Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus

  Dignas, Beate, and Kai Trampedach, eds. 2008. Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Figures from Homer to Heliodorus. Hellenic Studies Series 30. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Epilogue. Practitioners of the Divine: A Task with Many Prospects

Beate Dignas and Kai Trampedach

Albert Henrichs warned us at the beginning of this volume. Did we even know what we were talking about when we invited scholars to a conference on Greek priests? To be sure, for practical reasons we were using the term priest in its broadest and most inclusive sense. The American anthropologist Melford Spiro defines religion convincingly as “an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings”; placing our subject within this framework, we may say that a priest is anyone who plays a prominent role in the described interaction. Applied to Greek culture, this definition of priesthood includes hiereis and manteis and all the other practitioners of the divine listed by Henrichs. Inevitably, our approach raises the following two questions. First, how do various types of Greek priests differ from one another? Second, what is specifically Greek about Greek priests? Individual chapters, as well as the volume as a whole, seek to address these questions.

Regardless of terminology, what mattered at first was to invite a group of scholars with wide-ranging expertise; with a variety of approaches toward Greek religion; and with interests ranging from the history of classical scholarship on the subject to social history, historiography, cult operation, and divination. We knew that Greek priests presented a challenging topic, at once central and neglected. Monographs on Greek priests are virtually nonexistent, and this for various reasons. During our symposium in Washington, DC, Walter Burkert’s verdict that “Greek religion might almost be called a religion without priests” was quoted more than once. Yet, numerous priests appear in our sources, and they are by no means subsidiary figures. The new and welcome volume of the Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum, half of which is dedicated to the personnel of cults, illustrates not only how rich and diverse our evidence is but also the need for interpretation. In her introduction to the subject, V. Pirenne-Delforge raises two crucial points that should form the basis of any study of Greek priesthood. [1] First, it is essential to bring together literary, epigraphic, and visual sources in order to grasp the complexity of the phenomenon of priesthood. The priests who appear in Greek literature have to be congruent with priests in inscriptions or their visual representations. Discrepancies (which clearly emerge) deserve examination and should afford an incentive to reevaluate the relevant material. [2] Second, neither the lack of a sacerdotal class based on vocation nor the political face of Greek priesthood necessarily turns the Greek priest into a magistrate like any other.

As we are confronted with a complicated terminology of priestly office as well as with different images conveyed in different genres, aspects of definition are crucial. There is no doubt that Greek priests are different from our charged expectations of what a priest should be like, but what are their roles? Are they political figures, sacred personnel, administrators, volunteers, good citizens, mediators, representatives of any particular socio-economic group? Did individuals—the great men and women who used their role as priests or made priesthood special through charisma and exceptional achievements—shape the nature of priesthood? Are Greek priests of the Archaic period comparable to those of the late Hellenistic period? How did an Athenian priest compare to a priest in a small polis in Western Asia Minor? How did priestly families shape Greek religion?

It is impossible to give general answers to any of these questions or to make firm statements that describe the Greek priest. At the same time, it must be possible to identify criteria that shaped Greek priesthood—criteria which apply to many places and many points in time. To give but a few examples, these criteria could involve local contexts, specific political settings, special events, urban or rural settings, private or public contexts, gender roles, and ritual traditions. We hope that the fruits of our symposium will help to give Greek priests their due place (or places) in handbooks of Greek religion as well as in comparative works, specialized studies on ancient ritual, and general works on ancient Greece.

The eleven contributions to this volume illustrate the fact that priests and other religious officials—practitioners of the divine as we have chosen to call them—abound in Greek religion. We are trying to be more cautious than most scholars of Greek religion before us, some of whom did not hesitate to use the problematic word priest when talking about a variety of Greek phenomena. This term is employed for lack of a suitable modern alternative and denotes “one who concerns himself with hiera,” although we know that we are being vague; hence, a subtitle that does come back to the priest, the anachronistic misnomer, but which does not neglect the variety of religious personnel with whom we are concerned. Most chapters address problems of definition and reflect the critical awareness that the introduction postulates.

From Homer to Heliodorus—the scope of this volume is immense. Yet rather than offer a chronological survey, these chapters present analyses of factors that shaped or even determined the role of sacred practitioners in general. The criteria that come into play are different in each case because some chapters focus on very specific points in time, on political premises, ritual peculiarities, or particular sites, whereas others address gender roles, the question of Greek- and non-Greek contexts, or ideals as opposed to a more general day-to-day reality. Nonetheless, all contributions ask about the status, background, expertise, and self-representation of the religious practitioners involved. We were struck by the degree to which the character of the evidence used for analysis is crucial when attempting to reconstruct profiles of Greek priests; we were equally impressed to see how instructive it can be to engage with unfamiliar textual genres—both experiences that we wish to share with our readers and that are, in part, reflected by the table of contents.

Angelos Chaniotis’s survey of priests as ritual experts, a theme that draws primarily on epigraphic evidence, goes well beyond testing the long-standing view that the performance of ritual, above all animal sacrifice, is what defines a hiereus. Chaniotis distinguishes between priests as performers of ritual (“they certainly were”) and priests as ritual experts (“in most cases not a requirement but there were many exceptions”), and then moves on to ask about the parameters that determined whether priests were not merely the former but also the latter. Priests could become ritual experts for various reasons: individual attitudes, most visible in acts of beneficence; family traditions; and an interest in ancient customs and local ritual particularities. References to Aristotle’s Politics as well as to Plato’s Laws are not rare when it comes to definitions of priesthood. The passages cited (most often Politics 1322b and Laws 909d–910e) are poignant and show one thing above all: priesthoods—imaginary or real—belonged to the context of the polis and can only be properly understood within this context. However, Chaniotis’s seemingly banal observation that “not every priest received an honorary decree, [which] suggests that some of them were fulfilling their duties in a more successful manner than others” is crucial and invites us to look beyond a civic framework of Greek priesthood; to look, that is, at the potential rather than just the constraints of priestly office. Such an approach applies, for example, to those responsible for writing down sacred regulations: “we can be certain that in most cases they were holders of priesthoods.” If this is true—and it must be—then who can claim that priests did not shape the religious life of a polis? The many examples of priests who were exceptionally involved in the cults they served illustrate the plurality of priesthood. The wide temporal scope of Chaniotis’s survey and his frequent references to mystery cults may provoke objections as to the applicability of such general parameters to all times and all Greek cults. In fact, however, his examples do come from every period of Greek history and every possible cult setting. His findings correspond nicely with the survey’s emphases on priestly ambitions in reviving traditional rites and customs, and on the close interaction between private and public rituals—two themes that are explored in their own right by Beate Dignas and Susan Cole in the following group of chapters.

Each essay in the section on Variations of Priesthood investigates either a particular religious site, or cults of a particular deity. Each of the four contributions examines settings that are in one way or another out of the ordinary—if this term applies to Greek religion at all. In contrast to Mary Beard and John North’s Pagan Priests (1990), the emphasis here is on the Greek priest, rather than on comparisons with Roman, Near Eastern, or Egyptian priesthoods. At the same time, non-Greek elements in a Greek setting (or vice versa) can be an excellent and rewarding focus when trying to establish criteria that shaped Greek priesthood. The contributions by Jan Bremmer and by Beate Dignas highlight this element and make us aware of yet another caveat regarding priests: what may look Greek may not be Greek, and what may look un-Greek may well be Greek.

Jan Bremmer examines the characteristics of priestly functions in the Ephesian Artemision in light of the complex Persian, Anatolian, and Greek background and influences on the cult. In this case, terminology affords an avenue towards understanding the easily misunderstood meaning and function of priestly office. We also see, to give but one example, how the many versions of myth have been used by both ancient commentators and modern scholars to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. At the end of his chapter, Bremmer reminds us of the differences between important characteristics of Greek priesthoods and those of a monotheistic experience. This shift in focus assumes that Ephesian priests were Greek priests, in spite of the complex ethnic, geographical, and cultural origins discussed earlier. The analysis of the genesis and development of Ephesian priests reveals an almost unlimited ability to adapt to new circumstances and to integrate alien elements. Curiously, the non-Greek elements in the cult of Ephesian Artemis thus reveal a very Greek characteristic of the practitioners of the divine involved. Bremmer’s observations dovetail with those made by Dignas on the priests of Sarapis in the Greek world.

Priests of Sarapis emerge in many places and contexts in the Greek world. Dignas’s chapter addresses two common assumptions that do not stand up to scrutiny. First, we tend to explain unconventional aspects of priests of Sarapis by the foreign character of the cult they served, but the epigraphic record shows that a priestly profile was in fact very much shaped by local custom, by ways of administering and structuring the religious life of a particular city. Public documents describe the activities of priests of Sarapis in just the same way as they record the activities of priests in traditional shrines. Second, and closely linked to the first point, we often distinguish between a private and a public setting and assign a Greek status to the cults of the Egyptian gods when they were transformed from private into public cults. However, an examination of the sanctuaries of Sarapis on Delos shows that even in the official cult, which was administered by annual priests and representatives of the Athenian state, the Delians did not and could not do away with traditional structures and customs. In particular, the observation that on Delos, and in other places, many organized groups of devotees of Sarapis were active in both private and public settings makes the common polarization between private and public priests of Sarapis unhelpful. With regard to the characterization of priesthood, the chapter encourages us to pay attention instead to the origins and history of each cult and to examine its personnel and internal structures carefully.

Case studies form the substance of Ulrich Gotter’s contribution, and these lead us away from the realm of the polis. The relationship between secular rule and sacred authority in Anatolia has often been presented as a counterimage to the world of Greek religion. This chapter demonstrates that the situation is complex and far from stereotypical. Gotter carefully analyzes Strabo’s accounts of the so-called temple states and comes to the conclusion that in most cases their priests did not, as has often been suggested, replace secular rule but were “nothing other than particularly privileged administrators of temple possessions.” (It is striking that this definition of priesthood is actually not so very different from one that applies to an urban Greek context.) Only in exceptional cases was priestly rule combined with secular rule. As Gotter shows, such instances were the result of the appropriation of important priesthoods by incoming secular rulers in order to consolidate their position. Accordingly, King Archelaus absorbed and phased out the traditional authority of the priest of Zeus at the Corycian Cave, whereas the outside successor to the priestly dynasty at the sanctuary of Zeus Olbius assumed his office with pride.

Susan Cole’s contribution on the preservation of ritual tradition in the cult of Demeter adds an important dimension of Greek religion to the volume: female priesthood. As Henrichs puts it in the introduction, “gender discrimination was alien to Greek religion”; indeed, the fact that women priests played a role in Greek sanctuaries that was as important as that of their male counterparts has been and is still a puzzling one to scholars. If, as is often argued, Greek priesthoods were comparable to political magistracies, then the role of women in the ritual life of the city (women being excluded from political participation) must have been determined by different guidelines and models. The general rule that female deities required female priestesses may explain why a process of democratization could not entirely impose its principles on the religious sphere, but this factor does not throw light on the profile of these holders of priestly office. Cole concentrates on priestesses of Demeter in considering the broader question of how communities guaranteed the continued and correct observance of traditional rites. The reminder to perform rites kata ta patria often indicates that “some kind of a change or challenge is already underway.” Sometimes, such an injunction reflects merely a practical necessity to provide part-time religious officials with basic guidelines on how to do their jobs, but in many cases (see Cole’s fascinating example of the Andanian mysteries) the issuing of such regulations conveyed sanctity and authenticity to a cult and its rites. Were priests central to this process? This question is of special relevance with regard to female religious officials, whose terms of office were (at least officially) formulated by an exclusively male world. Cole’s findings support a statement from Robert Garland’s article on “Religious Authority in Archaic and Classical Athens” (1984) to the effect that the “authority of any priest or priestess did not reach outside the boundaries of the sanctuary.” However, Chaniotis’s more than plausible assumption that priests contributed to the formulation of sacred laws must be read in terms of their being represented in political institutions, where they made and argued for proposals with the help of their priestly authority and first-hand knowledge. One wonders whether and how women priests were consulted, and on the basis of Cole’s famous accounts of “good and bad girls,” we may speculate that the priestesses’ input was actually considerable. A koinon of priestesses of Demeter at Mantinea, a collective oath sworn at the onset of office, and epiphanies of the goddess to her priestesses as a group suggest strong links between office holders, links which transcend the confines of individual sanctuaries. Looking at the institutions which were responsible for maintaining ritual tradition, such as genē, political groups within the citizen body, written records, or ritual conventions, it does not seem too far-fetched to see priests, both male and female, as the crucial link in this process. The so-called Lindian Chronicle to which Cole refers is the best example of priestly letters (if only we knew more about them) and an important source for reconstructing the history and status of a sanctuary.

There is no need to justify the fact that Ralf von den Hoff’s analysis of the visual representation of cult personnel on the Athenian Acropolis stands on its own. A volume on Greek priests cannot neglect the archaeological evidence, not least because this is certainly an area where priests have received considerable scholarly attention. Yet as von den Hoff observes, this attention has been at once guided and limited by the notion that Greek priests did not enjoy prestige qua office. A synoptic survey of images of cult personnel on the Athenian Acropolis revises this assumption and looks at how prestige was articulated over time. In the first instance, the chapter reminds us that visual attributes of priests and priestesses, be it the long khitōn, the priestly wreath or strophion, the sacrificial knife, the temple key, or the phialē, are important symbols that would have contributed to the status and visibility of priests at any time. Von den Hoff’s chapter also stimulates the discussion of gender distinctions as we see, for example, the female character of the cult of Athena emphasized through the statues of young girls serving the goddess. Again, the archaeological record is very suggestive of the socio-economic background of priests, or rather of priestly ambitions, and confirms an emphasis—especially during the Hellenistic period—on the financial support that office holders may provide for the cults. The reader finds here illustrations of many of the examples presented by Angelos Chaniotis in his essay. With regard to the Archaic and Classical periods, the contrast between Athens and other places where portraits of cult officials did exist cautions us against drawing hasty general conclusions and demonstrates the fact that we need further studies with a comparable focus. At Athens, the signa of civic eusebeia take precedence over the religious service of an individual. The changes that von den Hoff observes for the fourth century are difficult to account for, even if, as he shows, the growing prestige of holding cult offices is reflected mainly in the private sphere and is used by the traditional genē as a means of asserting their preeminence in religious affairs. This situation is taken to a new level by the family monuments of the late fourth and early third centuries.

The section Ideal Concepts and their Transformation presents priests who are rather different from those whom we have met in the preceding chapters. The constructed character of the theios anēr in Heliodorus and the philosopher and priest among the local elites in the Roman imperial East represent specific parameters and genres as well as new and different worlds of religion. Nevertheless, the two chapters here share fundamental insights in their approach to, and understanding of, Greek priesthood. With Matthias Haake’s contribution, we are confronted with inconsistencies between concept, perception and practice. The analysis shows how ideas are transformed in the real world, and Haake’s observations are striking. The clash between philosophical schools and polis religion is a commonplace and thus offers a suitable starting point for the chapter, which scans the epigraphic evidence for individuals who were both priests and philosophers. Social practice, as Haake labels the activities of individuals in their communities, was not influenced by philosophical ideas, at least not when it came to holding priesthoods. As both the study of philosophy and the holding of priestly office were part of a model code of behavior among the local elites, potential conflicts between the two activities must have been smoothed over in some way. Haake’s focal point is the philosopher, not the priest. He questions our expectations with regard to the former but not the latter. The chapter does not ask if a priest who emphasized his identity as pepaideumenos engaged in the study of philosophical ideas was compromising his role as priest. Yet the reminder that the conversation between Epictetus and the man from Nicopolis may not have expressed public opinion makes us rethink our approach. As we take it for granted that priesthood was about service and status in the context of polis life, we easily forget that other charged identities fulfilled the same role—yet we should not deny the latter a theoretical discourse.

The theme philosopher and priest reappears in Manuel Baumbach’s contribution. To begin with, we are reminded that an unexpected genre, the romantic novel, yields abundant opportunities to explore the notion of priesthood: in Heliodorus, the Egyptian priest Calasiris is Greek in many ways, but above all, he is a priest. Distinguished by both his outward appearance and his demeanor, he is perceived by the reader as a priest throughout the novel. This also applies to the other priests in the work, prominent among them the heroic couple, who are even proclaimed to be a perfect match because of their identity as high priest and consecrated priestess. It thus looks as if the priest of the third century AD—at least as a literary construct—was the counterimage of a priest in the Classical or the Hellenistic period. Baumbach’s observations on the second aspect of Calasiris’ identity, the persona of the wise man or philosopher, support this impression. Heliodorus’ priest wants to be seen as a learned man. Interestingly, to some extent he promotes this image not because he is an Egyptian priest (in whom the union of priesthood and scholarship would be expected) but because the link between the two is a universally applicable link. This representation leads us in the direction of the pagan theios anēr, who emerges as a role model with the second or third century AD. Apparently, this significant transformation of priesthood calls for labels such as divine, sacred, and absolute religious authority, terms which we strictly avoid in the context of polis religion. With these two chapters back to back, one cannot help noticing that the theoretical clash between priest and philosopher that was the focus of Haake’s chapter not only becomes irrelevant but is even transformed into its opposite in Baumbach’s analysis of Heliodorus. Both chapters, however, may be placed within the same temporal framework, and both can serve as models for further studies that seek to account for the reasons why such a transformation is perceived or took place.

Our volume concludes with two chapters that raise the general question: Should there be a place for manteis in a volume on Greek priests? As Henrichs postulates in the introduction, finding an example of one person who was labeled both mantis and hiereus might strengthen the case, but such an example is certainly not a prerequisite for including the contributions by Kai Trampedach and Michael Flower. Sometimes a discussion of otherness explains the matter at issue, but in this case both differences and similarities exist between two groups of practitioners of the divine. It is almost ironic that Michael Flower’s chapter is the only one in the volume that gives a confident definition of Greek priesthood (along the lines of our textbooks on Greek religion), which serves his purpose of showing what the seer was not. Inevitably, the exercise is characterized by a strong dichotomy between mere performers of ritual and successful practitioners of a skill, an authority which depends on an office rather than one based on personal charisma. However, seers were also employed in contexts where the distinction is blurred and where the seer performed additional duties that were characteristic of priests. The Iamid mantis employed at Olympia was responsible for the care of the great altar of Zeus and certain monthly sacrifices, and we know of other manteis who were involved in purification rites or the initiation ceremonies of mystery cults. It would appear that such cases distinguish themselves by the fact that the seer was based at one sanctuary. His handling of the sacrifice, which forms part of the divinatory act, brings the mantis close to the realm of the priest. Yet because Flower deals for the most part with itinerant diviners, his practitioners of the divine appear rather distinct from the priestly agents seen in all of the previous chapters. The analysis of self-promotion in the mantic family of the Iamidae is extremely fruitful. It seems that the mantikē tekhnē was drawn in two directions: it served as a justification for claims to aristocratic excellence, but it was also dependent on an aristocratic status. Martial valor (a theme that stems from the frequent use of seers in the army), a respected family tradition or even divine descent, and one’s role as benefactor in a local or supraregional context were certainly ways of shaping one’s own image to which every aristocrat could relate. When this strategy was successful, as in the case of Tisamenus I, it translated into substantial political authority; when it was not, as we may assume was the case with Tisamenus II, no professional skill could restore a lapsed status. The new fragments of Simonides’ account of the battle of Plataea (IEG Simonides Frr. 11–14) illustrate this link impressively: assigning Tisamenus his own epic speech may be a narratological device of a poet commissioned to promote the image of a man; in Herodotus’ account, the seer’s role is directly translated into history.

Flower’s observations illustrate precisely what Kai Trampedach, who focuses on the epic seer’s political authority, wants to show. His examples from the Iliad and the Odyssey are respected aristocratic heroes just like the later, historical representatives of the mantic families discussed by Flower. Although the manteis function as welcome and needed neutral specialists—and are credited with divine inspiration, mantic knowledge, and wisdom—their impartiality can easily be questioned and their authority is frequently contested. Whereas the mantic techniques of the seer are not emphasized—and this is true in the epics as well as in the mantic culture of the Greeks in general—the sensitive application of the sign to the specific personal or situational context was crucial. In order to succeed, the seer needed practical intelligence, an acknowledged aristocratic background, and kharisma. Here we come back to the Iamidae, who modeled their image according to precisely these criteria. Trampedach suggests both a literary function of the epic seer and a Homeric paradigm for the historical transmission of the concept of the seer.

Interestingly, this final chapter likens priest to seer by claiming that the mantis did not enjoy more political authority than a priest, albeit, as Trampedach insists, for different reasons. It is also noteworthy that Trampedach’s first example involves Achilles’ proposal that “a seer or a priest or an interpreter of dreams” (the first classification of practitioners of the divine in Greek literature?) be consulted. It would appear that different groups who engaged with religious matters could be perceived as appropriate advisors with authority. Could it be that Calchas, a seer rather than a priest, stepped forward for the banal reason that there was no priest present in the Achaean camp?

Just as Flower and Trampedach have given us the criteria that could invest the seer with authority and renown (even if unstable), an epilogue is the place for a careful corresponding assessment of the Greek priest and of other religious officials. Our volume is obviously not a telephone book of priests, nor does it propose a general definition of Greek priesthood. In any case, we prefer a definition in the widest sense. Undoubtedly, it would be convenient to conclude with a glossary of the relevant terms and categories that appear in this volume, but such a glossary would by its very nature gloss over what has emerged from our discussions: different genres of text, local idiosyncrasies, inconsistencies in Greek terminology, and discrepancies in ancient and modern thought make clear-cut definitions impossible. Albert Henrichs has already hinted at what may be the most important conclusion of this volume: the uniformity associated with our concept priest is in sharp contrast with the diversity of Greek religion. Greek priests had many faces, and they were and still can be perceived in many ways. The factors that determined the roles and activities of every practitioner of the divine are political as well as historical, religious as well as economic, idealistic as well as pragmatic, personal as well as communal.

We are still convinced, then, that there is no one answer to the question, What is a Greek priest? But we have moved on from and responded to many of the doxai with which the introduction confronted us. Whereas we used to note or even complain about the lack of a priestly caste, here we have been encouraged to look at how in each case priests used a potential authority to promote themselves and their priesthood, at times even forming a group identity of priests. Whereas we used to see the limits and part-time character of priestly activities, we have been encouraged to examine the wide-ranging administrative duties of religious officials and the important role they played in conserving, shaping, and reviving cult activity. Whereas we used to see a lack of religious authority, we have been reminded of the inauguration of priests and of the fact that the idiosyncratic evolution of cults created its own authorities. Whereas we emphasized a lack of political authority, we are moving on to investigate the activities of priests behind the curtain of polis institutions. Whereas we used to deny priests any special access to the divine, we are now encouraged to see them as mediators between men and gods, as figures who were not only placed in that position by the polis but who in many cases placed themselves in that position.

Indeed, not every priest received a statue and a crown, not every priest was honored for having lived a life in a manner appropriate for a priest: priestly office entitled one only to some—and we may call these modest—privileges, but it opened doors to all of the above. May Practitioners of the Divine open even more doors by inspiring scholars of all ancient disciplines to continue exploring the topic without adhering to certain genres of text, periods in Greek history, or to an a priori dichotomy between an idea and the real world, or even, perhaps, between us and them.


[ back ] 1. ThesCRA 5:2–3.

[ back ] 2. Examples of a comparison or integration of epigraphic and literary material can be found in Motte 2005, as well as in Pirenne-Delforge 2005.