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The Greek gods are still very much present in modern consciousness. Although Apollo and Dionysos, Artemis and Aphrodite, Zeus and Hermes are household names, it is much less clear what these divinities meant and stood for in ancient Greece. In fact, they have been very much neglected in modern scholarship. This book brings together a team of international scholars with the aim of remedying this situation and generating new approaches to the nature and development of the Greek gods in the period from Homer until Late Antiquity. The book looks at individual gods, but also asks to what extent cult, myth and literary genre determine the nature of a divinity. How do the Greek gods function in a polytheistic pantheon and what is their connection to the heroes? What is the influence of philosophy? What does archaeology tell us about the gods? In what way do the gods in Late Antiquity differ from those in classical Greece? This book presents a synchronic and diachronic view of the gods as they functioned in Greek culture until the triumph of Christianity.
The Greek gods are still very much present in modern consciousness, whereas the ancient rituals have been long forgotten. Yet even though Apollo and Dionysos, Artemis and Aphrodite, Zeus and Hermes are household names, they have hardly been at the centre of the modern study of Greek religion. From the most influential and innovative students of Greek religion of the last half of the twentieth century, Walter Burkert concentrated on myth and ritual, and Jean-Pierre Vernant made his name with studies of the psychological and sociological aspects of Greek culture. The gods were never the real focus of their attention. In fact, their lack of interest continued a situation that had already begun at the start of the twentieth century when classical scholars started to turn their attention to ritual rather than myth and the gods.
It is clear that a century of scholarly neglect of such an important area of Greek religion cannot be remedied by the appearance of a single book. That is why we have brought together a team of international scholars with a view to generating new approaches to, rather than providing a comprehensive survey of, the nature and development of the Greek gods in the period from Homer until late antiquity. Moreover, we have tried to go beyond the usual ways of handbooks which traditionally concentrate on the individual divinities.
This volume has sought to put the gods back into Greek religion, a realm from which modern scholarship with its emphasis on ritual and anthropology had rather paradoxically ousted them. When we direct our attention to the gods themselves, what is striking is the variety, both of gods and of ways of experiencing them. Which gods are important changes with place and time. Not every god makes it into everyone's pantheon; while some such as Zeus and Apollo are core members, others such as Ares and Dionysos might be included but might not. Gods may be promoted up the hierarchy in one region but not in others and they may, like Herakles, fluctuate in status between god and hero. Those gods best known to us in their Panhellenic guise may have been better known to the communities of the Greek world by their local character, which would have found expression in the traditions and folklore of the area. By studying this variety we can come closer to making sense of those who worshipped them. As Jan Bremmer puts it at the end of his chapter on Hephaistos, thinking about gods teaches us much about mortals.
Along with the variety of gods that permeated the Greek world was the multiplicity of ways they could be encountered. While the study of ritual certainly increases our understanding of Greek religion and society, it may also distract from the ancient experience of the divine. Gods could be present to the devotees of mystery cults, they could be called up by spells, they could become manifest through oracles, and they could be celebrated in festivals. Statues of gods brought the god before the people, sometimes in a very direct way as the statues were carried through the streets in sacred processions.