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Belief, uncertainty and mental effort in ancient Greek rituals of hosting the divine: literary readings and theoretical reflections

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Lunch Talk


April 19, 2024

Speaker & Affiliation

Felix Budelmann & Saskia Peels, University of Groningen


12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
161 East Pyne


Alongside better documented sacrificial rituals such as the slaughter of animals (thusia) and bloodless offerings on altars and elsewhere, the Greeks also hosted the gods in what modern scholarship refers to as theoxenies. Theoxenies stand out, and are fascinating, because of the way they imagine divine presence in a human space, and along with it unusually close human-divine interaction. In this paper, which is part of a broader book project, we explore the patterns of belief that are involved in such rituals. In particular we highlight and elaborate the uncertainty and mental effort involved in imagining such forms of divine presence.

Among the numerous, mostly brief, ancient literary reflections of theoxeny rituals, a handful open up space for thinking about the worshippers’ mind-states. Readings of several of these form the heart of our paper: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Ovid’s Philemon and Baucis episode as well as passages in Diodorus Siculus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities and Plutarch’s Non Posse.  All these texts, we argue, foreground the uncertainties that come with divine presence, as well as the challenge for humans to respond appropriately, but they do so in tellingly different ways, depending on whether they are set in a world in which gods are regularly seen to be interacting closely with humans or not.

In the final part of the paper, we draw on the work of psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann in order to think further about the relationship between practice and belief in rituals of offering hospitality to the gods. We end by noting, and discussing reasons for, the gaps that the ancient texts leave open in this respect.