Daniel Ogden (ed.), A Companion to Greek Religion. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. xxi + 497, incl. 31 black- and-white figures. ISBN-13: 978-1-4051-2054-8. UK£85.00, US$149.95, AUS$280.50.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
In his introduction to the new Companion to Greek Religion, Daniel Ogden describes the purpose of this fascinating tome in a manner reminiscent of a Victorian explorer wandering the Dark Continent (p. 1). Indeed his characterization of the broad and mysterious land called ‘Greek Religion’ is certainly an apt one, wherein the reader witnesses each contributor to the volume making his or her own foray into the glorious unknown. The sweeping scope of the Companion is unfortunately both its greatest boon and bane, for surely any work that attempts to cover exhaustively close to eight hundred years of Greek religious practice is either doomed to superficiality or bound for failure. However, the way in which the Companion chooses to wind its way from topic to topic instills in the reader a sense of the wanderlust of the old explorers and leaves one with the comforting feeling of being in the hands of a skilled tour guide rather than the realization that one has been hoodwinked mid-tour and abandoned.
The Companion is said (p. 1) to have as its area of investigation ‘the Greek-speaking world in the archaic, classical, and Hellenistic periods (i.e., 776-30 BC)’. Declaring the contents of a book, even one that stands at over 500 pages, to be investigating a period of religious history that lasts 800 years, is ambitious in the extreme. A narrower focus could probably have allowed for more detail from each of the contributors and perhaps permitted for a better reflection of the truly important issues. It was never completely clear to me who this book is aimed at, as a few of the contributions are fairly basic in their approach and would make for good introductions to their specific fields, while other papers are noticeably more complex and require prior knowledge of the debates in question for them to be of any use or significance. This confusion on my part was despite the fact that Blackwell notes before the title page of the book that its Companions are ‘designed for an international audience of scholars, students, and general readers.’ Perhaps in the long run the publication of two Companions -- one on the advanced level and one for beginners -- might have proven more effective.
Ogden’s introductory comments are brief, a mere page in fact, but he does provide an excellent synopsis of all of the chapters of the Companion. The whole of the work is sectioned off into nine parts that are defined by the issues peculiar to ancient Greek religious theory and practice, and range from the identity of the gods (‘The Powers: The Gods and the Dead’, pp. 39-114), to places of worship (‘From Sacred Space to Sacred Time’, pp. 161-218), to the place of magic in Greek religion (‘Mysteries and Magic’, pp. 325-70). Each section is comprised of several diverse papers on its subject, clearly illustrating the breadth of research that has occurred in Greek religion over the years. I would have liked to see a concise introduction to each of the sections that comprise this work -- no more than a handful of pages -- each highlighting the essentials of the discussions to come and pointing out key problems and concepts. Of particular appeal however, is the short section entitled ‘Guide to Further Reading’ that concludes each paper contained within the Companion. Here the individual authors identify several of the key aspects of their field and present possible embarkation points for the fastidious traveller. This ‘Guide’ will undoubtedly be extremely useful to the uninitiated.
Ogden points out that the Companion begins and ends with singular essays, opening with Scott Noegel’s look at how Greek religion fits into the larger context of the religious practices of the ancient Near East (pp. 21-38), and closing with Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ (pp. 423-38) comments on how the religious activities of the ancient Greeks are fitted to the cinematic medium that is peculiar to our modern world. Part II, ‘The Powers: The Gods and the Dead’ is an excellent opening section and a worthwhile read, clearly delineating the backdrop against which Greek polytheistic religion played itself out. While I was not terribly impressed with Larson’s dissection of the so- called ‘unsatisfactory’ concept of lesser nature gods (p. 3) -- it seemed out of place in a discussion of far larger issues like the position of Heroes (Gunnel Ekroth, pp. 100-14), the Dead (D. Felton, pp. 86-99), and the Olympians themselves (Ken Dowden, pp. 41-55) -- this section is without doubt a good starting point. The next section, ‘Communicating with the Divine’ (pp. 115-60), consists of three papers. William Furley (pp. 117-31) and Jan Bremmer’s (pp. 132-44) contributions contrast well with each other, with the former discussing aberrations in the spiritual communications formed by prayers and hymns, and the latter observing the norm of Greek sacrificial practice. The section is concluded by Pierre Bonnechere’s (pp. 145-60) paper on divination, which although it is certainly a valid form of divine communication, would possibly have found a better home in the later section on ‘Mysteries and Magic’. ‘Form Sacred Time to Sacred Space’ (pp. 161-218) includes a fascinating contribution from Beate Dignas that paints a picture of ‘A Day in the Life of a Greek Sanctuary’ (pp. 163-77). I am however of the opinion that, although they do receive attention from Andreas Bendlin (pp. 178-89), insufficient space was dedicated to the important concepts of religious purity and spiritual pollution. Part V, ‘Local Religious Systems’ (pp. 219-80), is a useful description of Greek religion in a practical setting, highlighting religious and cultic practices at places like Athens (Susan Deacy, pp. 221-35), Sparta (Nicolas Richer, pp. 236-52), Arcadia (Madeleine Jost, pp. 264-80) and Alexandria (Francoise Dunnand, pp. 253-63). Charles Hendricks Jr. provides a cogent introduction to the next section, ‘Social Organizations, the Family, and Sex’ (pp. 281-324) with his ‘Religion and Society in Classical Greece’ (pp. 283-96). In this section essential issues like that of the role of women in homebound rituals (Janett Morgan, pp. 297-310) and attitudes towards ta aphrodisia (Vinciane Pirenne- Delforge, pp. 311-24) are engaged with. The following part discusses ‘Mysteries and Magic’ (pp. 325-70) and consists of pretty standard fare. Susan Guettel Cole (pp. 327-41) starts things off with an appealing take on Dionysiac mysteries in the Greek world. I do believe that a fuller general comment on the place and perception of mystery cults in ancient Greece would have been a valuable addition to this part of the Companion, although Kevin Clinton does at least try to make up for this briefly with his own contribution (‘The Mysteries of Demeter and Kore’, pp. 342-56). Parts VIII and IX are among the more fascinating elements of this book. Part VIII, aptly titled ‘Intersections’, investigates the representation and reception of religion in Greek literature (Thomas Harrison, pp. 373-84), philosophy (Fritz-Gregor Herrmann, pp. 385-97) and art (T. H. Carpenter, pp. 398-420). Carpenter’s paper, ‘Greek Religion and Art’ is particularly entertaining and well illustrated, as it, among other things, discusses the vases awarded as prizes in the competitions of the Panathenaea. Part IX draws the Companion to a close with ‘Gods of the Silver Screen’ (pp. 423-38) by looking at modern representations of Greek godhead. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones concentrates his examination on two Twentieth-century films -- Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans -- illustrating how the films’ directors were able to bring out Homeric notions of divinity in a modern medium for a public not generally educated in such ideas. Following this is a full bibliography of the works mentioned throughout the Companion and a helpful index. There is a noticeable lack of footnotes and endnotes throughout, which while bestowing a less ‘academic’ feel to the text, also excises any possibility of additional comment beyond the scope of the papers at hand.
To my knowledge a companion for the study of ancient Greek religion has not been published in some years. This particular collection of essays thus offers a survey of the status of research in the field of Greek religion that has been lacking of late. Oxford’s Readings in Greek Religion[] stands as close kin to the Companion, as it does speak to a fairly broad range of issues. However, I believe that it is surpassed by the present volume thanks largely to its broad treatment of the subject matter. Barring the relatively small number of problems that I have previously indicated, the Companion to Greek Religion is overall an excellent package of the best and most interesting research in Greek religion. The papers that have been collected are all of an exceptionally high quality and are generally grouped together in a logical manner that enhances the overall readability of the entire text. It is truly a foray into the unknown of Greek religious studies, an expedition that thanks to the efforts of these authors reveals what lies concealed within the darkness for all to see.
[] Richard Buxton (ed.), Readings in Greek Religion (Oxford 2000).