Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.32

Santiago Montero, María Cruz Cardete (ed.), Naturaleza y religión en el mundo clásico: usos y abusos del medio natural. Thema mundi, 3.   Madrid:  Signifer Libros, 2011.  Pp. 272.  ISBN 9788493573485.  €20.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Marietta Horster, JGU Mainz (

The volume under review is the result of the fifth Italo-Spanish workshop on religion (“V Seminario hispano-italiano de Historia de las Religiones”), which took place in 2008. The preceding workshops, all of which have been published, each treated a different, broadly defined topic related to ancient religions. In this case, the subject is nature, naturalness and religion – the use and abuse of the natural environment. For exact titles and page-numbers see the contents list given at the end of the review.

The book starts with a paper by N. Spineto that addresses the well established subject of Dionysus and vinegrowing. The harvest and pressing of the grapes are presented as the violent aspects of Dionysus’ story and are equated with his dismemberment and death. Spineto argues that these central elements of wine-production are one aspect of what is remembered and ritualised at the Athenian Lenaia festival. In the second paper of this collection, M. Tozza concentrates on snakes as a symbol of rebirth and renewal in pre-Hellenic religion (Mycenae, Knossos) – an unfamiliar subject to the reviewer. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer” is the heading of O. Romeras presentation on the swallow as an animal and symbol (esp. for light) in Greek literature and in the few visual representations. He stresses the polysemantic use made of the swallow in augural techniques.

Thoughts on “real” landscapes in Pindar are presented by E. Suárez de la Torre. He explicitly excludes Pindar’s metaphorical landscape-language and concentrates on real as well as imaginary but realistic landscapes. Many of these are determined by the occasion – the winner’s home (e.g., Syracuse), the place where the competition took place (e.g., Delphi). Apart from prompts like these, which are often reduced to the names of cities and regions, landscapes are evoked to highlight divine intervention (often connected to the festival or contest) or animated nature with a religious-mythological imaginative context (e.g., the land of the Hyperboreans).

Insects are the focus of M. Moreno Conde’s paper. She chooses four examples: the mosquito, the cicada, the spider, and the ant. She analyses the interest and ability of Greek and Latin authors to add importance to the insects and to compare small animals with humans or human characteristics.

Demeter (alone or with her daughter Kore) is declared to be the most important deity for the control of nature-landscapes by Ma Cruz Cardete del Omo. With little interest in the details, she looks at Demeter’s sanctuaries in Agrigentum and Gela on Sicily and at the role of Demeter’s cult in unifying and binding together a colonial territory.

Fighting and overcoming nature by human interventions are the subjects of two papers, M. Rocchi’s on Xerxes’ bridge and his aggression against Greece and A. Saggiore’s about mistreatment of and disrespect for the sea. Rocchi looks especially at Xerxes, whom she interprets as someone who opposed the cosmic order, whereas Saggiore combines Xerxes’ and Caligula’s hybris with a discussion of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea and Jesus walking on water. The reviewer lost her way reading through these combinations.

S. Montero Herrero discusses bridges across rivers, which are supposed to be sacrileges for the Romans, because bridges would transform nature. Here, author and reader would have profited by a cross-reference to Rocchi’s and Seggara’s papers (see below), who both treat ancient and modern texts on the subject of artificial transformations of nature. In addition, a meta-discussion would have helped, because the transformation of nature by a bridge over a river is not a sacrilegium by law (and is therefore not remedied by the office of pontifex maximus mentioned in the emperor’s building inscription, so the argument) but instead was part of a literary concept of the divine quality of nature.

M. Valdés Guía and D. Plácido Suárez write about the domestication of nature (in crops, wine, olives) as creating identity for Athens. The authors discuss cults of the kourotrophian goddesses and of Erichthonius, as well as the role of purification and other rituals connected to the restoration of the fecundity of the soil.

A. Domínguez Monedero discusses the variants of the story of Cleomenes’ violation of the asylia function of sanctuaries and groves and his additional transgression of sacred rules by finally burning the grove in Argos. The discussion does not make clear how far the divine punishment of such transgressions is different in those cases where violation of nature (burning of trees) is involved. Later in the volume, D. Segarra takes up the idea of violation of nature, but her case is based on a discussion of a few ancient and many modern authors on the subject of artificial ennoblement of nature by gardening and landscaping, by engrafting plants or creating mutations. She is led quite far from her subject by looking for examples in Latin texts where purity of blood, of women, etc., is in modern terminology similar or comparable to that of purity of nature.

A. M. Capomaccia explores the monstruous, super-human aspects which especially pre-classical myths of origin add to nature. Probably influenced by these early mythological traditions, nature in Greek myths was able to become a locus classicus for heroic deeds.

F. Díez de Velasco’s paper takes the reader from the East to the West, to provincial Roman divinities. He claims that thermae in Roman Spain were connected only with cleanliness and hygiene and therefore not with divinities, for example in the building inscriptions of the thermae or by votives and altars in or near the building. In contrast to these observations are those on the balnea. They are often linked to the use of thermal, healing water. The water is interpreted as animated nature, as having supernatural qualities. Such baths were linked to healing and water-deities like Salus and the Nymphs or gods with local names.

Two papers take us to the sky, those by A. Pérez Jiménez and J. Delgado Delgado. While the first of the papers deals with Greek astrology and astrological catalogues, which, according to the author, are based on Egyptian and Babylonian knowledge, the paper by Delgado centers on Festus’ five categories of Roman augurium by the signs of nature, in a discussion of the usefulness of 19th-century interpretations of an evolution of religion (from primitive all-embracing deities to more specific and individual gods) for the interpretation of Roman religious concepts. Although the observation of animals might be attached to nature in the wider sense, the reviewer did not find a tie to nature and religion in the treatment of the subject of the circus, treated as a symbol by G. Vespignani. If there is such a link, it was probably not made explicit enough for a non-native speaker to detect. The last paper of the volume deals with hermits in the Thebais. Living in harmony with nature and animals, but also the goal of overcoming nature (esp. for human needs like food, communication, etc.), are discussed by S. Acerbi.

As the above short characterisations of many of these papers on nature and religion should have made clear, the book does not cohere well overall and the subject of nature and religion is addressed in the most wide-ranging manner. Some papers, like that on Demeter as an agent in colonisation and unification or those on the hybris of men towards nature, are less convincing. However, many presentations are coherent and well structured, some offer new insights in subjects currently under discussion, or add new aspects to the analysis of narrative structures and of the meta-language on nature.

Table of Contents

Natale SPINETO: Spontaneità naturale e intervento umano: aspetti religiosi della viticoltura in Grecia, pp. 9-18
Marcello TOZZA: Il serpente come simbolo di rigenerazione nella religione pre-ellenica, pp. 19-26
Ricardo OLMOS ROMERA: “Una golondrina no hace verano”, pp. 27-39
Emilio SUÁREZ DE LA TORRE: El paisaje en Píndaro, pp. 41-63
Margarita MORENO CONDE: Cuando lo diminuto enseña a pensar: el insecto en el imaginario griego, pp. 65-83
Ma Cruz CARDETE DEL OLMO: Los cultos a Deméter en Sicilia: naturaleza y poder político, pp. 85-94
Maria ROCCHI: Tra Olympos e Ossa: il “progetto” di Serse (Hdt. 7, 128-130), pp. 95-108
Miriam VALDÉS GUÍA y Domingo PLÁCIDO SUÁREZ: La domesticación de la naturaleza: el ritual de la labranza sagrada y otros ritos civilizadores de Atenas, pp. 109-124
Adolfo DOMÍNGUEZ MONEDERO: Destrucción de la naturaleza y castigo divino: Cleómenes de Esparta y el bosque sagrado de Argos, pp. 125- 142
Anna Maria CAPOMACCHIA: Natura e paesaggio nelle vicende eroiche, pp. 143-150
Francisco DÍEZ DE VELASCO: La naturaleza entre la concreción y la abstracción: el imaginario de las divinidades termales en la Península Ibérica antigua, pp. 151-164
Alessandro SAGGIORO: Calpestare acque marine: I ponti di Serse e Caligola e l’abuso contro la natura, pp. 165-194
Diana SEGARRA: El adulterio entre árboles: Ars contra Natura en la religión romana, pp. 185-198
Santiago MONTERO HERRERO: Augusto y los puentes: ingeniería y religión, pp. 199-212
Aurelio PÉREZ JIMÉNEZ: Fundamentos religiosos y mitológicos de la atribución de plantas, metales, piedras y animales a los cinco dioses planetarios, pp. 213-232
José DELGADO DELGADO: Quinque genera signorum. Naturaleza y adivinación en la Roma antigua, pp. 233-248
Giorgio VESPIGNANI: Naturaleza e ideología política romana en el simbolismo del circo, pp. 249-257
Silvia ACERBI: La naturaleza del monje: elementos de una geografía espiritual, pp. 259-272
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