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dr. S. (Saskia) Peels-Matthey

Assistant Professor (UD1)
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Understanding Ancient Greek gods as ‘networks of meaning’

I am in the final stages of an NWO Veni project called Polytheism as Language, which combines classics and ancient history, and uses insights from cognitive studies and linguistics to tackle the difficult question of the way in which Greek worshippers understand their gods. Ancient Greek gods are notoriously difficult to grasp. All major gods have a variety of roles or domains and epithets, and not always in logical combinations; moreover, these domains overlap between gods. These characteristics of Greek religion make it difficult to pinpoint specific identities of individual gods. Despite a wealth of studies on the topic, these aspects of Greek polytheism remain poorly understood. My starting point is the idea that worshippers’ knowledge of gods is centered on gods’ names (in other words, the name of a god is an anchor for worshippers’ knowledge about this god). Seeing knowledge of gods as lexical knowledge, I then use studies on the mental lexicon as an inspiration. Some cognitive linguistic approaches to lexical semantics hold that the meaning of a word stored in the mental lexicon of an individual is a structured inventory of concrete usages of a lexeme: a network of related usages of this word encountered by any individual. The model elucidates how one word can have a wide variety of usages, and how these usages relate to one another. In particular, individual usages in a lexical network are linked through one or more semantic characteristics, shared by two or more members of the network at the time, or through systematic meaning relationships. In my project, I explain how we can see worshippers’ knowledge of gods as networks of meaning. Continuing this project in the context of Anchoring Innovation, I focus on diachronic changes in the character traits, the domains, roles or attributes of gods and how they are ‘anchored’, and the agency of poets in bringing out such change, or, at least, making it understandable. In September 2023, I am organizing an international conference on this topic together with Michael Kerschner, called The Many Faces of Artemis (6-9 September, 2023 in Groningen) where we will address these questions, but focused on the goddess Artemis.

Collection of Greek Ritual Norms Project

Together with Jan-Mathieu Carbon and Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, I am editor of the Collection of Greek Ritual Norms project, an open-access digital humanities project, available on This is a database of (for now) 250 Greek inscriptions that concern the norms of religious rituals, texts that have been traditionally referred to as leges sacrae. The CGRN opens up this group of epigraphical texts to scholars as well as a larger audience. Each inscription is presented with two translations, crucial bibliographical references, and accessible commentaries, and the online database also features many search possibilities. We will keep on adding inscriptions to the Collection to eventually, hopefully, cover all relevant inscriptions in Sokolowski’s collection and the other ritual norms in Greek epigraphy. I am particularly interested in the why and how of religious innovations in rituals. Ritual norms are often dynamic. For example, new cults are instituted and existing cults are revised or enhanced. At the same time, tradition and conservativeness are highly valued in the religious domain. In this context, I study linguistic strategies through which ritual innovations are anchored in tradition.

The semantics of ancient Greek religion

In my monograph Hosios: A Semantic Study of Greek Piety (Brill, 2016), I promoted a new linguistic methodology for studying the semantics of ancient value terms. The book ‘elucidates the semantics of the Ancient Greek adjective hosios and its cognates. Traditionally rendered as 'piety', hosios was a key notion in Classical Greek religion and reflected a core value in Athenian democracy. Since antiquity, its meaning and usage have puzzled many. [The book] sets out to resolve various scholarly debates on the semantics of hosios by focusing on the idea of lexical competition. It illuminates the semantic relationship between hosios and its near-synonyms eusebês and dikaios, and the connection to the notion of the “sacred”. Using insights from modern linguistic theory, the book also aims to improve methods for research into the lexical semantics of a dead language’ (text from publisher’s page). I expanded this method in subsequent publications on the meaning of religious words, notably the semantics of hagnos and themis (2018, 2020). Currently, I am working on another project on Greek terms that express a notion of ‘sacrality’ (such as hieros and hagios). I am one of the organizers of the bi-weekly Language of Greek Religion webinar (with Irene Polinskaya and Shaul Tor), in which we address linguistic questions related to the vocabulary of Greek religion.

Other research interests and PhD supervision

Together with computational linguist Malvina Nissim, I supervise a Phd student, Silvia Stopponi, who uses natural language processing tools, specifically, word embeddings, to study the meanings of Ancient Greek words, and how these meanings evolve through time. Silvia has developed a computational model to this end. In the context of this project, our research group has developed a benchmark, an independent standard to evaluate any new computational model. The group has also created, together with Evelien de Graaf and Jasper Bos, an automatic lemmatizer for Ancient Greek Inscriptions (called AGILe). We  support the development of this young research field through the organization of a series of Workshops in Groningen on Computational Approaches to Ancient Greek and Latin in 2021 and 2023, the next installment is planned in 2025.

Together with Jan Willem Bolderdijk, Tommaso Caselli and Gerry Wakker, I supervise PhD student, Greta Zella, who uses a combination of psychological approaches, insights from marketing research and computational linguistic methods, to study the role of language in inducing behavioral change, in the context of the current global climate crisis.

Together with Onno van Nijf, Silvia Orlandi and Francesco Camia, I supervise PhD student Valentina Vari, who works on Latin and bilingual inscriptions in the Roman province of Achaia.

I am one of the two founders of the OIKOS Platform Digital Classics. In the bi-annual meetings and workshops of this group, we focus on specific digital techniques, but we also address policy-related questions, for example on ways in which one can make one’s digital research output ‘count’ as publications. 

Together with Luuk Huitink I am leading the Work Package on Classical Athens of the Nederlands National Anchoring Innovation Program, as a Board Member of this research program.

Together with Felix Budelmann, I am organizing an interdisciplinary workshop (22-23 May 2024, Groningen) in which classicists, linguists, psychologists and artistic performers interact on the question of what people really understood of difficult poetic texts performed on stage (focused on 5th century tragedy).

Last modified:11 May 2023 4.20 p.m.