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/Non-fiction: Greek Religion by Walter Burkert Camilla Send a noteboard - 15/09/2009 05:50:14 PM
When talking about Ancient Greek Religion, people usually mean Mythology. This is because the myths are so well known, so complex and fascinating. And they are stories; and there is something inherently fascinating about stories. But mythologies do not exist in a vacuum. They come with rituals; and hardly anyone talks about the rituals of Ancient Greece. In part because it is trickier to find the traces.

This book came out in 1977, which is quite a while ago, but it has the status of a classic. It considers Greek religion, including its change over time from Minoan and Mycenean up through the Classic period (which is its focus). He looks at the individual gods in the main pantheon, but also smaller gods, as well as the connection to the religions of the Near East at the time. He shows how some cults are integrated with already established Greek deities, while others (like Dionysos) are given space of their own.

Burkert also sets up an opposition between the Olympian and the Chtonic gods, which I found terribly fascinating -- especially when he finds two gods with the same name and the same cultus (there is a Chtonic Zeus as well as an Olympian, for example). I am not sure how far this dichotomy is due to an antiquated academic style, or how much to an actual tendency in Greek culture to divide things into opposites. He does have a rather wonderful discussion of Dionysos as a deity spanning both; as well as an analysis of the Dioskouroi (the brothers of Helena and Klytaimnestra: Kastor and Polludeukes, one of which was mortal and the other immortal, but who did not want to be separated by death, and so shared both states ... it is really quite fascinating). Burkert's tendency to emphasise the many gods with the same name, however, is one of my favourite aspects of the book. He solves the problem of designation by assigning them epithets.

Having distinguished the various gods from each other, he is able to look more closely at the various cultses. He notes the importance of blood, sacrifice and fire in Greek ritual while all the while tying it to myths and literature. If you know your Greek myths, this is where it gets truly fascinating. He will first describe the rituals, and then he indicates the corresponding myth -- which is when you go "aha!".

Let me give you one (only one) example (and I had a hard time choosing). He writes a very intriguing chapter on the Eleusian mysteries; not to mention the really rather appealing Anthisteria, which is also known as the Old Dionysia (the new one being the one where theatre was central), which is a bona fide wine festival with all that entails. I think I'll go with the Thesmaphoria this time: a sinister, Chtonic women's festival dedicated to Demeter.

It is one of the key festivals of the Demeter cultus, and men and virgins are excluded. I am sure men found this rather disconcerting (and I remember reading somewhere that Aristophanes' Lysistrata may be based in part on the paranoia of what women were up to outside the control of manly reason. At any rate, it has been suggested that there were mysteries associated with it, and that is not an unreasonable supposition: Demeter was, after all, one of the key deities of the Eleusian mysteries, and as a fertility- and grain-goddess, she was closely associated with death and rebirth.

During the first day of the festival, piglets were sacrificed: they were thrown into a hole in the ground, and the remnants of the sacrifice from the preceeding year would be taken out of the hole (to be used in fertilising grain). This is a very clearly Chtonic cultus, of course (According to Burkert, Olympian sacrifices were conducted on a raised altar, Chtonic ones in a pit or hole in the ground). Allow me to quote Burkert (and keep in mind that Kore, "young girl", is a name often used for Persephone, the daughter of Demeter who was kidnapped and forced to marry Hades, the ruler of the dead):

The women thus enter into contact with the subterranean, with death and decay, while at the same time phalloi, snakes, and fir-cones, sexulaity and fertility are present. The myth explains the pig sacrifice by the rape of Kore: when Demeter's daughter sank into the earth, the pigs of the swineherd Euboleus were swallowed up as well. So Demeter on her search for her daughter instituted the Tesmophoria; the death marriage is recapitulated in the sacrifice. Demeter, Kore and Zeus Euboleus are worshipped together in connection with the Thesmophoria.

You can see how Burkert makes a clear distinction of one Zeus cultus, distinct from that of Olympian Zeus.

The second day of the festival was a day of fasting and sadness, commemorating the sorrow of Demeter at the loss of her daughter. Followed, on the third day, by a banquet.

I find it interesting to see how many of these rituals correspond (certainly in the larger lines -- possibly without the hurling of piglets into dark pits) to well-known rituals of our own day. And I confess I am a bit of a nut when it comes to Greek myths. But I think others might enjoy this as well. It may be a bit detailed for easy reading, but if you have the background knowledge I think you'll find it fascinating.

Caveat: my expertise on this topic is limited to undergraduate level, and so I may be fooled as to how good his method is (I suspect his descriptions of some of the rituals are in part, at least, derived from the myths in the first place, although he covers a great deal of scholarship). I don't care. It is a lovely book, one I will not part with easily.

structured procrastinator
This message last edited by Rebekah on 20/09/2009 at 08:52:37 AM
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/Non-fiction: Greek Religion by Walter Burkert - 15/09/2009 05:50:14 PM 5224 Views
"He solves the problem of designation by assigning them epithets" - not unlike the ancients, then - 15/09/2009 06:29:57 PM 1416 Views
Re: - not unlike the ancients, then -- no, but unlike a lot of moderns - 15/09/2009 06:35:50 PM 1347 Views
I'll check it out, then. - 15/09/2009 06:46:30 PM 1516 Views

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