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On Greek Religion, by Robert Parker

Reviewed by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge

This book is an important step in its author’s scholarly journey in the field of ancient Greek religion. After Miasma (1983), Athenian Religion (1996), Polytheism and Society at Athens (2005), and many articles, On Greek Religion gathers together some of the methodological problems and central issues Robert Parker has been addressing for twenty-five years of research on a topic about which, paradoxically, “We know too much, and too little” (p. viii). Therefore, this is neither a handbook nor an “Introduction to” nor a “Companion to…”. If we try to identify the “literary genre” to which the book belongs, “essay” is probably the best label it deserves, an essay with finely crafted footnotes and up-to-date international bibliography. The seven chapters and five appendixes derive from the Townsend lectures delivered at Cornell during the autumn of 2008.

The first chapter (“Why Believe without Revelation? The Evidences of Greek Religion”) analyses the different implications of a religious system without sacred book(s) or reference writings. Since the Greeks did not feel any “lack”, three questions arise: what reason(s) had the Greeks to believe in their gods? how could they know what was pious or impious, pleasing or unpleasing to the gods? what was the role of Homer and Hesiod to whom Herodotus refers when speaking about theogony, divine competences and even divine names? These questions are addressed in turn, with a close look at the connections between ritual acts and representations such as myths (which are “unstable”), pious narratives or speculations. Let us remark, with Parker, that oracles go against the grain of supposing a lack of revelation within the system, since divination is strongly related to divine will. The window on revelation is narrow but does exist. Regarding books, they are attributed to disreputable figures who need legitimization. The legitimacy of the city does without books and is rooted in tradition and the antiquity of its ritual practice.

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