Classics Ambassador from Runshaw College, Leo Riley, gives a review of Professor Michael Scott’s Presidential Lecture last Thursday evening:
Professor Scott took myself and 361 other keen listeners (a record-breaking audience!) on a journey through the intricacies of Greek religion – a journey which showed us that everything we thought we knew about Greek religion was in fact a lot more complicated (and comical) than we realised. This Presidential Lecture was something that everyone in the branch had been looking forward to since the start of the season, and it certainly did not disappoint on the night.
Right from the start, we were exposed to the idea of Greek religion as vastly expansive and chaotic. We learned that the 12 Olympian Gods were actually the 12 Interchangeable Gods, as even the Greeks themselves didn’t have a set order for who was part of this elite group. And if that wasn’t confusing enough, there seemed to be no issue with adding to this long list of gods whenever it was deemed necessary: but be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking these new gods would bring uniformity – the Greeks struggled to even agree on these!
Step one of rewriting our ideas of an organised and well-thought out system of Greek religion, complete.
Visitors to healing sanctuaries such as Epidauros would often leave votive sculptures of their cured body parts at the sites, working to both thank Asclepius – and occasionally his daughter, Hygeia – and legitimise these relatively new healing cults for other visitors to the sanctuaries.
Step two – finding out that even the Greeks themselves may not have believed the stories we find fantastical today.
Using sources such as Euripides’ quote ‘the best seer is the one that guesses right’, Professor Scott showed us that it is not just the modern perspective that makes certain aspects of Greek religion seem too far-fetched. However, this was achieved in such a way as to show that this disbelief and blasé attitude towards the gods’ worship did nothing to detract from their importance to the Greeks. This not only provided us with the evidence that – actually – the Greeks were selective with their beliefs, but also reiterated why this is such an interesting and important topic for classicists at all levels to explore.
Step three – whilst most animals may have supernatural abilities, fish are just plain dumb!
Now whilst this may not have been the main premise of Professor Scott’s argument, it was certainly one of the most memorable quotes of the evening, leaving many of us asking ‘Just what exactly did Plutarch have against fish?’. This is also important to mention as it highlights how Professor Scott shared large quantities of knowledge with the audience through entertaining and well-selected anecdotal evidence. Whether this be with the story of the bitter Melissa and Periander, whose first thought upon losing something was to consult his dead wife, or the slightly concerning curse of a jilted lover at the end of the evening, this lecture definitely gave people something to talk about during the car ride home.
Curse tablets were used by the Ancient Greeks as a way of getting revenge on people who had upset them, both their enemies and the objects of unrequited love. The main thing that had to be remembered when writing one such tablet was not to include your own name – just in case the curse came back to bite you!
Finally, we explored the effects of religion on ancient individuals in times of stress. Whether this be through ideas of miasma and pollution, which acted as a guide through times such as births and deaths when people may have found the world hard to navigate and so turned to religion for comfort; through the workshop on how to curse your enemies when they upset you; or through tales of funeral processions so extravagant that they inspired laws limiting just how much the women mourning you could tear at their faces, this lecture showed us how Greek religion impacted the lives of the ancient Greeks during some of their most difficult – and joyous – times.
These funerary vases would be filled with expensive scented olive oil before being placed in the tombs of the recently deceased. Wealthier Greeks often had larger vases to show off their status, but modern x-ray technology has revealed that these would often contain smaller trick vases which would be filled with the oil. This gave the impression that the whole lekythos was full, suggesting that what your competitors saw was sometimes more important than what the gods saw.
Overall, Walking with the Gods was an insightful and highly entertaining lecture on the way Greek religion worked and how it impacted the lives of ordinary people in the ancient world. I’m sure I can speak for the audience when I say that this lecture lived up to the high standards expected from our President, and that from now on we will always be suspicious of fish! [©LeoRiley]
Many thanks to Professor Scott for his ongoing-support and inspiring enthusiasm (you can see him and LSA CA chair Katrina Kelly chatting about a range of classical topics on his youtube channel) as well as to all who attended the lecture, volunteered their time, and joined the celebratory meal at Tiggi’s Restaurant afterwards. It was a fantastic way to start 2020 and we look forward to more fascinating lectures and enjoyable evenings in our #classicscommunity throughout the rest of the year!