Robert Parker, contrasts the sun, which is polluted by the sight of death, with torch-fire, which cleanses the pollution of death away. The chapter concludes with a short section on fire and love-making, where a less convincing contrast is made between lamps as symbols of legitimate sex and torches as signs of prostitution.

Chapter five is a straight-forward presentation of images of light-bearing divinities. Unsurprisingly, torches are common in images of Artemis, Hekate, Dionysus, and the Eleusinian deities. Zeus’ lightning-bolt is quite another matter, and Parisinou’s presentation of it as analogous to the torches of the other deities seems misleading.

In chapter six, the author’s tendency to confused exposition again makes the point of her discussion hard to discern. A review of torches as emblems of Artemis the hunter leads to the torches of the Erinyes, hunters of mortals. This takes the reader back to Artemis, now as a hunter of humans. Then Dionysus, god of light, hunts Pentheus, figure of darkness, before the trip ends with descriptions of torches used in actual nocturnal hunts and other night activities, some of which do not actually mention torches. Along the way we meet the story of Apollo and Marsyas and a pre-nuptial rite that seem to have nothing to do with hunting. The effect is mind-numbing. Another discussion treats fire and war in Homer and tragedy. Some of this section is interesting, especially Parisinou’s treatment of fire images on the shields of the main warriors in the Seven against Thebes.

The next chapter, entitled “Fire and Light of the Senses,” informs the reader that light and burning in literature can represent: anger, desire, sadness, anxiety, fear, hope, joy, enthusiasm, triumph, and knowledge. This borders on meaninglessness.

Two more chapters follow, looking at the evidence from other angles. They cover fire in fertility rituals and fire in divine worship.

This book cannot be recommended. The main problem is its lack of focus. When the author is detailing the archaeological evidence, the reader gets one kind of information. This is useful information, if sometimes tediously presented. Parisinou also appends clear catalogues of torches and lamps depicted on vases and sculptures. At other times, however, when the discussion moves to myth and literature, Parisinou is often no longer speaking of torches and lamps but of light in much less tangible forms. It is frequently difficult to see any useful connections between the two types of evidence. This is all quite unfortunate, because buried in this book are nuggets of interest and value. The confusing presentation, however, and the much too frequent editorial errors make the book too difficult to follow and too undependable to serve as a reference work.