Athenian Popular Religion

Athenian Popular Religion

Athenian Popular Religion

Athenian Popular Religion


Most modern studies of Athenian religion have focused on festivals, cult practices, and individual deities. Jon Mikalson turns instead to the religious beliefs citizens of Athens spoke of and acted upon in everyday life. He uses evidence only from reliable, mostly contemporary sources such as the orators Lysias and Demosthenes, the historian Xenophon, and state decrees, sacred laws, religious dedications, and epitaphs.

"This is in no sense a general history of Athenian religion," Mikalson writes, "even within the narrow historical boundaries set. It is rather an investigation of what might be termed the consensus of popular religious belief, a consensus consisting of those beliefs which an Athenian citizen thought he could express publicly and for which he expected fo find general acceptance among his peers."

What emerges in Mikalson's study is a remarkable homogeneity of religious beliefs at the popular level. The topics discussed at length in Athenian Popular Religion include the areas of divine intervention in human life, the gods and human justice, gods and oaths, divination, death and the afterlife, the nature of the gods, social aspects of popular religion, and piety and impiety.

Mikalson challenges the common opinion that popular religious belief in Athens deteriorated significantly from the mid-fifth to the mid-fourth century B.C. "The error in understanding the development of Athenian religion has arisen, it seems to me, because scholars have failed to distinguish properly between the differing natures of the sources for our knowledge of religious beliefs in the earlier and later periods," Mikalson writes. The difference between those sources "is more than simply one of years. It is a difference between poetry and prose, with all the factors which that difference implies."


This book presents what Athenian people, apart from poets and philosophers, said about their gods and religious beliefs in the late fifth and fourth centuries B.C. The gods and religious views of Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophic and literary masters have been widely studied for generations, in some cases for centuries. But such studies are, fundamentally, treatments of Greek theological and intellectual history. Athenian writers clearly expected their audiences to be familiar with current literary treatments and philosophic theories about the gods and religion, but the question has remained open of the extent to which their audiences shared these views and made them a part of their religious life. It was this question that led me to collect, from what I judged to be reliable sources, the religious beliefs and attitudes that were publicly expressed and casually accepted by the great majority of Athenian citizens.

What emerged from this collection was a surprisingly consistent and homogeneous corpus of popular religious beliefs. Amidst remarkable multiplicity and variety of rituals, myths, and cult figures the Athenians maintained rather straightforward, simple, and self-consistent ideas of what the gods provided for them, what was expected of worshippers, what was pious and impious, and so forth. These popular beliefs often lack the intellectual and metaphysical dynamism of the theories of "intellectuals" of the time, but a recognition and understanding of them is of fundamental importance to our view of Athenian society. This understanding will also substantially aid . . .

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