BMCR 2014.09.47

Rethinking Greek Religion

, Rethinking Greek Religion. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xiii, 235. ISBN 9780521127738. $29.99 (pb).


Something is rotten in the study of Greek religion, or so the author aims to demonstrate in the present book, comprising six chapters bracketed by a short introduction and conclusion. As she states in her introduction, Kindt finds that the field has been dominated too much by polis religion, the scholarly model that regards ancient Greek religion as embedded in the polis and its institutions. Finding this model too restrictive, she accordingly proposes to explore various aspects of religion that go “beyond the polis” (6) as a way of proving that a more expansive and complex approach to Greek religion is necessary.

In the first chapter Kindt continues to expound her critique of polis religion, which she regards as the dominant paradigm today, most directly associated with Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, but also underpinning the work of many other prominent scholars. While she acknowledges certain strengths of the model, such as its recognition of the importance of the polis as a structuring principle in Greek religion, she nevertheless contends that it entails many problems. Its focus on agency, practice, and the influence of the polis upon the shape of religious experience, for instance, comes at the expense of considerations of personal religion and belief (which can be independent of and may even at times be at odds with the polis) as well as the symbolic nature of shared religious experience. She also feels that the model gives preferential treatment to religious phenomena of the Archaic and Classical periods.

The remaining five chapters explore various aspects of Greek religion that are ignored or distorted because of the focus on polis religion. In Chapter 2 Kindt treats the subject of personal religious experience and belief in ancient Greece and argues that there is room for productive inquiry that polis religion has largely ignored. She anchors her discussion in one particular episode recounted by Athenaeus, in which a certain Parmeniscus undertakes a journey to find a cure for his inability to laugh. After consulting the oracle at Delphi and misunderstanding the enigmatic response, he finds his cure during a subsequent visit to Delos, when he walks into the temple of Leto and spontaneously laughs at the unexpectedly crude wooden cult image inside.

For Kindt the episode sheds light on how the ancient Greeks thought about their gods. Drawing on cognitive theory, she claims that the production of cult images was shaped by a basic desire to make sense of the world and to conceive of it as “inspired and meaningful” (43). The Greeks made sense of their gods in two contrasting ways, however. They treated the unseen gods as familiar, and yet they maintained a clear sense of their difference from mortals. Parmeniscus’ changing response to the statue of Leto, from laughter to awe and gratitude for the cure, demonstrates the tension between these two ideas. Kindt also uses the episode, which she considers a personal form of the institution of religious theoria, to expand upon Jaś Elsner’s concept of the religious gaze (Elsner 2007). In her view, the episode shows that religious visuality entails a cognitive component as well as a ritual-centered and spatial component.

Another area of study that Kindt sees as underexplored is the symbolic nature of Greek religion, as she expounds in her third chapter. She observes that while the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz has been applied so successfully in other disciplines, it has been underutilized in the study of classical religions because of the functionalist nature of the interpretive paradigm of polis religion. After reviewing the major tenets of Geertz’s view of religion as a symbol-laden cultural system, she turns her attention to Greek votive practice and processions to illustrate the limited ways in which the symbolic value of these practices has been so far explored by scholars. While she sees some scholarly engagement with the semiotics of Greek religion, she maintains that more thought is needed about how religious symbols directly participate in the discourse of power in Greek society. Briefly discussing a passage of Philochorus about the Athenians’ use of the property of the Thirty Tyrants in religious processions, she concludes that “the symbolic dimension of ancient Greek religion should be taken to be intrinsic to and actively involved in the negotiation of socio-political power” (89).

Kindt turns in the next chapter to the relationship between magic and religion, both as understood in antiquity and in the history of scholarship on Greek religion. Kindt rightly notes that the conceptual division between magic and religion is less an ancient idea than a modern one. The polis religion paradigm is partly to blame, in her view, for it emphasizes the communal nature of religious practice within the polis and has accordingly led many scholars to push magic, being largely an individual practice, to the side. While acknowledging that more recent scholarship has sought to correct this, Kindt argues more forcefully that magic and religion in fact share the same symbolic language in seeking to make meaning of the world, and that magic offers an opportunity for individual empowerment that can be at odds with more communal or polis- centered claims to power.

The subject of Chapter 5 is the relationship between the universal aspect of Greek religion, as traditionally exemplified in panhellenic sanctuaries and festivals, and the local experience of religion in individual city-states. Kindt rejects a scholarly position that would draw a sharp distinction between local and universal spheres of ancient Greek religion, or between “religion of the polis” and “religion beyond the polis.” Focusing her attention on the dedicatory practices at Olympia, she demonstrates how the panhellenic setting both enabled a complex interplay of competitive displays among both individuals and city-states and at the same time exercised a unifying cultural force.

In her final chapter Kindt turns to the subject of agalmatophilia, as represented in three stories from the Second Sophistic of mortal males who conceive a desire for Praxiteles’ famous statue of Aphrodite at Cnidus. She demonstrates that all three accounts—in (Pseudo-) Lucian’s Amores, Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius, and Clement of Alexandria’s Protrepticus —reflect a contemporary “profound concern with divine ontology, divine representation and human knowledge of the divine” (186). All three authors, furthermore, employ erotic desire as a metaphor for the human desire to know the divine and likewise make a distinction between the organic and the inorganic as a means to explore the difference between human and divine bodies.

As her careful analysis goes on to show, however, the three authors use these tools for different purposes and to arrive at different conclusions. In Amores, the author affirms the fundamental inaccessibility of the divine to human knowledge and an opposition between the nature of human and divine bodies. Philostratus uses the story instead to bolster Apollonius’ status as a holy man by showing a more correct understanding of the nature of the divine than the Cnidians possess. Clement, finally, sees the story as proof of the erroneous conception of the divine body in traditional Greek religion and substitutes a new, Christian divine body—one that is perceived through the mind rather than with the physical senses. Only in the concluding paragraphs does Kindt bring this fascinating discussion back to her critique of polis religion, by pointing out that her subject falls outside of the earlier periods that are the usual focus of polis religion and by affirming the cognitive and symbolic dimensions of Greek religion inherent in these accounts.

In general Kindt succeeds in highlighting, through select examples, several areas of Greek religion that fall outside a strict conception of religion as defined by the polis and its institutions. In many places her analysis is deft and illuminating; I found her treatment of the three texts dealing with agalmatophilia in Chapter 6 to be particularly strong and rewarding. Other examples are less convincing, however, such as her choice in Chapter 3 to illustrate the symbolic dimension of ritual action by offering a speculative interpretation of a very short fragment of Philochorus. While I thoroughly agree with her theoretical position on religious symbolism, I can’t help but feel she could have chosen a much better example.

The same chapter also illustrates another weakness, namely an uneven organization within some chapters that at times dwells too much on the history of scholarship at the expense of offering a more sustained analysis of religious phenomena in the areas she finds ignored or underserved. More generally, one could wish for a tighter organization for the whole book, a criticism that Kindt herself appears to acknowledge in her introduction (6). The loose connection among the chapters may in part result from the fact that the first three of her chapters are substantially based on three essays she previously published in separate venues (xi).

The most troubling aspect of her book for me is how she positions the importance of her contribution as a much-needed criticism of polis religion. I find that, in order to impart a sense of novelty and urgency to her criticism and justify the importance of her book, she essentially creates a straw-man version of the polis religion model, one that is far more exclusive and lacking in nuance than most scholars of recent decades actually employ. This tendency runs throughout the book and reappears in the conclusion (with my italics for emphasis): “…[I]f we base our conception of ancient Greek religion exclusively on its civic, official and communal aspects, we run the real risk of ascribing to it a degree of conformity, inner coherence and boundedness, of assigning it a quasi-dogmatic quality which it never really had…” (190-191). “No longer can we assume with the polis model that it is always and necessarily the civic dimension of ancient Greek religion that defined what was at its core” (192).

In fact she often appears to undermine this characterization of polis religion, for many of the scholars she names as its adherents are the very ones she uses to support many of her arguments. She admits in places, moreover, that such a version of polis religion is not so dominating a paradigm: “…[M]ost recent scholarship has moved away from the narrow conception of ancient Greek religion as always and necessarily confined to the communal and civic. The trend is now distinctly towards a more flexible and pluralistic depiction of the religious culture at Athens and elsewhere” (97). I am thus left wondering whether Kindt is really advocating a new approach to the study of Greek religion or is instead uniting various strands of ideas that have been part and parcel of the scholarly discourse on ancient Greek religion throughout the past twenty years, while undoubtedly contributing some valuable new examples of her own.

Even without accepting her polemical frame of resisting the dominance of polis religion, scholars of Greek religion will find much that is profitable in the book among the many observations and theoretical questions Kindt has packed within it, not to mention the rich bibliography she has amassed. I can also see great value in assigning particular chapters as reading for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in courses on Greek religion. The book is very well edited, and I found only one significant error of fact, when Kindt refers to the Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles not as a cult statue but as a votive dedication on par with the Peplos Kore (65). Otherwise Kindt demonstrates an impressive command of her material as well as the theoretical approaches to it. By drawing throughout on relevant disciplines such as anthropology, cognitive studies, and memory studies, moreover, Kindt certainly proves the value of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Greek religion.