Theologies of the family in Homer and Hesiod

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Divergent receptions I start with some brief observations about the reception of Homer and Hesiod. In antiquity, these two poets were routinely mentioned together as religious experts. Herodotus, for example, declared: ‘It was Hesiod and Homer who first explained to the Greeks the birth of the gods, gave them their names, assigned them their honours and spheres of expertise, and revealed their appearance.’ Not all ancient thinkers accepted the religious authority of these two poets, but they generally saw them as offering the same picture of the gods. Xenophanes, the earliest extant author to mention them by name, complained: ‘Homer and Hesiod ascribed to the gods every action / that causes shame and reproach among human beings: / theft, adultery, and cheating each other.’ Plato followed suit, repeatedly criticising both Homer and Hesiod for their immoral portrayal of the gods. In the second book of the Republic, for example, he mixed quotations from the Theogony and the Homeric epics, explaining why they were objectionable, and mounting ‘a wholesale rejection of traditional Greek polytheism’. For Plato, as for others before and after him, criticising Greek views about the gods meant engaging with the epics of both Homer and Hesiod. This point is often overlooked in the study of Greek religion: although there were no sacred texts, the epics of Homer and Hesiod had authority, and inspired sustained theological debate. Very much in contrast with this ancient tendency to treat Homer and Hesiod together as religious experts, modern readers have often underlined the differences between their representations of the gods – differences of fact (for example concerning the genealogy of Aphrodite), but also of tone and approach: Hesiod seems more abstract, more prone to personification; Homer livelier and more entertaining. Nineteenth-century studies of ancient religion articulate clearly these perceived differences between Homeric and Hesiodic depictions of the gods – and these studies are, however subterraneously, still influential today. So, for example, approaches to Gaia, the Earth Mother, are shaped by Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht: Eine Untersuchung über die Gynaikokratie der Alten Welt nach ihrer religiösen und rechtlichen Natur (Basel, 1861). As Georgoudi points out, ‘many scholars, whether or not they refer explicitly to Bachofen, have accepted the general, and often vague, notion that a feminine divinity, a mistress of nature, was the dominant religious figure in prehistoric or pre-Hellenic Mediterranean societies’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTheologies of Ancient Greek Religion
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781316597811
ISBN (Print)9781107153479
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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