Religious experience in literary texts

As has been made clear in the preceding section, the individual religious practice to be recovered through the perspective of lived ancient religion -with its focus on individual appropriation of tradition, personal experiences and responses, the incoherencies of situational interpretation, isolated performances, and local and group-specific styles - depends upon the intellectual as well as the embodied availability of ‘traditions’ and their situational salience. Such traditions embrace complex belief systems as well as simple sequences of ritual action. ‘Learning’ and ‘memory’ are involved in processes of individual appropriation. These terms refer to processes of acquiring knowledge by formal training or constant repetition, by casual exchange and need-driven inquiry.2

What, for instance, is the role of those texts that have been used for centuries as the principal sources for the reconstruction of ‘Roman religion’? These became available from the last century все onwards for the small minority of Romans who could read and who had access to private copies or to the first public libraries, or to those who could afford to spend time at or who were invited to recitations. These texts have rightly come to be regarded as theological enterprises in their own rights, establishing their authors as figures who are as religio-historically important as are holders of public priesthoods.3 But how can their reception be approached, given the almost total lack of testimonies on reader or listener responses (with the exception of Cicero as a reader of Varro, Cic. acad. post. 8-9)?

Lived religion can at least be glimpsed through studies of the ‘implicit’ or ‘implied reader’ (Iser 1994, 62-6). Apart from the possibly different voices of explicit (i.e. narrated) or implicit narrators, the text might offer figures within the plot as a plurality of variant models of reception, so-called narrated readers (or hearers). The text might also construe an ‘intended reader’ as somebody of a certain age, gender, social identity, or intellectual interest. This would usually be an ‘ideal reader’ possessed of all the competences required to fully grasp the text. Fortunately, literary communication in antiquity, religious communication included, was much more tightly bound to established social relationships than are literary texts of the late early modern and modern periods (Habinek 1998, in particular 103-21). This is due to the limited spread of literacy, which was concentrated in the upper echelons of society, and was reinforced by the need to manually copy books, an inherently expensive business. Distribution usually relied on friends (and friends of friends) rather than on the very limited commercial book market. The reader is implicitly addressed, but also frequently appears as a narrated figure, and is, thus, a densely ‘connected reader’ from a social perspective. To the extent that the author has some insights into the appropriation of religion by contemporaries, the surviving text can give us some clues about these religious agents. According to such an analysis, Ovid's Libri fastorum, a compendium of information about Roman festivals, is neither a document for a complex but fixed ritual system (as the text has usually been interpreted) nor the documentation of some individual reflection on such a system (as the text has been interpreted recently; for details, see Rupke 2015).

Ovid does not presuppose a reader who is interested in ritual details for the sake of active participation or highly specific observation. Instead, he construes a reader who is, above all. interested in the why and the whence. Of course, these are questions that are welcome to the narrator as they offer opportunities for storytelling. But even if the answers occasionally remain inconclusive or conflicting, the reader is supposed to regard such etymological or historical knowledge as something that can be learned and remembered. Interest is in visible religion. He or she is made aware of temples and statues and temples without statues, and of the ritual use of otherwise undistinguished space. Religion, gods, and temples, and the character of days of the calendar are quite often shown to be the outcome of historical contingencies and decisions. The narrator is interested in recent changes and the latest renovation of a temple rather than in a complete chronology. Clearly, religion is presented as a field of creative action for members of the political elite, and for the emperor in particular. And yet the reader’s interest is also in domestic and local cult, as is shown by Ovid’s expanding on such themes, even if neither annotations in the text of the fasti nor public architecture point to the existence of such local cults.

Participation in all these events was optional. A specific cult was an opportunity, only occasionally a duty, for a specific social, gender, or age group. The reader is supposed to learn these specifics, and he or she is at most indirectly admonished to join in, but never without being supplied with information that could serve as arguments. The most forceful exhortations concern not highly specific cult practices but events that involve many groups, if not everybody: even animals in the case of the Sowing Holidays (Feriae Sementivae), even slaves in the case of Fors Fortuna. In all these instances, it is most important for the audience to have a clear understanding of the emotional tone of the cult. This holds true for the organizers of the cult as well as for any participant. In the end, the reader is an informed and sympathetic observer or bystander, embedded in a structured society but free to exercise his or her own choices knowing the limits of individual innovation as well as the appropriate affective regulation or deregulation when participating in traditional cult activities.