BMCR 2004.07.13

Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars

, Herodotus and religion in the Persian Wars. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 1 online resource (269 pages) : 1 map. ISBN 0807862010. $45.00.

The time of the Persian Wars offers us our best view of Greek religion in action and of the interplay of Greek religion and history. Few periods are better documented than this episode of the Greek past, certainly for research on such questions. The aim of Mikalson (henceforth M) is “to collect and present the abundantly preserved religious aspects of these critical times and thereby set Greek religion into a historical context so as to understand better the role of Greek religion in the Persian invasions and in Greek life in general” (p. 5).

The primary source M uses is, as the title of the book indicates, Herodotus. Not only does Herodotus vividly describe Greeks practicing their religion in various ways and under various circumstances but, though he had traveled a great deal outside Greece, his accounts and views also prove to be in accord with the sources for practiced religion in Greece. Herodotus offers, therefore, an involved and coherent though critical source and, one might add, one not yet fully used. Within this context the main goal of M is to investigate how Herodotus explained the events of the Persian Wars from the religious point of view, a too often neglected element in his writings. Herodotus’ picture is completed with (contemporary) views preserved by Plutarch, Pausanias, Diodorus of Sicily, inscriptions and/or whatever other evidence that may offer itself.

An innate problem in using these sources is to what extent they are coloured by deliberate or unintended exaggeration. In the context of the book under review that means finding whether the sources exaggerated the role of the gods in bringing victory to the Greeks, i.e. exaggerated or misrepresented what the Greeks believed happened. Evidence shows that Herodotus’ representation of events appears fairly accurate. M, moreover, does not have to deal with what “really” happened and is able to use Herodotus’ account without the reservations of those who work in the political and military history. This does not mean that everything Herodotus presents is (to be) accepted at face value.

M’s book is made up of three chapters and an appendix. The first chapter, “A Religious Account of the Persian Invasions” (pp. 15-110), is the longest by far; the second, “Greek Gods, Heroes, and the Divine in the Persian Invasions” (pp. 111-135); and third, “Some Religious Beliefs and Attitudes of Herodotus” (pp. 136-165), are much shorter. The appendix deals with “Herodotus on the Origins of Greek Religion” (pp. 167-195).

Already in the beginning of the first chapter M shows that Herodotus’ position (and, consequently, that of many Greeks) towards religion may, at least occasionally, be described as pragmatic. In some cases political objectives override religious scruples in the process of presenting the occurrences, as is shown by Herodotus’ leniency towards groups or people he admired; in other cases he accepts religiously coloured explanations without hesitation, as in the conflict between Athens and Aegina, not even considering other possibilities. That pragmatism is a leading principle, for Herodotus and other Greeks, need not worry us, but a “caveat” should, nevertheless, be in place for anyone using the Histories as the main source for research.

It may be because of his pragmatism that Herodotus rarely mentions a sacrifice by Greeks to a named deity. Only when the sacrifice is made as part of a new or altered cult is the receiving deity deemed worthy of record. Most of these actions have a commemorative function. What is recorded above all are the names of those gods, heroes, and people who are thought to have made a special contribution during a specific event, be it the victory at Marathon or the defeat at Thermopylae, or outstanding proper (or, for that matter, improper) behaviour towards a god (or gods).

Following the line of events M traces Herodotus’ account in the first chapter and highlights passages which record such special contributions, good and bad. A digression illuminates the practice of the direct link between the Greeks and their gods, i.e. the oracles, the explanation of oracles, and the actions of the so-called chresmologoi, collectors of oracles, who apply oracles of their collections to the situation at hand. M, understandably, dedicates considerable space to events surrounding the battles of Salamis and Plataea and the “special category of the fallen”, i.e., those killed in battle and, therefore, falling between ordinary dead and cultic heroes.

In the second chapter M surveys, “again largely from Herodotus’ perspective”, the contributions of the individual Greek gods, heroes, and “divine” elements and does so deity by deity. Moreover, “to understand them better, we also offer some background on their cults and on conceptions of them at the time of and just before these great wars” (p. 111). Among the gods, the Greeks paid special honours for their redemption to Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo, all three “panhellenic gods”, and to Athena, Demeter, Artemis, Hera, and Aphrodite, all being local gods, mainly involved because their sanctuaries were in or near the field of combat and needed protection. Even more locally bound, “by cult and conception” (p. 129) were the cultic heroes of the time, “dead mortals who, …, after their deaths received state cult at their tombs” (p. 129). They too had occasionally come to the rescue of their compatriots. “Divine” H calls such events which he can not possibly ascribe to a single deity but are instigated by some supernatural power. It stands to reason that also such occurrences are manifold in a war.

In the third and, in my opinion, most important chapter, M turns to Herodotus’ personal beliefs. Basically, Greek religion starts from three axioms: the gods exist; the gods pay attention to the affairs of men; there is reciprocity between men and gods.

Herodotus claims that Homer and Hesiod shaped the Greek pantheon: that he accepted their pantheon at face value can not be proven, nor can the opposite view. According to M, however, it is certain that H believes that the gods personally intervened in the war to protect the Greeks from the unholy, impious, unjust, and blasphemous invaders. “Herodotus … tells us what he thinks or accepts that gods do, not what they are” (p. 139). They ‘act’ as part of their reciprocal partnership with men, who in return, render them honor, τιμή, through prayer, sacrifice, or dedications. Though Herodotus is prepared to believe a good deal of what gods do, there appear to be limits to his belief (or credulity). There are, moreover, various modalities between the two extremes, offering Herodotus plenty of space to air, openly or covertly, his doubts regarding divine intervention.

Much information is presented as a kind of description of events, in which humans are given some “freedom” to fit their lives into the framework of “what must happen” according to divine will as best they can, at least if they are able to interpret the ‘divine force’ correctly. Divine force proves difficult to define, since even the gods are subject to ‘fate’. Hence one of Herodotus’ favorite topoi is the “reversal of human fortune”, especially in the aspect of ‘how the high and mighty fall’. Apart from this peculiarity, Herodotus’ style (and thinking) may be influenced by what M calls “poetic convention” or “poetic elements” (pp. 152-155). From these elements ὕβρις should be expressly excluded (the term, not the action!), just like the “Homeric-style gods and divine machinery” (p. 154). The gods most present in Herodotus’ tales, and in recent more than in remote events, are the gods of cult. According to M, “[Herodotus] has chosen to find explanations in the gods and heroes of practiced religion” (p. 155).

In this respect it is interesting to see which parts of foreign (i.e. here predominantly Persian) religion he was able to make understandable for a Greek audience and how. He notes that Persian gods are not anthropomorphic; further he notes rituals and practices more than actual beliefs which are un-Greek. It is striking that in Herodotus’ story the Persians regularly act and think like Greeks. Not only is the omen of dreams described almost exclusively in terms and situations familiar to Greeks, but Herodotus’ Persians are very Greek even in their beliefs and practices. The same is true for Croesus and is elaborated in Croesus’ relationship with Apollo (Hdt. 1.87.1-1.91.6). Describing non-Greek religious practices, Herodotus focuses mainly on the ritual and hardly on the belief underlying it. However, whenever the situation allows Herodotus to describe the backgrounds, he does so in Greek religious terms.

As M observes in the Appendix Herodotus offers us a quite comprehensive account of Greek religion at work. In Herodotus’ view the names of Greek gods, not the gods themselves, predominantly originated from Egypt and, to a lesser extent, from the Pelasgians, for Herodotus the pre-Greek population of Greece. The Pelasgians were the people who had introduced these gods in Greece and had adopted the Egyptian names. Subsequently, some 400 years before Herodotus’ time (Hdt. 2.53), Homer and Hesiod created a divine genealogy, including the gods’ epithets, offices, crafts, and appearances. No god’s name is invented by the Greeks and, therefore, each god is necessarily of foreign origin. The fact that Herodotus’ own account of the Egyptian gods seriously complicates his claim regarding the names of the Greek gods is relatively cursorily treated by M (pp. 171-2). M does, however, stipulate that Herodotus acknowledges that man plays a significant part in the ‘creation’ of gods: “The deities … are culturally determined, but the “divine”, in essence, is not” (p. 173). By the time of the Trojan War the Greek pantheon was virtually complete. Unlike his gods, Herodotus’ heroes are generated fully defined; they are not “invented” and they are essentially Greek. Moreover, they continued to “come to be” right down to (about) his own time.

M ends the Appendix with a review of foreign deities to whom Herodotus gives Greek names, showing how Herodotus connects the originally foreign deity to the later Greek godhead (pp. 179-190), and with a short review of how foreign cults found their way to Greece and how and why Greek cults moved within the Greek world (pp. 191-193).

M rightly stipulates that the Histories were never intended as a history, or, for that matter, a sourcebook, of Greek religion, if only because Herodotus lacks the necessary methodological skills for such a task. On the other hand this lack of an explicit methodology may wrongly induce people to underestimate or even disregard the importance of Herodotus’ information as a source for Greek religion. The limitation of the use of the Histories for Greek religion is not Herodotus, but the quality, nature, and quantity of his sources.

M has written a challenging book. It appears misleadingly easy to read at times, but the reader will soon find himself forced to retrace his steps in order to pick up the argument. In itself, the structure of the book is straightforward: first, a presentation of the evidence; second, a treatise on ‘divinity’ in the evidence; and third, a discussion of Herodotus’ position on the evidence; followed, in an appendix, by a discourse on Herodotus on the origins of ‘divinity’ within the Greek world. The amount of material presented and the way it is discussed make the book, in my opinion, difficult to evaluate for non-specialists in either Greek religion or Herodotus. For them it opens new roads of investigation. The bibliography is satisfactory, but unfortunately not complete. I missed, e.g., some essential recent (reference) works, like E. Bakker, I. de Jong, and H. van Wees (eds.), Companion to Herodotus, Leiden: Brill, 2002 and N. Luraghi (ed.), The Historian’s Craft in the Age of Herodotus, Oxford: OUP, 2002 (including some chapters referring to material used by M). It may be that these were published shortly before or even after M’s book was presented to the publisher. An exhaustive index locorum and a well accessible general index facilitate the using of the book, which is exemplarily produced. As for typos: I found only one faulty space on p. 143 (should be: ἱροὶ λόγοι).