Sunday, October 21, 2018


Gabriella Pironti, Corinne Bonnet (ed.), Les dieux d'Homère: polythéisme et poésie en Grèce ancienne. Kernos, Supplément, 31. Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2017. Pp. 262. ISBN 9782875621306. €26,40 (pb).

Reviewed by Karolina Sekita, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is the result of the first of a series of workshops dedicated to Homeric deities which took place in Rome in September of 2015; it is a French translation of the Italian proceedings (Carocci Editore, 2016). The introduction sets the scene for the three main parts, each composed of 3 sets of essays; a bibliography and very useful, detailed indices conclude the volume.

The book's ambition is to encourage reading of Homer in the light of polytheism – that is through a polyphonic analysis of the gods en masse to stress the plurality of the divine, to show the complex interrelations of the polytheistic world, and to avoid looking at deities in isolation where polytheism dissolves into juxtaposed series of micro-monotheisms (p.12).

The first part discusses divine powers as grasped or conceptualised by human sense-perception (Bettini, Grand-Clément) as well as the strategies which characterise the narrative representation of divine powers (Pironti). The second part concerns mediation and communication between Olympus and the earth, whether in assemblies (Bonnet), action (Pisano) or ritual (Pirenne-Delforge). The last part has a broad thematic scope: it focuses on war and peace, dealing with divine conflicts juxtaposed with the war of the heroes (Payen), the causes of the Trojan war (Bouvier), and divine salvation (Herrero de Jáuregui).

Bettini looks at different aspects of the (in)visibility and identity of the Homeric gods, a demanding enterprise given the limits of a short paper, but the author managed very well to provide a worthwhile contribution. He discusses various manifestations of invisibility (cloud, mist, darkness) focussing on the terms denoting them and contexts in which they occur. He concludes that in Homer invisibility, rather than being the complete transparency which we imagine, is achieved 'by wrapping the object in a cloudy substance or by veiling with darkness' (p.35). He also considers how deities manifest themselves in epic, concluding that this is most often achieved through an optical trick rather than invisibility. He revisits also more familiar themes of anthropomorphism and the limits of human-divine corporeality.

Grand-Clément focuses on the perception of the divine through colour and sensation; she notices that divine epiphany leaves humans in sensory disorientation. Such divine manifestations are very complex as they involve sensory experiences which never enter the domain of visibility, usually invoked in scholarship on epiphanies. By stressing the ritual use of colours, odours, sounds and movements in Greece, she points to sensation as a means of establishing human relations with the invisible powers. This is a rich seam of thought but one at times under-exploited: for instance, there is potential for discussion of a religious dimension considering the difference in genres between the Homeric hymns and the heroic epics (p.48).1 Some of her arguments go beyond what the evidence can reasonably support: especially her discussion of 'chromatic epithets' as divine identity markers (p.58-61), which holds only for glaukōpis as the epithet of Athena – kyanochaitēs is not exclusively Poseidon's epithet in epic, as it is used for Hades in HDem. 347, and leukōlenos, as she points out herself (p.59), refers to many female characters.2 She mentions dedications to glaukōpis Athena and Hera leukōlenos (p.60) but takes them for granted without engaging with the problems they raise. Again, a loose interpretation of Il. 20.131 leads her to compare the meaning of enargēs with Akkadian melammu (a dazzling nimbus surrounding the divinity), whereas the latter, a complex and difficult term,3 cannot be considered as its conceptual equivalent; more thorough analysis is needed. Furthermore, chalepoi suggests the dangerous nature of the gods rather than that they are difficult to look upon.4

Pironti provides a very perceptive contribution on Hera's modus operandi in the Iliad, and the uses of Dios apatē. She discusses the role of Hera's boulē in developing the more famous boulē of Zeus, and the divine agents (Aphrodite and Hypnos) involved. She sees the motivation of the narrative structure as parallel here to cultic practice (p.68-70); appealing as the idea is, one may wonder whether the combination of powers analysed here can be readily translated into the reality of ritual practice: Aphrodite's garment (a strap) could be, as Pironti notices in n.18 (p.69), compared to the aegis shared by several deities,5 but Aphrodite removes it from her breast and Hera has to put it around her waist, and its power is used in a different way: this does not seem to imply a 'transfer of divine powers' because Aphrodite simply made Hera sexually attractive. Furthermore, Hypnos, although bribed by Hera, acts on his own rather than lending Hera his power. Examples would definitely strengthen the argument of this very innovative approach.

Bonnet's chapter discusses the importance of divine assemblies in the Homeric poems, illustrating it with material evidence and drawing comparisons with Mesopotamian and Levantine examples. She poses many interesting questions, including that of the relevance of divine assemblies to the mode of operation of the pantheon, and she makes important observations, e.g., the paradox of 'coexistence' of divine assemblies and the Dios boulē within the frame of a destiny already sealed by the latter and Moira. The importance she ascribes to the apparently frequent use of the phrase 'Zeus and other gods', pointing to a special status as primus inter pares (p.96), may seem exaggerated when one considers that this phrase occurs five times in the Iliad and four times in the Odyssey, and is used for Poseidon as well (Il. 20.149).

Pisano explores various forms of divine emissaries with a focus on Iris and Hermes, their places of action and modes of intervention; he provides a detailed analysis of vocabulary, context and messages carried. He observes that since Hermes and Iris mirror each other as messengers (Hermes in the Odyssey, Iris in the Iliad),6 one should not conceive of the mode of operation of any one deity as exclusive (p.133). Nevertheless, Iris (also through her Platonic etymology, noticed by Pisano, p.118) seems to be one of Zeus' agents (like other personified abstractions) rather than a fully established divinity with a cult. Pisano's observation that Hermes is confined to more exotic missions than Iris can be supported by the Homeric hymn to Demeter, where both the deities are sent in relation to the same issue, but only after Iris fails to summon Demeter, is Hermes sent to Hades.

Pirenne-Delforge begins with a very important observation about the complex religious reality behind the epics, that Homeric poems are poetry and thus cannot readily serve as documentary evidence (p.135). She analyses various elements of ritual, such as prayers and sacrifices, and observes that subtle elements of ritual reality are neatly interwoven into the fabric of the epics. She also offers a 'model' of sacrifice based on the ritual following Chryses' prayer to Apollo in Iliad 1, which she contrasts with the sacrifice of Agamemnon in Iliad 2, noticing various discrepancies between 'public' and 'private' sacrifice, principally the presence and absence of purification. One could, however, observe that a sacrifice similar to that of Chryses, more detailed, but nonetheless 'private' (without a priest), takes place at Od. 3.430-63. Lustral water is mentioned twice here; thus, perhaps in Agamemnon's case purification of the hands was tacitly assumed rather than omitted? She discusses also an interesting paradox: the Trojans have a temple of Athena and pray to the goddess who consistently and single-mindedly supports the Greeks (a point picked up by Herrero de Jáuregui).

Payen's chapter, well-grounded in its methodological bases, offers much important food for thought: he makes some interesting incidental points about when, where and how gods intervene in battles. The merit of this chapter, however, lies in its discussion of what men thought about war, stressing that the Iliad is about the anger of Achilles (which accomplished the designs of Zeus) and not about the designs of Zeus which exploited the anger of Achilles. Worthwhile is his argument about how the poet uses the plot to comment on war: as he notes, the shield of Achilles shows that war was not a natural fact, but a cultural artefact which Greeks used to order their relations with 'the other', including the gods; the latter, however, occupy a secondary place in the discussion.

Bouvier considers Aphrodite's 'choice' and the reasons for the war. At the centre of his analysis is a (re-working of his) excellent discussion of the truce and duel in Iliad 3: he shows that here mortals come close to a truce and a way of ending the war with minimal bloodshed (the agreement is called philotēs) and that this is ruined by Aphrodite, who snatches Paris away for another kind of philotēs. He handles very well the tensions between these two meanings, between the different impulses which interact to drive human and divine agendas, and the paradoxical relation between war and love (Ares and Aphrodite). Like Payen, he notes that the Greeks were very capable of questioning war, and of inventing complex causes to account for it (Paris and Priam blame the gods, but the Greeks blame Paris); this seems to have become a longstanding tradition.7

Herrero de Jáuregui's chapter is a meticulous word by word analysis of Od. 3.231 aiming to tease out the wider implications. After discussing various forms of protection and salvation he concludes that Homeric salvation is personal and contingent, and should not be understood as a wider abstract concept, contrary to earlier scholarship. Thus, the reality of long-term divine support in the Iliad is left ambiguous; he also problematises the idea of continuous protection in the Odyssey, and shows that in the epic world no kind of protection can be taken for granted, neither can salvation counter destiny; this in turn raises questions about fate and divine agency, which permeate the entire volume. Particularly valuable are his points concerning salvation of individuals vs. safety of a collective (almost always in reference to Troy). The problem of glory versus safety could have been given a longer treatment built on his interesting remark about the Odyssey, since nostos is worth more than kleos there (p.221-2).

In general readers will find the discussion heavily weighted toward the Iliad with less on the Odyssey. Terms such as 'polytheistic language' (langage polythéiste) or 'polytheistic perception' (perception polythéiste) used in the book could have been explained and illustrated rather than taken for granted, but all in all this short review with its 'grumkins and snarks' cannot do justice to this rich contribution with its nine different voices inspiring avenues for further investigation. The hope of the editors that every reader would find in these chapters an occasion to dream, meditate and reflect will be fulfilled: the book is, as they say, invitation au voyage.

Authors and Titles

Introduction (Corinne Bonnet & Gabriella Pironti)
1. Raconter les puissances divines
Visibilité, invisibilité et identité des dieux (Maurizio Bettini)
Des couleurs et des sens : percevoir la présence divine (Adeline Grand-Clément)
De l'éros au récit : Zeus et son épouse (Gabriella Pironti)
2. Entre l'Olympe et la terre
Les dieux en assemblée (Corinne Bonnet)
Iris et Hermès, médiateurs en action (Carmine Pisano)
Le rituel : communiquer avec les dieux (Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge)
3. De la guerre au salut
Conflits des dieux, guerre des héros (Pascal Payen)
Le choix d'Aphrodite et les causes de la guerre (David Bouvier)
Quand un dieu sauve (Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui)


1.   Pertinent comparison: E. Kearns, 'The Gods in the Homeric Epics', in R.L. Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer (2004), 69-73.
2.   On leukōlenos as Hera's epithet, its formulaic character and the problems involved: V. Pirenne-Delforge, G. Pironti., L'Héra de Zeus, Paris 2016, 24-26, 213.
3.   On melammu: A.L. Oppenheim, 'Akkadian pul(u)ḫ(t)u and melammu', JAOS 63 (1943), 31-34.
4.   LSJ, s.v. χαλεπός.
5.   Note too that on other famous armour, personifications of divine power form the core ornament: Il. 5.740 (Athene's aegis: Phobos, then Eris, Alkē and Iōkē) and Sc.156 (Heracles' shield: Eris, Kydoimos, Kēr); cf. Il. 18.483 (Hephaestus' shield made for Achilleus).
6.   Iris was in fact known to the Odyssey: note the nickname of the Ithacan beggar, Arnaeus, who is called 'Iros' by the suitors after Iris, because he carried messages (Od.18.6-7).
7.   See e.g., IG I3 1163.

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