Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece

  Detienne, Marcel. 2009. Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece. Hellenic Studies Series 17. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 2. The Gods of Politics in Early Greek Cities [*]

Here, I have decided to speak of “the gods” rather than “religion.” The “gods” know why I have rejected a modern reference to “religion.” I confess that I have never held the terms “religious” and “religion” in high esteem. And that is not solely because those terms, with their associations with religio-religere and the idea of ritualistic scruples, conjure up certain scruples with regard to cults. No sooner had I won the freedom to embark on research at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes than I began to plot how to escape from the protected territory known as Sciences religieuses (Religious Studies). [1] My first collaborative seminar set out to explore the limits of the field of religion. Where did this field begin? And how was it changing before our very eyes? The specialists of that protected territory, a good fifty or so of them, shared a stubborn reluctance to ask fundamental questions about what was conventionally called the religion of the ancient Babylonians, the Old Testament, or the Aztecs. Among the first ten or twelve professorial chairs in Paris, there was even one for Greek religion, the one that I persistently endeavored to shake up in order to develop its full potential, during the period when it served as the basis for my comparative operations. Although the Roman legacy cannot be held entirely to blame, it was through it, its language, and its culture that there was pressure, already in the Christian Augustine, to consider polytheisms as vast terrae incognitae that were destined eventually to receive True Religion, whether from Christianity or from Islam. As our experts have established, over three quarters of the world’s population are naturally polytheistic. Consider for a moment the eight hundred myriads of deities in Japan, the countless metamorphoses of the deities of Hinduism, the thousands of genies and powers of black Africa. Likewise, the forests and mountain {99|100} ranges of Oceania, the Indian subcontinent, and South America are teeming with pantheons with great clusters of deities.

It is probably fair to say, without fear of contradiction, that on the limitless horizon of polytheisms, monotheism appears as a kind of religious mistake—for these do occur, just as sentimental mistakes do, although the latter fortunately tend to be more short-lived. Polytheistic societies revel in their ignorance of churches and episcopal authorities, whether pastoral or papal. They mock these upstart monotheists for their insistence on “having to believe” and their proselytizing efforts.

As we all know, the field of polytheisms constitutes a vast continent, one that awaits all those wishing to experiment in the world of the possible relations that link divine powers. I will venture into it solely to seek out the gods who speak Greek, who, however, are delighted to be translated and interpreted into other languages. Just as in Japan there are karni for ovens, for food, for costumes, and for domestic altars, so too, in Greece the gods are everywhere. So why should they not be there in the political domain?

To uncover the network of these Greek-speaking gods, it was necessary to concentrate less on their individual features and to resist the attraction of their fine appearances, and instead to identify all the different ways in which deities are associated on altars and in sanctuaries. In a polytheistic system, a god is always plural, constituted by the intersection of a variety of attributes. In this sense, a god is conjectural, a figure with many angles and many facets.

There may be gods everywhere, but which are the gods of the political domain? What is so particular about them? Is it not rather surprising that there should be any need for gods in a space defined by assembly practices whose major object seems to be the affairs of the human group? What are the gods doing in a space that seems principally concerned with human matters and is devoted to a Common Good (xunon) that is the business of all the group members? {100|101}

We can study the beginnings of such phenomena in many different societies. Those that came about in dozens of communities in Italy between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries owe nothing to those that arose among the Cossacks of Zaporizhia, in quite a different history, or to all those “places for politics” that are detectable in the soil of Magna Graecia or on the shores of the Black Sea. But I believe that the beginnings of the tiny, first Greek cities deserve the full attention of a comparatist-cum-Hellenist, fascinated by the ever-changing colors of their “places for politics,” that shimmering quality which the Greeks called poikilos.

Let me concentrate on three examples of beginnings in the Greek terrain: the precarious city of the Achaeans who came to besiege the town of Priam, the imaginary city of the Phaeacians; and the early archaeological and material evidence found at Megara Hyblaea, in Sicily, dating from about 730 BCE.

Meetings in assembly, for the purpose of deliberation according to the rule of “debating pro and contra,” such as those described in the Iliad, followed practices with an easily observable ceremonial that makes it possible for us to determine the role and place of the gods within the space of the agora. As the great work Délibération et pouvoir dans les cités grecques by Françoise Ruzé (1997) describes, from Nestor down to Socrates, the space of deliberative speech took the form of a circle or a semicircle. Whoever wished to speak for “the common good” would advance to the middle, es meson, where he would be handed the sceptre that conferred authority upon his words so long as his agora (in the sense of speech) concerned what the Odyssey calls “a public matter” (ti dêmion). [6] It all thus began amid a gathering of warriors, men who set as much store by the art of speech as by the martial arts (which is not the case in all warrior societies). The altar with its gods, set up by the Achaeans at the center of their semicircle of ships, was to be longer lasting than the siege of Troy, for the Greek-speaking gods were to continue to be involved in the founding practices of cities and of these special places devoted to “the political domain.” Two divine powers were always directly involved in the planning of a new city. First Apollo, known as a founder, an Archêgetês. [7] And hard on his heels came Hestia, the Greek Vesta, with her sacrificial fire. Apollo was the god of Delphi. Any would-be founder had to go to consult him. Apollo was revered as a god of paths and reliable plans, and he liked to accompany human founders, keeping an eye on them. As an architect and a geometrician, Apollo the Founder was the patron of the art of city planning, dividing {102|103} the territory into allotments of land, building roads and sanctuaries (temenê), and marking out the space for the agora.

There could be no city without an agora, no city without altars and sacrificial fire. In many cases, immediately upon disembarking the founder would consecrate an altar to his own Apollo. But an altar was not enough to make a city. There was also a need for sacrificial fire that had been brought from the central altar of the founder’s native city.

By observing the assembly practices of these early cities, it is not hard to see that they take place in a space in the shape of a circle, or a semi-circle, and that they are peculiar to a space called an agora, a fixed space that is common to the greatest possible number of citizens. It is a space that is both common and public (dêmosion as the Greek puts it). The agora, which in Crete is sometimes called the agora of the assembled citizens, functions as a deity of effective publicity. Here charges were proclaimed in cases of homicide, and certain benefactions were publicly accepted. These were public applications of speech of a legal nature, and they helped to create something that seems to become essential in the constitution of a “place for politics” in Greece, namely publicity. It was necessary to publicize—make known to all—the decisions taken by a majority of those who set out to deliberate on what we may now call “public affairs” and who aimed to have these decisions observed and {103|104} applied by others in their city. To this end, these little cities of between two hundred and five hundred men, with territories of no more than between five and ten square kilometers, at about the same time invented the art of writing on bronze tablets and stone stêlai. These were sometimes affixed to walls, sometimes displayed in what were considered to be public places. The intention, sometimes explicitly spelled out in these inscriptions, was to place on view, for all to see, the decrees that had been passed and the decisions that had been taken—“words solidly established” (thesmoi), as Solon puts it. [9] For example, in Chios, a narrow island roughly level with Smyrna, an early sixth-century stêlê urges the elected magistrates, in the name of Hestia to observe the decisions of the people, the dêmos of Chios. Inscribing words on stêlai and writing on walls were the constitutive practices of “the political domain” in the village-cities that engaged in various forms of assembly. But what with all this talk of public space, publicity, and public opinion, I am perhaps moving too fast, as the gods are now reminding me. Long before the printing press and the wide diffusion of debates in our eighteenth-century Europe of only yesterday, in every village-city there were temples with walls, and sanctuaries with space: and it was there, in the temples of Apollo, Artemis, Hera, Poseidon, and others, that the public documents such as the rules of sacrifice and the decisions of the assembly were published, that is to say exhibited, posted up. Temples and sanctuaries were public places, open to all. There was no Holy of Holies; and the so-called priests were annually elected magistrates who were expected to give an account of the spending of public money. The sanctuaries of the agora, the temples on the Acropolis, and the altars scattered through the countryside were all public places, places of publicity by decision of the council and the assembly, which could thus make known to all and sundry what they ought to do.

In a polytheistic society, the gods are everywhere, for sure. But not in a random manner. There are certain domains in which they seem to be concentrated, certain types of experience in which they are organized in unusual or improbable ways. The multiplicity of gods seems to make it possible to think through and form an image of a large number of the activities and problems that men encountered in their social lives. I think we should try to discover whether or not gods, particular gods, were directly involved in what I shall—if I may—call “the autonomy of the political domain in itself.”

Let me spell this out. I have described the practices of the deliberative assembly and the repeated and regulated exercises performed by a decision-taking group that progressively comes to think of itself as a unity made from a plurality and that creates for itself this new public space. All these practices sooner or later, depending on the circumstances, played their part in forging the by no means ordinary idea of the group’s sovereignty over itself. Yes, sovereignty, and I am of course thinking of those first Greek cities, which never needed to behead a sovereign or to abolish an ancien régime. But now, as a careful comparatist, my thoughts also turn to the whole of “traditional” West Africa, which does not appear to have any “public places.” Indeed, you could even say that there is no space at all there between the power of the king or royal chieftain and the society, which is organized into clans. The king accumulates in his person all the powers that are disseminated among the clans and lineages. As the Africanist Alfred Adler puts it, in many cases, the sacralized power that is vested in the king leaves no separating gap between his person, which is set about with prohibitions, and the society made up of clans and lineages. This society seems to base its idea of itself on its recognition that the king assumes the (often weighty) privilege of ensuring the society’s union with the whole collection of the forces of nature, both visible and invisible. On the one hand, we thus find a society that forms an image of itself through a sacred king; on the other, a society in which a certain idea of the city, Hestia, is formed by a group which, for its part, comes to believe that the sovereignty of this new unit, the city, resides in itself.

It is possible to observe how this “sovereignty of the group over itself” operates in practice. And the gods are directly involved. Let us consider a concrete case. At the end of the sixth century, somewhere in the mountains of Crete, a little city engaged a scribe, for a large fee. His name was Spensithius, and he was an expert in purple letters, that is to say Phoenician writing. His contract specified that he should set down in writing all public matters (dêmosia), or, to be more precise, both the affairs of the gods and the affairs of men. The two were kept clearly separate, as it attested by scores of {105|106} epigraphical documents. The contract also stated that Spensithius of Crete should be responsible for the management of public sacrifices, those known as “common” or “ancestral,” which were an essential part of the communal affairs of any city. [11] As all Hellenists know, the ritual calendar, with all its information, relayed about 50 percent of the so-called laws of Solon. But the essential point for me is that “the affairs of the gods,” the first section of “public matters,” were debated, discussed, and decided in the assembly and—moreover—in the first part of the assembly. The assembly decided by a majority vote how the new calendar should be organized and the order in which the various gods would be honored. So the sovereignty of the group over itself clearly also covered its gods and their affairs. I should perhaps interject, in passing, that there was a hierarchy in the way that things were ordered: the affairs of the gods were dealt with first, and by this select circle of citizens from long-established families. But why and how did mortals, human beings, gain such a hold over “the affairs of the gods”? It turns out that among these people, “our” Greeks, the gods, the gods of Olympus and the whole world, never thought of inventing such a thing as a “city.” Cities were an invention of men, of mortals, and one fine day the gods woke up to this fact. In no time, they were jostling at the gate, clamoring for the privileges of a so-called poliad deity—as it were, a better paid “chair” than an ordinary seat in the pantheon.

Of all the human activities, politics was thus the one that was specifically constructed by human beings: politics, the government of humans by humans, a government with full sovereignty and, what is more, which sought to affirm that autonomy, in other words was “a law unto itself.”

The autonomy of the political domain did not simply fall from the sky. It was problematic, fragile, had to be invented by whatever available means. To come back to this field in which so much still remains to be done, I would like, finally, to suggest that a number of important aspects of action, decision, and the strategies of politics took shape and were analyzed with reference to the divine powers. Hestia, who represented such a complex category, is certainly one of them. I also believe that the Aphrodite-Ares pair, which is of major importance and represents the relationship between the rituals of warfare on the one hand and harmony and concord on the other, introduces a set of major tensions that must be taken into account in any analysis of the political field. {106|107}

The so-called Aphrodite of Magistrates is no zoological curiosity, but is, on the contrary, central to thought about the nature of the council and the concept of decision and power to deliberate upon communal matters. The all-too-Greek aspects of those concepts, which may well try your patience, lead us to a whole micropantheon which spoke solely of the political domain.

Now, at the end of this conversation (or conversari), allow me to return to the subject of comparison and the question of what it is possible to compare. It would be mistaken to take either the combination of politics and religion or that of theology and politics or even that of politics and ritual as some kind of universal standard. “Politics” and “Religion” are no more than dry encyclopedia entries. The modernity of the Shinto of the Meiji was invented using the deification and cult of a top-hatted emperor who opened electric power stations and new railway networks. The “minister of divine affairs” collaborated with the department of “National Studies” to redefine the relations between Buddhists, Confucians, and Shintoists of a variety of persuasions. This was in the early twentieth century. It was an extraordinary politicoreligious configuration, impossible to view in perspective until such time as an attempt was made to analyze its components and the formation of its successive strata. Shinto was reason enough, at the time. No doubt, but what kind of reason? And on the basis of what practices was it constructed? And what about the Christian West? Does it justify liberated minds declaring that politics were invented in the religious domain, and—besides—which religious domain? Similarly, even if, as a hasty and preliminary hypothesis, in ancient Rome religious power legitimated political power, is it not advisable to work with historians who can analyze the extremely complex system of assemblies and the interaction of what the Romans called auctoritas and inauguratio? Rome may have introduced citizen gods and various kinds of contracts between men and the gods, but how and in the course of what parallel or successive experiences did the domain of politics take shape there?

What I wish to suggest is that this kind of experimental and constructive comparison, practiced by historians in collaboration with anthropologists, may provide a useful way to probe the complexity of societies, such as present-day Israel (which is but one of many), which draw attention to the extreme fragility of what we call the “political domain.” It was much the same in the past. Nothing much has changed. {107|}


[ back ] *. This chapter is a revision of an article published in Arion 12.2 (Fall 2004) 49–66.

[ back ] 1. Cf. Detienne 1968.

[ back ] 2. Cf. “Experimenting in the Field of Polytheisms” in this volume.

[ back ] 3. Iliad XI 807. Cf. Detienne 1998a:155.

[ back ] 4. Odyssey vi 4–10, Cf. Detienne 1998a:105–106.

[ back ] 5. Cf. Detienne 1998a:108–110.

[ back ] 6. Odyssey II 39.

[ back ] 7. Detienne 1998a:84–104, “Prince de la colonization: archégète.”

[ back ] 8. Detienne 1998a:107, 113, 116, 163–164, 166–168.

[ back ] 9. On Hestia and Themis, cf. Detienne 1998a:156–60.

[ back ] 10. For a short introduction to these issues, see Sissa and Detienne 2000:166–207, “Gods at the Heart of Politics.”

[ back ] 11. See van Effenterre and Ruzé 1994.