Thursday, November 7, 2013


Claude Calame, Bruce Lincoln (ed.), Comparer en histoire des religions antiques: controverses et propositions. Collection religions: comparatisme, histoire, anthropologie, 1. Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2012. Pp. 146. ISBN 9782875620088. €20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Deborah Lyons, Miami University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are given at the end of the review.]

This stimulating bilingual volume on an important topic in the study of ancient religions arose from an on-going international collaboration, and is consequently far more coherent than most collections of conference papers. The contributions overlap in suggestive ways, alternately amplifying and challenging one another. A constant running through this collection is the role, both implicit and explicit, of anthropology: for the majority of the contributors, comparison is at least implicitly anthropological, and the data for comparison at least partly ethnographic. Another, less positive, constant is Christianity, which although a legitimate object of comparison, is here an invasive plant whose unseen conceptual roots inevitably push into the vacuum left by the absence of theoretical self-awareness. This issue, among others, leads the authors to call for greater reflexivity, and in several cases to promote a triangular interpretive model, in which one of the terms is the none other than the comparer. Nearly all the authors insist on a comparative practice that refuses to privilege similarity over the potentially more illuminating differences between cultures.

When studying ancient Greek and Roman religions, should we compare? And if so, then how and what should we compare, and with what epistemological aims? What are the pitfalls, and how can we avoid them, when all predecessors have sooner or later taken a tumble? The importance of this last question is clear from the fact that nearly all the authors begin with an overview of the history of comparison in the study of ancient religions. These overviews are both recuperative and apotropaic in nature, as they attempt to sort out practices worth reviving, and those to be avoided. But they are also judicious, capable of recognizing value even in work whose methodology has been discredited, as Maurizio Bettini does with James Frazer's Golden Bough.

The question of whether to compare is quickly answered by many of the essays: we cannot not compare, for only in recognizing differences between things can we really be said to know them. To rework Goethe's famous dictum ("Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiss nichts von seiner eigenen."), one cannot truly know the culture one studies if one does not know any others. In this same spirit, Bettini begins with an approving nod to Christian Gottlob Heyne, the eighteenth-century scholar of antiquity who championed the comparison of the ancient Greeks with "savages," as way of approaching the Geist of Greek antiquity. Bettini regretfully notes that Heyne's approach was soon eclipsed by Altertumswissenschaft, with its insistence on strict disciplinary boundaries and the inevitable isolation that followed. This method was challenged by the English Myth and Ritual School, which was discredited in its turn, leading once again to scholarly isolation, before French scholars, inspired by de Saussure and Lévi-Strauss, once more took up the comparative project. Their structuralist approach has in turn been accused of essentialism by post-structuralist critics. And so on.

The rise and fall of these various theoretical models is compared in the editors' introduction, with tongue only partly in cheek, to Greek tragedy: gifted and courageous figures, pushed beyond the bounds of modesty and prudence by their early success, fall prey to hubris and the challenges of younger rivals, who are destined to fall in their turn. And yet, they argue, this sad history does not mean that we should abandon comparison, but only that we must practice it with care. Greater transparency about our own interests and assumptions, as called for by J. Z. Smith and many of the scholars in this collection, is essential. Working with others across disciplinary boundaries can aid this goal, as well as helping to avoid dilettantism, as Marcel Detienne points out in his essay.

But what to compare? It is here that the authors differ the most. A quick summary of the options: the religious practices of one Greek city with another, or those of the Etruscans with the Romans; Greek religion with Roman religion; Greek or Roman religion with other ancient religions, such as those of the ancient Near East, or China; ancient religions with those of so-called "primitive" or "savage" peoples (to use the language of the earliest practitioners of this sort of comparison); ancient religions with contemporary beliefs and practices in our own societies or elsewhere. Each of the authors has a different answer to this question. Most of the articles begin with a brief historical overview, proceed to a theoretical statement about the correct use of comparison, and end with a short example designed to illustrate the points made in the theoretical section.

Maurizio Bettini begins by asking whether one can compare Roman religion to anything else, and then partially answers his question by comparing a Roman to a Greek god. Using "bizarreries" as points of entry (aphormai is the term he adopts from Philo of Alexandria), he compares the "bizarre" Roman god Vertumnus, the incarnation of changeability, with the Greek Proteus, the old man of the sea. His analysis of the differences between these gods is illuminating: Vertumnus' always decorous changes encompass a range of civic and social identities, but he has no distinct identity of his own; Proteus runs through a set program of wild beasts, fire, and water, before becoming himself again. Vertumnus is the spirit of (socially acceptable) mutability, while Proteus evokes the violence of untamed (but ultimately dominated) nature. Bettini's discussion is elegant, but it is unclear what conclusions about Greek and Roman religious beliefs we are meant to draw. He might well have developed his observation that Vertumnus is also associated with change in nature: the ripening of fruits and vegetables, the turn of the seasons, and the turning of the river Tiber. Could one argue, based on this evidence, for a more benign or domesticated conception of nature in Roman than in Greek culture? A tall order, but I would have liked to see him try.

Claude Calame argues for a "comparative triangle" consisting of the two cultures being compared, and the comparer. In this way, the scholar doing the comparing takes into account his /her own position, engaging in the kind of reflexivity that has recently come to the fore in anthropology. His history of comparison shows the results when this activity is undertaken without an awareness of one's own biases. There follows a critique of J.-P. Vernant's reading of Hesiod's "Myth of the Five Ages," which he sees as a case of structuralism creating a problem (a missing binary) which it must then exert its ingenuity to solve. He then compares this passage with another text featuring a scale of metallic values – Nebuchadnezzer's dream in the book of Daniel. Focusing on the performative aspects of the two texts, Calame shows how analysis of archaic Greek performance culture and second-century BCE Jewish literary culture reveals stark differences between the two texts, despite their use of the same trope: the Works and Days poet's claim to restore justice in the here and now versus the veiled historical and eschatological claims of Daniel.

Marcel Detienne focuses on the Catholic influence on the study of religion in France, and the Protestant forces behind the change from the "Sacred Science" of the nineteenth century to the "science of religion" that supplanted it as the French state and the universities underwent a process of laicization in the 1880s. Into this context, which privileged monotheism, came the "thousand and one little gods" of the societies under colonialist rule, now the object of fervent anthropological study. Asking "when did we become polytheist?," Detienne cleverly turns the standard paradigm of historical progression on its head, illuminating an important transition in the history of the study of religion.

Paige duBois's article, in some ways the most ambitious in the collection, begins with a call for including a literary prospective in the act of comparison. This seems unnecessary, as her methods are indistinguishable from those of many of the other writers. Bettini, Calame, and Lincoln all use exclusively textual evidence in their examples and analyze it in similar ways. What sets her piece apart is the use of expanding rings of comparison, as she begins by comparing Sappho to herself and then her compatriot Alkaios, and ends up comparing the selected fragments to Egyptian, Vedic, and Chinese texts. While highly suggestive, these comparisons are too cursory to be entirely satisfying. Nonetheless, duBois provides a salutary reminder to classicists of the value of moving outside the usual orbits.

David Frankfurter's essay is, along with Bruce Lincoln's, the most clearly expressed and rigorously theorized piece in this collection. Like Calame, he advocates a triangular model of interpretation. One of his key themes is "rectification" of categories, illustrated with examples from his own work on spirit possession and religious violence. His examples are inherently comparative because they deal with the confrontation of newly Christianized populations with those around them who adhere to the old ways. He connects the notion of rectification to problems with the use of "emic" categories. For Frankfurter, if we attempt to adhere to indigenous terminology, we inevitably deceive ourselves, and risk falling back on assumptions and definitions inherited from Christianity. If we wish to compare the practices of different societies, we must move beyond "emic" categories, or risk mistranslating at least one of the comparanda. At the same time, we must avoid creating false universals (e.g. "sacrifice"). The cure for this is greater awareness of one's one position and assumptions. While this is of course indispensable, I would argue that rather than dismissing the use of "emic" language, the true cure is a dialectical alternation between "emic" and "etic" terminology as a check on the pitfalls of exclusive reliance on either.

Lincoln's piece begins with a number of "theses on comparison" which are of broad applicability, and which culminate in a call for "weak comparison" in place of "strong comparison." The trouble with "strong comparison," is that it relies on either universalist, genetic, or diffusionist assumptions, all of which neglect the importance of difference. He illustrates this by analyzing two texts featuring the motif of "envy of creation" -- Ohrmazd confronting Ahreman in Middle Persian myth and Grendel outside King Hrothgar's hall in Beowulf. His subtle analysis shows how the texts arise from similar social contexts of inequality which they attempt to normalize and justify, but by different means. Whereas the dyadic structure of the Persian myth keeps the conflict on the cosmic level, the Beowulf episode suggests that terrestrial political resistance, in the form of envy of the king, threatens the divine order of the cosmos as well.

John Scheid's piece on the eclipse of the comparative method in recent work on religion reads as part of an on-going polemic among scholars of Greek religion. He sees the neglect of comparison as heralding a new period of isolation, similar to those described in the introduction to this volume. What is more, he sees the tendency to emphasize individual religiosity rather than religion in its social context (e.g. Sourvinou-Inwood's "polis religion") as a throwback to an earlier period in which assumptions derived from Christianity distorted the understanding of ancient religions. One could say, using Detienne's terminology, that Scheid fears we are once again becoming monotheists. Although the distortions caused by Christianity remain a problem in the study of polytheistic religions, I see less cause for pessimism, at least in the field of Greek religion, where scholars like Robert Parker among others continue to produce substantial work firmly rooted in ancient political and social contexts.

The book is attractively produced. There are a few typographical errors, and the English translations of French abstracts are clumsy, but these minor flaws in no way detract from the value of the volume. Although the authors agree more often than not, I couldn't help wishing that the accompanying discussions – with their inevitable disagreements – had been included, as in the Fondation Hardt volumes. With its high level of theoretical and methodological rigor, this book will be of value to all those interested in ancient religions, anthropological approaches to ancient cultures, and the intellectual history of the study of religions.

Table of Contents

Claude Calame et Bruce Lincoln, "Les approches comparatives en histoire des religions antiques : controverses récurrentes et propositions nouvelles"
Maurizio Bettini, "Vertumnus ou les aphormaí de l'anthropologue classique : approches comparatives et religion romaine"
Claude Calame, "Comparatisme en histoire anthropologique des religions et regard transversal : le triangle comparatif"
Marcel Detienne, "Entrer en religion et comparer"
Page duBois, "Thirty-six Views of Mytilene: Comparative Approaches to Ancient Lesbos"
David Frankfurter, "Comparison and the Study of Religions of Late Antiquity"
Bruce Lincoln, "Theses on Comparison"
John Scheid, "L'oubli du comparatisme dans certaines approches récentes des religions antiques"

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