Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 5.

John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan (edd.), Household and Family Religion in Antiquity. The Ancient World: Comparative Histories. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. xii + 324, incl. 1 map and 30 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-1-4051-7579-1. UK£55.00.

Mark Kirby-Hirst
Classics, University of South Africa, Pretoria

Bodel and Olyan have succeeded in cobbling together a work that is fraught with problems and contradictions. This is due in no small part to the fact that, as the title of the book suggests, the object of their study is Household and Family Religion in Antiquity. The second half of their title provokes immediate uncertainty, with the word ‘Antiquity’ loosely defining both the temporal and spatial parameters of the project, and thus shaping an extremely large area of inquiry with the broad notion of family religion as its only guide.[[1]] Indeed, definition is pointed to as a key concern throughout this book’s fifteen chapters, specifically the definition of the concept of family religion itself, and this is a problem that every contributor grapples with for at least a portion of his or her allotted space. While this does make the point that family religion appears to be entirely mutable and is often moulded to its context, I do still feel that even a modicum of direction on the part of the editors (perhaps in the shape of a basic and general definition with which the individual contributors could wrestle) would have gone a long way toward establishing a more directed discussion from the contributing authors and perhaps even have created the possibility of more useful conclusions. I would have to identify this lack of worthwhile conclusions (not all of the book’s papers suffer from this malady) and the aforementioned extensive scope of the work as being its major downfall. I should however note that the temporal and physical realm this book seeks to explore is also an asset, as it does provide readers with an inkling of just how multifaceted and rich in complexities the subject of family religion is. Despite its problems I would still tend to recommend the book as a worthy addition to the field of ancient religious studies and a good read for those interested in the subject.

The content of Household and Family Religion in Antiquity stretches across over two thousand years and more than half a dozen distinct societies. The editors have chosen to unleash the comparative method on this content in order to further elucidate family religion. Bodel and Olyan (p. 3) justify their choice of the comparative method as follows: ‘ . . . comparison strikes us as particularly welcome and even necessary when the phenomenon under study, however it is to be more precisely defined, is attested as broadly and cross-culturally as is household and family religion’. This is only made apparent in the final chapter, ‘Comparative Perspectives’ (pp. 276- 82). As someone who agrees that the nuance of comparative theory is under-utilized, I must still contend that a more surgical approach to the subject, and perhaps even arbitrarily confining the study to the first 1000 years B.C.E., for example, would have yielded a superior work. As it stands, while the attempt is certainly laudable, and while I do concur that, as Bodel and Olyan (p. 3) note ‘comparison has the potential to generate new questions and novel insights’, this is sometimes not the case with Household and Family Religion in Antiquity, which appears to only manage a rather limited conclusion.

The work is divided into some fifteen chapters, including introductory remarks (pp. 1-4) and the above-mentioned ‘Comparative Perspectives’ (pp. 276-82), both co-authored by the editors themselves. The remaining thirteen chapters are roughly grouped by region, beginning with ancient Middle Eastern societies, before shifting to three chapters on ancient Israel, one on Ashdod, two studying domestic cult in Egypt, two on ancient Greece and one chapter addressing Rome. There is a further chapter by Stanley Stowers (pp. 5-19) that functions as a second and more substantial introduction to the idea of ‘family religion’. This particular chapter entitled ‘Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families’, is among the finest in the volume, and perhaps the only one to properly embrace the religious and sociological theories and debates that underpin the entire discourse of family religion. Several of the other contributors have tended to ignore the theoretical and have instead immersed themselves in great catalogues of archaeological discoveries that, while interesting in their own right, often have little in terms of a theoretical context to provide an explanation for their exposition. This in turn leads to the general lack of conclusions that many of this work’s contributions suffer from.

Karel van der Toorn (‘Family Religion in Second Millennium West Asia’, pp. 20-36) presents the next chapter, stating a preference for the use of ‘family’ as opposed to ‘household’ religion, ostensibly because of the greater flexibility allowed by the former. According to van der Toorn, Mesopotamian family religion emphasizes the group’s participation (i.e. the family) in the worship of gods and the propitiation of the ancestors.

‘The Integration of Household and Community Religion in Ancient Syria’ (pp. 37-59) is Daniel Fleming’s addition to this work. He addresses three main points in his paper, ‘care for the gods and the dead’, the god Dagan and his role ‘in public religion and personal names’, and ‘households and public shrines’ (p. 38). Through these three issues Fleming is able to illustrate that gods and ancestors are attached to a particular household regardless of where that household might choose to locate itself. He also suggests the ancestor cult is central to kin relations in the Syrian setting.

Chapter 5 (pp. 60-88) is penned by Theodore J. Lewis and approaches family religion at Ugarit. Like Fleming he points out the central role of ancestor cult in this society and constantly makes reference to the difficulty involved in obtaining evidence for any form of non-elite religious activity (elite action is more likely to be grand and thus commemorated, while the practices of the average citizen are easily overlooked). He also notes that family cult practices quite often reinforce the larger scale rites of the entire community (p. 72).

Rainer Albertz is responsible for the next contribution, ‘Family Religion in Ancient Israel and its Surroundings’ (pp. 89-112). His chapter is analytical and follows a logical progression, beginning by outlining several of the more important terms of interest in the study of family religion (i.e. Syncretism, Popular Religion and Internal Religious Pluralism, pp. 90-93). He then surveys the archaeological and literary sources before extrapolating from them some of the meaning behind religious belief in ancient Israel. Albertz is one of but a handful of contributors to this volume who successfully translates physical evidence into application. Indeed, he provides one of the better broad conceptualizations of family religion:

‘ . . . the symbolic world of family religion was constructed according to the personal relations of the family members themselves, especially the mutual relations between children and their parents, which are generally unconditional, indissoluble and indestructible in a similar way. What is said about confidence, protection, and security in relation to the personal god corresponds to the ideal experiences of every infant with respect to his mother or his father. Thus, the beliefs of family religion are heavily shaped by basic relations and experiences within the family group.’ (p. 103)

Chapter 7 is written by one of the editors, Saul Olyan (pp. 113-26), and also deals with Israelite family religion. In a relatively brief contribution (barring endnotes, the actual article amounts to nine pages), Olyan investigates family religion in the Levant in large part through the work of previous theorists.

Susan Ackerman follows with ‘Household Religion, Family Religion, and Women’s Religion in Ancient Israel’ (pp. 127-58), the third contribution to broach the topic of family religion in Israel. She indicates that the average Israelite household was by no means nuclear in arrangement but rather home to a multitude of family members who all lived together. Ackerman’s study provides an intriguing look at the role of women in household cult, but is unfortunately marred by a lack of explanation when it comes to the presentation of the archaeological evidence. In this case, direction in the form of basic conclusions founded upon the archaeology would have made this otherwise engaging paper a more useful inclusion.

Chapter 9 by Rüdiger Schmitt (pp. 159-70) looks at the archaeology of Philistia and how material remains pertain to the practices of family cult in the region. This chapter carries out grand archaeological exposition with very little interpretation, and while the paper is quite fascinating, its neatly signposted conclusion does little to mitigate the appreciable lack of theoretical discussion.

Chapter 10 shifts the focus to ancient Egypt. Robert Ritner (pp. 171-96) opens by noting that household religion is something that has been largely ignored in the study of Egyptian belief systems (p. 171). He further contends that the influence of family religion can be traced through other ritual activities that occurred external to the home, all with a basis in the archaeological pieces unearthed throughout the home as part and parcel of domestic cult practice (p.186). Barbara Lesko adds the second chapter confined to the study of family religion in ancient Egypt (p. 197-209). Lesko’s chapter augments Ritner’s by arguing for an expansion of the definition of family religion to include the religious behaviour that took place beyond the household, specifically ‘activities involved with the daily pursuits of the citizenry, whether farming, herding or any task or craft that ordinary people might engage in’ (p. 200). Lesko also provides for an interesting perspective suggesting that women had a far greater influence on Egyptian household cult (and thereby all Egyptian belief) than was previously understood.

‘Household Religion in Ancient Greece’ (pp. 210-28) by Christopher Faraone explores family religion with special reference to the household worship of Zeus Ktesios, Zeus of the Possessions. One major contention of this chapter is that the male head of a Greek household was not necessarily the primary operator in the Greek religious scenario. Faraone seeks to ‘replace the “individual” with the “household” or “family” as a more important locus of non-civic cult’ (p. 211). He then proceeds to argue for the re-evaluation of notions of public and private cult practice, as these two generic categories often reduce the involvement of marginalized groups (e.g. women, slaves) and do not allow for grey areas between them (p. 222).

Chapter 13 by Deborah Boedeker (pp. 229-47) is the other paper to address the Greek world. She begins with Sourvinou-Innwood’s (2000: f.) assertion that polis religion was the lynchpin of Greek society. Boedeker counters with the fact that while this form of publicly displayed religious orthodoxy might well have been vitally important for the Greek word, ‘this does not mean that the rites practiced by the good citizens (and others) in their homes were necessarily homogeneous, or that the polity’s primacy in religious matters was always uncontested’ (p. 243). Boedeker then expands her position with a study of several forms of divergent ritual practice in the household setting before concluding that polis and household religion are in fact cogs in the same machinery of Greek belief and are most definitely not mutually exclusive.

The final substantive chapter of this volume engages with the subject of Roman domestic cult (pp. 248-75). Here John Bodel first works through several varying conceptions of the Roman family as a means to contextualize worship that took place in that setting. A key concern for his study is the appearance of so-called ‘visiting gods’, votives of gods dedicated in sanctuaries other than their own (p. 255). This level of intermingling between foreign and local divinities, as well as in civic and household belief can be perceived as a reason for the endurance of domestic pagan ritual long after Christianity had done away with the public cults. Bodel also spends time investigating the manner in which the worship bound up in the cults of the Lares and Penates gives insight into the inner workings of household religion among the Romans.

A chapter entitled ‘Comparative Perspectives’ (pp. 276-82) brings this work to a close. In this short piece, conclusions are again few and far between. Instead, the editors arrange all that has gone before in a manner that finally makes clear the element of comparison preached in their introduction. Bodel and Olyan begin by grouping together the volume’s other authors in accordance with their respective positions on the definition of household or family religion. The editors point out that several of their contributors note that problems still exist in ‘recognizing the material and architectural remains of domestic or other relevant religious activity’ (p. 280). With their final word, the editors declare that because the evidence in question is at issue (with textual evidence being biased in favour of the elites) and with even the definition of the problem to be studied under debate, the comparative method remains the only truly viable means of assessing cross-cultural phenomena like domestic religion. More could certainly have been done to emphasize the importance of the comparative method beyond its appearance in Bodel and Olyan’s introduction and conclusion.

Household and Family Religion in Antiquity concludes with a comprehensive and detailed bibliography, and a brief general index that includes both proper names and foreign (e.g. Greek and Latin) terms. This work makes use of expansive endnotes for each of its chapters which all include their own bibliographical information along with good additional commentary.


[[1]] I have elected to use the term ‘family religion’ to describe the phenomenon in question, as I believe it to most accurately designate the relational and locative functions of domestic cult worship.