Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.15

Attilio Mastrocinque, Concetta Giuffré Scibona (ed.), Demeter, Isis, Vesta, and Cybele: studies in Greek and Roman religion in honour of Giulia Sfameni Gasparro. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd 36.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012.  Pp. 248.  ISBN 9783515100755.  €54.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrzej Gillmeister, University of Zielona Góra (

Table of Contents

This collection of studies is a Festschrift in honour of Giulia Sfameni Gasparro. The first part consists of four studies devoted to various examples of the goddess Demeter. The first text, “A brave netherworld: the Orphic Hades as utopia,” written by Alberto Bernabé (10-23), aims at portraying the Orphic representation of life in the kingdom of Persephone. The basis of the analysis are gold tablets from, among other places, the area of Magna Graecia; the fragments of the poems ascribed to Orpheus; a few fragments from Plato and other authors; and ceramics. The gathered material was analysed by the author on two levels, individual and social. He points out that in the case of the social sphere the thiasos is the main focus. Its members took part in the same rite, which stems from the fact that the privileged destiny was available only to the chosen ones. Bernabé concludes that, since the Orphics assumed that there was no true life in this world, they created a utopian vision of the future world, which was free from any human indispositions. Hades, in contrast to its depiction in Homer, appears to be a utopian world of truth and equality.

Jan H. Bremmer devotes his study to the cult of Demeter in Megara (25-38). The author admits that very few new source materials have appeared, but the changing methodology of the research on Greek religion enables us to ask new questions of the old sources. In the first part of the article Bremmer takes a look at the references concerning the places of cult devoted to Demeter, the most important goddess of Megara. Most of the text is taken up by an analysis of the Thesmophoria.

In her article “Koré-Perséphone entre Déméter et Hadès” (39-57) Louise Bruit Zaidman analyses the double aspect of Kore- Perspephone in the context of the rites administered not only in Eleusis but also outside this sanctuary. The article contains, among other subjects, an analysis of the Thesmophoria and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Zaidman also pays attention to the female and feminine overtones of the sphere of authority of this goddess and her mediatory aspect.

The article “Demeter and Athena at Gela: personal features of Sicilian Goddesses” (59-90), written by Concetta Giuffré Scibona, contains some interesting methodological considerations. The author turns attention to the role of the indigenous cults in establishing colonies. Furthermore, she notices the relationship between the attempts to preserve these cults in new conditions and the reaction to personal needs or local innovations, which most often resulted in new aspects, more adequate to the situation of colonialists. According to the author, this aspect of the development of colonial religion, frequently underestimated by scholars, shows the vitality of the polytheistic religious experience, within which the gods underwent acculturation. Laurent Bricault’s article, “Associations isiaques d’Occident” (91-104) begins the section devoted to Isis. He states that, although in the Greek world the societies worshipping Isis occurred more frequently than in the western part of the Empire— according to the sources—they used different occasions to assert their presence in civic society. It cannot be straightforwardly said that any of the professional associations chose Isis or Serapis for their guardian gods; however, this possibility cannot be ruled out. The author concludes that the society of the worshippers of Isis presented the same characteristics as the other Roman associations.

In his study “Neotera and her Iconography,” Attilio Mastrocinque (105-118) examines the representation of this goddess, mainly associated with Cleopatra. After solid analysis of the sources, mainly epigraphic and iconographic, he concludes that the name “Neotera” used with reference to many female deities was only a nickname and did not link those goddesses in a certain whole. Mastrocinque states that Neotera was treated as an autonomous deity and did not have an ancient Egyptian origin, nor was she created by Cleopatra. Mastrocinque concludes that Neotera was a theological adaptation of the Eleusinian tradition in the Alexandrian tradition because Kore in Eleusis was also referred to in this way. The article also includes a positive answer to the question of whether Cleopatra as Theà Neotera influenced the iconography of Isis.

Carla Sfameni is the author of another article: “Isis, Cybele and other oriental gods in Rome in Late Antiquity: ‘private’ contexts and the role of senatorial aristocracy” (119-138). The pretext for discussion, and a sort of opening and closing element, is the figure of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who combined in his personal piety the traditional Roman religion and the religious innovations occurring in Rome. The author focuses on the research of religion in the private context in order to help answer the question of whether the pagan cults could have been a real form of resistance to Christianity. Sfameni analyses the remains of lararia and other archeological and epigraphic sources. She concludes that the majority of the places of the cult of oriental deities had a private character, and, in fact, this internalisation of beliefs, combined to a great extent with the syncretism characteristic of late antiquity, might have been an indication that those cults played a major role in the religious life of the upper class in Rome in that time. The author uses the term ‘oriental’ without deeper methodological consideration. This term, popularised by Franz Cumont years ago, has nothing to do with ancient thought and is unreliable; it is connected with colonial categories.

The article by Gaëlle Tallet, “Isis, the crocodiles and the mysteries of the Nile floods: interpreting a scene from Roman Egypt exhibited in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (JE 30001)” (139-163), is an analysis of the slab featuring a crowd scene with a deity wearing the solar crown in the middle. She ponders the identification of the deity in the crown and then tries to establish the identity of the woman. The last problem is the issue of the role of the armed men, portrayed at the bottom of the relief. A starting point for the attempt to answer the first question is recognizing an animal, presented with the deity, as a crocodile, which allows her to associate the deity with Sobek Ra Horus, the son of Isis. Moving to the female figure, Tallet states that she cannot be a benefactor, as a similar figure appears in other representations that are offered as comparanda. Tallet examines the iconography and argues that the figure represents either Isis-Sothis or, more probably, her priestess. In her final remarks the author writes that we are dealing with the representation of a Hellenised image of an ancient Greek ritual, most probably the semasia. The armed figures, portrayed at the bottom row of the slab, are, according to Tallet, a collective whole, functioning as the guards of the deity. Tallet finishes her insights with the hypothesis that perhaps we are dealing with a votive representation given to the local shrine by a religious association of soldiers.

The article of Silvia Baschirotto, “Vesta and the Vestals, protectors of Rome” (165-181), starts the section devoted to another titlular deity, Vesta. She begins with the description of a burial of a Vestal, who committed adultery and was buried alive, close to the gate and on the internal side of the walls of Rome. Baschirotto analyses this ceremony within the category of foundation sacrifice. For a comparison she examines the offerings of that type from other Italian and Greek cities; she also shows analogous Asian, African and Balkan situations. She points out that in the ancient world sacrificial offerings of young girls were made in order to ensure safety in the civic society. Baschirotto concludes that the burial of the Vestals was supposed to guarantee the safety and prosperity of the Urbs, and the ceremony is similar to foundation offerings. With the first conclusion we can fully agree; the second is only an interesting hypothesis.

The study of Jörg Rüpke, “Flamines, Salii, and the priestesses of Vesta: Individual decision and differences of social order in late republican Roman priesthoods (183-194), is another contribution to the scholar’s building of the image of Roman religion. Rüpke, inter alia, comments that some priestly ranks would seem to be strenuous due to their duties (especially the flamines and salii of the title), but they could have been and were attractive to many Romans. Therefore, the possibility of making a career was not limited only to politics.

The next four studies are devoted to Magna Mater. In the study “‘Ut tu me vindices’: Magna Mater and Attis in some new Latin Curse-Texts” (195-212), Richard Gordon presents the texts of spells from the area of Portugal and Germany, addressed to Magna Mater and Attis. Gordon states that choosing those gods as the revenge gods finds no justification in the mythology concerning them. The genesis of such perception, however, could be found in iconography. Magna Mater was sometimes portrayed sailing on the sea, and Attis was accompanied by the stars placed around his Phrygian hat. The first example suggests that the rage of the goddess could reach the sinner everywhere, and in the second case such attributes helped to shape Attis as an independent god endowed with universal power. For Gordon the curses do not lead to a change of the whole picture of the Metroac cult, but give insight into the everyday functioning of the gods, traditionally named “oriental” in the western part of the Empire during the Principate.

The next text, “The Name of Cybele in Latin poetry and literature: Cybela, Cybebe or Cybele/Cybelle?” (213-220), is written by Charles Guittard, who analyses the issue stated in the title and draws the conclusion that the goddess was included in the Roman pantheon as Magna Mater Ieae Deum, and functioned in Roman religion and literature under this designation or similar names. On the other hand, when the poets wrote about Cybele or Cybebe, they did not mean the Roman goddess, or they were referring to her role before the foundation of Rome.

The article of Francisco Marco Simón, “On bulls and stars: sacrifice and allegoric pluralism in Julian’s times” (221-236), starts with the description of the archeological traces of ritual complexes connected with the cult of Cybele. Locating them in private villas, Marco Simón formulates a hypothesis that they should be ascribed to the pagan revival during the reign of Julian. Then the author presents probably the most famous monetary issue of Julian, which featured a bull with two stars between the horns on the obverse. The author proposes examining this motif from the perspective of allegorical pluralism. Part of the text is devoted to the refutation of Prudentius’s account of the figure of Julian as a paradigmatic “taurobolic” priest. Marco Simón comments on the two faces of the emperor’s piety. On the one hand, it was traditional polytheism, but on the other hand, it was the philosophical monotheism of Neoplatonism. As the author suggests, two stars placed on the coin could have been evidence of, inter alia, those pious traits of the ruler.

The volume ends with the study of Robert Turcan ,“Le circuit rituel de la lavatio” ( 237-248). The author discusses the ritual of the pompa, in which the statue of Cybele was transported through the city to the Tiber. Turcan states that the lavatio rite, which was held in spring, had an eschatological and soteriological meaning because it guaranteed the believers victory over death. For that reason, the rulers used it as a symbol of eternity. The proof for that is the medallion of the empress Faustina with a representation of the procession on the obverse, analysed by Turcan.

These studies edited by Attilio Mastrocinque and Concetta Giuffré Scibona present a high level of scholarship. The publication has a good selection of illustrations, and the volume provides scholars with new and original assumptions, which allow for explorations of the nuances in the reference books. It is worth noting that the authors used various methodologies in their research –both classical and taken from other areas of the humanities, mainly anthropology. This is clearly visible in the fact that the term ‘oriental’ is used in quite different ways by various authors. As always in the case of Franz Steiner Verlag, the book is a quality publication, despite the appearance of a few typographic errors and tiny editorial mistakes. One serious oversight is the lack of illustrations which are promised for the article of Carla Sfameni.

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