BMCR 2019.08.05

Popular Religion and Ritual in Prehistoric and Ancient Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean

, , , Popular Religion and Ritual in Prehistoric and Ancient Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2018. x, 170; 30 p. of plates. ISBN 9781789690453. €32,00.

Publisher’s Preview [Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

This edited volume is the publication of a conference dedicated to the topic of the archaeology of popular religion and ritual in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. In the introduction (pp. vii-xiii), Vavouranakis frames the need for this conference and its subsequent publication by pointing to a continued lack of developed theoretical frameworks in Mediterranean archaeology for understanding the material expressions of religious rituals practiced by large groups of people from the lower tiers of society, especially when faced with the diversity of archaeological finds that are often uncritically lumped into the category of “popular” religion. He introduces the most commonly cited definition of popular religious practices, i.e. those that fall outside the bounds of “official” religious practices and beliefs tied to centralized power structures, such as Bronze Age palaces or Greek poleis. This perceived dichotomy between official and popular religious practices, as well as the related association of popular religion with non-elites and non-urban areas, explicitly informs most of the papers in this volume, either as an accepted framework for situating archaeological case studies or as one in need of revision in light of new material evidence for ritual practices. The first several papers in the volume deal with Bronze Age Crete and the Cyclades. Vavouranakis (pp. 1-10) investigates a rise in popular ritual paralleling the first phase of palatial development on Crete. He introduces the sociological idea of the “multitude” as a potentially useful concept for characterizing the non-elite and nonhomogeneous populations of the island: in this framework, decentralized, inclusive networks develop collective social and ritual behaviors whose significance does not suppress individual diversity. Vavouranakis suggests that the increasing connectivity and integration afforded by the idea of the multitude, of which the spread of popular ritual was a symptom, may have been as important a driver for the social reorganization of Crete in the Middle Minoan period as the emergence of palatial centers. Caloi (pp. 11-18) analyzes the changing relationship between the emergence of Phaistos and the mortuary landscape of the western Mesara. She argues that the shifts in the patterns of burials and performances of ritual activities at the cemeteries of Kamilari and Ayia Triada, as well as patterns of the adoption and standardization of Phaistian pottery styles at certain sites in the western Mesara, such as Kamares Cave, demonstrate that these cemeteries became popular ritual sites for local communities in the face of the increasing physical and social monumentality of the palace at Phaistos before their eventual integration into a broader regional community in the Middle Minoan II period. Haysom (pp. 19-28) tackles the persistent question of elite and, by extension, palatial involvement in the use of peak sanctuaries, usually viewed as sites of popular ritual. He examines the distribution of “elite” classes of material found at peak sanctuaries and demonstrates that, with the exception of gold, all of these classes of material were also found in non-elite settlement contexts. Haysom therefore argues that elites symbolically engaged with, and coopted the ritual significance of, the peak sanctuaries through individual dedications that iconographically evoked traditional male competitive ritual activities rather than political control. Privitera (pp. 29-37) investigates the phenomenon of ritually inverting vases in settlements and cemeteries across Bronze Age Crete. He argues that, while the continuity of the act of depositing inverted vases may not indicate a continuity of religious beliefs, the practice appears to contain a continued emphasis on commemorative rituals, possibly for dead ancestors, throughout the Bronze Age. Platon (pp. 39-45) presents a large cooking vessel from Zakros decorated with small cupules that he names a chytros after vessels used to prepare sacred food on the third day of the later Anthesteria festival. Based on this comparison, he identifies it as a vessel used for the ritual preparation of first fruits offerings into a sacred mash in the context of a local folk festival for symbolic purification and fertility. Moving to the Cyclades, Sørensen, Friedrich, and Søholm (pp. 47-54) argue that iconography found throughout the frescoes from Akrotiri can be used to deduce religious ideas and beliefs that were tied closely to communal social identities and values. They regard many of the iconographic elements as metamorphic in nature and conclude that patterns of transformation and cyclical renewal were a fundamental element of Theran religious and social thinking. The following three papers deal with aspects of popular religion in the Mycenaean sphere. Whittaker (p. 55-61) questions the usefulness of defining popular religion as that which is non-official or non-elite and suggests instead employing the categories of private and public, arguing that, because religious practices and beliefs cut across social classes, we should instead look towards their performative contexts. Using the pattern of deposition of female figurines as a case study, she equates popular ritual with activities performed at the social level of the household in domestic and funerary contexts. Also focusing on Mycenaean figurines, Polychronakou-Sgouritsa (pp. 63-71) re-evaluates theories about the purpose of female figurines from Attica, Aegina, and Ayia Irini. She argues in particular that figurines and groups of figurines of rare types can be read as specific manifestations of localized religious beliefs. Salavoura (pp. 73-83) compares the evidence for the Late Bronze Age phases of the cults at the sanctuaries of Mount Lykaion and Mount Oros, concentrating on their shared role as regional landmarks serving rural populations outside of the orbits of the Mycenaean palaces, despite material differences in cult practices and related activities. She points out that such cults on high peaks have not been systematically studied on the Greek mainland but played integral roles in unifying local communities.

Five papers can be broadly grouped together under the category of popular religion in the Early Iron Age through Archaic periods, and they include the volume’s only papers that look outside the bounds of the Aegean. Eliopoulos (pp. 85-95) discusses the role of Minoan Goddess with Upraised Arm (MGUA) figures in the development of religious activities and cult spaces in Late Minoan IIIC settlements on Crete, focusing in particular on a unique enthroned MGUA from Kephala Vasilikis. He argues that these figures depicted deities and that their role in the early stages of the development of free-standing cult buildings in Early Iron Age settlements on Crete marked a movement by local elites to coopt elements of the older official Minoan religion after the dissolution of the palaces and the institution of Minoan/Mycenaean kingship at the end of the Bronze Age. Leriou (pp. 97-104) compares traits of rural and urban open-air sanctuaries on Cyprus during the Cypro-Archaic period in order to examine whether differences between sites usually associated with “popular” and “official” ritual, respectively, can shed light on local cultural identities. She determines that both urban and rural contexts across the island shared most material and architectural traits, and argues that the homogeneity of these sites indicates that the uniformity of cultural identity based on a shared past was stronger than any regional political divisions during this period. Moving further east, Papanastasopoulou (pp. 105-111) examines the corpus of Judean Pillar Figurines (JPFs), a class of ritual objects restricted to the kingdom of Judah in the 8 th and 7 th centuries BCE, in order to address the question of identifying popular religious practices in the field of biblical archaeology. She interprets these figurines as representations of Asherah, the consort of Yahweh who was worshipped as a deity in popular practice but not by the kingdom’s monotheistic state religion, which were used in domestic or otherwise private worship. Apostola (pp. 113-124) examines imported and locally-made figurines and figures of the Egyptian demon-god Bes from sanctuaries on Rhodes and Samos, whose original role as a hybrid figure associated with fertility and childbirth was easily transferable to the worship of Greek kourotrophic goddesses, probably by the Egyptian wives of Greek merchants and mercenaries. She also associates these Bes figurines with the emergence of the “fat-bellied demon” type in the early 6 th century BCE, in which the iconography and apotropaic role of Bes were incorporated into local popular religious ideologies in the Aegean. Valavanis (pp. 165-168) argues that the foot race was originally inaugurated at Olympia as an integral part of early stages of cult practice there by local farming and herding communities, rather than as a separate athletic event. He draws parallels with athletic components of local religious festivals in modern Greece that are ritually connected with the bestowal of agricultural fertility through competition and physical prowess.

Two papers focus on the practice of cursing in the Classical and early Hellenistic periods. Lamont and Boundouraki (pp. 125-135) contrast the personal practice of cursing someone with public participation in communal and civic cults in Classical Athens, drawing a private/public distinction in defining “popular” ritual. They present the religious landscape of the deme of Xypete as a case study, including a recently-excavated cache of curse tablets, examining how ritual practices and their material contexts created a diverse picture of the expression of local and civic identities through private and public religious activities. Chairetakis (pp. 137-142) in turn presents a group of curse inscriptions incised on a late fourth century BCE bowl from Salamis, which he argues came from a residential context and most likely targeted an adjacent household.

A final two papers deal with the problem of reconstructing ritual practice through the lens of groups of figurines from cult sites in caves in the late Classical and early Hellenistic periods. Spathi (pp. 143-155) examines masked figurines from the cave sanctuary to the Nymphs at Lechova (Corinthia). Based on a typological study and comparisons with masked figurines and masks from other cult sites, she argues that this cult likely involved initiation or maturation rites that incorporated cult dances or ritual performances. Koursoumis (pp. 157-164) presents a group of terracotta figurines from an unknown cave sanctuary on the Messenian slopes of Mount Taygetos. Based on their iconography, he identifies the cult as one to a female deity, possibly Orthia, thereby tying it to a larger network of rural cults to this goddess in the often contested and blurred boundaries between Sparta and Messenia.

The topic of the conference and of this volume is a welcome one in the field of Greek religion. Its greatest strength is the centering of under-published bodies of material from ritual contexts, such as figurines, and the emphasis on the importance of their contextualization within ritual practices for our understanding of popular religion and ritual in the Eastern Mediterranean. Especially useful are the number of papers that addressed the methodological problems of using small finds to identify and interpret otherwise opaque religious practices and beliefs in rural and domestic contexts. Similarly welcome was the diversity of material encapsulated in various case studies.

The most uneven quality of the volume is the degree to which individual authors considered the definition of popular religion: the most useful papers for a broad audience are the ones that engage with the more theoretical aspects of this topic and are explicit about their working definitions of popular ritual and religion, whether maintaining the popular/official dichotomy or proposing a private/public opposition as a more useful interpretive framework. These discussions are as valuable a contribution as the presentations of under-represented bodies of material evidence included in this volume. A number of papers have less explicit working definitions, however: many implicitly work within the official/popular theoretical paradigm laid out in the volume’s introduction (e.g., Spathi), while others use much broader definitions (e.g., Sørensen et al., who equate “popular” simply with “widely shared” [p.47]). A related theoretical thread running through many of the papers in this volume is that popular religion constitutes a set of conservative practices and beliefs, which survives shifts in an official religion that is ideologically bound to immediate cultural and political circumstances. Several papers use later religious and ritual practices as interpretive parallels and, while some papers are explicit in presenting these parallels as conceptual ones only (e.g., Valavanis), others are less clear in drawing these boundaries or implicitly argue for the continuity of practice or belief (e.g., Platon). This persistent difficulty in articulating the definition(s) and parameters of popular ritual and religion, far from detracting from the value of individual papers or the volume as a whole, demonstrates the need for continuing work on this subject, whose complexity is a consequence of its relationship with a whole constellation of other theoretical and practical topics (e.g urbanism/rurality, definitions of elite status) that underpin how we visualize life in the ancient Mediterranean.

Authors and titles

Giorgos Vavouranakis, “Popular religion and ritual: introductory notes”
Giorgos Vavouranakis, “Ritual, multitude and social structure in Minoan Crete”
Ilaria Caloi, “What relationship with the First palace of Phaistos? The funerary complexes of Kamilari and Ayia Triada in the Protopalatial period”
Matthew Haysom, “Mass and elite in Minoan peak sanctuaries”
Santo Privitera, “Inverting vases in Bronze Age Crete: Where? When? Why?”
Lefteris Platon, “A Minoan ‘ chytros ’? Unexpected archaeological evidence for the possible pre-historic origin of an ancient Greek ceremonial practice”
Annette Højen Sørensen, Walter L. Friedrich and Kirsten Molly Søholm, “Metamorphoses and hybridity in the wall-paintings at Akrotiri, Thera”
Helène Whittaker, “Approaches to popular religion in Late Bronze Age Greece”
Nagia Polychronakou Sgouritsa, “The Mycenaean figurines revisited”
Eleni Salavoura, “Mount Lykaion (Arkadia) and Mount Oros (Aegina): two cases of Late Bronze Age sacred ‘high places’”
Theodore C. Eliopoulos, “The ‘Minoan Goddess with Upraised Arms’ today”
Anastasia Leriou, “Re-positioning ‘rural’ sanctuaries within the Cypro-Archaic societies: some considerations”
Valia Papanastasopoulou, “Popular religion in ancient Judah during the 8th and 7th centuries BC. The case of the female pillar figurines”
Electra Apostola, “Representations of the demon-god Bes in Rhodes and Samos during the 7th and 6th centuries BC and their influence on popular religious beliefs: Bes and the ‘fat-bellied demons’”
Jessica L. Lamont and Georgia Boundouraki, “Of curses and cults: private and public ritual in Classical Xypete”
Yannis Chairetakis, “Cursing rituals as part of household cult: a fourth century BC inscribed bowl from Salamis”
Maria Spathi, “Representations of masked figures: a comparative study and an interpretive approach to their cult-use and meaning”
Socrates Koursoumis, “Detecting the cult of a border sanctuary on the Messenian slopes of Mount Taygetos”
Panos Valavanis, “Popular religion and the beginnings of the Olympic Games”