BMCR 2007.04.52

I culti misterici stranieri nei frammenti della comedia attica antica

, I culti misterici stranieri nei frammenti della commedia attica antica. Eikasmos. Studi ; 13. Bologna: Pàtron, 2006. 450 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8855528971. €37.00.

The subject of this book is the foreign mystery cults in the fragments of Attic comedy. While many scholars have written in general about the establishment of foreign cults in classical Athens and Athenian reactions to them, there has been no detailed study of the sources that inform us about them. This is a real problem, in particular when a lot of the evidence comes from fragmentary comedies, whose content and point is often very difficult to establish. The problem is exacerbated when scholars use the meagre evidence in a piecemeal and misleading way. Thus, a re-examination of the primary sources should be particularly welcome. The author has selected to study the cults of Sabazius, Bendis and Cotys as represented in five fragmentary comedies: Cratinus’ Boukoloi (43-67) and Aristophanes’ Horai (71-124) for Sabazius, Cratinus’ Thraittai (147-206) and Aristophanes’ Lemniai (209-48) for Bendis, and Eupolis’ Baptai (267-333) for Cotys. The main body of the text consists of a detailed commentary of all the fragments attributed to these five comedies, which will prove important for any future discussion of these plays and the issue of foreign cults. Let me present a summary of the contents, before moving to discussion and a few criticisms.

After a brief introduction about comedy and foreign mystery cults (5-13), the book is divided in three chapters, each one devoted to one of the three cults. Every chapter is divided into three parts: in the beginning the author sets a number of literary, epigraphical, and iconographic testimonia for each cult respectively; it should be noted that all Greek and Latin testimonia and fragments are also translated into Italian. Although not exhaustive, this is a very useful collection of the evidence, which much facilitates the discussion that follows. After the testimonia there follows a brief discussion of each divinity and the evidence for its cult. Finally, there comes the commentary on the respective fragmentary comedies, preceded by an introduction and the proposed dating of the play. The commentary is very detailed and particularly useful in providing parallels for expressions in other comic and tragic plays. The book contains a substantial bibliography (371-429) and detailed indexes of Greek terms, passages cited, and subjects discussed (433-47).

Sabazius is a deity who raises a number of interesting problems (31-40). Evidence for his cult in the classical period comes solely from literary sources; during the Hellenistic and Roman times his cult expanded significantly and the characteristic votive hands made their appearance. There is disagreement among the sources whether he is of Phrygian or Thracian origins. Finally, although the god is usually identified with Zeus, the ecstatic cult attributed to him seems difficult to square with such an identification.

The first play to be analysed in connection with the cult of Sabazius is that of Cratinus’ Boukoloi. The author interprets the play as an attack on the foreign cults in Athens and dates it in the 430’s; the chorus of Boukoloi is interpreted as a group of followers of Dionysus (45). The only fragment of this play which relates directly to foreign cults is fr. 19, which describes a person who “fighting with the sky dies together with his threats”. Delneri connects this passage to Herodotus’ description of a group of Thracians who “when there is thunder and lightning, shoot arrows skyward as a threat to the god, believing in no other god but their own”,1 and interprets the fragment as referring to an impious follower of Sabazius. This is interesting, though the deity in Herodotus is Zalmoxis and not Sabazius, and it is debatable whether Sabazius was a Phrygian or Thracian deity.

The other play that deals with Sabazius is Aristophanes’ Horai, which is probably the most interesting of the five plays as regards foreign cults. The one certain thing about the play is that it involved the expulsion of the novel gods from the city, though it is not certain whether the city is Athens, or a hypothetical city of gods. The old gods seem to be the Horai, who guaranteed the change of seasons and the fertility of land. As Delneri notes (75), the change of seasons has also important ethical, social and political implications in Greek thought: it exercises the body and makes people used to labour, while the immutability of the climate produces effeminacy. Delneri does not take a position on the dating of the work between the higher (422 BC) and lower (411 BC) dates proposed. Fr. 578 mentions a Phrygian αὐλητήρ, according to Delneri’s interpretation, a devotee of Sabazius (although it can also be the case that it is the god that is presented as an αὐλητήρ). Delneri comments (83-4) on the strong connection between the flute and ecstatic cults and the derogatory images of the αὐλητήρ; it would have been particularly useful to take into account here the recent work of Peter Wilson and others, which stresses the ambivalent status of the αὐλητήρ in classical Athens.2 Fr. 581 records an exchange in which the promise of abundance throughout the whole year is turned down with the scornful comment that this would turn Athens into Egypt. The identity of the characters in this fragment is difficult to establish. Most commentators accept that it is an exchange between a supporter or one of the traditional gods and the ξενικοὶ θεοί respectively. Due to the reference to Egypt many have thought that the ξενικὸς θεός must have been Egyptian. Delneri rightly comments (102) that this is by no means necessary, since Egypt could be simply used as a topos denoting luxury and debauchery; she is in favour of taking Sabazius as the ξενικὸς θεός in the passage. What is rather difficult is to understand is why it should be Sabazius that should promise such an abundance of goods and fertility; the parallels of similar promises by the Clouds and the Birds in other Aristophanic comedies that Delneri adduces (105) can be connected to the change of seasons easily, but the connection with Sabazius is more difficult to establish. It seems to me that she has overestimated the importance of Sabazius in this play; after all, Sabazius was only one of the foreign gods that were expelled in the play.

The cult of Bendis is one of the most interesting and enigmatic foreign cults to be found in Athens. For, in contrast to all other foreign cults, the cult of Bendis was early on adopted by the Athenian state and the sacrifice of the Bendideia was the third largest public sacrifice in the fourth century. The reasons for the public adoption of the cult of Bendis are unknown, with some scholars accepting political, others religious and others social motives; Delneri is non-committal (142-3). Bendis was seen as the Thracian equivalent of Artemis and this identification was paralleled in the visual representation of Bendis and also in the location of the Bendideion close to the sanctuary of Artemis Munichia in Piraeus. Delneri accepts the theory that the cult of Bendis was spread by the migratory movements of Thracians, Phrygians and Bithynians and sees the Great Goddess of Lemnos as another version of Bendis (136). It is rather difficult though to understand why the author has included the cult of Bendis among the foreign mystery cults; there seems to be little evidence, if any, that this was a mystery cult. It is also quite interesting to note that the cult of Bendis is also attested in southern Italy, where Thracian connections are not that important.

Cratinus’ Thraittai is the first of the fragmentary comedies connected to the cult of Bendis. The author envisages two choruses in the play, a female one made up of Thracian women and a male one of Pigboeotians ( συοβοιωτοί) (147-8). According to her interpretation, the second chorus is made up of flute players from Boeotia, the country of the flute. The connection between the two choruses seems difficult to envisage. As regards the dating of the play, the author is favourable to a date in the late 430’s, instead of the usual 443/2 (149). Fr. 85 is particularly interesting: Cratinus describes the goddess as δίλογχος, the one with double spears. This is variously explained by the lexicographers as a reference a) to the actual fact that the goddess is represented as carrying two spears b) to her dominion over both heaven and earth and c) as having double light, both solar and lunar, since Bendis is identified in this case with Selene. The various interpretations of the goddess are stimulating, but what is even more interesting is the comment of the lexicographers that the Athenians celebrated the Bendideia carrying two spears. Thus, the point is based on a very realistic description of the cult, which seems to clash with the pastiche of diverse features attributed to other cults, like e.g. in the case of Cotys. Is this an example of the differential treatment of a partially domesticated cult? In fr. 87 Cratinus describes the divinely possessed person as κύβηβος, which should refer to the devotees of the goddess Kybele. Delneri argues that the term actually refers to the possessed devotees of Bendis and the term is used here in the more general sense of being possessed (197-8). This seems to be the only evidence of the ecstatic nature of the cult of Bendis, but it seems to me rather forced that the term must refer to the devotees of Bendis.

The second tragedy dealing with the cult of Bendis is the Lemnian Women of Aristophanes. The main subject of the play is the relationship between the Lemnian Women and the visiting Argonauts, but Delneri argues that the cult of Bendis plays an equally important role, giving the poet the chance to deride the superstition of the Athenians and their participation in the promiscuous nocturnal rites of Bendis (209-11). But the connection between the Lemnian μεγάλη θεός mentioned in the play and Bendis is very fragile and ultimately depends on accepting a theory of a Thracian Great Goddess (237-8).

Cotys, also often called Cotyto, is presented as a Thracian deity. Etymologically, the goddess is connected to warfare; indeed the name Cotys was very common among the kings of the Thracian Odrysians, which would militate in favour of such an interpretation. It is thus interesting, if not strange, that the cult of Cotys is described as being ecstatic in character and involving effeminate persons. On the other hand, the cult of Cotys seems early on to have been common in many other Greek cities apart from Athens. The written sources give the impression that it was particularly popular among the Dorian Greeks: one scholion claims that she was honoured by the Corinthians, while another talks about a Sicilian festival of Cotyttia. This festival is now epigraphically attested in the lex sacra of Selinus, which dates to about the middle of the fifth century; in contrast to Athens, in Selinus it was accepted and supported by the polis. It is thus interesting to note that the cults of Bendis and Cotys, both Thracian deities, early on found their way to the West. But it is also interesting that the Corinthian / Sicilian version of Cotys’ festival seems to be a fertility cult, in which participants would carry branches with cakes and fruits. How is one to deal with these different versions of the same cult? One interpretation is that Eupolis’ description is not one of an actual cult and that he simply constructed a fantastic cult made up of a pastiche of elements from ecstatic cults, in order to lampoon the Corinthians, who were enemies of Athens, and to attack Alcibiades (259-63).

The evidence for the cult of Cotys in Athens rests solely on Eupolis’ Baptai. As regards the title of the play, the author accepts the interpretation that it refers to effeminate men who appear in dyed clothes (269-72). Alcibiades is strongly connected to this play, and ancient tradition had it that he took vengeance on Eupolis for his comic attack by drowning him in the sea during the Sicilian expedition (272-4). Many scholars have seen a direct connection between the profanation of the Mysteries and the references to Alcibiades and a group of initiates in a foreign ecstatic group in this comedy. The author accepts a rather serious reading of the play, in which Alcibiades plays a major role; according to her, the play was presented in the aftermath of 415 and Alcibiades’ desertion of Athens and warned the Athenians through the representation of Alcibiades’ introduction of a Corinthian cult (274-8). Ian Storey has recently presented an extensive commentary on this play;3 noting that comic critiques of Alcibiades tend to focus on his extraordinary behaviour, instead of criticising his political stance, he has argued that there is no necessary reason to suppose that Alcibiades played a major part in the play, rather than appearing in a memorable episode. He has also disputed to what extent the play would have a comic effect after Alcibiades’ desertion, and thus he has favoured a dating of the play before 415. Although Delneri cites Storey’s work in other places, unfortunately she has not taken into account his arguments in this respect and does not provide answers to these important reservations. Finally, if the lexicographer was right in noting that the presence of Cotys in this play was due to a hostile attitude towards the Corinthians, in whose city the cult of Cotys was traditional, it is interesting to note the parallel presence of the Pigboeotians in Cratinus’ Thracians. What is the relationship between portraying ‘foreign’ cults and portraying ‘foreign’ Greeks?

This is undoubtedly a very stimulating commentary which raises a large number of questions. I hope it is not unfair to say that the author has done no favour to her own work by minimising the introduction and by lacking any conclusions. It is difficult to establish what exactly she believes that her work has contributed to the study of foreign mystery cults in Athens or to the study of fragmentary comedies. Most of the text is devoted to discussion of particular fragments, with the result that the wider methodological problems and issues get lost. The author does well to note a number of distorting effects that comedy would apply to the representation of foreign cults (12-3). Comedians focus on the orgiastic nature of these cults, the participation of women, and the opportunities for promiscuity and adultery that such cults gave rise to. But apart from mentioning these factors in barely two pages, there is no wider discussion of their effects. How does comedy differ in this respect from tragedy? Is there any significant difference between Aeschylus’ representation of the rites of Cotys and that of Eupolis? If not, why is it the case, and what are the implications for the relationship between comedy and tragedy? Or how does comic discourse differ from the discourse presented in lawcourt speeches? Is Demosthenes’ depiction of the ecstatic rites in which Aeschines and his mother were involved a pastiche of various cults and practices with the sole aim of denigrating his opponent? If so, does it differ from Eupolis’ alleged pastiche of the cult of Cotys and if so, how and why?

To what extent is comic representation based or conditioned by the experiences and the knowledge of the audience about the phenomenon at hand? In Eupolis’ fr. 79 a character swears by the almond tree, which is the tree sacred to Attis. How many of the Athenian audience would understand this as a reference to Attis and how many would simply understand it as a reference to foreign people who swear in an unfamiliar way (288-9)? Was it important for the poet that the audience would make the distinction? How would an Athenian know? Maybe because he had heard free or slave Phrygians swearing in this unfamiliar way?4 Many of these ‘foreign cults’ involved elements from the lowest strata of society: slaves, foreigners, women. But at the same time many slaves, foreigners and women participated in religious groups and cults in common with citizens. What were the results of this double process on ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ cults and the ways they were seen?

Finally, there is one significant problem with the book’s conception which I would like to point out. This is the very definition of ‘foreign mystery cults’. Robert Parker has argued that instead of talking about foreign cults, it is better to distinguish between those traditionally honoured in Athenian public cult and all others.5 Dionysos is the best-known example of a Greek deity that can be portrayed as coming from abroad and whose ecstatic cult is dominated by women and effeminates, in precisely the same way as the foreign cults under discussion. Thus, the definition of foreign cults is not as clear-cut as it could seem on first sight. This becomes even more complicated when what is described as a foreign cult can also have a domesticated Greek version, which seems quite different, as we saw in the case of Cotys, who is described as both Thracian and Dorian / Corinthian / Sicilian. It would thus have been particularly helpful if the author had also included among the foreign cults under study the cult of the Mother of the Gods. For here is a very good example of a cult that can be described as both foreign and domestic at the same time. Some scholars are willing to see the cult of the Mother as a very old Greek cult,6 while others argue in favour of its introduction from Anatolia and its subsequent transformation.7 One way or another, the cult of the Mother had official recognition by the Athenian state, while at the same time there existed, side by side, another version of the cult, which was far more exotic. It would have been particularly helpful to compare how the cult of the Mother is represented in comedy in comparison with the other ‘foreign’ cults. Another way one could have studied the ways in which a cult can be represented as foreign would be to study those cults with features totally different to anything found among Greek cults: the comic discussions of Egyptian zoomorphic cults would provide a very interesting parallel in this respect.

In conclusion: the author has provided an extensive and careful commentary on five fragmentary Athenian comedies. She has also provided a very useful collection of testimonia on the cults of Sabazius, Bendis and Cotys in the ancient world and a general discussion of these cults, which are only sparsely attested during the classical period. This book will be a good and necessary start for anybody who is interested in these plays or in foreign cults in classical Athens. It has rather avoided the wider questions and problems; but those interested in pursuing them will find this book a good first step.


1. Herodotus, 4.94.

2. P. Wilson, ‘The aulos in Athens’ in S. Goldhill and R. Osborne, eds., Performance, Culture and Athenian Democracy, Cambridge, 1999, 58-95.

3. I. Storey, Eupolis. Poet of Old Comedy, Oxford, 94-111.

4. See e.g. the Phrygian of IG I 3 1361.

5. R. Parker, Athenian Religion: A History, Oxford, 1996, 158-9.

6. N. Robertson, ‘The ancient Mother of the Gods: A missing chapter in the history of Greek religion’ in E. N. Lane, ed., Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 1996, 239-304.

7. L. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999.