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Appropriating Images — Embodying Gods

In the introduction to this book, I outlined the concept of lived ancient religion. In its application to contemporary social analysis, the concept of lived religion does not address how individuals replicate within their biography a set of religious practices and beliefs already institutionalized by some “official religion”—or, conversely, opt out of adhering to tradition. Of course, given the relationship of individuals to tradition, such a definition of lived religion could, in principle, work for an ancient context that was religiously pluralistic, or in a mono- or oligo-confessional society. But because clearly distinct religions did not begin to be formed until late antiquity, as I have argued elsewhere,[1] the perspective of lived ancient religion focuses on the actual everyday experience, on practices, expressions, and interactions that relate to religion. As such, religion is understood as a spectrum of experiences, actions, beliefs, and communications hinging on human communication with superhuman or even transcendent agents, usually conceptualized as gods in the ancient Mediterranean.[2] Ritualiza- tion and elaborate forms of representation are employed for successful communication with these addressees.[3]

Of course, such practices are not entirely discretionary. For the purposes of historical research, the existence of religious norms, of exemplary official practices, and of control mechanisms and enforcement should be taken into account. It is precisely such institutions and norms that tend to predominate in the surviving evidence. In analyses of the interplay between the individual and tradition, the concept of “appropriation” plays a key role.[4] The specific forms of religion-as-lived are barely comprehensible in the absence of distinct modes of individual appropriation (to the point of radical asceticism and martyrdom), in the absence of cultural techniques (such as the reading and interpretation of mythical or philosophical texts, rituals, pilgrimages, and prayer), and in the absence of the various media employed in the representation of deities within and outside of sanctuaries.

The notion of agency implicit in the notion of appropriation (far more so than in that of “reception”) is not unproblematic, if one forgets about its structural dimension. Agency is an attribute ascribed to a subject within a context of structures, but these structures are themselves the product of (repeated or modified) individual acts.[5] With respect to the normativ- ity ascribed to teachings, traditions, practices, and narratives in the field of religion, the description of how ideas are adopted and the specifics of processes of reception are of particular importance. Cultural-theoretical and historical-anthropological accounts of appropriation often clash with the models found in religious symbolic systems where transcendent entities are acknowledged as norm-setting agents. Jupiter teaches Numa how to sacrifice in Roman tradition; Apollo is asked to give oracles on theological and ritual matters at Claros. It is this disjunct that leads me to a text wherein a god both formulates such norms and simultaneously illustrates their appropriation. Of course, it would be just as problematic to generalize an individual instance (hardly ever representative in a methodologically plausible way) as it would be to rely on elite descriptions of mass behavior—which is, of course, standard practice in the historical critique of sources. To make full use of the model of lived ancient religion, scattered evidence should be contextualized and interpreted by relating it to individual agents, their use of space and time, their formation of social coalitions, their negotiation with religious specialists or providers, and their attempts to make sense of religion in a situational manner and thus render religion effective.

First, however, I should add another preliminary observation, vital to our understanding of the claims and complaints of the god who speaks in the text: in many modern accounts of ancient gods they are accorded ontological priority, thus following a mode of thinking that is imputed to ancient agents. Representation of a god is, by this view, a secondary activity, albeit one that has become the subject of increasing academic inter- est.[6] According to a systemic view of ancient religion, the central concern of representation is similitude; for those interested in the cult pragmatics of lived ancient religion it raises different questions. Religious communication with the unseen must first medially construe their addressees and second hide their constructed character.[7] The religious actor must control the selected deity and emphasize its power and whimsy at the same time. Both tasks would be facilitated whenever the actor were able to refer to traditions of beliefs and canons of representation, but these would need to match the relevant situation, the availability of resources, the strategic aims of the agent, and all the other social and material constraints, in short, the extent and the limits of her or his agency.[8] Three-dimensional statues of gods held a special position within the media available to achieve these purposes. It is the form of a human or at least partly anthropomorphic body that gives a maximum of person-like qualities and individuality to the figure before the religious actor. It is to such statues and the practices associated with them that I will turn in the final part of this chapter.

  • [1] Rupke 2010b, 2015a.
  • [2] Rupke 2015b.
  • [3] See below, chapter 7.
  • [4] Certeau 2007; Ludtke 2009.
  • [5] I follow the notion of agency as developed by Emirbayer and Mische 1998. For such a relational view, see, e.g., Dcpelteau 2008. For a radical critique of agency, cf. S. Fuchs 2001.
  • [6] E.g., Stewart 2003; Mylonopoulos 2010; Rupke 2010c; Pirenne-Delforge and Prescendi2011.
  • [7] For this mechanism in sacrifice, see Belayche 2011; Naiden 2013.
  • [8] For the concept of agency, see Emirbayer and Mische 1998.
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