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  • Cited by 3
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: March 2009

2 - Athenian Religion in the Age of Pericles


Aristophanes' hero Strepsiades brings the Clouds to a boisterous finale by burning down the Thinkery, whose leader Socrates has been subverting the minds and morals of young Athenians. Strepsiades himself was a short-term convert to the comic philosopher's slick sophistry and outlandish new gods - which include Cosmic Spin (Dinos), Aether, and especially the Clouds - but events in the play cause him to recognize his error and repent. With his parting words, he berates the Socratic crew for their other worldly speculations:

What were you thinking when you outraged the gods and peered at the seat of the Moon?

Chase them, hit them, stone them - for lots of reasons, but most of all because they wronged the gods.

Clouds 1506-91

This chapter will focus on the right ways to treat the gods, by outlining the major beliefs and practices of Athenian religion(s) in the time of Pericles.

First, a disclaimer: no ancient Greek word corresponds to our term “religion.” Acts performed in recognition of unseen powers intermingled constantly with other aspects of daily life, rather than defining a discrete area of human activity. There were no widely accepted dogmatic texts, no priestly class, no creed. Nevertheless, activities and objects set apart for the gods had a particular status (hieron). The unseen entities that Strepsiades knows as theoi or daimones had a special claim on one’s attention, as Clouds makes clear, and nomizein tous theous, “doing the customary things for the gods,” was considered essential to the city’s well-being.

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