What does it mean to give honor to someone? When we think of honoring someone, we usually think of retirement banquets, putting flowers on the graves at Memorial Day, or taking Mom out to dinner on Mother’s Day. We have our rituals of honor but frankly, the idea of honoring someone as a matter of daily life sounds foreign to us. In the Greco-Roman world, and in the Ancient Near East, the idea of honor, and its counterpart shame, was at the center of life. Greek philosophers exhorted folks to do that which was “noble” and “honorable” and to avoid that which was “disgraceful” and “shameful.” Rarely do we find the philosophers instructing, as we might in Western Civilization, to do what is “right” or “profitable” versus what is “wrong” or “unprofitable.”
Honor is a relational concept. Our honor is ever under scrutiny. When someone embodies the qualities a group values we say that that person is an honorable person. Honor functions in a couple of different ways. First, honor refers to how we think about ourselves. To the degree we think we embody important qualities, we have self-respect. Second, there is also the ongoing evaluation signaled back to us by significant others and significant groups whose estimation we value. By doing what is honorable in the eyes of our significant communities, we increase our solidarity with that community and strengthen shared values concerning what is honorable. In return, the community reflects back to us that we are honorable people worthy of full participation in the community with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.
Shame is largely the converse of honor. Shame comes from exhibiting qualities that fail to match the image we have of ourselves as honorable people. Our significant others and significant communities reflect back to us displeasure and varying degrees of censure when we do not exhibit the expected qualities. Particularly egregious failures or persistent failure can lead to shunning.
It is hard for us in Western societies to appreciate the powerful pull this concept of honor and shame had on the Greco-Roman world. (Our friends in present day Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures have a leg up on us here.) We tend to think that if we fall out of favor with one group, we will just join another. It simply was not that easy for most within the world of the biblical era. Honor and shame were thoroughly institutionalized. We tend to give honor to people based on achievement. This was true of the Greeks and Romans but they also had extensive rituals of honor related to any number of ascribed qualities like age, class, family line, patron-client relationships, gods worshiped, and a host of other criteria. Honoring a person, whether for achievement or some ascribed status, was not just about the person being honored. It was about honoring the entire social order. Failure to show another person proper honor was understood as a threat to the entire social order.
This is where Greco-Religion religion played such a central role. Unlike our era, there was no distinction between the state and religion. Each of the gods, and the various festivals associated with them, were associated with various virtues of Greco-Roman society. By worshiping and honoring these gods, you were showing your solidarity with what society and the state considered honorable. Each household adopted one of the state approved gods as the god for the household. The paterfamilias would lead the household in rituals that honored the household god on a daily basis. Reinforcement of loyalty to the system of honor and shame was ubiquitous.
Just to foreshadow a topic that will come up in latter posts, reflect on how we typically honor and distinguish people. We honor a king or queen by placing a crown on their head. We use hats to signal a variety of information about an individual in the military. When we go to graduations, people wear caps with a tassel, which they move from one side to the other as rite of passage. When conducting other tasks like estimating the number of people in a room we often say we want a “headcount.” Ranchers talk about how many “head of cattle” they have. What each of these instances exemplifies is the fact the head is often the most easily distinguished feature of a body and is therefore often used as a proxy for the entire body. It is a symbolic representation of the whole being. Therefore, in a culture of honor and shame, to honor the "head" was to honor symbolically the whole unit. To dishonor the head was to dishonor the whole unit. That unit could vary from the state, to a family line, to a particular household group, but each of these units had something or someone that metaphorically served as the head (i.e. symbolic representation of the whole) for that unit. Paying honor to the head was critical for the cohesion of the honor and shame society.
Next, we will look at the centrality the household as an institution in Greco-Roman society in light of all we have been reviewing.