There lay the elaborately wrought robes, the work of Sidonian
This passage from Homer’s Iliad is interesting to think about what the purpose and nature of Greek religion actually is. I came across the passage today while looking through texts that might hint at the emotionality of weaving Athena’s peplos (I will post more on the peplos another time). Given the women who dedicate the robe in the passage are not the weavers it wasn’t very much use for that, but what it did make me think about was the connection between people and gods in early Greece.
Basically, what’s happening here is that a group of Trojan women, led by Athena’s priestess* Theano, are dedicating a robe to Athena. They didn’t weave the robe themselves, but Paris (here Alexandros) brought it back with him when he returned with Helen, and a group of women from Sidon (the presumed weavers of the robe). Theano and the Trojans lay the robe across Athena’s lap and they prayed for the destruction of Diomedes. But… Athena wasn’t really having it, so she denied their request.
Relationships with the gods were multidirectional, in that they were meant to be beneficial in every direction (god-individual-family-community), and offerings and dedications played a large part in that benefit (after all, beyond ‘existence’ what really are the gods getting out of this arrangement if not dedications, offerings, and veneration?!?). But, this isn’t a system of direct and immediate benefit (you give me x, I’ll give you y, and we’re square). Athena had already (in book 5) given Diomedes advice and assistance, so we know that she’s inclined towards him (although presumably the Trojans don’t know this, otherwise they might have skipped to the next god on the list).
The kinds of relationships that are built up are, instead, like the relationships you might form with any other (mortal) person: I’ll do a favour for you now, and you might do one for me later. That’s the point of ongoing worship for the gods, to build up goodwill so that when you do come and say ‘If you get Diomedes out of the way then we’ll give you a dozen cows, and to show we mean business have this robe’ then the god(dess) gets Diomedes out of the way. But, this passage from Homer goes to show that doesn’t always work. In that way, Greek religion is much like modern life – sometimes you do everything right and you still don’t make it out on top. It doesn’t mean you stop trying, you just move on to the next thing.
*The idea of ‘the priest’ or ‘the priestess’ is a bit moot in early Greece – priest- and priestess-hoods belonged to a particular divinity or cult and (in most cases) they had no authority or official participation in the cults of other gods.
Edited: because in my over-excitement I gave the Trojans a bit too much insight into the workings of the gods... Sorry Trojans and thanks Niels for pointing this out!
I'm happy to say that my pilot project is getting some wings! I'll be presenting some of it next month at the Athena: Sharing Current Research conference at Roehampton on June 3rd. You can book here to attend the whole day, and see a list of speakers here.
The abstract for my paper is below, if you have any thoughts, comments, or interesting connections please do leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter.
Weaving Athena: An object-focused study of girls and women approaching Athena as a poliadic deity
This paper will present an ethnographic study of the lives of the girls and women who were involved in the annual adornment of Athena Polias at the Panathenaia. This will include both those who wove the peplos and members of the wider Athenian community who participated in the festival. Therefore, this study will include the young arrhephoroi, the Ergastinai (‘weavers’) who were maidens of marriageable age, the Priestess of Athena Polias, and the Athenian and metic girls who participated in the procession – in other words, a representation of every female belonging to the Athenian population. Through this study, I will discuss what the physical act of worship (the production of a specific object and the act of processing) can tell us about how individuals approached Athena as the goddess of their city, and how this was expressed specifically for women and girls. This study will articulate the specific influence that Athena had, both as a ‘female god’ and a poliadic divinity, in the lives of the individual females who were involved in her worship. Thus, it will comment on Athena as a living goddess to her worshipers.
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