BMCR 2016.09.36

Divine Epiphany in Greek Literature and Culture

, Divine Epiphany in Greek Literature and Culture. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xv, 411. ISBN 9780198723929 $160.00.


Divine epiphanies were an integral and central part of Greek religion and have only recently begun to get the undivided attention they deserve. This excellent book brings a new depth to the subject by examining not just the phenomenon of epiphany but also investigating its socio-political aspects and how people and cities reacted to an epiphany. The book is impressive in its handling of a variety of materials, predominantly literary and epigraphic, which cover a wide period of time, namely the 7 th century BC to the 2 nd century AD. However, Petridou aptly handles this disperse material and manages to tie it together with a number of themes that run through the work, namely the danger of an epiphany and how a community or person could prepare for this, the beauty of both an epiphanic environment, and the gods themselves, and also divine light and radiance as elements of rituals. Epiphany is examined in all its forms and contexts, where gods appear to both individuals and groups of people. In doing so, this text is a welcome addition to and complements, existing scholarship on the matter, an overview of which is given from page 5 onwards.

The introduction sets out what is meant by the term ‘divine epiphany’ and also states the aims of the book, which are: ‘re-establishing epiphany as a crucial mode in Greek religious thought and practice, underlying its centrality in Greek cultural production, and foregrounding its impact in both perpetuating pre-existing power structures and constructing new ones’ (p.2). This is followed by an overview of the language used by the Greeks to describe epiphanies and a summary of past scholarship on the matter. It stresses that this book wishes to show wider socio-political repercussions of epiphany, underlining the cultural specificity of epiphany, and also the powerful impact it had on Greek culture.

The first chapter, which is also the longest, examines ‘Divine Morphology’ and the various ways in which the gods manifested themselves to mortals. It stresses that epiphany could be rewarding to the human viewer but also that it was dangerous and could be harmful. Both mortal and immortal were aware of this as gods appeared in disguise. Petridou discusses the various forms that epiphany took and distinguishes between anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and amorphous epiphanic forms. Gods could also inhabit their statue, take on a phasma or eidolon form, or occupy a priest when he dressed as the god. The nature of the disguise is also discussed, and she notes that gods often took on an appearance that was suitable for the environment and persons to whom they appeared. Hints of the divine often leaked through the disguise and beauty; stature, fragrance, and radiance could all reveal the divine nature of the god. Not everyone could see through the divine guise but it was possible for the pious, perceptive, and powerful to do so.

These two chapters provide all of the necessary background material to fully understand the phenomenon of epiphany. The next six chapters explore the various contexts in which epiphanies occurred and the forms they took. ‘Epiphanies in Crisis’ are examined in the second chapter. Battle epiphanies were a sign of divine favour but the types of gods, either Panhellenic or local, who appeared varied over time, reflecting social preoccupations. Siege epiphanies differed from battle epiphanies as these were more ‘bilingual’ in form (p.141): the god took a form that was easily recognisable to the defenders but an amorphous form for the besiegers, again indicating divine favour. The chapter also looks at a common battle stratagem where a commander staged an epiphany. Petridou argues that even when a human was dressed up as a god, this did not necessarily mean it was a ‘fake’ event; rather, Greeks were preconditioned to understand the dual nature of this person, that they were both the human and the god who temporarily inhabited the mortal.

Chapter three discusses ‘Healing Epiphanies’, focussing mainly on individual epiphanies within the cult of Asclepius as epiphany was a regular part of the rite of incubation. The nature of Asclepius’ healing is contrasted with that of other healing deities, such as Athena Hygieia who only focused on healing her favourites, and Apollo who was worshipped more for public healing and disease, while Asclepius healed everyone. Attention is also given to Asclepius’ advent into Athens and connections with the Great Plague, as well as his initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries and associations with Demeter and Kore.

Dei in remotis ’ is the subject of the fourth chapter. Here, epiphanies that occurred in remote and liminal places, such as mountains, caves, and rivers, are examined. People who were travelling, which in itself was a liminal state, encountered mainly Panhellenic gods, such as Pan and Hermes, or divine pluralities, such as the Muses who appeared to poets in order to inspire them. The second part of the chapter focuses on temporal liminality especially that of midday, the time (in addition to dawn and dusk) when epiphanies most commonly occurred. This was also often connected to sleep, similar to incubation, as the Greeks were not averse to a midday nap even though they then ran the risk of encountering the divine.

The fifth chapter on ‘Erotic Epiphanies’ looks at sexual encounters between gods and mortals. The social aspects of such encounters are examined, showing the differences that are drawn between liaisons between male gods and married women and those between gods and virgins. Following the former kind of liaison the husband would willingly adopt the child, whereas in the latter the children were generally viewed with suspicion. The abduction of young men by goddesses is argued to be a threat to the Greek societal norms as the men were powerless in the face of the goddess’ might, indicating a reverse of gender norms.

Chapter six examines ‘Epiphanies in Cult’ and focuses on epiphanies during festivals and mystic rites. As well as describing how these epiphanies took place, Petridou stresses how both kinds of rites are concerned with control over the divine encounter. In the mystery cult, initiates were prepared for an encounter with the divine, which was then a way of escaping being harmed by the epiphany. Festivals were a way to commemorate a past epiphany and to display the connections a community had with a god, which were an indication of divine favour. At the same time, such festivals were also a way of regulating epiphanies by making them happen at a set time and removing unpredictable elements.

Theoxenia Festivals’ are examined in the seventh chapter. Here the dynamics of wandering gods, especially Dionysos, who travelled of his own volition, and Demeter, who travelled as the result of loss and Kore’s disappearance, are discussed. Ritual dining is examined, as well as its effects upon a household or society, since the offer or refusal of hospitality could lead to either punishment or reward.

The last chapter, ‘Synthesis’, focuses on the socio-political functions of epiphany. It shows how epiphanies could cause crises or be caused by them and how the Greeks sought to neutralise this connection. Petridou also argues that epiphanies were used as a reason, an aition for cult practice and the foundation of cults. The epiphany then lent authority to the sacredness of a site and also showed divine favour, which increased the status of a cult and city. In this way, epiphanies helped in sustaining and creating new power structures.

This work is an important addition to existing scholarship on Greek religion and also Greek social life. It complements other work on divine epiphany such as Verity Platt’s Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion (BMCR 2012.08.04). Platt’s focus is on the material representations of epiphany and, while the focus of the present book is on literary and epigraphic sources, it is perhaps a shame that it does not engage more with visual sources. Where such engagement does occur in the book, it is done with great sensitivity and adds greatly to the overall argument.

The real strength of this work – and its main aim – is showing how epiphany affected and was also embedded within the socio-political structures of the time. Petridou demonstrates the various ways in which an epiphany could be a danger or a reward in the analysis chapters. She then shows how a city would try and negate these dangers by embedding epiphany in civic life through festivals. In this way people were prepared for the epiphany, and the danger of a god suddenly appearing and catching humans unaware was negated. On an individual level, these same elements appear in Petridou’s analysis of the display of miracle inscriptions, which shows that priests also used accounts of divine epiphany and healing to promulgate their sanctuary and raise its status above other healing sanctuaries. The same danger of uncontrolled epiphanies was present in healing epiphanies, even though people were prepared for a divine encounter through their surroundings.

In taking this approach, Petridou not only provides the reader with an engaging and comprehensive overview of epiphany in literary and epigraphic sources but also adds new depth to scholarship on the socio-religious institutions of a polis, explaining how religion was used for self-promotion with regards to its neighbours and also to explain elements of their own civic life.

Slight problems with the work are its occasional tendency to generalise about matters, which is unsurprising considering the broad scope of this book. For example, while Petridou is correct to point out (p. 188) that the Edelsteins were wrong to say that there was a general abstinence from certain foods and drinks, she neglects to mention that there were rules concerning food, drink, sexual intercourse, and other matters, which were individual to each sanctuary. However, these issues should not detract from the overall excellence of the work. Petridou manages to present a varied body of work in an accessible and coherent way and greatly adds to scholarship, not just on epiphany but also on Greek religion in general.