Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.05

Matthew Dillon, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in Ancient Greece. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. Pp. xix, 308. $70.00. ISBN 0-415-12775-0.

Reviewed by Edward Kadletz, Ball State University,

A good deal of interesting work has been done in the last ten years on Greek sanctuaries, including their development and the importance of their location for the history of the polis and interstate relations in ancient Greece.1 Dillon's book would seem to be a natural extension of this fruitful area of inquiry.

D. sets out to examine a heretofore overlooked topic, pilgrims and pilgrimage in ancient Greece. One reason that this topic has been overlooked is, as D. himself admits (pp. xv-xvi), that there are no words in ancient Greek to denote 'pilgrim' or 'pilgrimage.' It seems that the Greeks were especially literal-minded when it came to naming those who are now called 'pilgrims.' They called them 'those going to the sanctuary' or 'those consulting the oracle.' Thus it might seem that the category of 'pilgrimage' is a modern one, or at least not an ancient Greek one, and that the application of it to a society seemingly unaware of it must be a risky venture.

New viewpoints, especially one like D.'s that grows from a body of very successful research on sanctuaries already carried out, can sometimes be helpful as modern historians look back at societies so very alien to their own, but there is always the risk that modern ideas and categories might not fit the ancient circumstances. It is, of course, impossible for a modern scholar not to do this to some extent; he can never be truly free of modern thought-patterns. But most historians try to avoid this corruption as much as possible. Therefore, the deliberate overlaying of modern categories on ancient practices is doubly dangerous, and the results must show that the corruption has been justified.

But, in truth, if the definition of a pilgrimage is simply a journey to some shrine or sacred place, then the fact of pilgrimage, if not the word, certainly did exist in Greece. Still, the fact that the Greeks did not recognize the category of 'pilgrimage' leads to yet other problems. The Greeks could leave behind no organized data on a category that was non-existent to them, and the modern historian is thus forced to collect disorganized scraps of information to bolster his thesis. As every student of Greek religion knows, this is all too often the case anyway. The evidence for many rites, customs, and beliefs is already scattered and scanty, and here the dearth of evidence is likely to be even worse. And indeed this proves to be the case for D.

D. examines journeys made to the sites of four common types of religious rite: pan-hellenic athletic (and artistic) contests, mystery cults, oracles, and healing shrines. He begins with an examination of the evidence for sacred truces, which allowed travelers safe passage to and from the games, and of the official heralds who went about to announce them. This is all actually quite interesting, but right away the difficulties with D.'s thesis become evident. He spends pages discussing the heralds, their financial arrangements, and the whole system that housed and fed them in the cities they visited. But the reader is forced to wonder, where have the pilgrims gone? What have theoroi, which can mean the 'spectators' themselves, but here in D.'s treatment clearly refers to 'ambassadors' and 'heralds,' and theorodokoi, the people selected by various cities to host the visiting envoys, to do with pilgrims?

There is no doubt that these officials and their arrangements were part of the system that allowed pilgrimages to Olympia and the other sites of contests, but the emphasis seems misplaced. And the reason is not difficult to find. The evidence from ancient Greece directly bearing on pilgrims and their journeys is very slight. Therefore, D. is required to spend most of his book detailing information that is only peripheral to his thesis, and that is covered in more detail in other books.

The second chapter works better. Here D. discusses the sanctity and inviolability of pilgrims, along with the vicissitudes they would have undergone on their journeys. D. provides interesting information on the nature of travel in the ancient world, by sea, quicker but with the danger of storms and pirates, and by land, longer but cheaper, and with its own dangers from larcenous innkeepers and marauding armies. There is a presentation of the effects of the Peloponnesian Wars and other major wars on pilgrimage. All this is nicely organized, nicely written, and well worth reading.

But the next two chapters again highlight D.'s difficulties. They deal with the various destinations of pilgrims: mystery cults, healing sanctuaries, oracles, and contests at pan-hellenic festivals. The problem of lack of evidence about the pilgrims themselves again forces D. to spend pages describing the games, their dates, rules, prizes, etc., all information better covered elsewhere. The same objection holds true for all the presentations in these chapters.

Chapter 5 deals with pilgrimages by ethnic groups, another category favored by modern scholars. There were without a doubt some festivals in Greece that were organized on ethnic lines, such as the Panionia of the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor and the celebrations at the shrine of Apollo Triopion for the neighboring Dorians. However, many of the sites discussed in this chapter seem more political or geographical than ethnic in their make-up. For example, D. discusses the Daidala, a local rite held at Plataea every four years. Every sixty years (!) the other cities of Boeotia were invited to attend the Great Daidala. But one wonders if this was really an ethnic gathering, as D. believes. He offers no evidence that the Boeotians thought of themselves as a separate ethnos. The same problem arises with the festivals fostered by the Athenians in their days of Empire. It remains an unanswered question whether these were ethnic festivals, and not rather political gatherings emphasizing a separateness from the more Spartan-controlled festivals such as the Olympics. D. admits that Byzantium, a Doric member of the Delian League, took part in the supposed Ionian Panathenaia. This suggests a political, rather than an ethnic, nature for the festival.

Chapter 7 collects the scarce evidence for women as pilgrims. Here the perhaps modern viewpoint is more successful. The special concerns of women, which sent them to fertility festivals like the Thesmophoria and to consultations at healing and oracular shrines, reward this separate treatment. The chapter is short, but gives a well-rounded idea of women's opportunities and difficulties in going on pilgrimage.

Finally, chapters six and eight, which deal with various regulations at cult sites visited by travelers, do succeed in giving the reader some idea of what traveling to festivals in ancient Greece might actually have been like. These chapters deal with everyday matters, such as finding the necessary water, wood, and shelter, along with more ritual requirements, like the need for purity in food, clothing, and behavior. D. also examines the expense of the offerings required at various shrines.

This book on pilgrims and pilgrimages is, then, a not wholly successful attempt to examine a new topic. The unfortunate need to fill out the book with information marginal to the main thesis leads to some frustration. But the part that is about actual travelers, their goals and their vicissitudes, is interesting and worth reading.  


1. E.g., F. de Polignac, Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City-State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995 (an updated trans. of the 1984 French original); A. Schachter and J. Bingen (edd.), Le sanctuaire grec. Geneva: Vandoeuvres, 1992 (vol. 37 of the Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique); N. Marinatos and R. Hägg (edd.), Greek Sanctuaries: New Approaches. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.