Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars

Jon D. Mikalson.  Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars.  Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Herodotus was a fifth century B.C.E. historian, and he wrote about fifth century wars between the Greeks and the Persians.  Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars is about Herodotus’ depiction of Greek religion.  In this portrayal, Greek religion had vows, tithes, hero cults, oracles about the future that had to be interpreted, and gods who highly regarded their sanctuaries, hated human hubris, and helped out the Greeks in order to make certain battles into fairer fights.  Moreover, according to Mikalson, Greek religion valued common sense and reason rather than faith.  In terms of the scholarly landscape regarding religion and Herodotus, Jon Mikalson disagrees with Thomas Harrison on the question of whether Herodotus depicted the Greek gods as just.  For Mikalson, Herodotus does not do so but rather presents the gods as jealous for their sanctuary, eager to exact revenge whenever it is defiled or disrespected.

Mikalson refers to Herodotus’ characterization of Persian religion as one that lacked statues, temples, and altars, and yet he points out examples in Herodotus’ work of Persians practicing religion in a Greek manner, and even respecting Greek oracles and sanctuaries.

Mikalson also addresses the question of Herodotus’ own religious beliefs.  Herodotus believed in the gods, and he even appeared to think that the gods helped the Greeks in battle.  While he was not always clear about how the gods did so, often it appeared to be through manipulation of nature: a fierce wind or trouble at sea could impact what happened in a battle.  Herodotus was rather skeptical, however, of some of the miracle stories that he heard, even from those purporting to be eyewitnesses.

The appendix to the book goes more deeply into Herodotus’ views about religion.  According to the appendix, Herodotus believed that there were gods, but he thought that the names for those gods were imported from Egyptian religion, and that Homer and Hesiod then constructed a genealogy for the gods.  In essence, Herodotus acknowledges a divine and a human element to religion and the conceptualization of the divine.  According to Mikalson, Herodotus does not explain how Egyptians and Greeks have different names for certain gods, if the Greeks imported the names of their gods (or most of them) from the Egyptians.  Still, I found the appendix to be fascinating, on account of my own questions about divine revelation and the Bible (i.e., what is human, and what is divine?).

The first third part of the book was rather slow, since it was mainly about vows and gods helping the Greeks in battle, and that did not strike me as earth-shakingly new when it came to religion.  I was interested to learn, however, that the Greeks had tithes, and I wonder how they compare and contrast with Israelite tithing.  The book really picked up when Mikalson discussed Herodotus’ depiction of Persian religion and interaction with miracle stories, as well as the question of whether the gods in Herodotus were just.  The appendix, in my opinion, was the best part of the book, since it addressed Herodotus’ own views about the divine in light of his conclusion as a historian that Greek religion had conceptualizations of the divine that were human in origin.

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