Saturday, February 12, 2011


Jan N. Bremmer, Jitse H. F. Dijkstra, J. E. A. Kroesen, Y. Kuiper (ed.), Myths, Martyrs, and Modernity : Studies in the History of Religions in Honour of Jan N. Bremmer. Numen Book Series. Studies in the History of Religions, 127. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010. Pp. lvi, 701. ISBN 9789004180895. $278.00.

Reviewed by Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Universidad Complutense de Madrid (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Unity is harder to find in a Festschrift than in a Pindaric ode. In this volume, the transition from one chapter to another is natural and smooth, and the three thematic clusters are well arranged to reflect the scholarly interests of the honorand: ancient myth and ritual, early Christianity, and the reception of ancient religions in modern times. Bremmer has combined textual analysis, religious comparatism and the history of concepts, and these approaches, as well as his own capacity to connect apparently distant phenomena, are prominent in the contributions: hence there are thematic and/or methodological links (and disagreements) between several studies, even between those that are set apart in different sections (p. XXXII). Classicists will particularly enjoy this book, not only because half of the volume (19 studies) is dedicated to specific Greek and Roman topics, but also because most of the studies of the two other sections (12 on Judaism and Christianity, and 9 on religion in modernity) touch on general subjects and present a panorama of their topic intended to inform the non-expert reader. In what follows, due to space limits, only the papers dealing with Graeco-Roman topics are summarized.

After an introduction sketching Bremmer's personal and academic biography, and after his full bibliography, the contributions are arranged in loosely chronological order.

West dwells on the myth of the Calydonian boar, departing from the reconstruction of the possible contents of the poem Meleagris alluded to by Homer. He follows Bremmer in thinking that the fight between Aetolians and Kouretes after the hunt has a ritual kernel. Yet instead of an initiatory boar-hunt, West prefers to see a mock battle for a boar's head as the ritual model. Since the most convincing parallels given as proofs are from football, polo, rugby, and 19th-century rural England,1 the proposal deserves West's own judgment of Bremmer's proposal (p. 9): "this is all very suggestive... I remain sceptical of some aspects".

Lardinois goes back to the sexual relations alluded to in Sappho's poems, which in 1989 he considered initiatory and paederastic, while now he thinks that they were consummated in heterosexual marriages. He argues that they, like Alcman's Partheneia, should not be interpreted in institutionalized sexual terms, but as erotic praise of the beauty of the girls by both female choruses and the audience, and may have been performed chorally.

Buxton nuances the traditional polarity white = positive, black = negative. Only in context can this association be proven, but it cannot be presupposed. He supports his case by examining the proper names derived from the root melas.

Johnston dwells on myths about disastrous unexpected events, which she argues are a motor of creation for new rites, cults, and relations with the gods. A punctual transgression often entails a concatenation of punishments and restorations that lead up to the institutionalization of ritual. Thus disaster turns out to be a fundamental key for progress in religious constructions. It is consistent with this paradigm that there are no Greek myths about the end of humanity, since nothing new and positive could come out of general death.

Calame's chapter on the Athenian myth of Cecrops' daughters is an example of the splendid results which francophone scholarship often obtains in the synchronic analysis of myth and ritual complexes: political identity, fertility of the earth, and female initiation are not incompatible perspectives, but dimensions which overlap through conceptual metaphors in the set of foundational Athenian myths, and which are reflected in the names of the characters and rites as well as in the spatial disposition of the sanctuaries.

Roig Lanzillotta writes on the so-called envy of the Greek gods, a widely maintained idea which he shows to be a modern construct that does not correspond to the meaning of the texts traditionally alluded to as evidence (Pindar, tragedy and Herodotus). When applied to gods phthonos should not be translated as "envy", but as "denial" or "hindering", since it always appears in contexts where happy humans have pretended something excessive.2

Graf writes about ancient responses to earthquakes. Scientific minds aimed to give a non-religious explanation--strong winds trapped under the surface of the earth--. Yet the dominant interpretation was that divine wrath reacted to some transgression. New explanations appeared for the eruption of the Vesuvius: a cosmic new Gigantomachy, an apocalyptic end of the world, or a revenge of the Jewish God for the destruction of his temple in Jerusalem. This survey of changing perspectives ends up with a Christian interpretation: men should be grateful to God for earthquakes, as signs of his wrath, exhort to conversion.

Bonnechere shows that consulting multiple oracles in Antiquity was not a sign of cynicism of the consultants, a matter of power politics, or a way to foster the honesty of priests, but a widely sustained practice of cities and individuals motivated by piety and care about divine omens.

Lapatin comments Pausanias' description of the oracle of Hermes at Pharai in Achaia, where a voice uttered by chance turns out to have oracular meaning for the consultant.

Faraone's contribution for the first time brings the Platonic Charmides in connection with the Orphic gold leaves. Socrates' initial allusion to a Thracian leaf and an epoidé must have been understood by the Athenian audience as an allusion to amulets with both eschatological and medical purposes particularly associated with Thrace, which were accompanied by reciting of verses. The gold leaves reflect a later stage where such oral blending has turned into actual writing of the epoidé on the leaf itself. Also some imperial leaf-amulets mentioning the myth of Dionysus versus Lycurgus with healing purposes add to this general portrait of a soteriology comprising both body and soul.

Nauta studies the Hellenistic poetological image that equates the song to a god with sacrifice: he argues that the prologue of Callimachus' Aetia, where Apollo tells him to "feed the victim to be fat, but keep the Muse delicate", is an epiphanic reworking of his participation as a child in the Cyrenean festival of the Carneia. He points out some intertextual relations of Callimachus with Theocritus, and Vergil's recognition of such relations in his own elaboration of the theme of poetic sacrifice.

Klöckner solves an iconographic problem posed by some Attic reliefs with an x-shaped intersection of two oblong objects, which turns out to be a simplified version of the cross torch held by Demeter, Kore and Artemis in some reliefs in Magna Graecia.

Parker translates the sacred law of the sanctuary of Hebe in the Attic deme of Axione (4th century BC) and discusses the main problems it poses: whether it is issued by the deme, as seems more probable, or by a genos; the identity of the goddess named Hagne Theos, probably Persephone; finally, the fact that the priest of Dionysus is the only one not given compensation for kindling leaves the case open, albeit with the usual ambiguity, to possible Dionysiac omophagy.

Van Minnen discusses in detail a Hellenistic inscription from Keos which organizes the dinner and games for an end-of-the year festival.

Pirenne-Delforge focuses on Mnasistratos, mentioned in the inscription of the mysteries at Andania and in a contemporary Argive oracle. His prominent position probably comes from being a wealthy benefactor who helped to give new splendor to these mysteries. She suggests that the biblia which he handed over were erudite research which aimed to give the cult antiquity and prestige.

Horsfall focuses on Pompey's death as inspiration of Priam's decapitation in the Aeneid, an idea popular among commentators since Servius.3 Horsfall disapproves of this decapitation being read as Greek maschalismos, an archaic practice to avoid revenge by the defunct which has no place in Vergilian context.

Gordon studies the use of animals in the magico-medical tradition. The main principle underlying animal properties is their uniqueness: this can rely on the actual difficulty of the situation in which an element is found (e.g. sperm of a boar caught before it touches the ground); on the transgression of normal behavior (e.g. eating what is usually avoided); or on animals who are out of the normal rules which the other species seem to follow (e. g. the hyena).

Ameling makes a detailed study of the religious convictions of Pliny the Younger. The social persona he transmits in his nine books of published letters, and his activity as Bythinian governor (including prosecution of Christians) known to us by his tenth book of correspondence, reflect the authentic religious ideas of Pliny and of the senatorial class in Flavian times: in Ameling's words (293), "extra imperatorem salus non est".

Casadio argues against the idea, shared by Bremmer among others, that "religion" is a modern Western Christian concept. Restricting his research to the Latin world, he argues that religio can be legitimately translated as "religion" also in many ancient non-Christian contexts. The word has three possible meanings: scruple; supernatural quality evoking reverence and implying the observation of certain obligations; and a general category designating the whole of human relations with the divine: this third meaning is already found in authors such as Varro, Cicero, Lucretius, Caesar and Livy.

Van der Horst analyses the expression "without God" in its diverse variants throughout Greek literature from Homer to imperial times and Christian literature. Most of the instances, many of them in negative sentences ("not without God"), imply "active divine support, assistance, intervention, or even decree" (p. 388).

Dowden makes a macro-analysis of the Christianization of the Roman Empire from T. S. Kuhn's model of how scientific revolutions work, which offers a key category, incommensurability: Christian and pagan paradigms share a common language with radically different meanings.

Thomassen makes a comparison of Orphics and Gnostics within the limits in which "these terms still retain some usefulness" (p. 464). His chapter brings to the fore material from sources which have hitherto been ignored as parallels with the gold leaves: a Valentinian funerary inscription from Rome,4 Irenaeus' descriptions of Gnostic eschatological hopes, and the Apocalypse of James from Nag-Hammadi. These texts present encounters with the powers of the celestial spheres that include, as the leaves, questions about identity, answers about divine origin, and ritual references to some previous initiation which prepared for death.

Den Boeft surveys the most prominent pagan and Christian evidence about the possession of human beings by demons, and examines the only clue by which in two early texts the healer/priest was able to recognize the demon: the possessed man laughed or smiled, which fits with the generally unfavorable consideration of laughter among Greek philosophers and Christian thinkers.

Hilhorst studies the uses that ancient garments were given apart from dressing: sleeping; being divided; dropping one's mantle and running away; tearing it as a sign of sorrow; being used as a sling; and tying an adversary around the neck (the alternative use which is examined in more depth).

Going back to the beginning, if Pindar's epinician odes aimed to both celebrate the laudandus after his triumph and delight the audience with expert singing of ancient myths somehow related to the present time, we may compare again this volume to the best and richest (albeit also most expensive!) of them.


1.   The only ancient parallel (Festus 190.11 Lindsay) seems to depict rather an urban row that arose frequently than part of the formalized ritual.
2.   The subject deserves further research on how the modern construct of the envy of the gods derives from an alien view of Greek religion: Roman (Luc. Bell. Civ. 4.243f; Sil. It. Pun. 7.60: deorum invidia; Christianizing; Romantic (e. g. F. W. Weber's poem: "Wäre nicht der Neid der Götter, Menschen könnten glücklich werden").
3.   The confusion in footnotes 60 and 61, which appear one note before their place, is the only formal error that I have detected in an impeccably edited volume.
4.   CIG 4.9595a. The last two lines are similar to Orph. Fragm. 488.8 Bernabé and the mystic synthema of Clem. Alex. Protr. 2.15.3. Further evidence and bibliography on the Orphic / Gnostic issue in M. Herrero de Jáuregui, Orphism and Christianity in Late Antiquity, Berlin-New York, 2010, 104-107.

1 comment:

  1. Referring to people only by last names at the first mention is poor style unless they are universally recognizable. Since there is no list of contributors and no table of contents, only cognoscenti can guess which West or Johnston or Gordon is being referred to, or who den Boeft and Hilhorst are. This is something that should have been caught by the editors.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.