BMCR 2021.09.36

Beyond the polis: rituals, rites and cults in early and archaic Greece (12th-6th centuries BC)

, , Beyond the polis: rituals, rites and cults in early and archaic Greece (12th-6th centuries BC). Études d'archéologie, 15. Bruxelles: CReA-Patrimoine, 2019. Pp. 302. ISBN 9782960202922 €80,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Much scholarship on the study of ancient Greek religion in the last 10 to 15 years has been devoted to understanding how religion was practiced and understood beyond the physical and conceptual boundaries of the polis, which until recently had tended to dominate and delineate our understanding of Greek religion.[1] New approaches include the use of network analyses to characterize the fluid shape of religious beliefs and practices across the ancient Mediterranean[2] and the concept of lived ancient religion.[3] Yet, as one of the contributors to this volume notes, there remains a division between “classical Greek religion,” with its relatively robust dataset, and “Aegean prehistory hamstrung by a rapidly growing but very partially understood dataset,” (53) whose earlier practitioners crystallized problematic models and assumptions about religious practice in these periods without the necessary theoretical toolkits. Beyond the polis is, therefore, an important step towards alleviating this imbalance between “classical Greek religion” and earlier periods, as well as between theoretical approaches and a blossoming Early Iron Age dataset, which includes not only traditional archaeological remains, but new studies into zooarchaeology, palaeoethnobotany, and other organic vestiges that were hitherto understudied.

This volume resulted from an international conference in Brussels in 2015 as part of a joint project between the University of Oxford and the Université libre de Bruxelles entitled “Beyond the polis. Ritual practices and the construction of social identities in Early and Archaic Greece (12th-6th centuries BC).” It follows a shorter volume, published in 2017, that featured the work of three former post-doctoral students working under this joint project. The aim of the conference and current volume, as the editors describe, is “to offer complementary approaches, both thematic and geographic, to the study of early Greek ritual practices and to expand into other areas, contexts, and materials the research undertaken in the [first volume].” (9)

Beyond the polis is organized into four sections. The first section contains three papers dealing with theoretical considerations of ritual practices. The middle two sections contain regional case studies – the first section dealing with central Greece and the Peloponnese and the second dealing with the Aegean and western Greece. The final section contains three papers on bioarchaeological approaches to ritual practices.

While I will not summarize every paper in this volume (summaries of each paper can be found in Lemos’ and Tsingarida’s introduction to the volume, pp. 9-14), I would like to highlight some of the contributions, particularly in the first three papers on theoretical considerations, which will hopefully give readers a sense of this volume’s impact. The opening paper by François de Polignac helpfully highlights three ways of conceiving of early Greek religion beyond the polis: chronological (namely the LBA-EIA period); spatial (i.e., areas beyond the reach of the polis); and conceptual. The latter presses us to go beyond the polis as a “central place”: “the city looses [sic] its centrality and gives ground to, or is included in realities that, quite often, have larger dimensions.” (17) de Polignac begins with the healing cult of Amphiaraos at Oropos in the Classical period to explicate how many sanctuaries could operate quite independently of city-states even in later periods. He then turns to a close analysis of two Early Iron Age Apollo sanctuaries, the sanctuary of Apollo Abas near Kalapodi in Phocis and the Apollo Ptoios sanctuary in Boeotia, to argue for sanctuaries as central places of important interregional networks in the EIA, many of which gradually had their centrality eroded by the encroaching power of city-states in the Archaic period.

Birgitta Eder’s chapter provides an overview of the shifting religious landscape in the southern and central Greek mainland from the 13th to the 8th century BCE in relation to the vast social changes that took place over three main periods: the Mycenaean palatial period, the LHIIIC, and the EIA. Eder highlights in particular the role of extra-urban sanctuaries, which began as open-air shrines and mountaintop sanctuaries in the LBA, and flourished as areas of supra-regional attraction going back to the 11th century, which contributed to the emergence of regional networks and identities across the EIA (40).

Finally, Matthew Haysom provides a chapter that interrogates assumptions about ritual and religion in the archaeological record, particularly in pre-Classical periods, arguing that our accepted definitions of these concepts have resulted “in approaches to ritual and religion that are poorly suited to revealing the complexities of ancient realities.” (53) Haysom questions Colin Renfrew’s narrow definition of religion as communication with gods and broad definition of ritual as both religious and non-religious.[4] He advocates for Clifford Geertz’s definition instead, which positioned religion as a system of communication between people that creates a socially specific reality, with ritual providing a link between religious worldviews and the social worlds of the practitioners (55-56). Haysom demonstrates this approach with an examination of religious spaces and objects at Karphi on Crete, positioning these as delineated and distinctive, yet simultaneously embedded in a broader social reality.

These first three chapters thus offer conceptual, informational, and theoretical overviews of what religion and ritual look like in these early periods, providing a basis for the next two sections, which delve into regional case studies. For central Greece and the Peloponnese we are presented with a paper examining the similarities and differences between the Athena Itonia and Ennodia cults in Philia and Pherai, respectively (Mili); two papers on preliminary results from the excavations of the “Ritual Zone” at Lefkandi, Xeropolis (Lemos, Thurston); a close reading of the archaeological evidence at Eleusis and its emergence as a ritual centre in contrast to Athens (van den Eijnde); and preliminary reports on excavations of the Westkomplex in Kolonna on Aegina (Klebinder-Gauss) and Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia (Voyatzis). The next section on Aegean and western Greece begins with a paper detailing the Archaic Thasian Artemis cult and its influence on several nearby mainland sanctuaries (Chalazonitis); a synthesis paper on human mobility in the Cyclades and the reuse of abandoned settlements for ritual purposes (Sanchez); preliminary reports on the development of a Geometric cult complex on Despotiko (Alexandridou) and the Archaic-Classical complex at Itanos on eastern Crete (Tsinagarida and Viviers); and finally a paper that questions assumptions about the connections between funerary ritual and social identity using anthropological and archaeological funerary data from Megara Hyblaea in Sicily (Bérard). In the final section on bioarchaeological approaches, papers examine marine specimens used in ritual, zooarchaeology and cult, and ethnobotany and cult, with the latter two papers focused particularly on recent finds at Lefkandi-Xeropolis on Euboea.

Many case studies are largely preliminary, yet their presentation of new data offers readers a sense of this expanding and constantly changing dataset of EIA material. Furthermore, their exceptional syntheses and contextualization of preliminary results within regional and interregional trends continue the contributions of the first section. Irene Lemos’ paper on excavations of the “Ritual Zone” at Lefkandi-Xeropolis, for instance, details the findings of clay and later stone circular platforms, yet provides a comprehensive synthesis of similar types of structures in funerary, domestic, and sanctuary contexts in the eastern Mediterranean in reflection of their meaning at Lefkandi-Xeropolis. Mary Voyatzis’ discussion of recent excavations at Mt. Lykaion situates the sanctuary in both its Bronze Age past and the western Greek “koine”, specifically its ritual and structural links to Olympia.[5] Tsingarida’s and Viviers’ chapter on ancestor rituals at Itanos expands to a much broader discussion on the so-called “Cretan archaeological gap” of the 6th and 5th centuries and the construction communal identities during this period.

Other papers also provide invaluable syntheses for readers: Irène Sanchez’ chapter summarizes trends in site abandonment and cult across a number of sites in the Cyclades from the Post-Palatial to Geometric periods, drawing enticing comparisons between earlier and later processes of abandonment and reuse. Floris van den Eijnde’s chapter reconsiders the development of the cult centre of Eleusis against the backdrop the emergence of Eleusinian and Athenian political identities. The bioarchaeological papers reveal difficulties in drawing substantial conclusions about the use of organic resources in cult, although these difficulties are largely due to relatively new methodologies and interests in organic remains. Nonetheless, these chapters also provide helpful syntheses of cultic uses of these resources, for instance Tatiana Theodoropoulou’s paper on secular and ritual uses of marine resources and Alexandra Livarda’s and Georgia Kotzamani’s paper on the social role of plants in ritual settings.

One issue that might give readers pause for reflection is how we define religion and ritual in EIA society, if only to clarify how we study it. This issue is highlighted in particular by Haysom’s paper, and it is somewhat surprising to see little to no engagement with the questions Haysom raises in subsequent papers, particularly since this volume emerged from a conference. Consequently, we end up with various definitions of religion and ritual throughout. For van den Eijnde, religious meanings are not automatic, but can be “activated” as religiously significant in certain times and places (109-110). For Voyatzis, ritual results in repeated actions, with animal sacrifice in particular oriented towards communication with gods, thus departing from Haysom (144), while Sanchez defines collective rituals as “cultic acts repeatedly conducted at a shrine by individuals who share common beliefs as members of a community” (186; and see Klebinder-Gauss’ similar definition on p. 122). This confusion is carried into the subtitle of the volume, “Rituals, Rites, and Cults,” which prompts questions of how we should distinguish these. Certainly these papers cover more than 600 years, and deal with numerous contexts, from sanctuaries (de Polignac, Eder, Mili, van den Eijnde, Voyatzis, Chalazonitis), funerary structures (Klebinder-Gauss, Tsingarida and Vivers, Bérard), and more ambiguous contexts (Lemos, Thurston, Alexandridou, Sanchez, Theodoropoulou, Mulhall, and Livarda and Kotzamani). Moreover, because both religion and ritual are interlaced with broader social realities, the difficulties in defining them archaeologically will remain. Still, this volume would have benefited from more cross-referencing between papers and possibly also more foregrounding of these issues in the introduction by Lemos and Tsingarida.[6]

There are several editorial issues to be noted. Some papers still read like conference papers, and refer to the title of the conference, not the title of the volume, which may confuse readers. There are inconsistencies in capitalizations, often in the same chapter (e.g., “archaic” and “Archaic”). Overall, the images, maps, and other visuals are excellent and clearly labelled, although the bar graphs in some chapters contain text that is quite small. Other chapters, moreover, contained quantitative discussions of votive objects, which were difficult to follow and could have benefited from the use of charts or graphs. As well, readers will occasionally encounter typos and awkward sentences, although not enough to detract from the papers’ analyses and arguments. Certain mistakes do stand out, however, including the misspelling of two of the contributors’ names in the Table of Contents. Some cross-references between footnotes are also incorrect in certain chapters.

These issues aside, Beyond the Polis presents an invaluable synthesis of evidence for EIA and Archaic cults, alerting readers to ever new and evolving studies on religion and ritual in these periods. Many of the issues noted above, namely the characterization of ritual, religion, and cult in ancient societies, remain perennial ones. This volume, above all, thus offers researchers a wealth of data to take on these challenges in future studies.

Authors and Titles

Irene Lemos & Athena Tsingarida, “Introduction Proceedings” 9
François de Polignac, “Rituals in Context. Scales and Horizons of Interpretation of Cult Places in Early Greece” 17
Birgitta Eder, “The Role of Sanctuaries and the Formation of Greek Identities in the Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age Transition” 25
Mathew Haysom, “Entangled Religion, Ritual and Social Practice: the Case of Karphi” 53
Maria Mili, “Dedicatory Dialogues in North-Central Greece: Pherai and Philia in Broader Context” 67
Irene S. Lemos, “The ‘Ritual Zone’ on Xeropolis at Lefkandi: Some Preliminary Thoughts” 75
Caroline Thurston, “Terracotta Figurines from the ‘Ritual Zone’ at Xeropolis-Lefkandi: Constructing a Methodology” 91
Floris van den Eijnde, “Invention of Tradition in Cult and Myth at Eleusis” 99
Gudrun Klebinder-Gauss, “Dining with the Ancestors: the Late Archaic-Classical Westkomplex in Aegina-Kolonna” 115
Mary Voyatzis, “Enduring Rituals in the Arcadian Mountains: the Case of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion” 133
Ioannis (Yangos) Chalazonitis, “Artemis Beyond the Polis of Thasos: the Cult of the Goddess in the Archaic North-Eastern Aegean” 149
Irène Sanchez, “Ritual Practices in Abandoned Settlements in the Cyclades from the 12th to the 6th Century BC: Human Mobility and its Impact on Ritual Practices” 171
Alexandra Alexandridou, “Geometric Despotiko: on the Borderline between Sacred and Profane” 193
Athena Tsingarida & Didier Viviers, “No more Gap, but New Social Practices: Evidence of Collective Funerary Rituals in Itanos during the 6th and 5th Centuries BC” 213
Reine-Marie Bérard, “Funerary Practices and the Formation of the Polis at Megara Hyblaea 8th-6th centuries BC” 247
Tatiana Theodoropoulou, “Ritualizing the sea: aspects of ritual activities related to the sea in the Aegean from the 12th century to the 6th century” 261
Alex Mulhall, “A preliminary examination of Lefkandi’s ‘ritual’ area from a zooarchaeological perspective” 273
Alexandra Libarda & Georgia Kotzamani, “An exploration of the social role of plants in rituals in prehistoric Aegean with reference to the site of Xeropolis, Lefkandi, Euboea” 289


[1] See J. Kindt, “Polis Religion: A Critical Appreciation,” Kernos 22 (2009), 9-34, for a helpful overview.

[2] E.g., E. Eidinow, “Networks and Narratives: A Model for Ancient Greek Religion,” Kernos 24 (2011), 9-28.

[3] V. Gasparini, ‎M. Patzelt, ‎R. Raja, Lived Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Approaching Religious Transformations from Archaeology, History and Classics, (De Gruyter, 2020).

[4] See Renfrew’s monograph, The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi (Thames & Hudson, 1985) and, more recently C. Renfrew, “The Archaeology of Ritual, of Cult, and of Religion,” in E. Kyriakidis, ed., The Archaeology of Ritual (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, 2007), 109-122.

[5] See also a recent article on Mt. Lykaion and Olympia: D. G. Romano and M. E. Voyatzis, “Sanctuaries of Zeus: Mt. Lykaion and Olympia in the Early Iron Age,” Hesperia 90.1 (2021), 1-25.

[6] There are very few instances of these papers talking to one another – e.g., Tsingarida and Viviers reference van den Eijnde on pp. 232-233.