On Greek religion by Parker, Robert

By Parker, Robert

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50 The detail is isolated, and even here it is not priests or priestesses who do the telling. The idea of an Attic priest or priestess recounting myths to the faithful is just as unfamiliar as the idea of their using books in the conduct of ritual. 51 But parallels are not easy to find for such an active deployment of visually depicted mythology in ritual. Mysteries perhaps represent a special case; for one of their distinctive features seems to have been that communication of some kind took place between initiators and initiates; and though, at Eleusis at least, the central medium of communication was “showing,” not “telling,” some element of telling can perhaps not be ruled out.

They would then be an equivalent, mutatis mutandis, to the tin tablets of Aristomenes. Whatever the truth about that particular case, the general proposition that texts had no direct place in the conduct of the vast majority of Greek rituals is unaffected. When, in the Hellenistic period, the city of Priene established a public cult of Sarapis, there was no question of conducting the ritual in accord with books: the priest had to supply a live Egyptian to perform the rites with the proper expertise.

That mediating proposal, however, calls for two footnotes or riders: philosophers laid claim not to mere belief but to sure knowledge about the divine, on the basis of a priori postulates as to what a god should be like; and a few incidents, chief among them the prosecution of Socrates, may bring into doubt the notion that thought was free and only action policed. The chapter will therefore move a considerable distance from its starting point. But all the topics discussed are consequences, or qualifications, of the central absence noted by Ibn Khaldûn.

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