An interview with Andrej and Ivana Petrovic, authors of Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion (Volume I: Early Greek Religion)

Thank you for talking to us about your book Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion, Andrej and Ivana. Can we start with the way you work together? You say a little in your introduction about how you work up your thoughts in tandem. It sounds like an exceptionally close form of co-authoring. Do tell us more about how it works.

Absolutely! It really is a very close form of co-authoring. We often work together because we’ve enjoyed discussing ideas and problems with each other ever since we were undergraduate students in Belgrade more than twenty years ago. Back then we would read ancient literature together, or to each other, and we would regularly summarize arguments from an article or a book we’ve read for each other. When we became graduate students in Heidelberg, we were already very familiar with how each of us thinks. The first time we actually wrote a scholarly piece together was in Heidelberg, more than fifteen years ago, when we returned from our very first international conference in Groningen. It was a piece on an epigram by Callimachus (‘Stop and Smell the Statues: Callimachus’ Epigram 51Pf. Reconsidered (Four Times)’, MD 51, 179-208), which turned out to be a lengthy piece, but when we started out, we intended to write a simple and short note on a textual problem. However, in discussions with each other we realized that there is much more to that text than catches the eye.

While we are both very much in love with all things Greek, each of us has a particular area of specialization — Ivana is more interested in Greek literature, while Andrej is more interested in Greek epigraphy and cultural history, and we share a passion for Greek religion. So, ideas are often seeded when we simply discuss a problem from our individual angle while out for a walk or cooking dinner (we’re especially productive if we are making something like moussakas, which takes a few hours). If it turns out that we would both like to explore this idea further, then each of us would put on paper some notes outlining the idea, methodological approach, and argumentative strategy, and then there’s more discussion, more drafting, and finally we sit down to write. Hence, we will start writing only when we have a very clear idea about what exactly we want to say, how do we want to say it, and, crucially perhaps, who we are saying it to. We take turns in dictating and typing, and when we have a draft of a chapter or a section, we will start editing, sometimes together, sometimes alone, and we will have the final draft ready only when we both have gone through it together for the one final edit. And then, we read out the final text to each other, as we used to do back in Belgrade.

This has turned into a large project: one book published and a second in the pipeline. How did you decide on this subject in the first place, and could you see at the outset how large it would turn out to be?

Having spent more than a decade on it, it is certainly the most ambitious project that we have worked on so far, but funnily, it is almost more the case of the subject coming to us, than we to the subject. Towards the end of our PhDs, we were involved in one of the huge German collaborative projects which dealt with ritual dynamics (, and our role was to systematize the so-called Greek sacred regulations, or ‘sacred laws’ as some still call them. Greek religion has nothing comparable to an authoritative book, but it has around 530 or so sacred regulations which provide precise insights into lived religion of ancient Greeks, and every year we obtain more texts thanks to efforts of archaeologists and field epigraphists. An amazing text has just been published last year – anyone interested in Greek religion should pick up the latest issue of Kernos journal. At any rate, the directors of our project, Angelos Chaniotis and Eftychia Stavrianopoulou asked us to explore issues of authority and agency in these texts, answering the questions such as who determines what kind of a ritual, which authorities are responsible for what kinds of ritual actions and so on. Some of these texts are fairly straight-forward, formally at least, and name the civic bodies or religious groups responsible for, say, introduction of a new divinity or a new sacrifice. But where we hit the wall was with the purity regulations, the texts which precisely define what constitutes worshippers’ pure state required to enter a sanctuary or sacred space. We noticed at some point that these texts never, or perhaps with only one exception, mention a formal civic or religious authority determining them. That was extraordinary. And then, even more puzzlingly, we discovered at some point that a number of these texts were actually written in verse, in hexameters and elegiacs, instead of dry prose – many such texts dealt with inner purity! So, one day Andrej returned from work and told Ivana about this. Ivana, mildly concerned that Andrej started hallucinating, inspected the texts too, and soon we were both on fire. We published a pilot study with a catalogue of these texts (‘Look who is talking now!: speaker and communication in Greek metrical sacred regulations’, Liège 2006) and we had every intention to write a classical commentary for this group of texts. But as with that textual note on Callimachus’ epigram, research problems have their own will and trajectory.

In 2006 we moved to the UK and took up positions at Durham, and when we went on our first research leave at Harvard’s wonderful Center for Hellenic Studies in DC in 2009/10, we drafted some of the material, but could still not satisfactorily answer some very basic questions, such as what is the place of these texts in the larger scheme of things, or indeed which traditions do these texts belong to. So, we started digging deeper and exploring sources systematically, from Homer downwards. And when we realized just how much material there is, we knew that a commentary will not do and that we have to rethink the entire approach. And we are very happy that we have done so.

There was a time when the mainstream view was that Greek religion was all about ritual, and strict observance of ritual. You argue against that by showing how much importance the ancient Greeks gave to the inner state of mind of those performing ritual, and their personal track record of morality. How was it that this side of the picture seems to have been overlooked or under-estimated by the earlier scholars? Are there those who still challenge your line of thinking?

Part of the answer is that the old mainstream view was forged, — sometimes consciously and intentionally, sometimes less so, — as a part of the larger argument for the exclusive status of Christianity as the ‘true religion’, ‘religion of the heart’, or even as part of discussions concerning supremacy of certain Christian denominations over the others. Master narratives and authoritative accounts of Greek religion tended to employ historiography of Greek religion as a projecting screen for implicit negotiations of religious and cultural supremacy, a tendency which goes all the way back to the early Church fathers, and stretches to this day. Concurrent claims of the former mainstream, such as that ‘belief’ plays no role in practical Greek religion, or that the mind of the ritual actor does not matter, were driven by another trope popular among the ritualists – the trope of the allegedly so-alien Greeks, our cultural other. Their religion was then cast, accordingly, as spiritually different than ours, as a ‘religion of form’, pomp, and ceremony, which is a conviction obtained through the same process of implicit discrimination asserting Christianity’s qualitative supremacy. In an extreme case, a scholar argued that the Athenians of the 5th century were practically atheists who built shrines and performed the rituals, it would seem, by force of habit.

Hence, until very recently, in fact, to use terms such as ‘belief’ in explorations of Greek religion was to use a dirty word, a word out of place, and to call into question some of the key tenets of Walter Burkert’s influential concept of Greek religion. But the tide is turning quickly – Tom Harrison’s work was both fundamental and pioneering in this regard, and it was delightful to see also other heavy-weights such as Robert Parker speak of ‘bedrock beliefs’ and ‘shared beliefs’ in his magisterial 2011 On Greek religion, or Henk Versnel’s powerful and wonderfully polemical manifesto for belief in Coping with the Gods. We’re proud to be in their company.

On the other hand, there are indeed still those who challenge our approach and arguments, and the resistance is, and we expect will continue to be for a while at least, strong. And it comes from both ritualists and the proponents of cultural Darwinism, which are not necessarily always members of one and the same group. A colleague recently challenged in print our reading of a passage from Works and Days in which Hesiod warns the worshippers not to have a scathing attitude towards sacrifices (Gr.: mōmeuein), claiming that Hesiod’s formulation normally denotes mocking aloud rather than an inner attitude. This verb occurs only three times in Greek literature, which makes it extremely difficult to discern its ‘normal’ meaning. When we reminded her of the references from early Greek commentaries on the very passage from Hesiod, which explicitly speak of scathing attitude in one’s mind or soul, she immediately reached for the evolutionary paradigm and spoke of ‘shifts’ and ‘later developments’.

We understand why some colleagues may have difficulties coping with our line of argument. But right now it seems that we are not just on the cusp of taking Greek religious beliefs as fundamental in conceptualizations and narratives of Greek religion, we are already over that threshold. The burden of proof is now on those who dissent.

Your book is about Greek worshippers’ inner attitudes towards the gods and rituals, and about what kind of inner attitude the Greek gods were envisaged to expect from their worshippers. What sort of sources were you able to access to shed light on the Greek worshippers’ inner world? How did the Greeks know what the gods expected of them?

In this volume we looked at literary sources from the 8th century BC until Plato, and at a number of inscriptions and the so-called Orphic gold-leaves. We organized the material according to the nature of discourse and cultural context – we explored first the world of bronze age farmer in Hesiod’s poetry, then we turned to the sympotic setting and the world of archaic aristocrats and their conceptualizations of inner purity in early poetry, then we investigated also philosophical attitudes towards inner purity and we paid a great deal of attention to the world of drama, which, we think is particularly telling and important. The importance, of course, is due to the dramatic setting and reach – the Athenian stage is the very place where meaning of gods, rituals and beliefs was elaborated, called into question or affirmed. We were therefore very interested to gauge the role given to inner purity and pollution on central stage. All of these texts tell us what gods expected of the Greeks, even if not all of them report the same – which is part of the reason why we found our investigation exciting. There are certain tenets, especially concerning moral and ethical issues which are ubiquitous, and then there are others which are specific to an author’s intended audience. Empedocles, for instance, is an author who develops a very particular and idiosyncratic religious views.

The Greeks often depicted their gods as having very human characteristics, yet they sought to ‘dehumanise’ themselves in order to be pure enough to enter a sacred precinct. How can we explain this contradiction?

Interesting question — we are not entirely sure that this necessarily amounts to a contradiction. Greek gods are indeed in many ways endowed with human characteristics, but this also means that humans can be understood as endowed with many divine traits. If we turn the tables on this issue, we can posit that, rather than being a process of dehumanization, the Greeks were encouraged to be as theomorphic as possible when seeking an auspicious encounter with the gods. Inner and outer purity, understood as a permission to engage with the divine, is intrinsically linked with the divine sphere – we are seeking to enter their realm, not the other way around. It’s an issue of both ethics and etiquette.

What was the link between purity regulations and social control? Was this more important in some periods than others?

In her path breaking anthropological study of purity, which appeared in the sixties, Mary Douglas posited that purity regulations are one of the tools of social control. She argued that pollution rules regulate behaviour and human interaction, and that they are as oppressive to special groups (such as women) as are their respective societies. One simple example of this oppression with regard to special groups is the polluting force of menstruation. In many cultures, including the Ancient Greek, menstruation is perceived as polluting. During and for some period after menstruation, Ancient Greek women were not allowed to enter the sanctuaries. In the rural areas of Nepal, menstruating women are perceived as not only polluted themselves, but dangerous and able to spread the pollution on the members of their community (even cattle and crops), so they have to leave their homes and stay in makeshift huts outside of their villages for one week each month. This ritual is called “Chhaupadi” – look it up! Menstruation is a natural phenomenon which affects 50% of human beings, and yet, even in the modern western culture, the color red is never shown on various demonstrations of sanitary pads and tampons in commercials. Clean and unclean have a long and complicated history, and some manifestations of this thinking still affect the world we inhabit today.

In addition, purity regulations operate in conjunction with other means of social control, such as the law. The dynamic nature of beliefs about purity and pollution can in some cases be mapped out on the basis of the ancient evidence: the phenomenon of homicide pollution is one example. One of the major problems in the study of homicide pollution in ancient Greece has been the fact that the pollution of the homicide and the fear of possible contagious effects for the whole community dominates the discourse in the Classical sources, but seems to wane in the fourth century BC. This change, as reflected in our sources, seems to indicate that the development of judicial system had an impact on homicide pollution beliefs. In the course of the development of the judicial procedure at Athens from the seventh until the fifth century BC, the issues of volition, intention, and motivation gain greater prominence, and the punishment for a homicide is brought into alignment with the motivation for the crime. In the Classical period, if not even earlier, the trials for intentional and unintentional, and for justifed and unjustifed, homicide become separated. The sentence for a homicide was no longer an automatic execution, nor was it an automatic and permanent exclusion from the ritual life of the community due to the fear of the homicide’s contagious miasma. The Athenian evidence supports Douglas’ claim that beliefs about pollution adapt to other systems of social control, since, just as for the punishment for the homicide, the levels of pollution by killing are adjusted according to the motivation for the crime: not every homicide carries pollution of the same type or intensity. As the law courts became more sophisticated and more effective in dealing with various forms of homicide, the perceived impact of homicide pollution decreased.

Purity regulations work hand-in-hand with other means of social control and this nexus seems to be a constant not only in Ancient Greek, but in many other societies, ancient and modern.

The ideas of purity and pollution occur commonly in anthropology. Can you tell us to what extent you have drawn on anthropological approaches? How useful is anthropology in illuminating ancient Greek culture?

In brief: extremely useful. Unlike in studies of ancient Judaism, where categories of inner purity and pollution have attracted significant scholarly attention, the concept of inner purity in Greek religion was largely side-lined or overwhelmingly ignored. The reason for this is that explorations of Greek purity beliefs are still dominated by the aforementioned ritualistic approach, historically encumbered by theological prejudices and mapped onto evolutionist paradigms. In the 17th century, for instance, the Calvinist Johannes Lomeier perceived ancient rituals of purification as evidence of Satan’s presence in the world, and drew parallels between “pagans” and Catholics; Jane Harrison, along with other famous Victorian “scientists of religion,” saw them as the primitive placation of ghosts conducted by “the savage,” while German scholars such as Theodor Wächter interpreted them as the placation of daemons. Insistence on the ritualistic character of purity beliefs was further perpetuated and ideologically invigorated by the great theorists of religion, from Émile Durkheim to René Girard and Walter Burkert who consistently associated purity practices with the primitive and the ritualistic.

It was under the influence of anthropology that the perception of Ancient Greek purity beliefs changed radically. In a paradigm-changing move, the anthropologist Mary Douglas argued in 1966 that purity beliefs in general are not a hallmark of primitive societies, but rather that they betray the existence of a system. This was a game-changer insofar as it dispelled the myth that Ancient Greek purity beliefs are archaic or primitive or merely folk superstitions. As we outline at the outset of our book, every serious study of Ancient Greek purity and pollution has to be rooted in the anthropological theories of purity. Mary Douglas’ pioneering cross-cultural structuralist study treats the ideas of pollution and purity as a system which operates in all societies, ancient and modern alike. Douglas’ major contribution to the field is her observation “Where there is dirt there is system”. Douglas was not only a great scholar of immense breadth, she had a unique gift of presenting complex ideas in elegant, memorable, and straightforward language. Of course, her book is not the last word on purity in anthropology, and many scholars have tackled the issue after her. We found Valerio Valeri’s work particularly useful. Valeri objects to Douglas’ referring to ‘a system’ and insists that there are many coexisting orders of classification, and, as a consequence, many synchronic systems of purity operating alongside each other. Our discussion of inner purity and pollution is indebted to anthropological theories insofar as it is rooted in the premise that miasma in Greek religion should be mapped out on both diachronic and synchronic axes: diachronic, because it is subject to change, adaptation, and ongoing negotiation with other systems of social control; synchronic, because there are many subsystems operating simultaneously in any given society.

Coming to Aeschylus, the importance of purity and pollution in the Oresteia is fairly obvious. But would you say that scholars have in the past under-estimated what weight that would have had for Aeschylus? Would you say your line of thinking has led you to new interpretations of the leading characters in the Oresteia? (Perhaps you could give just one or two examples.) And perhaps you would want to bring out points about one or more of the other authors you discuss.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia is a work of immense complexity and our discussion of inner purity and pollution in this trilogy would not have been possible without Froma Zeitlin’s and Richard Seaford’s work on the corrupted rituals in Greek tragedy, Simon Goldhill’s work on its language and meaning, Robert Parker’s research on Athenian rituals, and pollution specifically, Ruth Padel’s on madness in tragedy — to name just a select few. We also benefited from the recent thinking about Athenian legal history. There are many issues of interest in this rich work, and we have chosen to focus on inner purity and pollution, but pollution looms large over Aeschylus’ tragedies, and this motif has been discussed before. What we bring to the table, so to say, is a specific focus on the inner pollution. We believe that our chapter on the Oresteia throws more light on Agamemnon’s character, since we argue that he is culpable for the sacrifice of Iphigenia and that he has polluted his own mind and made it impious and unholy when he decided to sacrifice his daughter. Starting with Agamemnon, each main character in the trilogy is affected by inner pollution: Clytaemestra’s and Orestes’ mental pollution manifests itself as madness, which affects each immediately after the murderous act. We think that our focus on the inner pollution throws more light on the divine dissent over Orestes’ state (the Erinyes see him as polluted forever, whereas Apollo, who ordered him to murder his mother, and thus bears the responsibility for the deed, perceives him as pure, even though Orestes spilled his mother’s blood.)

In addition, we think that this trilogy represents mental pollution as a concept which changes over time. Aeschylus essentially invited the Athenian audience to reflect on the nature and varying degrees of mental pollution and on the consequences of the changes of their judicial system, changes which were still ongoing at the time and had an impact on his audience’s lives. Even though the myth is temporally set in distant past, it deals with the most pertinent Athenian problems of Aeschylus’ time.

You hope that your book will attract general readers, and you have taken trouble to make the book accessible, with short summaries of your argument, and translations of Greek throughout. How, in a few words, would you attract new readers from outside the field of specialists in Greek? Might there be any difference in this respect between your volume 1 and volume 2?

We have presented some aspects of Volume 1 at interdisciplinary conferences, and found that the theologians and colleagues from Jewish studies were very interested in our research on inner purity. We think that volume two will be even more attractive for those interested in theology, philosophy, history of religion, Ancient Judaism and Egyptologists.

In the last couple of years, we presented several papers on the wider issue of Greek belief to general audiences, and they were very interested to learn about the new perspectives on Greek religion, which we, alongside Tom Harrison, Henk Versnel, Julia Kindt, and recently also Robert Parker, argue was not merely ritualist. In our book, we discuss some of the most fascinating Greek texts in an accessible way, eschewing jargon and providing the explanations for all Greek terms. We will adopt the same method for the second volume. We do this in the firm conviction that Ancient Greek literature and religion remains an object of fascination for non-specialists, too. We think that the general readers deserve to be informed about the new readings of old texts in an accessible, but not condescending fashion.

Can you tell us a little about the next volume? What will it focus on, and when will it be published?

In the first volume, we have restricted our scope to literary sources before Plato. We drew the line with Plato since in the fourth century BC the nature of the evidence changes dramatically, due mainly to three factors. Firstly, inner purity becomes increasingly attested in epigraphically transmitted sacred regulations (we provide an overview of this material in the conclusion of volume 1). Secondly, Plato’s philosophical redefinition of purity provided a watershed in the philosophical and theological purity-discourse. From the mid-fourth century BC onwards we can observe the increasing influence of Plato’s thought on philosophical articulations of inner purity: The entire philosophical tradition from Theophrastus to Porphyry and Iamblichus calibrates its positions in relation to Plato’s views, and this extends also to Christian polemics (e.g. Clement of Alexandria). Thirdly, as geographical horizons expand and cultural contacts intensify from the Hellenistic period onwards, the Greek evidence for inner purity reflects increasing interactions with other Mediterranean religions, in particular Egyptian and Jewish. Often, we can detect the simultaneous working of these three factors. Volume 2 provides a series of three interlinked in-depth studies. The first focuses on the inscriptional cultic evidence concerning inner purity and pollution; the second on the philosophical critique of contemporary cult practices, and the third on the place of Greek concepts within the larger framework of ancient Mediterranean.

This volume outlines the connections between the inscriptional and the philosophical / theological discourses by exploring their points of convergence and divergence in order to reflect on the place of inner purity within lived Greek religion. Secondly, we aim to address a key problem in scholarship on ancient purity beliefs, namely the issue of the dynamics of exchange and cross-fertilization of purity beliefs within a wider Mediterranean religious and cultural context. Volume 2 continues to reclaim the notion of “belief” for the study of Greek religion, and places Greek beliefs regarding inner purity and pollution in their wider Mediterranean context, while revealing the multicultural and dynamic nature of these religious categories.

While completing the final manuscript for volume 1 and working on volume 2, we have changed continents and have taken professorships at University of Virginia. We arrived to Charlottesville in August, and five days after our arrival, the final proofs of the manuscript materialized in our new mailboxes! Two days after the proofs, our furniture finally arrived. We were simultaneously starting a teaching year in a new system, proofreading, battling jet-lag, and moving house. This summer we shall return to the manuscript of volume 2 and hope to be able to publish it in a couple of years.



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