Friday, May 11, 2018


Robert Parker, Greek Gods Abroad: Names, Natures, and Transformations. Sather classical lectures, 72. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017. Pp. x, 257. ISBN 9780520293946. $44.95.

Reviewed by Frederick G. Naerebout, Leiden University (

Version at BMCR home site


What is in a name? Quite a lot, it appears. To come straight to the point: Robert Parker has produced another of his fundamental studies of ancient religion, as learned and considered as its predecessors. With some 230 pages of text, over 50 of these in appendices, this is a modest book for its author. It arose out of three of the six Sather lectures delivered by Robert Parker in 2013, now enlarged and revised as chapters 2 and 3, and appendix H. Four more chapters and seven more appendices were added to constitute what the author calls "this hybrid product" (ix), which despite its hybridity was published as volume 72 in the Sather Classical Lecture Series. One can readily understand that the University of California Press was willing to do so: it is a very worthy addition to this renowned series.

As far as its contents is concerned one might call the book modest as well: its subject matter is very specific, dealt with in a lot of technical detail. On the other hand, it ranges far and wide in time and space, and in the end it seeks to answer, or at least to contribute towards answering, questions that go to the heart of the study of ancient religion. Thus, the scope of this book is both wider and narrower than its title implies. A title and subtitle that really cover the subject might read: "Naming gods at home and abroad. What do naming practices tell us about the nature and transformation of Greek and non-Greek gods?" The volume is not restricted to Greek gods, and, as the author himself states, naming rather than just names is its main subject, that is to say that forms of address and all kinds of epithets are included as well.

In the admittedly cumbersome and not very euphonious title suggested above, I have included gods "at home", because the first chapter prepares the ground for what follows by discussing Greek naming practices in general. Also, "non-Greek gods" play an important part: Parker in the other chapters and the appendices studies above all the dynamics of naming the gods when Greek culture impacts other cultures (Rome, Anatolia, Egypt, the Near East, and even further East: there is an appendix on India) and when those cultures in their turn exert an influence on the Greek world (or at least the Greek language). Consequently, in addition to Greek gods being exported, much of the book deals with gods from many parts of the ancient world – gods whose names might be replaced by Greek names, joined to Greek names, or transcribed, transliterated or translated into Greek. In the chapter on interpretatio, shown to be a rather more complicated naming procedure than it is usually thought to be, the naming of gods in the northwestern parts of the Roman empire is discussed as well, although Parker shifts his attention mostly to the Greek East. That is a very welcome shift because the so-called interpretatio romana has been discussed many times over, and Parker's widening of the perspective may help to infuse new life into that somewhat bloodless discussion.

Apart from the introductory chapter and the chapter on interpretatio, we get chapters on naming non-Greek gods by Greeks and by others, two chapters on specific ways of addressing the gods and re-arranging, sometimes inventing, epithets, in order to indicate such special relationships as were thought to exist between groups or individuals on the one hand, and specific gods on the other, or in order to express specific forms of devotion. The appendices contribute further detail on a range of issues that Parker could not pay enough attention to in his main text without disrupting the flow of his argument (despite the extreme density of this text, it is quite readable—if you do not mind some slight repetitiveness: naming practices are not clear cut, and chapters accordingly overlap). One appendix, 27 pages in length, on Hellenistic colonies and the naming of Greek gods exported to such colonies is a substantial study in its own right. Amongst the appendices there are some that could be seen as test cases, especially those on India, Anatolia and Thasos. Otherwise, the book ranges across the whole of the Greek world (and sometimes the western Roman empire, as already said above), except for the sixth and last chapter which also deals with a restricted area, the island of Delos, an extremely multicultural environment in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., and which is explicitly presented as a test case where some of the ideas developed in the second and third chapters can be put to the test.

Parker presents (almost) everything you always wanted to know about naming the gods, but were afraid to ask, did ask but never got a proper answer, or did not even know that you did not know of. It is not, however, the first study to tackle this important subject. For a full bibliography up to the year 2000 you should resort to the 2005 edited volume Nommer les dieux.1 Parker does not go deep into the historiography of the subject, except for a discussion of Hermann Usener's Götternamen of 1896, which could be considered the foundational work in this field (oddly enough, Usener did not make it into Parker's bibliography). Obviously, he refers to several earlier studies, not least those in Nommer les dieux (to which he himself also contributed), but primary sources take pride of place. That is something one could hardly complain about (except that the lack of an index locorum, especially of the wealth of epigraphic evidence, is more sharply felt). What makes all the difference, and this is important to realize in this day and age, is the fact that Parker has written a monograph. Nommer les dieux with its 600 pages is an important collection offering a wealth of information, but contains some 50 papers with as many authors. A book like that cannot really make an argument, unless it is very strictly edited and has an extensive introduction – quod non. Now we do have a study on naming practices that does make an argument.

It is extremely helpful to have all this information about naming practices in one place, and such practices (what, why, by whom?) are definitely interesting in themselves. Parker makes many important observations, and I can only highlight a few that I found especially illuminating: the fact that some gods remain "untranslated", the one apparently much more resistant to interpretatio than the other (Isis is an example; we follow the ancient naming conventions quite unthinkingly); the contrast between praise epithets used inside of and outside of Greece (relatively sober poetic and antiquarian creations as opposed to the multiplication of grandiose superlatives); how a name change can be influenced by differing iconographies (or the lack of one) and by differences in gender (one cannot readily identify a god with a goddess; but then again Men for some Romans becomes Luna, changing gender in the process); political pressure is not amongst the historical parameters: naming is not controlled top down (with the exception of Antiochos IV and his attempt to have the god of the Jerusalem Temple renamed Zeus Olympios, and the concomitant request by the Samaritans to grant them permission to name the supposedly anonymous god in their sanctuary at Gerizim Zeus Hellenios). In showing us all this, Parker readily admits, or rather demonstrates, that not every phenomenon discussed here can be easily understood or explained. He deplores that the material he has so painstakingly gathered "defies easy analysis" (153), and he stresses how much we cannot learn, because we lack adequate sources, or, more importantly, because of the "complications and contradictions" (62) inherent in the naming practices themselves.

No matter, it is the complications and contradictions that, on another level of analysis, are in fact illuminating and lead us on to the main argument. The true interest of this book lies in how the many insights into naming that Parker presents us with can contribute to our understanding of ancient religion in general, possibly even (the author seems to hope for such a wider applicability) of religion across time and space. Looking at the acculturative processes and their outcomes that form the substance of this volume, Parker stresses that a blurring of differences is not the same as effacing differences (131). He stresses repeatedly that even when two gods, for whatever reason, end up being called by the same name, this does not imply anything about the cult for these gods. These might be completely distinct – and remain distinct. But not necessarily so, and maybe in the longer run this is even unlikely: cults, and also the gods, may become more alike. As Parker says: although mixing is not blending, interpretatio is "the bridge over which ideas can pass" (74). All of this goes to show, and is made possible by, the fact there might be just a single polytheism, where we tend to see polytheisms, plural. Of course, the growing awareness of the local character of ancient religion (mythology, iconography, and so on) has been an important movement away from mistaken ideas about "Greek/Roman/etc religion". But Parker reminds us that on a higher level there are no boundaries between these localized religions, or polytheisms. Especially when approached from the perspective of the divine powers recognized by any community, these are never looked at as excluding the existence of the divine powers of another community (unless one is a monotheist). This should not be seen as tolerance, in the sense of a virtuous mindset. As Parker says, the ancient world is (religiously) tolerant "by default" (75), because polytheism is by nature a single continuum.

Also, Parker seems to subscribe to what has been so persistently advocated by Henk Versnel and is now being accepted by ever more scholars: ancient religion is teeming with inconsistencies.2 Such inconsistencies usually lead modern scholars to see all kinds of difficulties, problems that they would like to solve; the ancient believers, however, experienced nothing of the sort. If things were what they were in need of, who, if not a philosopher or other troublemaker, could possibly care that they did not add up? As Parker concludes (175), "There is no need to look for theological consistency in this lived religion" (nor any other consistency inside or outside of religion, I would add). Which is something illustrated perfectly by the naming practices discussed by Parker that show the malleability of the ways in which humans use language and structure their ideas. Parker brilliantly analyses that malleability and also its limits, and in so doing he helps us to understand the ancients and ourselves.

The production values of this book are extremely high.3 On p.133, there is an issue of editing; the phrasing is uncharacteristically imprecise where a distinction is made between changes because of culture contact and changes "over time"—the last mentioned I understand to be changes because of internal dynamics; obviously, culture contact and its consequences are also something happening "over time". Not an infelicity to attach much weight to, but the distinction itself is, I think, important in a volume largely dealing with acculturative processes.


1.   Belayche, Nicole, et al. (eds). Nommer les dieux. Théonymes, épithètes, épiclèses dans l'Antiquité. Turnhout; Rennes: Brepols; Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005.
2.   Most recently: Versnel, Henk S. Coping with the Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011, pp. 5, 7, 11, 72-3. Versnel's Coping has much of relevance to Parker's study, and it could have been referenced there more often.
3.   I noticed just one tiny printing error: on p.129 a line ends with "to th(e)", there is no hyphen, and the next line continues with "ion", a bit baffling at first sight, but it stands for to th(e)ion. "Th(e)" should have been forced onto the next line.

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