Lecture Seven: Tragedy 7.2

7.2 Gods, seers, mysteries


Archaic and classical Greek culture share the sort of worldview based on weak embodiment that we already discussed in Lecture Three and Five. By the fourth century BCE, the Greeks had established a sophisticated way of life, very different from that of the small-scale societies we discussed in relation to the phenomenon of shamanism. Nevertheless, the broad way of conceiving the nature of agency and the place of humans within their broader environment is akin to the sort of communitarian model of agency that can be attributed to shamanic cultures.[1] Unlike the Vedic culture, however, the Greek did not develop anything comparable to the collections of the Vedas. They did not have established schools or groups devoted to transmitting received knowledge about the gods and rituals (analogous to the brahmin schools that preserved the Vedas). Epic poets played a crucial role in voicing and expressing sacred knowledge about the gods, their myths, and their relations with humans. But Greek poietic creations were markedly different from those of the Vedic seer and did not give rise to (nor aspire to) a comparable ritual system.[2]

Robert Parker, in his On Greek Religion (2011), provides a guide to exploring further this context. The Greek did not base their religious views on one codified source of divine revelation. Parker is at pains to show how the Greeks could have had religious views in the first place, especially given that they seem to simply take the existence of the gods for granted. He suggests two main reasons for this belief (ch. 1): the prosperity that follows as a reward for worshipping the gods, and a form of the ‘design argument,’ according to which the world is run through divine providence. The obvious limitation of any such arguments is that they somehow take for granted what they should explain: how could the Greeks arrive at the notion of any religious ritual or providence without having any direct revelation of divine beings? However, it is not much of a stretch to simply realize that religious beliefs are surely much older than Greek culture, since (as discussed in Lecture Three), we can trace them back to the Paleolithic era, if not earlier. There must have been some continuous belief in the existence of non-human powers and agencies that intervene in human affairs in propitious or harmful ways, and the Greeks simply shared that broad worldview and developed it in their own way.

In Greek religion, priests are public officials who are mostly responsible for the correct execution of rituals and for managing temples. Different Greek city-states have different temples and worship different groups of deities, although they roughly share the same pantheon. Flexibility allows various gods to move from one place to another, or to ascend or descend in the importance of the devotional activities tributed to them by each local community. Rituals often revolve around a sacrifice, which typically entail the ritual killing of an animal; usually cattle, sheep, pigs, or goats. Understanding the exact nature of Greek sacrifices has been object of longstanding controversies (see Parker’s chapter 5). For present purposes, it is important to stress that in many cases, the sacrifice can also be seen as a way of establishing a communication with the gods and opening a channel through which prayers from the humans to the gods could be rewarded with blessings from the gods to the humans.

Greek religion was based on an idea of cosmological order. This idea is analogous to that already encountered in other cultures and times. And like other cultures, religion, for the Greeks, is a way of enacting the cosmological order and reasserting the human role in it via animal sacrifice. This point is reinforced by reflecting on the nature of Greek gods. Gods were both associated with natural phenomena (like Hermes with winds) and more abstract qualities (like Eros with love), and separated into heart-dwelling gods (chthonians) and heaven-dwelling gods (Olympians). Greeks also worshiped heroes, which ‘are biographically dead mortals, functionally minor gods’ (Parker 2011, 110). Myth was an important source for establishing the origin of various gods and their association with certain places or shrines. However, myths were not formalized theological statements, but rather the (often collective) product of epic poets. One of the most famous and important examples are Hesiod’s Theogony, which is a poem about the birth of the gods, and a number of Homeric Hymns devoted to various deities.

However, Greek gods seem to have a lot of flexibility in their manifestations, locations, powers, and importance, which also change over time. Accounting for an enduring core or identity of the gods has proved quite hard. Parker favors a revised structuralist model:

That model seeks to show how, within the spheres in which it is involved, each deity is active in a way distinctive to itself. But it has no way of predicting in what spheres the deity will be active. The power that Aphrodite exercises at sea is one of calming and conciliation, appropriate to herself. But there was no necessity that she should exercise her powers at sea at all; she does not calm storms on land. Zeus’s control of the thunderbolt is a symbol of his general sovereignty, we can allow. But power over the sea or over earthquakes could equally have been a symbol of cosmic control. Conversely, why could not turbulent Poseidon have wreaked atmospheric havoc on land? The explanation for these distributions of activity seems partly to lie in history (an ancient division of what we will have to call spheres of activity between Zeus and Poseidon, for instance), partly in market demand: numerous gods become involved, each in their own way, with seafaring, child care, and marriage, for instance, because of the complicated human anxieties associated with these crucial activities and experiences. (Parker 2011, 96)

On this model, gods identify major agents of change, or more or less specific ways in which events can be channeled or steered. Invoking Zeus is not the same as invoking Aphrodite. Despite overlaps and potential competence conflicts, Greek gods seem to embody relatively distinct powers that manifest in distinctive ways in which the course of the events in a certain sphere of life can evolve. In this sense, they represent the dynamic forces (agencies) that operate in the cosmological order in which human beings live.

The picture sketched so far suggests that an average Greek person in the classical period might have had religious beliefs mostly based on the received tradition and the pervasive enaction of religious rituals. These beliefs would concern the existence of various gods, which can be made propitious through appropriate rituals, often involving some animal sacrifice. One core aspect of this system is that humans and gods can communicate. Seeking appropriate channels for establishing this communication is essential to ensuring a harmonious interaction between human communities and the godlike agents that influence its fate. As mentioned, sacrifice is a formal and official occasion for seeking this contact, although not the only one.

A widespread figure in ancient Greek culture is the seer, who works as a wandering specialist in the art of establishing specific contact between human individuals (or sometimes collective groups) and gods. Unlike the Vedic seer we discussed in Lecture Five, the Greek seer is not an inspired poet who also administrates rituals, but rather a master of divine hermeneutics who specializes in interpreting the signs sent by the god and possibly takes appropriate action in response.

Michael Flower, in his The Seer in Ancient Greece (2008) has provided an in-depth account of Greek divination and seers. The seer (Greek mantis) is a commonly encountered figure in various sources, both in literature and in history. Usually, the seer comes from an elite family and wanders from town to town, offering his (seers are often males) services to clients, who usually are willing to pay high fees for securing them. The seer is an expert in divination, namely, in the technique of detecting signs sent by the gods (through various media, from the flight of birds, to the livers of sacrificial animals), and then interpreting these signs as answering specific questions posed by the client. Most often, the seer aims at solving practical dilemmas, such as ‘is it better to do x, or is it better to do y?’ This view presupposes not only that the gods can foresee the future and might share that knowledge with humans, but also that the course of the future remains relatively open. A good seer can not only recover information about what is going to happen, but might also be able to act in such a way to steer future events favorably, or at least prevent disasters. Divination is a particularly crucial art to face uncertainty.

As Flower comments:

The rites of divination were not only ubiquitous in Greek society; they were also uniquely authoritative. This was true not only for the uneducated masses, but also for the elite, and not just in the archaic period, but even during the classical and Hellenistic periods. […] The emotional intensity that could be involved in undergoing a divinatory ritual is graphically documented by the experience of Pausanias (9.39) when he visited and consulted the oracle of Trophonius at Lebadeia in the second century a.d. He tells us that after the inquirer emerges from the oracular cave, where he encountered the god either in sight or in sound, he is “overcome with terror and unconscious both of himself and of his surroundings. Later, however, he will recover his senses no less than before, and the ability to laugh will return to him.” […] Pausanias was willing to subject himself to this disorienting experience not because he had to or because it was expected of him, but because the experience was useful and meaningful for him. The various rites of divination, taken together, constituted a rational and coherent, as well as a socially useful, system of knowledge and belief for the Greeks. It was socially useful in that it aided decision making, circumvented indecision, and arbitrated disputes. It was logical in that it was predicated on an implicit set of beliefs that made sense for the Greeks: that the gods are concerned for the welfare of humankind, that they know more than humans, and that they are willing to share some of that knowledge by way of advice. (Flower 2008, 104-105)

The example provided by Pausania introduces an important variant of Greek divination, namely, the consultation of oracular shrines. The most famous oracle was probably the Pythia in Delphi, who was considered to be the mouthpiece of Apollo. Oracles answered questions, usually by entering a possession trance, while seers acted more as exegetes of signs provided by the gods, but without necessarily experiencing trance. The premise upon which both operate is the same that underpins the rest of Greek religion, namely, that gods not only exist, but communicate with humans and care for them, so much so that they are willing to share part of their knowledge with them and help them in appropriate circumstances. As Flower stresses: ‘just as possession divination was dependent on an inspired techne, so technical divination, to be practiced most successfully, was in need of an innate prophetic gift. I have called this intuitive divination’ (Flower 2008, 91).

The Greeks also knew other ways of establishing contact with the gods. An important phenomenon is constituted by so-called mystery cults.[3] Unsurprisingly, we know relatively little about the actual details of these cults. Mystery cults were often open to a variety of individuals from different social groups (including women) and operated in derogation of social hierarchies otherwise segregating or subordinating individuals based on their group affiliation. Mysteries were also structured in various stages, in which adepts progressed through a process of initiation, which usually culminated in a special experience or revelation, saved for the few and kept strictly secret for the non-initiated.

One of the most relevant and perhaps oldest cults was based at Eleusis (near Athens) and devoted to Demeter (the goddess of agriculture) and her daughter Kore (also called Persephone). The cult celebrates the myth of Kore, who is kidnapped by Hades (the god of the dead) and brought to the underworld. Demeter desperately seeks her daughter until Kore is eventually freed, but her return to the world is only temporary due to a trick played by Hades. Besides the mythological account of the seasons (Kore’s temporary stay in the underworld is associated with winter, her return with spring), the myth has explicit eschatological overtones. As a common feature of mystery cults, the cult of Demeter and Kore was also seen as a glimpse into the afterlife and the cult was used to ensure a good destiny after death. The initiated would experience something like the wandering of the soul after death, and eventually the reaching of a place of safety and joy.[4]

In his comparative study of rebirth eschatology among various cultures, Imagining Karma (2002), Gananath Obeyesekere devotes a quite extensive discussion to ancient Greece (especially chapters 5 and 6). He analyses various small but intellectually significant groups of thinkers (which include Pythagoreans, Empedocles, Plato, and Neo-Platonists) who all developed theories about the cyclical rebirth of the soul, regarded this cycle as itself a cage to escape, and conceived of the path leading to freedom from rebirth in terms of ascetic practices and contemplations. These views remained somewhat elitist and were addressed to small-scale sodalities of adepts mostly concerned for their own individual salvation. Besides these views, though, there were also more popular movements that arguably appealed to larger groups. The epic poet Pindar (fifth century BCE) voices this alternative, which envisages a period of reward or punishment after death based on one’s moral conduct in life. If one manages to keep one’s conduct spotless for three rebirths, one is eventually reborn in the Isles of the Blessed and automatically escapes the rebirth cycle.[5]

In small-scale societies, the rebirth cycle tends not to be envisaged as a problem. Cultural developments, often associated with forms of ascetism (as we observed already in Lecture Six) problematize it and introduce the idea of a superior form of salvation, connected with escape from the cycle. This possibility of escape, as it becomes more widespread and accepted, invites one, in turn, to take action during one’s life in order to better one’s destiny in the afterlife. One’s actions during life become not only something that will bring immediate consequences here, but they are also invested with long-term consequences after death. Once this view is endorsed, it becomes possible to care in this life for one’s future destiny, by adhering to or supporting various practices. Mystery cults in ancient Greece seem to cater for these sort of eschatological expectations and needs, which apparently did not receive much attention in other Greek religious forms.

A strong interest in the eschatological destiny of humans after death is central to sects and cults associated with the mystic bard Orpheus and with the god Dionysus. For present purposes, we shall focus on the cult of Dionysus.[6] Richard Seaford, in his Dionysos (2006) has provided a nice short introduction on the most salient points that surrounds the Greek conception and interaction with this god. Dionysus is associated with wild animals and wine, thus embedding the image of wilderness and intoxication. His male adepts are the satyrs, half human and half horse, who form his retinue (thiasos), while his female adepts are called bacchae or maenads (literally ‘raving ones’). Dionysus is associated with several myths, which include the story of his dismemberment and resuscitation when he was a child, and various attempts to kidnap him (often ending with Dionysus showing his wild nature to the aggressors).[7] Dionysus is presented as a god that comes from outside of mainland Greece, a stranger, perhaps an indication of his association with the values of non-domesticated nature, agriculture, and lower social classes, more than with actual geographical provenance.

The cult of Dionysus has a strong focus on the relation between individual and community. Dionysus’s adepts (satyrs and maenads) are ecstatic, possessed by divine frenzy, and are freed from any other social bond.[8] The thiasos forms an ideal community of equals in which all adepts follow the lead of Dionysus. This model has an ambivalent meaning with respect to the traditional social structure, both at the level of family and at the level of the political community (polis). As Seaford comments with respect to maenads:

The polis is composed of separate households, a structure that is most conspicuously embodied in the tendency for each woman to be confined to the domestic sphere. And so for her to leave her separate household (in some versions, as in Bacchae, specifically her loom) so as to transcend the boundaries, both physical and psychic, between herself and other women and between herself and nature—this is a symbolic reversal of the civilised structure of the polis. But this reversal of the structure of the polis is also the most conspicuous possible expression of its communality. The polis contains a tension between adherence to the polis and adherence to the household. In the symbolic expression of this tension in myth and ritual, adherence to the household is best symbolised by those who in reality adhere almost exclusively to it, the women. Hence the mythical resistance of the women to Dionysos, their unwillingness to leave the parental or marital household for his collective cult. Dionysos overcomes the resistance (in the daughters of Minyas, the daughters of Proitos, the women of Thebes) by inspiring frenzy in them. Hence also the ruthlessness with which Dionysos imposes frenzied selfdestruction (kin-killing) on the ruling family that vainly resists his communal cult, a theme which in the communal Dionysiac genre of tragedy extends to myths that do not contain Dionysos. (Seaford 2006, 34)

However, as Seaford also remarks, this same model can also be used to support the power of a dominant political leader. Later Hellenistic kings tended to present themselves as embodiments of Dionysus, coming to unifying their people under their lead as a single thiasos (by thus also breaking their affiliation to more local and small-scale political organizations). More generally, Dionysus represents the conflicting relationship between individual embodiment and consociation. On the one hand, he disrupts traditional forms of consociation and leads people of both sexes to join his retinue of satyrs and maenads. On the other hand, the thiasos becomes a new community for the adepts, in which they are all equal among themselves (contrary to otherwise segregating social hierarchies), but also all equally subordinated to the lead of Dionysus himself (or perhaps to one of his embodiments in a powerful and charismatic political autocrat).

The experience of Dionysiac possession and the merging into Dionysus’s thiasos had not only social but also eschatological significance. Dionysus was associated with mystery cults that likely focused on the experience of death and ensured a joyful afterlife for the adepts. Again, following Seaford:

The unknown power that mystic initiation attempts to control is the power of death. And so it pre-enacts, in the controlled form of ritual, the process of dying. It stages the anxiety of death that leads to the bliss of the next world. And so because death is an unpredictable rupture of personal identity, mystic initiation must abolish the fundamental categories that constitute personal identity. It may therefore, as we have seen, enact a controlled confusion of male with female, human with animal, living with dead, mortal with immortal. And because the power of death is absolute, the even greater power that is bestowed by control over it easily becomes a political issue. (Seaford 2006, 74-75)

As already noted in Lecture Three, death is more likely to be interpreted as sheer annihilation of the individual only when a form of strong embodiment has already been accepted, according to which the individual is essentially identified or dependent upon a specific individual body. There is little evidence that this form of strong embodiment was upheld in ancient Greek thought, which was more likely adherent to a weak form of embodiment. In this context, death is surely a radical change, but this change is not a transition from being to nothingness, but rather through different forms of existence and experience. In Homeric epics, the underworld and afterlife are quite gloomy, and this might be interpreted in light of the Homeric emphasis on the values of strengths and heroism, which cannot be fulfilled after death. Mystery cults, including those devoted to Dionysus, seek to turn the transition towards the underworld into a more positive hope for a better destiny. This hope is supported through the experience of possession undergone by the adepts and the way it transforms the perception of one’s own identity. In possession trance, one deliberately loses one’s ordinary identity and merges into the larger community of Dionysus’s thiasos. By dissolving the boundaries between self and other, possession trance is experienced as a moment of utter freedom and bliss, due to relief from any bondages (a mechanism we already encountered in Lecture Four). If death is associated with the destiny of a particular individual (what is experienced as ‘me’ or ‘myself’) and is seen as a bondage, then the adept can find in the experience of possession a paradigm for understanding death as a (permanent) dissolution of boundaries.

Instead of fearing the loss of one’s power (like the Homeric hero), satyrs and maenads under the guidance of Dionysus enjoy the empowering experience of losing themselves and merging into a broader ground, which ultimately makes irrelevant whether one is still in this or in the next world. In this respect, this sort of possession trance, with its strong emphasis on unification and merging, comes quite close in terms of its intentions (although not necessarily in methods) to anesthetic trance. But instead of fostering a sense of unity due to a progressive shutting down of sensory experience (as in anesthetic trance), it seeks the experience of unity through frenzy and physical communion (hence the recurrent mentions of orgiastic and sexual frenzy). As a result, instead of leading to the discovery of an ultimate eternal reality, absolute, ineffable, beyond time, Dionysiac possession focuses on the freeing and empowering experience of the individual’s own dissolution, which is both terrifying and blissful, yielding more of an existential transformation than an ontological insight. One might be tempted to see Dionysiac possession as the experience of self-transcendence without ontological Transcendence.

The ancient Greek attitude towards the gods is indicative of a distinctive way that uncertainty is handled in their culture. Human agents act and interact in a world of manifold other agents, and some of them (the gods) are conceived of as particularly powerful. This playfield creates a significant degree of uncertainty, since not only material conditions are subject to natural changes, but the course of events can also be steered in different directions by the direct interventions of multiple and often conflicting agencies. The way the gods take central stage in the epic actions sung in Homer’s Illiad is the most glaring instance of how human fate is seen as profoundly shaped by divine interventions. In such a context, humans can do their best to understand what the gods want and plan through divination, and to ensure their alliance through sacrifice and rituals. But these strategies can only manage uncertainty, they cannot eliminate it. There is a constant tension towards catching any signals the gods might be sending and understanding them as best as possible. But the decoding of divine signs is always matter of interpretation, and this manifests a distinct form of uncertainty: hermeneutic uncertainty, namely, not being sure of what something actually means.

The Greek conception of human relations with the gods thus allows for two diverging scenarios. On the one hand, one might try to withdraw as much as possible from the mingling with the gods. This sort of atheistic turn is not unknown among the Greeks, but it surely regarded as odd (if not dangerous or blasphemous) from most of mainstream society. Being godless, one sets oneself apart from received norms and traditions, by thus facing marginalization if not direct ostracism and persecution.[9] Unsurprisingly, atheistic positions are thus relatively rare. But even a softer approach that simply tries to keep human affairs as separate as possible from those of the gods would encounter problems and resistance. If the gods are there and genuinely contribute to human events, not addressing them properly (namely, according to tradition) would simply yield even greater uncertainty. Withdrawing from negotiation with the divine seems thus contrary to the purpose of mastering uncertainty, and it might be attempted only insofar as this ideal of mastery is relinquished. In any case, this strategy would not lead to a greater mastery or to a more certain condition.

On the other hand, one might try to push human subordination even further towards a divine principle. Dionysiac cults provide an instance of how this could be accomplished. By becoming a satyr or a maenad, a human being can withdraw from other social bonds and merge into the thiasos. The new community is entirely ruled and led by the god, who possesses their adepts. Through ecstatic faith they are healed from the crisis of uncertainty that otherwise plagued the ordinary human condition. In this scenario, stronger subordination to a higher principle seems to yield greater certainty and control, although only at the price of making the individual self considerably thinner, if not foregoing it altogether. The further problem with this solution is that it requires two steps: a disruptive action through which the individual is separated from his or her original community, and a constructive step in which the same individual is integrated within the thiasos, or his or her new community. This transition engenders a crisis of the preexisting order and a need to navigate one’s way from it to something that might still be unknown and might first need to be discovered and adequately conceptualized.

As we shall see, both these strategies, and especially the latter, inspired by some core elements of the cult of Dionysus, are explored in Greek tragedy.

  1. The importance of shamanic elements for the emergence of the Greek culture has been emphasized since the now classical study of Eric Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951).
  2. Commenting on the difference between Vedic hymns and Homeric epic, Jamison and Brereton, in their ‘Introduction’ (2014, 14), write: ‘it [the poetry of the Ṛg-veda] was a type of oral composition very different from what that designation now generally brings to mind in scholarly, especially Homeric, circles. It was not an anonymous floating body of infinitely variable verbal material (re-)composed anew at every performance, generated in great part from fixed formulae that formed the poet’s repertoire. In contrast to the vast sprawl of epic, on which the usual model of oral-formulaic composition was formed and tested, Ṛgvedic oral composition was small-scale and verbally complex. Though orally composed and making use of traditional verbal material, each hymn was composed by a particular poet, who fixed the hymn at the time of composition and who “owned” it, and it was transmitted in this fixed form thereafter.’
  3. For a brief overview, see Parker 2011, 250-255. For a more detailed treatment, see Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (1987) and Hugh Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World (2010).
  4. For more details, see Jennifer Larson, Ancient Greek Cults. A Guide (2007), chapter 6.
  5. For further comparisons between rebirth views in ancient Greece and India, see Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002), chapter 4, who also argues why the most likely historical diffusion route for the doctrine of ethical rebirth goes from India towards Greece (possibly via Egypt) around the seventh or sixth century BCE.
  6. Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Redefining Ancient Orphism. A Study in Greek Religion (2013) has recently argued that there is no unified ‘orphic’ tradition, but rather a series of doctrines and views that in time came to be associated under the same reference to the mythic Orpheus. The interested reader can look at this study as an entry point into the debate on this aspect.
  7. For further details, see Jennifer Larson, Ancient Greek Cults. A Guide (2007), chapter 10.
  8. Rouget, Music and Trance (1990), part II, chapter 1 offers a detailed account of Dionysian cults as forms of possession trance and discusses the role of music in their enaction.
  9. For a discussion of atheism in Ancient Greece, see Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (2015).


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