Religious Communication

The mechanisms analyzed in the previous chapters (exercise and delimitation of choice, individual appropriation of tradition, use of images, and the interplay of discourse and action) are not exclusive to religion and religious ritual; they can also be found in other areas of cultural practice. What I take to be specific for religion in antiquity (as I describe it) is a form of communication that extends beyond the interchange of authors and readers. It is a communication that refers to or directly addresses agents who are frequently, but not inevitably, personalized and who are not within the circle of those who are unquestionably present or relevant to a given situation. These were superhuman agents, or perhaps formerly alive but now dead human agents. The human actor who introduced such agents and chose this mode of action, enlarged her or his own agency, either by forging an alliance with the divine or by reducing the agency of other human actors as a result of the superior capacities of the god(s) in determining a course of events. Such action, however, bears a social risk, as others might deny the relevance of the specific divine agent, or even of any divine agency. It is exactly the uncertainty about whether a not unquestionably plausible agent is introduced that accounts for the potential as well as powerlessness of religion. Such action also bears a religious risk, as the divine agent might not attend to the human address. Again, it is the uncertain outcome of this move that makes it seem either dangerous and potentially powerful or simply futile.[1] As in all human communication, the human initiator is obliged to make his or her addressee aware of the communication and to signal to and persuade the addressee of the relevancy of the communicative effort and message.[2] Religious communication, thus, is not concerned with correctness; rather, it is concerned with success and how to achieve it. It is the individual who is obliged to identify the most successful way to make the gods (to use a standard example) aware of the communicative intention and to make the contents of this communication (the message) relevant and, hence, hopefully successful. Additionally, the individual is responsible for making others—allies, enemies, or mere bystanders—aware that this is happening and might be successful. Originality might be a conspicuous way to make this plausible, but repeating methods that had proven successful in the past, in other words, falling back on shared cultural knowledge, on traditions, would surely be even better. In relation to the gods, it is not the isolated individual, but the individual in society, that is the subject of lived religion, even if companionship with the gods is chosen over human fellowship. It is this modeling that helps us understand the mechanism of a ritual practice that is both highly individual and, at the same time, merely an instance of mass production and seemingly uniform religiosity: vows and dedications.

Why do we speak of vows and dedications? Of course, these are the practices found in our sources: a human being was in need, he or she uttered a wish to a deity, promised something if help or relief were given, the situation improved, and thanks were gratefully given to the god. Ancient theoreticians conceive of this process in juridical terms: after the promise, the vower is voti reus, “accused with regard to the vow,” that is, under obligation to it, and after fulfillment on the part of the god, even voti dam- natus, “penalized by the vow.”[3] Fulfillment on the part of the human is expressed as votum solvere, “to discharge the vow,” and v(otum) s(olvit) l(ubens) m(erito), “s/he discharged the vow with pleasure as the god had earned it,” is a formula that accompanied the resulting dedications. Dedications were also juridical actions: the very word dedico denotes a transfer of property, from the individual’s estate to that of the god. Georg Wissowa, in the chapter of his handbook Religion und Kultus der Romer titled “The Fundamentals of Sacred Law,”[4] took pains to differentiate between this sort of private dedication and the transfer of public property to the gods to which he—in accordance with credible sources—ascribed the quality of consecratio. Now, all these distinctions function on the basis of the actors’ knowledge about the gods and their property rights. But from where did they obtain this knowledge? Obviously not from religious instruction in school,[5] but rather from observing the procedures of others, for example, from reading tituli (the inscriptions affixed to dedicated objects). Perhaps a term like local “microtradition” might better characterize these procedures and serve to avoid the interpretive distortions that result from tallying instances of certain formulas and practices as if they were mutually independent. The distinctions of the object language are part of the reality in which they function.

Is this not true for every cultural system? I will not deny that I am very sympathetic to the linguistic turn and this type of constructivist stance, but such a generalization begs the essential question. We are dealing with a specific problem of the historical religion we are analyzing (even if this problem is not restricted to the religion of the Romans). The concepts of giving and property transfer function within a framework that is not as straightforward as it might seem. Representations of the divine were themselves emphatically deemed not divine, as ancient discourse about statues demonstrates.[6] [7] To a large extent divinities were modeled on superior humans, but the divine superiors were not similarly tangible; rather, they might need to be manifested through epikleisis.7 And yet, statues of the gods were clothed and combed, bound or flogged.[8] Of course, as a discipline the history of religion usually adopts a methodological agnosticism that disposes of many such problematic inconsistencies. There is no need, for example, to deal with the problem of why vowers who deprived the gods of their due were not subject to divine retribution. However, the problem of how to describe such apparent contradictions remains.

Obviously, the idea of a divine associate who expects recompense and that of divine property are highly loaded with assumptions about the divine; these must be held conceptually distinct, from practices such as gift (donum) or prayer (preces) or simply words (verba).[9] In the following analysis I will address these phenomena through the lens of “communication.”[10] Unlike “system” or “culture” or “ius sacrum” (not an ancient concept), communication starts from the intersubjectively constituted individual. This is also true of “agency” (a concept helpful for understanding appropriation), but communication, more so than agency, points to interaction, and to the problem of understanding and of misunderstanding. Communication establishes structures and traditions, but these remain precarious, perhaps based on old or newly arising misunderstandings, and are subject to diverse individual appropriation.

Unfortunately, we cannot observe ancient religious communication. The human actors are long dead (even if their gods enjoy an increasing internet presence). Sadly, most of the material remains, the sources on the basis of which ancient religion can be reconstructed, were in fact used in religious communication, were parts of acts of communication, and were loaded with intentions, meanings, and emotions, much of which is lost to us.

  • [1] Rupke 2015b.
  • [2] See Sperber and Wilson 1994; Wilson and Sperber 2002, 2012.
  • [3] Serv. Aen. 4,699; Livy 7.28.4; see Rupke 2004, 181.
  • [4] Wissowa 1912 (repr., 1971), 380-409.
  • [5] For exceptions, see Cancik 1973.
  • [6] See Gordon 1979.
  • [7] Gladigow 2005, 75-77.
  • [8] Ibid., 64-67.
  • [9] For the concept of “gift” in general, see still Mauss 1925; for prayer, Pulleyn 1997; Fyn-tikoglou and Voutiras 2005.
  • [10] For the sociological background of the concept, see Rupke 2001.
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