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Dossier : Serments et paroles efficaces

Dossier : Serments et paroles efficaces

«Calling upon Gods as Witnesses» in Ancient Greece

Irene Polinskaya


L’article étudie l’usage d’une formule courante, « prendre les dieux à témoin », qui est attestée dans tous les genres littéraires grecs anciens et qui doit être le reflet d’une pratique historique. L’auteur se concentre sur les occurrences de cette formule dans des contextes qui ne sont pas liés au serment, à la malédiction ou au vœu. En faisant une distinction entre ces dernières formes de parole efficace et le « témoignage divin » au sens propre, l’auteur soutient qu’alors que les serments et les malédictions contraignent les divinités invoquées à agir, l’appel à témoin produit seulement la trace virtuelle d’un point de vue personnel et laisse aux dieux le choix d’agir ou non comme ils le jugent bon. La manière de choisir des témoins divins et la nature de leur rôle sont éclairées par l’usage de témoins humains dans les tribunaux et dans les attestations de contrats, testaments et accords de mariage. L’auteur conclut que la formulation de l’« appel à témoin » est nécessaire pour activer la fonction d’enregistrement du témoignage divin, et que de tels appels représentent donc un type distinct d’acte de langage efficace.

Texte intégral


1Words have the power to effect change. A mere utterance can transform a neutral situation into a formal occasion, alter a person’s social status, or imbue an ordinary circumstance with awesome gravity. The ascription of power and authority to words is not simply a cross-cultural phenomenon, it is an ontological one. At the same time, not every uttered or written word carries an equal transformative charge. Rather, in every language and in every culture, there are specific formulae and specific circumstances that combine to produce efficacious speech acts.

  • 1 See, e.g., curses and spells: Faraone and Obbink 1991; Faraone 1991, 1999, 2006; Gager 1992; Jameso (...)
  • 2 Sommerstein 2007, p. 2.
  • 3 See, e.g., Versnel 1981; Graf 1991; Furley 1995; Pulleyn 1997.

2In Ancient Greece, oaths, curses, and vows are the most common types of powerful speech acts. These readily present themselves as intrinsically designed to engender action and produce an effect. Oaths, curses, and vows bind an utterer or the one at whom an utterance is directed to a certain course of action1. In most such utterances, divine figures are invoked as witnesses and guarantors of actions to be encouraged or prevented2. There are, however, other formulaic utterances that carry an optative and suggestive rather than a binding force. These are, for instance, prayers, hymns, and similar invocations to the gods that limit themselves to inviting gods to pay attention, acknowledge, listen, enjoy, attend, and take beneficial action if they should be so inclined3.

  • 4 Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, 15, 31: «But if you tender the oath, you may say that it is an act of piety (...)

3In the present paper, I address a less commonly discussed category of invocations to divinities, which is nonetheless widely attested in ancient Greek literary sources — invocations of gods as witnesses. As already mentioned, gods are explicitly and sometimes implicitly invoked as witnesses or guarantors in oaths, and as ultimate judges of such cases as involve oath-taking4, but the examples I intend to investigate occur in situations when no oaths are being sworn. Since examples of such calls to gods to witness are numerous and since a range of formulae seem to be attested, I raise the question about the function of these utterances and whether such invocations of gods are meant to be efficacious, that is, whether calling upon gods to witness a proclamation confers a special status upon the latter. I will be looking closely at circumstances when such calls are made and at mechanisms that might render them efficacious.

The Substance and Power of Witnessing

  • 5 Being present was a condition of being invited to witness and, subsequently, of being able to testi (...)

4Ancient Greek literary sources demonstrate that «witnessing» consists of being physically present at the scene, and of seeing or hearing what takes place5.

5In the Iliad II, 302, Odysseus recalls Zeus’ portent at Aulis and names as its witnesses those Greek warriors who had been present there and who are still alive at the time when he makes his address:

εὖ γὰρ δὴ τόδε ἴδμεν ἐνὶ ϕρεσίν, ἐστὲ δὲ πάντες
μάρτυροι, οὓς μὴ κῆρες ἔβαν θανάτοιο ϕέρουσαι.

For I remember this thing well in my heart, and you all are
Witnesses, whom the spirits of death have not carried away from us.
(Trans. R. Lattimore)

  • 6 Cf. Alcman I, 40-43 where the sun is asked to shine upon the maiden chorus as a witness (I thank G. (...)

6In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes 372, Hermes rebuffs Apollo’s accusation of theft, saying that the latter had presented «no witnesses from among the blessed gods, none who had seen» the theft: οὐδὲ θεῶν μακάρων ἄγε μάρτυρας οὐδὲ κατόπτας. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hecate is the only one who hears the cry of Persephone being snatched by Hades, but Helios is the only one who sees it, and so can report as an eye-witness (lines 74-81)6.

  • 7 For Attica, see Demosthenes XXXVI, 7; XLVI, 8; for Gortyn: see Davies 2005.
  • 8 Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, 15, 1-2 (= 1375a24): περὶ δὲ τῶν ἀτέχνων καλουμένων πίστεων ἐχόμενόν ἐστι τ (...)

7Witnesses are not expected to interfere with the course of events, either in the original instance when they are called upon, or in subsequent circumstances whenever their testimonies might be required. In essence, witnessing is a powerful, but passive activity. In legal contexts, as well, «witnessing» typically involved no more than attesting that a certain event, at which they had been present, did or did not take place: that a will was signed by such and such a person, that a proklêsis was made, that the deposition as read out by a court secretary was theirs indeed7. Witnesses were not cross-examined and were not a means of arriving at the facts of the case in court hearings; rather, a litigant’s presentation of someone as witness in a court hearing was proof in itself, one of five artless (atekhnai) proofs, according to Aristotle’s classification8.

  • 9 Thür 2005, p. 146 (with reference to Thür 1977, p. 316-319 and Todd 1990, p. 33 and 1996, p. 96), p (...)
  • 10 Harrison 1971, p. 137 with reference to Demosthenes XXXV, 14, 20, 23, 33; Hypereides V, 33; Demosth (...)
  • 11 Witnessing as a form of record-keeping is particularly clear in cases of marriage egguê, bestowal o (...)

8In fact, several recent studies argue that witnesses were the only form of evidence that «had legal significance in the practice of the Athenian jury courts», that is, it was the only type of evidence that «was used directly in the procedure before the jury courts»9. Normally, only adult male citizens could be called as witnesses, although sometimes metics could testify as well, presumably when special agreements between their respective states were in effect10. Thus, witnessing was both an important social privilege and a powerful tool of legal action. At the same time, witnesses were typically neither judges nor executioners, and hence witnessing was essentially a passive, record-keeping activity, albeit with a powerful potential11.

Deities as Witnesses

9With this overview of secular witnesses in mind, we can now turn to the subject of divinities as witnesses. Lyric poetry and drama supply us with numerous examples of gods and heroes being invoked as witnesses. The typical expressions in Greek are marturomai, «I call to witness», and marturas kalô theous/daimonas, «I call upon gods/daimones as witnesses».

10In Euripides Medea 619, Jason calls upon gods to witness that he is genuinely willing to help Medea and her children.

Medea: I will accept no help from your friends nor will I take anything from you, so do not offer it. The gifts of a base man bring no benefit.

Jason: At any rate I call the gods to witness (ἀλλοὖν ἐγὼ μὲν δαίμονας μαρτύρομαι) that I am willing to help you and the children all I can. But you refuse good treatment and obstinately rebuff your friends. This will only make your pain the greater. (Trans. D. Kovacs)

11In Sophocles Trachiniai 1248, the dying Heracles makes Hyllus swear that he will marry Iole:

Hyllus: I am miserable! I have no way out of so many dilemmas!

Heracles: Yes, since you think it wrong to obey your begetter.

Hyllus: But must I then learn to be unholy, Father?

Heracles: It is not unholy, if you gladden my heart.

Hyllus: Do you, then, command me to do this as a clear duty?

Heracles: I do, and I call on the gods to bear me witness!

(ἔγωγε ·τούτων μάρτυρας καλῶ θεούς).

(Trans. R. Jebb)

12In Euripides Phoenissai 491, Polyneices explains to his mother why he must act to secure his inheritance. The gods are called to observe and take note of his point of view on the matter: «I call the gods to witness (μάρτυρας δὲ τῶνδε δαίμονας καλῶ) that in spite of my just dealing in everything, I am being unjustly robbed of my country, a most unholy act».

13(Trans. E. P. Coleridge)

  • 12 Sommerstein 2007, p. 2; Bachvarova 2007.

14In the examples cited above, deities are invoked as simple observers, not as executors of justice. Herein lies the difference with the role of gods in oaths, where they are invoked in an active capacity, as guarantors of an agreement and potential executors of punishment in case of violation12. If deities are invoked in a mere observatory capacity when they are asked to witness human intentions, perhaps such invocations are nothing more than a literary topos, a rhetorical device to enhance the dramatic effect of a plot? Several examples from historiographers suggest otherwise and point us in the direction where we may more closely explore the particular mechanisms that rendered such invocations to the gods both powerful and efficacious in practical circumstances.

Warring, Contesting, and Calling Upon the Same Gods

15We begin with two linked passages from Thucydides, II, 71, 4 and II, 74, 2-75, 1. The context of these passages is the Spartan siege of Plataea in the early stages of the Peloponnesian war. In the summer of 429 BCE, Spartans invaded the land of Plataea, set up camp, and were about to ravage the land. At that point, the Plataeans sent a delegation to the Spartan king Archidamus reminding him of the special privileges that the Greek allies had granted the Plataeans at the end of the Persian wars, namely that they would be allowed to hold and inhabit their land and city autonomously, and that «no one would ever wage war against them unjustly or for their enslavement».

16In their speech, the Plataean envoys say (Thucydides II, 71, 4):

μάρτυρας δὲ θεοὺς τούς τε ὁρκίους τότε γενομένους ποιούμενοι καὶ τοὺς ὑμετέρους πατρῴους καὶ ἡμετέρους ἐγχωρίους, λέγομεν ὑμῖν γῆν τὴν Πλαταιίδα μὴ ἀδικεῖν μηδὲ παραβαίνειν τοὺς ὅρκους, ἐᾶν δὲ οἰκεῖν αὐτονόμους καθάπερ Παυσανίας ἐδικαίωσεν.

Making (ποιούμενοι) the gods who were at that time overseeing the oaths (θεοὺς τούς τε ὁρκίους) into witnesses (μάρτυρας), both your ancestral (ὑμετέρους πατρῴους) gods and our local (ἡμετέρους ἐγχωρίους) gods, we say to you: do not wrong the land of Plataea, and do not violate the oaths, but let us live autonomously in accordance with what Pausanias had judged.

17Several elements of this declaration deserve our attention. First, the phrase μάρτυρας θεοὺς ποιούμενοι«making gods witnesses». This is a more forceful alternative to «calling gods to witness», as expressed by marturomai and marturas kalein theous. Second, the description of the witnessing gods as horkioi theoi: θεοὺς τούς τε ὁρκίους τότε γενομένους points to the fact that these deities had already been invoked once before at an exchange of oaths. Third, a further distinction within the group of horkioi theoi that the Plataeans articulate — τοὺς ὑμετέρους πατρῴους — «your (Spartan) ancestral gods» and τοὺς ἡμετέρους ἐγχωρίους — «our (Plataean) local gods». Finally, what is being witnessed is an assertion made by the Plataeans and introduced by λέγομεν followed by a series of imperative infinitives: μὴ ἀδικεῖν, μηδὲ παραβαίνειν, ἐᾶν δὲ οἰκεῖν.

18What do the Plataeans expect to achieve by «making the horkioi gods the witnesses» of their present proclamation? Does this invocation in any way affect the situation at hand? Why are the Plataeans so exact in articulating which gods they invoke as witnesses? To flesh out these questions further and to begin looking for answers, let us consider now the second passage from Thucydides (II, 74, 2-75, 1), which links up with the first one. It follows only three chapters later, in the context of the same events. After the negotiations between the Spartans and the Plataeans had failed, Archidamus made the following proclamation:

ὡς δὲ ἀπεκρίναντο, ἐντεῦθεν δὴ πρῶτον μὲν ἐς ἐπιμαρτυρίαν καὶ θεῶν καὶ ἡρώων τῶν ἐγχωρίων Ἀρχίδαμος βασιλεὺς κατέστη, λέγων ὧδε· «θεοὶ ὅσοι γῆν τὴν Πλαταιίδα ἔχετε καὶ ἥρωες, ξυνίστορές ἐστε ὅτι οὔτε τὴν ἀρχὴν ἀδίκως, ἐκλιπόντων δὲ τῶνδε προτέρων τὸ ξυνώμοτον, ἐπὶ γῆν τήνδε ἤλθομεν, ἐν οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν εὐξάμενοι ὑμῖν Μήδων ἐκράτησαν καὶ παρέσχετε αὐτὴν εὐμενῆ ἐναγωνίσασθαι τοῖς Ἕλλησιν, οὔτε νῦν, ἤν τι ποιῶμεν, ἀδικήσομεν · προκαλεσάμενοι γὰρ πολλὰ καὶ εἰκότα οὐ τυγχάνομεν. ξυγγνώμονες δὲ ἔστε τῆς μὲν ἀδικίας κολάζεσθαι τοῖς ὑπάρχουσι προτέροις, τῆς δὲ τιμωρίας τυγχάνειν τοῖς ἐπιϕέρουσι νομίμως». Τοσαῦτα ἐπιθειάσας καθίστη ἐς πόλεμον τὸν στρατόν.

  • 13 Pritchett 1974, p. 322-323.

Archidamus, the king, first made a protestation to the gods and heroes of the country, saying thus: «You, gods and heroes, who protect the land of Plataiai, be witnesses that we did no wrong in the beginning, but only after these people had first broken their oath did we come against this land, where our fathers, invoking you in their prayers, conquered the Persians and which you made a place of good omen for the warfare of the Hellenes; nor in our actions now shall we be acting aggressively. We have made a number of reasonable proposals, but these have not been accepted. Grant us, therefore, your aid and see to it that the punishment for what has been done wrong may fall on those who were the first to do evil, and that we may be successful in our aim, which is a just revenge». Having made this protestation to the gods, he made ready his army for war13. (Trans. W. K. Pritchett)

19This passage further expands our lexicon of phrases used in invoking gods as witnesses. Pritchett translates ἐς ἐπιμαρτυρίαν Ἀρχίδαμος βασιλεὺς κατέστη as «first made a protestation to the gods and heroes of the country», but this translation eschews the witnessing aspect, expressed by epimarturia. The intransitive aorist with a prepositional phrase rather has the following force: «Archidamus stood up/placed himself in the witnessing presence of local gods and heroes.» We should note in passing that in contrast to the deities invoked by the Plataeans (horkioi theoi, Spartan patrôoi and Plataean egchôrioi), the Spartan king invokes only egchôrioi, that is, the local Plataean gods, as witnesses.

  • 14 LSJ cites other examples: Euripides, Frg. 645 Nauck; Plato, Laws, 921a, Aristotle, Ethica Nicomache (...)

20Most telling in this passage, however, is the use of two nouns, ξυνίστορες and ξυγγνώμονες, with reference to the gods being invoked. The first instance Pritchett translates as «be witnesses», but more specifically sunistoreô means «to know along with another». The second phrase, ξυγγνώμονες δὲ ἔστε, has a similar connotation of someone «agreeing with, sharing knowledge with; disposed to pardon or forgive»14. An invitation to the gods to witness, in more precise terms, is an invitation to share in the knowledge of what is being asserted. This aspect of shared knowledge is a significant underpinning of witnessing in legal contexts. It seems that a similar logic, as well as rhetoric, applies in the context of territorial invasions: a general of the invading army acknowledges the legal authority of the gods over the land being invaded and notifies them (shares with them the knowledge) of his reasons for aggressive action.

21Another example from Thucydides (IV, 87, 2-3) depicts an analogous situation: Brasidas attacks Acanthus and invokes local gods and heroes as witnesses:

μάρτυρας μὲν θεοὺς καὶ ἥρωες τοὺς ἐγχωρίους ποιήσομαι ὡς ἐπἀγαθῷ ἥκων οὐ πείθω, γῆν δὲ τὴν ὑμετέραν δῃῶν πειράσομαι βιάζεσθαι, καὶ οὐκ ἀδικεῖν ἔτι νομιῶ.

I shall make the gods and heroes of your country my witnesses that, though I come for your good, I cannot persuade you, and I shall try, by ravaging your territory, to compel you. (Trans. C. F. Smith)

  • 15 The use of the first person future verb in this passage must be the case of the performative future (...)
  • 16 Pritchett (1974, p. 322-323) compares this protestation (epitheiasmos) to the Roman testatio, «in w (...)

22The same formula, «making gods witnesses», is used here as in Thucydides II, 71, 4. The gods and heroes are also specified as ἐγχωρίους, local, once again. What is being witnessed is the speaker’s perception of the situation at hand, which is grammatically expressed by a subordinate clause introduced by conjunction ὡς. The cited episodes suggest that we are dealing with more than a rhetorical topos, but rather with a verbal ritual15. In Strategikos, the only surviving treatise of the first century AD philosopher Onasander, we find an indication that calling upon gods as witnesses in cases of territorial invasions may indeed have been an established custom: «The general should call the divine (τὸ θεῖον) to witness that (ἐπιμαρτυράμενοςὡς…) he is entering upon war without offence». The rationale behind such a verbal ritual would be that an invasion offends not only the local human, but also, and more importantly, the divine residents of a land. While humans might engage in arguments about the legality of invasion and/or of trespassing, what needs to be done vis-à-vis the gods is a proclamation, acknowledging their authority in the land and stating why the invading party believes that it is not committing a wrong16.

23So, in Thucydides II, 71, 4 and II, 74, each party calls upon gods to witness their own, divergent views on the matter. The gods are not asked to judge, and the parties do not swear to the veracity of their claims. Instead, each side simply puts on record their view of the situation. Thus, witnessing in these cases is not about the truth, or the determination of right and wrong. It is about putting on record each party’s view of the case. Similarly, in Herodotus V, 92-93, the opposing parties (the Corinthians and Hippias) in the debate about tyranny can call upon (epikaleô) the same gods to witness their contrasting statements because the gods are not being asked to take sides and judge who is right and who is wrong, but only to put on record the divergence of the opinions being stated:

Ἡμέας δὲ τοὺς Κορινθίους τότε τε αὐτίκα θῶμα μέγα εἶχε ὅτε ὑμέας εἴδομεν μεταπεμπομένους Ἱππίην, νῦν τε δὴ καὶ μεζόνως θωμάζομεν λέγοντας ταῦτα. Ἐπιμαρτυρόμεθά τε ἐπικαλεόμενοι ὑμῖν θεοὺς τοὺς Ἑλληνίους μὴ κατιστάναι τυραννίδας ἐς τὰς πόλις. Οὔκων παύσεσθε ἀλλὰ πειρήσεσθε παρὰ τὸ δίκαιον κατάγοντες Ἱππίην; Ἴστε ὑμῖν Κορινθίους γε οὐ συναινέοντας. Σωκλέης μὲν ἀπὸ Κορίνθου πρεσβεύων ἔλεξε τάδε, Ἱππίης δὲ αὐτὸν ἀμείβετο τοὺς αὐτοὺς θεοὺς ἐπικαλέσας ἐκείνῳ, μὲν Κορινθίους μάλιστα πάντων ἐπιποθήσειν Πεισιστρατίδας, ὅταν σϕι ἥκωσι ἡμέραι αἱ κύριαι ἀνιᾶσθαι ὑπἈθηναίων.

«We Corinthians marvelled greatly when we saw that you [Spartans] were sending for Hippias, and now we marvel yet more at your words to us. We entreat you, calling upon the gods of Hellas to witness, not to establish tyranny in the cities, but if you do not cease from so doing and contrary to justice attempt to bring Hippias back, know that the Corinthians disagree with you». Thus spoke Socles, the envoy from Corinth, and Hippias answered him, calling the same gods as Socles had invoked to witness, that the Corinthians would above all others wish the Pisistratidae back, when the time appointed should come for them to be vexed by the Athenians.

24By calling upon gods to witness their appeal to the Spartans, the Corinthians are putting on record the fact that they had warned the Spartans about the dangers of tyranny. Hippias, in turn, calls the same gods to witness his prediction that the Corinthians would be the first to wish the Pisistratidae back in power when hard pressed by the Athenians.

Choosing Divine Witnesses

  • 17 E.g., Sophocles, Philoctetes 1293; Sophocles, Antigone 542.

25We should now look further into the two aspects of divine witnessing noted above: an appeal to the gods to share with the invoker in the common understanding of a situation, and the specific care taken by the speakers in the choice of deities they call upon to witness. The term ξυνίστωρ, in particular, is not unique to Thucydides, but is commonly used with reference to gods as witnesses, especially in drama17. For instance, in Euripides Suppliants 1174, Theseus states to Adrastus and the Argive women:

Ζεὺς δὲ ξυνίστωρ οἵ τἐν οὐρανῶι θεοὶ
οἵων ὑϕἡμῶν στείχετἠξιωμένοι.

Zeus and the gods in heaven are witnesses
Of what treatment we deem you worthy of, as you are leaving us.

  • 18 This also holds true for oaths, where the deities chosen are for one reason or another particularly (...)

26If the sharing of knowledge is an integral part of witnessing, is it the divine capacity for «knowing all» that renders deities particularly suitable for the job? Zeus is indeed sometimes credited with «knowing undying plans» (Hesiod, Theogony 550), yet the evidence also shows that ancient Greek gods were by no means omniscient. Demeter does not know who had abducted her daughter Persephone until the eye-witness Helios tells her (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 62-81). Zeus is not able to tap into some intrinsic knowledge of things when he judges between Apollo’s and Hermes’s claims about the theft of Apollo’s cattle: he can only rely on each side’s verbal presentation of their case (Homeric Hymn to Hermes). Indeed, when we take a closer look at the evidence, we find that both in historical situations and in literary texts, the choice of deities who are called upon to witness is not reliant upon some intrinsic capacity of the gods to know all things, and yet such choice is far from random18.

27Mortals who call upon deities to witness for them typically invoke those ones with whom they have a special relationship. In order to convince Theseus that he is being absolved of murder, Hippolytus invokes his personal patroness Artemis as a witness (Euripides, Hippolytus 1451):

Θη. τί ϕήις; ἀϕίης αἵματός μἐλεύθερον;
Ιπ. τὴν τοξόδαμνον Ἄρτεμιν μαρτύρομαι.

Theseus: What is this you say? You set me free of murder?
Hippolytus: The arrow-taming Artemis be my witness! (Trans. D. Kovacs)

28In Euripides Phoenissai 626, Polyneices calls upon «the land that had nurtured me and the gods» (τὴν δὲ θρέψασάν με γαῖαν καὶ θεοὺς μαρτύρομαι) to witness his plight. An intimate bond that connects Polyneices to his nurturer enables him to expect full support from her: «Soon my sword will be busy, plunged in gore. But I call my native land and the gods to witness, with what dishonor and bitter treatment I am being driven forth, as though I were a slave, not a son of Oedipus as much as he». (Trans. E. P. Coleridge)

  • 19 Polinskaya 2010.

29As we discuss the choice of specific deities as witnesses, we should briefly return to the examples from Thucydides (II, 71, 4; II, 74, 2-75, 1) where the Plataeans call upon the horkioi theoi to witness their presentation, that is, they call upon the gods who had been invoked some fifty years earlier, at the exchange of oaths between the Spartans and Plataeans at the end of the Persian wars, and the gods invoked then were the local Plataean gods and the Spartan ancestral gods. The Spartans, by contrast, call only upon the local Plataean gods to witness their claim in 429. Both details, the distinction between the egchôrioi and patrôoi theoi in the Plataean invocation, and the difference in the choice of deities called up as witnesses by the opposing parties at the current crisis are indicative. I offer a more detailed analysis of the peculiar pair of functional opposites, egchôrioi and patrôoi theoi, elsewhere19, but here I focus on the difference in the deities each party calls up as witnesses in the crisis of 429 BCE.

30At the end of the Persian wars, the Plataeans and Spartans exchanged promissory oaths, invoking the Plataean egchôrioi theoi and the Spartan patrôoi theoi as guarantors. For the Plataeans, the subject of swearing was the autonomy of their land, so it was appropriate for them to call upon their Plataean gods in the capacity of local, egchôrioi, co-residents. Then, in 478, and now, in 429, the Plataean egchôrioi theoi are likely to be partial to the Plataeans, and that is precisely why Archidamus needs to address the same gods with his own party’s point of view and proclamation. The Plataean egchôrioi theoi are therefore asked to witness the opposing claims of both parties in 429. The Plataeans, however, are also invoking the Spartan patrôoi theoi as witnesses, because those were the horkioi theoi in 478. The Plataean choice is appropriate since they claim that the Spartans are about to violate those oaths, which the Spartan patrôoi theoi are supposed to be safeguarding. The Spartans who dispute the violation of oaths are only addressing the local Plataean gods. Their, Spartan, business is with these gods alone, as they are the ultimate authority who need to be informed of the present Spartan intentions and reasons for aggression. Which deities to call upon as witnesses is therefore not an absolute given. The choice is circumstantial, always dependent on considerations of time, place, personal connections, and the particular authority of individual deities. To cite another example: in Euripides Suppliants 258-262, Adrastus urges the chorus of Argive women who had come together with him to supplicate Theseus of Athens to call upon «heaven and earth, Demeter, that fire-bearing goddess, and the light of the sun» (θεούς τε καὶ γῆν τήν τε πυρϕόρον θεὰν/Δήμητρα θέμεναι μάρτυρἡλίου τε ϕῶς) to witness that their prayers to the gods had availed them nothing. Appropriate to the time and place of the invocation, as well as to the divine authority in charge, Adrastus calls upon Demeter as a witness, the deity at whose Eleusinian sanctuary Adrastus and the Argive women are sitting in supplication.

  • 20 Humphreys 1985, Todd 1990, Rubinstein 2000, Thür 2005; contra: Carey 1994, p. 183-184 («witnesses a (...)

31As a final remark, we may note that the manner in which people choose as witnesses those deities with whom they have special ties (Artemis for Hippolytus, egchôrioi theoi for Plataeans, patrôoi theoi for Spartans, etc.) and from whom they can expect support and partiality closely parallels the legal practice of ancient Greek courts, in particular those of Attica. As several recent studies demonstrate, witnesses in Athenian courts were typically, although not exclusively, friends and supporters of litigants for whom they bore witness20, and often enough they were litigants’ kinsmen. The more witnesses a litigant could present for his side, the stronger his case appeared. It is entirely possible that the underlying logic of this secular practice and of the Greek religious mentality with regard to the role and choice of witnesses was one and the same.


  • 21 Rhodes 2007, Sommerstein 2007, Bolmarcich 2007.

32Returning now to the original question of my inquiry, that is, whether «calling upon gods as witnesses» could be seen as an efficacious speech act, I propose that the evidence is sufficient to answer in the affirmative. The invocation of deities as witnesses for the purpose of registering one’s view of a situation was every bit as efficacious as the invocation of them as guarantors in oaths and curses. Oaths bind those who swear them, placing a burden of responsibility upon deities as much as upon oath-swearers. Deities invoked in oaths are expected to act as deliverers of justice21.

33Witnessing functions in a different way. It engages a witness in a rather passive capacity of supporter or observer. Witnessing does not carry a responsibility of taking action. Instead, from the examples that we have looked at, it would appear that the mere invitation to witness a statement, when addressed to carefully selected deities and heroes, creates, as it were, a public record of a person’s disposition or view of a matter. «Calling upon gods to witness» activates a virtual recording machine that transforms what might otherwise appear to be weightless human talk into a deliberate gesture.

  • 22 I thank Lene Rubinstein for bringing this example to my attention.

34«Calling upon gods to witness» was a verbal formula in ancient Greek culture, used to attract divine attention to matters that would otherwise not appear on their radar. By «sharing one’s personal understanding» (sunistoreô) of a matter at hand with deities, a caller absolves himself/herself of unilateral responsibility for the results of his/her actions. Witnessing does not oblige a deity to intervene in the same way as an oath does. Yet, by making an affair known to the gods, a caller as it were puts the ball in the gods’court: here I am, with my views and attitudes clearly stated; if you find anything wrong with them, surely you would make it known. When the leader of the Thirty, Critias, condemned Theramenes to death in 404 BCE, all the latter could do, as he was being dragged away from the altar where he had taken refuge, was, «according to custom, to call upon gods and people to witness what was happening»: δὲ Θηραμένης ὥσπερ εἰκὸς καὶ θεοὺς ἐπεκαλεῖτο καὶ ἀνθρώπους καθορᾶν τὰ γιγνόμενα (Xenophon, Hellenica II, 23, 55)22. While oaths demand divine intervention, invitations to witness only articulate that a caller submits himself/herself to the discretion of the gods should they choose to take an interest. Witnessing is therefore a much more flexible medium, both for deities and for humans.

35What is important to reiterate is that witnessing cannot be activated unless someone audibly pushes a button labeled «record» on that virtual recorder of divine and human memory. A speaker needs to use a conventional formula, such as poioumai or tithêmi marturas theous; marturomai, epikaleô; sunistores, suggnômones este, and the like, in order to deliberately transform immaterial pronouncements into efficacious speech-acts.



Bachvarova 2007: Mary Bachvarova, «Oath and Allusion in Alcaeus fr. 129», in Alan Sommerstein and Judith Fletcher (ed.), Horkos. The Oath in Greek Society, Bristol, p. 179-188.

Bolmarcich 2007: Sarah Bolmarcich, «Oaths in Greek International Relations», in Alan Sommerstein and Judith Fletcher (ed.), Horkos. The Oath in Greek Society, Bristol, p. 26-38.

Carey 1994: Christopher Carey, «Legal Space in Classical Athens», Greece & Rome 41, p. 172-186.

Davies 2005: John Davies, «The Gortyn Laws», in Michael Gagarin and David Cohen (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law, Cambridge, p. 305-327.

Faraone 1991: Christopher Faraone, «Binding and Burying the Forces of Evil», Classical Antiquity 10, p. 165-205.

Faraone 1995: Christopher Faraone, «The “Performative Future” in Three Hellenistic Incantations and Theocritus’ Second Idyll», Classical Philology 90, p. 1-15.

Faraone 1999: Christopher Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic, Cambridge, Mass.

Faraone 2006: Christopher Faraone, «Curses and Blessings in Ancient Greek Oaths», Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religion 5, p. 140-158.

Faraone and Obbink 1991: Christopher Faraone and Dirk Obbink (ed.), Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, New York.

Furley 1995: William Furley, «Praise and Persuasion in Greek Hymns», Journal of Hellenic Studies, p. 29-46.

Gager 1992: John Gager, Curse tablets and binding spells from the ancient world, Oxford-New York.

Graf 1991: Fritz Graf, «Prayer in Magical and Religious Ritual», in Christopher Faraone and Dirk Obbink (ed.), Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, New York, p. 188-213.

Harrison 1968: Alick R. W. Harrison, The Law of Athens. The Family and Property, Oxford.

Harrison 1971: Alick R. W. Harrison, The Law of Athens. Procedure, Oxford.

Humphreys 1985: Sally Humphreys, «Social Relations on Stage: Witnesses in Classical Athens», in Sally Humphreys (ed.), Discourse of Law (History of Anthropology, 1.2), p. 313-369.

Jameson, Jordan and Kotansky 1993: Michael Jameson, David Jordan and Roy Kotansky (ed.), A Lex Sacra from Selinous, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies monograph 11, Durham.

Jordan, Montgomery and Thomassen 1999: David Jordan, Hugo Montgomery and Einar Thomassen, Magic in the Ancient World: Proceedings of the First International Samson Eitrem Seminar, Norwegian Institute Athens, 4-7 May 1997, Bergen.

Mirhady 2002: David Mirhady, «Athens’ Democratic Witnesses», Phoenix 56, p. 246-254.

Polinskaya 2010: Irene Polinskaya, «Shared Sanctuaries and the Gods of Others. On the Meaning of “Common” in Herodotus 8.144», in Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (ed.), Valuing Others in Classical Antiquity. Proceedings of the Penn-Leiden Colloquium on Ancient Values V, Leiden, p. 43-70.

Pritchett 1974: William Kendrick Pritchett, «Epitheiasmos», in William Kendrick Pritchett, The Greek State at War, vol. 3. Religion, Berkeley, p. 322-323.

Pulleyn 1997: Simon Pulleyn, Prayer in Greek Religion, Oxford.

Rhodes 2007: Peter Rhodes, «Oaths in Political Life», in Alan Sommerstein and Judith Fletcher (ed.), Horkos. The Oath in Greek Society, Bristol, p. 11-25.

Rubinstein 2000: Lene Rubinstein, Litigation and Cooperation. Supporting Speakers in the Courts of Classical Athens, Stuttgart.

Sommerstein 2007: Alan Sommerstein, «Introduction», in Alan Sommerstein and Judith Fletcher (ed.), Horkos. The Oath in Greek Society, Bristol, p. 1-10.

Thür 1977: Gerhard Thür, Beweisführung von den Schwurgerichtshöfen Athens: Die Proklesis zur Basanos, Wien.

Thür 2005: Gerhard Thür, «The Role of the Witness in Athenian Law», in Michael Gagarin and David Cohen (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law, Cambridge, p. 146-169.

Todd 1990: Stephen Todd, «The Purpose of Evidence in Athenian Courts», in Paul Cartledge, Paul Millett, and Stephen Todd (ed.), Essays in Athenian Law, Politics, and Society, Cambridge, p. 19-39.

Todd 1996: Stephen Todd, «Lysias against Nikomakhos: The Fate of the Expert in the Athenian Law», in Lin Foxhall and A. D. E. Lewis (ed.), Greek Law in its Political Setting, Oxford, p. 101-131.

van Straten 1981: Folkert van Straten, «Gifts for the Gods», in Henk S. Versnel (ed.), Faith, Hope, and Worship, Leiden, p. 65-151.

van Straten 1992: Folkert van Straten, «Votives and Votaries in Greek Sanctuaries», in Albert Schachter (éd.), Le sanctuaire grec, Geneva, p. 247-284.

Versnel 1981: Henk S. Versnel, «Religious Mentality in Ancient Prayer», in Henk S. Versnel (ed.), Faith, Hope, and Worship, Leiden, p. 1-64.


1 See, e.g., curses and spells: Faraone and Obbink 1991; Faraone 1991, 1999, 2006; Gager 1992; Jameson, Jordan and Kotansky 1993; Jordan, Montgomery and Thomassen 1999; vows and ex-votos: van Straten 1981, 1992.

2 Sommerstein 2007, p. 2.

3 See, e.g., Versnel 1981; Graf 1991; Furley 1995; Pulleyn 1997.

4 Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, 15, 31: «But if you tender the oath, you may say that it is an act of piety to be willing to leave the matter to the gods (εἰ δὲ δίδωσιν, ὅτι εὐσεβὲς τὸ θέλειν τοῖς θεοῖς ἐπιτρέπειν)».

5 Being present was a condition of being invited to witness and, subsequently, of being able to testify. With the latter, there were naturally situations when witnesses could not be present, due to illness or travel, to confirm their testimony in court, in which case, in the Athenian practice, «the deposition was put in writing to the witness in the presence of another witness or witnesses, and these latter appeared in court to authenticate the deposition» (Harrison 1971, p. 146 with reference to Isaeus III, 20; Demosthenes XLVI, 7; Aeschines II, 19, etc.).

6 Cf. Alcman I, 40-43 where the sun is asked to shine upon the maiden chorus as a witness (I thank G. D’Alessio for bringing this example to my attention).

7 For Attica, see Demosthenes XXXVI, 7; XLVI, 8; for Gortyn: see Davies 2005.

8 Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, 15, 1-2 (= 1375a24): περὶ δὲ τῶν ἀτέχνων καλουμένων πίστεων ἐχόμενόν ἐστι τῶν εἰρημένων ἐπιδραμεῖν: ἴδιαι γὰρ αὗται τῶν δικανικῶν. εἰσὶν δὲ πέντε τὸν ἀριθμόν, νόμοι, μάρτυρες, συνθῆκαι, βάσανοι, ὅρκοι. «Following on what we have just spoken of, we have now briefly to run over what are called the artless proofs, for these properly belong to forensic oratory. These proofs are five in number: laws, witnesses, contracts, [testimony given under] torture, oaths».

9 Thür 2005, p. 146 (with reference to Thür 1977, p. 316-319 and Todd 1990, p. 33 and 1996, p. 96), p. 149.

10 Harrison 1971, p. 137 with reference to Demosthenes XXXV, 14, 20, 23, 33; Hypereides V, 33; Demosthenes XIX, 146; XXV, I, 62; Aeschines II, 155; Thür 2005, p. 151.

11 Witnessing as a form of record-keeping is particularly clear in cases of marriage egguê, bestowal of dowry (see Demosthenes XLI, 26), and wills (see Harrison 1968, p. 153 with reference to Isaeus IV, 12; IX, 7 sq.) Witnesses were commonly present at the formal arrangement of a marriage (egguê) not because they were needed «to give validity to the act, but because, in the absence of any form of registration, it was in the interest of both parties to be able to establish by witnesses that the enguê had taken place» (Harrison 1968, p. 18 with reference to Demosthenes XXX, 21; Isaeus III, 18 sq., 29; VIII, 14; Demosthenes LVII, 41, etc.).

12 Sommerstein 2007, p. 2; Bachvarova 2007.

13 Pritchett 1974, p. 322-323.

14 LSJ cites other examples: Euripides, Frg. 645 Nauck; Plato, Laws, 921a, Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea 1143a19.

15 The use of the first person future verb in this passage must be the case of the performative future, which is common both in Greek poetry and in some magic spells, its force being to «effect some action simply by its utterance» (Faraone 1995, p. 3). Faraone (1995, p. 14) also observes that the «peculiar use of first-person future verbs to indicate an ongoing present activity is a special one that regularly signals a ritual or ceremonial context…». See further Faraone 1995 for relevant bibliography on the performative future. I thank Chris Faraone for drawing my attention to this case.

16 Pritchett (1974, p. 322-323) compares this protestation (epitheiasmos) to the Roman testatio, «in which the pater patratus swore by the gods that his cause was a just one», but in our case, Thuc. II, 71, 4 and II, 74, notably no oath is being sworn, and calling upon gods as witnesses appears to be a distinct efficacious utterance.

17 E.g., Sophocles, Philoctetes 1293; Sophocles, Antigone 542.

18 This also holds true for oaths, where the deities chosen are for one reason or another particularly suitable for the situation at hand, and where the enunciation of divine names in itself can be seen as a powerful performative utterance (see, e.g., Bachvarova 2007, p. 181).

19 Polinskaya 2010.

20 Humphreys 1985, Todd 1990, Rubinstein 2000, Thür 2005; contra: Carey 1994, p. 183-184 («witnesses are always required to attest a fact based on personal knowledge or experience; they are never required simply to express their support and are therefore not merely a presence»); Mirhady 2002. There were sometimes situations when a crucial witness was not a friend or family member and for whatever reason unwilling to testify or unwilling to appear in court, in which case a litigant had some means of compelling an unwilling witness to appear (see Harrison 1971, p. 139 and 143), but such cases were fraught with potential difficulties.

21 Rhodes 2007, Sommerstein 2007, Bolmarcich 2007.

22 I thank Lene Rubinstein for bringing this example to my attention.


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