BMCR 2023.12.08

Lucian’s laughing gods: religion, philosophy, and popular culture in the Roman East

, Lucian's laughing gods: religion, philosophy, and popular culture in the Roman East. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2023. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780472220977.



As someone who frequently mocks the gods, philosophers, and religious practitioners, Lucian offers valuable, albeit not uncomplicated, evidence for the intersection of ancient religion and popular culture in the Roman east during the second century CE. Yet, it may come somewhat as a surprise that this aspect of his writing has not garnered much recent attention in the last few decades, especially given the long tradition of thinking about him as a writer who humorously tackled religious topics. As early as the fourth century CE Lactantius describes Lucian as someone who “spared neither the gods nor men” (Divine Institutions, 1.9.8), and by the 16th century Lucian’s name had become a slur used by the followers of Martin Luther and John Calvin to label as blasphemers and atheists the likes of Thomas More and Erasmus, themselves translators of Lucian. In her captivating book, Inger Kuin offers an engaging analysis of Lucian’s depiction of gods that should prove indispensable for future studies on this under-discussed aspect of his corpus. In so doing, she seeks to move beyond previous attempts, which have focused primarily on discussing Lucian’s use of humor[1] or analyzing individual texts.[2] Instead, Kuin incorporates methodologies from religious studies and adopts a synoptic view of the corpus. The result is a study that scholars of both imperial Greek literature and ancient religion will find useful for understanding Lucian’s comedic depictions of the gods and religious practices.

In the Introduction, Kuin lays out four core assumptions that shape the arguments made in the rest of the volume: Lucian’s dialogues were performed; comedy and humor can still allow for serious criticism; mocking the gods would not have been viewed as desacralizing; and finally, through his humorous depictions of gods and refusal to present them as ethical models, Lucian challenges the dominant philosophical theologies of his day. While these assumptions may seem obvious to some, they are rarely voiced so explicitly. Of particular importance are the claims that Kuin makes regarding the performance of Lucian’s dialogues, about which scholars have generally been hesitant to speculate. After laying out these assumptions, her discussion tackles the difficulties of applying terms like “religion,” “religious,” and “belief” to ancient texts and rituals. Here, Kuin is both careful to acknowledge the anachronism of such terms and methodologically sophisticated, drawing on the work of scholars who apply a cognitive science of religion approach to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity. In addition, Kuin shows herself well-versed in laughter theory, which she melds well with her discussion of approaches to ancient religion.

Chapter One continues the work of the Introduction by further laying the groundwork for the rest of the book. As Kuin sees it, Lucian’s use of humor does not preclude us as modern readers from discerning “ideological commitments” in his writings provided that we do not simply attribute the viewpoint of a given character to the author but instead remain attuned to their dramatic elements. While there is nothing new in her interdiction against reading specific characters as Lucianic stand-ins, this chapter nonetheless does important work. First, it chronicles the history of Lucianic scholarship, both its earliest scholiasts and later readers, particularly as it relates to his treatment of the gods and religious topics. The remainder of the chapter contends not just that Lucian would have performed his dialogues in front of a live audience, but that he “indeed wanted to reach a diverse audience, spanning different economic, educational, and cultural backgrounds, and that it is likely that he succeeded.” (29) Here, Kuin further develops her thoughts on performance. She is certainly correct that these works were part of Roman popular culture. That Lucian is not, for example, included within Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists should not mean that we do not imagine his works as being performed in front of an audience diverse in its cultural, educational, and socio-economic make-up, as Kuin suggests.

In Chapter Two, Kuin turns to the topic of laughing at the gods. The chapter begins by offering a survey of instances in which gods are the butt of jokes and the possible consequences of said humor, before examining how laughter was incorporated into religious rituals. A wide variety of examples are considered here ranging from earlier texts, such as the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Aristophanes’ Frogs, and Plato’s Republic to imperial-era texts, including Plutarch’s On Superstition and Dio Chrysostom’s First Tarsian, as well as a number of Lucianic dialogues. If Lucian creates gods as comic characters, they are not, as Kuin suggests, the real objects of his humor; rather, it is the longstanding practice of anthropomorphizing them, an argument she makes with a skillful reading of Lucian’s Fisherman.

Chapter Three explores Lucian’s treatment of animal sacrifice, focusing specifically on four texts where it features prominently: On Sacrifices, Prometheus, Tragic Zeus, and Icaromenippus. Although it is possible to construe sacrifice in other ways (e.g., a chance for a good meal, a community building ritual), Kuin approaches ritual sacrifice as a form of communication with the gods. Here, she makes very convincing arguments that Lucian’s treatment of sacrifice in the aforementioned texts plays an integral role in his overall critique of divine anthropomorphism.

Discussion of animal sacrifice is followed by Chapter Four, which takes up scenes depicting anthropomorphized gods succumbing to human love and lust. For this reader, this chapter is perhaps the most exciting of this book because it is here that Kuin takes on several of Lucian’s Dialogues of the Gods—arguably one of the more overlooked texts in Lucian’s corpus. While Kuin not surprisingly treats us to a reading of Lucian’s retelling of the adulterous affair between Ares and Aphrodite, the most compelling reading of the chapter is that of the rape of Ganymede by Zeus in Dialogue 10—a motif that reemerges both in Christian polemic and the largely Roman anxieties about the sex lives of the Roman emperors Nero, Domitian, and Hadrian. There is perhaps more to be done here with some of the other dialogues included within the collection. Finally, this chapter concludes by exploring the erotic interactions between humans and gods in On the Syrian Goddess.

From the highly sexualized gaze of the gods in Chapter Four we shift in Chapter Five to the political sphere and instances where Lucian depicts gods performing the role of citizens. Beginning with a brief discussion of the Icaromenippus and earlier iterations of literary divine poleis, the chapter offers a compelling reading of the Assembly of the Gods as a comic attack on divine role models. It also tackles the complexities of imperial cult and emperor worship. Finally, Kuin examines the depiction of Lucianic gods as purveyors of law and justice, focusing on the Double Indictment, Tragic Zeus, and Saturnalia, among others.

The final chapter of the book takes up the theme of oracular and divinatory practices. Consequently, it deals with some of Lucian’s more well-known works, specifically those dealing with religious charlatans: Alexander or the False Prophet and Peregrinus but also Menippus, Lover of Lies, and Apuleius’ Apologia. In her discussion of these texts, Kuin challenges the too-often expressed presumption that these texts are somehow proof of Lucian’s own views about oracles and magic. Instead, these texts help us to recognize the sorts of questions that he sought to inspire his audience members to ask themselves about the practices being discussed or staged in the text in question.

This monograph will please scholars with an interest in Lucian, imperial Greek literature, and ancient religion. It seeks to provide a fresh approach to Lucian’s portrayal of divine characters and aspects of religious practice. One of its main accomplishments is its attempt to take on so much of Lucian’s corpus and its merging of different methodological approaches. While Kuin certainly does a thorough job discussing the texts covered in this book, there remains some room for others to take up and further explore Lucian’s treatment of divine figures. The Dialogues of the Sea Gods, for example, remains woefully understudied, despite the persistent theme of sexual violence that Lucian interweaves into a number of dialogues, a theme that Kuin herself highlights as a feature of Lucian’s Dialogues of the Gods. This should not take away from the accomplishment of this monograph, but rather underscore the fact that Lucian’s attitude toward the divine remains a fruitful topic for discussion.



[1] See, for example, R. B. Branham, Unruly eloquence: Lucian and the Comedy of Traditions (Harvard University Press, 1989).

[2] E.g. J. L. Lightfoot, J. L. (2003). Lucian: On the Syrian Goddess (Oxford University Press, 2003).