Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.34

Carmela Angela Di Stefano (ed.), Demetra; La divinità, i santuari, il culto, la leggenda, Atti del I Congresso internazionale, Enna, 1-4 luglio 2004.   Pisa/Roma:  Fabrizio Serra, 2008.  Pp. 296.  ISBN 9788862270380.  €185.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Milena Melfi, University of Oxford (
Word count: 2358 words

This volume consists of the proceedings of a conference held in Enna in 2004 and aimed at collecting the results of the most recent research on the cult and cult-places of Demeter. It appears only ten years after the publication of the exhaustive account of the cult in Sicily and Magna Graecia by Valentina Hinz, although little progress has been made in the intervening years. The 24 papers are of varying quality, subject and length and suffer from a certain lack of editorial rigour. They range from the Bronze Age to the 18th century and cover the whole Mediterranean, although focusing on Sicily. The wealth of information provided is impressive, but the reader may find it difficult to understand which considerations might have inspired the sequence of authors or the choice of areas under examination.

In this review I will concentrate on the most coherent group of contributions--unfortunately placed in different parts of the volume--on the spread and development of the cult of Demeter in Sicily.

The papers by Chirassi Colombo, Sfameni Gasparro, Schipporeit and Caltabiano set the context for the study of the cult and provide the ideological foundation for the religious and political connections between Demeter and the island of Sicily.

Chirassi Colombo (pp. 15-24) explains the nature of Demeter Thesmophoria as a goddess of civilization and social control. The Eleusinian aspect of the deity is considered a later and typically Athenian development, on the basis of the literary tradition (Homeric Hymns). The political choices of the Dinomenids of Syracuse determined--according to the author--the passage of the Eleusinian myth to Sicily and the appropriation of the rape of Persephone and wanderings of Demeter by the city of Henna. In fact, the Syracusan tyrants are considered responsible for both the importation of the two goddesses' rites into Syracuse and for the foundation of Henna, but the ideological bases ofthe author's argument, including the choice of Sicily as privileged site for the localization of the myth, remain blurred (and self-referential footnoting does not help). As a consequence, the cult of Demeter Hennaia is interpreted as a totally Greek import, despite the later, Roman, traditions which connect the goddess with the indigenous background.

Sfameni Gasparro (pp. 25-40) shares the same concept of the Demetran cult as a Greek import. She traces its origins to the arrival of the Corinthian colonists at Syracuse and outlines its development from the 7th century BC to the Roman conquest, when the island of Sicily was definitely considered sacred to the two goddesses--mother and daughter-- and Henna and Syracuse were respectively believed to be the location of Persephone's rape and disappearance into the underworld . Turning points for the appropriation of the myth are considered the period of the tyrants--when Sicily was in competition with the motherland--and the 3rd/2nd centuries BC--when the grain production of the newly acquired Roman province justified the claim of the island to be the first place to produce grain in the Greek world. Although such development takes into account a possible role played by indigenous religion, the author concludes that this point is still in need of demonstration. The paper includes a valuable summary of the archaeological and literary testimonies regarding the cult of Demeter in Syracuse, despite the inclusion of finds of Demetran type which do not necessarily relate to the cult of the two goddesses [such as the head from Laganello, the votives from the Artemision of Santuzza, or the votive deposit of Fusco].

Schipporeit (pp. 41-46) further defines the political role of the myth of Demeter in Sicily, dating the tradition of the Sicilian location of the rape back to the historian Philistus, source of the later Timaeus. The myth was adapted and changed to a Sicilian model at the time of the Syracusan expansion under Dionysios I, when the tyrant first acquired partial control of Henna (403 BC) and later seized the polis (396 BC). The cultural policy following the annexation of Henna included, in Syracuse , the composition of a poem by Carcinus in honour of the two goddesses and the minting of coins with the head of Demeter on the obverse; in Henna, the dedication of a statue of Triptolemus was commemorated by bronze issues. Dionysius probably aimed at creating a pan-Sicilian myth and identity to compete with Athens and her associated sanctuary in Eleusis.

This symbolic and political role of Demeter in the consolidation of a common Sicilian identity is similarly emphasized in the paper by Maria Caltabiano on the coin iconography of the two goddesses (pp. 123-134). After the Sicilian expedition of 415 BC the pan-Sicilian reaction against Athens, stirred by Syracuse, seems to be confirmed by the choice of the numismatic type of Demeter for the coins of Henna, Segesta, Syracuse and Selinous. Later on, the image of the two goddesses is used a number of times to stress a Sicilian ideal of renovation and freedom, such as under Timoleon and Agathokles.

The papers dealing with the archaeological documentation from sites devoted to the cult of Demeter in Sicily (by De Miro, Orlandini, Rizza, Bell, Di Stefano, Spatafora) offer a very different picture from the previous ones. Rather than supporting an official and centrally promoted political role of the goddess, they mostly point towards a popular religious sentiment and its conscious exploitation within the colonial environment. This line of interpretation, of obvious relevance for the reader, is nevertheless not developed in the above-mentioned articles.

The papers by De Miro (pp. 47-92), Orlandini (pp. 173-186) and Rizza (pp. 187-192), despite being a summary of well-known and long-published data, elucidate the basic characteristics of the Demetran cult in the Sicilian poleis of Gela, Akragas, and Catania. In all cases the cult starts after 650 BC, is strongly directed to a female audience and initially characterized by the lack of permanent cult buildings. The enormous quantities of terracotta offerings found in the sacred areas--statuettes, vases and lamps--point towards a large frequentation and the practice of thesmophoric rituals. In the course of the 5th century BC, and possibly in view of Dinomenid interest, thesmophoria such as the one of Bitalemi at Gela are given monumental structures (Orlandini), and new iconographic types, such as the female worshipper holding a piglet, are introduced in the choroplastic production of the island (Rizza). The fact that most of the colonies taken into consideration have several cult places, or large votive deposits of Demetran character even in private houses (Bell on Morgantina; Distefano on Camarina) attests to the great popularity and success of the cult from the Archaic period onwards. Even though such popularity might have been exploited by the Dinomenids, this does not appear to be a main feature within the actual development of the cult in Sicily, judging from the archaeological evidence.

The most tangible political exploitation of the cult of the two goddesses seems to have taken place in the context of the colonial appropriation of Sicilian land. The cults of Demeter and Kore appear to define the limits and functions of newly acquired or re-founded territories. In Gela, the sanctuaries of Bitalemi and Madonna dell'Alemanna are located at the borders of the settlement (Orlandini) and seem to constitute a link between the polis and its chora, as well as between the colonists and the local populations. They provided protection of and control over the main features of the territory--the city, the fertile agricultural plain, the river and the sea-- therefore granting the fertility of both land and women. Also in Akragas the sanctuaries of the two goddesses are given extra-urban locations (De Miro), next to or beyond the city-walls, possibly providing a similar connection between the Greeks, the fertile colonial hinterland and the local populations. In the enlightening case of the colony of Morgantina (Bell, pp. 155-160), the cult places of the two goddesses appear completely embedded in the urban layout with three sanctuaries placed in habitation plots of standard size and at least 10 more cult places spread in different part of the polis and chora. This pattern suggests that when the land was divided among the citizens the goddesses were assigned several plots and their cult was as planned as the political organization of the town. A similar pattern is probably identifiable also in Camarina, where an area of the town was called Persephassa according to the epigraphical evidence (Di Stefano, pp. 261-272), which might imply the inclusion of the goddess in the land distribution pattern. Both Morgantina and Camarina were re-founded in the 5th cent. BC and the Demetran cults therein appear to be founded in border areas, next to the city walls, the necropoleis or the agricultural fields.

The archaeological evidence from the sanctuaries of Demeter in Corinth, Gortyna and Cyrene is the subject of papers by Bookidis, Allegro and White. Rather than giving an exhaustive account onDemetran cults in other parts of the Greek world they serve to set the Sicilian evidence in context and help to explain the function and visitation of the sanctuaries.

Bookidis (pp. 99-106) points out the similarities between the Corinthian and the Sicilian cults: extra-urban location, cult-buildings of uncanonical form, the presence of raised and pit altars, evidence of animal (esp. pigs) sacrifice and communal consumption, large number of terracotta offerings (figurines and votive pots), emphasis on fertility in agriculture and marriage. It therefore seems likely that the cult was imported to Sicily directly from the mainland in the context of the colonial enterprise. The workings of this import are not completely clear since colonies such as Selinous provide evidence of Demetran cult from their foundation, even though the goddesses were not worshipped in their mother-city of Megara, whilst at Syracuse the cult is not attested from the foundation but only begins some 200 years after that of Corinth.

Allegro's paper (pp. 107-122) on Gortyna offers the clearest example of a relatively late Demetran cult, which can be easily compared with the well-attested 5th century phases of the minor Sicilian cults. The site is extra-urban, and lacks permanent architectural features. Dedications consist mostly of terracotta figurines representing female goddesses or worshippers with piglets, and are associated with general fertility issues, though some of their iconographic features preserve the local flavour. Differently from the Sicilian examples, the Gortynian terracottas seem to be produced in limited quantities. The analysis of the cook-ware suggests that large chytrai were used for the preparation of cereal soups and hot-pots, while the animal remains show a prevailing 80% of pig bones. Finally lamps and kernoi dedicated in the sanctuary after their use confirm the practice of nocturnal rites. Thanks to its careful study of the materials, this is the only paper which gives a glimpse at the actual ritual taking place in a Demetran sanctuary.

Finally White's paper on Cyrene (pp. 161-166) confirms and enhances the characteristics of the cult in a colonial environment, as seen in Sicily. Demeter is the main goddess of the Cyrenaean chora, established in extramural sanctuaries and overseeing the vast agricultural territory of the colony. From the 7th century BC cult places for Demeter accompany the territorial expansion of the colony: they both mark off the space of the polis and manage the cultural borders between Greek and native populations. This latter and most important function of the cult of Demeter, which leads in Cyrene--as much as in colonial Sicily--to the cross-cultural adoption of religious ideas, constitutes the common denominator of the South Italian sanctuaries in Messapia and Locri Epizefirioi, subjects of the rich and interesting analyses of Mastronuzzi and Sabbione-Macrì.

Of the issues listed in the title of the volume (la divinità, i santuari, il culto, la leggenda), the second one (i santuari) is certainly the best investigated. Many of the essays contain invaluable new archaeological information and historical data on a number of sites connected with the cult of Demeter. On the negative side, some papers repeat previous publications and well-known research achievements; their footnoting is somewhat frustrating because of its self-referentiality or even its absence. Other issues from the title are unfortunately not properly addressed: 'la divinitaà' and 'la leggenda' are very briefly introduced in the first papers, while the cult, its practice and rituality, is absent from the investigation. The only laudable attempts in this respect are those of Ernesto De Miro--who focuses on the festivals and processions for the goddess and its participants-- and Alberto Sposito (pp. 221-234)--who tries to identify the cultic routes beyond the structures and buildings of the sanctuaries at Morgantina.

Both the positive and negative sides of this volume contribute nevertheless in opening up new perspectives and lines of enquiry. For example, the unique role of the cult of Demeter in the colonial environment and possibly in the colonization process itself emerges clearly and could be better investigated in the future. Greek colonization in the West ultimately consisted in the appropriation of foreign land (esp. agricultural); Demeter, the goddess of the land par excellence, was called on to shape the sacred landscape and manage the borders between Greek and non-Greek, urban and rural, as much as the social boundaries and roles within newly founded communities. In this respect, the suggestions by Nancy Bookidis (p. 104) that many sources "preserve stories that link Demeter directly or indirectly with colonization or re-colonization" and that the Corinthian Demeter epoikidia might be connected with the verb epoikein, are enlightening. This role might be surprisingly confirmed even for the Roman period, if it is true that in post-146 BC Corinth the sanctuary of the two goddesses was the first to be revived after the settling of the Roman colony, and that, in the years following the territorial re-organization of the province of Sicily after the Second Punic war, most of the Sicilian towns adopted the monetary type of Demeter-Ceres (Caltabiano, p. 129).

In this respect we are grateful to the organizers of the conference and the editor of the volume, because the decision to dedicate four days of research to the archaeology and history of a single cult allows us to single out phenomena such as these--otherwise scarcely visible. We are looking forward to the next meeting of the kind which is promised by the title of this, the First International Conference.

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