Eve PARISINOU, The Light of the Gods: The Role of Light in Archaic and Classical Greek Cult. London: Duckworth, 2000. Pp. xv + 256. Hb ISBN 0-7156-2912-3.
Review by Susan E. Alcock
University of Michigan
Light seems such an obviously important element to consider when analyzing Greek cult practice. One immediately thinks of torch-races, Eleusis, votive lamps but I at least confess to never having thought about the matter in any systematic fashion. This book goes far towards collecting and systematizing a variety of evidence on the subject.
In her subtitle, Parisinou defines her goals fairly generously: the role of light in Archaic and Classical cult (she also points the way to further study of the Hellenistic epoch). After an introduction elucidating aspects of ?divine? and ?earthly? light, she moves, in nine chapters, from theme to theme, beginning with mention of the Lamp of Athena in Homer (Odyssey 19.34) and the use of lighting devices in early Greece. She then turns to rites of passage (birth, weddings, death), to ?pollution-repelling fire?, to light-bearing divine images, to fire as a creative power, to the use of light in the worship of deities such as Demeter and Persephone or Athena as well as several other topics along the way. Throughout, Parisinou invokes both textual and archaeological information, though her utilization of material evidence seems more comprehensive and assured.
Appendices offer what appear to be very thorough catalogues of different light-related representations on Greek vases and in sculpture. Scenes enumerated include the torch-races (the Panathenaia, the Nemesia), the use of fire in child-birth and nursing, the Eleusinian Mysteries, representations of divine hunting and divine war, and more. These are very useful collections of data. Forty-two plates on the whole with acceptable image reproduction and thirty-one figures illustrate many of Parisinou?s categories and basic points.
Parisinou?s fundamental conclusion seems amply demonstrated:
it is clear that the level of involvement of light (both as a concept and a device) in ancient Greek religious ritual was much deeper and more diverse than its practical function to illuminate nocturnal rituals.
That division a concept and a device is very necessary. Light is, of course, a vast theme, with multiple meanings and countless aspects: it is practical illumination; it is divine epiphany; it is fearful; it is wondrous. Parisinou?s very comprehensiveness may burn her a bit here. She provides a compendium of data, but her own, specific arguments tend to get a bit lost or one is unsure what her conclusion is: for example, her opinion on the perpetually burning lamp of Callimachus in the temple of Athena Polias. Others may in future want to tackle ?light? with more of a laser beam approach, and less this kind of full spectrum treatment. But their job will be easier because of this book.