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The Gods of Ancient Greece

The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations

Jan N. Bremmer
Andrew Erskine
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 552
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r236p
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  • Book Info
    The Gods of Ancient Greece
    Book Description:

    The Greek gods are still very much present in modern consciousness. Although Apollo and Dionysos, Artemis and Aphrodite, Zeus and Hermes are household names, it is much less clear what these divinities meant and stood for in ancient Greece. In fact, they have been very much neglected in modern scholarship. This book brings together a team of international scholars with the aim of remedying this situation and generating new approaches to the nature and development of the Greek gods in the period from Homer until Late Antiquity. The book looks at individual gods, but also asks to what extent cult, myth and literary genre determine the nature of a divinity. How do the Greek gods function in a polytheistic pantheon and what is their connection to the heroes? What is the influence of philosophy? What does archaeology tell us about the gods? In what way do the gods in Late Antiquity differ from those in classical Greece? This book presents a synchronic and diachronic view of the gods as they functioned in Greek culture until the triumph of Christianity.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-4289-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. viii-ix)
    Jan Bremmer and Andrew Erskine
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. x-xiii)
  5. NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
    (pp. xiv-xviii)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  7. Introduction: THE GREEK GODS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
    (pp. 1-18)
    Jan N. Bremmer

    When the first Indo-Europeans entered Greece in the early centuries of the second millennium BC, they arrived not without gods. So much is clear from comparisons with other Indo-European cultures. It is much harder to know whom they brought and how they called their gods. For reasons unknown, at an early stage the Greeks seem to have dropped the term *deiwós, ‘god’, attested in nearly all branches of the Indo-European family, which is a derivative of IE *dyew-/diw-, which denoted the bright sky or the light of day.¹ Instead they opted for theós, originally ‘having the sacred’, cognates of which...

  8. 1 WHAT IS A GREEK GOD?
    (pp. 19-40)
    Albert Henrichs

    The title of this chapter poses a fundamental question that demands an answer. Different answers are conceivable, and which one we get depends on whom we ask. If we could go back in time and put the question to an ordinary Greek from the classical period, he might tell us that ‘I know one when I see one’, thus relying on his own inner certainty and experience of seeing gods in dreams or waking visions. In fact, ‘seeing the gods’ is one of the most ubiquitously attested forms of divine–human interaction in antiquity.¹ Yet if we asked another, more...

  9. PART I SYSTEMATIC ASPECTS

    • 2 CANONIZING THE PANTHEON: THE DODEKATHEON IN GREEK RELIGION AND ITS ORIGINS
      (pp. 43-54)
      Ian Rutherford

      It is surprising that an idea apparently so central to Greek religion as the twelve gods or Dodekatheon can be traced back no further than the late sixth century BC. This is when an altar of the twelve gods was set up in the agora at Athens by the archon Peisistratos, son of Hippias, and grandson of Peisistratos the tyrant, in 522 BC, during the regime of Hippias.¹ It was a modest, square structure, situated in the northwest corner of the agora, discovered during the construction of the Athens–Piraeus railway, and now bisected by it. The altar of the...

    • 3 GODS IN GREEK INSCRIPTIONS: SOME METHODOLOGICAL QUESTIONS
      (pp. 55-80)
      Fritz Graf

      Apuleius’ Psyche already knew that dedicatory inscriptions were the quickest way to learn who the divine incumbent of a sanctuary was – most dedications addressed the main divinity worshipped in a sanctuary, so she quickly identified Juno as the incumbent of a sanctuary she stumbled upon.¹ From their study of a growing number of ancient objects, Renaissance antiquarians were familiar with the combination of a divine image and a dedicatory inscription on its base, and the author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, among other things a delightful document of early Renaissance antiquarianism, invented such epigraphical monuments of divinities that were relevant to...

    • 4 METAMORPHOSES OF GODS INTO ANIMALS AND HUMANS
      (pp. 81-91)
      Richard Buxton

      Is the hoary old cliché ‘good to think with’ still good to think with? In my view, yes. One concept that certainly is (and was) good to think with is metamorphosis. In antiquity it was good to think with about just two things, but because those two things are nothing less than the limits of humanity and the nature of the gods, that is, I think, quite enough to be going on with.¹

      Stories of metamorphosis which explore the limits of humanity – stories which I am not going to discuss in this chapter – narrate transformations of human beings as an...

    • 5 SACRIFICING TO THE GODS: ANCIENT EVIDENCE AND MODERN INTERPRETATIONS
      (pp. 92-105)
      Stella Georgoudi

      It is a commonplace to say that sacrifice constitutes the central act of the worship of Greek gods and heroes in the Greek cities. One of the likely reasons for this central position is the fact that many other actions, such as processions, dances, prayers, athletic contests and, more generally, festivals and the deposition of votive offerings, were associated with sacrifices or performed in contexts which in some way or other included aspects of sacrificial practice. As Michael Jameson said, in a very concise manner: ‘Ritual activity was crucial for any Greek social entity. Although we emphasize social and political...

    • 6 GETTING IN CONTACT: CONCEPTS OF HUMAN–DIVINE ENCOUNTER IN CLASSICAL GREEK ART
      (pp. 106-125)
      Anja Klöckner

      The encounter of humans with the divine, however it may be mediated, is central for many religions.¹ The way people conceive these encounters, the way they believe they perceive the divine, and the way they react to this contact are culture-specific. In this chapter I discuss as case studies some images referring to encounters of this kind, most of them from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. I point out their significant characteristics and I try to analyse these characteristics, arguing that different concepts of gods are reflected in different concepts of their presence. These different concepts are portrayed as...

    • 7 NEW STATUES FOR OLD GODS
      (pp. 126-152)
      Kenneth Lapatin

      According to the third-century AD Cilician poet and biographer of philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, Stilpo of Megara was run out of Athens in the late fourth century BC for insulting the city’s patron goddess:

      He used the following argument concerning Pheidias’ Athena: ‘Isn’t Athena, the daughter of Zeus, a god?’ And when the other said ‘Yes’ he went on, ‘But she isn’t Zeus’, but Pheidias’.’ When the other agreed, he concluded, ‘So she isn’t a god.’ And for this he was summoned before the Areopagos.

      There, he attempted to defend himself, ingeniously arguing that Athena was no god, but rather a...

  10. PART II INDIVIDUAL DIVINITIES AND HEROES

    • 8 ZEUS AT OLYMPIA
      (pp. 155-177)
      Judith M. Barringer

      Olympia was the foremost sanctuary in honour of Zeus in the ancient world, and although the god had many manifestations at Olympia, none is so well known as the regal seated Olympian Zeus created by Pheidias for the temple of Zeus in c.438–432 BC (Figs. 8.1–8.3).¹ Its size, c.13.5 m high, and material, ivory and gold, guaranteed its fame, and it became the prevailing image of Zeus on coinage and in other media thenceforth. More common throughout Olympia’s earlier history, however, are dynamic, standing images of the god and other dedications to Zeus that emphasize his concerns with...

    • 9 ZEUS IN AESCHYLUS: THE FACTOR OF MONETIZATION
      (pp. 178-192)
      Richard Seaford

      It is often emphasized that we must be careful to avoid seeing the Greek gods through Christian spectacles. But the emphasis has, I suggest, itself often distorted our view. Here, for instance, in an influential paper on the Oedipus Tyrannus, is E. R. Dodds:

      We cannot hope to understand Greek literature if we persist in looking at it through Christian spectacles. To the Christian it is a necessary part of piety to believe that God is just. And so it was to Plato and the Stoics. But the older world saw no such necessity. If you doubt this, take down...

    • 10 HEPHAISTOS SWEATS OR HOW TO CONSTRUCT AN AMBIVALENT GOD
      (pp. 193-208)
      Jan N. Bremmer

      In a seminal 1978 article on Aphrodite and Persephone in Locri, the late Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood (1945–2007) broke new ground by raising the problem of the relationship between the local and Panhellenic persona of a Greek divinity.¹ However, this is only one aspect of Greek polytheism. In addition to the relationship between the local and Panhellenic persona, we also have to think about the relations between the various gods as they are reflected in the divine pecking order: which gods are more important than others and how we can distinguish these hierarchies.² By paying close attention to the ways the...

    • 11 TRANSFORMING ARTEMIS: FROM THE GODDESS OF THE OUTDOORS TO CITY GODDESS
      (pp. 209-227)
      Ivana Petrovic

      One of the most celebrated works of art in antiquity, famous for its artistic qualities, the impression it left on its observer and its technical excellence, was Pheidias’ enthroned Zeus made for the sanctuary at Olympia.¹ It is interesting that this particular statue was, according to the tradition, approved by two authorities: Zeus himself and Homer.

      According to widespread tradition,² Pheidias’ representation of Zeus was inspired by the following verses from the Iliad (1. 528–30): ‘As he spoke, the son of Kronos bowed his dark brows, and the ambrosial locks swayed on his immortal head, till vast Olympos reeled.’³...

    • 12 HERAKLES BETWEEN GODS AND HEROES
      (pp. 228-244)
      Emma Stafford

      One way of getting at the question with which this volume begins, ‘what is a Greek god?’, is to consider figures whose divine status is in some kind of doubt. In this chapter I review the case of Herakles, whose special status as something in between a god and a hero has exercised scholars from antiquity to the present day. Most recently the debate has focused particularly on cult practice, looking at Herakles in the light of broader discussion of the traditional Olympian–chthonian opposition, and of the extent to which ritual reflects the character of its recipient. There are,...

    • 13 IDENTITIES OF GODS AND HEROES: ATHENIAN GARDEN SANCTUARIES AND GENDERED RITES OF PASSAGE
      (pp. 245-270)
      Claude Calame

      ‘What is a Greek god?’ was the question addressed by Albert Henrichs in chapter 1 of this volume. The question I would like to ask here concerns a group of female divinities belonging to the classical Athenian pantheon all associated with sites characterized as garden sanctuaries. From the perspective of landscape architecture it is this: ‘What would the Greek gods amount to if they were not associated with heroes?’

      A significant number of the Attic tragedies that have come down to us end with an aetiological section involving the establishment of a cult. This is particularly true of the tragedies...

  11. PART III DIACHRONIC ASPECTS

    • 14 EARLY GREEK THEOLOGY: GOD AS NATURE AND NATURAL GODS
      (pp. 273-317)
      Simon Trépanier

      The present chapter does not survey the whole of Greek theology, or even all of early Greek theology.¹ Rather, in keeping with this book’s theme of ‘identities and transformations’, I want to ask: how much of the Olympians do the first Greek philosophers retain in their world systems? The answer, of course, is not straightforward, for reasons it will be the purpose of this chapter to explore.

      Perhaps the most obvious change over the period, to which a good deal of attention has been rightly paid, is the emergence of a more universal conception of the divine, as a single,...

    • 15 GODS IN EARLY GREEK HISTORIOGRAPHY
      (pp. 318-334)
      Robert L. Fowler

      This chapter seeks to understand something of Herodotus’ attitude towards the gods, both by examining his text for internal indications and by comparing the practice of other early writers. There have been, to be sure, many excellent studies of Herodotus’ gods, and his religion.¹ In general one may study Herodotus’ text either to discover evidence of religious practice and belief, or to assess the role of the gods in the Histories themselves. The second of these is the primary focus here, but more than the usual point that the gods are deeply implicated in the course of history, in various...

    • 16 GODS IN APULIA
      (pp. 335-347)
      T. H. Carpenter

      If we are going to talk in anything but generalities about gods, we need to provide a clear focus on both the time and place under discussion. The more precise we can be about both, the more substance our comments can have. While the gods may be absolute, human perceptions of them are not. What follows here is a discussion of evidence for local perceptions of gods from the southeastern region of Italy usually called Apulia. The focus will be on the fourth century BC, particularly the first half of it, which was a creative period of transition for which...

    • 17 LUCIAN’S GODS: LUCIAN’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE DIVINE
      (pp. 348-361)
      Matthew W. Dickie

      The only existing full-scale study of Lucian’s thinking on the subject of the divine is that undertaken in the 1930s by the French scholar Marcel Caster.¹ He came to what seems to me a startling conclusion, that Lucian was an atheist in the modern acceptance of the word; he was someone who went well beyond the Epicurean position, that there were gods, but that they did not intervene in the world, to the much more radical proposition that there were no gods at all. Caster had reached that judgement by telling himself that only someone who was seriously irreligious and...

    • 18 THE GODS IN THE GREEK NOVEL
      (pp. 362-374)
      Ken Dowden

      How important are gods to the Greek novel? And how much do the novels encourage the view that the gods are active in human affairs? In this chapter I consider the frequency with which named, and also unspecified, gods are mentioned and how essential they are to the action of the novel. I shall conclude that in many cases it is not enough simply to view them in terms of literary convention and that literary convention itself depends on some acceptance within the world of the novel of beliefs that would be held in the real world.

      The range of...

    • 19 READING PAUSANIAS: CULTS OF THE GODS AND REPRESENTATION OF THE DIVINE
      (pp. 375-387)
      Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge

      Over the past couple of decades Pausanias has become the centre of a minor academic industry, a point made recently by Glen Bowersock.¹ The growing scholarship in this area has taken Pausanias’ profile seriously and his work at face value. One of the major trends has been the appreciation of Pausanias’ work as a complex literary enterprise and not just as a databank to be plundered without taking into consideration the context of each piece of information, be it chronological or narratological. Such a flourishing interest in Pausanias’ work has also been inspired by the increasing interest in the Greek...

    • 20 KRONOS AND THE TITANS AS POWERFUL ANCESTORS: A CASE STUDY OF THE GREEK GODS IN LATER MAGICAL SPELLS
      (pp. 388-405)
      Christopher A. Faraone

      There are some obvious and therefore less interesting ways in which the Greek gods show up in the magical texts of later antiquity. Sometimes the process involves shrinking a large-scale communal sanctuary down to the size of a personal shrine that can be placed in a house or even on top of a table. Thus Eitrem showed long ago how a series of divination spells in the Greek magical handbooks invoke Apollo by traditional cult names and require various implements and images associated with his oracular sites in Delphi, Klaros and Didyma.¹ Indeed, one spell instructs us how to assemble...

    • 21 HOMO FICTOR DEORUM EST: ENVISIONING THE DIVINE IN LATE ANTIQUE DIVINATORY SPELLS
      (pp. 406-421)
      Sarah Iles Johnston

      At Odyssey 16.161, the poet tells us ‘the gods do not show themselves clearly to everyone’, and there is no reason to doubt him. In this passage it is only Odysseus – and, interestingly, a group of dogs – who realize that Athena is among them. Telemachos, although standing nearby, is unaware of her presence. In other cases, no one at all recognizes a god in their midst: the royal family of Eleusis lives for weeks without knowing that they have Demeter as their nursemaid.¹ Later Greek narratives, too, indicate that the gods were hard to recognize. Semele is so uncertain about...

    • 22 THE GODS IN LATER ORPHISM
      (pp. 422-441)
      Alberto Bernabé

      The title of this chapter includes two concepts which require explanation, since they are not self-evident: ‘later’ and ‘Orphism’. On the one hand, we must start from the assumption that what we call Orphism is not a doctrinal system, unique, dogmatic and always coherent.¹ Various authors decided to ascribe their own poems to Orpheus, a mythical character, in order to give them the prestige of a great name and the status of revealed texts, which would consequently be true.² Since they are authors from different times and even with different ideas, we may suppose that the doctrine found in different...

    • 23 CHRISTIAN APOLOGISTS AND GREEK GODS
      (pp. 442-464)
      Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta

      Greek gods and polytheism as a distinctive feature of Graeco-Roman culture and religion were favourite themes among the Christian apologists of the second century. In an attempt to promote monotheism as characteristic of Christian religion, the apologists not only presented pagan religion as a typically polytheistic belief, but also established the ‘disarmingly simple model . . . according to which mankind . . . had progressed from polytheism to monotheism under the catalytic action of Christianity’.¹ This idea was pushed so far that the evolutionary model was altered and polytheism presented as a temporary involution: as a corruption of the...

    • 24 THE MATERIALITY OF GOD’S IMAGE: THE OLYMPIAN ZEUS AND ANCIENT CHRISTOLOGY
      (pp. 465-480)
      Christoph Auffarth

      In the ancient world people imagined a god or a goddess by referring to a double ‘image’ of the divine being: one is the invisible and immaterial god in opposition to the visible and material world of humankind; the other represents it as a material image, in shape and size almost that of a human being. As I will argue in this chapter, most people were aware of the difference between these two images. Christians, however, accused their pagan adversaries of confusing the two – by taking the material representation as the invisible living god, they worshipped a dead stone, a...

  12. PART IV HISTORIOGRAPHY

    • 25 THE GREEK GODS IN LATE NINETEENTH- AND EARLY TWENTIETH-CENTURY GERMAN AND BRITISH SCHOLARSHIP
      (pp. 483-504)
      Michael Konaris

      The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries constitute a crucial period in the history of the study of the Greek gods. These years witnessed the demise of approaches that had been influential for several centuries and the emergence of others, the impact of which is still felt in the discipline.

      In this final chapter I examine both declining and emerging approaches to the Greek gods in German and British scholarship in this period with a primary, although not exclusive, focus on Apollo as a case study. On the German side, I look at one of the last examples of the...

  13. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 505-510)
    Andrew Erskine

    This volume has sought to put the gods back into Greek religion, a realm from which modern scholarship with its emphasis on ritual and anthropology had rather paradoxically ousted them. When we direct our attention to the gods themselves, what is striking is the variety, both of gods and of ways of experiencing them. Which gods are important changes with place and time. Not every god makes it into everyone’s pantheon; while some such as Zeus and Apollo are core members, others such as Ares and Dionysos might be included but might not. Gods may be promoted up the hierarchy...

  14. INDEX
    (pp. 511-530)