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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 6 Aug 2009 12:51:27 -0500
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Household and Family Religion in Antiquity. Edited by JOHN BODEL and SAUL 
M. OLYAN. The Ancient World: Comparative Histories. Malden, MA and Oxford: 
Blackwell, 2008. Pp. xvi + 344. Cloth, $99.95. ISBN 

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Bodel and Olyan have gathered a group of international of scholars to 
produce this volume, which grew out of a conference held at Brown 
University in 2005 and is the first book to explore the religious practices 
of the family and the household—not state-sponsored or civic religion— 
in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Israel, Mesopotamia, Ugarit, Emar and Philistia. It 
explores many household and lifecycle rituals, looks at religious practices 
relating to the household within the home itself, and examines other spaces 
such as extramural tombs and local sanctuaries.

Stanley K. Stowers, in “Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and 
Families,” maintains that understanding the connections between the 
categories family, household, and religion is central to the project of the 
volume. He argues that the most important practices and institutions in the 
ancient Mediterranean involved land, wealth from the land, and food, all of 
which could be offered back to deities who gave the products and 
legitimated the ownership and social order.

In “Family Religion in the Second Millennium West Asia (Mesopotamia, 
Emar, Nuzi),” Karel van der Toorn makes three solid contributions to the 
volume. He surveys the gods of the family in Southern and Western 
Mesopotamia and Northern Syria, with an excursus on the god and goddess of 
the house; the cult of the ancestors; and the sociology and psychology of 
family religion. Mesopotamian family religion fosters a sense of identity 
in those who practice it. Family religion, for example, provided the 
Babylonians of Southern Mesopotamia with both a topographical and an 
historical sense of place.

Daniel E. Flemming, in “The Integration of Household and Community 
Religion in Ancient Syria,” focuses on evidence from ancient Syrian 
religion, mainly textual evidence from Late Bronze Age Emar. He proposes 
one general conclusion: that the religion of household and family was 
integrated deeply into the religious life of the larger community.

In “Family, Household, and Local Religion at Late Bronze Age Ugarit,” 
Theodore J. Lewis argues that study of the religion of families and 
households is long overdue and is encouraged by the recent study of the 
non-elite (non-royal, non-priestly) communities that were slighted in the 
past in favor of the religion of the privileged. Religion played an 
important role at the local/community level and in local sanctuaries, such 
as the so-called Rhyton Sanctuary, one of the best examples in the ancient 
Near Eastern world of community religion. Lewis concludes that the religion 
of the family (betu) was important at Late Bronze Age Ugarit among 
individuals of all social standings, especially the non-elite.

Rainer Albertz tackles pluralism within Israelite religion in “Family 
Religion in Ancient Israel and its Surroundings,” by treating three main 
concepts that are often mixed together: syncretism, popular religion and 
internal religious pluralism. Up to the 7th century BCE, most private 
religious practices performed by Israelites took place in the family’s 
dwelling, where the so-called “modal shrines” housed divine figurines. 
Israelite families also had their own religious practices and beliefs which 
differed considerably from those of contemporary official religion. A good 
indicator of the symbolic world of Israelite family religion is provided by 
theophoric names. After the Babylonian exile, official and family religion 
came closer together, resulting in early Judaism looking like a religion in 
which families constituted one of the load-bearing pillars.

Continuing the theme of household and family religion in Israel, Saul M. 
Olyan, in “Family Religion in Israel and the Wider Levant of the First 
Millennium BCE,” claims that family religion is becoming a hot topic in 
biblical studies and cognate fields. Susan Ackerman, in “Household 
Religion, Family Religion, and Women’s Religion in Ancient Israel,” 
argues that the terms family and household function basically as synonyms. 
In this environment women probably took primary responsibility for domestic 
pottery and textile production. Moreover, ancient Israelite women prepared 
food and drink for the god or gods venerated within their households and 
then presented these offerings. In doing so, women also acted as the 
theologians who gave voice to household and family religious beliefs.

In “Ashdod and the Material Remains of Domestic Cults in the Philistine 
Coastal Plain,” Rüdiger Schmitt identifies archaeological features that 
point to religious activities in the household or in the neighborhood, and 
refines the typology of cult places and cultic activities in Iron-Age 
living quarters in Philistine settlements. Schmitt studies the typology of 
seven main types and several subtypes of Philistine terracotta figurines, 
mostly of the “Ashdoda” type, and the archaeological contexts of these 
figurines from a potters’ sanctuary at Ashdod. The archaeological 
evidence provides additional proof for the international character of 
family religion in the Ancient Near East.

Robert K. Ritner, in “Household Religion in Ancient Egypt,” and Barbara 
Lesko, in “Household and Domestic Religion in Ancient Egypt,” look at 
household religion from different perspectives. Ritner begins with 
Herodotus’ famous assessment that the Egyptians were “religious beyond 
measure, more than any other people” (2.37), a statement supported by an 
abundance of artifacts and a prodigious history of scholarly publication. 
Ritner asserts that many ancient Egyptian household religious practices are 
concerned with issues of birth. Lesko argues that in current Egyptological 
literature “domestic religion” is identified as “religious conduct 
undertaken strictly within the confines of the house.” Thus the average 
household and family were all the more important for the perpetuation of 
religious beliefs, practices and moral teachings from generation to 

With “Household Religion in Ancient Greece,” Christopher A. Faraone 
notes that ancient Greek familial and household religion have not attracted 
much scholarly interest except from those with deep interests in 
comparative folklore such as H.J. Rose and Martin P. Nilsson. Faraone first 
distinguishes between oikos and genos, and then looks at the household cult 
overseen by men and finally at women and magic in the oikos.

In “Family Matters: Domestic Religion in Classical Greece,” Deborah 
Boedeker examines the ancient Greek household or family as a locus of 
religious practices. To do so, she studies domestic cults at home and in 
the polis. She also points to one potential source of religious friction 
between “family” and “state” (polis) religion in classical Athens: 
competition for religious authority between the increasingly democratic 
polis and elite families.

John Bodel assesses Roman domestic religion in “Cicero’s Minerva, 
Penates, and the Mother of the Lares: An Outline of Roman Domestic 
Religion.” In his second book On Laws, Cicero dedicates his private 
Minerva as “Guardian of Rome,” casting his personal cult image into a 
public role even as he transported her physically to her new “home.” At 
the same time, by describing the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus as “my 
father’s house,” Cicero reinscribed both the image and his act of 
devotion into the world of domestic cult. Cicero also informs us that the 
Lares, like the Penates, though closely tied to location, were portable.

Finally, in “Comparative Perspectives,” Bodel and Olyan move beyond an 
individual consideration of household and family religion to Mediterranean 
and West Asian household and family religion from a comparative 
perspective. Onomastic data raises difficulties and must be used 
cautiously; gender is also a concern. It is important to distinguish the 
importance of women as ritual actors in some cultures and the central 
position of leading males in others. We thus cannot generalize about gender 
patterns in household and family religion in Mediterranean and West Asian 
antiquity, given the diversity of the evidence and the variety of ways in 
which it has been read. Ultimately the comparative method helps sift the 
evidence into different categories, and theory allows us to consider old 
problems differently and to see the evidence in new ways.

In sum, this volume will find its place on the bookshelf of anyone looking 
for an authoritative treatment of religion and society in Mediterranean and 
West Asian antiquity.

Boston Latin Academy

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