I am currently reading 'Coping With the Gods - Religions in the Graeco-Roman World' by Henk Versnel. It's a book published in 2012 which 'investigates how ancient Greeks could validate the complementarity of dissonant, if not contradictory, representations in e.g. polytheism, theodicy, divine omnipotence and ruler cult'. It's fascinating reading, and I wanted to share with you a bit from the start of the book, about polytheism and the foundation of its divine framework.

Versnel starts his book by investigating polytheism, putting forth two seemingly opposite viewpoints as represented by Walter Burkert and Jean-Pierre Vernant, both acclaimed scholars of the ancient Graeco-Roman world. All students of Greek religion, he says, stand in debt of at least one of these two protagonists, many of both. This is true, I think. Burkert was included in the first few books I ever read on the subject, and Vernant stands proudly on my bookshelf to this day.

These two scholars have differing views on a very important topic: is a pantheon of Gods founded in chaos or--what Versnel calls--kosmos, and can you define a God from a pantheon separately from it? Burkert states that:

"[A] polytheistic world of gods is nevertheless potentially chaotic, and not only for the outsider. The distinctive personality of a god is constituted and mediated by at least four different factors: the established local cult with its ritual programme and unique atmosphere, the divine name, the myths told about the named being, and the iconography, especially the cult image. All the same, this complex is easily dissolved, and this makes it quite impossible to write the history of any single god."

Vernant views a God quite differently:

"A god is a power that represents a type of action, a kind of force. Within the framework of a pantheon, each of these powers is defined not in itself as an isolated object but by virtue of its relative position in the aggregate of forces, by the structure of relations that oppose and unite it to the other powers that constitute the divine universe. The law of this society of the beyond is the strict demarcation of the forces and their hierarchical counterbalancing. This excludes the categories of omnipotence, omniscience and of infinite power.

Versnel concludes from this the following:

"Significantly, the only conviction which the two scholars do share, namely the idea that it is impossible to adequately define one single god in isolation from others, precisely reveals the gulf by which they are separated. Vernant explains this aporia by his conviction that no god exists (hence: can be described) in isolation from other gods. Together the gods construct, as we have seen, “the polytheistic system as a rigorously logical ensemble, designed for the purpose of classifying divine capacities and powers.” Burkert, in his definition, avoids these terms, and gives a radically different reason for his inability of fully describing one god in isolation: each god as an individual is defined by a number of characteristics, dependent on variations in time and place. These characteristics, however, are variables associated in untransparent and seemingly arbitrary shifts with a great number of other gods. While for Vernant the coexistence and relationships of gods are the conditio sine qua non for an individuation of each god, for Burkert the very same pluralist variety of gods and their transformations constitute the germs of the potentially chaotic nature of Greek polytheism."

So, how do you define a God if you try to define Them without the boundaries placed upon Them by Their pantheon? How does a single God influence the foundation of the entire pantheon? And, if it is impossible to define a single God without referring to their pantheon, does that lessen Their power? Burkert finds that the domains of Gods bleed together in such a way that the boundaries between the Gods shift, lessening their individuality and--in a way--their power. Because these domains overlap so much--many Gods boast healing powers, many Gods watch over sailors, many Gods guard the home, etc.--a single God needs the other Gods to fully blossom and define themself. Because these domains shift and bleed so much, an entire pantheon is at risk of falling into chaos.

Vernant views this differently, saying that the way the domains of the Gods bleed and mix is exactly what binds the Gods together into a whole. It's not chaos but kosmos: a universe created by interlinkage in which all the Gods rely on each other to form a cohesive whole. As Versnel says, when we ask whether the Greek pantheon was chaos or kosmos, this does not mean that the two terms should be necessarily conceived in Vernantian or Burkertian terms. What it means is that it is important to keep these two viewpoints in mind when studying the ancient Hellenic religion and the people who practiced it. These are two ways of looking at something that simply was--without explanation or guide. There is no indication that the ancient Hellenes thought of their belief system as either chaotic or kosmologic. It's modern reasoning applied to ancient practices--but as such, it does matter.

To get back to those questions posed two paragraphs up, I don't think you can adequately define a God without referring to their pantheon. I can tell you that Athena is perceived as female, that she represents thought before action, that she is a virgin Goddess, and that she is associated with Athens. What I can't tell you is why. Without being allowed to refer to the framework in which She resides, I cannot explain to you who her mother and father are, and why that matters to her dominion over intelligent thought. Without referring to Hēphaistos, I cannot tell you how I know she is one of the virgin Goddesses. Without mentioning Poseidon, I can't tell you why She is associated with Athens. Her relationship to people, Gods, and places in mythology--as well as (local) cult worship--are what makes Athena the Goddess that She is. So if I were to take her outside of this framework, I feel She would, indeed, lose much of her power. In this way, a single God defines an entire pantheon, because everything is connected. Take one God out of it, and--as Burkert says--the entire pantheon would fall to chaos. As Vernant illustrates, though, you simply can't take a single God out of the pantheon, and as such, these is no chaos--just kosmos.

Polytheism is the belief in many Gods. Those who reconstruct the religious views of an ancient culture often do so with a single pantheon in mind--a single framework in which they operate and worship. This is why Reconstructionist need to worship the pantheon as a whole: you simply can't worship one God, or three, or eight: all Gods need every other single God in the pantheon to fully blossom and come into Their power. Burkert and Vernant are right in saying that these forces work together, and while Burkert's dissonant may not hold true in an established pantheon, it most certainly can in household worship. I'll end this post with a quote by Versnel, who states the following about the ancient Hellenes, and which is good advice for every modern practicioner of Hellenismos:

"Greeks (that is: some Greeks) pushed frontiers in their quest for consistency, coherence, unity, rationality, order. The Greeks never lost an awareness of living in a dissonant, pluralistic, diverse reality. One specific feature of Greek culture, as opposed to our modern culture, is that it displays an unmatched capacity to unashamedly juxtapose the two, tolerating glaring contradictions and flashing alternations."