In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.
In April 2017 I was invited to visit the University of Szeged, in Hungary, which has an exchange academic program with my institution. I was asked to teach a course on Ancient Greek Religion, as well as deliver a two-hour lecture on an advanced seminar running there called ‘Global Religion.’ As one may imagine, teaching a whole course to students of a different institution in less than three weeks has its numerous challenges. Considering that the course would be attended—as it did—by both undergraduates and postgraduates (including Ph.D. students) from two disciplines, i.e. Religious Studies and Classics, made the challenge even bigger.
Here’s the course description:
A survey of the religious beliefs, myths, and rituals/practices in ancient Greece, mainly covering the classical period (5th and 4th centuries BCE). More importantly, the course will examine whether ‘religion’ in Ancient Greece can be understood in the same manner as modern people conceive ‘religion,’ thus offering an intense comparative aspect to the study of Greek antiquity. Given that the word ‘religion’ was not indigenous to ancient Greece, the course will also focus on the problem of classification in the study of religion, as well as on whether and how modern people can talk about ancient Greek ‘religiosity’ by overcoming the obvious anachronism at work.
We started by discussing key problems related to the topic, from how classification works and whether one can define religion, to the insider/outsider problem in the study of religion and the issue of ‘anachronism.’ Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion offers a great discussion on how classification functions (especially chapter 2), which comprised our first reading—the students seemed fascinated by Martin’s examples and discussion. Defining religion, on the other hand—a thorny issue in the study of religion—was way more ‘controversial’ in class, since most students, especially those from Classics, had never heard of scholars like Durkheim or E. B. Tylor. To demonstrate the problem with defining religion ‘in all its glory,’ I assigned the first chapter of Tim Murphy’s Representing Religion: Essays in History, Theory and Crisis, which enlists more than twenty different definitions. The reading was followed by an extensive discussion on how definition functions and how this affects the study of ancient Greek ‘religion.’
On the insider/outsider problem, which is naturally a highly important issue when studying ancient (and dead) religions, the class read and discussed the sixth chapter of Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion: An Introduction, thus tackling the problem from a critical angle unfamiliar to most students. For discussing the evident problem of anachronism and the linguist barriers between ancient Greek and modern English terminology, we concentrated on the second chapter of Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, which gave many opportunities for debates.
After the lectures on ‘theoretical’ and ‘methodological’ issues—which, I must admit, came as a surprise to most students, since they were anticipating a more ‘traditional’ course on ancient Greek religion—we continued with applying the theoretical problems and issues we encountered and discussed to various sources from Greek antiquity. I relied on two works which I deem the best available ones on ancient Greek religion: Robert Parker’s On Greek Religion and Henk Versnel’s Coping with the Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology, accompanied by the indispensable Sources for the Study of Greek Religion, by David Rice and John Stambaugh.
The remaining lectures, drawing on the aforementioned works, dealt with critical problems in the study of ancient Greek religion: from the lack of ‘scripture’ and the problem of ‘belief’—the former excellently discussed by Parker in chapters 1 and 2, whereas the latter is treated in a fascinating way by Versnel in appendix IV—to rituals, personal and domestic religious worldviews, and the tricky—as it has been recently argued—issue of ‘polis religion.’ Rice and Stambaugh’s work functioned as our reference source from which we discussed excerpts from the Iliad, the Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Xenophanes’s alleged atheism, the deification of Alexander the Great, and the lives and characteristics of the Greek gods, among other topics and works of ancient authors.
We concluded the course by attempting to compare ancient Greek ‘religious’ ideas and modern ones. We primarily relied on how the Greeks conceptualized their divinities and how modern Christians understand their God. Anthropomorphism, along with immortality and excessive power, is perhaps the quintessential characteristic of Greek divine beings. So we concentrated on Albert Henrichs’ “What is a Greek God?” reaching to the (anticipated but not that given for students of ancient religions) conclusion that if the understanding of divinity is so different between ancients and moderns, so must be the understanding of ‘religion.’
As I told the students, studying ancient Greek religion is a complicated and difficult endeavour. Given the way social, political, and cultural life in toto was structured within the Greek milieu, it is perhaps more accurate to talk about Greek religions—a point made by Simon Price some time ago.
Nickolas P. Roubekas is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Vienna, Austria. He is the author of An Ancient Theory of Religion: Euhemerism from Antiquity to the Present (Routledge, 2017) and editor of the forthcoming Theorizing Ancient Religion (Equinox, 2018).