Saturday, March 27, 2021


A Religion Not of the Book

Robert Parker, Athenian Religion: A History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 54-55:
As everyone knows, Greek religion was not a 'religion of the book'. No doubt it acquired its distinctive stamp before writing was thought of. But it persisted as a religion 'not of the book' through something like a millennium of literacy. (And it had passed through an earlier literate phase in the Mycenaean period.) In this area, it seems, social factors prevented the 'technology of communication' from exercising a really decisive influence.46

The city used writing to record publicly its commitment, financial and so moral, to the cult of particular gods. What mattered about this declaration was that it could be seen to have been made, even if not all Athenians had the skill, and fewer still the interest, to read the dry and difficult inscriptions. Writing was not, by contrast, used to build up a complicated specialized corpus of ritual knowledge. We stressed earlier the crucial importance of the fact that 'sacred laws' (not a Greek term) are a subsection of the whole law-code of a community, not an independent category resting on a different authority. They are so, of course, because of the indissoluble unity of 'church and state' in Greece, powers that could never be at odds because they could never be clearly distinguished. A crucial aspect of this integration of religion in Greece is the ordinariness of the priests; they were ordinary in many ways, but above all in lacking all pretension to distinctive learning. Elaborate ritual texts are the hallmark of a more specialized priesthood and a more autonomous religious order than those of Greece.47

The amateur status of the Greek priesthood was not affected in any way by the advent of the art of writing. One does not picture the priestess of an Athenian public cult with a book in her hand. The famous sixth-century marble sculptures of 'seated scribes' from the acropolis are generally held to represent not priests but, significantly, 'treasurers' or similar officials, bound to give account of the sacred monies in their care. When the religious book begins to appear, it is rather the mark of marginal figures, the wandering initiators and purifiers and prophets, who in the phrase of the Derveni papyrus 'make a craft out of rites'.48 Lacking a position in the civic religious structure, they naturally need to display credentials of other kinds. The association between bookishness and irregularity is at its clearest in Orphism.49 Both in social and religious terms Orphism is profoundly unorthodox; and it displays several characteristics of a 'religion of the book', being indeed transmitted through a 'hubbub of books'.50 The only books of public cult, by contrast, are the calendars inscribed for all to view (though few to read) on wood or stone.51

46 On this issue contrast J. Goody, The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge 1987), 59-77, and G.E.R. Lloyd, The Revolutions of Wisdom (Berkeley 1987), 70-78.

47 Cf. Goody, Logic of Writing, 16-22.

48 Col. xvi 3-4 (ZPE 47, 1982, after p. 300). On such books see Burkert, Mystery Cults, 70-72, who cites inter alia Dem. 18.259 (street mysteries) and Ar. Av. 974-89 (an oracle-monger); add Isoc. 19.5-6, books on prophecy used by wandering seers (cf. e.g. the pseudo-Hesiodic prophetic works, R. Merkelbach and M.L. West, Fragmenta Hesiodea, Oxford 1967, p. 157); note too Plut. Arist. 27.4 on a πινάκιον ὀνειροκριτικόν.

49 Cf. M. Detienne, L'écriture d'Orphée (Paris 1989), 101-15.

50 Characteristics: e.g. a universal, non-local perspective; asceticism; ritual formulas that aspired to be standard throughout the Greek world (cf. R. Janko, CQ NS 34, 1984, 89-100). Cf. Goody, Logic of Writing, 1-44, esp. 10-16. 'Hubbub of books': Pl. Resp. 364e; cf. West, Orphic Poems, ch. 1.

51 On the sense in which books are alien to the ethos of the democracy see Loraux in Detienne ed., Les savoirs de l'écriture, 126-29.

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