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Knowledgeable Encounters in Early Greek Religion

Eric Wesley Driscoll

UC Berkeley

This paper juxtaposes the poetics of epiphany in Homer and the semiotics of divine representation in the material world. It begins by arguing that the two major modes of interaction between men and gods in Homer—epiphany and divination—are founded on mortals’ conceptual knowledge and reasoning (Nagy 1983). But like the Homeric heroes who see the gods themselves, so too real-world worshippers interacting with representations of the divine relied on their knowledge and interpretive skill (Platt 2011). Encounters with the gods in the world of Homer and encounters with their cult objects in the real world both revolve primarily around the human agent’s noos and his ability to understand and respond appropriately to the semata of the divine around him (Gladigow 1990; Burkert 1991 and 1997; Neer 2010). Early Greek religion, then, I argue, transcended the scholarly distinction between public and private religion: religious experiences were private, but the epistemological criteria implicated in them were public and specific to specific communities.

Epiphany scenes, in particular, are characterized by an elaborate epistemological poetics in which the recognition and the identification of gods are two distinct processes (Versnel 2011: 37-43; cf. Lesher 1981). One first perceives a divine presence, typically intuited from uncanny phenomena, and only second—significantly less commonly—identifies the specific divinity implicated. Note that this process of reasoning from evidence, or noesis (Nagy 1983), is not elaborated in recognitions involving only mortals (such as Paris and Menelaos in Iliad 3), but solely characterizes interactions with the gods, who “are difficult for mortals to see” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, l. 111). Previous scholarship has tended to be dismissive of these scenes’ theological significance (Dietrich 1983) or treats them in narrowly literary terms (Turkeltaub 2007). These epistemological features, however, are not merely Homeric, but are also constitutive of early Greek cultic practices in all their materiality (Vernant 1990 and 1991: 151-85; Platt 2011: 57-60). When one encountered an unfamiliar cult statue, one needed, in order to identify the intended referent of the statue, to know how to “read” its attributes. A resplendent, nude youth (what classical archaeologists call a kouros) was an indeterminate signifier, but equipped with appropriate iconographic attributes, it became an Apollo (Stewart 1986). Aniconism (Gladigow 1985-86; Gaifman 2012) goes even further: if a barely-worked boulder, a chunk of meteorite, or an unhewn rock might function as a cult object, worshippers needed the relevant socially-shared conceptual understanding before they could even begin to approach aniconica appropriately. Archaic cult regulations, quite common in the epigraphic record, further illustrate how local knowledge was constitutive of proper religious conduct.

By considering both material and literary bodies of evidence, this paper shows how a focus on knowledge in early Greek religion can accommodate the claims of personal religion models (Festugière 1954; Kindt 2012) without ignoring the social aspects so central to more familiar accounts (Sourvinou-Inwood 1990).  Decoding a statue’s identity as Apollo based on its visual attributes is a mental operation parallel to Helen’s identification of Aphrodite. To be sure, there are radical discontinuities between Homer and the real world, but also much promise for shifting the conversation surrounding early Greek religion. The diversity of Greek polytheism entails problems of knowledge for human worshippers, and a fuller acknowledgement of these epistemological dynamics can help overcome the growing divide between polis and personal religion models as well as open new questions for the archaeology and epigraphy of cult.

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Greek Religion

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