Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.40

Ioanna Patera, Offrir en Grèce ancienne: gestes et contextes. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd 41.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012.  Pp. 292.  ISBN 9783515101882.  €57.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Catherine Saint-Pierre Hoffmann, Anhima, Paris (

Table of Contents

Ioanna Patera’s work derives from her dissertation, defended in the École pratique des hautes études (France) in 2006. The book has five chapters. The first two explore the sense and function of the offering (chapter 1: “Les noms de l’offrande” and chapter 2: “La relation établie au moyen de l’offrande”). In the following chapters she analyzes concrete case studies, mostly from Demeter sanctuaries (chapter 3: “Les objets dans leur contexte de trouvaille,” chapter 4: “Les offrandes et l’autel,” chapter 5: “Dépôts d’offrandes et dépôts sacrificiels”). The book contains an index of Greek terms and a general index after the bibliography and the list of plates.

The topic of offerings in ancient Greece is problematic in many ways. Since the last synthesis on offerings from W.H.D. Rouse published in 1902, no one has undertaken this task despite the massive quantity of new evidence that is now available. Patera reasonably doesn’t not intend to do such an encyclopedic work. Her goal is first to reconsider the established ideas of historians of religion and archaeologists concerning offerings and then to understand the mechanisms and interactions of offerings through concrete examples.

In the first chapter Patera explores the Greek vocabulary used in literature and epigraphic sources that can be associated with the notion of offering. The terms are presented one by one, within the diverse contexts of their use. It should not be understood as a philological analysis but more as a warning against the problematic translation of some words that can cause misunderstanding. The use of a word to designate quite different things makes the author wonder what can be considered to be an offering. In this perspective, after a short list of the well-known words anathêma, dôron, dekatê, akrothinion, and agalma, she reappraises the question of perishable and consumable offerings, particularly vegetal offerings. These offerings, under the form of aparchê or dékatê, shed light on the links created between the divinity and the dedicant. Then she considers the question of the respective places of the offering and the sacrifice of perishable and consumable goods (vegetal and animal). She argues that the term thusia in our documentation not only is used for animal sacrifice but can also designate some vegetal deposits. This chapter also reassesses the contested notion of “desacralisation” as allowing the post-ritual consummation of the sacrificed food. She rejects the traditional interpretation that considers the consecration of premises or parts of animals as a “desacralisation” gesture permitting their consumption by humans. Based on examples from ancient literature, the author objects to the traditional opposition between hiera and hosion, sacred and profane. The word hosion is employed in some cases to qualify what we would consider the sacred, whereas in Hesiod’s works, hiera is used to designate parts that are intended for human consumption. To the author, hosiè is instead the affirmation of rights and respective prerogatives from humans or divinities.

In the second chapter, after reminding the readers of the main occasions for offering to the gods—thanking, asking a favor, or accomplishing a wish—Patera contests the traditional interpretation of the motivations for the gift. The idea of a contract initiating the exchange and the gift should be nuanced. A contract implies obligations for the contractors, but such obligations do not exist in a relationship with the gods, who are not always imagined to answer the demand favorably. Moreover, the traditional interpretation denies that the spirit of the contract is based on the asymmetry of the relationship between humans and gods. To the author, the famous formula do ut des is not always pertinent. In some of the cases analyzed in the book, this formula could not be used instead of contract or vow notions. The formula supposes that only the gods may establish a kind of contract. Humans can only attempt to initiate it without any guarantee of success. Another theory borrowed from anthropology by some historians does not convince Patera either. She contests the idea that the practice of potlatch, in which humans competed against each other rather than against the gods, could be used to explain the loss of valuable items through their consecration in sanctuaries. She argues that the main reason for gifts is not to “obtenir des privilèges sociaux et matériels mais d’établir de bonnes relations avec les dieux” (p. 96). Thereby, the author rejects the presence of an agonistic element in the gesture of offering after the model of potlatch. The traditional interpretation that gravitates around the triple obligation (give/receive/give back), then, which founds social relations, must not be reduced solely to its utilitarian aspect; furthermore, it does not explain the link between humans and gods. The relationship with the gods established through the offerings is complex and ambiguous, and this complexity brings Patera to include the notions of timê and geras. Timê would also represent the sacrifices and gifts that humans have to make to the gods. The use of the word charis would imply reciprocity, to remind the gods that gifts and sacrifices require a fair compensation. Prayers and sacrifices generally suggest an expectation of material goods. The difficulty for the dedicant is to respect the rite and maintain equity in the procedure. The goal is to find the right offering that will please the gods. Offering is firstly an obligation. To not offer is to expose oneself to the anger of the gods. But offering according to your abilities, as attested in ancient literary sources, is a sign of devotion.

The following chapters explore specific cases by confronting written and archaeological sources. In the third chapter Patera first tries to distinguish between “votive” objects and objects used in another ritual (which can be also be offered). The difficulty of grasping the functions of objects discovered in sanctuaries brings the author to provide a short historiography of the archaeological scholarship. She then lists the different areas where offerings could be placed (seats, offering tables, wells, foundation deposits) and the dedicants’ tactics to place their presents strategically (to be seen by the visitors during their progression in the sanctuary or nearest to the statue of the gods). To strengthen her argument, the author uses concrete archaeological cases, her choices necessarily limited by the conditions of the excavations and the quality of the publications. The case of the well of the Acrocorinth sanctuary for Demeter is rich in precise details. She interprets this structure not as a deposit made during cleaning but as part of a “circuit” along which the visitor should place some types of offerings on the way toward the divinity. The chapter ends with the question of the foundation deposits and the status of the objects placed during that ritual. Patera argues that the contents of foundation deposits (in sanctuaries as well as in other buildings) can be considered offerings, but are used in a ritual whose function differs.

In the fourth chapter, Patera nuances the traditional view of the altar. She suggests that it might not only be used for sacrifices through flames, including durable offerings, but can also be a depository for the offerings. The archaeologist’s first challenge is to determine whether the burned object was destined for the sacrificial fire or simply placed as close as possible to the altar and burned because of its proximity. The offerings could have been just placed, or intentionally burned. The author reinterprets a few cases where offerings and altars are associated. Concerning the inscription of the rules of the sanctuary of Despoina at Lykosoura, she interprets the word agalma as designating offerings in general that could be placed on the altar, therefore suggesting that they may have had a ritual role not yet explored. In the second example, she rejects the idea that the structure usually designated as an altar for Apollon at Dreros is actually an altar because of the missing traces of fire. Instead, she believes that it was a polyvalent structure, destined to receive offerings and some of the remainders of sacrifices (e.g., the goat’s horns). In a third example she raises the difficulty of interpreting the different structures of the chthonian sanctuary of Agrigento. Some wells could be simple pits for offerings, while others suggest an igneous ritual with associated offerings. The well- known and complex case of the Heracles pyre in Oeta, in which animal and vegetal offerings as well as durable objects were burned, leads Patera to believe that it was not just destruction, but a “complete transmission” to the gods. She ends this overview with the delicate question of the pyres of Eleusis, whose function—altars or pyres—is still debated. The author interprets these structures as pyres on which objects were destroyed. Fire is seen less as a part of a chthonian ritual of destruction and more as an element of a complex consecration ritual in which the topography of the site plays an essential part.

In the last chapter, Patera addresses the distinction between offering deposits and sacrificial deposits. It is indeed hard to differentiate intentional sacrificial deposits from remainders left in place after a ritual or from a meal. A similar ambiguity can be found between singular and progressive deposits of offerings in a specific place, and disposal of rubbish after cleaning or reorganizing the sanctuary. In some cases, the disposal of rubbish, recognized by the distinctive treatment received by the objects, is discovered just outside the temenos. We should reflect on the status of these objects: are they votive deposits managed by the priests or simple piles of objects which had not been offered? This last chapter gives Patera the occasion for a discussion of the too-often misused opposition between the gods and rituals qualified as chthonian and Olympian. Without going into details, we note that the author prefers to keep the meaning of “link to the earth” for chthonian rituals. From there, she underlines the difficulties brought by the inconsistent use of the word bothros in the historical and archaeological literature. Her work ends with the question of the structures too often called megara in the sanctuaries where thesmophorical rites could be practiced—here too, caution should remain the rule.

Patera’s work participates in a wide renewal of the scholarship on offerings. No longer are they seen as simple signs of the ancients’ devotion, of which the most beautiful samples are destined for museum collections, but elements of a complex religious system, in which the most modest offerings played an equally important role. The historical research about votive offerings takes many paths. Some studies focus on the significance of the objects in their spatial and historical contexts, both at the moment of the gift and in the long-term. Others analyze offerings as the epicenter of a triangle between the dedicant, divinity, and witnesses in their own territory, for example, Clarisse Prêtre’s work (ed.), Le donateur, l'offrande et la déesse. Systèmes votifs des sanctuaires de déesses dans le monde grec (Kernos supp 23, 2009). Patera’s book belongs to religious history, rather than cultural and anthropological history. She tries to identify the diversity of gestures associated with a gift to a god. She focuses on the exclusive relationship established by the gift between the divinity and the dedicant. She does not neglect the significance of space and infrastructure for the ritual. Indeed, one appreciates the interdisciplinary approach of this work, which favors no particular source. All sources participate in a broader reflection—although it seems sometimes a juxtaposition of examples, and does not result in a more comprehensive conclusion. This approach relegates to the background the historical and social context within which the offerings took place. One does appreciate a stronger analysis of the nature of the divinities in the case studies. In sum, one should not expect from this book a synthesis of offerings, but a work that usefully reframes some concepts and redefines an often-misused vocabulary. Patera’s choice to develop some specific examples highlights the diversity of the offerings, the different gestures behind offering, and the challenges they represent.

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