Coping With the Gods

Wayward Readings in Greek Theology


Inspired by a critical reconsideration of current monolithic approaches to the study of Greek religion, this book argues that ancient Greeks displayed a disquieting capacity to validate two (or more) dissonant, if not contradictory, representations of the divine world in a complementary rather than mutually exclusive manner. From this perspective the six chapters explore problems inherent in: order vs. variety/chaos in polytheism, arbitrariness vs. justice in theodicy, the peaceful co-existence of mono- and polytheistic theologies, human traits in divine imagery, divine omnipotence vs. limitation of power, and ruler cult. Based on an intimate knowledge of ancient realia and literary testimonia the book stands out for its extensive application of relevant perceptions drawn from cultural anthropology, theology, cognitive science, psychology, and linguistics.
Open Access


Open Access

Biographical Note

Henk S. Versnel, Ph.D. (1970) in Classics (Leiden), is Emeritus Professor in Ancient History (University Leiden). He has published extensively on Greek and Roman myth, ritual, magic and religion, including two volumes on "Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion" (Brill, 1990 and 1993).

Review Quote

The aim of Greek rituals – sacrifices, prayers, hymns, processions – was to bring the gods from heaven to earth. This is exactly what H.S. Versnel achieves: his Sather lectures bring the Olympians from the heaven of philosophers and theologians to the real world of the mortal Greeks. Versnel places belief in the gods in the socio-cultural context of the Greek polis, with all its complexities, contradictions, and dynamics. Until a time-machine will allow us to ask the Greeks what they thought of their gods, we will have to do with Versnel’s penetrating, imaginative, and stimulating reconstruction. - Angelos Chaniotis

The high scholarly stature of this book and the author’s formidable familiarity with a huge swathe of evidence and bibliography will be recognized by any reader - Donald Mastronarde

C’est une véritable Summa theologica que nous offre Henk S. Versnel, un livre dense, fruit non seulement des Sather Lectures données à Berkeley en 1999, mais surtout d’une longue et féconde fréquentation des dieux antiques, d’une vie d’enquêtes et de questionnements sur les panthéons grecs et romains. ... l’ambitieux programme de complexification et de clarification conjointes [...] a produit un livre atypique, titanesque (comme le suggère le marbre moderne de la couverture, intitulé « Titan »), d’une richesse rare, voire unique, exigeant et stimulant. Un long périple, une surprenante « odyssée », une nécessaire exploration de la Divina Commedia, dont nous devons être profondément reconnaissants à son Auteur. - Corinne Bonnet, in: Bryn Mawr Classical Review, August 2012.

<'i>In this weighty and magisterial volume that grew out of his Sather lectures and that may rightly be viewed as the culmination of his career, Versnel both revisits and deepens his engagement with critical problems of what he calls Greek theology; his goal, as he puts it is to produce “a more or less comprehensive introduction into some of the most seminal issues of ancient Greek religion.” [...] Versnel combines deep erudition and engagement with both ancient material and modern scholarship [...] with impish wit. No student of Greek religion can afford—despite the price—not to read this volume. - Jenny Strauss Clay, University of Virginia, in: Religious Studies Review • Vol 38, Number 4 (2012)

In dit magnum opus presenteert Henk Versnel een synthese van een deel van zijn nieuwe inzichten. Het is ronduit een schitterend werk geworden........Ik heb zelden zo’n goed beargumenteerd en schitterend geschreven boek over de Griekse godsdienst gelezen als dit meesterwerk. - Pieter W. van der Horst, Prof em. University of Utrecht, in: Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift (2012).

Un monument d’érudition, impossible à assimiler d’un coup., - Pierre Bonnechère, in: Kernos 2012, 304-317

Densely textured though it is the volume is never dry. In addition to the fascinating material its style is unfailingly lively and frequently amusing. (....) Most important, however, this is the work of an author who loves his subject, so much so that he sees himself as in some ways its rescuer from the clutches of those who seek to confine the Greeks within ‘late modern monolithical and mono-paradigmatic dogmas’. An important aim, and one amply fulfilled. - Emma Aston, In: CR 63 (2013).

Il s’agit d’un travail gigantesque, important, truffé de réflexions passionantes, d’invitations au débat et d’interrogations qui viendront encore longtemps nourrir les lecteurs qui veulent comprendre comment les Grecs se débrouillaient avec leurs dieux.... - Viviane Pirenne-Delforge, in: Mnemosyne 66 (2013), 348-352.

'Coping with the Gods' is no ordinary book. The much anticipated publication of the Sather Lectures of 1999 is a superb showcase of mind-blowing learning and a model exposition of how to set up a logical and crystalclear line of argumentation. (.......) If the author perhaps not quite realises precisely how influential his earlier volumes on Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion of the early 1990s have actually been with regard to the general academic discourse on ancient religion and if Coping with the Gods is therefore less groundbreaking at the time of its publication than when its themes were first conceived and formulated, this is still a book of the hors catégorie. Bringing together strands from a long impressive career of thinking about ancient religion has resulted in a remarkable survey and analysisof ancient Greek religious behaviour. (.........) The academic world would be a lot poorer, and also a lot less amusing without the great Versnel to challenge our often long-held preconceptions and to keep us continually on our toes. Further generations of students of ancient religion will remain in awe of the erudition contained in what is to be considered as his scholarly testament and should let themselves be guided by his judgement on the ancient Greeks.Ted Kaizer in: Mythos 7 (2013), 202-205.


The book will be of interest to classicists, historians, historians of religion and philosophy, and anthropologists, and should be required reading for anyone who accepts the title theologian.


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