Polinskaya, Meaning of “Common” in Herodotus (London, February 11)

(Paper given at the Ancient History Seminar, London, February 11th, 2010. Brief report by Susan Fogarty.)

On the Meaning of “Common” in Herodotus 8.144: Shared Sanctuaries and the Gods of Others
Irene Polinskaya, King’s College London

“τὸ Ἑλλενικόν consists in being of the same blood and of the same language, in sharing sanctuaries and sacrifices of the gods, and in the sameness of customs”

While most scholars acknowledge τὸ Ἑλλενικόν as an idealised vision of Greekness, Dr. Polinskaya believes the religious element continues to be misread and challenges the standard interpretation of τὸ Ἑλλενικόν as proof of religious unity across the Greek world. She believes that κοινός and ὅμοιος do not convey the same meaning, and ignoring the distinction is ignoring Herodotus’ choice of words. There is a conceptual and mathematical difference between ‘same’ and ‘common’ and the architectural, textual and epigraphic evidence bears this out: there is no sameness, but there are common sanctuaries and sacrifices.

Exploring then the precise meaning of κοινός, Dr. Polinskaya highlights two possibilities: an abstract, non-specific commonness – a typological similarity, or a commonness in a concrete sense limited to specific Greeks under specific conditions. Citing Thucydides (1.25; 3.57.1) and Isocrates (Panegyricus 43) Dr. Polinskaya believes a pattern emerges of common prayers and sacrifices, at a common altar, at a specific occasion – a festival, or after proclaiming a truce. Epigraphic evidence also shows that κοινός was used only with a specific sanctuary, festival or ritual:

IG II2 4355 (Athens Acropolis) refers to Ἀσσκληπιῶι ἠδὲ ὁμοβώμοις; IG IX 12 2:583 (Elis, Olympia) refers to κοινοῦ γενομένου τοῦ ἱεροῦ τοῦ Ἀπόλλωνος τοῦ Ἀκτίου (ll.15-16) and κο[ινὸν] εἶμεν τὸ ἱερὸν πάντων τῶν Ἀκαρνάνων (ll 22-24). Only at Delphi is there a “common sanctuary of the Hellenes” (IG II2 680). Dr. Polinskaya believes Herodotus’ common sacrifices and altars refer only to Panhellenic shrines and settings which brought Greeks together in a joint religious action, but worshipping their own specific gods, and cites among others Pausanias (4.27.6): “when all was in readiness … the Thebans then sacrifices to Dionysus and Apollo Ismenius … the Argives to Argive Hera and Nemean Zeus, the Messenians to Zeus of Ithome and the Dioscuri and their priests to the Great Goddess and Caucon”. There were many different deities among the Greeks, not one common one.

For epigraphic evidence Dr. Polinskaya examines the potsherds found at the Hellenion at Naucratis, to which Herodotus refers at 2.178 as τὸ τέμενος, and asks if, as the name Hellenion was chosen, it was a sacred enclosure where Greeks worshipped as one undifferentiated group in a Panhellenic setting, on a par with Delphi. A table of 27 graffiti was provided, and while there are many examples of Ἑλλήνες and Θεοί (in both genitive and dative plurals) only 2 possibly have the words together on the same potsherd. Herodotus tells us that the Hellenion was limited to the use of the founding 9 members and no others: membership did not extend to all Greeks as a whole and was common only to those involved in its foundation. Therefore the Hellenes of the graffiti is possibly an umbrella term referring to the Hellenes of the Hellenion, indicating ownership of the property of the Hellenes and is not necessarily a dedicatory formula.

The second half of this talk focussed on how the Greeks looked upon religious deities that were not their own, or shared. Dr. Polinskaya restated her belief that ‘common gods’/’same gods’/ ‘Greek gods’/gods of the Greeks’ are not commonly Greek and cites examples such as Herodotus 5.92-93 where Socles calls upon the Greek gods when urging Hippias not to invade, and Hippias in response calls upon the same gods to support him in his takeover. This leads to the question of value and respect of other Greek gods and the speaker believed this to be tied up with ownership. Gods were tied to specific regions and entering the land of other Greek states also meant entering the land of other Greek gods. In Thucydides 2.74 the Spartans apologised to the local gods of Plataea before invading, explained why, and expressed hope for aid from them. These were not Spartan gods and yet they felt entitled to address them as potentially their own gods. The stealing, cooptation and transfer of deities, relics and cult images is also a sign of how Greeks evaluated other cults – they were valuable in the sense that they belonged to another state and were therefore desirable: Herodotus 5.82-86 tells of the Aeginetans theft of statues of goddesses from Epidauros – they are stolen, but when they are on Aegina they are given due respect and ritual worship.

This interesting paper opened up a lively discussion and yet again in this series of talks, the use of inscriptions to discuss topics of historical interest is shown to greatly enhance our interpretations and/or allow for new interpretations of long standing points of view.

This entry was posted in report. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.