Religion of the Gods Ritual Paradox and Reflexivity Kimberly Christine Patton (text only)
The Problem Defined and a Proposed Solution
Divine Reflexivity in Ritual Representation
Those scholars whose thought has evolved beyond the sacrificial
model of do ut des—such as Meuli, Gernet, Bataille, Burkert, Girard,
Vernant, Detienne, and Jay—have created elaborate, often contradictory paradigms: Sacrifice is institutionalized violence, it substitutes for the murder of human beings, or else preserves the symbiotic relationship between hunter and hunted, originating in the Central Asian steppes. It articulates and reinscribes hierarchies of gender and status, or is merely a pious pretext for the communal distribution of scarce protein, with the veneer of worship appearing later. It is a response to an excess of resources, or alternatively, to their dearth.
Hubert and Mauss have explored the magical power of the god as
victim, from Osiris to Dionysos to Purus.a and Christ.1 But what is the
theoretical foundation in Greek religion for the god as sacrificer? “The
structuralist approach to myth, represented by Claude Lévi-Strauss,
sees myth as a language that reconciles social oppositions. There is
much value in showing the detailed way in which myth contains sociocultural structures and dynamics, but structuralism does not deal with what myth meant religiously in the lives of its participants.”2 The same critique might also be made of much of contemporary ritual studies.
Sources of Theoretical Confusion Occasioned by Libation-Pouring Gods
The “libating gods” in classical vase-painting and other media have
caused five major forms of theoretical confusion for the historian of
Greek religion. I here distill these problems with the approaches outlined in chapter 4. Some of them are dependent upon each other;
that is, once a problematic assumption has been made, rather than having it lead to clarification, other interpretive problems arise therefrom. Most begin with a problem of classification; the artistic phenomenon of a “god who pours a libation” cannot be accurately classified or theorized according to “known” categories of thought in Greek religion. The attempt to apply these inadequate categories has led to interpretations that necessarily exclude some or a great
deal of the iconographic evidence, or that suffer what is portrayed to undergo a sea change into what cannot be portrayed or intended.
Problem #1: “Divine” Omnipotence versus “Human” Contingency
The ancient Greek gods were not understood as contingent, mutable beings who recognized any power greater than themselves. Human beings, on the other hand, were seen in ancient Greek religion as both contingent and mutable.
At every phase of Greek religious history, mortals oriented themselves by worshiping the gods, whom they regarded as superior to themselves. No matter how anthropomorphic the gods may seem to us or to Xenophanes, this hierarchical separation was, in the parameters of the Greek religious imagination, absolute;
myth dwells on the times in the remote past when those limits were
transgressed, to the agony of all. As Jenny Strauss Clay notes, “menis is the reaction of the gods to conduct which is superhuman or which tends to erase the distinctions between gods and men. Patroclus and Diomedes arouse the menis of Apollo at the moment they are characterized as daAmoni Gsoß, ‘equal to a daimon’
[Iliad 16.705, 5.438]. In the latter passage Apollo makes explicit the reason for his intervention and warns Diomedes . . .”3
Frazeo, TydeKdh, kaB xazeo, mhdB ueoPsin
Ts› Guele fronAein, DpeB oG pote fPlon cmoPon
duanatvn te uepn xamaB DrxomAnvn t› dnurapvn.
Take thought, son of Tydeus, and withdraw, nor desire to have
a mind equal to the gods, since never the same is
the breed of gods, who are immortal, and men who walk groundling.4
Worship, a quintessentially human behavior, brings with it an implied hierarchy: The worshiper is less powerful, less ritually pure, and less holy than the worshiped. Therefore, when the immortals themselves make offerings, they are acting in a way that seems contradictory to their essential nature. That is, they are acting like mortals—not insofar as they are adulterous or quarrelsome, but far more paradoxically, insofar as the performance of ritual action seems to imply their inferiority, contingency, and mutability.
Resulting Theoretical Confusion #1: Anthropomorphic
Explanations of Divine Ritual
If worship is by definition an activity dedicated to some power greater than one’s own being, how can gods worship the way mortals do? These scenes
seem to present a hierarchical impossibility, and for that reason, as we have seen, some scholars go so far as to deny that they represent gods in the act of sacrificing. The category of “worship” is seen as “humanizing” the gods, that is, making them less than omnipotent. Historical and literary trends in the period from 510 to 460 B.C.E. are then sought to justify this alleged degradation.
Problem #2: “The Hierarchy of Sacrifice”
To what power would the members of the Greek pantheon owe worship? If the gods of the vases are actually performing ritual actions, then one must prove that there is a logical reason for the actions, and a logical cultic “direction” in which they should work. This is a comfortable lens through which to view the sacrificial ministrations of “lesser” or “younger” gods such as Iris or Persephone,
who pour for more powerful or older gods such as Athena or Demeter.
Furthermore, members of the second generation of deities, the children of Zeus—such as Athena—are often portrayed on the vases serving Zeus and Hera. Yet this assumption of a hierarchical model of sacrifice in the case of the gods falters when Zeus or Hera pour libations; then they are regarded as offering to the Titans—their predecessors, whom they were compelled to overthrow—or to Gaia, Mother Earth, their primeval ancestress. This accords some kind of vestigial superiority to these assumed, shadowy recipients, whom
we never see, despite literary evidence from the Theogony to the pseudo-Aeschylean Prometheus that makes it clear that Zeus is the unchallenged leader of the dominant divine order in the Greek cosmos.
An attendant confusion about the vase representations concerns the question of whether the act of pouring the wine from the oinochoe into the phiale represents a sort of obeisance to the god holding the phiale, or whether it represents simply a mutual act of sacrifice. Does the oinochoe bearer have less power than the phiale bearer? The concept of “obeisance,” implicit in a hierarchical model, might certainly apply when Iris fills the oinochoe of Apollo, or Athena pours for Zeus; but what to think when Artemis, the sister and twin of
Apollo, pours for her brother—or, even more confusingly, when the mighty Athena ministers for the libation of a hero such as Herakles, or the goddess Nike pours for a departing mortal warrior?
Resulting Theoretical Confusion #2: “Invisible Recipients”
The need to establish familiar and ritually “logical” hierarchies of sacrifice is applied to the libations poured by deities. This reflects the assumption that gods must worship for the same reason that people do, namely, to honor or importune beings greater than themselves. But if this assumption is true, in many cases the alleged “divine recipients” must therefore be invisible, since they are not portrayed in the central scene of the image. the problem defined and a proposed solution
Problem #3: The Enthroned God: Recipient or Sacrificer?
The “sacrificing god” scenes, whether represented on vases, coins, statues, or reliefs, all fall somewhere along a spectrum of three different votive aspects.
A. They are clearly cult statues, or, in the case of vase-paintings, portrayals of cult statues of divinities who extend the libation bowl from an enthroned or standing position. All “cult statues” in all forms of media have been assumed to be “recipients” of libation by virtually all previous scholars. In this first case, the gods as represented are themselves cultic objects.
B. They are clearly animated divinities who are holding a cultic object,
such as a libation bowl or an incense-burner or standing in proximity
to one, such as an altar or lustral basin. It is not clear in these instances how or whether the gods are using these objects. In the cases where no wine is visible pouring from phiale to altar or ground, it is impossible to tell whether these gods are intended by the artist to be understood as giving or as receiving offerings; the question is insoluble from the iconographic contexts. These are clearly not cult statues, but “living gods” portrayed in association with cultic objects.
C. They are animated deities who are unmistakably performing an act of worship. For example, if they hold a libation bowl, the wine is visible
splashing onto an altar or onto the ground. In this category fall “living
gods” performing cultic actions.
Resulting Theoretical Confusion #3: False Criterion
for the “Direction” of Sacrifice
There is often no way of telling exactly into which category any given image falls. Is it a seated cult statue? Is it the real god or goddess? Is he or she pouring out of the phiale, or is he or she stretching out his bowl to receive the wine? The interpretation of the image has often hinged on subjective opinion as to whether it portrays categories A, B, or C—the god as an object of cult; the god as a living entity, holding or in proximity to cultic objects; or the god as a living entity who actually uses a cultic object to perform an act of worship.
Based on these limited categories, we might well wonder whether the “enthroned” deities who stretch forth the libation bowl belong in the category of sacrificing gods at all. If the god is enthroned, the phiale is almost without exception parallel to the altar or to the ground, rather than tipped. Although the god may watch with lively delight as his or her bowl is filled (as in the tondo of the kylix by Douris at the Getty Museum [no. 41] in which Zeus’s vessel is filled by Ganymede as the highest god is seated before an altar), these are clearly the majestic, if animated, descendents of seated cult images.
The “enthronement” of the goddess, and, correspondingly of her viceroy on earth, the king, was a crucial feature of Minoan-Mycenaean religion. In fact,
the identification of divine figure, mortal ruler, and throne was so complete that many small “chair gods” survive from the Mycenean period—small terracotta idols that resemble thrones, but that have breasts and sometimes facial features. The throne of the god was one of the few religious features that survived the Dark Ages, to emerge in the Geometric and Archaic periods in the myriad statuettes of the seated goddess offered at sanctuaries.5 These are small
replicas of the main cult image, which was also seated; the archaic statues of Athena Lindia at Rhodes, Athena Polias at Athens, Hera at Samos, and many others were shown enthroned, rather than standing.
The seated god’s extension of the vessel may be a symbol of divine or royal authority, having as its iconographic ancestor the frequent Mesopotamian scenes of “the king and the cup,” such as are found on Ur III seals.6 This is repeated in many scenes from the Minoan-Mycenean period, most notably, a gold signet ring dating from 1450 B.C.E. from Tiryns, now in the Athens National Museum.
Four animal-headed worshipers approach an enthroned goddess, who hails them with her upraised cup. Each bears a jug that distinctly reflects the later form of the oinochoe, the vessel used to fill the phiale. Fascinating iconographic parallels exist from Sparta on archaic reliefs depicting chthonian deities extending that infernal vessel, the kantharos (nos. C–47 and C–48). And in scenes in vase-paintings such as that of the enthroned Cybele and Sabazios in the underworld scene on a Polygnotan krater, the gods preside on a kind of
statue base in divine majesty, their bowls extended as a symbol of regal authority (no. 195). And yet the matter is not so easily resolved. For from these gods’ bowls spill libations, while the sacred dance of an orgiastic chorus whirls through their sanctuary. The “enthronement” of gods in vase-paintings, whether they represent cult statues, living gods, or something in between, cannot be used as a valid criterion for determining whether the gods are offering or receiving libations
in their outstretched phialai.
Problem #4: Frequency of Libation as a Ritual Act by the Gods
The scholarly discussion tracked in chapter 4 has centered on scenes of libation as a specific act of divine worship, since it is by far the most popular one during the sixty-year period in question. As a result, the debate has gotten sidetracked, speculatively focusing solely on the role of liquid offerings when the gods pour
them. This ignores the fact that the same time period produced a number of other representations of the gods involved in a wide spectrum of ritual performances other than libation. Libation is only one element of the religious activity undertaken by the Olympians.
In vase-paintings, gods frequently hover near their altars—but not in a passive, waiting mode, as if expecting offerings, but in an active, attentive mode, almost as though they were tending the altars. For example, in no. C–54, a Panathenaic-style amphora by the Nikoxenos Painter in Berlin, Athena presides at her altar with a kithara; in no. C–58, an amphora by the same artist in the Louvre,
the goddess draws even closer, bending almost tenderly as she extends her
hand over her flaming altar. In nos. C–52 and C–53, red-figure lekythoi in Athens, Artemis appears with flaming torches before her altar. There is a palpable energy in the atmosphere of these images. It is that of the attentive bond between the god and his or her own offering-place—and there is arguably no more central feature
of human cult in Greek religion than the altar.
That bond intensifies in a votive relief in Copenhagen (no. C–62). Artemis Eupraxia does not merely superintend, but actually lights her own altar with her torch, holding a sacrificial basket aloft, as a retinue of smaller, mortal worshipers approach. On the hydria by the Berlin Painter now in Italy (no. 29; Figs. 2, 3), in addition to the libation of Apollo, we find another divine offering: Flowers and a garland are laid on the altar, and Leto is bringing a blossom. In an early classical
cup from Capua by the Euaion Painter (no. C–61; Fig. 62), Demeter lays a bunch of wheat—her own sacred emblem, province, and gift to humanity—on an altar; the cup is inscribed DEMETPOS, “belonging to Demeter.” Aphrodite often burns incense using a ritual burner, the thymiaterion—as in no. C–68, a calyx krater in Tübingen, and no. C–63 (Fig. 63), a hydria in New York that depicts a similar
scene. A Roman copy of a monumental Eleusinian relief, no. C–65 (Fig. 64), shows the great goddesses of Eleusis dropping incense onto a small burning altar.
Apollo washes his hand in an act of ritual purification at a lustral basin in a neck amphora by the Nikon Painter dating from about 475 B.C.E. (no. C–66; Fig. 65).
Gods can appear with sacrificial animal victims at altars, or even lead them there, as in a spirited design on an early Hellenistic bell krater in the Louvre (no. C–42) in which the god Hermes, wearing a cape and winged boots, and holding a garlanded caduceus, festal wreaths, and a decorated phiale, leads a ram to sacrifice at a small altar. Interestingly, as is sometimes the case with
[figure 62. Demeter lays a wheat bunch on an altar. Genitive of name is inscribed: DEMETPOS. Attic red-figure cup, the followers of Douris: the Euaion Painter, early classical period.]
“mirror” images of divine and mortal libation, the reverse side of the krater depicts a mortal woman at an altar. In no. C–36, a vase in Boston attributed to the Telephoros Painter, Dionysos, dressed for his own cult in leopard skin and grasping a thyrsos, dances as he swings an unhappy-looking small panther or ocelot near a flaming altar. But just like the gods who do not merely attend their own altars but light or lay flowers on them, these gods also sometimes kill the animals they bring. Perhaps the greatest shock value is afforded by the ecstatic
Dionysos who tears a hind in no. C–39, the stamnos by the Hephaisteion Painter which we have discussed previously; the god himself performs the kind of ritualized killing represented on the Brygos Painter’s cup at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, in which one maenad in a Dionysiac thiasos has torn a fawn in half (no. C–34). The scene becomes explicitly sacrificial in a pelike in the British Museum (no. C–38) where the god rends the animal in the presence of an altar. A black-figure olpe in Ferrara’s Museo Nazionale finds Athena with helmet, shield, and aegis, holding two spits with her left hand, around which are wrapped the entrails of a sacrificed animal. The goddess roasts the meat over a fire which probably burns on an altar beneath, although it is hidden;
with her right hand, she pours a libation from a phiale onto the flames. In no. C–40, an oinochoe by the Carlsruhe Painter in London, Eros triumphantly ports away sacrificial meat on a spit.
[figure 63. Aphrodite sprinkling incense at an altar. Thymiaterion (incense burner) nearby. Eros hovers. Satyr and maenad. Attic red-figure hydria, 370–350 B.C.E.]
Resulting Theoretical Confusion #4: Failure to Consider Evidence
of Divine Ritual other than Libation
Divinities in the classical period are portrayed as performing many common ritual actions, not just libation. Therefore it is highly misleading to focus exclusively on libation, as has been done, or to analyze its unique features in an effort to shed light on this iconographic paradox. As we saw in chapter 1, libation has been difficult to ignore because it is the most frequent ritual action
performed by the gods. But in these images, libation is not the only subject; the gods display many kinds of religious behavior—all of it recognizable from the mortal realm. A continuum of cultic involvement on the part of the gods is presented in this iconography, ranging from fairly passive association with the physical elements of cult to active, even ecstatic enactment of ritual actions.
Problem # 5: Mythic Episode versus “Immediate” Cult Scene
Hermeneutically, there seem to be only two possible ways of interpreting Greek gods shown pouring liquid offerings. These are drastically opposed.
[figure 64. Roman version of an Eleusinian relief of Demeter and Persephone, who drop incense onto a small flaming altar. Imperial period, marble copy of fourth-century B.C.E. Attic work.]
A. They owe their meaning to specific episodes from myth. As we noted in chapter 4, this may work in certain cases—such as the entry of Herakles into Olympus, the departure of Triptolemus with the gift of grain, or the birth of Erichthonios. But it presents problems in cases such as that of the mutual libation of Zeus and Hera, or the offerings of Apollo and Artemis poured over omphalos or altar. The approach breaks down completely when there is no known mythic episode to explain the scene, that is, Poseidon pouring from a phiale assisted by Amphitrite, the sacrificing Ares, or Athena pouring libations unaccompanied by Herakles. Freestanding statues holding phialai are impossible to explain with this line of interpretation except by arbitrarily deciding that they are the “recipients” of mortal libations (this is related to problem # 3). Such a decision, however, presents difficulties in that the generally sharp angle of their libation bowls would seem to preclude pouring anything into it; the wine would spill out onto the ground.
B. The images are cultic depictions of gods actually performing acts of worship.
[figure 65. Apollo washing his right hand at perirrhanterion (lustral basin) in his own sanctuary. Attic red-figure neck-amphora by the Nikon Painter, 480–470 B.C.E.]
Resulting Theoretical Confusion #5: “Lost Myths”
and Invisible Recipients
If we accept possibility A, we must confront the fact that there are not enough mythic episodes to explain all of the permutations of the sacrificing god scene.
In trying to account for the data, the search for stories in which the gods pour libations (or those in which they might) winds up on the evanescent trail of “lost myth.” But if we turn to B, and accept the possibility that these are true scenes of ritual separate from narrative myth, we must ask for whom the gods are pouring libations, and why?
Both interpretations assume a divine recipient of the libations—some
greater power than the gods who do the offering, a power worthy of receiving the honor they impart. But in these vase-paintings, there is no recipient in sight.
Divine Reflexivity: A Proposed Solution
By now I hope it is clear why there has been so much confusion in previous scholarship on the vexing topic of the sacrificing gods. I would like to suggest that if we hope to understand these scenes, it is not helpful to rely on the “canonical” model of ancient Greek sacrifice in which mortals offer gifts to the gods, who in some way receive them.
Rather, I would propose, as an approach to this iconographic mystery, that the gods be considered not only as the object of cult but more important, reflexively understood within the tradition as the source or subject of cult—that is, as the origin and catalyst for religious behavior, including human. The idea that the gods conceive and introduce their own solemn festivals to mortals is not alien to ancient Greek religion. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo reminds the god that he said to Telephousa, “here I intend to build a beautiful temple to be an oracle for men who will always bring to me here unblemished hecatombs.”7
In the Hymn to Demeter, we listen as that great goddess ordains her own mysteries:
“Let all the people build me a great temple and beneath it an altar under the steep walls of the city, above Kallichoron, on the rising hill. I myself shall introduce rites (grgia d› aDtb Dgbn Cpouasomai) so that later you may propitiate my mind by their right performance.”8 In Plato’s Laws, as Himmelmann reminds us, the author recounts the divine origin of religious festivals: “Now these forms of child-training, which consist in right discipline in pleasures and pains, grow slack and weakened to a great extent in the course of men’s lives; so the gods, in pity for the human race thus born to misery, have ordained the
feasts of thanksgiving as periods of respite from their troubles; and they have granted them as companions in their feasts the Muses and Apollo the master of music, and Dionysos, that they may at least set right again their modes of discipline by associating in their feasts with the gods.”9 Religious activity is part of the natural sphere of the Greek god.10
But it is not just any religion the gods practice. A closer look at some of the examples from the “Comparanda” section which we considered above in problem #4 reveals
a crucial aspect of the gods’ religious behavior: gods practice
those forms of religion that are specific to their own particular form of worship.
Himmelmann first observed that Dionysos tends to pour only from the kantharos, which is his special vessel, and the vase which is emblematic of his cult—and that Aphrodite often burns incense, incense-burning being an important aspect of her cult.11 This observation if pursued, leads into a world of thought that
requires new models.
For me, the case was sealed when, on one hot summer day at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, I met Apollo, the god of purification and Pythagorean mysticism, washing his own hand at a lustral basin—a perirrhanterion. The scene was painted on a classical amphora (no. C–66: Fig. 65). Ritual purification with water at just such a basin is a central aspect of the cult of Apollo; purity is his
distinct sphere.12 Apollo practices and reinforces his own religion. The search for a recipient for these religious actions performed by the gods, including libations, is endlessly problematic. Iconographically, the gods naturally “attract” both the votive objects and the votive actions associated with their worship.
This I call “divine reflexivity”—cultic behavior appropriate to the sphere of the individual deity and which thus is ascribed to his or her agency, reflexively iterating the god’s particular characteristics and powers.
With divine reflexivity as an explanatory method, pieces began to fall into place. For example, in no. C–61 (Fig. 62), the cup in Brussels in which Demeter lays a wheat bunch on an altar, the goddess does not lay a flowering branch, a cake, or a fish, but a bunch of wheat; as is characteristic of all ritual action, this is not an arbitrary choice. Wheat is Demeter’s own attribute—a possession and signifier of her sacred sphere of influence. The genitive of her name inscribed on the cup, DEMETPOS, surely means that the cup itself is dedicated
to her and belongs to her. But we may also take it to mean that the grain is uniquely hers. The altar is hers. The offering act itself is also hers.
In these scenes of divine libation we have neither the iconographic representation of myth nor aggravated anthropomorphism. We have many vase-paintings that superbly display these attributes, for example, no. C–44 (Fig. 66), a blackfigure hydria in Berlin, which depicts a gathering of Olympians, each with his or her unique, identifying attribute; and no. C–45, a skyphos by Makron in London,
in which the seated king Eumolpos observes a procession of deities: Zeus with his scepter and thunderbolt, Dionysos with his leafy crown and stalk of wild ivy, Amphitrite and the enthroned Poseidon, both clutching dolphins. Thus ritual actions are as much attributes of the ancient Greek deities as these more familiar specific attributive objects.
Reflexivity: Heritage and Fields of Meaning
I choose the term “reflexivity” because it carries with it all the sense of paradox and self-referentiality the vases themselves bear.13 As it emerges, reflexivity is a crucial element of the divine—the idea of God or the gods or the spirits—but also of ritual itself. Hence, a representation of a sacrificing god, since it comprises the problem defined and a proposed solution
both divine agency and ritual, namely, encoded, efficacious performance, is doubly reflexive, like a room with mirrors set on both sides.
In 1708, “reflexive” was attested in the English language as meaning “turned or directed back upon the mind itself.”14 As Barbara Babcock writes, “Reflexivity is a paradoxical concept because the type of self-referential activity—consciousness of self-consciousness—that it denotes involves . . . epistemological paradox . . . , in which the mind by its own operation attempts to say something about its operation—an activity difficult to contemplate and to describe without conceptual vertigo and verbal entanglements.”15 Babcock notes that the reflexive and perceiving self (as opposed to the experiential self ) is “regarded as a higher form of consciousness, and it is frequently regarded as transcendent, if not divine.”16
From Aristotle’s definition of God as “thought of thought” to Kant’s “transcendental reflection,” reflexivity is seen as a higher—in fact, the highest—function of universal mental activity. It is the appropriate province of the divine.
The Introduction referred to the Hegelian delineation of the “selfenclosed,” self-subsisting nature of God, and the complete difference of God’s ontological nature from that of other things. In Hegel’s phenomenology of religion we have perhaps the most articulate expression of reflexivity as a necessary aspect of the divine. In his lecture “The Concept of Religion,” Hegel said,
The things and developments of the natural and spiritual world constitute manifold configurations, and endlessly multiform existence;
[figure 66. Attic black-figure hydria. Gathering of Olympians each with
an identifying attribute unique to him or her. From left: Dionysos with his kantharos, Hermes with his caduceus; Hera, with spear; Zeus, with thunderbolt.]
they have a being differentiated in rank, force, intensity, and content.
The being of all these things is not of an independent sort, however,
but is quite simply something upheld and maintained, not genuine
independence. If we ascribe a being to particular things, it is only a
borrowed being, only the semblance of a being, not the absolutely independent being that God is. God in his universality, this universal in
which there is no limitation, finitude, or particularity, is the absolute
subsistence. Whatever subsists has its roots and subsistence only in
this One. If we grasp this initial content in this way, we can express it
thus: “God is the absolute substance, the only true actuality.”17
Hegel goes on to argue that God as Spirit must manifest itself, and in so doing, allows for the possibility of consciousness:
Spirit is an absolute manifesting. . . . The making or creation of the
world is God’s self-manifesting, self-revealing. In a further and later
definition we will have this manifestation in the higher form that
what God creates God himself is, that in general it does not have the
determinateness of an other, that God is manifestation of his own
self, that God is for himself—the other (which has the empty semblance of [being] an other but is immediately reconciled). . . . Here for the first time we have consciousness, the subjectively knowing spirit for which God is object. From this it follows that God can be known or cognized, for it is God’s nature to reveal himself, to be manifest.18
Hegel’s critique of the Greek gods, echoing that of Xenophanes, as “products of human imagination or sculptured deities formed by human hands,” whose “finitude” and “particularity,” the production “of phantasy for phantasy”19 does not negate the potential value of his theory of God’s necessary self-manifestation in consciousness—and, I would argue, in cult—for the interpretation of the gods’
rituals in ancient Greek or any other religion. It is a mistake to think that because the gods of pantheistic systems of antiquity were so easily pictured in art, literature, and cult that the ancients believed them to be thereby easily circumscribed, a divine that is “grasped neither by pure thinking nor in pure spirit.” Rather, divinely performed ritual would seem to be an exemplary illustration of Hegelian
phenomenology, an expression and manifestation of divine being.
Ritual itself is an intensely reflexive phenomenon. As Roy Rappaport notes, the performer of the ritual subordinates himself to the “order that the ritual encodes simply by performing it.” However, “the reflexive act of subordination also establishes that to which there is subordination. To exist, a liturgical order must be performed. Liturgical orders, the orders encoded in ritual, are substantiated—
provided substance, or realized—made into res only in instances of their performance. The relationship of performer to performance is extraordinarily intimate, or even inextricable. By participating in a ritual, the performer becomes part of an order which is utterly dependent for its very existence upon instances, such as his, of its performance.”20 Ritualizing gods pose a challenge to almost every attempt to theorize ritual. When a god is the performer, one can
argue that the ritual is even more dependent “for its very existence” upon its performance than if a human being is the ritualizer. One cannot, however, argue that the god is somehow “subordinate” to the order of the ritual. In the case of the ritualizing god, the reflexive relationship of performer to performance is even more intimate, in that the divine performer not only originates the ritual order he or she follows but also imbues it with the only meaning it can have. The origin and “purpose” of the ritual order is one and the same: the self-expression of the god performing it. The ritual, not the
god, is subordinated.
I have attempted to show in the previous chapters that the phenomenon of the ritualizing god occurs in any number of other religious traditions, and that when this idea is found, it “describes” the divine realm as the source and agency for the world of all ritual action, including human religious behavior.
The representation of sacrificing gods, or gods performing other rituals, both self-referentially comments upon the religious system as a whole and at the same time intensifies it.
Barry Sandywell writes of the philosophical question of reflexivity, “Generically every self-referential system can be described as reflexive to the degree that it possesses the capacity to turn back upon its own organization and operations in order to perform work on itself as a routine practical feature of its functioning.
. . . Minds routinely engage in ordered forms of reflexion and self-reflexion.
Systems which are capable of self-directed movements are today described as behavioural systems. Unlike inert objects they engage in behaviour, acting upon and changing their environments.”21 Religious systems, of course, because they aspire to a Weltanschauung that is total, comprises everything, and thus aims at epistemological comprehensiveness, are supremely self-referential. They chronically
turn back upon and maintain their own operations, partly through the
process of the ongoing reinterpretation of new historical realities in light of established, eternalized paradigms.
The gods in ritual performance are surely nothing if not self-referential. Their religious actions point to their own numinous selves, and refer to their own worship as practiced by mortals.22 It is important, however, for the nuanced construction of the category that it is understood that gods worship uniquely as gods. Thus in the Hymn to Hermes passage which we considered in chapter 3, Hermes does not eat the meat of the sacrifice he has prepared because he is not a mortal performing a mortal sacrifice—he is a god, and so, like
the God of Genesis 8:21, enjoys the “sweet savour,” the part that the gods appropriately receive. This issue of the special nature of “the religion of the gods” will occur repeatedly in the comparative material presented in the second half of this book. Divine ritual is not the same as human ritual.
How it Works
I set forth this interpretation not simply because it differs from those preceding it but because I believe that it is the only one flexible enough to account for
all the evidence. It requires that no exceptions be made
and no evidence suppressed in order to make sense.
Let us briefly return to the five major problems resulting in theoretical confusion that we have identified, to see if this particular interpretive approach might help to resolve some of them.
Problem #1: “Divine” Omnipotence versus “Human” Contingency
Among others, W. K. Arafat assumes that worship originates in the mortal realm. But if we start from the premise that sacrifice, and in fact all forms of worship, might have been seen in antiquity as originating with the gods and belonging to them, then we do not have the problem of the gods being “humanized” by a mortal act.
The notion of divine libation as divine reflexivity or self-referentiality does not see the performance of religious ritual as rendering the gods “like” humans, or “humanized” in some way that degenerates their powers. An act of normally human worship thus becomes an expression of the god’s role as the source of human cult, rather than ballast that drags him or her down to the human level of contingency or inferiority. In this way, it is faithful to the ancient Greeks’ conception of the deities as perfect and omnipotent. It does not require an interpretation that does violence to the indigenous ancient Greek concept of the gods’ immortality or perfection.
Problem #2: “The Hierarchy of Sacrifice”
Introducing the idea of divine reflexivity, it is no longer necessary to establish that a superior god is an inferior one in the libation scenes. If both cultic objects (flowers, grain, phiale, wine, blood, lyre, sacrificial animal victim) and cultic actions can be associated with the deity as numinous attributes, there is no need to posit an invisible “divine recipient” of the offering made by that deity. The god is in relation
to no other entity than herself and the mortals who also practice the rite.
Problem #3: The Enthroned God: Recipient or Sacrificer?
It is also not necessary to determine whether a deity is a portrayed cult statue, a living god standing with a bowl in hand as if either to receive or pour, or a living god definitely pouring. Not only cultic objects but also cultic actions are attributes of divinity, and thus “belong” to the god or goddess. Thus it is as appropriate
for Aphrodite to carry a thymiaterion as it is for her actually to burn grains of incense in it, and as appropriate for Dionysos to hold a kantharos above an altar as actually to rend an animal. It is appropriate for Apollo to wash his hands at a perirrhanterion, for this is an important purifying action associated with his particular cult. The god’s self-originating ritual may be construed as paradigmatic,
but does not need to be seen as so. Neither is it necessary to decide
whether an individual god is pouring or receiving libations, as both actions are part of the larger divine sphere of religious activity.
Problem # 4: Frequency of Libation as a Ritual Act by the Gods
If libation is seen as but one of the multiple cultic actions associated with the gods in Greek art, it is not necessary to distinguish it from any of the others. As noted in chapter 1, libation is a ritual that is generic to the worship of all the gods, as opposed to the specificity of some of the other ritual acts considered thus far. The ubiquity of scenes of libation in classical art have confused the picture, because the phiale and the act of pouring from it belong to all the gods.
In this approach, libation surrenders its privileged place and takes a proper place on a broader spectrum of ritual actions that can be both dedicated to the gods and performed by them.
Problem # 5: Mythic Episode versus “Immediate” Cult Scene
The explanatory device of divine reflexivity does not require a mythical episode, known or unknown, for each scene. It allows for mythical influences, but does not require them. The gods are actually worshiping in a recognizable cultic context, but they are not worshiping exactly as mortals do—that is, they are not
worshiping something or someone else. They are worshiping because they are the source of, and reason for, all worship. The paradox is not resolved, but it has its own internal logic.
“Dances with Gods”: Cultic Reciprocity
By no means do I wish to imply that the “religion of the gods” has no relationship to human religiosity. In fact, divine reflexivity entails the opposite: an intimate, dynamic relationship mediated by the parabolic ritual action itself. As Paden observes,
A god is not just a bare object—like a statue in a museum—but part
of a bilateral relationship. A god is a god of someone or to someone.
Only in the eyes of a religious person can a god be a god as such.
A god is a category of social, interactive behavior, experienced in a way that is analogous to the experience of other selves. With gods one receives, gives, follows, loves, imitates, communes, negotiates, contests, entrusts. A god is a subject to us as objects and an object to us as subjects.
We address it, or it can address us. Part of this relational quality
is even evident in the etymology of the English term god, which traces
back to a root that means either “to invoke” or “sacrifice to.”23
I suggest that these vases iconographically imagine the gods not only as having established but as themselves continually performing their rites in ongoing “cultic time,” just as the talmudic God prays each day that his mercy might overcome his justice. Unlike the picture of a kind of pristine vacuum implied by Himmelmann, the gods’ worship seems to both parallel and respond to human cultic observance. This is why mortal libation scenes appear on the opposite side of the vases. As the gods pour, so do mortals. As mortals pour, so do
the gods. From an emic perspective within the ancient Greek tradition, however, ritual action originates with the gods, not with humans imitating gods.
The distinction is pivotal, in my view, to an accurate and nuanced “translation” of this corpus of iconography.
Essential Features of Divine Reflexivity
It is now possible to articulate the characteristic and even recurrent features of the phenomenological category of divine reflexivity, a self-referential operation in the sphere of the religious imagination that unites cultic semiotics and theological meaning. These might be set forth as follows:
1. Its representation in text and artifact offers a kind of intensification
and ultimacy to the ritual portrayed as performed by a deity.
2. Such intensification can function conservatively to reinscribe the
central significance of the ritual during historical periods of crisis
when the religious system itself is threatened or changing; it strategically allows the religion to maintain its most valuable forms of
3. The rituals performed by gods are not generally identical to those prescribed for mortals, and hence cannot be said to be simple anthropomorphisms; they usually are modified by the sacrifier’s divine status.
Divine religious acts are both like and unlike human ones. The aspect
that is unlike human behavior is related to the nature of a god as
Other—ontologically “bigger” in scope and potentiality than a human
4. Nevertheless, ritualizing gods undertake religious behavior in the interlocking condition of “cultic time”; their religious practices are correlative to the ritual actions of mortals.
5. Such divine religious actions usually are not understood as having
ceased with a primordial ritual event at the beginning of time, but
rather as occurring on an ongoing basis, continually in symbiotic tension and relationship with human religious actions and structures. The image is one of “mirroring,” but does not include the notion of static or passive mutual reflection that mirroring implies. It is a dynamic, interactive process.
6. Divine reflexivity is paradoxical in hierarchical religious systems, insofar as deities generally are imagined as focal cultic entities and the natural recipients—not the instigators—of cultic behavior and gifts. When the phenomenon occurs, it can create theological discomfort within the self-referential thought-world of the religious system, which imagines ultimacy, not contingency, for the divine; ritual is seen at first glance as contingent, subordinate behavior.
7. Such emic conceptual discomfort in the face of paradox is often later echoed by etic discomfort. This can be found either in the form of
condemnation in the religious polemics of other traditions, or in the
form of dismissal by modern scholarly treatments of ritualizing gods
as anomalous or in certain cases cast as “misunderstood” by the tradition itself.
Why do these images appear and then disappear during such a brief period in Attic history? Do the classical Greek images of sacrificing gods serve some kind of didactic function? Are they intended to inspire piety, to urge specific ritual actions on the part of mortals, as was clearly the case in the myth of Zurva¯n’s priestly sacrifice (see chapter 6) or the observant God of the Talmud (see chapter 8)? This is a possibility that cannot be ruled out, especially given the short duration of their appearance. Divine libations arrive on the vasepainting scene at a time when a dissolution of aristocratic social and religious authority was precipitated by the reforms of the Athenian statesman Kleisthenes. Returned to Athens in 511/10 B.C.E. by the Spartan Kleomenes at the time of the expulsion of the Peisistratids, and elected archon in 508/7 B.C.E.,
Kleisthenes passed far-reaching democratic reforms such as land redistribution, representative taxation, and tribunal government, and all but legislated away the lavish funeral ceremonies at the ancestral tomb so popular among the aristocratic clans of Attica.24 The subsequent invasions of Attica by Persia, a “barbaric” foreign power that menaced Greek autonomy, and which in 480 B.C.E. devastated the shrines of her holiest high place—the Acropolis—may
also have contributed to an atmosphere of collective religious anxiety.
The most important “fact” about the first half of the fifth century B.C.E., as Athenian society responded to the reforms of Kleisthenes, is that, in words of Margaret Miller, “the society profoundly moved from aristocratic to democratic dominant ideology.”25 This was a radical shift, as Delian League funds were removed to Athens, and Perikles’s political success in the 440s extinguished long-entrenched internal struggles. It is possible that during this radical ideological
shift that overturned archaic organizational units of power, a shift taking place over only a few decades, the highly conservative social institution of sacrifice was reinforced and upheld by the images of sacrificing gods: Nothing more strongly reinscribes the significance of a ritual than the representation of a god’s performance of it.
Here then the nature of religious systems as self-referential and selfreinforcing behavioral systems may have played itself out historically, during an era where patterns of crisis and response are discernible. The reinforcement of ritual in the ubiquitous vase-painting images, dedicated in sanctuaries, buried in graves, and traded in Magna Graecia and Etruria, may have mattered most at a time when the connection between mythic order and mimetic ritual
was threatened. As Gregory Nagy observes, “[T]he concept of mý¯m¯esis, in conveying a reenactment of the realities of myth, is a concept of authority as long
as society assents to the genuineness of the values contained by the framework of the myth.”26
The theme of the sacrificing gods in the art of the late archaic and early classical period in Greece was only quasi-mythic; yet images of divine libations represented an ongoing enactment of the realities of religious ritual itself. Therefore, as the notion of “divine reflexivity” implies, worship performed by the gods might have been an institution referencing itself. As the archetypal originators of ritual, the Olympians reinforce ritual in the vase-paintings by themselves performing it. Ritual is, above all, conservative. If the archetype
is lost or threatened, then reenactment and imitation will help to recreate that link.
The libating gods in vase-paintings mostly exit the iconographic stage, around 450–440 B.C.E.—a time beginning with the Peace with Persia (449 B.C.E.) and concluding with the construction of the Parthenon—in other words, at a time of Athenian political self-confidence and religious stability, even optimism.
By the end of the shift, “the people of Athens could see themselves as globally aristocratic vis-à-vis the rest of the Greek world,” building upon the notion of a pure and autochthonous blood line, and the city’s role in winning the wars that had threatened all of Greece from the East. Observes Miller, “One may see the ‘Periklean building programme’ as symptomatic of [collective Athenian]
confidence when that thought revolution has been largely effected.”27 By the time of Thucydides’s account of Perikles’s funeral oration in 431/0, Athens thought of itself as “a school for all Hellas.” Perhaps it was no longer necessary to reinscribe foundational ritual piety so strongly, since the threat to those forms and practices had diminished.
The sacrificing god offers a perfectly interlocking metaphysics, in which the divine agent of ritual can certainly be construed as a projection of human behavior, so mirroring the human. But even admitting this possibility, crude projectionism does not satisfactorily exegete the sacrificing god, who assumes within the closed semiotic system of the tradition an autonomy that is capable of instigating and affecting human religious behavior. Such an idea about a
god is more than a model for religious actions; it is a pure absolute with its own independent power. In other words, scholars who argue that the gods on the vases poured offerings in imitation of the ancient Greeks as they themselves worshiped may be correct. But conversely one might argue that the ancient Greeks saw themselves as imitating the gods as they, that is, the gods themselves, worshiped. Which world reflected which? Both views are equally defensible, and perhaps their apparent mutual exclusivity is due only to our
own inability to think paradoxically—“beyond what is expected.” The libations and other forms of ritual performed by the gods serve an important function: They insist that we expand our appreciation of the omnipotence, rather than the contingency, ascribed to the Greek gods.
This paradoxical thinking is just what is required for a scholar of comparative religion if he or she is truly to comprehend the heart—the internal logic, the “root metaphor”—of a religious tradition, be it weighted on the side of the cultic
or the theological, praxis or theory. Paradox is the rule, not the exception, in religion.
Christ was fully human, and yet also fully divine. Buddhist philosophy
eschews the mundane world as unreal, and yet st¯upas containing the Buddha’s relics abound in Eastern Asia and are centers of great religious power. The Qur›a¯n in one passage calls for Alla¯h alone to judge heresy, and yet mortal mullahs can call for the death of a heretical author on the strength of another passage.
In each of these cases, both categories are to be thought of as paradigmatically representative of the tradition; yet they are also apparently mutually exclusive.
The forays into other religious traditions in the following chapters are not intended to confuse the questions raised by the Greek case, nor to deny its uniqueness. However, this survey is intended to investigate how and why other gods in other religions worlds perform ritual actions, in the hope of better understanding divine libations on classical vases. Over and again, whether the model is a foundational cosmic act that is then reenacted in mortal ritual or an ongoing divine ritual activity in which mortals participate, the intimate relationship
of the divine to the specifics of worship emerges as a ubiquitous phenomenon, built into the very structure of cult and marrying it to enacted theology.
The gods do not merely receive veneration or sacrifice; they perform ritual and thus ratify it, conferring upon it ultimacy; the same ritual performance is thereby inaugurated in the mortal realm. The ritual, whether in the form of pious observance or sacrificial gift, is returned to the gods who began the process and from whom religion is born. Religion is thus best understood as purely reflexive; it is created and self-referentially enacted by the divine for its own sake.
Because Alla¯h prays for Muh. ammad, a believing Muslim is enabled to pray for him as well, so that the prophet may pray for the believer. Do ut des, by all means; the inscription on a bronze geometric figurine of Apollo in Boston dedicated by Mantiklos can mean little else: “Mantiklos dedicated me to the Far-Darter of the silver bow, as part of his tithe, do thou, Phoibos, grant him gracious recompense.”28 I give so that You may give in return.
The testimony of the traditions explored in the following chapters, however, restores the other half of the reciprocal equation: das ut dem. You, the god, give so that I, a mortal, may—and must—give in response.