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Gods Set in Stone: Theoi Headings in Greek Legal Inscriptions

Rebecca Van Hove

Collège de France / Université de Liège

As a recent study of the intellectual history of the idea of the law of god states, “there is nothing self-evident about ‘divine law’” (Brague 2007, 11). Law, as one form of expression of the normative domain, and the divine, a concept which throughout history has often been assigned the power of exerting a normative function too, might be considered two cultural systems which compete for power. Yet in the societies of the ancient world, these two concepts related to each other in more complex and varying ways than any simple opposition might suggest. This study examines the relationship between the divine and the law in ancient Greece. It focuses in particular on a source relatively neglected in this debate, despite its centrality to the subject, which are the inscribed laws and decrees themselves, and in particular the theoi headings found on a large number of these inscriptions.

The term theoi (‘gods’) appears regularly, yet sporadically, as a heading on different types of inscriptions. By the Hellenistic period it had become quite standardised, but in the archaic and classical period it occurred variously in different formats. The heading has remained an enigma: which gods or entities are being referenced? How should the heading and its function be understood? How does it relate to the inscribed law or decree which follows? What exact role are these gods here assigned? Despite their centrality to the subject of the relationship between law and religion in ancient Greece, these headings have received almost no systematic attention, with Paul Traywick’s 1968 and Robert Pounder’s 1975 PhD theses constituting their only detailed study. 

Based on an in-depth and systematic analysis of the occurrence of theoi headings in archaic and classical Greece, this paper argues that the heading should be understood both as text and as material object. As text, analysis of the earliest cases of the heading demonstrate variety which is meaningful: we have inscriptions where instead of the plural a singular theos is invoked (e.g. IG V.2 I, SEG.9.3), or where the theoi are further specified (e.g. IG II2107, IG I3101). We can examine the type of text inscribed on those stelae where the theoi heading is found to uncover a correlation between its occurrence and the content of the inscription. 

Secondly, this paper illustrates how the heading at the same time also functioned as integral part of a public visual monument: taking into account these stelae’s prominent sites of display (Liddell 2003, Mack 2018), the paper illustrates how the theoi heading, which often appears atop the inscription in large letters, would be the very first element audience members would have seen. Furthermore, the paper argues for a recognition of the importance of the physical materiality and graphic presentation of the heading by paying attention to its notable variety in form. Sometimes the heading is presented on its own, at other times together with other headings. At times the word theoi forms part of the remainder of the text, but more usually it is made to stand out on its own line, sometimes in larger, widespread letters, either on the inscribed surface itself or - remarkably - as part of the moulding above it, interacting with imagery. 

This paper argues that whether the heading should be understood as, e.g., an invocation, tool of sacralisation, or apotropaic curse matters significantly: these interpretations reveal the relationship between human and divine agency in ancient conceptualisations of the law. The heading’s unspecificity (no article, no specific deity, no attribute) tells us something about the kind of role for the divine envisioned here. By analysing this variety in the theoi heading’s earliest occurrences, as well as exploring its materiality as part of a visual object, this paper explores how epigraphic practice can contribute to an understanding of the complex conceptualisations of the relationship between the law and the divine in archaic and early classical Greece. 

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Greek Religious Texts

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