Campus News

The Religious Pantheon in Ancient Greece

Story posted September 08, 2003

Irene Polinskaya, assistant professor of classics, is one of two Bowdoin faculty members to recently receive fellowships from the Loeb Classical Library Foundation. Polinskaya will examine religious life in the Greek island city-state of Aegina. (To read about the work of Jennifer Kosak, the other recipient, click here.)

Polinskaya has for several years dedicated herself to studying the religious life of the island city-state of Aegina and how that relates to Greek religion in a broader context. She concentrates on the years between about 800 B.C. and about 400 B.C.

"This is the period of the great flowering of the Greek civilization," she said, the time when city-states were forging forms of government - oligarchy, democracy - that continue to this day.

Aegina also remains a part of Greek life today. The modern city exists where the ancient one once stood, and, only a one-hour ride by express ferry from Athens, it's a favorite weekend retreat for Athenians.

Back during the period Polinskaya studies, however, the relationship between Aegina and Athens was quite different.

"They were always enemies," Polinskaya said, " which gives an interesting twist to my study."

The time between the Persian and the Peloponnesian Wars was a particularly important one in Ancient Greece. During the Persian Wars, from about 490 to 479 B.C., the Greek city-states struggled together against the encroaching Persians. Aegina played an important role in defeating the Persians, second only to that of Athens, according to Polinskaya.

After the Persian Wars, Athens began demanding tributes from other city-states. Aegina resisted Athens for years, but was ultimately defeated in 454 B.C. During the Peloponnesian wars, fought between Athens and Sparta, the Athenians took over the island and exiled the Aeginetans.

"It's just like everywhere, in times of war, a nation comes together...and in times of peace, they start breaking up."

It is against this backdrop that Polinskaya studies Greek religious life.

Many people think of Ancient Greece a unified whole, "one nation, one culture, one people, one religion," Polinskaya said. "In political and real terms it was hundreds of independent city-states."

Imagine if Brunswick were one country and Portland another, each drawing its identity from a different history.

"[There was] a cultural common Greek idea of gods, but at the same time, on a working level there would be a particular group of cults that would be functional [in one area]," she said. "I'm interested in how religious structure developed in these Greek states."

Despite the lack of unity in Ancient Greece, much of what we know about its culture comes from writings from an Athenian perspective, which Polinskaya said is "very flawed."

It would be as if, thousands of years from now, all knowledge of the United States came from the perspective of those who lived in New York City or Los Angeles.

Likewise, much of what is known of Greek religion comes from Homer, who spoke of Zeus, Athena, Hermes, Aries and other gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet this set pantheon of gods is a literary creation. Many of the city-states singled out particular Homeric deities for importance in their culture and worshipped local deities other than those in the Homeric pantheon, some of which may have been left over from earlier societies living during the Bronze Period.

"Zeus may be very important in one city, and not important at all in another," Polinskaya said. "In fact, you have different configurations everywhere." While the gods cherished by people differed from city-state to city-state, other aspects of their worship - methods of prayer and sacrifice - were they same. "You could say their vocabulary of worship was similar, but the particular combinations of things they ended up doing in each of the states was unique."

Polinskaya approaches the larger question of Greek religious life by examining Aegina in detail. In her dissertation, Defining Local Religious Systems in Ancient Greece: The Case of the Aeginetan Pantheon, she studied the local heroes of Aegina, the gods of the Homeric pantheon that Aeginetans were drawn to, and the local deities that were unique to the area as well. She investigated connections between the religious life and the landscape, resources, history and other aspects of Aegina.

Each city-state also had relationships with neighboring city-states, and there were also Pan-Hellenic institutions - festivals and games - that were religious in nature. At these events, different city-states would come together to assert their local religious identity and also celebrate their common religious character. Over the next year, Polinskaya intends to further investigate Greek religion by looking at how Aeginetan religious life interacted with that of other Greek city-states.

"In a way, I'm just trying to account for the complexity of Greek religion," she said.

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