Giulia Sissa and Marcel Detienne, The Daily Life of the Greek Gods. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. Pp.xiii + 287, 1 map, 1 table. ISBN 0-8047-3614-6.
Review by Niall McKeown
University of Birmingham
This manages to be a book that both excites me as an historian but is also written in a manner I could never attempt to copy. Detienne and Sissa offer a trip inside the heads of the ancient Greeks, to investigate how they thought about the gods. It is very much a book in two parts, as is suggested by the back-cover summary: In the first part they ‘find in Homer’s Iliad material for exploring the everyday life of the Greek gods’. ‘In the second part, the authors show how citizens carried on everyday relations with the gods’…
They give a fine view in the first section of how the society of the gods worked inside Homer’s mind (see e.g. 68 ff. on what they expected from sacrifice), and also hint at how different those gods were to the gods one finds in other Greek writers such as Hesiod, Aristotle and Apollodorus (see, e.g., 18-23: these are not distant or intellectualised gods, cf. 143-44, 206). The Homeric gods are different from man, yes, but they show many similarities too (e.g. 28 ff. on how their bodies work in many aspects like those of mortals). The theme of historical change is picked up in the second half of the book. Their main thesis is that the Gods of the later Greeks, whilst similar in name and perhaps form to those of Homer, operate in a different fashion. They reign but do not govern (206). They are embedded within political forms rather than dominating them (203). The second section gives an indication of the sheer variety of ways in which man and gods could interact, including discussions of the nature of altars (Chapter 12) and of sacrifice (see Chapter 11). ‘Belief’ in the gods was more than just ritual: ‘For the Greeks, “believing in the gods” simply meant recognizing their presence in the city, their importance in the lives of human beings living in societies, in particular when the social group organized itself into a political community’… (167, and see especially Chapters 11-13 for the nature of ‘polis’ religion). The book ends with two examples of the complexities of Greek religion, examining the role of goddesses and heroines in Athenian views of identity and then the myriad ways in which the phallus appeared in worship (Chapters 13-14). A number of comparative examples scattered through the work attempt to show how Greek religion differed from that of other societies (e.g. 155-57, 167, 190-1).
Sissa and Detienne, therefore, offer us a great deal. The first section made me want to go back and reread the Iliad, not for snippets on early Greek social life but as a story of the gods. The second section is something of an eye-opener for those mistaken enough to believe that Greek religion was a comparatively uncomplicated phenomenon (see, e.g. Chapter 10). The two authors, using a wide variety of literary and archaeological evidence, do give an indication of how some (many?) ancient Greeks would actually have thought. I suggested, however, that I was unsure that I could ever write a book of this nature. The method used has costs as well as the very obvious benefits I list above. It is obvious that only relatively scattered evidence remains for us to read from ancient Greece. One is on reasonably safe ground attempting to reconstruct an ‘Homeric’ view of religion, focussing on one individual. But how far can we start to reconstruct a ‘general’ Greek view by bringing in a series of very different authors often operating at very different times (see, for example, the range of sources brought into Chapter 9, including Hesiod, Pausanais and Aelian)? I am not seeking to encourage hypercriticism or hypercynicism. On one level my criticism is a rather odd one. I agree strongly with most of the programmatic statements made in this book about Greek religion. It is just that I would like to see a little more discussion of the particular agendas of the ancient authorities cited, to see their statements situated a little more within the context of their other thoughts. Secondly, even though the authors do manage to give a vivid depiction of the operation of a polytheistic, non-dogmatic religious system I wonder whether the type of evidence being chosen might give an unwary reader a slightly skewed picture of Greek society. This again is a rather odd criticism. The authors are not attempting to give a picture of Greek society, skewed or not. They are attempting to examine Greek religious thought. I hope that I do not appear then as one of the “doorkeepers of history”, “the boors who [bedevil] the art of making history”, whom the authors criticise for misplaced pedantry (157). Yet if one were to read a work like Mikalson’s Athenian Popular Religion one would find a rather different perspective on polis religion to the one found here. It is not that there is a formal disagreement with the kind of picture one finds in Detienne and Sissa. Both books argue that the Greek citizen did not live in superstitious awe of the gods; both books agree that the gods were placed within society rather than above it. Detienne and Sissa, however, look for presences and subtleties. Mikalson went looking for absences, and in texts such as the speeches of the Attic orators, he seemed to have found them. His is, therefore, an Athens where the gods are much less prominent than they are in the book under review. In addition, even if one could argue that there is a common mentality between different authors over centuries (which certainly seems plausible even if I would like to see a little more testing of the hypothesis), I wondered how far the views chosen represented a common position among citizens of the polis.
This then, is an accessible and well-written work (though a non-Classicist might find some of the second half slightly heavier going). It manages the difficult task of actually bringing the thoughts of some ancient Greeks to life and it is a mine of information on Greek religious texts. It is not a history of Greek religion, nor is it an introduction to such a history, but it is certainly a book anyone with a serious interest in Greek religion should read.