Versnel discusses Greek history
The idea that Greeks in the Hellenistic era treated their living rulers as gods is somewhat troubling to modern day scholars when viewed through the traditional lens of absolutism. Were the rulers megalomaniacs? Were they just insane? For these scholars, the Hellenistic period is far too speckled with rulers that portrayed themselves as deities to concede that they were all simply loonies.
Henk Versnel, Professor of ancient history at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, addressed this complex topic in his lecture, "Worshiping Humans, Playing the Gods: The Phenomenon of Ruler-Cults in Antiquity" on Thursday night. Versnel tried to lend his audience a new lens to provide insight into Hellenistic era religious thought and to explain an era where men could become gods one moment and mortals who were confined by bodily needs the next.
Versnel noted that in the past, the fact "that Greeks could have deified human beings qualified the period as the vilest decay of religion." Scholars have difficulties reconciling the fact that in some ancient text, the deification of man is taken to be a risible affair while in other cases, it seems that this deification is meant to be taken as a serious aspect of religious practices. Therefore, scholars have tended to choose one view or the other-construing all available texts so as to make them fit in with their chosen viewpoint. Versnel, however, offered up the idea that the Greeks could, in fact, hold both viewpoints to be within the realm of possibility.
In such works as Aristophanes' The Birds, men trying to act as gods was indeed meant to be risible. On the other hand, the Hymn for Demetrios Poliorketes, a king of the Helenistic period, which was sung to Poliorketes and accompanied by incense and libations, was clearly meant to be taken quite seriously. How can both of these pieces of evidence be a true representation of Greeks' views of the deification of mortals? The answer is simple: "religion is in the mind it exists in the imagination" said Versnel.
The Greeks had a "lucid capacity" which allowed them "to deal simultaneously with two or more ways of regarding reality." Indeed, it was absurd in The Birds when the mortals portrayed themselves as gods in all aspects of lives-mortals obviously cannot be fed by incense and libation as gods can. However, it is fathomable that a king, whose power is so expansive and whose stature is so much greater than any of his subjects may, for a brief moment in history, take on the role of a god and, indeed, be fully comprehended as a god.
Furthermore, the Greeks themselves desired such role playing. For example, in the Hymn, it is noted that "other gods [gods made from wood or stone] are far away, or have no ears or don't exist or do not care about us," said Versnel. A ruler, however, is "present" and living and, despite playing the role of a god, can seem closer and more involved in the lives of pious worshippers than any statue can. The suspension of disbelief was, of course, a key element in the deification of kings in the Hellenistic era. But, after all, what aspect of the human belief system does not involve this process? "Whether belief can ever go beyond a belief at the moment is a question to consider," noted Versnel.
The holiness of a person or an object has nothing to do with physical parameters and everything to do with the parameters that the imagination lends that person or object at any given moment. It was not that the Greeks were confused about whether their rulers were Gods or mortals, they simply had the creative capacity to hold both definitions in their minds at once.
Versnel's lecture was part of the Stahl lecture series at Bowdoin College.