Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy

Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy

Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy

Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy

Synopsis

In Honor Thy Gods Jon Mikalson uses the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides to explore popular religious beliefs and practices of Athenians in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and examines how these playwrights portrayed, manipulated, and otherwise represented popular religion in their plays. The author discusses the central role of honor in ancient Athenian piety and shows that the values of popular piety are not only reflected but also reaffirmed in tragedies.

Excerpt

The religion found in Greek tragedy is, like the language of Homer, a complex hybrid, a hothouse plant which never did and probably never could exist or survive in real life. Although the components of the hybrid are heterogeneous, they have been fused so expertly by the genius of the poets that the original distinctions between them are seldom apparent. At the risk of considerable oversimplification, we may designate as major components of religion in tragedy (1) the anthropomorphic deities of the Homeric pantheon; (2) beliefs and deities once part of popular religion but in the classical period virtually extinct; (3) deities, beliefs, practices, and cults of contemporary fifth-century society; (4) a concern with the morality and justice of the gods; and, finally, (5) contemporary or recent philosophical conceptions of deity. In varying degrees each element has itself influenced or been influenced by others, and traces of one can usually be found in another. Despite this, each has, for purposes of analysis, a fairly distinct character, and taken together they provide a context for understanding religion in tragedy in relation both to the beliefs and practices of the audience and to its uses as a vehicle of literary expression.

To further complicate the situation, this potpourri of beliefs, cults, deities, and myths is set in a legendary period, within a generation or two of the Trojan War, a "dramatic" time when gods and rituals are often in the process of becoming what was familiar to the fifth-century audience. Often the gods themselves are changing and new cults are being introduced. Several tragedies dramatize the very moments when gods, heroes, cults, and rituals are transformed from what the poet imagined them to be in a legendary past to the form that was familiar to the audience of the fifth century.

Attention to religion in tragedies has centered almost entirely upon the behavior of gods and upon the poet's and modern critic's evaluation of that behavior. On stage and off, gods do or do not speak or intervene in certain . . .

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