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Rehistoricizing Greek Religion

Fred Naiden

University of North Carolina

The academic discipline of the “History of Religions” began mostly in Continental Europe about a hundred years ago. It emerged from evolutionary paradigms for the development of human culture, some Marxist, some rationalistic, some rooted in the sociology of Durkheim. In the English-speaking world, this discipline never attained the status of a distinct specialty. Scholars of Greek religion were influenced by this discipline without belonging to it; to some degree, they practiced this discipline without being aware of it.

In this century, the remnants of this hidden or forgotten discipline have collapsed, both among the English-speaking scholars and in Europe. Scholars have lost confidence in analyses relating Greek religion to ancient religion in general; in analyses of Greek religion as a whole rather than the religion of certain places and periods; and in analyses of Greek religion as a precursor of Christianity or a preserver of primitive motifs. One measure of the decline of interest in the history of Greek religion is the new Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion (Eidinow and Kindt 2015), which does not have a single chapter devoted to historical developments as opposed to a plethora of other topics.

How can scholars of Greek religion recover the historical aspect of their subject? This paper will describe two paths open to them. First, the revival of periodization. Many differences between the Classical and Hellenistic Periods emerge from the abundant epigraphical evidence for the 4th through 1st centuries BCE. One part of the change from the Classical to the Hellenistic, the development of ruler cult, has been thoroughly studied, but other parts—organizational, economic, and multicultural—have not. For example, there is no general treatment of the evolution of shrine finance. Second, the revival of the issue of origins. For a generation, scholars have traced Greek borrowings from the religions of the Near East. Yet there is no general treatment of the influence of the Hittites on Greek religion, or of the influence of the Western Semites. By the same token, there is no general treatment that strikes a balance between influences from east to west and influences moving in the other direction, from Greece to the East.

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Change in Ancient Mediterranean Religions

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