BMCR 2020.06.06

Athena Itonia: geography and meaning of an ancient Greek war goddess

, Athena Itonia: geography and meaning of an ancient Greek war goddess. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world, 191. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xx, 329 p.. ISBN 9789004416406 €157,00.


The volume analyzes all the extant evidence on the cult of Athena Itonia and advances hypotheses on the development of this cult. The study by Gerald Lalonde is the first monograph dedicated exclusively to this subject and will thus provide a reference book for any future work connected with this goddess. The main claims of the author are that the cult has a Thessalian origin and presumably reached Boiotia and Athens at different times; the way in which Athena Itonia reached Amorgos, her other place of worship, is less easy to ascertain. However, a positive argument is made to explain why the goddess came to be particularly relevant to the local community there between the third and the second centuries BC.

The “Introduction” offers a brief overview of the current scholarship on Athena Itonia and sets forth the theoretical framework of the book. The author explains why he orders the chapters according to the relative chronology of the evidence of each region (Thessaly, Boiotia, Athens, and Amorgos). Two points need be remarked: firstly, Lalonde’s return to Durkheim’s functional structuralism (6), i.e., where religion is read as a human response to a social structure; secondly, the focus throughout the book, for which he advocates in the Introduction, on scholarship of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is a welcome innovation and does not imply ignorance of the most recent contributions in the field.

In the chapter on “Thessaly,” Lalonde comments on the rich evidence from this region which supports the argument that the cult here was very old. The first section concentrates on the literary witnesses and on the history of the region. An unparalleled variety of cognate-Iton terms, spanning from the month Itonios to two toponyms, Iton and Itonos, and the festival of the Itonia, suggest that the byname Itonia has a toponymic etymology: Athena Itonia was probably the result of a merger of a local goddess with Athena and was adopted by the Thessalians as soon as they reached historical Thessaly after leaving Epiros. As the ‘maid of Iton,’ Athena Itonia was “as early as the Geometric period the principal military patron of the Thessalians” (33). In his treatment of the archaeological scenario, Lalonde argues that the rich sanctuary excavated at Philia (ancient Thessaliotis) by Theocharis in the 1960s was not the only temenos for Athena Itonia in Thessaly. In addition to the richness of the votives found on the spot, further discoveries were made elsewhere in the area, especially in the periochic region of Achaia Phthiotis, where the Iton of Homer (Il. 2.696), possibly identical with the Itonos of Strabo (9.5.8), has not yet been identified. Therefore, the author (52-56) strongly denies that the embassy sent by the Koans to Itonos between 294 and 288 BC (IG XII 4.1.133B) could point to a sanctuary further inland than one which still lies undetected in the coastal region of Achaia Phthiotis.

Literary evidence on the cult of Athena Itonia in “Boiotia” is more abundant, especially since the cult became the focus of the Hellenistic festival Pamboiotia and was closely connected with the ethnic history of the region since the sixth century BC. The sole sanctuary of Athena Itonia in Boiotia was in Koroneia, where no consensus on the topography of this temenos has yet been reached (106-110). Since the oldest witness to the cult here is a fragment by Alkaios (F 325 L.-P.), it would be safe to surmise that the goddess arrived in Boiotia when the Boiotians came there from Thessaly. The Thessalian origin of the Boiotians rests on the presence of the origin tale in the ancient national histories of the Boiotians and on the linguistic blend of the Boiotian dialect, a mixture of Northwestern and Aeolic elements.[1] Chapter 2 also offers an updated overview of the Pamboiotia and relies on recent scholarship underlining the strong ties between the cult of Athena Itonia and the development of the Boiotian leagues throughout the history of the region. The most innovative point concerns the male statue which was created after 447 BC by Agorakritos, a pupil of Pheidias, and placed in the naos in Koroneia. The author argues (pp. 120-132) that the god, who accompanies Athena, cannot be Hades, as suggested by Strabo (9.2.29), because of the lack of comparanda for such a pairing and the general untrustworthiness of Strabo on this point.  Lalonde prefers the identification of this statue with Zeus made by Pausanias (9.34.1), and, in the absence of a figure of Hades paired with Athena at the core of this cult, the author also denies any chthonic element in the divine persona of Athena Itonia. A further interesting observation concerns the mythical Iodama, defeated by her sister Athena Itonia in a mythographical tradition already in Simonides of Keos (BNJ 8 F 1): she may be a local heroine of the Koroneian locale.

For the cult of Athena Itonia in “Athens”, we only possess four epigraphic texts and a cursory reference to the Itonian gates, presumably named after an Itoneion, in the Pseudo-Platonic Axiochus (364d). The few certain points are that the sanctuary lay in the south-eastern region of the city, by the Ilissos river and not far from the Kallirhoe fountain, that it held a high position before the second quarter of the fifth century BC (IG I3 1049), and that the last surviving mention appears in an inscribed law of Lykourgos (335 BC?; IG II3 445). Further topographical exactness is hard to attain: scholars have tried to integrate the references of the Axiochus with the descriptions of the same region by Plutarch (Thes. 25.6) and Pausanias (1.2.1 and 1.18.7). By focusing on the Themistoklean walls in the south-eastern sector, where an Itonian gate lay not far from the Kynosarges according to Pseudo-Plato, the author endorses Travlos’ tentative identification of the Itonian gate with gate XI (179-182).[2] Lalonde rejects the claims both for a local origin of the cult and for a Boiotian origin. Against a local origin, he argues that it is unlikely that the byname of the goddess reflects an etymological link with eimi (‘the one who marches/ who proceeds’) and, thus, with an old path of the Panathenaia from the acropolis to this area of Athens (he expands upon this argument in a special “Appendix” of the book at pp. 255-263). He rejects the claim of a Boiotian origin because of the difficult relationships between Athens and Boiotians down to the Persian Wars, although it should be noted that the two communities were not always enemies. The author suggests that a Thessalian origin might be imagined in the aftermath of the intervention of Thessalian cavalry in support of Peisistratos in the third quarter of the sixth century BC. The later support of Thessalian mercenaries for Hippias in 511/10 BC occurred too close to the public condemnation of the Peisistratid family to be a plausible point for the importation of the cult, but an earlier setting would explain the long survival of the cult in Athens.

The case of Amorgos has long puzzled scholars of Greek religion because of the abundant epigraphic evidence of a cult of Athena Itonia from the early third century to the first century BC. The corpus comes from only two of the three cities of the island, Arkesine and Minoa, and it mostly consists of honorary decrees for local wealthy benefactors who had generously sponsored the festival of the Itonia. In the absence of dedications to the goddess and of any literary witness to this phenomenon, scholarship has struggled to find links with either Boiotia or Athens as possible points of origin for the cult, but Lalonde carefully reminds the reader that the cult of Athena Itonia might have come from a location other than Boiotia or Athens. In the case of Amorgos, the isolated mention of the month Itonios in Tauromenion (IG XIV 426-427), occupied by the Naxians in 358 BC, may offer evidence of the growth of the cult among those Naxians who, together with the Samians, were thought to be the colonizers of Amorgos in antiquity (214-216). Moreover, the upsurge of the cult in the third century BC may be due to the specific merits of the benefactors, who acted as archons of the festival with a generous subsidy and had probably served as wards and defenders of the victims of piracy. “[I]t was the growth of piratical raids […] that prompted wealthy maritime traders to indulge their protective goddess with these gifts” (253).

This review cannot provide a complete overview of the numerous useful observations on many sources which are assembled in the book: suffice it here to recall the careful analysis (61-62) of the chapters of Strabo on the Thessalian Itoneia in the Achaia Phthiotis and in the Thessaliotis (9.2.29 and 9.5.8), where Lalonde is able to show that, despite the obvious confusion of the geographer, we can accept that he was aware of more than a sanctuary to the goddess. This study on Athena Itonia offers a detailed and well-argued demonstration on the Thessalian origin of the cult: those who do not want to accept that the cult had a Thessalian origin, but still prefer to see its origin in central Greece,[3] might have to engage more closely with the meaning of the Geometric finds of sites such as the votive Geometric dedications of Philia. One of the merits of Lalonde’s investigation is his ability to argue for his thesis with the full range of extant evidence, rather than relying on hypothetical and unattested connections.

The book is supplemented by five maps and a catalogue of figures. Given the theoretical premises of the introduction, it would be preposterous to remark here upon specific gaps in the use of recent scholarship: in fact, one of the merits of the monograph lies in its complete overview of relevant scholarship from the nineteenth century. A general conclusion would have helped the reader to quickly retrieve the overall argument, but clear summaries at the end of each chapter provide a good substitute. It is also clear that the author intends not to overemphasize the history of this cult by forcing all the evidence into a unique story. A linear history of the cult of Athena Itonia, assuming such a thing ever existed, still awaits us, but Lalonde’s overview offers very careful analyses of each of its documented settings.


[1] Lalonde does not refute the thesis of those who, after Holt N. Parker (Hesperia 77, 2008, pp.431-464), denied the Aeolic features of the Boiotian dialect. This refutation, however, is not essential to prove, as Lalonde does, that the Boitoians came from a Northwestern population previously located in Thessaly.

[2] The use of the Axiochus raises, however, a number of further questions. It is not certain that, as maintained by Lalonde (172, n.26), it dates as far back as the fourth century BC. Recent scholarship (e.g, the commentary by Beghini, A., ed., [Platone.] Assioco, Baden-Baden 2020, 22-30, 67-87), in arguing for a date as late as the first century BC, stresses the chronological confusion of the Realien in this pseudo-plautonic dialogue. While a broad location of the Athenian Itoneion in this region seems confirmed by Plutarch and Pausanias, the imaginary topography of the Axiochus may not be as reliable as supposed by the archaeological scholarship on the sole basis of the Axiochus.

[3] See, from different angles, Mili, M., Religion and Society in Ancient Thessaly, Oxford 2015, pp. 230-232; Ead. in Lemos, I and Tsingarida, A., eds. Beyond the Polis. Rituals, Rites, and Cults in Early and Archaic Greece (12th-6th Centuries BC), Athens 2019, pp.64-65; Tufano, S., Boiotia from Within. The Beginnings of Boiotian Historiography, Münster 2019, pp.419-420.