BMCR 2005.07.85

Cult and Death

, , , Cult and Death: proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting of Postgraduate Researchers, the University of Liverpool, May 2002. BAR international series; 1282. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2004. 86 pages: illustrations, 1 map. ISBN 1841716359 £25.00 (pb).

This collection of nine papers by pre- and post-doctoral researchers at universities in the British Isles given in Liverpool three years ago is a heartening read, both as a snapshot of the lively work the young are doing, and because the meeting combined archaeology (mainly prehistoric) with philology and literary criticism. When nowadays there is a danger that Aegean prehistorians have no inkling of what happened in Greece in classical times as recorded in texts (and may thus give inadequate explanations of their Cycladic/Helladic/Minoan evidence) while many classicists still seem unaware of the help they can draw from archaeological data, the Liverpool event and the different approaches of the speakers must have been beneficial for all, even if the topics seemed pretty recondite, as I am sure they did, to one side or the other. The theme was chosen well: cult and death.

Part I is devoted to rituals and the material record, part II to rituals and textual evidence. Gerasimos Vallerios Stergiopoulos leads the line-up, with a useful introduction to Greek Neolithic figurines (7-15) that argues against simplistic interpretations and in favour of the possibility of their having had several meanings and functions, not necessarily connected with cult.

Two papers follow on Late Helladic mortuary practice. Chrysanthi Gallou in a lively essay reviews tomb design, ritual and symbolism during the Mycenaean heyday of Late Helladic IIIA-IIIB (17-28) emphasising liminality, in this case the point of transition at the stomion from the life and light of the tomb’s dromos (with important evidence pointing to public ceremonial outside the chamber) to the darkness and death of the chamber/thalamos. “It seems highly improbable that the burial chamber entertained large congregations,” she remarks (23). Mercourios Georgiadis looks at Mycenaean burials in the southeast Aegean in a valuable summary (29-40) that shows the combination of local practices with a recognisably Mycenaean general pattern of behaviour. Of special importance for Mycenaean cultural development are the early (Late Helladic IIIA2) instances of cremation, probably the result of cultural interaction with the rest of Anatolia (34).

Danai-Christina Naoum concludes part I with a paper on the “hellenisation” of the Egyptian divinity Isis into the Greek pantheon, around a millennium later. She has a robust finale — “Hellenism is therefore redefined as bridging gods and humans, or as bridging people together, regardless of their race and origins” (44) — which reminds us how valid still is the conclusion of Sir John Myres’s Sather Lectures: “the Greeks never wholly were one people, but were ever in process of becoming.”1

Christina Aamont leads part II with a valuable review (49-55) of the evidence for Mycenaean priests and priestesses as seen in Linear B, which she compares with the archaeological evidence, remarking sensibly that “the distinction between secular and sacred in Mycenaean society is often ambiguous” (50). She identifies possible burials of (specialist) priests at Prosymna and in the Athenian Agora, and notes, perceptively, how narrow the corridors with processions frescoes tend to be, which suggests that very few — only or mainly specialists — took part in the processional ceremonies that probably passed through these corridors.

Marigo Alexopoulou turns to the themes of homecoming and death in Greek tragedy (57-61), remarking on the prevalence of sadness and death in nostos narratives, including the Odyssey with the visit to the underworld, and equally the concept of transition. At homecoming things are never the same. This could not be more marked than in Agamemnon’s homecoming as told by Aeschylus, with a bath episode that is a macabre parody of Odysseus’s bathing and changing when he returned.

Euripides’s view of human sacrifice is Polytimi Oikonomopoulou’s topic (63-67). She stresses his detached approach: the practice shows the inferiority of the ritual performers and is not really that beneficial. (In her very brief review of the possibility of human sacrifice in Aegean prehistory, she needs to explain the relevance of contacts with Egypt.) Georgia Petridou suggests that adoption ritual in the form of mimetic rebirth is at the core of the Persephone cult in south Italy (69-75), which she reviews in the light of the recent pair of lamellae from Pelinna in Thessaly. Milk is a key motif. She suggests that it is not coincidence that these lamellae were found on the dead person’s chest, one over each breast. Finally, Evangelia Anagnostou-Laoutides considers the death of Daphnis and Theocritus’s first Idyll (77-86): the poet seems to point to a death by drowning, “a death quite suitable apparently for a victim of Love” (80).

The editors present an attractive book that could have been better still with more consistency in the editing: citations need checking against each other, for instance; and the Greek is sometimes translated, and sometimes not. The Greek also appears in various fonts and sizes. A citation (26) that should be in its original Greek, as others are, includes “Mykhnaikoi” and “Boiwtias”: if acceptable (to some) in “Greeklish” e-mails, such forms have no place here.

These remarks, however, do not detract from an engaging and encouraging set of papers. We can look forward to seeing the progress of these scholars.


1. J. L. Myres, Who Were the Greeks? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1930), 538.