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Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World


British classicist and professor at the University of Cambridge, Tim Whitmarsh is best known for his work on Greek literary culture during the Greco-Roman period. While reading his recent research, Battling the Gods , his area of expertise became increasingly apparent and with good reason.

As the title implies, the author focuses on the idea of “atheism” as it would have been understood in the ancient world; specifically in the ancient Greek world. Whitmarsh argues that atheism is not a recent phenomenon and that its ideas are rooted even deeper into Western thought than originally believed. His primary sources, as one would expect, are the ancient writers.

The publication opens with a simple question: What was myth for? A bit vague but necessary. Whitmarsh claims it to be a vessel encapsulating the values of an entire people and to unify the Greek world. Such mythical epics involved Achilles, Heracles, Medea, etc. which were told and retold across the entire Mediterranean. You also had your more local epics which brought together communities and cities. He continues to emphasize that myth was also used as a means to explain “why things are the way they are.”

Given the regional diversity of the Greek world, and the absence of sacred texts or strong centralizing institutions, a lot of these mythological stories naturally circulated in multiple forms. This is unlike our modern religions where we have our Holy Scriptures and specific religious institutions with their respective leaders offering us interpretations of worship, belief, and moral guidance. The exact opposite of the ancient Greek world. Each region or city had their own local priests who offered sacrifices in their own local temples and were typically appointed officials from the elite class and never offered moral or spiritual guidance.

With such a disconnect between traditional Greek cult and the spiritual, it was never considered heresy or blasphemous to question the role or existence of the Greek pantheon. This mindset would later foster historians, philosophers and the like to rethink existence. This type of thinking would eventually give birth to the early sciences and Hippocratic medicines.

Now, overall, the publication is extremely well researched and well written. What made it that much more valuable was the author’s ability to put the ancient literature into its respective historical context; that is, providing the sociological and or political events which inspired the ancient authors. However, its content can come across a bit dry every now and then. Although, truth be told, I do not know of any other way such an obscure topic could be presented. Nonetheless, it was still an entertaining and enlightening read. I would definitely recommend it.

By Petros Koutoupis