Friday, July 20, 2007

Review: Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum

James Davidson's review in the London Review of Books also covers Robert Parker's Polytheism and Society at Athens, but I wager there will be more interest in TCRA as a potential research tool with broad appeal.

After seven paragraphs of bewildering, contradictory, and fascinating snippets of various cult practices throughout the ancient mediterranean, Davidson has this to say:

Never easy to make sense of, the religion of the Greeks and Romans has just become infinitely more difficult, thanks to the publication of five volumes (plus index) of the Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum, which aims ‘to present scholars with a comprehensive account of all substantial aspects of Greek, Roman and Etruscan religion’, and thereby to overwhelm any attempt at general theory by providing masses of exceptions to the rule. It is the follow-up project of the team that brought us the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, an 18-volume catalogue – each volume in itself capable of provoking a lawsuit if it slipped your grip, as well it might, and fell onto the head of a bottom-shelf browser – of all known images of figures from ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan mythology/religion.
Thanks be to research libraries. And all seems very promising.

LIMC was always a valued asset in my early graduate career and I soon learned that the bibliography for mythical subjects nearly always outdid the OCD, was more current than the RE, and often surpassed even the Neue Pauly.

And yet Davidson is disappointed in that this follow-up project became too ambitious, divided among a massive committee of experts, and only shows occasional brilliance and comprehensiveness on individual topics:
Organisationally, however, it is a mess, a lesson in how an ambitious international grand projet, supported with oodles of money, eons of scholar-hours and lashings of good will, and concealing within the innumerable nooks of its labyrinthine structure plenty of astute commentary and the occasional mind-blowing map, can nevertheless be a huge disappointment.
You should, of course, read his review for yourself. I haven't given you the smallest fraction, such as the shocking omissions he outlines.

Parker fares much better though Davidson is dubious on many points. Still, he calls it 'one of the best books I have read on ancient religion and one of the most useful.'

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