BMCR 2017.06.13

Theologies of Ancient Greek Religion

, , , Theologies of Ancient Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xvii, 423. ISBN 9781107153479. ÂŁ74,99.


This is a challenging book stemming from a conference in Cambridge in 2012. It collects fourteen papers and an introduction and is augmented by 42 pages of bibliography and a precise index. “Greek religion” is addressed from a longue durĂ©e perspective, from Homer to Eusebius, from various angles (philosophy, historiography, poetry, comedy, tragedy, law, politics, art
), and with a wide range of evidence. The focus is on “theological ideas implicit as well as explicit within Greek writing and practice” (p. XV). In other words, does the concept of “theology,” or better, “theologies,” make sense for the study of Greek religion? Is there some benefit to using it, or rather risk? Each author questions the relevance of “theology” for a specific field, and the result is a polyphonic and stimulating volume. In the “Introduction,” Eidinow, Kindt, Osborne and Tor put theology in relation to plurality, to texts and objects, and explain what is at stake in the chapters, which are arranged in a chronological order. They expect “theology” to highlight patterns of thought that inform disparate contexts and illustrate both the unity and diversity of what we today call Greek religion.

Kindt addresses several questions that are raised by the use of the concept “theology” in modern scholarship. She provides an interesting analysis of Jane Ellen Harrison and the articulation between theology/myth and ritual. As for recent approaches, time has come for our colleagues across the Channel to forget the imaginary “Paris School” (or “French School”) and to stop reducing French-speaking scholarship on Greek religion to structuralist approaches of almost fifty years ago, and to the ‘polis-religion’.1 Pages 20-21 are downright caricatures. Colleagues like Borgeaud, Calame, Jaillard, Pirenne-Delforge, Belayche, Georgoudi, Pironti, BrulĂ©, etc. continue to publish valuable books and articles, based on a wide range of concepts, methodologies, and evidence, that are inexplicably (almost) ignored by Kindt—as the bibliography reveals. I nonetheless agree with the final assessment of the paper, that the many stories told about the gods have different status and authority. For sure, “Greek religion was a heterogeneous phenomenon, which included and embraced multiple religious stances” (p. 31).

Graziosi explores the “Theologies of the family in Homer and Hesiod” through the receptions, ancient and modern, of these two authors’ accounts on the gods, and focuses on the theme of divine conflict in the Theogony and in the Iliad 21. She shows that Homeric gods are to be taken seriously.2 But are they really “fairly primitive” (p. 56), as the author contends, in comparison with human social structures? And is “the concept of leadership in a non- biological sense alien to the gods”? Zeus’ leadership is legitimated by his victory over the chaotic powers, and not only because he is Kronos’ son.3 Nonetheless, violence and conflict are differently managed by men, who suffer ineluctably according to their destiny, while gods are able to dissolve easily the tensions with music and charis.

Gagné’s excellent paper focuses on stories and portraits of radical shifts of fortune, mainly the Cypselids’ cycle and Croesus’ fate. What is the limit of human action and how do gods take part in these episodes of collapse of power? Reward and punishment generate competitive discourses and interpretations, considered as question marks of the religious system. At the core of the analysis is a group of legendary gifts made by the Corinthian tyrants to the major Panhellenic sanctuaries, and the rewriting of human stories using divine agency. Tor moves from Heraclitus’ pronouncement on Apollo (“neither says nor conceals but gives a sign”) to pinpoint the kind of theology or theologizing in that paradoxical and puzzling statement on the Delphic god. The analysis deals with Heraclitus’ philosophical mediation and enquiry on the power of language, on human experiences of the divine, and on the very nature of dialectic.

Csapo provides a study on the “theology” of Dionysia and Old Comedy. Dionysos Eleuthereus is explored as a specific aspect of the god, in Attica, which encourages processions and theatrical performances that are characterized by transgressive humor and license, as features of “shared acceptance”, but also competition. “Theology” is not intended as a set of propositions about the nature of the god(s), but as a language expressed through specific experiences, the Dionysian parade and comedy, which enacted the god’s power. “Polytheism and tragedy” by Goldhill discusses Lewis Campbell’s commentary on Sophocles’ Electra. Campbell pretends that tragedy is “dominated by divine law: a scheme imperfectly comprehended but bearing the impress of the Supreme Disposer”. A Protestant monotheistic scheme is applied to Greek tragedy, built on polytheism. Campbell’s statement is traced back to a Victorian agenda, and to Christian theology, teleology and ethics. This monotheistic reading of Sophocles seeks to find a single, supreme authority for moral issues, whereas tragedy displays conflicts between divine forces and multiple forms of causality. The “polytheistic narrative structure” of tragedy enables the poet to depict a god acting as a moral authority or as a cruel and arbitrary entity.

Willey explores Greek thought on lawgivers and lawgiving, and the construction of their authority through human and divine interconnected agencies. In many cases, oracular consultation provides divine approval for legislation, while several lawgivers have a close relation to some specific god (for example Solon and Apollo), showing how malleable are the boundaries between these two categories. “Popular Theologies” are investigated by Eidinow, through the lens of “divine envy” ( phthonos), which is an expression of unpredictability and immeasurability of divine gifts, with embedded agencies. The very notion of “popular theology” (drawn on aspects of “popular culture”) and its adequacy to the topic are however not sufficiently clarified. Is the “responsiveness to context and the changing circumstances” a feature specific to “popular theology”? Creativity is present in every aspect of the communication between men and gods, from the great civic ritual to the many different scales of social life. Moreover, multiple narratives (p. 214) do not reflect a “popular” process, but are inherent to polytheism both in top-down and bottom-up dynamics.

Osborne’s paper on “Sacrificial Theologies” exemplifies the “theological” stakes of sacrifices through the analysis of two cultic calendars (Kos and Mykonos).4 Sacrifice is a language—a commonly admitted assessment—, which alludes both to the order of gods and men. Does the fact that gods appreciate this or that gift imply that they “are like humans” (p. 248)? A look at Nourrir les dieux? (eds V. Pirenne-Delforge, F. Prescendi, Liùge, 2011) would have provided a more nuanced analysis. In “Theologies of statues in Classical Greek art”, Gaifman cautiously applies the concept of “theology” to artefacts and to worshippers’ perceptions of gods and religious experiences. However, in Plato, theologia also refers to authority and taxonomic narratives, not to “subjective” matters. “Theology” is here mobilized to sharpen our grasp of the complex relationship between visual culture and religion.5 The images show that multiple options coexist in the art of representing the nature of the gods. In “The Gods in the Athenian Assembly”, Martin reflects on the role of religion in decision-making on sacred and non-sacred matters. While the existence of the gods in the city is taken for granted, their help and protection is required for each normative activity. Better than “at the periphery” (p. 299), the gods are in the background of the assembly. They do not directly interfere but create the conditions for the sake of the polis, leaving space for human decisions and responsibility.

Benitez analyzes “Plato and the secularization of Greek theology”. Moving from the distinction between theology and natural philosophy in Aristotle, he questions the position of Plato, and the implications of his switch from the plural oi theoi to the singular o theos. In “Providence and religion in middle-Platonism”, Boys-Stones analyses the account of the world made by the second-century Platonist Atticus and the role of religious concepts, especially pronoia, “providence”. Platonism, as the author concludes, assimilates all traditional deities into an inflection of monotheism. Finally, in “Narratives of continuity and discontinuity”, van Nuffelen highlights two closely intertwined issues: the rhetorical construction of narratives of continuity by ancient religions and philosophical groups, and the way in which modern scholarship constructs its own narratives of continuity or difference, both influenced by theological presuppositions. His brilliant essay focuses on notions like “revelation”, “pagan monotheism”, “polytheism”, “monotheism”, “belief”, and “reason” as markers of polarity versus coincidence of views.

To conclude, “Theology” is differently defined and mobilized by the contributors, an observation that makes clear the heuristic value of the concept, but also its ambiguity. If “theology” is “the kind of reflection that informs the representation of divinity in the various contexts of day-to-day worship and other contacts with the gods” (p. XV-XVI) and “the basic theological assumptions and issues that form the background to both literary and philosophical theorizing and to the range of religious practices known from ancient Greece” (p. XVI), it is difficult to exclude from consideration any discourse (made of words or images) on the gods as “theology”. Is such an all-encompassing notion actually useful? Does it enable substantial progress in comparison to well established notions, such as “representation(s)” or “conception(s)” (of the divine)? If “theology” is tackled as the key to gain access to “religious beliefs that have informed the representations and manifestations of the religious in Greek antiquities, but also the strategies in which such beliefs can be recovered”, I fear that it could be seriously misleading, because the juxtaposition of “beliefs” and “practices”, “theology” and “cult” runs the risk of (re)introducing a Christian-centric perspective on polytheism. If theologia is indeed a Greek word meaning “discourse on the gods” (Plato, Rep. 379a; first instance of the word), sometimes in the plural. theologiai (Aristotle, Meteor. II, 353 a 35), it is nevertheless very rarely attested.6 The Greeks prefer to use theia pragmata, which emphasizes the pragmatic approach to the divine. They ignore the concept of “religion” and prefer nomizein tous theous, almost impossible to translate: “to cope with the gods according to the nomos (tradition)”. And when the Centaur Chiron teaches to his human pupils the founding principles of justice ( dikaiosyne), he pays attention to three concrete elements: horkous, thysias and schemata Olympou ( Titanomachy, PEG, fr. 11 BernabĂ©), “the oaths, sacrifices, and layouts of the Olympus”. Such “indigenous” (emic) categories are hardly compatible with the binomial “theology”/“belief”. A more promising and relevant aspect of the whole question is the “broader conversation in ancient Greece about the nature of the divine and its availability to human knowledge ” (italics are mine), that is “theology” as a reflection on human access to knowledge on the divine. In other words an experimental “theology” involved in poetry and art, in ritual and philosophical theories, in performances and narratives, considered as fragments of an empirical, largely shared, always approximate, exploratory and offbeat expertise on the gods. Within such a framework, “inconsistencies” (or “disagreements”), noticed in some papers, are basically consistent; they are intentional variants, overlappings prone to investigate the cosmic labyrinth. “Theology” is about what people know but also ignore, about approaching the gods, while being conscious of an ontological gap. “Belief” is, in my view, definitely not an appropriate notion to express this kind of beating around the bush! The Greek speculative reflection on the divine, on its management, and on the communication with it goes far beyond this narrow category. It entails and engages many different and embedded aspects of social activities. The risk, by bringing “theology” and “belief” to the forefront, is to make Greek religion “like us”, to simplify and impoverish the incredibly rich otherness of polytheism.

The great variety of topics and issues addressed makes the book nonetheless very interesting, even if I felt uncomfortable with different interpretations. I am still dubious about the real benefit of the use of “theology” in Greek matters. To a certain extent, and especially if associated with the notion of “belief”, it seems to conflict with the very nature of polytheism. Instead of clarifying the Greek plural, pragmatic, and experimental approach to the divine, it tends to narrow our field of vision.


1. On this point I disagree with the statement (p. 22) that “works written under the paradigm of polis religion have little to say about the structures of Greek religious beliefs, not to mention theology”. P. Schmitt Pantel’s book on the ritual and civic dimension of the sacrifices and the symposia, for example, disclaims such a point of view, once again based on “belief” and “theology” (P. Schmitt Pantel, La CitĂ© au banquet, Rome 1992).

2. For a similar perspective : G. Pironti, C. Bonnet (ed.), Gli dùi di Omero. Politeismo e poesia nella Grecia antica, Rome, 2016. Again, “beliefs” (p. 61) is not appropriate to grasp what is at stake in the relation between polytheism and poetry.

3. See also p. 56 note 61: the gods are at the same time a family and a society ruled by a king; these two models coexist in the Iliad. The Assembly scenes clearly entangle both logics. Lucian has frequently put the gods on the stage as a family and as a city.

4. For Cos, S. Paul, Cultes et sanctuaires de l’Ăźle de Cos, LiĂšge, 2013, is worth being mentioned.

5. See also H. Collard, Montrer l’invisible – Rituel et prĂ©sentification du divin dans l’imagerie attique, LiĂšge, 2016.

6. A. Henrichs, “What is a Greek god?”, in J. Bremmer, A. Erskine (ed.), The Gods of Ancient Greece, Edinburgh, 2010, p. 21 considers it as “a perfectly good pagan word”; it is rather a “perfectly rare pagan word”.