Swingers and blood sacrifice

Polytheism and Society at Athens
May 19, 2006

Not so long ago, the study of ancient pre-Christian Greek religion languished in the backwaters of Anglophone ancient world scholarship. The standard textbook was a translation, admittedly a good one, from an also superior German original. Now, religion sails at the headwaters as it ought always to have done, and this is thanks not least to Robert Parker.

Parker made a splashy debut in 1983 with Miasma , an anthropologically inflected account of a central feature of the ancient Greek world-view: pollution, both mental and material. This tome, which appears almost exactly a decade after his Athenian Religion:A History , tackles another central feature: the fact that for the ancient Greeks the world was full of anthropomorphically imagined gods and other supranormal, supernatural and superhuman powers.

There are a couple of surprising omissions from this otherwise plenary monograph. First, pollution. This rates just two entries in the subject index, and one of those seeks to de-emphasise the pollution dimension to the (jurisdictional) practices described. Second, a consolidated bibliography of secondary works cited. It may seem churlish to complain of that omission, given all the other Hilfsmittel the author provides, not least a superb checklist of Attic (Athenian) festivals, a select index of ancient sources and monuments, as well as a very full subject index. But this is a work, as the price suggests, for scholars and institutional libraries, rather than for mass circulation. Not even the 20-page listing of "Conventions and abbreviations" can compensate entirely. Its absence compels inconvenient cross-referencing of footnotes and perhaps undue indulgence in footnote writing itself.

Those two omissions aside, it is hard to pay adequate tribute to all the positive qualities of this remarkable work. Like its predecessor, it is well ordered, clearly argued and mightily erudite. The first part begins with "Ancestral gods, ancestral tombs"; the Chinese have by no means cornered the historical market in ancestor worship. It proceeds through chapters on Athenian groups participating in rituals of animal blood sacrifice; on Athenian cult places, both domestic and pan-Hellenic (open to all Greeks and indeed some non-Greeks); on the place of religion in civic life; on religious professionals (who were not state appointees or officially licensed practitioners); and on religion in the theatre - it was the Athenians who invented our idea of the theatre, but did so within a desperately alien, religious context: festivals of Dionysus.

That last chapter leads naturally into the second part of the book, devoted to the beating heart of Athenian civic religion, the annual cycle of religious festivals (uninhibitedly festive as well as solemnly festal).

Herbert Parke's The Festivals of Athens (1977) had a deservedly long shelf life, but its sell-by date has now definitively passed. In an appendix, the author provides an alphabetically ordered checklist of all known Athenian festivals. This will quickly become the first resort for many readers.

Particular attention is paid to the gendering of religious observance and to women-only festivals. Thus one of the four "annexes" is dedicated to the puzzling Skira. Here Parker rebukes any temptation to postmodern playfulness of interpretation, recalling that this women's festival is accessible through "the speculation of antiquarians who inhabited a different world" only.

The final part illustrates and analyses gods (used gender neutrally) at work - both in protecting the city and in facilitating the growth of plants and humans. Besides its empirical contribution, the book is studded with acute aperçus . "A definition of magic as 'socially condemned religious practices' does not create a category which can be easily superimposed on Greek attitudes without some friction." "Anthropologists sometimes contrast 'instrumentalist' and 'expressive' views of ritual... Yet the distinction... is perhaps clearer to the analyst than to the participant."

Less austere readers may be just as fascinated by the religious archaeology of swinging at Athens - not in the sense beloved of the lad mags, but collective swinging on swings by young girls, as at the Erigone festival.

There is even a "Swing Painter" known to modern art-historical science, although he gets no mention here (the visuals are not the book's strongest feature). And those who still not only venerate but literally worship the ancient divinities, such as the (Greek) Society of the Friends of the Ancient and Followers of the Religion of the Twelve (Olympian) Gods, will find much here to refresh - and perhaps also correct - the enactment of their "pagan" rituals. But it is above all scholars of ancient Greece who will wish to offer up a prayer of thanks, or maybe even pour a small libation, in gratitude to Clio, the Muse of History, under whose sign Parker has once again so skilfully and energetically performed.

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history, Cambridge University.

Polytheism and Society at Athens

Author - Robert Parker
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 544
Price - £65.00
ISBN - 0 19 9483 5

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