George Alexander Gazis (Durham University)
The concept of the divine in the Homeric epics is admittedly complicated and has led to intense debate among scholars, particularly in terms of what kind of religious system, if any, hides behind the constant interactions of the gods with the Homeric heroes, as well as whether the concept of institutionalized religion is present in the Iliad and the Odyssey (Myers 2019; Edmunds 2016). Despite the frequent presence of the Olympian gods and lesser deities throughout both epics, identifying and describing accurately a religious system has proven difficult, due to the contradictory nature of the evidence found in the epics. One notorious example relates to the nature of fate, moira, a concept rather than a deity, which appears to deterministically bind both gods and mortals; yet in Book 16 of the Iliad (433-67) Zeus openly challenges fate by suggesting that he could rescue his son Sarpedon from his lot of death, only if Hera did not argue in favor of maintaining the cosmic order. Since moira is closely entangled with the concept of the epic tradition, such a challenge has the potential of not only changing the outcome of the war, but more importantly, upsetting the cosmic order as a whole, by removing the one binding power by which both gods and mortals must abide. Within the context of the epics, the issue can be argued away simply as an example of the well-established technique of misdirection employed by the poet (Morrison 1993), suggesting that the tradition could be transgressed to create suspense; however, when we put our theological lenses on, the question acquires new significance, particularly in terms of the kaleidoscope of beliefs the aforementioned event could be reflecting: can we really talk about Homeric theologia, a consistent conception of beliefs and a stable reciprocal system between the divine and mortal spheres?
This paper argues that such an early conception can be found through the examination of the more stable elements of any theological system: the practices of religious festivals, that naturally incorporate social structures and reflect a degree of traditionality that can stand the test of time. This paper suggests that such festivals in Homer, although scarce, seem to point towards an early theological system that finds its roots in Mycenaean practices, while simultaneously looking forward to its evolution in the Archaic period. Such ritualistic continuity, this paper argues, can only be explained through an established proto-theology, which survives throughout the Greek prehistory until the Classical period, albeit with significant changes that can lead to misconceptions of said practices even for the very people who practiced them.