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Greek Religion - Outline

'Religion' is notoriously a term that cannot be straightforwardly translated into Greek. No scholar who has discussed Greek religion has ignored formal public worship of the gods, but it has been common to deny that such cult worship of the Olympian gods constituted 'real' religious experience. At the same time, it has been general for scholars to ignore informal means of communicating with the divine entirely, excluding discussion of e.g. curses and 'magic' (another highly problematic label) from histories of Greek religion.

In choosing to focus upon the full variety of means by which individual Greeks and groups of Greeks attempted to communicate with the supernatural, this course attempts not to prejudge the issue of what should or should not count as 'religion' among the Greeks. In one sense this whole course is an exploration of what has been at stake in modern scholars' definitions of Greek religion.

In another sense, the course is an attempt to put the aspects of the classical world which the study of Classics has traditionally privileged into a wider perspective. Much happened to the inhabitants of archaic and classical Greece that they could neither understand nor directly control. At the day-to-day and vital level, the climate might or might not allow agricultural labour to bear fruit; at the personal level individuals experienced physical maladies whose course they could do little to predict or control, and emotional reactions from and to others of which they neither understood the cause nor could control the course. Classical scholarship has traditionally chosen to pay attention in particular to one part of an attempt to redescribe that world so that it could be seen as subject to rules. This constitutes the history of Greek philosophy, Greek science and medicine, and of the writing of Greek history itself. However, as well as natural and human forces, the divine was believed to regulate and affect the workings of the cosmos. An understanding of the divine and the implicit knowledge of its existence and nature thus inevitably impacted upon all areas of human study and endeavour in the Greek world. No part of the life of the Greeks was entirely secular and although critics of both the gods and religious practitioners (and even atheists) existed, religion was a constant presence in the ancient world.

This course looks at both 'theological' and practical questions: what did the Greeks believe they knew about the divine? In what ways and for what purposes did the Greeks attempt to communicate with and influence supernatural powers? To what extent did the capacity to communicate with, or be a channel of communication from, the divine vary from group to group or person to person? Were there limits to what could acceptably be done to obtain the support of supernatural powers? What behaviour did the gods expect from mortals in the course of their interactions and how did this affect the moral outlook of the Greeks, as well as ritual practice?

To answer these questions the course will look at material evidence and at iconographic evidence as well as at ancient texts. Throughout, the course will interest itself in the private actions of individuals as well as the corporate actions of groups and states.

Dr Matthew Evans will focus on how the Greeks communicated with their gods and on Greek sanctuaries; Dr Paul Grigsby will look at Greek festivals, cults, religion and the realities of life, and religious experience – did the Greeks really believe these things?

Learning Outcomes:

By the end of the module students should be able to demonstrate:

  • a firm knowledge of the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Greek world
  • an understanding of the varieties of Greek religious thought and experience
  • an understanding of the history of thoughts on Greek Religion and our current methods of approach

They will also be able to show the following intellectual skills:

  • Critical awareness of the advantages and limitations of written and visual material in the study of the ancient world.
  • The ability to evaluate the merits of different methodological approaches to the material
  • The ability to select and present material clearly and with a coherent argument both verbally and in writing

In addition, finalists will develop

  • The ability to set their findings into a wider comparative context, drawing in other aspects of the study of the ancient world
  • The ability to seek out appropriate secondary literature and show discernment in the types of primary evidence addressed.