Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity

Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity

Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity

Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity


In many of the world's religions, both polytheistic and monotheistic, a seemingly enigmatic and paradoxical image is found--that of the god who worships. Various interpretations of this seeming paradox have been advanced. Some suggest that it represents sacrifice to a higher deity. Proponents of anthropomorphic projection say that the gods are just "big people" and that images of human religious action are simply projected onto the deities. However, such explanations do not do justice tothe complexity and diversity of this phenomenon. In Religion of the Gods, Kimberley C. Patton uses a comparative approach to take up anew a longstanding challenge in ancient Greek religious iconography: why are the Olympian gods depicted on classical pottery making libations? The sacrificing gods in ancient Greece are compared to gods who perform rituals in six other religious traditions: the Vedic gods, the heterodox god Zurvan of early Zoroastrianism, the Old Norse god Odin, the Christian God and Christ, the God of Judaism, and Islam's Allah. Patton examines the comparative evidence from a cultural and historical perspective, uncovering deep structural resonances while also revealing crucial differences. Instead of looking for invisible recipients or lost myths, Patton proposes the new category of "divine reflexivity." Divinely performed ritual is a self-reflexive, self-expressive action that signals the origin of ritual in the divine and not the human realm. Above all, divine ritual is generative, both instigating and inspiring human religious activity. The religion practiced by the gods is both like and unlike human religious action. Seen from within the religious tradition, gods are not "big people," but other than human. Human ritual is directed outward to a divine being, but the gods practice ritual on their own behalf. "Cultic time," the symbiotic performance of ritual both in heaven and on earth, collapses the distinction between cult and theology eachtime ritual is performed. Offering the first comprehensive study and a new theory of this fascinating phenomenon, Religion of the Gods is a significant contribution to the fields of classics and comparative religion. Patton shows that the god who performs religious action is not an anomaly, but holds a meaningful place in the category of ritual and points to a phenomenologically universal structure within religion itself.


The Mystery of the Berlin Painter

What to make of the strange image of a god performing religious rituals?

Years ago, while walking through the familiar classical galleries of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I was arrested by a detail of Attic red-figure vase-painting that had escaped me before: an altar (see Catalogue, no. 29; Figs. 2, 3). Not an unusual feature. Making offerings to the divine was a potent, ubiquitous fact of ancient Greek religious life: “The central ritual of Greek religion, from the pouring of libations onwards, is the offering to the god.” This particular altar is the organizing axis of the register of a great three-handled kalpishydria, a water-carrying vessel. The vase is ascribed to the Berlin Painter, one of the great masters of ancient Greek vase-painting. It dates from about 485 B.C.E., that is, from the very late archaic period—in fact between the two times of Hellas’s greatest menace from Persia.

What stopped me was that the altar was not the focus of a sacrifice performed by human beings. Instead, six Olympian gods and goddesses converged on it from either side. The deities appeared to be themselves worshipers at a sacrifice, forming their own procession. What did this majestic vase mean?

A painted plaque from the archaic Saphtouli cave-site near Pitsá gives us the elements of canonical Greek animal sacrifice (no. C27; Fig. 4). The animal victim, in this case a ram, is led to the altar in procession, accompanied by the music of flutes. The atmosphere is one of order, peace, and holiness. The worshipers bear the ritual implements of wine jug, basket (kanoun), barley (oulai), and woolen . . .

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