Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.11.19

Giuseppe Garbati, Religione votiva: per un'interpretazione storico-religiosa delle terrecotte votive nella Sardegna punica e tardo-punica. Supplemento alla Rivista di Studi Fenici 34 (2006).   Pisa/Roma:  Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2008.  Pp. 121.  ISBN 9788862270779.  €160.00.  

Reviewed by Chiara Peri, Rome (
Word count: 1752 words

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This book is the result of several years of careful collection of archaeological data and of deep methodological reflection in the slippery field of the study of Phoenician religion. The author has made the brave attempt of offering a new interpretation of important materials which consist of votive terracottas of Punic and Late-Punic Sardinia (4th-2nd century B.C.).

The importance of Garbati's work consists, first of all, in systematic data collection, with an attempt to analyse the context of the findings. Unfortunately, as Garbati explains, sometimes such important information is irremediably lost because of the history of the research in the island and the lack of scientific publication of the findings. Nevertheless, the catalogue of the votives is only part of the aim of the book. Most of it is devoted to discussion of key themes related to their interpretation. All the available data, including archaeological materials from different cultural contexts, epigraphic texts, classical sources and any other relevant historic information, are put together to draw a fresh picture of a very complicated and peculiar historical period of this Mediterranean island. In the examined period, Carthaginian control in Sardinia (both economic and cultural) reached its climax and, at the same time, Rome finally occupied the island. The specific interest of the author is focused on the Phoenician and Punic heritage in the island, but it is impossible to isolate the Semitic element from all the other cultural components which, in the examined period in particular, are closely intertwined. Garbati chooses the religious perspective as a path towards deciphering such a complex context, using the study of cultic actions and beliefs as a fully historical science.

Chapter 1 is devoted to the presentation of the aim of the book and of a first definition of the term "votive religion", used in the title. Particularly interesting, from a methodological point of view, is the paragraph where several terms often used to define groups of materials found in the same archaeological context are carefully discussed (favissa, stipe, votive deposit, fossae, bothroi and thysiae). It is important to be very clear in using such definitions, since they imply an interpretation of the nature of the group of materials and, most of all, of the intention of the ones who have created such deposits in ancient times. In most cases, both aspects are in fact unclear.

Chapter 2 is a synthetic presentation of all the contexts and materials which are object of the study. The catalogue is organised geographically (Cagliari and Southern Sardinia; area of Gulf of Oristano; north-western Sardinia and the Sassari area; the central internal region; Olbia and its territory), so that all the available information is easy to read and to find. Garbati clearly indicates all the lacunae in the documentation and the objective problems in the study, such as lack of scientific publication of ancient and/or occasional findings. A map of the distribution of the finds on the island (p. 15, fig. 1), including all the sites mentioned in the text, is very helpful for the reader. In the following chapters (3- 4), G starts to develop the analysis of the theme. Chapter 3 is devoted to votive terracottas: their position in Phoenician and Punic tradition, with consideration of function and iconography, is then examined in the light of Greek and Italic influences. The analysis is followed by more general and methodological consideration of "votive religion": Garbati evokes the need of new certainties in a confused and changing political context as a possible interpretation of forms of devotion which appear to be focused on fertility of the fields and personal health of the individual. Such considerations are further developed in the following chapter, with the support of methodological and terminological observations.

Chapter 5-7 are devoted to discussion of key themes in the study of Phoenician and Punic religion in the Mediterranean in particular: the cult of female divinities in relation to fertility (and the unavoidable vexata quaestio of the cult of Demeter in Carthage and in the rest of the Punic world); the so-called "cult of water" as a possible link between Eastern and Western tradition (with particular reference to Achaemenid Phoenicia); the relation between votive religion and the "official" religious system. Two more specific themes are discussed, respectively, in chapter 6 and 7: the iconography of the Egyptian god Bes, widely attested in Punic Sardinia, and its significance within Semitic religion and the cult of ancestors on the island, in relation to the enigmatic divine figure of Sardus Pater-Sid attested in the temple of Antas.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the attempt to read the different components of religious culture of Late Punic and Roman Sardinia as a complex framework of interactions and exchanges. Garbati constantly warns the reader against the risks of being misled by distinctions and definitions which are too rigid. It is , for instance, the distinction between "popular" and "high" religion that is particularly unclear when the ex-voto appears to have identical purpose and typology: in this case, the difference appears to be only in the quality of the manufacture of the object, while the message is the same. This is made clear by the fact that they often co-exist in the same sanctuary ("In alcuni santuari sardi, per esempio, accanto alla presenza di terracotte di realizzazione modesta compaiono manufatti di fattura 'colta' che, seppure differenti dalle prime nella lavorazione, non sembrano veicolare un messaggio diverso", p. 67).

Another important point in Garbati's analysis is the case of "cultural synthesis" in mixed settlements, or sacred places where the interaction of communities of different origin is particularly evident, such as Linna Pertunta. According to Garbati, cultural exchanges between the various components of Sardinian population resulted in peculiar forms of religious interaction and even in the development of forms of specific local religion ("una religiosità locale dai tratti originali", p. 70).

Still, general doubt remains as to the usefulness of the term "popular religion", considering all its limits and its necessary functional fluidity, so well described by Garbati in Chapter 4.4. Considering that Garbati arrives at the conclusion that it is necessary to specify the exact meaning of the definition every time that it is used ("si ritiene necessario delimitarne di volta in volta il valore", p. 69), the reader inevitably wonders if it is really worth the effort.

Concerning the interesting theme of the iconography of Bes (Chapter 6.3) and of the possible identification with a Phoenician god, its complexity and the richness of implication would have perhaps deserved a deeper discussion. No mention is made of the hypothesis by Cristiano Grottanelli ("Eracle dattilo dell'Ida: aspetti 'orientali'": Oriens Antiquus 11, 1972, pp. 201-208; the article is mentioned in the final bibliography and in footnote 59, p. 86) about the possible connection with the "Heracles Dactylus" mentioned by Pausanias and Diodorus of Sicily. Particularly interesting is the testimony of the latter (Bibliotheca historica V, 64, 7) to amulets, the class of materials where Bes iconography is most widely attested: "And evidence of this, they tell us, is found in the fact that many women even to this day take their incantations from this god [Heracles Dactylus] and make amulets in his name, on the ground that he was a wizard and practised the art of initiatory rites". It would have been useful to mention also the attestations of Bes in North Africa (especially Carthage and Sabratha) and in Spain. (See for instance the article by Antonella Spanò Giammellaro, "Brevi notazioni su una scultura del Museo Punico di Sabratha", Quaderni di Archeologia della Libia 17, 1995, pp. 41-52 and G. Garbati, "L'immagine di Bes in Sardegna: appunti su un "indicatore morfologico", in C. Bonnet, V. Pirenne-Delforge, D. Praet (eds.), Les religions orientales dans le monde grec et romain : cent ans après Cumont (1906-2006), Bruxelles/Rome, 2009, p. 293-308.)

The book increases the accessibility of an important class of material and contributes to the historical interpretation of a specific but characteristic aspect of common Mediterranean heritage. Some lines of research suggested by G, such as the connections between Western colonies and Phoenician homeland, especially in the 6th century B.C., appear particularly promising for a better understanding of Phoenician religion.

Table of contents:

Capitolo primo. Metodologia e obiettivi: 1. Religione votiva: definizione e inquadramento; 2. I contesti e i materiali: aspetti e problemi dell'indagine; 3. Note terminologiche (3. 1. "Favisse" e "stipi"). Capitolo secondo. La documentazione archeologica. Distribuzione e fisionomia: 1. Il territorio di Cagliari e la regione centro-meridionale della Sardegna; 2. Il territorio del Golfo di Oristano; 3. La fascia nord-occidentale e il Sassarese; 4. La regione centrale interna; 5. Olbia e il suo territorio. Capitolo terzo. La documentazione archeologica. Le terrecotte votive: 1. I "fedeli sofferenti" e la tradizione fenicia; 2. L'eredità fenicia: le immagini di Bes; 3. L'impulso greco: le statuette di divinityà femminili (3. 1. I thymiateria a testa femminile); 4. La tradizione italica e gli ex voto anatomici; 5. La tradizione italica: i devoti e la statuaria fittile; 6. Varia; 7. I contesti e il materiale votivo. Osservazioni generali (7. 1. Il caso di Santa Gilla); 8. Religione votiva: prime considerazioni. Capitolo quarto. Religione popolare, religione personale. Riflessioni sulla terminologia e sul metodo: 1. Premessa; 2. Artigianato popolare e religione popolare; 3. Autonomia e individualità del voto: il caso di Linna Pertunta; 4. Religione popolare: fluidità simbolica e problemi applicativi; 5. Le divinità: problemi di riconoscimento. Capitolo quinto. Le divinità femminili e i culti agrari e fertilistici: 1. La dea e le messi (1. 1. Il racconto diodoreo sul culto di Demetra e la documentazione cartaginese; 1. 2. Le terrecotte con divinità femminili in Sardegna: iconografia e iconologia; 1. 3. Demetra / Cerere tra Cartagine e Roma). Capitolo sesto. Tra oriente e occidente: la sanatio e il "culto delle acque": 1. La sanatio: i votivi e le acque; 2. Il "devoto sofferente" a Bitia e a Neapolis: la sanatio come fenomeno sociale (2. 1. I "devoti sofferenti" e il culto di Eshmun/Esculapio in Sardegna); 3. L'iconografia di Bes: un'immagine "in prestito" (3. 1. Il problema della continuità); 4. Il "culto delle acque": problemi ed elementi di distinzione (4. 1. Le acque e il culto tra la tradizione nuragica e l'età ellenistica: proposte di lettura); 5. L'acqua tra sanatio e fertilità. Capitolo settimo. Religione votiva e sistema religioso "ufficiale": 1. [S]D 'DR B'BY. Antenato progenitore; 2. [S]D 'DR B'BY. Antenato guaritore; 3. Demetra ad Antas? 4. Le terrecotte votive e il culto "pubblico": interferenze e autonomie.

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