BMCR 2007.10.23

Kult-Politik-Ethnos: Überregionale Heiligtümer im Spannungsfeld von Kult und Politik. Historische Einzelschriften, 198

, , , Kult, Politik, Ethnos : überregionale Heiligtümer im Spannungsfeld von Kult und Politik ; Kolloquium, Münster, 23.-24. November 2001. Historia. Einzelschriften, Heft 189. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2006. 287 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515087184. €54.00.

Sanctuaries have been recognized as major focal points of ancient Greek polis society ever since the seminal work of François de Polignac opened the way toward a more integrated approach of the sacred and the profane more than two decades ago.1 The publication of Susan Alcock and Robin Osborne’s volume entitled Placing the Gods 2 in the mid-nineties created an influential foothold for this type of research in the Anglophone scholarly world. The present collection of essays is in many ways a natural successor of that book, presenting an up-to-date overview of current scholarship, as well as emphasizing the progress that has been made in this relatively new field of research. This combined effort of professionals predominantly based at German universities contains articles covering most of the map of the ancient Greek heartland (including one on archaic Latium) and presents a welcome addition to the international debate on the social significance of Greek sanctuaries.

Kult-Politik-Ethnos is the result of a colloquium held in Münster in 2001 as part of a project led by Peter Funke, centering on the social and political role of supra-regional sanctuaries. This focus indicates a major shift away from the polis-oriented research of the eighties and nineties and finds a counterpart in the work of Catherine Morgan and Jeremy McInerney in dealing with the world “beyond the polis”.3 The essays in this volume focus on cults that carry social and/or political significance for clusters of communities. Such cult-associations may be organized along lines of (real or imagined) common descent, in which case they may be classified as ethne (Corsten, Luraghi, Schneider), or else they may be organized more loosely as amphictyonies (Mylonopoulos) or at a Panhellenic level (Siewert, Linke, Hupfloher. The editors seem to agree programmatically with Morgan, who discriminates between “tiers of identity” that may or may not acquire “political salience” at different times according to the eternal flux of environmental influences. They emphasize that several “Identitätsebenen” often coexist peacefully alongside the politically closed category of the state, which in Archaic and Classical times corresponds with the polis and increasingly with the ethnos-state towards the Hellenistic period. A “longue durée” was built into this venture (covering the Dark Ages down to the Roman Imperial period) with the specific purpose of detecting either fixed or changing patterns in functional connectivity. The editors’ approach ties in with the notion of ethnogenesis popular among a growing number of scholars who view ethne as groups of people adhering to a common set of rituals and sharing beliefs about common ancestry,4 rather than emphasizing “actual” common origins.

The value of a collection of essays lies, of course, in the individual contributions. In the case of Kult – Politik – Ethnos, the scholarship presented is generally of a high standard, combining a thorough grasp of the source material with sound, if not always adventurous, methodological groundwork. The strength of this book clearly lies in individual observations of specific cultic environments. The advantage of this “grass roots” approach is that much emphasis is placed on regional diversity and the variety of belief systems encountered in various parts of ancient Greece. This being said, the reader may experience the need for a little more theoretical underpinning transcending the résumé-style of the general introduction (granted that this was not the primary purpose of this volume). This failure is partially repaired by Christoph Ulf’s theoretical exploration of the functionality of supra-regional feasts (“Anlässe und Formen von Feste mit überlokaler Reichweite in vor- und früharchaischer Zeit”). For this reason I will deal with Ulf’s contribution in detail before summarizing the arguments of the other contributors.

Ulf sets out to investigate the social significance of feasting and simultaneously explores the applicability of anthropology in the field of Greek historiography. This somewhat disjointed approach makes it a bit difficult to track the author’s main intent. Nevertheless, the article contains some important additions to current scholarship and provides an interesting inroad in the often-undisclosed world of anthropology. Ulf’s article is a courageous attempt to uncover some fundamental rules that should be adhered to when applying anthropological models to interpret our (pre) historical sources. The primary use of anthropology in reconstructing the past is that it provides our source material with much needed contextual information (“Umfeldinformationen”). While the physical or textual sources illuminate only a certain aspect of past societies, ethnographic studies as a rule provide a more holistic account, increasing our awareness about the positioning of our sources within their social environment. Anthropological data cannot, however, be used in a 1:1 fashion, as an endless field of data to be harvested at the scholar’s whim. Rather, it should provide him with analytical tools (“Analyseinstrumentarium”) that fill in some of the gaps left by our sources. In order to decide what tools are most applicable to a given historical context, it has to be determined first what its essential features are. Only then may we choose what anthropological model suits our sources best (in this case the so-called ‘Big Man’ model).5

While it is easy to agree with this fundamental statement, putting it into practice may not always be so straightforward, as is shown by Ulf’s own list of characteristic features of Greek Dark Age society. Some of them are beyond discussion (to the point of bordering on the obvious), including his emphasis on regional differences as a fundamental aspect of the Greek Early Iron Age and his observation that the sacred (particularly religious feasting) and the profane are essentially intertwined in pre-modern societies. But what to make of the assertion that the Greek Dark Ages cannot be treated as a direct descendant of the Mycenaean world, because demographic changes removed all traces of earlier institutions? The scholarship of Lin Foxhall and others6 shows that there are still many shades of gray to be added to this picture. In a similar vein, one may find fault with Ulf’s insistence on the absence of an elite caste at the introduction of Greek supra-regional sanctuaries.7 While this is not the place to get into a discussion of specifics, it is important to be aware of the difficulties of determining (not to mention agreeing on) the precise constituent factors of a society on which anthropological analysis is to be performed. It has to be acknowledged that the yield of this type of enquiry is always dependent on the “input” of a specific set of predetermined parameters, which, if changed, must necessarily affect the outcome of the exercise.

Be this as it may, Ulf’s article offers some important insights about feasting in “Big Man” societies. His views are based largely on the work of the American anthropologist Brian Hayden,8 who has categorized feasting according to its functional characteristics: the presentation of economic surplus, status display, mobilization of labor, etc. The key notion to Hayden’s approach is that feasts (not cults!) constitute the essential nodes of social life. In a Durkheimian sense this presupposes that all feasts are religious (or, in Hayden’s terms, ritualized) by their very nature. This certainly has important implications for the way we consider Greek festivals. Unless one is inclined to understand the entire festival in cultic terms (in itself a defendable position), it becomes inevitable to define the specific function of cult (taking care of the gods’ needs) as but one element of a larger festive context. The advantage of emphasizing festive gatherings rather than the more narrowly defined domain of cult is that it opens the possibility to revert attention to the social factor essential to religious gatherings. Since the archaeologist finds himself in the disadvantageous position of having to study ancient societies at secondhand, awareness that the cultic remains (mostly architecture and votives) represent only a few pieces of the puzzle is fundamental when it comes to acknowledging some of pre- and proto-history’s pitfalls. It is therefore to be hoped that feasting continues to develop as a central focus of study in the field of Mediterranean archaeology. Christoph Ulf’s contribution marks an important preliminary step in this endeavor.

Peter Siewert (“Kultische und politische Organisationsformen im frühen Olympia und in seiner Umgebung”) analyses four inscriptions that show the interplay between political and cultic authority of the sacred bureaucracy of Olympia between the late archaic and early classical period. Perhaps the most revealing discussion concerns a mid-fifth century inscription granting Eleian citizenship to two individuals, one Spartan and one Euboian, admitting them to Eleian expatriate communities ( epoikiai) in their respective poleis and establishing them as theorodokoi, officials whose duty it is to receive the Olympic cult emissaries. In this brief but informative overview Siewert reveals the workings of the cultic bureaucracy that enabled Elis to exercise far-reaching political influence. This is most clearly illustrated by the office of diaitater, the later hellanodikas, who exercised the function of arbiter at the games, but was also appointed as guardian of Hellenic unity at the time of the Persian invasion.

Claudia Antonetti (“Die Rolle des Artemisions von Korkyra in archaischer Zeit”) explores the mythological connections of Corcyra with the rest of the Western Greek world in the seventh and sixth centuries. Her approach conforms less to the main focus of the book, sidestepping the issue of cult and only cursorily touching upon politics. Her discussion of the west pediment of the Artemis temple is nevertheless of interest as its iconography appears to be strongly connected with similar scenes in Corinth, the Adriatic, Sicily and Italy, including the temple of Sant’Omobono at Rome. Chrysaor and Pegasos are shown to be popular in the larger Greek northwest, which also holds a peculiar affinity with the Trojans (Memnon). On the other hand allusions to the Titanomachy may be related specifically to Corcyra. It is somewhat unfortunate that the admirable wealth of mythological interpretations presented in this article has not been placed in the context of a more explicitly ethnogenetic perspective.

Christoph Auffarth (“Das Heraion von Argos oder das Heraion der Argolis?”) elaborates in this essay on Durkheim’s quintessential thesis9 that religious practice builds social cohesion. Auffarth stresses quite rightly that the flipside of this coin is that religion (represented by sanctuaries and their cults) may be equally divisive or exclusive, depending on one’s point of view. His treatment of the specific case of the Argive Heraion is as stimulating as it will be controversial, taking up the glove that was cast down over a decade ago by Christopher Hall.10 Hall argued that Hera should be regarded as a goddess belonging to the eastern Argive plain and that her sanctuary did not become truly “Argive” until the conquest of Mycenae and Tiryns in 468 BC. Instead of deconstructing or refuting Hall’s solid argumentation piecemeal, Auffarth presents an independent interpretation of the physical and literary sources, claiming that the foundation of the Heraion on a monumental scale in the eighth century BC should be read as an act of defiance geared toward the eastern poleis of the Argive plain: the Mycenaeanizing Cyclopean terrace wall was an explicit ideological message meant to undermine these older cities’ claim to dominance of the eastern Argolid. This interpretation is bound to stir up debate on the history of the Argive Heraion. Rather than reviving de Polignac’s outdated “bipolar” model (city vs. rural sanctuary), Auffarth has made a commendable effort to reveal how the Heraion may fit in a wider network of sanctuaries and settlements. On a more general level, Auffarth’s article’s contains some important thoughts on the way religion may divide as well as unite people into political units such as ethne, amphictyonies, and poleis or reinforce their identity on a smaller social scale as determined by gender, generation, neighborhood, or craft.11

Bernard Linke’s article (“Zeus als Gott der Ordnung”), which treats the interaction of religious belief and the social order, is one of this book’s most insightful contributions. A central role in this article is devoted to the question of why the most powerful of all gods never came to perform the role of polis deity. Even though the Greeks recognized Zeus as the main guardian of human and divine law and order, his cult was of relative marginal importance in Greek poleis, as it was restricted to the specific role of maintaining a balanced social order (i.e., Zeus Boulaios, Agoraios, Herkeios, Patroos, Poliouchos etc.). Linke’s posits that the omnipotence of Zeus prevented him from becoming a polis’ patron deity because his unquestionable authority threatened to disturb the precarious equilibrium of competitive groups within the poleis. Notable exceptions are the archaic tyrants (i.e., the Peisistratids), who tried to associate themselves with Zeus precisely because it enforced their claim to absolute power. The Panhellenic cult of Zeus at Olympia, on the other hand, owed its preeminence to its remote location, at a safe distance from the dangers of political factionalism.12

Joannis Mylonopoulos (“Von Helike nach Tainaron und von Kalauria nach Samikon: Amphiktyonische Heiligtümer des Poseidon auf der Peloponnes”) investigates why Poseidon is equally unlikely as Zeus to serve as a polis’ patron deity. As primogenitor of many cities and tribes he is, however, the favored deity in the cultic associations known as amphictyonies, especially in the Peloponnese. Mylonopoulos stresses the absence of common political goals shared between the member states during the Archaic period. This changed during the late classical period when the Calaurian league is the first that can be shown to have acquired some “political salience”. One might object that all shared cults must have some political force, even if common goals are not always easy to discern. Nevertheless, M. succinctly sets forth all source material, both literary and archaeological, some of which he has presented before,13 and carefully works toward his main conclusion that in stressing their Ionian or Achaian roots the four Peloponnesian amphictyonies of Poseidon reinforced a distinctly non-Dorian identity.

Thomas Corsten (“Stammes- und Bundeskulte in Akarnanien”) ingeniously disentangles archaeological and literary sources to establish the principal cult of the Akarnanians. The sanctuary of Apollo Aktios became the league’s principle cult site in 216 B.C. when western Akarnania freed itself from Epirote rule. Corsten contents that the sanctuary of Zeus at Stratos had previously performed that role, but could no longer be used as a result of ongoing Aetolian domination of eastern Akarnania. The Corinthian colony of Anaktorion, in whose dominion Apollo Aktios was situated, was duly accepted into the Akarnanian League in exchange for sharing its patron deity. This example shows that ethnicity was not a blood-related, and therefore fixed, category. Instead, it nicely illustrates how ethnic ties could be molded to fit the practical circumstances.

Nino Luraghi (“Messenische Kulte und Identität in hellenistischer Zeit”) explores the historical conditions that shaped three important Messenian cults: Artemis Limnatis at Volimos and Messene, and Asklepios, both in Messene. The cult of Artemis was situated at the border with Lakonia on the west face of Taygetos and changed from Messenian to Spartan control several times between the late classical and early Roman periods. As such, the sanctuary came to symbolize either Spartan domination or Messenian freedom. The other two cults seem to have been designed in part to reconstruct Messenian identity after the collapse of Spartan hegemony in the southern Peloponnese. The artificial nature of these cults, however, impeded the fulfillment of this purpose and their significance may never have transcended the city of Messene itself.

Angelos Chaniotis (“Heiligtümer überregionaler Bedeutung auf Kreta”) explores the various ways sanctuaries were used to form regional hierarchies between states. He also lays down the evidence for three important border sanctuaries on Crete, of Hermes Kedrites, Zeus Diktaios and Zeus Idaios. All three may have involved maturation rites performed jointly by several neighboring, and rivaling, poleis. Chaniotis explains this interesting phenomenon as a chance for young ephebes, the future warriors, to experience rivalry and enmity within the safe environment of sanctuary sacral space, while at the same time establishing and maintaining interregional connections.

Klaus Freitag (“Ein Schiedsvertrag zwischen Halos und Thebai aus Delphi”) examines an arbitration decree between the Thessalian poleis of Halos and (Phthiotic) Thebes. Freitag’s contribution shows the importance, not only of an inscription’s contents, but also of the ideological message conveyed by the choice for the physical environment of the stele. The places in which this specific decree was set up (Delphi, Larissa, Thebes and Halos), are shown to be highly illustrative for the political position of Achaia Phthiotis in the second century BC.

Annette Hupfloher (“Kaiserkult in einem überregionaler Heiligtum: das Beispiel Olympia”) analyses the evidence for supra-regional influence on the imperial cult at Olympia. While Eleian control of the ritual procedures appears to be preeminent, other states, the Achaian league in particular, can be shown to have taken an active interest in this cult.

Hans-Christian Schneider (“Der Schrein des Iuppiter Latiaris und der Hain der Diana Nemorensis”), finally, presents the evidence for the pan-regional influence of two sanctuaries in SE Latium in the territory of the Early Iron Age settlement of Alba Longa. Schneider detects a probable link between the decline of this once powerful town and the establishment of the sanctuaries of Jupiter and Diana. He draws on the scholarship of Gerhard Baudy14 to sustain the interesting view that the distribution of meat at the festival of Jupiter Latiaris was indicative of the political hierarchy between the thirty member towns of the Latin league.

Kult – Politik – Ethnos has undoubtedly made an important contribution to our understanding of the social environment of Greek sanctuaries and will attract a wide readership from regional specialists to students of religion and Greek identity.


1. François de Polignac (1984). La naissance de la cité grecque: cultes, espace et société VIIIe-VIIe siècles avant J.-C. Paris.

2. Susan Alcock and Robin Osborne (1994). Placing the Gods: Sanctuaries and Sacred Space in Ancient Greece. Oxford. Also instrumental in this: Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood (1990). “What is Polis Religion?” The Greek City: From Homer to Alexander. O. Murray and S. R. F. Price, eds. Oxford

3. Catherine Morgan (2003). Early Greek States Beyond the Polis. London and New York; Jeremy McInerney (1999). The Folds of Parnassos: Land and Ethnicity in Ancient Phokis. Austin; J. McInerney (2001). “Ethnos and Ethnicity in Early Greece.” Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity. I. Malkin (ed.). Cambridge.

4. See for example Christoph Ulf (1996). “Griechische Ethnogenese versus Wanderungen von Stämmen und Stammstaaten.” Wege zur Genese griechischer Identität. Die Bedeutung der früharchaischen Zeit. C. Ulf, ed. Berlin, 240-280.

5. Its most notable application in the field of classical archaeology is James Whitley (1991). “Social Diversity in Dark Age Greece.” BSA 86, 341-365. See also M. Godelier and M. Strathern (1991). Big Men and Great Men. Personifications of Power in Melanesia. Cambridge.

6. While acknowledging the far-reaching effects of the disappearance of palatial centers, Foxhall emphasizes the continuity of socio-economic structures on a slightly smaller scale, adducing the case of Nichoria, which remained as a local center after the destruction of Pylos. Lin Foxhall (1995). “Bronze to Iron: Agricultural Systems and Political Structures in Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Greece.” BSA 90, 239-250. See also de Polignac’s ideas about constitutional continuity at Athens: Franois de Polignac (1995). Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City-State. Chicago. 81-88.

7. Implicit in Catherine Morgan (1990). Athletes and Oracles: The Transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the Eighth Century BC. Cambridge and New York. 205.

8. Brian Hayden (2001). “Fabulous Feasts: A Prolegomenon to the Importance of Feasting.” In M. Dietler and B. Hayden (eds.), Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, DC. 23-64.

9. Emile Durkheim (1912). Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: le système totémique en Australie. Paris.

10. Jonathan M. Hall (1995). “How Argive is the Argive Heraion?” AJA 99, 577-613.

11. Compare Catherine Morgan’s “tiers of identity” (see above).

12. Linke states that the cults of Zeus notoriously lagged behind in the construction of temples. However, the so-called temple of Hera at Olympia was probably first consecrated to Zeus and Hera, if not to Zeus alone. This building dates to ca. 590 BC and seems to have had a predecessor dating to ca. 650 BC. See John G. Pedley (2005). Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World. New York. 122; R.A. Tomlinson (1976). Greek Sanctuaries. London. 59. Even Alfred Mallwitz (1972. Olympia und seine Bauten. München. 95), who speaks of a Heraion, believes the building contained a cult statue of Zeus.

13. Joannis Mylonopoulos (2003). Heiligtümer und Kulte auf der Peloponnes. (Kernos Suppl. 13). Liège.

14. Gerhard J. Baudy (1983). Hierarchie oder: Die Verteilung des Fleisches. Neue Ansätze in der Religionswissenschaft (= Forum Religionswissenschaft 4). B. Gladigow and H. G. Kippenberg. München, 131-174.