Monday, April 30, 2007

Xenophanes and the hero

How much did the early Greek philosophers react to social and cultural changes in Greece at the time they were writing? Can we use the evidence of early Greek philosophy to shed light in turn on what those changes may have been? I am tempted to think sometimes we can, and have been mulling over an possible example.

There is a story told twice by Aristotle and three times by Plutarch that Xenophanes insisted that different attitudes should be adopted towards dead mortals and gods. The citizens of some city come to Xenophanes and ask how they should treat a particularly revered citizen, now thought to have somehow become immortal. Xenophanes replies that they must decide finally whether the person in question is a mortal or a god. If the former, she should be mourned but, if the latter, she should be honoured (DK 21 A12, 13).

Xenophanes‘ other well-known philosophical output is equally concerned with delineating the correct set of differences between gods and men. Xenophanes insists, famously, that god should not the thought of as anthropomorphic (though god does see and hear, for example) and that we should not attribute to the gods the sorts of unsavoury behaviour found in, for example, the Homeric poems and which is also indulged in by mortals.

Presumably, the problem of the distinction between gods and men is compounded by the regular practice in Greek religion of honouring a mortal who was later made into a god (as was Leucothea, about whose cult the Eleans question Xenophanes in Aristot. Rhet. 1400b5ff. (DK21 A13)). And I wonder if it might be in response to a prevalence of this kind of practice that Xenophanes’ general concern might best be viewed. From what I can tell, worship of ‘heroic’ ancestors (well, perceived ancestors) was going on in Greece from the middle of the eighth-century BC, often centred around Bronze Age tombs. That’s well before Xenophanes’ time, so it is not as if Xenophanes is reacting to anything new in general terms. However, the idea that this is all a long-standing practice might have to be qualified. It is possible that the identification of these ‘heroes’ with particular Homeric characters may have been a later innovation, perhaps even as late as the late Archaic/ Classical period: much closer to Xenophanes. So perhaps this is what prompted his particular interest in the worship of certain named 'heroised' individuals.

It is plausible to relate some of this emergent behaviour to the gradual expression of distinct polis identities, which involved looking back to a presumed ancestor and the institution of shared religious practices [1]. So even if the target of his criticism is not a relatively new religious turn, Xenophanes may have felt that the entire, albeit longstanding, practice was misguided enough to launch a concerted assault on it, along with various other usual treatments of the divine. If that’s along the right lines, then it seems that it would certainly be incorrect to think of Xenophanes as a religious conservative, since in his poetry he is taking on a set of generally agreed and long-standing practices and conceptions with strong political and cultural roots.

[1] See A. Snodgrass, ‘The archaeology of the hero’, reprinted in R. Buxton (ed.) Oxford Readings in Greek Religion (OUP, 2000)

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