The Gods of Ancient Greece

Oracle of Delphi, credit Wikipedia

The Gods of Ancient Greece

Albert Henrichs, Greek Myth and Religion: Collected Papers II, Ed., Harvey Yunis, De Gruyter, 2019, Pp.i-xxxvi, 1-606, reviewed by DARRELL SUTTON

Albert Henrichs (1942-2017), Eliot Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard University, was unselfish with what he knew and over the decades he imparted his wisdom to his many pupils. He understood how powerful the positive and negative influences of religion were upon the shaping of the ancient vision. Individuals who were unable to attend his classes can now benefit from his tutelage at a distance. This volume of collected papers on Greek Myth and Religion, the second of four, encapsulates his extensive knowledge of these fields. Twenty-seven essays were selected for inclusion, all reflecting the highest standards of classical research and scholarship. Nine are in German, the remainder in English.

Owing to his erudite contribution to the study of The Cologne Mani Codex, with Ludwig Koenen, and to herculean efforts made toward the issuance of the fragments of Lollianus’ Phoinikika, he was considered a scholar of means before he reached his thirtieth birthday. A tenured academic position soon followed. Early in his career, his wide-ranging scholarly investigations led him in several directions simultaneously, one of which focused on papyrological issues. Through the ensuing years he expanded the range of his inquiries and his studies came to explore various facets of religious expression among ancient Greeks; but he also published on ancient Christian topics and reviewed modern works of biblical scholarship on ancient religious texts.

This volume contains a brief Preface, v-viii, which supplies useful information about Henrichs, the quality of his work and the contents of the book. With nearly two hundred items published under his name, the Bibliography, xiii-xxi, chronologically traces the course of his writings. His literary projects distinguished him from other Greek scholars. His work was systematic and of particular interest to scholars who specialized in ancient Greek religion. A Table of Contents is appended below. What follows are comments on a few articles. Paper 2 is a sober discussion of ‘Pagan Ritual and the Alleged Crimes of Early Christians’. Henrichs notes the power of rumor for derogatory purposes and offers a clear-headed assessment of the evidence of ancient ritual patterns which led to allegations of ‘child murder and uncontrolled promiscuity’ among Christians. His refutation of such claims is authoritative.

He elaborates further on the issue of child murder in paper 3, ‘Human Sacrifice in Greek Religion…’, in which he avers that ‘The Greeks preferred the fiction of human sacrifice to its reality” (p.37). He cites modern authorities of Greek history and excavationists for confirmation that human sacrifice was not a ‘regular cultic institution’. Skeletal remains found at an altar to Zeus in Mount Lykaion in the summer of 2016 now contest that consensus. But not just the lack of archaeological remains suggest a lack of practice. Around the Mediterranean, corpses that were wholly consumed by fire turned to ash, but were not always placed in urns for preservation. Some remains were merely submerged in the dust, which would make those particles almost indistinguishable from surrounding organic matter thousands of years later, especially if they were scattered within various districts that were far away from the site of ritual or non-ritual sacrifice. There is no modern comprehensive reference work available that treats of how the ancient Greeks handled their remains because, as Henrichs states, ‘No authentic eyewitness report of human sacrifice or ritual murder exists in all of Greek and Latin literature’ (p.38).

Paper 5 ‘Fasting, Bouphonia’ is a brief note of two pages. Abstaining from all food had a purifying effect, but as Henrichs says, “feasting was more central than fasting” to ancient Greeks. ‘Abstinence be damned’ is more likely to have been a proverb for a Hellene to live by. Although abstinence in its varied forms purified the devotee, Greek interest in purification was not a popular one. In paper 9, ‘What is a Greek Priest’, Henrichs struggles to convey an adequate definition of the Greek word ἱερεύς. His fears were unfounded. He thinks that the word has too many Christian overtones. At one time maybe, but presently, no. Relatively few classical scholars or historians in contemporary academia personally believe in a Christian dogma of any kind. So their knowledge of what a Christian priest does today is as limited as their knowledge of what an ancient Greek priest did in the past. However you describe the men, women and children who performed liturgical functions within Greek polytheism, they all were ministrants of the gods (a much better description in my opinion). I disagree with Henrichs and Burkert when they allege that no school existed for passing on ceremonial customs. Guidance was imparted individually. The principles believed, rites performed, and traditions passed down, were transmitted by informed persons (practitioners) who served the gods and desired to see Greek customs endure.

In paper 16, ‘What is a Greek god?’ Henrichs builds definitively on similar concerns remarked upon in the preceding paper on priests. Apparently, some sort of prejudice existed in the academy for over a century with regard to studies of Greek religion (p.365), one which marginalized studies of Greek gods but focused on ancient Greek cults. Henrichs reacts against historians’ fear of using the word theology/ θεολογία, saying that ‘θεολογία is in origin a perfectly good pagan word that first appears in Plato, meaning ‘talking about the gods/god’ (p.363). His fears were not unwarranted. H.J. Rose, in his Handbook of Greek Literature, p.159, assumed that Aeschylus was essentially a monotheist. Rose’s statement is misleading. If by ‘monotheist’ one infers that Aeschylus preferred one god [Zeus] above other gods, the claim is acceptable. But if one supposes, as a Christian would, that he denied the existence of other deities, that belief is mistaken.

Several Greek gods and goddesses’ names remain quite popular in contemporary literature, particularly the twelve Titans whose images typically depict them in the nude, and twelve Olympians: e.g., Zeus, Athena, Apollos, Poseidon, Hades etc. Still, readers might be surprised to learn that “In the Greek polytheistic system, the number of gods is potentially infinite”. This topic is amplified in paper 14, ‘…Unknown gods and Nameless Altars at the Aeropagus’, where he considers Paul’s discovery of an altar to an unidentified deity. He noted that “As a general rule, Greek altars were dedicated to the worship of one or more particular deities whose identity, or identities, would have been known to worshippers regardless of whether the altar bore any inscription. Furthermore, uninscribed altars were commonly found throughout the Greek world” (p.307).

Henrichs identifies three characteristics that sets gods apart: (1) immortality, (2) anthropomorphism, and (3) power. This ‘power’ might have been depicted in various appearances in dreams, visions of bodily appearances to mortals: see ‘Part III: Divine Epiphanies’ which contains three articles. Greeks believed that their gods found the human frame a suitable form through wish to express themselves. Ancient Greek poets and tragedians addressed themselves to these beings in verse. Epic poems popularized the gods through lively turns of phrase; tragedy and comedy set them in an altogether new light: the staging of ancient theatre offered attendees the visual of a θεολογεον, an elevated rostrum or balcony on which proxies of divinities emerged and spoke for the gods. Henrichs scrutinizes words like ‘epiphany’, ‘seeing the gods’ and so on in this section: attention is given to Dionysos in the German text of paper 21, ‘Divine Presence as Difference. Dionysos as an Epiphanic God.’ Accordingly, Dionysos is everywhere in the Bacchae: ‘Nirgendo is Dionysos mehr present als in den Bakchen’ (p.455). Henrichs uses Euripides’ text to show how different Dionysos was from other gods.

Henrichs’ work on Manichaica improved the field of Manichaean studies. In paper 24, ‘The Cologne Mani Codex Reconsidered’, he reflects on the codex’s substance and significance, and on what was and was not known more than five decades ago when he arrived in Vienna on June 14 1969 to meet with eminent papyri scholar, Dr. Anton Fackelmann (1916-1985). Mani, a 3rd century religious figure (c.AD 216-276), supposedly received revelations from god as early as the age of twelve. Henrichs tenders a rough outline of some of his youthful religious beliefs in paper 22, ‘Mani and the Babylonian Baptists: A Historical Confrontation’. Mani’s knowledge of Christian writings and tradition were later used to confirm his own unique role, depicting him as someone who wanted to accomplish even more than Jesus.

Mani considered himself a reincarnated figure, as an Apostle of Light, i.e. someone filled with the illuminating spirit that guided charismatic but enigmatic leaders. Further, his mission made him the ‘seal of the prophets’, a claim and a title that would appear again in late 6th century, when used by The Apostle of Islam. Royal leaders distrusted him. Both king and Magi disapproved of Mani. He was imprisoned and died under King Bahram I (cf.p.572 fn.8). After his death, his body was mutilated. Manichaeism is not completely extinct. Small communities still practice it in China, Mongolia and other far eastern locales.

Henrichs’ literary critiques are informative. Likewise, the arguments he posits for the veracity or inauthenticity of select miracle stories in The Cologne Mani Codex.

In conclusion, the study of religion in antiquity is an area dominated by unsubstantiated theories. Henrichs alluded to this problem when he claimed that,

“Written records are the raw material of past history, especially for the modern historian who would be at a loss without them. But in the field of ancient religious beliefs and movements, perhaps more than anywhere else, the very lack of sufficient documentation tends to call forth a rather disproportionate amount of scholarly activity, doubtless nourished by the tacit conviction that when we deal with Geistesgeschicte, certain invariable features of the human condition entitle us to substitute assumptions for recorded facts”.

He concludes with the astute observation that the “triumphant feeling” inspired by supposedly new discoveries, “more often than not, gives way to a more disenchanted attitude when we come to realize that ignorance is the toll of historical truth and that behind each foothold in newly gained terrain, looms an abyss of nowhere…” And “we are once more left with conjecture and imagination as our only guides” (pp.497-8).

Into a world of conflicting ideologies, the Greek gods came to dwell amongst men. The gods vacillated in mind, in will and in feeling. They helped, they hindered. They cursed and they blessed. Greek poetic literature tells of them; and readers of those archaic Greek texts recited them to vast audiences. Whatever else may be said of them, the ancient Greek heroes and gods behaved in accordance with the people’s behaviour and beliefs. [Editorial note; see the aforementioned comment on anthropomorphism]. Yet despite all of Henrichs’ efforts, many of the ideas that underpinned the religion of the ancient Greeks remain shrouded in mystery.

[Other volumes of Henrichs in this series are Collected Papers I: Greek Literature; Collected Papers III: Dionysus: Myth, Image, Identity; Collected Papers IV: History of Scholarship.]


Part I: Sacrifice and Ritual

1 ΜΕΓΑΡΟΝ im Orakel des Apollon Kareios 3
2 Pagan ritual and the alleged crimes of the early Christians: A reconsideration 11
3 Human sacrifice in Greek religion: Three case studies 37
4 The Eumenides and wineless libations in the Derveni papyrus 69
5 Fasting, Bouphonia 85
6 Dromena und Legomena. Zum rituellen Selbstverständnis der Griechen 89
7 ‘Sacrifice as to the Immortals’: Modern classifications of animal sacrifice and ritual distinctions in the Lex Sacra from Selinous 129
8 Blutvergießen am Altar. Zur Ritualisierung der Gewalt im griechischen Opferkult 149
9 What is a Greek priest? 177
10 Mystika, Orphika, Dionysiaka. Esoterische Gruppenbildungen, Glaubensinhalte und Verhaltensweisen in der griechischen Religion 193

Part II: Gods and Myths

11 Die ‘Erdmutter Demeter’ (P. Derveni und Euripides, Bakchae 275–76) 219
12 Despoina Kybele. Ein Beitrag zur Religiösen Namenkunde 221
13 Die Götter Griechenlands. Ihr Bild im Wandel der Religionswissenschaft 255
14 Anonymity and polarity: Unknown gods and nameless altars at the Areopagos 299
15 Demythologizing the past, mythicizing the present: Myth, history, and the supernatural at the dawn of the Hellenistic period 335
16 What is a Greek god? 361
17 Dionysus, Hades, Hecate, Clymenus 383
18 Zeus, Oidipus, Moira, Parcae 403

Part III: Divine Epiphanies

19 Epiphany 427
20 The epiphanic moment: Sight and insight in ancient Greek encounters with the divine 429
21 Göttliche Präsenz als Differenz. Dionysos als epiphanischer Gott 451

Part IV: Manichaica

22 Mani and the Babylonian baptists: A historical confrontation 467
23 ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill A Tree’: Greek, Manichaean, and Indian Tales 503
24 The Cologne Mani Codex reconsidered 529
25 Literary criticism of The Cologne Mani Codex 559
26 The timing of supernatural events in The Cologne Mani Codex 569
27 ‘So sprach mein Herr und Meister’. Selbstaussagen Manis, aufgezeichnet von seinen Schülern 591

Pastor Darrell Sutton publishes papers on ancient texts and reviews biblical and classical literature

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