Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.08

Angelos Chaniotis (ed.), Ritual Dynamics in the Ancient Mediterranean: Agency, Emotion, Gender, Representation. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien (HABES), 49​.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011.  Pp. 390.  ISBN 9783515099165.  €62.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lynn E. Roller, University of California, Davis (

Table of Contents

This collection of essays had its origin in a conference, ‘Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual’, held in Heidelberg in 2008. Several of the papers in the volume were originally delivered at that conference; subsequently the editor solicited additional contributions to broaden the thematic and geographic scope of the topic. Taken together, the group of papers makes interesting and valuable contributions to the growing literature on ritual activities and the social and historical role of ritual in the ancient Mediterranean world. It does not aim to be comprehensive, but focuses on selected examples of rituals at individual sites and case studies of specific institutions such as priesthood. Most papers discuss aspects of rituals performed in the context of cult practice, but some focus on ritual actions in different settings, e.g. political rituals such as the investiture of a new ruler or private rituals such as funerary rites. The authors shy away from a consistent definition of ritual and most do not even attempt such a definition. One who does, Létoublon (p. 291), proposes that ritual comprises a series of consistent and repeated actions and words that convey a social agreement within a given community, and this definition accords well with the discussions of the other contributors. The subthemes noted in the volume’s title receive unequal weight: gender is the focus of only a few papers, while emotion and agency are discussed in several papers. The major emphasis of the book is on the Greek world, but individual essays also address ritual practices in Iron Age Italy, Egypt, Punic sites in North Africa and Spain, and the Roman world.

Since the most common topic is ritual in the context of religious cult activity, I will comment on the papers concerned with that subject first. Several papers address an important question: how can a modern viewer understand the activities of ancient cult practice and the meaning that such activities conveyed to those who participated in them from limited textual sources and the empty stones of archaeological remains? In posing this question, these essays contribute to the contemporary discourse on pre-Christian cult practice in the ancient Mediterranean region that seeks to view ancient religious practice as a series of actions and events that fully engaged the participants. Some essays approach the topic through an analysis of ritual space, while others examine visual images depicting ritual acts or written texts that describe ritual.

One topic is the archaeological evidence for ritual. Elisa Perego investigates Iron Age cult and burial sites in the Veneto district of northern Italy to investigate questions of gender and agency in ritual practices. She offers an intriguing reading of the cult material to suggest how the prominence of women and women’s artifacts can be used as evidence for women’s roles in cult practice. Joan Connelly looks at the archaeological evidence for space where ritual took place. Using examples from Athens, Messene, and Yeronisos on Cyprus, she discusses these as settings for ephemeral activities such as processions, song, and dance that would have enlivened otherwise empty spaces. In so doing, Connelly conjures up a vivid picture of the emotional content of these ritual actions and their important social roles for the communities that performed them.

Some essays tackle the complex question of ritual and memory. Eftychia Stavrianopoulou discusses issues raised by the transition from oral tradition to written description in the conduct of sacrifices and other rituals, using test cases from the fourth and second century BCE. As she effectively shows, the very act of committing tradition to written records was a process that both codified and changed contemporary view of the past. Fritz Graf discusses three examples of the revival of traditional (older) Greek cults and cult practices, such as ephebic choruses during the early Imperial era and integrating these with the Roman Imperial cult. This allowed Greek cities of the first century CE to exploit their principal psychological capital, their distinguished Classical past, yet also bound them more closely to the new realities of Roman Imperial rule.

The role of ritual in civic life is another recurring theme. Ioanna Patera examines the record of Eleusinian ritual and the mysteries of Demeter; she ably demonstrates that even though the Eleusinian Mysteries, the best known mystery cult in the ancient world, were supposedly immutable and shrouded in secrecy, in practice changes were introduced into Eleusinian practice and the rituals were disseminated to sites outside of Attica. The causes of change were often connected with contemporary political pressures, showing that even these venerable rites did not escape the effect of contemporary events. Flavia Frisone examines funerary rituals and poses similar questions about change and continuity in this most basic ritual, one that was supposedly rooted in ancestral customs yet often reflected changes in contemporary social norms.

Synnøve des Bouvrie addresses the tie between ritual and the theater, reviewing both the institution of the dramatic festival of Dionysos and the nature of the individual theatrical genres of comedy, tragedy, and satyr plays. She analyzes the ritual actions of the festival itself, such as procession, transfer of phallic symbol, incorporation of ritual abuse, and the more specific roles played by the separate dramatic genres. Des Bouvrie sees theater and the dramatic festivals as a means to ease social tensions and express the desire for gratification while reinforcing the expected social norms needed to maintain stability in the household and the city. The author raises many interesting and provocative points, although her arguments are somewhat diluted by her extensive reliance on summaries of other people’s scholarship, a trait that causes the essay to read almost like a chapter from a doctoral dissertation.

Another theme that recurs is the role of ritual to inspire and express emotion. Alexandra Verbovsek’s paper looks at ritual actions as a means of controlling the expression of emotions in ancient Egypt, focusing on ritualistic responses to death and the role of ritual in the accession and coronation of a new ruler. She discusses the importance of ritual from two perspectives: its use as a means of channeling strong emotions, particularly grief and bereavement, and as a tool to create the socially expected emotional expression, such as adoration and awe for the new ruler on the occasion of his/her coronation. Angelos Chaniotis discusses the incorporation of emotional responses into cult practice in the Greek East during the Roman period. Numerous inscriptions from Greece and Asia Minor attest to the prominence of rituals that encouraged civic pride, joy, awe, fear of a deity’s power, and gratitude, in both community and individual cult acts. I am not convinced by Chaniotis’s statement that this phenomenon was particularly characteristic of the Roman era – after all, what was the Panathenaic festival in Athens during the fifth century BCE, if not a celebration of civic pride, joy, and awe at the power of the deity? But Chaniotis demonstrates effectively that there is more documentation for the self-conscious expression of emotion in ritual during the Roman era, which may signal its greater importance.

Ritual language is the subject of the paper by Françoise Létoublon, who addresses the question of literary language used for the ritual of prayer in the Iliad. She investigates the words used to describe prayer, both public and private, and the gestures that often accompany it. As she notes, the correct performance of ritual in prayer does not always guarantee success.

Two papers analyze the evidence for ritual practice in Phoenician or Punic shrines. Mireia López-Bertran describes the evidence for ritual activity in two shrines located on Eivissa, one of the Balearic islands near southern Spain. Her interest is in the level of ritual engagement by individual cult participants in a setting where there is little or no evidence for the presence of priests or temples. She suggests that the presence of figurines with unusual costumes or gestures reflects the active participation of their dedicators in a variety of cult activities involving sight, hearing, smell, and sexual activities, actions that were not controlled by a cult hierarchy of priests but directed by the participants themselves. Matthew McCarty looks at the evidence for change in rituals performed at the Punic tophet (burial grounds) in Hadrumentum, in Tunisia. He discusses the changes in the material deposited in the tophet, both the remains of the sacrificial victims, human and animal, and the stelai set over the buried victims, including several decorated with relief scenes. The paper offers an interesting look at the changes in the ritual practices at the site, even as it demonstrates the continuity of ritual usage over a period of some eight centuries. McCarty’s careful analysis of this material forms a model for close reading of the physical evidence from a cult place, a reading unencumbered by presuppositions from literary evidence or assumptions of Roman influence.

Martijn Icks chooses a different subject, as he turns his attention to ritual in a political context. Icks describes how a key event, the installation of a new Roman emperor, developed from a series of informal although critically important actions to a more formal procedure of proclamation and investiture, complete with imperial regalia. Icks’s study takes an unconventional approach, describing the accession of three unsuccessful and short-lived emperors, Otho in the first century CE, Didius Julianus in the later second century, and Procopius in the fourth. Icks carefully analyzes the historical sources that describe the accession of each man to the Imperial throne and how each failed to carry out the essential steps necessary to acquire the support of the soldiers, Senate, and people. Icks’s paper is not a study of the ritual of imperial investiture, which, as he notes, did not really exist until the time of Diocletian, but rather the study of the development and solidification of a process of formal acknowledgement of a future claimant to the throne, one that reflected the shifting power balance between army and Senate as much as the circumstances of the individual who aspired to become emperor.

Overall this is a very rich and stimulating set of essays that provide much food for thought and encouragement for further investigation. The book’s standard of production, unfortunately, is uneven, with several misprints, e.g. greaming (for gleaming, p. 71), donator (p. 111), antichamber (for the pronaos of a Greek temple, p. 113), principle (for principal), and mistakes in labeling figures. Some works cited in the notes are missing from the bibliography. While many individual errors are minor, their frequency is distracting; the book would have benefitted from more careful proofreading. A further disappointing feature is the quality of the illustrations, which are placed in the printed text on regular paper. This works for plans and line drawings, but produces photographs that are blurred, making it hard for the reader to see details.

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