BMCR 2017.08.18

Religion and Society in Ancient Thessaly. Oxford classical monographs

, Religion and Society in Ancient Thessaly. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. xi, 430. ISBN 9780198718017. $175 (hb).


While often overlooked, Thessaly’s rich archaeological and epigraphic record provides a wealth of material for understanding life in the region. In her book Religion and Society in Ancient Thessaly, based on her Ph.D. dissertation, Maria Mili draws on this rich data to explore the diachronic intersection of religion and society throughout Thessaly. Mili explores the experience of the individual worshipper in private and public religious practices—broadly defined—through the lens of various social structures such as family, kinship, the polis, and Panthessalian groups. Drawing on material culture dating from the Bronze Age through the Hellenistic period with the Classical and Hellenistic periods best represented, Mili reconstructs a multi-tiered picture of Thessalian social and political organization, and the region’s religious and mythical past and its permeation within Thessalian society.

With the exception of Athens, where evidence is abundant, regional religious studies have focused on the gods, cults, and sanctuaries rather than the intersection of religion and society.1 In presenting a regional study of religion in Thessaly, Mili expands beyond individualized elements of religion and religious practices by grounding religion within its lived environment in an attempt to see patterns in and interconnection amongst religion, individuals or groups, and Thessalian poleis across time and space. To do so, Mili draws primarily from a large corpus of inscribed objects and epigraphic evidence for evidence related to the granting of honors and titles to citizens and non-citizens, existence of social/religious groups, participation in cultic activities, private and public dedicatory practices, and the integration of mythology into private and state ideology. What makes Mili’s book so important to the study of Greek religion is its emphasis on the intersection of religion and society, and in particular, how religion and cult develops and is used in oligarchic poleis within an ethnos. Through this lens, we gain a more nuanced yet complex understanding of religion within ethne by examining how polis culture permeated and functioned within it while simultaneously highlighting the role and experience of the individual worshipper in the creation of religious and socio-political identity. As a result, this book makes significant contributions to our understanding of Greek, in particular Thessalian, religion and rituals and to the study of Thessalian society as a whole.

The book is divided into six chapters addressing topics of societal structures, cults and sanctuaries, Panthessalian myths and their integration in religious practices and festivals on local and regional scales, and ancient and modern stereotypes of Thessaly. It concludes with a brief epilogue and three comprehensive appendices synthesizing epigraphic and archaeological evidence, an extensive bibliography and indices for subjects and sources.

Chapter 1, “Three Questions for a Regional Study of Religion,” summarizes previous scholarship on Thessalian religion and its role in formulating stereotypes that continue to permeate regional concepts of religion. Mili establishes her theoretical and methodological approach closely following Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood’s work on “polis religion.” Particularly important is Mili’s assertion that the polis was the realm in which individuals experienced social and religious life. A detailed overview of the archaeological evidence comprises a large section of this introductory chapter showing the breadth and diversity of material culture associated with religious practices from the region. These objects are discussed in context to reconstruct practices throughout the later chapters and include private and public religious objects and settings.

This overview draws upon disparate sources interwoven throughout the book with surprisingly detailed references to primary data presented in extensive footnotes and supplemental appendices. Appendix 1 provides a corpus of 474 inscribed dedications including information about the deity worshipped, location, date, type of dedication, and dedicator when possible. Fundamental to the discussion in chapter 2 are appendices 1 and 3; the latter is a compilation of social or religious groups identified in inscriptions. Dating primarily from the Hellenistic period, the large body of inscriptional evidence draws attention to the rich epigraphic tradition in major and minor Thessalian poleis, particularly in comparison to other regions in Greece. As a result, there is a strong emphasis on Hellenistic inscriptions, which at times runs the risk of elevating some data over others and of skewing the diachronic picture of the past. Throughout this study, Mili acknowledges the possible conflation of material from different time periods and dangers of projecting later evidence into the construction of earlier societies and institutions. She is careful to identify issues of evidence versus supposition, though at times lacunae in the record should be further scrutinized. Appendix 2 supplements the discussion in the latter chapters as it provides a synthesis of 45 securely identified and excavated sanctuaries at 30 Thessalian sites. While extensive, by Mili’s own admission, it is not an exhaustive collection of sanctuaries in Thessaly. For example, Kastro Kallithea is referenced in the text but is absent from the appendix despite the excavated remains of a small sanctuary (Building 5).2 Nevertheless, these appendices are an invaluable resource for sanctuaries and artifacts found at major and minor Thessalian sites, which to date, have been scattered throughout the scholarship.

Chapter 2, “Oligarchic Constitution and Religion in the Thessalian Poleis,” dismantles the image of Thessaly as a feudal state with power in the hands of a few wealthy landowners analogous with medieval Europe. Rather than approaching the ethnos and polis in opposition, Mili argues for their coexistence and for the necessity to explore the social and political organization of oligarchic poleis in order to understand ideas of identity, citizenship, and status in individual poleis and Thessalian society. Approached from a ‘bottom-up’ perspective, Mili evaluates the epigraphic record to identify the types of honors bestowed on individuals and how this correlates with socio-political identities and structures. This includes a much-needed assessment of rights granted to women, thereby confronting perceptions of ancient women and their role in societal structures and public/religious life. Often studies of ritual practices distinguish between private and public cults, but Mili argues justifiably that this is an arbitrary distinction by demonstrating how household religious practices often extended beyond the private sphere to take on extra-kinship or public engagement/meaning.

Chapter 3, “Polis Cults,” shifts the focus to religious spaces and interactions between sanctuaries and their topographic setting within the city: on the acropolis, in the agora, and around the walls in extra-urban or suburban sanctuaries. Of particular interest is the lengthy discussion on the Thessalian goddess Ennodia and her cult in Pherai and elsewhere. This analysis of polis cults reaffirms the need to examine Thessalian religion from a polis rather than regional perspective, as it emphasizes the importance of locale in formulating what it meant to be Pharsalian, Larisean, Pheraian, and Krannonian. Intertwined throughout the discussion of individual polis cults are questions of the role of state/public religion in people’s lives. An analysis of participation, function, and frequency of state administered and financed cults illustrate how religious identities were formulated and practiced by different groups within society.

Acknowledging the difficulties and concerns in amalgamating diachronic evidence throughout Thessaly, chapter 4, “Thessaly through the Kaleidoscope,” highlights the idiosyncrasies of individual cults in time and space to deconstruct generalizations of Thessalian religion. By touring Thessaly, the reader is introduced to the highly individualized, local mythical world of Pagasai, Pherai, Pharsalos, Kierion, Metropolis, Krannon, and Larissa and the intersection of historical events with the mythical past and interaction of individual communities within a network of local, regional, and Panthessalian relationships from a geographic perspective.

Mili returns to the issue of “Panthessalianism and Religion” in chapter 5, by examining the role of religion and mythology in creating community unity and Panthessalianism. This chapter explores the question of “who were the Thessalians” through their origin stories, religion, and cults. By tracing the cults of Athena Itonia, Poseidon Petraios, Zeus Pelor(i)os and Delphic connections (e.g. Apollo Pythios), Mili describes how these aetiological mythologies were integrated into associated cults and festivals and how different local and regional communities used these for constructing a Thessalian past and common identity at specific, often pivotal, moments over time. In doing so, Mili establishes the influence of local and regional rituals and sanctuaries in consolidating cohesion and community amongst similar or diverse populations. In her re-evaluation and reinterpretation of Thessalian identity, Mili advances religion as a social unifier and contributor to the formation of group identity in lieu of the more traditional politics. However, considering the theme of the book rests on the intersectionality of religion and society, the political dimension should not be divorced from the conversation as changing political structures may impact societal structures and raise new group identities.

In the final chapter, “The Land Rich in Herbs,” Mili deconstructs ancient and modern perceptions of Thessaly as the land of horses, herbs, lavish parties, death and the underworld, and magic in order to tease out the realities rooted in these stereotypes. In doing so, she illustrates how the Athenian image of Thessalian opulence and mystery was fabricated, manipulated, and perpetuated over time. To dispel the preoccupation with death, the underworld and magic, Mili systematically debunks the idea of funerary sanctuaries and a chthonic nature of Thessalian religion based on the archaeological evidence. In the end Mili proposes philoxenia and rites of hospitality as the central to defining Thessalianism.

Mili’s book is an extensive exploration of Thessalian religion and its place in society. She bridges the sacred and secular spheres by drawing on multiple strands of literary and archaeological evidence to show their connectivity in the lives of people with a strong emphasis on the polis and ethnos as unifying bodies. It is a much-needed analysis of the internal structural organization of Thessalian society that deconstructs past narratives of the region as a backwards ethnos in failed, stasis-riddled, extravagant, oligarchic society (see chapter 1 and 6). The reader should not expect, however, a seamless narrative that moves systematically through space and time. As a result, the summary sections in some chapters are useful for bringing together the comprehensibly disjointed discussion. At times the limitations of the fragmentary archaeological and literary evidence fail to answer the questions raised, yet are at times presented as more complete and definitive than is the case. Nevertheless the questions raised in Religion and Society in Ancient Thessaly are fundamental to the study of ancient religion and its relationship with the sociopolitical institutions of Thessaly. The importance of this book extends beyond the borders of Thessaly, though, as it raises thought-provoking questions related to the complexities of ancient Greek religion, its permeation into the socio-political organizations of society, and its role in shaping expressions of identity and inclusivity/exclusivity. Ultimately, Mili’s publication will serve as a fundamental resource for scholars working in Thessaly and on ancient religion more broadly.


1. Madeleine Jost, Sanctuaries et cultes d’Arcadie. Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 1985; Albert Schachter, Cults of Boeotia. London: University of London, 1987; Katja Sporn, Heilgtümter und Kulte Kretas in Klassischer und hellenistischer Zeit. Heidelberg: Verlad Archäologie und Geschichte, 2002.

2. Athanasio Tziafalias, Margriet Haagsma, Sophia Karapanou, and Sean Gouglas, “Scratcing the Surface: A Preliminary Report on the 2004 and 2005 Seasons from the Urban Survey Project at Kastro Kallithea (“Peuma”), Thessaly. Part I: Introduction and Architecture.” Mouseion 6.2, pp. 91-135, 2006; Margriet Haagsma, Sophia Karapanou, and Sean Gouglas, “The Archaeological Project at Kastro Kallithea, Thessaly,” ΑΔ 62 pt. B no. 1, pp. 725-730; Margriet Haagsma, Sophia Karapanou, Tracene Harvey, and Laura Surtees, “An Ancient City and its Agora. Results of the Archaeological Project at Kastro of Kallithea, Greece.” In The Agora in the Mediterranean from Homeric to Roman times. Edited by A. Giannikouri. Athens: Ministry of Culture and Tourism, pp. 197-209, 2011.