BMCR 2017.11.21

Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion, Volume I: Early Greek religion

, , Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion, Volume I: Early Greek religion. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xiv, 439. ISBN 9780198768043. $100.00.

The present volume is the first of a co-authored two-volume set written by Ivana Petrovic and Andrej Petrovic. The first volume under review is dedicated to the investigation of the inner stance of the ancient individuals “as they are approaching the gods and interacting with the divine realm in a ritual context” (p.1). The first mental seeds of this book were sown in 2005, in Heidelberg, from the engagement of both authors with a research project focused on the exploration of ritual dynamics through the investigation of sacred regulations.1

The volume is structured into five main parts, topped and tailed with an introduction and conclusion. It is organized according to a specific discourse and cultural context. First, the authors investigate the terms associated with inner purity and pollution by looking through the literary sources and at a number of epigraphic sources. The main discussion begins with Hesiod, continues with the Pre-Socratic philosophers and the evidence from Greek tragedy and Aristophanes and ends with the Orphic gold tablets, and in particular, the purity tablets.

Petrovic and Petrovic’s comprehensive introduction contextualizes the themes of the volume, outlining the scope and methodological approach as well as clarifying aspects of terminology and providing a definition of inner purity. The main thrust of the argument is that inner purity had a moral aspect and that ritual efficacy could be directly affected by a worshipper’s internal disposition. According to Petrovic and Petrovic, inner purity is an individual’s reflective stance towards normative religious expectations that governed ancient Greek religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy (p. 36). Most explicitly, the authors regard inner purity as a fundamental conscious belief (pp. 1-8, 267). By this, they subscribe to a growing strand of current scholarship that advocates the non-secondary importance of religious beliefs compared to ritual practices.2

The first part, “An Epic View” contains one chapter that focuses on Hesiod’s Works and Days. Petrovic and Petrovic convincingly argue that one of the earliest attestations of inner purity can be traced in Hesiod. In support of their thesis, the authors cite a passage ( Op. 737-41) in which the poet urges the attainment of both mental and physical purity before the ritual crossing of a river for hindering any potential outburst of divine wrath. The authors reasonably suggest that by acknowledging the river as a divinity, the performer of the ritual had to purify his mind ( nous) before crossing the river, through a self-preparatory prayer (p.48).

The second part, “Inner Purity and Pollution In Pre-Platonic Philosophical Tradition”, offers three distinct chapters that investigate the philosophical articulations of inner purity through the writings of Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Empedocles. The third part, “Purity and Pollution in Sympotic Settings” consists of two chapters that consider how inner purity is discussed in the sympotic contexts. A very interesting chapter deals with Xenophanes and takes note of the Pythagorean influences on his views, especially on how symposiasts should approach the gods with a well-disposed mind. Of particular value is also the second chapter in which the authors reasonably suggest that in the Theognidean corpus, the striving for inner purity appears to have both religious and social implications, as this could be used as criterion for social distinction between different social groups. The authors are correct to note that in Theognis, the gods (vv. 897-900), and particularly Zeus (vv. 373-400) have the capacity to detect humans’ cognitive and affective dispositions (p. 119).

A very interesting chapter of the fourth part, “Inner Purity and Pollution on the Central Stage: The Evidence of Drama” explores the juxtaposition between the character’s mental pollution and sound-mindedness in Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Suppliants. The discussion of the changes in Erinyes’ mental disposition and their transformation into Semnai Theai is particularly convincing and engaging. Another well-argued discussion appears in Euripides’ chapter, where the authors offer nuanced and subtle readings of the Euripides’ Hippolytus which not only offers riveting examples on the extreme diversity of characters’ aidos and sophrosyne but also provides insight on the effects of metaphysical pollution on human behaviour (e.g. Phaedra’s mental and physical impurity, pp. 202-208 as well as Theseus’ mental pollution, pp. 208-210, 212-213). Like in the Theognidea, also, Euripides ascribes gods with the ability to read the minds of humans and detect their real motives behind the offering of rituals (p. 215).

The fifth part focuses on “A Different Kind of Inner Purity” and in particular on the Orphic gold tablets. The authors by taking close readings of a few fourth-century purity tablets which were found in Thurii (p. 251) clearly demonstrate that the eschatology of the gold tablets is associated with the soul’s purity. In this respect, some souls asserted their own as well as their ancestors’ purified inner state (ἔρχομαι ἐκ καθαρῶν καθαρά) to Persephone in order to guarantee their permanent residence in a privileged sector of the Underworld. Their purity was attained during a ritual of purification, a part of the Orphic teletai. The authors reasonably argue that in the Orphic tablets, the soul’s assertion of its own and ancestral purity reflects the synchronic influence of Plato’s thought about the redefinition of purity and his pertinent views about the Orphic way of life.

The volume ends with a revision of its main themes accompanied with a number of useful tables that facilitate the reader to recall the terms associated with inner purity and pollution by navigating easily through different chapters. Another commendable feature is that Petrovic and Petrovic were concerned to make the book as accessible as possible to Greekless readers by eschewing jargon. This can be best seen not only in the glossary but also throughout the whole book, for instance, in the judicious summaries at the beginning of chapters as well as in the clear translations of ancient Greek passages.

In the concluding remarks, the authors provide a thought-provoking perspective by arguing that the shift in the redefinition of purity from the fourth-century BC onwards can be attributed to the increasing epigraphic attestation of the notion of purity in sacred regulations throughout the Mediteranean and to the cultural interactions of ancient Greeks with other religions that were preoccupied with the notion of inner purity, especially the Egyptian and Jewish.

Taken as a whole, this engaging and clearly written volume is a new study filled with thought-provoking discussions of the literary and epigraphic attestations of inner purity and pollution. In view of the recent theoretical developments (e.g. Cognitive Science of Religion) in the field of ancient Greek religion over the past two decades, its arrival is timely. This valuable volume shows how vital it is for those interested in ancient Greek religion to also consider its ethical framework.


1. SFB 619 Ritualdynamik.

2. For example, see the fundamental works by Versnel, H. (2011) Coping with the Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology, Brill, Leiden, esp. 539-559; Harrison, T. (2015a) “Review Article: Beyond the polis? New approaches to Greek religion”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 135: 165-180; Harrison, T. (2015b) “Belief Vs. Practice”, The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion, Eidinow, E. and Kindt, J. (eds.), Oxford University Press, Oxford: 21-28.