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A Multitude of Gods:

Imagining Divine Plurality in Archaic and Classical Greece

DFG-Project, Dr Emrys Schlatter

Start: February 2022


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Multiplicity was central for the concept of divinity in ancient Greece. The notion of an abundance of gods pervaded ancient life and shaped both time and space with its concomitant abundance of festivals, rituals, and sanctuaries. For both the individual and collective, worship thus required, at its most basic level, confronting the potentially boundless plurality of the gods and making it manageable, e.g. by selection, hierarchies, and adapting the complex and flexible network of interrelations attributed to the gods.

The current project represents the first systematic study of this fundamental aspect of religious competency in Archaic and Classical Greece. It builds on the insight that the gods were understood and defined in relation to each other and responds in a new way to the desideratum of analysing them accordingly. Whilst the majority of studies on cults and gods aim to reconstruct the cultic-mythic profile of an individual deity or a particular region, this project instead focuses on underlying emic strategies of connecting, grouping, and ‘structuring’ the gods; it analyses the cultural logic of divine configurations in both historical cult practice and its literary representations with close attention to the influence of medium, genre, and cultic situation. 

The project comprises three main parts. The first part examines explicit textual evidence from the 8th to 4th cent. BCE for a productive, but largely overlooked cult practice, namely the worship of multiple gods as a group. It further discusses how this practice relates to and changes the way we should understand the ritual focus on a single god.

The second part broadens the analysis to ways of configuring the gods as recipients of shared cult and imagining these configurations, which range from categories/collectives (e.g. the Twelve Gods) to the close cultic association and near-amalgamation of deities. It analyses the function and flexibility of such configurations and the role of medium in their conceptualisation in ritual practice and literary genres. In this way, strategies of engaging with divine plurality in real and imaginary cult, including limiting the number of gods (cf. so-called monotheistic tendencies in Plato and Aeschylus), can be understood both in individual contexts and as part of a spectrum.

In the third part, the project takes an in-depth look at the representation of groups of gods as cult recipients in epic and drama and examines the potential of god-configurations as a medium of cultural reflexion and social and religious commentary.

By examining the cultic configuration of gods in historical practice, its many facets in literature, and its role in the Greek imaginaire, the project aims to lay the groundwork for understanding a central component of ancient polytheism and, ultimately, to look beyond the particularities of individual cults and myths at fundamental ways of ‘doing religion’ in ancient Greece.