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1Did the Greeks believe in their myths? This was the title of an essay published in 1983 by Paul Veyne1, professor at the Collège de France. Behind this somewhat provocative title lays a profound exploration of the function of myth in ancient Greek society, but also in our contemporary societies, all of which rely on founding and legitimising myths. How could a nation of philosophers and geometricians tell stories about gods who took human or animal form, who united with humans and were moody and unpredictable? Can such tales be described as “religious”, should they be taken seriously, and what functions did they serve?

2Mythology in ancient Greece is intrinsically linked to the complex relationship between religion, history and society in the ancient Greek world. And this bond is perfectly illustrated by the title of the Chair inaugurated this evening by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge: “Religion, history and society in the ancient Greek world”.

3Professor Vinciane Pirenne is an outstanding specialist in the interaction between religious representations, religious practices and society in ancient Greece. She first gained recognition with her monograph on the goddess Aphrodite2, in which she showed that a divinity could not be reduced to the way she was portrayed by the great Panhellenic poets. As is the case in the Ancient Near East, divinities were first and foremost characterised by their local and distinctive roots. There was no Zeus or Aphrodite per se in Greek sanctuaries. Each sanctuary was dedicated to a particular form of these deities, signified by an epiclesis that determined a specific function or power, such as Aphrodite Ourania or Aphrodite Pandemos. Thus, religious practices in a given location took into account the specific nature of the pantheon to which the deity to be worshipped belonged.

4Professor Pirenne-Delforge is also an authority on Pausanias, the learned Greek traveller who lived in the second century CE and whose writings have long been regarded as the forerunners of our travel guidebooks. The publication Professor Pirenne-Delforge devoted to Pausanias and his ten-volume description of ancient Greece demonstrates the importance of this source, which documents both Greece in his time and in the past, providing a vast array of data on town planning, architecture, the ecosystem, political organisation and crises, as well as religious traditions and practices.3 Professor Pirenne-Delforge entitled her book Retour à la source (Back to the source) because of the expression’s ambivalence. On the one hand, Pausanias’ journey through the different regions of Greece is a journey to the source of the author’s culture and religious traditions; on the other hand, the modern historian exploits a privileged source to gain a better understanding of the ancient Greek world. Professor Pirenne-Delforge has set out to understand the specific contribution of this work to our knowledge of ancient Greek religion, shedding new and convincing light on an essential aspect of the Greek religious system, namely the tension between the general and the particular, between the “panhellenic” and the local.

5Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge is also one of the world’s leading specialists on the topic of Greek sacrifice. The term sacrifice, borrowed from the Romans, covers a central ritual act in the Mediterranean Basin, the Ancient Near East and many other regions of the world. As Professor Pirenne has illustrated in numerous publications, Greek thusia is a complex reality that cannot be explained solely based on literary evidence. We must also, and above all, turn to epigraphic documentation, which reveals the variety of procedures that were involved. With this in mind, she has led a project entitled “Collection of Greek Ritual Norms”, which brings together a large number of inscriptions documenting sacrificial and purification practices.

6I could, of course, expand on this long list of Vinciane Pirenne’s contributions to our understanding of ancient Greece, but allow me to conclude by saying that she did respond in an article to Paul Veyne’s question which I mentioned at the outset. She demonstrated, in a masterly fashion, that the Greeks, following the example of Hesiod and Pausanias, could make very critical and severe judgements about their myths, while at the same time recognise their functions for a community in a given context. The election of Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge to the Chair of Religion, History and Society in the Ancient Greek World has made it possible to combine two major traditions of Greek studies at the Collège de France: the epigraphic approach and the history of religions approach. Professor Pirenne-Delforge’s election will also further strengthen the Institut des civilisations at the Collège de France (Collège de France Institute of Civilisations), as her research will pave the way for comparative work that will enable fruitful collaborations and dialogues with many other colleagues.

7Dear Vinciane, I welcome you wholeheartedly to the Collège de France and look forward, along with all my colleagues and the entire audience, to hearing your inaugural lecture.

Notes de bas de page

1 Paul Veyne, Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? Essai sur l’imagination constituante, Paris, Seuil, 1983; reissued by Points, coll. « Essais », 2014; translated in English: Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?: An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988.

2 Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, L’Aphrodite grecque. Contribution à l’étude de ses cultes et de sa personnalité dans le panthéon archaïque et classique, Liège/Athènes, Presses universitaires de Liège, 1994 (coll. “Kernos suppléments”, 2013, doi : doi.org/10.4000/books.pulg.1409).

3 Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, Retour à la source. Pausanias et la religion grecque, Liège-Athènes, Presses universitaires de Liège, 2008 (coll. “Kernos suppléments”, 2013, doi : 10.4000/books.pulg.1007).

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