Thwarted Expectations of Divine Reciprocity

in Mnemosyne
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The notion of reciprocity in Greek religion has been approached from many angles. One question that has not been treated concerns human discontent at gods’ gifts. Given that, in Greek literature, characters conceptualised their relationship with gods as a bond of reciprocal χάρις, did these fictive characters use the same conceptual frame in talking about frustrated expectations of divine reciprocity? When gods did not give in return what had been hoped for, was such disappointment ever constructed as a case of dysfunctional reciprocity? In this paper I argue that the answer is ‘no’, but a conscious no. Explicit disappointment in divine reciprocity occurs, but exclusively under ‘special circumstances’. Such criticism is uttered by characters who are not Greek, for example, who are portrayed as having rather strange views anyway, or who have a very special reciprocal relationship with a god based on divine parenthood of a human child. The distribution and nature of complaints shows that reproaching gods about disappointed reciprocity was consciously considered as very un-Greek.

Thwarted Expectations of Divine Reciprocity

in Mnemosyne


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Parker 1998120: “The language of kharissustains indeed creates the fiction that the relation between human and god can be assimilated to that between human beings and so brought within a comprehensible pattern. The commercial view of kharis treats as a device to manipulate the gods what is more fundamentally a means of gaining access to them of reaching the unreachable” and (124-125): “The job of kharis of gift and counter-gift was to veil these differences however temporarily and partially to pretend that the gap between man and god was not too wide to be bridged and to found that social relationship without which the gods and the world would be completely beyond our grasp” [underlining mine]. Cf. Yunis 1988 53.


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Rademaker 2005163-173.


Parker 1998114-115 gives a few examples where complaints arise from the relationship between a god and his mortal son or lover or are uttered by a non-Greek. The new steps I take are a) I do not see these circumstances as coincidential characteristics of some passages; and b) I do not consider them examples of cases where a disappointment in the regular reciprocal relationship with gods is expressed.


Cf. Peels 2015Chapter 2

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