Religion in the Ancient Greek City
By Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmidtt Pantel
Translated by Paul Cartledge
To start with, it’s clear from the beginning the amount of care which the authors took to be as unbiased as possible. They are very upfront about the ways in which modern beliefs and culture can, and does, influence the research of ancient cultures. The translator has done a great job as well at bringing this across in English.
The book covers a wide range of topics and is relatively thorough though still concise. Each chapter is only a few pages long, which makes it easy to read a little here and there in your freetime. The authors also make sure to reiterate that in ancient Greece, politics, religion, and daily life were not separate, and they impress upon the reader to remember that there was no dichotomy of sacred vs. profane. Rather, it was the context of an item’s use or of an action which defined its sacred status. The book also covers religion in regards to different levels of society, from the Panhellenic, to the city-state, to smaller forms of governance, to phratries, and on down to the Oikos level. This is not an in depth book, but rather a broad study of the relationship between the ancient Greek cities and religion. This makes for a great starting place to understand the structures that were in place and as a jumping off point for further research into areas that may interest the reader.
Because of the format and brevity of this book, the chapter on festivals does not cover many specific festivals, but rather focuses on the Attic calendar, sacred days, and general format of a festival with a few festivals given as examples.
The authors place an emphasis in chapter thirteen on the interconnectedness of the pantheon as a whole and that, to understand any of the deities, one must consider them not only in the context of their realms of influence but also in the context of their relationships with the rest of the gods. They give a few examples of this.
This book also brings up an issue that has pervaded much of the body of scholarly work, which is a modern and Christianized perspective of a culture that was very different from ours and a religion which did not encompass the same ideologies as Christianity. The authors have sought to bring forth a survey of ancient Greek religion which is free from the projection of modern ideas, and in my opinion, have succeeded in doing so as much as possible.
I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s great for beginners for an introduction to the nuances of ancient Greek religion, and for those more experienced to read a perspective that ties all of it together (as best we can). Many other books try to focus on the religious aspects or on the political or civic aspect of life in ancient Hellas, while in reality those things were so interlinked that they were not even considered separate topics and this book does a good job in getting that across.