While some secondary literature has reconstructed Greek religion as a system of fundamental polarities, this paper argues that archaeological evidence moderates these perceived oppositional extremes by highlighting shared qualities between them. The separation of the immortal gods and the mortal dead emerges as one of the most deeply-seated binaries in the study of Greek religion, with the distinction imagined as a vast and impassable gulf that repeatedly engrossed poets and tragedians alike. Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that a number of similarities existed between the religious practices that occurred at fifth-century gravesides and within shrines. Material culture encourages us to reframe the mortal/immortal debate, since it enables us to step away from the traditional emphasis on the nature and character of gods and instead to consider the actions and needs of human mortals.
As such, this paper employs Robert Orsi’s model of ‘devotionalism’ and views religion as a relationship between humans and holy figures. Orsi defines devotionalism as the array of practices and objects that people used to engage powerful beings in their day-to-day lives. When the Greek gods and the deceased are viewed as invisible beings with whom humans interact, rather than as dissimilar figures, the likeness between devotional practices becomes more noticeable. For example, both divine beings and the spirits of the dead were entreated with prayer, sacrifice, meals, and votive offerings, while the material culture of funerary and sanctuary activities often overlapped. Attic vase-painting illustrates another shared element, represented by particularly mundane and common devotional objects, tainiai (strips of fabric). Their ubiquity in fifth-century Athenian funerary practice is demonstrated by the inclusion of tainiai in scenes of prothesis, tombstone ornamentation, and the packing of funerary baskets. They also occurred as sculpted elements on actual tomb monuments and were painted onto marble funerary stelai. As devotional items, the strips of fabric also occupied the day-to-day spaces inhabited by Greek men and especially Greek women, depicted in domestic contexts, symposia, and sporting events. They were also part of the material culture of sanctuaries; vase-paintings show them presented at altars, wrapped around columns, and tied onto sacrificial animals, while epigraphic records suggest they were part of the offering apparatus within treasuries.
The poets and tragedians highlighted the insurmountable divide between deathless gods and dying mortals, perhaps in order to increase pathos and drama, or because they truly imagined such a distinction. It seems that this belief was partially contradicted by action, however; fifth-century Athenians seem to have employed the same processes when approaching divine and deceased figures, manipulating conventional objects as a means of engaging both types of spirits. As different as ancient Greeks (or modern scholars) may have conceptualized the various invisible beings, when interacting with them Athenians nevertheless employed an underlying framework of methods and devotional idioms that was appropriate for both.