It is fundamental to current understandings of Greek religion that there existed multiple, overlapping religious discourses. Variation in context—including locality, cult, and genre—seems to have elicited quite different ways of talking about the gods (Parker 1997; Feeney 2008: 24-5; Versnel 2011: 83, 143-4). Although Herodotus engages with numerous writing styles and genres, the great variety of Herodotus’ statements about the gods is mostly attributed to his intellectual shortcomings or lack of interest in theology per se: it is analyzed in terms of “slips” (Parker 2005: 47), “inconsistencies” (Harrison 2000: passim, Versnel 2011: passim), and the uncomprehending deployment of “maxims” derived from other authors (e.g. Lang 1984: 61-2, Gould 1989: 79-80). Herodotus’ contradictory statements are viewed as a window onto the mechanisms by which the Greeks sustained their belief in non-existent divinities—namely by tolerating inconsistencies (Harrison 2000: 16)—an approach pioneered by early anthropological studies of religion (compare Harrison (2007: 375-80) with Evans-Pritchard (1937: 475-80)). In this paper I argue that this is an unsatisfactory paradigm for understanding the Histories: much variety in Herodotus’ religious expression seems to be intentional, and most of it serves no conceivable role in preserving belief. I suggest that Herodotus’ use of incompatible religious ideas resembles an intentional engagement with diverse theological paradigms, elicited by his engagements with different literary and cultic sources.
I begin with three significant theological contradictions in the Histories: First, the notion of Fate as immutable and independent of the gods, as proclaimed by the Pythian oracle at 1.91 but found nowhere else in the Histories (and often clearly contradicted). Second, the question of human descent from the gods and heroes, which Herodotus denies on numerous occasions, but strangely accepts in his catalog of the Persian army. Third, the generalized terms for “the divine” used in metaphysical or theological discourse, alongside his discussion of individual divinities elsewhere. From these examples I argue that these different narrative contexts offer systematically different perspectives on whether there exists a fate that is independent of the gods, whether the divine is unified or divided, the possibility of divine-mortal sexual union, and the religious beliefs of non-Greek peoples.
Having noted these divergent visions of the nature of divinity, I place these observations in the context of three statements made by the narrator in Book II, namely Herodotus’ theory that the Greek names for the gods come from Egypt (2.50.1), his theory that genealogies and other attributes were “created” (poiein) by Homer and Hesiod (2.53.2-3), and his statement that “all people know the same amount about the gods” (2.3.2). In the light of these passages, I argue that Herodotus’ unreserved engagement with the traditional religious discourses of earlier literature in catalogs and oracles, is self-conscious and derives from what we might call “literary” motives, rather than (as is traditionally claimed) being the result of his intellectual shortcomings, a lack of interest in theology, or a general Greek ability to tolerate contradictory ideas without recognizing them as such.
I conclude by discussing the question of what Herodotus “believes”, for numerous indications make it clear that the narrator considers the cults of individual divinities to have genuine power (e.g. 8.129.3, 9.65.2), and the distinctions between divinities to be important (e.g. the investigation into the nature of Heracles, 2.43-5). This opens up the wider question of what notion of belief can be used to analyze a self-consciously “literary” text, a question that may require different answers in ancient and modern literature.