Review: Parker’s Greek Gods Abroad

This is a short book review, as I’m (a) still a bit under the weather; (b) in the throes of the fall semester; (c) writing a scholarly bibliometrics paper on some physicists, which is really fun and takes up a lot of time in Oct-Nov every year; and (d) in the middle of writing short stories, epics, and the like. Honestly, I probably got a bit sick because I tend to push myself hard.

But! Before I duck into the haze of things! I’ve lucked out with a lot of the Hellenism-related books I’ve read lately, and I’m sharing another review here.

Greek Gods Abroad: Names, Naures, and Transformations by Robert Parker (2017) arose from a series of lectures delivered in 2013. The book is divided into six chapters and eight appendices. The book’s title immediately jumped out at me because I wanted to know a bit more about how Greek gods were worshipped abroad. I am not ethnically Greek, and I worship the Hellenic gods in the USA. I wanted to look at scholarship surrounding the peripheries of identity and the perspectives of the Hellenized — and that is what I glimpsed.

Parker’s book describes a palimpsest of gods’ names in the ancient world driven by the continuously oscillating boundaries among a plethora of cultures. The echoes of conquest in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East appear in epithets that survive beyond indigenous languages and dead religious practices that can scarcely be gleaned from behind their Hellenized exteriors. The book provides a beautiful glimpse of the depth of history. I chose the word oscillating because it does feel like the gods are pulsating beneath the names and practices. I found myself wondering what wasn’t written down or inscribed in temples — looking for glimpses of the opinions and sentiments of the peoples whose original cultic practices and standalone god-names were lost and never written down.

I didn’t know that some expressions like “my god” come from religious practices among speakers of Phoenician and Egyptian. It’s also interesting to learn about the cultural drift of the ways high honors were given to gods from their anchor cults in Classical Greece to the multicultural diasporas within large Late Antiquity cities (anyone reading my blog needs to know that I write constructed languages, so this book is pleasingly linguistically nerdy). There is one particularly compelling example of an adaptation from Egyptian practice, the epithet epēkoos, who listens. It is sometimes accompanied by carvings/reliefs of ears and thought to refer to a god’s capacity to hear the prayers of the devout. The practice started among non-Greeks worshipping in Greek sanctuaries and eventually — in the imperial period — became general to sanctuaries of Greek gods in most places outside of historically Greek territories (p. 145-146).

Chapter 2 on Interpretatio is a vertiable gold mine for how to conceptualize the translatability of gods among cultures. It closes with a section called “The Universal Polytheism” that has an extremely interesting passage:

It is important to take some of the heat out of the debate by stressing that it ought not to be about a supposed moral superiority of polytheisms, grounded in liberal tolerance. Ancient polytheism were not tolerant, except by default; those who have searched for an ideal of religious freedom or tolerance in mainstream ancient thought have failed to find it until, late in antiquity, pagans faced by triumphant Christianity took up arguments earlier developed by persecuted Christians. In particular, polytheisms are not tolerant of monotheism; Roman persecution of Christians in the second and third centuries finds its parallel in Japanese persecution of Christian missionaries from the late sixteenth century onward, and no doubt there are many other examples. But what does appear a defensible claim is that ancient polytheisms, though not committed to religious toleration, found it very easy to get one with one another. I know of no instance in the ancient Near Eastern or classical worlds of intercommunal violence between polytheist groups based on religious difference. The grounds for this easy coexistence are doubtless various; the absence of doctrine based on revelation is one; the loose link in polytheisms between religion and the moral code is another; but a third is surely the shared assumption, grounded in interpretatio, that at the bottom the gods you worship are also the gods I do or might worship. Think how different, for instance, relations between Greeks and Romans would inevitably have been without the easy acceptance of the other’s gods as the same as one’s own. Perhaps it is a mistake to speak of ancient polytheisms in the plural at all. From an actor’s persective the world was divided between different countries and tribes and political systems, but it was not divided between different gods: there was only one ancient polytheism, one set of gods ruling the entire world. (p.75-76)

I think that this is well-phrased. The word “persecution” is obviously very ambiguous when applied to Christian missionaries because it relies on the supposition that evangelism is protected religious expression and not a human rights violation — and I would argue, especially after watching God Loves Uganda last weekend, that there’s a huge difference between religious awareness/mutual education/raising children in a tradition and the kind of proselytizing violence happening around the world to this day. What I emphasized are pieces that I consider more important than that ambiguity, as they capture a lot of my opinions as someone who grew up in polytheism. I recognize Eshu and Ganesha as interpretatio common ground, among other gods; I have done so since my late teens. The passage also contains echoes of Sallustius’ On the Gods and the Cosmos/World, especially the passages about how gods manifest to various peoples.

Again, Parker focuses on epithets and dedications in temples — the scholar is interested in the evidence for how religion was actually practiced, not as much in how people preferred to describe their religious practices. I took photos of book pages that I will need to review later, especially when constructing formal prayers. The comparisons and contrasts with other Mediterranean and Near Eastern religious practices and ways of communicating with deities are fantastic. I was intrigued by the epithet-focused evidence forming the background of this scholarship and appreciated learning from such a distinguished expert.

You also absolutely need to read the footnotes. Footnote 18 on page 82 is hilarious, in part because it reminds me of why I don’t invest in too many agalmata in my own apartment — it’s also a look at a different religious culture from the Hellenic polytheistic practice I have. That is all I will say because I think the book is worth reading. 😁 4.5/5

This is my last book review on KALLISTI for a bit. After I read a bit of fiction, I’m going to swing back to religious books by reading Same-Sex Love in India. I’ve always found it more valuable to look at sacred texts, commentaries, and traditions from other polytheisms (especially those that remain unbroken) than to compare my polytheism to Christianity, as the religious contexts don’t translate well. I’ve been wanting more queer-focused polytheistic content over the past year or so, and this is a good way to get that.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Parker’s Greek Gods Abroad

  1. And indeed, the crimes of the West in China were far worse than in Japan: the Opium Wars, the deliberate effort to fatally undermine the world’s oldest continuous state through the most evil and treacherous means imaginable. Christianity cannot escape being held responsible for the crimes of colonialism when it benefits from them at every turn. Modern scholars also treat the spiritual motivations of the Boxers with scarcely concealed disdain, far differently than how they see militancy within the Abrahamic faiths.

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  2. I have two problems with what Parker says here. First, historically speaking, I think that he is incorrect to treat as universal the notion that the other people’s Gods are just my own in different dress. We find this attitude, sure, but we also find people not doing interpretatio, at all periods and among both the intelligentsia and laypersons. So this is not synonymous with polytheism. Secondly, I find troubling the assumption that this is the only realistic basis on which people will tolerate one another’s religions. This misses something basic about polytheism, which is that polytheists can recognize the other’s Gods as worthy of worship without assuming that They are really my own Gods, or that if they are worthy of worship, I am required to worship Them myself. Without recognizing this disposition, I don’t think that one has truly grasped anything about polytheism as such. Moreover, it demonstrates a grim assumption about human nature more broadly, namely that if I do not perceive the other as the same substance as me or their culture as the same as mine underneath merely cosmetic differences, then I will hate them and wish to destroy them. If this is the only basis on which we accept the Other, then we are well and truly screwed, because that is eliminating the Other, not recognizing them.

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    1. Yes, other sections of the book get into why people do (or don’t do) interpretatio — and that’s one of the reasons I picked up on the strong undercurrent of tension between Hellenic (and Roman) colonialism and conquest in antiquity with indigenous cultures. I agree that his comprehension of polytheism isn’t what it could be, as he still suffers from awestruck disbelief that people coexisted with different gods for millennia — which is so different from the status quo over the past 1500 years that it’s pretty hard for most researchers to understand how and why.

      Parker did a better job than most academics I have read, and I think that one of the risks of quoting a long passage that I found powerful in context is that it misses the entire lead-up chapter to this finale. Not all gods were subject to interpretatio, and he does talk about the gods who were not translated into Greek and Roman terms as a way of contrasting against those whose names/cults were translated. The book is also extremely focused on tracing linguistics and cultural transfer, so it doesn’t often go into lived quotidian experiences.

      He also only has a several-page appendix about India, and one of the big questions he asks (but never answers) is why interpretatio was so limited in India as opposed to elsewhere. I think it would have been very interesting to look at interpretatio in that context (e.g., where it didn’t happen much beyond the basics). He hypothesizes that it’s due to Greeks only looking for Dionysus and Herakles cults in India, but that appendix definitely felt like an open-ended question.

      Contextually, the passage is more about Venn diagrams of gods — the idea that not all gods are worshipped everywhere, but some are held in common by many, and people use these points of commonality to do religious collaboration in both voluntary and involuntary cultural contact situations. Gods and their cults are definitely at least as difficult to translate as poetry.

      I actually wonder a bit what is going on in the Japanese-language literature about religion, as I’ve heard anecdotally through peer-reviewed articles that trends in Japanese religious studies tend to be extremely critical of monotheism and much more tolerant (and understanding of) polytheisms — and here, the author explicitly mentions Japanese treatment of missionaries as an example of intolerance. This is why I pointed out how vague his mention of Japanese persecution of missionaries sounded.

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      1. Parker is a good scholar, and I’ve appreciated his work in the past. I could see how the nuance present in his broader argument would be lost by pulling out an excerpt like this.

        With respect to Japan, by the way, a bit of context might be in order. The persecution of Christians in Japan followed a campaign of provocation on the part of the missionaries: “Japan’s first Christian daimyo (feudal lord) was Omura Sumitada, who received baptism in 1562 … Beset by enemies, he appealed to the Portuguese for military help, which came, but with a price: Sumitada must repay his ‘great obligations’ to God, said Padre Gaspar Coelho, head of the Jesuit mission in western Kyushu, by ‘extinguishing totally the worship and veneration of idols in his lands’ and seeing to ‘the universal conversion of his vassals’, until ‘not a single pagan remained.’ No sooner spoken than done. The year was 1574. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were burned or demolished throughout the Omura domain; 60,000 subjects were baptized, by force if necessary,” (Michael Hoffman, “Christian missionaries find Japan a tough nut to crack,” Japan Times, 12/20/2014). The persecution of Christians in Japan began some 20 years later.

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      2. Yes, that’s the context that I expected. Thank you! The same is true of the Boxer Rebellion in China, that a lot of missionary stuff was happening that was underplayed in the East Asian history class I took at a college while in high school. I’ve been reviewing diaries and letters from some of the missionaries there because I write epistolary fiction and am casting a wide net at violent contacts to see how people describe violent/life-threatening things like it in real-world circumstances (and how much word count people can get in, which is the thing most threatening to epistolary realism). As I read through the missionaries’ accounts, it’s clear that they didn’t think of themselves as the perpetrators of the violence that they were guilty of doing. But people committing abuse of all kinds are often not named, and victims of it are usually blamed and gaslighted. Sigh.

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