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Reviewed by:
  • Household and Family Religion in Antiquity
  • Geoffrey Nathan
Household and Family Religion in Antiquity. Edited by John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 344 pp. $104.95 (cloth).

This edited collection of essays grew out of a conference by the same name held at Brown University in 2005. It seeks to offer a comparative approach to examining how religion manifested and functioned within the context of family and the related household. While studies on the purpose and place of religion in ancient family life have been a topic of scholarly interest for some decades, this book is unique in both the scope of the papers presented and the underlying theoretical approach by which they are linked.

Most edited works of this sort focus on a single culture or occasionally on two, usually Greece and Rome; this volume, however, paints with a very broad brush. Not only do the contributors write on a number of different cultures across ancient West Asia and the Mediterranean, but they chronologically begin in second millennium b.c.e. Mesopotamia and finish in first century b.c.e. Rome. Covering such a [End Page 597] wide geographical and temporal span provides an opportunity to make some important and broad-based comparisons concerning the nexus of “popular” religion and private life. It also offers potential epistemological and methodological pitfalls, to say nothing of dangers of over-generalized and /or mischaracterized assessments of individual studies.

For the most part, the contributors and editors have avoided the problems that might come from such wide-ranging analyses. A strong theoretical chapter prefacing the various individual studies and a comparative analysis to conclude the book help to give each paper included here a conceptual framework for exploring their topics. For the most part, a majority of the authors manage to do so. The beginning and ending chapters also stress certain themes revisited throughout the collection.

After an adumbrated, almost perfunctory introduction by the editors, Stanley Stowers provides a theoretical guide for analyzing religious belief and practices within the context of ancient households and families. Heavily influenced by the ideas of Jonathan Smith and (the never mentioned) Mircea Eliade, he offers a cultural anthropological definition of religion as “linked and combined practices . . . of particular human populations . . . that involve the imagined participation of gods or other non-observable beings in those practices and social formations, and shade into many kinds of anthropomorphizing interpretations of the world” (pp. 8–9). Set along that axis, Stowers also offers a description of family / household consistent with present-day anthropological studies. He stresses among other things a taxonomy of place (including the familiar binaries of house / outside of home, centrality / periphery, and here / there) superimposed against familial hierarchies of age, gender, and degrees of relation (and nonrelation). In that context, individual cultural religious customs and notions can successfully and usefully reveal transcultural ideas concerning the confluence of private religion and private life. The approach is unapologetically structuralist.

All of the individual contributions are generally quite strong, although some are stronger than others. One of the observations repeatedly found in all the studies is the importance of familial / household practices in serving to articulate and strengthen identity within the household itself. Sometimes, as is suggested by Karel van der Toorn in his study on Mesopotamia in the second millennium b.c.e, this is to a great degree functionally “active”—that is, the cults themselves helped define identity. In other cases, as in Ranier Albertez’s essay on family religion in ancient Israel, that articulation was achieved through its contrast to public cult or even to alien religious elements. [End Page 598]

A second common and related observation is the role of religion in helping to define the family and /or household within society itself. In the ancient world, definition of identity through the individual, even in the radical democracies of classical Greece, was a problematic concept. Indeed, as Deborah Boedeker’s paper on domestic religion in the Greek polis argues, domestic religion also served as a not always amenable cultural discourse between the civic and domestic spheres concerning identity in society. That is, religion itself reflected the pressures between potentially conflicting...