BMCR 2004.02.07

Dieux, fêtes, sacré dans la Grèce et la Rome antiques

, , , Dieux, fêtes, sacré dans la Grèce et la Rome antiques : actes du colloque tenu à Luxembourg du 24 au 26 octobre 1999. Homo religiosus. Série II ; 2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2003. 306 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9782503512228 EUR 50.00.

Julien Ries, who has taught history of religions at the Catholic University of Louvain from 1968 to1991 and has published extensively about it, in his retirement has taken the initiative to publish acts of colloquia held in Luxembourg in a series called Homo Religiosus II, the first volume of which dealt with ‘Symbolisme et expérience religieuse de la lumière dans les grandes religions’ (2002). The book reviewed here is the second in this series and contains papers presented and discussed in Luxembourg four years earlier (October 1999). “Fêtes” is the central word in the title and the theme of most papers, but some do not touch upon festivals at all, and the fourteen papers range very widely, over a period of more than one millennium. At one extreme there is a paper discussing divine epiphany on a tree in Minoan/Mycenaean Crete and Cyprus; on the other a paper about the conflict between judaeo-christian and pagan worship in the Apocalypse of St. John. The only way of reviewing all this will be to present a survey of the papers contained in it. I follow the order in which they appear in the book.

After a short preface (3-5) by André Motte, Robert Turcan’s paper ‘ La fête dans les rituels initiatiques’ (7-21), starts with an analysis of the relevant Greek and Latin terms ( μυστηρίον, ἑορτή, τελετή), festus, feriae) and goes on to discuss succinctly all elements of a festive religious celebration. As background for this discussion Turcan adduces many texts from Greek and Roman authors; Plato Laws II 653d-654a and Strabo X 3,9 occupying pride of place. Notwithstanding, or perhaps because of, its brevity, this well-written paper provides a flying start to the collection.

Gérard Capdeville: ‘L’épiphanie du dieu dans l’arbre en Crète et à Chypre’ (23-39). C. stresses that because of the lack of written sources the evidence is mainly archeological. Intaglios on rings and seals show worshippers embracing a tree, picking fruits from it; a female goddess who comes down from the tree and receives gifts, occupies centre stage; later the divinity is a young male god. The author concludes that a tree is the privileged location for the god to manifest her-/himself, and suggests that the Greeks inverted the Minoan hierarchy of the sexes: the boy-god becoming the equivalent of Zeus, the goddess acquiring the humble status of the heroine Europe. C. had written extensively about the Cretan boy-god Welchanos in his book ‘Volcanus etc.’ Rome 1995. It is hard to find in this paper anything about the celebration of feasts. C. fails to refer to a highly relevant written document, the Cretan hymn to the Kouros found in Palaikastro (ancient Dikta) which refers to annual celebration, music, dance and myth.1

Danièle Aubriot, from whom we have an authoritative monograph on prayer (Prière et conceptions religieuses en Grèce ancienne, Lyon 1992), concentrates her paper ‘Autour de quelques fêtes épiques et lyriques: Homère et Pindare’ (53-80) on the festival of Apollo which is referred to in Odyssey 20.276-8 and 21.258-9. A. argues persuasively that the poet wants us to see this feast as important background for the killing of the Suitors. With a hecatomb the men of Ithaca worship Apollo who hits from afar and who is presented by the poet as the divine parallel for Odysseus who kills the Suitors, the god’s lyre being the equivalent of Odysseus’ bow (21.411). The poet has put his hero’s revenge under the aegis of a poetical Athena and a ritual Apollo. Aubriot’s detailed argument about the relevance of this single feast in Homer is not followed by an equally rich argument about Pindar, who gets no more than a few pages with some generalizations.

Isabelle Tassignon, ‘Dionysos et les Katagogies d’Asie Mineure’ (80-99, this paper is part of a forthcoming doctoral thesis), discusses a ritual which took place in many cities in Asia Minor. Admitting (94) that these καταγώγια are not a festivity but a ritual preparing the festivity, she argues that they were addressed to an angry and potentially dangerous Dionysos and were supposed to bring the god back to the community from which he had withdrawn. Most of us will think of Eur. Bacch. 83-85 ἴτε βάκχαι, Βρόμιον παῖδα θεὸν θεοῦ Διόνυσον κατάγουσαι. She adduces a multitude of testimonia, gathered rather indiscriminately from various sources (inscriptions, lexica, scholia etc.). In at least one instance, viz. the Dionysos-hymn found in Plut. Moralia 299B and adduced by T. on p.87, n.48, her text and interpretation are highly questionable.2 She ends by suggesting that the Katagogia may be related to a Hittite ritual celebrating the return of the god Telibinu, a suggestion she had elaborated in a previous article, Rech. Hist. Rel. 218 (2001), 307-337.

Françoise Dunand, ‘Fêtes et réveil religieux dans les cités grecques à l’époque hellénistique’ (101-112), argues that one should not interpret the rich epigraphic evidence of the leges sacrae (assembled by Sokolowski in LSCG, LSCG Suppl. and LSAM, and extensively referred to by Dunand) as a sign of a formalistic attitude compensating for a decline in authentic piety but as proof that cities wanted to return faithfully to ancient religious practices which may here and there for contingent reasons have passed into disuse but the efficacity and indeed necessity of which had never been doubted. She acknowledges that her thesis can never be proven: “nous ne saisissons guère la piété grecque que dans ses manifestations les plus extérieures” (111).

The section on Greek religion is rounded off by André Motte, ‘Fêtes chez les hommes, fêtes chez les Dieux’ (113-131). On the basis of the four preceding papers (not without some repetition of points made by Turcan) he sketches the characteristics of Greek religious festivities. There is, to begin with, great variety: some feasts seem to be perennial, while others disappear and new ones come up, a famous example of the latter being the Bendideia in the Athenian Piraeus (Plato, Resp. 327a-328b). Some are organised by demes, others by phratries (Apatouria), by trade-unions (Chalkeia) or by women (Thesmophoria), others by the city as a whole (Panathenaia), or by an ethnos or even on behalf of the panhellenic community. But in this variety there are constant features: procession, sacrifice, hymns, banquet, athletic and/or artistic competitions. Constant, too, is the element of visual drama (esp. in τελεταί) which involves actors and spectators; that is why to attend at a celebration is called θεωρεῖν). Every feast is invariably linked with a special day in the calendar of worship, with a special location and with one or more special gods. Feasts often, but not always, focus on the god’s epiphany or ‘return’. Omnipresent and essential, too, is music, i.e. vocal as well as instrumental music, poetry and dance; this gives Greek worship its characteristic style and cultural level so much appreciated by the gods themselves: Aristophanes’ Clouds 305-313. Motte ends by pointing out that in the imagination of the Greeks human celebrations are paralleled by divine counterparts or precedents: e.g. in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo the divine (188-206) and human (147-164) celebrations are juxtaposed; weddings were celebrated in Athens during the month Gamelion in which also Zeus’ and Hera’s nuptial ceremony was enacted. M. ends by observing that between gods and mortals there is a reciprocity of entertaining and feeding; thus feasts allow humans to share — if only for a day — the leisure and pleasure of the gods themselves.

Dominique Briquel, ‘Le Fanum Voltumnae: remarques sur le culte fédéral des cités étrusques’ (133-159), concentrates on ethnic cults in Italy and the festivities which went with them. He begins by drawing attention to the cult of Jupiter Latiaris organised at Alba Longa by the nomen Latinum, the cult of Diana organised by the nomen Hernicum near present day Anagni, the cult of a female chthonic deity at Hamae by the Campanians, and the cult of a goddess of Victory by the Samnites at Bovianum. He then deals extensively with the cult practiced by the twelve Etruscan populi at the Fanum Voltumnae near Volsinii (present day Bolsena), and five times mentioned by Livy (iv 23 and 25 and 61; v 17, vi 2). Here ludi were held, the precise nature of which, athletic and/or artistic, is unknown. The last ten pages of this paper contain a highly technical discussion of the identity of the Etruscan god Voltumna in relation to the Latin gods Vertumnus and Janus. Very learned, but about the nature of these celebrations one does not become any wiser.

Jacqueline Champeaux, ‘La Fête romaine: fête publique, fête pour le peuple’ (161-189). In Rome, feasts were subject to strict rules; according to Cato Maior, one had to observe them like laws: feriae serventur. Roman religio denotes religious scrupulousness, the anxiety of sinning against written or unwritten laws. Feasts were meant to please or placate the gods, and euphoria or fun for mortals was not intended, certainly not in the first place. She observes that in contrast to Greek religious festivities, most Roman celebrations were a matter of selected professionals (flamina, pontifices and the like of them); the people had to stand by and to keep their mouths shut ( favete linguis). C. concentrates on the question when and where the people began to have its share of all this. In two archaic celebrations, the dancing processions of the Salii and the Luperci, participation was limited to men of patrician families, but the entire population was supposed to benefit; all citizens shared some folkloristic actions in the Parilia; the inhabitants of two quarters of Rome fought a ritual battle (the Subura quarter against the quarter around the Via Sacra) to get hold of the head of the Equus October; in the Saturnalia all men, and in the Matralia and Nonae Caprotinae all women, participated. When after Cannae (216) Rome was in serious danger, during the Ludi Plebeii of 213 a new feature, the epulum Iovis was introduced, in which the entire population shared but still with a distinction: the senate was invited to join the banquet of Jupiter O.M. on the Capitol while the plebs had to consume its food and drink in the Forum. For festive joy shared by all and sundry on equal footing Roman citizens had to wait for emperor Augustus: the Ludi Saeculares of 17 BC and the festivities around the Ara Pacis of 13 BC. A rich paper with a well-defined thesis, well documented.

Yves Lehmann, ‘Fêtes Romaines et théologie Varronienne’, 191-215. Starting from Macrobius’ Saturnalia I and Ovid’s Fasti, Champeaux had referred to many other authorities; Lehmann limits himself to a report of Varro’s discussion of Roman feasts (Antiq. rerum divinarum liber ch.8). Only a few fragments of this discussion are known from indirect tradition; all one learns is Varro’s tendency to lose himself in systematic divisions and in aetiological and etymological speculation.

Charles Guittard, ‘Les prières dans la célébration des jeux séculaires augustéens’ (205-215), studies in detail the extremely short and formal prayers used by Augustus, Agrippa and the 110 Roman women during the Ludi Saeculares of 17 BC and the relation of these prayers to Horace’s Carmen Saeculare.

Max Gschaid, ‘Die Götterverehrung in den Provinzen Raetien, Noricum und Pannonien und ihr festlicher Aspekt’ (217-236). This learned and well-documented paper proves that in these Roman provinces (roughly co-extensive with the territory of present day Bavaria + Switzerland, Austria and Hungary) the Roman legions, their officers and the provincial administrators kept to the official cults of the Empire and the Emperors in the first place, and of course also to popular cults like Mithras and Isis. Occasionally Iupiter Optimus Maximus was given another epithet to identify him with a local divinity (inscriptions coming from the Gellért hill in Buda mention I.O.M. Teutanus, the dedications found in Augsburg I.O.M. Arubianus). But the rich archeological and epigraphic evidence (altars, buildings, baths) does not give any clue how festivities were celebrated.

Thomas Osborne, ‘Conflit des cultes dans l’Apocalypse de Jean’ (237-254). The conflict is expressed in a series of polar oppositions: God versus Beast, Babylon (= Rome) versus Jerusalem, woman versus dragon, Michael versus Satan, liturgy versus prostitution. Osborne’s central thesis is that worship is in the Apocalypse is Jewish worship, inspired by Ezeckiel and Daniel. The text contains more than ten doxological hymns, all of Old Testament stamp. For John the fact that Roman power has destroyed the temple in Jerusalem is an indelible cause of horror and aversion. Although he dates himself and his text to the reign of Vespasian (the sixth king of Apoc.17,10), he seems to have written under Domitian. He acknowledges the fall of the Temple and the reality of Babylon, the Evil Empire, but affirms that the presence, and hence the true worship, of the Lord is not lost: it will be situated in heaven, in the new Jerusalem.

Julien Ries, ‘Sacré, culte impérial, fêtes et christianisme aux trois premiers siècles de l’ Empire Romain’ (255-277). This paper covers so much ground that it cannot but be superficial. R. traces the emperor-cult from Augustus to Aurelian, goes on to sketch the importance of the cult of the Sun in relation to emperor-cult, and points to the perilous position of the Christians. He follows the lines set out in Cerfaux & Tondriau’s (1957) monograph and Turcan’s paper in ANRW II t.16,2 (1978) and ends with a summary of the results of Clauss’ recent work (Kaiser und Gott, 2002). The paper reads as if it were a ‘bibliographie raisonnée’ of its wide subject-matter and seems not to offer a thesis of its own. The theme of this volume, religious festivities, is here hardly visible.

Last paper: Natale Spineto, ‘Théories de la fête dans l’histoire des religions’ (279-300). Having reviewed general theories about feasts contributed by famous scholars (Durkheim, Jane Harrison, Mauss, Caillois, Bachtin, Kerényi, van der Leeuw, Eliade, Brelich), Spineto proceeds to confront these theories with the results obtained in the present volume. Can anything valid be said about the general characteristics of feasts in classical antiquity? Although the great variety of the phenomena would lead one to deny this, he suggests four thematic characteristics: 1. interruption for a short while (one or two days) of the routine and profanity of daily labours, 2. affirmation of the religious and civic cohesion of the community, 3. ‘diversion’ of the mind, often towards pleasant, sometimes to lugubrious realities, 4. adhesion to rules and rituals, in Rome much more so than in Greece. In the wake of Motte he points out that Greeks and Romans had one and the same sequence of festive activities: procession, sacrifice, banquet, hymns, competitions. He ends by observing (299-300) that — in contrast to ancient society where the religious factor was omnipresent in both agrarian and urban civic reality — in present day (post-)industrial society there is such a lack of social cohesion and of shared religious convictions/traditions, combined with an abundance of leisure and hence frequent ‘holidays’ (nothing holy about them), that the basis of religious feasts has disappeared altogether.

Finally: the book as a whole. It certainly has been shaped into a unity by the editors: they have framed the papers between Turcan’s introductory essay and Spineto’s summing up at the end; there are also the two excellent comprehensive papers by Motte and Champeaux respectively. The volume contains several treasures and provides a good bird’s eye view of quite a few (of course not all) Greek and Roman religious celebrations. I trust that helped by this review BMCR readers will be able to pick out the papers relevant to their own interests.

But have the editors given sufficient editorial care to the book? I would say: no. They failed to give the book any indexes: there is no index of passages discussed, of terms used, of names. Nor is there an integrated bibliography; only Capdeville, Tassignon and Motte provide a bibliography at the end of their papers. One is surprised to find that the final pages of the book where one would expect indexes and bibliography are taken up by extensive curricula vitarum of the fourteen authors, from which I gathered the information that seven of them have been trained in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure, two in Louvain, two in Liège, one in Milan, one in Munich.

Editorial care is certainly not in evidence as far as the results of proof-reading are concerned. On p. 19 n.91 it should be Axiochos 371 d (not 377 d); on p. 51 Minoan-Mycenaean (not Micenaean); on p. 90 sunkatagogites (not sunkatagotites); on p. 93 νομισθέντα (not – θαντα); on p. 94 n. 88 Geschichte (not Geschischte), item p. 98; on p. 104 n. 10 LSCG # 151 (not 96); on p. 107 ὁμόνοια (not ὀμονία); p. 109 n. 35 Artemis (not Atemis); on p. 113 première (not pemière); p. 128 sa très haute taille (not sa très sa haute taille); on p. 131 Calame, etc. antichità (not antichià), and: Hugger, Festschrift der Phil.Fac. der Univ. (not des Fac. des Univ.); on p. 144 n.36 Liv. 5,1,3-6 (not Liv. 1,5,1.3-6); on p. 145 n. 42 dans le passage (not passages); on p. 219 Einen Kontrast (not Komtrast); on p. 220 n.10 Geschichtsvereines (not Geschichtbvereines), ibidem n. 11 Sonderausstellung (not Soderausstellung); on p. 230 Domini und Augusti (not Augustini); on p. 234 Zwei Inschriften (not Inschrtiften); on p. 247 n. 16 proskuneo (not proschuneo); on p. 251 appellarent (not appelarent); on p. 259 die Präsenz des Göttlichen (not die Präsens); on p. 264 mithraïque (not mythriaque); on p. 271 Bosra (not Bostra); on p. 303 Guittard etc. Oro degli Etruschi (not Oros degli E.); on p. 305 Tassignon etc. Geneve, Droz (not Drooz). I take it that quite a few other typos escaped me. Apart from the misleading references on pp. 19, 104 and 144 they will not mislead or mystify readers, but they do irritate the eye.


1. Discussed in W.D. Furley & J.M. Bremer, Greek Hymns, Tübingen 2001, vol. I, 67-75 and vol. II, 1-20.

2. Again: see Furley & Bremer, vol. I, 368-372 and vol. II, 373-377.