Homeric Religion: The Gods and the Poet
- Elizabeth MinchinElizabeth MinchinAustralian National University College of Arts and Social Sciences
The epics that are associated with Homer’s name, the Iliad and the Odyssey, emerge from a long tradition of oral song that extends back into the Late Bronze Age. The poems themselves, however, date from the late 8th or early 7th centuries bc. From the perspective of religious belief and religious practice, the society that is described in these epics, like the society of the 8th- and 7th-century Aegean world, is a polytheistic society: the heroes within the epics, like the audiences themselves of that epic tradition, worship not one but a number of gods. The gods of the epics, such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, and Aphrodite, are, however, remarkably vivid, in that they have not only been intensely personalized, being endowed with humanlike form and appearance, but also socialized. These gods are portrayed as a family that lives together on Mount Olympus, where they are embedded in a complex web of interpersonal relationships. And yet, despite their divine status, the gods of epic mingle with the race of heroes on earth; indeed, when they choose, they are key players in human affairs. On occasions the gods behave in ways that, to another culture, might appear undignified, ridiculous, or ungodly; but, for the most part, they presented as powerful figures and at times terrible.
To turn from theology of belief, as represented in the Homeric epics, to the theology of religious practice, it will become clear from the discussion in this article that the Homeric account of religious practice is different in some respects from the religious practice of the archaic Greek world; what is observable is that the epic tradition has omitted from its account of religious practice a number of elements important to worshippers in the real world, such as divination through the consultation of entrails or rituals of fertility. And a certain poetic stylization of presentation has made some real-world practices less recognizable. More recently there have been fruitful attempts to identify elements of religious belief and practice that can be traced back in time to the wider Bronze Age world. At the same time, too, scholars have reflected on the gods’ role in the epic as participants in and observers of the action.