J. Clauss u.a. (Hrsg.): The Gods of Greek Hexameter Poetry

The Gods of Greek Hexameter Poetry. From the Archaic Age to Late Antiquity and Beyond

Clauss, James J.; Cuypers, Martine; Kahane, Ahuvia
Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge 56
Stuttgart 2016: Franz Steiner Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
XIV, 458 S.
€ 69,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Giulia Maria Chesi, Institut für Klassische Philologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

The representation of the gods, the relationship between the divine and the human, and the investigation of the nature of the divine in the extant texts of Greek literature are increasingly attracting the attention of classical scholars again. For instance, one might think of Pucci’s study on Euripides’ systematic criticism of the traditional anthropomorphic view of the divine, and of Whitmarsh’s book on the wide ranges of attitudes towards the divine in the ancient world, from forms of pious devotions to the first expressions of atheism.[1] The present collection of essays contributes to this debate by focusing on hexameter poetry from the archaic period to the late antiquity, and it is particularly welcome as it represents the first solid and comprehensive study of the theme of the divine in hexameter poetry.

The choice to tackle the topic according to a chronological order is appropriate as it allows to tease out the evolution of the literary engagement with religious thought over different historical periods. The book is very well edited and provided with an index that indeed serves the purpose of facilitating the reading of a volume of almost 400 pages.

The present volume is not a random collection of disparate papers, as is often the case with multi-authored books. The different sections tackle the same topics (organization of the pantheon; interaction between men and gods; role of justice) with the advantage that the discussed material has the structure of a monograph. A greater deal of the critical attention could certainly have been aimed at such major aspects of ancient religious thinking such as divination or oracular knowledge. One might ask, for instance, why there are no papers devoted to these topics.

The first section is on archaic poetry and includes contributions on Hesiod, Homer, the epic cycle, the Homeric hymns and the pseudo-Hesiodic Shield. The paper of Jenny Strauss Clay “The Justice of Zeus in the Theogony?” provocatively argues that in Hesiod dike is strictly a concern with human beings. This explains why the Theogony ignores an exploration of the concept of dike and, instead, is occupied with negotiating the notion of time among the gods. In “The Gods in the Narrative of the Homeric Hymns,” Andrew Faulkner, relying on Jenny Strauss Clay,[2] explains that the Hymns are to be read against the background of the Theogony and Homeric epic: as the Theogony, the Hymns are about the foundation of Zeus’ power and therefore, unlike Homeric epic, do not depict a pantheon in which the function of the other gods are already clearly set. However, the gods’ portrayal in the Hymns also differs from Homeric and Hesiodic narratives: Zeus “stays more in the background” and gods such as Demetra receives a prominent role. This is perhaps why the hymn to Zeus is only few lines long. The paper of Kirk Ormand “Divine Perspective and the plots of Zeus in the Hesiodic Catalogue” shifts the focus from theogonic narratives to the relationship between gods and humans. The Catalogue is about the hybrid race of the demigods, and Zeus’ decision to stop the mingling of gods and humans. The Catalogue, therefore, dramatizes the irreversible separation of humans and gods, and can be read as a “prequel” to the Iliad which narrates the end of the demigods. Jim Marks’s paper “Herding Cats: Zeus, the Other Gods, and the Plot of the Iliad” also explores forms of human and divine interaction. The paper asks why in the Iliad the course of human actions is notoriously influenced by divine decisions, first and foremost by the Dios boule. It suggests that Zeus’ divine external agency is the pivotal factor for enacting the plot of the poem. Yet, Zeus’ plan “proves to extend far beyond the narrative bounds of the Iliad itself” (p. 61). Thus, the Homeric poem enacts a process of rationalization of the divine: Zeus is thought of as embodying an insight power which controls the cosmic order of humans and gods. The essay by Richard Martin “Poseidon in the Odyssey” addresses questions of religious practices and suggests that the Greeks of Homer believed in their gods. In the Odyssey, for instance, Poseidon presides over the initiation of young men into the family system and the city life; some cult practices narrated in the poem, such as the sacrifice of bulls on the Pylos’ beach during Telemachus visit to Nestor, mirror rituals associated with Poseidon. This does not mean that the Homeric Poseidon is a doublet of the “real” god. Rather, it invites “to approach this divinity socio-poetically” (p. 76): the archaeological evidences of cults bound to Poseidon as well as his representation in the Odyssey are both a source to understand how the Greeks worshipped and perceived this god. The article of Christos Tsagalis “The Gods in the Cyclic Epic” points out that the epic cycle and the Homeric poems on the one side are mutually exclusive, on the other complement each other. In the Cycle as in Homeric epic gods love and mingle with mortals, foretell the future, and are prone to wrath. All these modes of action enhance the plot and constitute “‘unmarked’ forms of divine activity” (p. 117). In the Cycle, however, gods also induce metamorphosis and immortalization. These elements do not appear in Homer; they do not enhance the plot and hint at “the Cycle’s taste for the exotic, the fantastic, and the miraculous” (p. 117). The last paper of this section “Ares in the Pesudo-Hesiodic Shield,” written by Timothy Heckenlively, returns to the issue of human and divine relationships. It argues that the Shield, by depicting Heracles’ defeat of Ares, narrows the distance between mortals and gods.

The second part of the book is dedicated to Hellenistic poetry and lays out the innovations of the genre by focusing on the Hellenistic poets’ continuing dialogue with the epic tradition. The section addresses questions raised in the previous part such as the relationship between humans and gods and the nature and power of the divine. “Heldendaemmerung anticipated” by James Clauss is a careful analysis of the depiction of gods in the Argonautica. Clauss argues that the Argonautica, as the Hesiodic Catalogue, is interested in an exploration of the dynamics leading to the end of the cohabitation of mortals and gods. Therefore, in Apollonius’ epic, Olympian gods and humans barely interact whereas minor divinities or “gods in the making,” such as Heracles and the Dioscuri, are often involved in the narrated events. This “distancing of the gods” (pp. 142–149) might be read as a new sign of the Hellenistic “theological uncertainty:” the Olympian gods were still the traditional pantheon to be worshiped but their actual role in people’s life was increasingly put under scrutiny. Also the papers of John Ryan “Zeus in Aratus’ Phaenomena” and Ivana Petrovic “Gods in Callimachus’ Hymns” engage with the shifting representation of the Olympian gods during the Hellenistic time. In Aratus Zeus is still an anthropomorphic god; yet he is a cosmic principle too (the sky), and as such he becomes “a heuristic model of astronomical observation” (p. 163) and the source for human knowledge. In the Hymns Zeus is not anymore in the process of establishing his position as the ruler over the gods, as in Hesiod, Homer and the Homeric hymns; rather, he is the benevolent leader over the immortals. The depiction of Zeus as a good dynast serves the representation of “the members of the Olympian family as reflections and emblems of Hellenistic royal power” (p. 164). The paper “Gods in Fragments: Callimachus’ Hecale” by Massimo Giuseppetti carefully explores Callimachus’ antiquarian taste. Here, the gods’ depiction is rich in details (epithets and ritual practices) and is an element of Callimachus’ “cabinet of curiosities.” The erudite tone of Hecale is manifest also in the many cross-references to the contemporary Hymn of Demetra by Philicus of Corcyra. Besides the typically Hellenistic tendency to erudition, also an inclination to pathos characterizes this epyllion: Hecale’s past is full of pain for which she wishes revenge. The last paper in this section, “Erotic battles?: Love, Power-Politics and Cosmic Significance in Moschus’ Europa and Eros on the run” by A. D. Morrison, explores the intertexts between Europa, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and the song of Ares and Aphrodite in Odyssey 8, on the one side, and Eros on the run and the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, on the other, showing that gods in Moschus are “thoroughly aestheticized” (p. 207) with the effect that the divine represents a fictional world with any relation to human life.

The third part of the volume engages with imperial and late antiquity poetry. The paper of Sivio Baer “Reading Homer, writing Troy” shows how the gods’ representation in Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica owes much to Homer and is quite innovative at the same time. The most important difference with Homer is the considerable power attributed to personifications of fate which sheds doubt over the gods’ omnipotence. This holds true also for Triphiodorus’ Sack of Troy as Laura Miguelez-Cavero argues in “With a little help from my (divine) friends.” Moreover, Miguelez-Cavero shows that Triphiodurus’ activity as a grammarian and his interest in mythography allow a reading of the Sack as ancient critical commentary of Homer. The paper “The Hunteress and the god” by Adam Bertley addresses questions of religious syncretism. In his discussion, the Artemis-passages of the didactic poem Cynegetica represent Artemis as the traditional Greek goddess of the hunting but they also associate her closely with the oriental goddess Atargatis. The paper “Naming the god of metamorphosis” by Domenico Accorinti moves on to the fifth century, with a discussion Dyonisus’ metamorphoses in the Dionysiaca. Through a close analysis of the intertexts with the Homeric Hymn to Hermes and Apollodorus, Accorinti argues that Nonnus’ Dyonisus has metamorphic powers already in his infancy and that the god has Centaurs as nurses since his childhood parallels Achilles’ youth. Nonnus, alongside with Eudocia, is also the subject of Anna Lefteratou’s paper “Jesus late antiquity epiphanies” on the episode of healing the blind man in Nonnus’ Gospel of John and Eudocia’s Homeric Centos. In her discussion, these works appropriate Greek classical themes of blindness and epiphany not “as an attempt to replace the classical models” but as a means to elaborate a Christian poetry as “complementary to mythological and classicizing epic poetry” (p. 269). The paper “Gods and men in Colluthus’ Rape of Helen” by Enrico Magnelli engages with Collothus, a poet influenced by Nonnus. Magnelli shows that the Rape is not an allegorical reading of Homeric gods as it is often the case with late antiquity texts but a “Homeric epyllion:” its gods are truly Homeric. Yet, unlike in the Homeric poems, gods are reduced to mere objects of poetic amusement. In “The Argonautica of Orpheus as Poetic Theology?” Oliver Schelske discusses the two theogony-passages in this anonymous poem. The first one is an Orphic theogony with Neoplatonic elements; the second one is strictly orphic. They testify two different way of engagement with Orphism: one based on cultic-religious praxis and one based on philosophical interpretation. In the last article of this section “Polytheism in the Sybilline Oracles” J. L. Lightfoot explores the reinterpretation of the pagan Sibylline oracles by Hellenistic Jews and Christians of the early Church and the “various sorts of syncretism” (p. 310) it originates. This appropriation of pagan materials is either apologetic in tone or polemic (at the center of criticism we find the condemnation of anthropomorphism and idolatry).

The volume ends with a chapter on the reception of the Greek “epic” gods in Latin and English literature, with papers on the Homeric gods and the Aeneid (Ward Briggs), on gods in the Fasti (Fritz Graf), on Tennyson’s ideal of the “Victorian Virgil” (Edward Adams) and on Walcott’s and Oswald’s revision of the Homeric gods (Ahuvia Kahane). All these papers have the virtue of making us aware of our cultural debt to the classical tradition.

[1] Cf. Pietro Pucci, Euripides’ revolution under cover. An essay, Ithaca 2016; Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the gods. Atheism in the ancient world, London 2015.
[2] Cf. Jenny Strauss Clay’s influential book The Politics of Olympus, Princeton 1989, p. 115.

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch