The major tools we use in reconstructed/revived/rebuilt religion are those that are quantifiable. That doesn’t mean that more personal insights don’t have a part in faith, just that they are not part of the recon method. They aren’t in the toolbox. The cons of this are not something I’m going to cover here; the pros include the fact that it makes it somewhat easier to come to agreement on issues of practice when you are dealing with that sort of data.
And I do mean that it is only somewhat easier. There are always details to argue, interpretations to compare, reasons and rationales to work through. But in general, all the information is available to everyone, and that does level the playing field just a bit.
It’s important to keep in mind that there is no such thing as a good sole source. There is no such thing as a best source, or a main source. We do not have scripture, ours is not a religion of any book, and any information gained from one resource should be compared and contrasted with information gleaned from another. Literary sources can conflict with each other–and they can definitely conflict with archaeological sources! And when it comes to the relationship of deity with mortal, myth does not necessarily line up with what we know of practice.
(I’ll say up front that I am not a literalist when it comes to myth–myth is important, and myth is true, but mythic truth is its own entity, and mythic truth is not really based in the same things that, say, historical truth is. Myth tells us crucial things about the gods and the world but that doesn’t mean that it all actually happened. Or perhaps it did :). But that’s not what is important about it. So that will color everything I write here–and I just want to be clear about that.)
I’d like to go over a very small selection of what sorts of lore and information are available to those who are inclined to look to the past for spiritual inspiration, but first I’d like to talk about primary and secondary sources, since you’re likely to come across those terms frequently.
Primary Sources. Primary sources are pretty much just what they sound like–sources that come directly from the historical period. They reflect a direct experience with the era. These include things like myths, prayers and hymns, plays, works of fiction and nonfiction, financial records (a lot of information has been learned from the records kept by cities of offerings made during festivals) and other writings. They also include works of art and archaeological evidence. Primary sources are as close as we can get to seeing the past, or to talking to someone who was actually there.
A primary source does not have to be the actual document or object. It is the content of the source that makes it primary–a reprint, a translation, a photograph of an artifact, these are all considered primary sources (although these do affect the quality of the source and it’s good to be aware if your translation is a good one or not)
Secondary Sources. Secondary sources are mainly interpretive. In general a secondary source will examine and analyze the primary sources, so its value really depends on a variety of factors including the author’s background and the state of knowledge at the time the piece was written. Most of the scholarly books and journal articles you come across will be in this category.
The epic works of Homer, the Iliad (the tale of the Trojan War) and the Odyssey (the story of Odysseus’ adventures on his way home from that war), are probably the best known of these, and they are excellent sources of information about the gods, in addition to being excellent stories. But you can’t read these works without being aware of Homer’s pro-Athena stance. He is not so much a fan of Ares and this is very obvious in his depictions of the god in the Iliad. If you are a devotee of Ares, the Iliad is probably not your resource of first choice. Doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the Iliad–but everything conceived by mortal minds has its bias, and that is true of ancient texts as well.
Personally, I am more a fan of Hesiod than I am of Homer. The stories aren’t as exciting (mostly) but to me he seems to take a more balanced view. Hesiod’s works include the Theogony and the Works and Days, both of which include a nice assortment of mythic tales. Hesiod’s writings are also colored by his local religious traditions, and if you are dedicated to Hekate you will want to give him a read.
Prayers and Hymns
The thirty-three Homeric Hymns were not written by Homer or any of his contemporaries–they are believed to have been written by a number of diferent poets over a period of centuries quite a bit later, and are called “Homeric” because of their metre. A number of them include very good mythic information; particularly good is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.
Among the literary sources I’d say I’m most cautious with information taken from plays. The author of a play is writing for an audience and is strongly motivated by issues other than the theological. This is true of any writing, of course, but artistic license and interpretation is something to be aware of.
For example, in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Orestes is on trial for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra, who murdered his father Agamemnon (for having sacrificed Orestes’ sister Iphigeneia). The issue is raised as to which murder is the worse crime. Among the points considered by Athena as judge is the notion that the mother is not truly a parent because she only acts as incubator for the father’s seed–thus, only the father is truly a parent. Clearly, and as we know now, this is simply wrong (although politic given the era) information given by the playwright, and surely the gods would have known the truth of it even back then, so I think we can safely discard that piece of information.
That doesn’t mean that the plays are not a good source of lore, just that they need to be examined within the context of the culture and history they were written in.
The best-known geography is probably Pausanias, whose Guide to Greece includes material on temples and religious practices in many regions of ancient Greece. It’s an excellent resource and in many ways invaluable since there is no other single comparable work. Things to keep in mind are that Pausanias wrote in the 2nd century CE (toward the end of the era in which our gods were worshipped) and that he could only write down what he saw or was told by others, but still he is well worth reading if you are looking to go in depth.
I am hesitant to recommend particular scholarly works for several reasons. For one thing, the field is always changing, and for another, the works you will find to be valuable will depend on your interests and spiritual focus. Because of that, this section will be necessarily brief.
If you’re only going to read one book about Greek religion, I would probably still recommend Walter Burkert’s book of that name. It is in some ways dated but it is still one of the best overviews out there.
Other authors to seek out?
Robert Parker. His works include Miasma (the only extensive treatment of this subject that I am aware of), On Greek Religion (a very different overview from Burkert’s)–and, especially if you have an Athenian focus, Athenian Religion: A History and Polytheism and Society in Athens.
Karl Kerenyi. Anything by Kerenyi, who writes beautifully (regardless of the translator, somehow :)) and poetically about the gods.
Jennifer Larson. Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult Lore and Greek Heroine Cults provide great info on topics that can be difficult to search out. And her Greek Cults: A Guide is a wonderful overview of how different gods were worshipped in different regions and under different epithets.
Sarah Iles Johnston. Restless Dead is a very good book on the relationships between the living and the dead in ancient Greece; Ancient Greek Divination is about what it says it is about. Both will give you a good idea of how the worldview of the ancients differed from that of many in the modern pagan community.
Simon Pulleyn’s Prayer in Greek Religion is a favorite of mine.
So is Robert Garland’s Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion which is a good look at how and why ancient religious practice changed over time.
And, finally, A Companion to Greek Religion, a collection edited by Daniel Ogden, is full of good articles that provide an idea of just where current thought is on a variety of issues.
Categories: Pagan Practices