Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Emily Kearns, Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook. Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History. Malden, MA/Oxford/Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xii, 370. ISBN 9781405149280. $44.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Stéphanie Paul, Université de Liège

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

With this book, Emily Kearns aims to provide an up-to-date collection of texts for the study of ancient Greek religion. The previous sourcebook on the subject was published by Rice and Stambaugh, in 1979.1 Therefore, the need for a successor to this work was great, as in thirty years, our knowledge of ancient Greek religion has considerably expanded, both because the documentation has increased thanks to the contribution of epigraphic evidence and because the interpretation of a number of old texts has changed (p. 1). Coincidentally, almost simultaneously another sourcebook concerning Greek religion was published by Valerie M. Warrior in 2009.2

The date range of the selected texts stretches from the first literary sources, Homer and Hesiod, to the end of the fourth century, although later sources may appear occasionally. Considering the abundant documentation from the Hellenistic period, this range can seem frustrating. However, it is necessary, as the author herself admits in her introduction (p. 1), to limit what is a considerable amount of texts (more than 200). These texts are organized according to six thematic chapters described below.

The first chapter, "Gods and Religion," deals with the representation of the divine as we understand it from ancient sources, which are not always very explicit on the subject (p. 7). The "other gods" are also considered, such as heroes, nymphs and the so-called "chthonic" deities. This last group leads the author to a brief discussion on the much debated categorization "Olympian/chthonian" which Kearns qualifies cautiously as "by no means mandatory" (p. 15). Discourses on "religion" strictly speaking, which form the third and last section of this first chapter, occurred a little later in the ancient sources, as the author reminds us (p. 26). Passages from this last section include a definition of piety (to hosion) by Plato and a discussion on the names of the gods by Herodotus. The question of the divine epithets, to which Kearns briefly alluded in the chapter's introduction (p. 6), is somehow missing from the illustrative texts.

Chapter 2, "Mythology," pursues the question of the representation of the divine, this time in the myths. The texts are arranged thematically and concern mainly relationships between gods and between gods and mortals. Obviously, Hesiod and the Homeric poems play an important part in this chapter as they laid down the foundations for the Greek representation of the gods throughout the ages. However, the texts are not limited to these two, and also include authors such as Pindar, Euripides and Plato. An important section of this chapter is dedicated to critical views the ancient Greeks themselves expressed on the myths and their use.

The texts illustrating these first two chapters are exclusively literary, as epigraphic sources are much less informative with regards to the subject of the representation of the divine. On the contrary, inscriptions are copiously used in the next four chapters, which relate to rituals. The content's layout of these chapters focuses less on the nature of the ritual actions than on the context in which they took place.

The third chapter, "Closeness and Distance," focuses on individual attempts to communicate with the gods, that is, outside of the scope of the polis. If prayers are the most usual way for a worshipper to address the divine, gods can also visit mortals in dreams or epiphanies. In order to attain such a connection, the state of purity, which is to be exempt from all pollution, is essential. Purity regulations are found in various cities, and the well-known cathartic law from Cyrene is provided as an example. Since death is a main issue when it comes to pollution, the author addresses at this point funerary practices and cult. Subsequently, a large section of this third chapter focuses on what Kearns calls "personal choice." She rejects the categorization "private/public religion," and considers instead "elective religion as a set of 'add-ons' to the religious background" (p. 115). Extracts illustrating this aspect of religious life focus on the particular emphasis one can put on a god, which is exacerbated in the case of Hippolytus and Ion in tragedy but is also manifest in actual practices, as pointed out in inscriptions. Also belonging to this category is the practice of unofficial cults, i.e. cults that were not formally authorized by the polis: foreign cults and some initiation cults such as Orphism and Pythagoreanism, as distinct from other mystery cults which were fully integrated in the social life of the community and which will be discussed in the last chapter (6.4). Finally, Kearns considers magical practices as a part of "personal choices", notably the "curse-tablets." The third chapter concludes on the rejection of traditional beliefs ("Impiety and Atheism") concentrating mostly on the late fifth- and early fourth-century Athenian conceptions of the matter.

Chapter 4, "Ritual context," takes into account ritual practices which took place outside of sanctuaries. First, the author considers domestic and association cults. The next section focuses on "religious experts," apart from priests: manteis and other itinerant seers; exegetes, who were strictly speaking ritual experts; purifiers and healers. Ritual actions which take place in the public sphere are also considered here, including oaths and public curses, as opposed to curses performed on a more private level (3.4). The last section of this fourth chapter, entitled "War and Crisis," is associated both with public contexts (e.g. sacrifices performed during military expeditions) and with private matters (births).

Chapter 5, "Sanctuaries I," as well as chapter 6, deals with rituals coming under "official" sanctuaries. The first section is about "visiting a sanctuary" and also includes restrictions of access to a sacred place, for instance purity rules. Sacrifices are obviously a major ritual action performed in this context. Kearns predictably produces passages from the Odyssey , which gives a full account of a typical sacrificial procedure, and the no less famous episode of Prometheus from Hesiod's Theogony, which is considered to be the origin of the division of the sacrificial animal. Under the section "Festivals and Calendars," Kearns provides a long commentary and many annotations for two excerpts of cult calendars. The first from the Attic deme of Thorikos, which is exemplary of how a community organized its religious life and the second from Kos, which provides a "unusually detailed" (p. 232) but also difficult account of the elaborate sacrifice to Zeus Polieus. Other passages illustrate famous Athenian festivals such as the Panathenaia, the Thesmophoria and the Anthesteria. The next section focuses on priests attached to specific cults, in contrast to "religious experts" discussed in the previous chapter (4.2). Epigraphic sources are most relevant in this case, since they are informative about priests' functions, duties and rights as well as the attribution of the priesthood. Finally, this chapter also considers hymns, once again associated with specific cults (see prayers in section 3.1) and dedications.

Finally, chapter 6 puts specific emphasis on certain sanctuaries, which are either particularly important or have an international character ("common sanctuaries"), or where a specific cult is performed: "oracular sanctuaries," "healing cults," or "mysteries." This final chapter concludes on the introduction of new cults and new gods (6.5).

The book contains in addition a list of "suggestions for further reading," structured by chapter, but which are unfortunately confined to English-speaking works (which was apparently a requirement from the editor). We can also find the necessary index of passages and a very useful general index.

Kearns' Sourcebook is not a simple compilation of texts on ancient Greek religion in translation. Every chapter and section contains an introduction and all the sources, cleverly arranged to follow the thematic pattern, are provided with a general commentary and notes. As a result, this book is very coherent and can be considered to a certain extent as an innovative introduction to ancient Greek religion illustrated with texts. As such, it has been designed with a pedagogical purpose, as shown by the notes intended to clarify particular Greek words or realities in the text. The references are reduced to a minimum, but this is compensated by the final bibliography. However, well-informed readers will also benefit from Kearns' valuable translations and sharp commentary of the texts, which is a major strength of this volume. Even though the general layout may differ slightly from what we would expect from a classical introduction to ancient Greek religion, it is nonetheless relevant, and the abundant cross-references and the general index will help the reader to easily find all that is related to a specific subject. The selection of the texts is inevitably subjective and could reasonably be questioned, as could the date range adopted in this book. It is, however, generally appropriate and I did not notice, in this respect, any significant gaps.

To conclude, Kearns' Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook will be highly valuable both to inexperienced students who can read it thoroughly, and to scholars familiar with the subject, who will consult it in a more selective way, but with equal profit.

Table of Contents

1 Gods and Religion
1.1 About the Gods
1.2 Other Gods; Gods and Others
1.3 About Religion
2 Mythology
2.1 Quarrels of the Gods
2.2 Divine-Human Sex
2.3 Helping and Hindering Mortals
2.4 Aetiological and Foundation Myths
2.5 Mythology: Discussion and Treatment
3 Closeness and Distance
3.1 Prayers and Associated Offerings
3.2 Dreams and Epiphanies
3.3 Pollution, Death, and the Dead
3.4 Personal Choice
3.5 Impiety and Atheism
4 Ritual Contexts
4.1 The House and Neighbourhood
4.2 Religious Experts and Their Crafts
4.3 Political Life, Oaths and Curses
4.4 War and Crisis
5 Sanctuaries I
5.1 Visiting a Sanctuary
5.2 Sacrifice
5.3 Festivals and Calendars
5.4 Priests
5.5 Hymns
5.6 Dedications
6 Sanctuaries II
6.1 Common Sanctuaries
6.2 Oracular Sanctuaries
6.3 Healing Cults
6.4 Mysteries
6.5 Founding a New Sanctuary
Suggestions for Further Reading
Index of Passages
General Index


1.   D.G. Rice, J.E. Stambaugh, Sources for the Study of Greek Religion, Missoula, MT, 1979 (Sources for Biblical Study, 14).
2.   V.M. Warrior, Greek Religion: A Sourcebook, Newburyport, MA, 2009 (Focus Classical Sources). Unfortunately, I could not take this work into account in my review. See BMCR 2009.08.59.

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