Project

NWO Veni Project: Polytheism as language (2018-2022)

Peels-Matthey, S.

Project: Research

Description

This project is about Ancient Greek polytheism. It concerns the questions of how worshippers perceived and understood their gods, offering a new linguistic approach to divine plurality in the religious experience of Greek worshippers.
The Ancient Greeks recognized and honoured a plurality of gods. Polytheism was one of the most defining features of Greek religion, but the workings of polytheism are at the same time difficult for us to understand. It is now generally accepted that a static view of Greek pantheons, in which individual divinities are studied in isolation and are reduced to ‘persons’ (juxtaposed to one another as ‘god of war’, ‘goddess of love, etc.) is inadequate. The major gods are all active in multiple spheres of activity. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the distinct identity of individual gods. Moreover, it raises the question to which god one should turn to receive help in a particular area of expertise. How did Ancient Greek worshippers see their gods and how did they know whom to address?
The present project opens a new path into understanding how polytheism works. ‘Understanding polytheism’ means getting a grasp on how a multiplicity of gods, each with their own (range of) epithets and roles, affected the lives of the Ancient Greeks. What kinds of mental representations did the Greeks have of their gods and their unity? And why did they sometimes turn to a particular god, and sometimes to another (or to the same deity with a different epithet)?
I propose analysing Greek polytheism by using the tools of conceptual/lexical semantics in the framework of Cognitive Linguistics. This framework offers a view of how knowledge is represented in the minds of language users. Using this approach, I take worshippers’ experiences of deities as lexical knowledge. This hypothesis is based on the dominant scholarly view in studies on Greek gods that theonyms (god-names) were the core of knowledge of deities. I will use the insights of this linguistic paradigm to understand how worshippers mentally represented a complex deity, who may have had an array of functions. I will also study competition between deities (why did a worshippers turn to a particular god?) as cases of lexical competition, by analysing contrasts between gods.
Two exemplary and complementary case studies were selected to validate the methodology from two different angles. The first concerns a field of activity: the domain of reproduction of life. I will study ‘competition’ between the large variety of divinities involved. The second case concentrates on Artemis, a deity who is particularly frequently associated with the birth and growth of children, but who is active in many other domains, too. I will analyse the complex representation of Artemis in the religious conceptions of her worshippers.
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