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An aretalogy (Greek: Αρεταλογία), from ἀρετή (aretḗ, “virtue”) + -logy,or aretology[1][2] (from ancient Greek aretê, "excellence, virtue") in the strictest sense is a narrative about a divine figure's miraculous deeds[3] where a deity's attributes are listed, in the form of poem or text, in the first person. The equivalent term in Sanskrit is ātmastuti.[4] There is no evidence that these narratives constituted a clearly defined genre but there exists a body of literature that contained praise for divine miracles.[5] These literary works were usually associated with eastern cults.[5]


Often each line starts with the standard "I am …". Usually, aretalogies are self praising. They are found in the sacred texts of later Egypt, Mesopotamia and in Greco-Roman times. Aretalogies of Isis would be recited every day by an aretalogist who would have to memorise a huge list of attributes which they would have to recite (Priests and priestesses of Isis had equal rank in the temple). The aretalogies of ancient Egypt provide some the most complete information extant about their deities.[6] Aretalogies are found as early as the Coffin Texts. In a Ptolemeic aretalogy, Isis says about herself:

I am Isis, ruler of every land.
I was taught by Hermes (Thoth) and with Hermes devised letters, both hieroglyphic and demotic, that all might not be written with the same.
I gave laws to mankind and ordained what no one can change.[7]

In the Greco-Roman world, aretologies represent a religious branch of rhetoric and are a prose development of the hymn as praise poetry. Asclepius, Isis, and Serapis are among the deities with surviving aretologies in the form of inscriptions and papyri.[8] The earliest records of divine acts emerged from cultic hymns for these deities, were inscribed in stones, and displayed in temples.[1] The Greek aretologos (ἀρετολόγος, "virtue-speaker") was a temple official who recounted aretologies and may have also interpreted dreams.[9]

By extension, an aretology is also a "catalogue of virtues" belonging to a person; for example, Cicero's list and description of the virtues of Pompeius Magnus ("Pompey the Great") in the speech Pro Lege Manilia.[10] Aretology became part of the Christian rhetorical tradition of hagiography.[11]

In an even more expanded sense, aretology is moral philosophy which deals with virtue, its nature, and the means of arriving at it.[citation needed] It is the title of an ethical tract by Robert Boyle published in the 1640s.[12] Other scholars also consider literature that involve the praise of wisdom as aretology.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Koester, Helmut (1995). History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age, Second Edition. New York: Walter de Gruyter. p. 131. ISBN 3110146932.
  2. ^ a b Tenney, Merrill C. (2010). The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 1: Revised Full-Color Edition. Zondervan Academic. ISBN 9780310876960.
  3. ^ Fortna, Robert (2004). The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessor. London: T&T Clark International. p. 53. ISBN 9780567080691.
  4. ^ Thompson, George (1997). "Ahaṃkāra and Ātmastuti: Self-Assertion and Impersonation in the Ṛgveda". History of Religions. 37 (2): 141–171. doi:10.1086/463494. JSTOR 3176343. S2CID 162074159.
  5. ^ a b King, Daniel (2018). Experiencing Pain in Imperial Greek Culture. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p. 138. ISBN 9780198810513.
  6. ^ Lesko, Barbara S. (1999) The Great Goddesses of Egypt University of Oklahoma, Norman, pp. 196-199, ISBN 0-8061-3202-7
  7. ^ Barbara S. Lesko (1999). The Great Goddesses of Egypt. (Univ. of Oklahoma). p. 196. ISBN 978-0-8061-3202-0.
  8. ^ Laurent Pernot, Rhetoric in Antiquity, translated by W.E. Higgins (Catholic University of America Press, 2005), p. 80
  9. ^ Christopher Walter, The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition (Ashgate, 2003), p. 17.
  10. ^ Roger Rees, "Panegyric," in "A Companion to Roman Rhetoric (Blackwell, 2007), p. 140.
  11. ^ Walter, The Warrior Saints, p. 17; Alistair Stewart-Sykes, From Prophecy to Preaching: A Search for the Origins of the Christian Homily (Brill, 2001), p. 75.
  12. ^ John T. Harwood, The Early Essays and Ethics of Robert Boyle (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), p. xvii.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bergman, Jan (1968), Ich bin Isis. Studien zum memphitischen Hintergrund der griechischen Isisaretalogien. (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Historia religionum 3.) Uppsala
  • Hadas, Moses and Smith, Morton (1965) "Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity" Harper & Row, New York, ISBN 0-8369-1880-0
  • Smith, Morton (1971). "Prolegomena to a Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus". Journal of Biblical Literature. 90 (2): 174–199. doi:10.2307/3263759. JSTOR 3263759.
  • Kee, Howard C. (1973). "Aretalogy and Gospel". Journal of Biblical Literature. 92 (3): 402–422. doi:10.2307/3263581. JSTOR 3263581.
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. (1975) "Good News Is No News: Aretalogy and Gospel" in Neusner, Jacob (ed.) (1975) Christianity, Judaism and other Greco-Roman cults: studies for Morton Smith at sixty Brill, Leiden, vol. 1, pp. 21–38, ISBN 90-04-04215-6

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