Thursday, February 25, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, Retour à la source. Pausanias et la religion grecque. Kernos Suppléments 20. Liège: Centre International d'Étude de la Religion Grecque Antique, 2008. Pp. 411. ISBN 9782960071733. €40.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Sarah Iles Johnston, The Ohio State University

Retour à la source takes its title to heart: Pirenne-Delforge presents a close reading of passages from Pausanias that are important for understanding his usefulness as a source of knowledge concerning ancient religion. Throughout, Pirenne-Delforge pays special attention to how Pausanias uses particular words--muthologemata, thusia, telete, etcetera--and builds on these studies to suggest broader conclusions, e.g., that for Pausanias, muthologemata were truths about the gods that had been 'parasitized' by falsehoods (page 71). The overall result is a book that both presents new interpretations of some problematic passages and also offers (for the first time, as far as I know) a reading of how Pausanias operated as what we would nowadays call a historian of religion, whatever else he may have been as well. As such a person herself, and methodologically informed by the most up-to-date work on ancient religion (as well as by work on Pausanias by scholars such as Jas Elsner and Ewan Bowie), Pirenne-Delforge can strike a new path that has global implications for further studies not only of Pausanias but also of religion during the Second Sophistic more generally, for two complementary reasons. First, by providing overviews of how Pausanias understood ideas central to our own study of religion (such as thusia), she improves our evidential use of his text. Second, by presenting Pausanias not only as a sungrapheus and a pious man (a standard authorial role during the Second Sophistic), but also as something approaching a scholar of religion, she usefully complicates such questions as whether he experienced an Arcadian 'conversion' (more on that below), and thereby challenges assumptions about how we might divide Pausanias the man from Pausanias the author.

Below I will focus on a few discussions that I found particularly interesting; therefore, an initial list of some of the book's highlights may be helpful:

Introduction: a description of her methodology and the reasons for its reliance on close readings of the text.

Chapitre I--Écrire une sungraphè: discussions of how Pausanias presented himself as a sungrapheus, and his dedication to sungraphe as work designed simultaneously to preserve information and to arouse the interest of his readers; Pausanias' care in distinguishing stories that he believes from those he does not.

Chapitre II--Les logoi: passé, mémoire et histoire: examination of such words as archaios and palaios (which are frequently called into use to discuss what we now call 'history'), genealogein, logos, phêmê and muthologêmata ('muthos' is almost never used by Pausanias); Pausanias' presentation of the past as fragmented; the tension between local stories and panhellenic epic; Pausanias' criteria for judging the credibility of a story and his use of direct and indirect speech to imply varying degrees of credibility; his differing treatment of divine stories and heroic stories; the purposes to which he puts genealogies.

Chapitre III--Les theôrèmata: le présent de la visite: arguments against Elsner's understanding of Pausanias as a pilgrim and Pirenne-Delforge's insistence on distinguishing theoria from pilgrimage; Pausanias' determination to conserve local knowledge; an initial discussion of vocabulary used to discuss ritual (particularly the verb dran--his view of rituals as 'something done' is thereby close to our own); Pausanias' differing motivations for being silent about certain things that he learns; his presentation of what it means to be Greek within a Roman empire.

Chapitre IV--La practique sacrificielle: analysis of Greek words for sacrifice; critique of the (scholarly) division between 'Olympian' and 'chthonian' sacrifice and consideration of alternative approaches; analysis of how Pausanias defined 'normal' sacrifice and judged individual cases against that paradigm.

Chapitre V--Le monde des dieux et des héros: the structure of the divine realm and the differences within it between gods and heroes; the role of epicleses and representations in the formation of concepts of the gods; the interface between religion and art in Pausanias; the issue of axiologia.

Chapitre VI--Cultes à mystères et autres secrets: the meaning of the word telete in Pausanias; the importance of understanding mysteries as local, civic cults; the issue of whether the Oracle of Trophonius can be understood as a mystery (as suggested in recent treatments by Pierre Bonnechère1); Pausanias' 'Arcadian experience' and his possible 'conversion' in its course.

Conclusion générale: the centrality of piety to Greek identity; the poikilos nature of Greek religious identity; the underlying tension in Pausanias' treatment of Greek religion between the local and the panhellenic.

One of the metaphors to which Pirenne-Delforge returns frequently throughout these chapters is that of cognitive 'frames' or 'grids' (grilles, cadres, trames, tissus), which she suggests that Pausanias constructed for himself and against which he implicitly judged each ritual or myth that he encountered. Through the study of numerous passages she concludes, for example, that Pausanias structured the past both 'horizontally' by means of great events and 'vertically' by genealogies (page 48); that he judged stories to be acceptable or unacceptable within a frame that balanced credibility against moral and religious worth (which leads him, rather remarkably, to accepting most of Lykaon's story, page 71) or then again against chronological accuracy or strength of tradition; and that he built an impressive grid for evaluating human behavior between the poles of Dike and Hubris (page 89).

The metaphor of the frame comes in for especially heavy use in her discussion of Pausanias' treatments of sacrifice in Chapter V. Concluding that, at least for him, the most 'Greek' sort of sacrifice comprised the offering of animal thighs to a god, she then evaluates his reaction to sacrificial procedures that were unique to particular cults. In the course of this, she engages with ideas that have been central to the study of ancient religion. The alleged distinction between 'Olympian' and 'chthonian' sacrifices, which has been under attack for about two decades now, is examined at length. Pirenne-Delforge concludes that it is of more use in understanding literary passages, with their stylized portrayals of sacrifice, than real acts. More importantly, she strengthens the inclination of recent scholars to reject any dichotomizing approach to sacrifice: although she approves of Gunnel Ekroth's2 proposal to adapt the anthropological model of 'high intensity' and 'low intensity' rituals, she convincingly argues that even sacrifices that are portrayed as having begun as 'high intensity' events (i.e., as responses to a specific disaster) and as thereby incorporating unusual features, come to be understood, over time, as 'normal' for the particular cult in which they are practiced.

Her analysis of Pausanias' use of enagizein, kathagizein and related words leads her to conclude that application of the term enagizein has more to do with who the recipient of the offering is (that is, whether it is a member of the deceased or rather a god) than with the actions actually performed during the ritual. In the course of this, she urges us to begin paying more attention to the 'vertical' aspect of sacrifice (the relationship established between humans and the recipients of sacrifice) and less to the 'horizontal' aspect (the relationship amongst human participants in the ritual), and to remember that, whatever else it may have been, sacrifice was understood in antiquity as an act of communication between the two parties. I agree with this; historians of ancient religions have too long been under the spell of Durkheim, as transmitted by Jane Harrison and her heirs, and need to catch up with the progress made by historians of religion in other fields. I also profited from her readings of specific sacrificial procedures--particularly interesting is her discussion of the striking ritual in Hermione during which four old women, armed with sickles, slaughtered cows within a temple of Demeter--a good example, in her interpretation, of a 'high intensity' ritual that was normalized over time.

Pirenne-Delforge does, occasionally, slip into circular arguing during this rather complex analysis--she suggests that 'higher intensity' sacrifices are more often made to entities whom we are accustomed to call 'chthonic' because chthonic entities are linked to high intensity situations such as famine, sterility, health and relationship with the dead (page 199). She sometimes offers interpretations with which I disagree: the appearance of enagizein at Pausanias 8.34.1 in connection with the cult of the Eumenides/Maniai contradicts her conclusion that the verb is used of sacrifices only to the dead, never to divinities. Her suggestion that Pausanias slipped into using the word here, nonetheless, because he had just mentioned the mnema to Orestes' finger is not convincing. Overall, however, this is the strongest, and methodologically the most provocative, chapter of the book and certainly is necessary reading for any scholar working on sacrifice.

The chapter on mysteries builds on three central observations. First, that 'telete' is the word most often used by Pausanias to refer to what we call mystery cults. Second, that 'telete,' for Pausanias, inescapably means a ritual or festival whose central elements are kept secret--and yet also, always, a ritual or festival underwritten by local authorities (and, thus, we endanger our understanding of teletai if we allow ourselves to understand them as part of a 'personal' religion along the lines that Christianity offered). And third, that Pausanias' experiences with teletai throughout his travels were strongly influenced by his dedication to the Eleusinian mysteries--he tended to 'Atticize' teletai that he encountered elsewhere, sometimes reading Demeter and Kore into the roles of local deities, even when he was careful to retain the local names and report on the local iconography.

Two further points are of particular interest. Pirenne-Delforge engages with Pierre Bonnechère's recent treatments of the Oracle of Trophonius, in the course of which Bonnechère, building on ancient evidence, argued that the experience one had at the Oracle was a type of mystery (orgia is used of the Oracle by e.g., Philo of Alexander, Embassy to Gaius 78, and Tertullian credits Trophonius with initiationes at Apol. 21.29). The issue is of some importance, since Pausanias provides the longest and most detailed account of the Oracle and modern treatments, therefore, tend to rely closely on him. Pirenne-Delforge argues against Bonnechère's interpretation, emphasizing that Pausanias himself never uses the word telete of the Oracle, and that, if she is correct in understanding Pausanias' own use of the word (as I sketched it just above), then his lengthy account contradicts any claim of secrecy that the Oracle could have made. While I empathize here with her determination to use careful attention to terminology to avoid over-interpretation, I would myself have gone further with a point that she notes in passing--that mysteries referred to by Pausanias with the word teletai and consultation of the Oracle of Trophonus shared a focus on the individual gaining experience (pathein) through contact with a god, rather than gaining knowledge alone in the strict sense (mathein) (page 330). The use of telete, musteria and their cognates in magical texts of the first few centuries C.E. suggest that this sort of experience had begun to be sought after in a variety of religious environments, not only in mysteries in the strictest sense. It would be rewarding to push this idea further.

And finally, Pirenne-Delforge suggests that Pausanias' 'conversion' in the midst of his journey through Arcadia is to be traced specifically to his face-to-face encounters with the region's rich tradition of Demeter cults. It is in Arcadia that he glimpses, more clearly than elsewhere, the enigmatic truths lurking behind the odd cosmo-theogonic stories associated with cults--Rhea's transformation of Poseidon into a foal to escape his father's ravenous greed, Poseidon and Demeter's equine metamorphoses during which a divine daughter was conceived, etcetera. Unlike his frequent model, Herodotus, who had refused to tell such stories at all, Pausanias repeats them in spite of not always understanding them; such was his confidence in their importance and their relevance for local cults. Nor does he take the easy way out, as did many other authors of his own or earlier times, by allegorizing.

The culmination of these Arcadian encounters, Pirenne-Delforge suggests, was reached during Pausanias' visit to the sanctuary of Despoina in Lykosoura; it was here, if anywhere, that a 'conversion' took place (page 346). She finishes the chapter with a reprise of her reasons for rejecting Elsner's division between the secular and the religious in reading Pausanias: everything that Pausanias encountered--however 'mysterious' and 'spiritual' it may seem to modern readers--was woven firmly into the fabric of civic cult. If the word 'conversion' often appears between scare-quotes through Pirenne-Delforge's book, it is because she wishes to remind us that we still deal here, in Pausanias' report and in Pausanias' own encounters, with very different kinds of religious experiences than those that were beginning to trickle into the Greek and Roman world from the east.

I will end with a pitch. The series in which this book appears, Kernos supplements, has since 1992 steadily published excellent monographs on ancient religion; at last count there were twenty-two entries. These are, unhappily, relatively unknown to American scholars for whatever reasons. The present review should prove how important this series is not only for those of us working on religion itself but for a wider span of classicists as well. I encourage the readers of BMCR to visit the Kernos website and familiarize themselves with the other titles.


1.   Most notably, Trophonios de Lébadée. Cultes et mythes d'une cité béotienne au miroir de la mentalité antique. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 150. (Leiden 2003) and 'Trophonius of Lebadea: Mystery Aspects of an Oracular Cult in Boeotia,' in Michael B. Cosmopoulos, ed., Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults (London 2003) 169-92.
2.   The Sacrificial Rituals of Greek Hero Cults. Kernos suppl. 12 (Liège 2002).

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