BMCR 2012.07.35

Sacred Words: Orality, Literacy, and Religion. Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World, vol. 8. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 332

, , , Sacred Words: Orality, Literacy, and Religion. Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World, vol. 8. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 332. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. xiv, 415. ISBN9789004194120 $192.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review. The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

This volume collects twenty papers from the Eighth International Conference on Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World, held in the Netherlands in July, 2008. In the introduction, the editors explain that their aim was to challenge and perhaps modify a prevalent conception that in the earlier period Greek “state religion” relied on oral forms, in contrast to the association of writing with “secret, private and marginal cults,” whereas in Roman times religions became more bookish. They conclude (2) that both oral and written forms were in use in both state and private religions in Greece as well as Rome. While the efficacy traditionally associated with oral forms of communication remained unchallenged, “the appreciation of oral and written forms in the religious life of the Greeks and Romans had less to do with the kinds of religion they practised than with the differing effects they ascribed to these modes of communication.” Moreover (12), “[w]ritten texts regularly imitated or relied on elements of oral communication in order to increase their own efficacy.”

In Part I, Elizabeth Minchin uses discourse analysis, the study of how speakers use language, to determine whether there is a difference between the gods’ speech and human speech in the Iliad. She finds relatively little divergence, although the gods seldom use certain speech genres found in mortal speech, such as sarcasm or soliloquy. The gods’ majesty is represented instead principally through their forms of address to one another and human attitudes toward them. They lack the seriousness of the human heroes.

Fiona Hobden describes the symposium as a religious experience, with garlands, singing, Dionysiac imagery, etc. But she assumes a sacred/secular divide and tries to move the symposium from one category to the other, whereas occasions of heightened communal pleasure and excitement typically included the gods. There are some minor mistranslations that do not affect the argument.

Maria Pavlou examines the treatment of past and present in Pindar’s dithyrambs compared with his epinicians. In the dithyrambs past and present are collapsed together or represented as equivalent moments in cyclic time by, e.g., the chorus’ taking on the speech of mythic figures as their own, their use of deictics, and of present tenses in narrative. The epinicians evoke cyclic time also but keep past and present separate, with the present moment adding a new stage to the recurrent manifestation of aristocratic brilliance.

Ruth Scodel points out Euripides’ creation of characters who combine elements of initiation, purity, natural philosophy, use of books, and allegory: Hippolytus, Theonoe (in Helen), Tiresias and the Stranger (in Bacchae), among others. Then she sketches the intellectual milieu that Euripides is evoking through these characters, using Plato, Aristophanes, Demosthenes’ account of Aeschines’ ritual activities, and the Derveni papyrus. Euripides helped create wider Athenian awareness of such marginal religious formations and their use of books.

In Part II, Michael Gagarin discusses the inscribing of “sacred” and “secular” laws in archaic Crete. He describes “sacred law” as a useful modern construct. However, the two types could be inscribed in one document, and a single law could have provisions in both realms. The phrase “both divine and human” found in the laws reflects this commingling even as it shows that the Cretans distinguished the two. We must therefore use the term “sacred law” cautiously.

Sarah Hitch argues that although formal ritual speech acts are rarely recorded, they were not necessarily improvised and looks for evidence of them in inscriptions. The effort leads her to misread the first-fruits decree ( IG I ³ 78) as directions for heralds announcing a formal call for offerings in the name of the Hierophant. There is no embedded speech. Nor does IG II ² 47.23-30 refer to authorizing speech by an exegete. The fundamental problem is that Hitch views improvised ritual speech acts as inadequate and so overzealously seeks evidence for prescribed speech. It would be better to emphasize the importance of persuasive performance in Greek oral culture.

Evelyn van ‘t Wout proposes a new origin for the legal concept of atimia in its use as a “verbal strategy to construe authority for communal agreements” (145). Rather than having a legal definition (e.g., outlawry) in the early period, it had the evaluative meaning of “dishonor” (which it never lost). As such, it appeared in “entrenchment clauses” on inscriptions, clauses designed to protect the inscribed agreements from being modified. Van ‘t Wout compares communal self-cursing rituals designed to bind participants to abide by decisions. Moreover, since the claim “I am atimos” was used to express a legitimate grievance against the community, the clause “he is to be atimos” in these agreements can be seen as a strategy to deny the individual any legitimate objection to treatment of him as dishonored. Thus atimia is social death rather than a legal penalty, though provisions for confiscating the property of the “dishonored” in some inscriptions move them toward the latter.

Rosalind Thomas (the keynote speaker at the conference) points out that the great open-air gatherings, which must have had a large impact on Athenian public life, are under-documented in comparison with written evidence like inscriptions, and therefore largely left out in accounts of the functioning of the democracy. The result is an over- modernized view of how it functioned. Descriptions of rowdy mass behavior, notably in Thucydides and Xenophon, and comments in Demosthenes, Plato, and the orators show that both target audiences and bystanders were vocal in their reactions. Thus written records of assembly decisions could be seen as checks on the exuberance of the demos.

In Part III, Christopher Faraone looks at newly-published inscribed lead amulets, which show that verse incantations served to ward off danger from the users’ persons and property. They confirm that literary examples (e.g., Homeric Hymn to Demeter 227-30) echo a popular, oral background. However, one lead amulet refers to the protective power of its letters, when inscribed and hidden in the house – a new mode of use. What has disappeared, he says, is the boast that the speaker knows the charm. Yet since the boast occurs only in literary dialogues (See, e.g., Euripides Cyclops 646), I would take it as an authorizing statement in that context, not as part of the charm; one could compare it to the written instructions for use found in some records of charms.

Franco Ferrari poses two questions about the so-called Orphic gold tablets: was there an archetype for each type of text, and should we reconstruct special religious contexts to account for the different attitudes of the speaking “I” and its different relationships with an addressee? In light of variable wording in one group of tablets, he proposes that only a “paleotype” (206) existed, a fluid pattern arising from the continual interaction of oral and written forms. His preferences for particular readings in these difficult texts can seem under-justified, but his conclusion that the compilers practiced “continuous bricolage” (209) seems right to me. Then he argues that a tablet from Timpone Grande at Thurii and one from Pelinna in Thessaly have two “speakers,” the first earthly, speaking at the moment of the funeral, and the second (marked by a change of meter), divine and welcoming the now-divinized soul. These, he says, would have found their full meaning in their ritual context — which begs the question what the relationship of the tablet to the ritual was.

Mark Alonge asks how and why ritual songs came to be inscribed. Canonization does not seem generally to have been the motive. Instead, inscriptions typically memorialize an event, such as the granting of honors to poet or singers or a thank offering to a god, with the song included to confirm the illustriousness of the occasion. Conversely, oral transmission of hymns is suggested by differences in wording among copies of hymns that were inscribed multiple times. But the Cretan inscription recording the Hymn to Dictaean Zeus contains no framing reference to an occasion. After raising the possibility that the refrain was what survived in oral tradition, while the stanzas were variable, Alonge suggests that the inscription, coeval with the Second Sophistic, was perhaps not even a memorial of a performance, but rather served to display the antiquity of the cult and assert the community’s claim to be the birthplace of Zeus.

Ana Rodriguez-Mayorgas discusses the character and function of the annales maximi, which were kept by the Pontifex Maximus from some time relatively early in the Roman Republic down to perhaps 115 BCE and later collected into eighty books. Their known content included portents. Since the Pontifex was in charge of the calendar and of maintaining the gods’ good will, she argues that the annales probably recorded more generally the Romans’ relationship with the gods. The impulse was not to record history but provide a warranty of the Romans’ fulfilling their part in the pax deorum. When displayed, the record also emphasized the role of the Pontifex in preserving Rome. Then, when arranged in books the annales functioned as memory of Rome’s special relationship with the gods and projected its continuance.

Andromache Karanika focuses on the use of Homer for divination in late antiquity, beginning with a magical papyrus titled homeromanteion that contained disconnected Homeric lines ( PGM 7.1-148). Earlier cases of treating lines from Homer as prophetic are known, e.g., Socrates’ dream in prison ( Crito 44b), but here there is no context to show how the verses were used. Karanika adduces various attested ways of using fixed texts in magic and prophecy. She also notes that Eudocia’s cento of (individual, reused) Homeric lines has thirty-nine lines in common with the homeromanteion, which suggests a tradition of reusing certain kinds of lines. These include proverbial lines and lines of direct speech, especially those with verbs of speaking and forms oriented toward the future: optatives, imperatives, and futures. She therefore suggests that a new way of “performing” Homer had developed.

Crystal Addey investigates “unknowable” names in late antique religious texts. Iamblichus offers a rare ancient account of their power in the context of theurgy in de mysteriis : they are secret names of the gods that capture an ineffable presence, located high in the Neoplatonic hierarchy of levels of reality but manifesting divinity in the lowly physical cosmos. As such they were analogous to hieroglyphs and activated the divine in the human soul, allowing it to rise to union with higher powers. They were not coercive, but allowed the theurgist to come into “sympathetic alignment with the power of the god invoked” (292). When written they gave nothing away because it was necessary to know how to pronounce them, knowledge that was transmitted orally.

Part IV opens with Niall Slater on Plautus’s references to divinities,. He gives attention to different categories of gods and the context in which they appear. Characters may take advantage of the mythic foibles of the Olympians or claim to be Olympian in order to aggrandize themselves. But Plautus suggests that divine power guides the plot toward a happy ending for the young lovers, and newer deities such as Spes and Salus are consistently portrayed as helpful to humans in gaining fulfillment of romantic desires. Slater concludes that Plautus was an innovator helping to reshape conceptions of the divine.

Vanessa Berger shows that in recounting divine interventions Livy both uses terms like traditur or fama to suggest tradition and includes multiple voices to create a polyphonic narrative. However, a tension develops in Berger’s account between Livy’s aim of illustrating the Romans’ special relations with the gods and his including multiple perspectives on alleged divine activity. The latter gets more emphasis as Berger increasingly focuses on Livy’s self-positioning amid contemporaries who did not believe such stories. She concludes that Livy wanted readers to select one of his mooted interpretations and ignore the others. Yet choice of interpretation undercuts the ideology of special Roman relations with the gods.

Bé Breij studies pietas as deployed in Roman controversiae, speeches for one side in fictional court cases. After an introduction to the genre she focuses on the situational ethics they espouse concerning pietas. Since it was a major, theoretically absolute, Roman virtue, arguments about whether one party had acted in accordance with pietas appear in controversiae, most often in the context of father-son relations, especially when pietas itself produces a moral dilemma. After giving an example, Breij ends with a pair of opposing speeches in which “the serious probing of moral values [goes] together with mockery and provocation” (347).

In Part V, Akio Ito discusses Paul’s self-image in Romans as herald and teacher. In Romans 10 Paul distinguishes his own “saying” from the “writing” of Moses and the written form of the Torah, modeling himself on the herald in Isaiah 52.7, which puts him in the tradition of Hebrew bringers of good news. Paul does use the phrase “it is written,” but usually in the “divine passive” of speech recorded as coming from God. Orality also emphasizes the newness of his message. Ito then compares passages in Romans to Epictetus’s form of diatribe as address of teacher to student. Second person forms, questions, admonishment, are all paralleled in various passages of Romans. By these strategies Paul presented himself as a speaker to a congregation he had never met.

James Morrison examines the figures of Peter and Paul in Acts and the tension between oral exchange and texts in the representation of authority: while oral instruction from divinity establishes the apostles’ authority, references to written texts help endorse the work’s authority. Peter, described as “illiterate,” is authorized by being close to Jesus and having visions. Paul was likewise authorized by signs from God; both had “charismatic” authority. Yet Luke-Acts models its account on texts, notably Ezekiel and Daniel but also Greek literature. Plato and the Odyssey figure, as does Euripides’ Bacchae, including a possible allusion to the “palace miracle.” Thus Luke appeals to a wide audience, Jewish and Greek, literate and not literate, while authorizing Peter and Paul via direct contact with the divine.

Finally, Vincent Hunink turns to Augustine, writer par excellence, who sometimes composed for oral delivery. In addition to his sermones ad populum, he wrote a poem-like text, the Psalmus contra partem Donati. Hunink examines its strategy as anti-Donatist indoctrination. Augustine composed it for common people, but despite its simple syntax and vernacular vocabulary it contains rhetorical figures and allusions to the Gospels. Its style of performance has been an issue; Hunink argues for not regularizing the number of syllables per line but taking it as sung in the manner of Gregorian chant, while the repeating refrain was sung by the audience. The form encouraged people with differing levels of education and understanding to internalize its message.

The chapters in Parts III and V, which focus on texts involved in religious activity, plus Scodel’s essay, most successfully show how the use of oral or written media and their interactions shape religious conceptions and/or practice, whether traditional or innovative. Hobden and Hitch try to get at religious performance from documents, while Wout and Pavlou extract interpretations of religious values from written sources. The other chapters discuss Greek or Roman attitudes toward the divine as recorded in literature or inscribed law, an important topic but one that does not intersect so fruitfully with issues of speech and writing.

Production of the volume is good; I did not note any typographical errors in English. Problems with Greek appear on p. 45 n. 27 (βαπτίζε should be βαπτίζει) and p. 272 (line numbering).

Table of Contents

1. Elizabeth Minchin, The Words of Gods: Divine Discourse in Homer’s <ι>Iliad<ἴ>
2. Fiona Hobden, Enter the Divine: Sympotic Performance and Religious Experience
3. Maria Pavlou, Past and Present in Pindar’s Religious Poetry
4. Ruth Scodel, Euripides, the Derveni Papyrus, and the Smoke of Many Writings

5. Michael Gagarin, Writing Sacred Laws in Archaic and Classical Crete
6. Sarah Hitch, Embedded Speech in the Attic Leges Sacrae
7. Evelyn van ‘t Wout, From Oath-swearing to Entrenchment Clause: the Introduction of Atimia – Terminology in Legal Inscriptions
8. Rosalind Thomas, ‘And you, the Demos, Made an Uproar’: Performance, Mass Audiences and Text in the Athenian Democracy

9. Christopher Faraone, Hexametrical Incantations as Oral and Written Phenomena
10. Franco Ferrari, Oral Bricolage and Ritual Context in the Golden Tablets
11. Mark Alonge, Greek Hymns from Performance to Stone
12. Ana Rodriguez-Mayorgas, Annales Maximi : Writing, Memory, and Religious Performance in the Roman Republic
13. Andromache Karanika, Homer the Prophet: Homeric Verses and Divination in the Homeromanteion
14. Crystal Addey, Assuming the Mantle of the Gods: ‘Unknowable Names’ and Invocations in Late Antique Theurgic Ritual

15. Niall W. Slater, Plautus the Theologian
16. Vanessa Berger, Orality in Livy’s Representation of the Divine: The Construction of a Polyphonic Narrative
17. Bé Breij, Dilemmas of Pietas in Roman Declamation

18. Akio Ito, Paul the ‘Herald’ and the ‘Teacher’: Paul’s Self-Images within an Oral Milieu
19. James Morrison, Divine Voice, Literary Models, and Human Authority: Peter and Paul in the Early Christian Church
20. Vincent Hunink, Singing together in Church: Augustine’s Psalm against the Donatists