BMCR 2021.10.31

Religious convergence in the ancient Mediterranean

, , Religious convergence in the ancient Mediterranean. Studies in ancient Mediterranean religions, 2. Atlanta: Lockwood Press, 2019. Pp. xxix, 565. ISBN 9781948488167 $59.95 (pb).

Religious beliefs and practices permeated all aspects of ancient life regardless of social class. As an area of culture where conservativism and innovation were constantly jostling, religion provides the perfect arena to study cross-cultural fertilization. The twenty-four essays presented in this volume engage with different types of practices involving Greek, Phoenician, Aramaean, Egyptian, Persian, Anatolian, Mesopotamian, and Italic groups, sometimes in contexts where they coexisted, sometimes treated comparatively, and in some chapters separately. This volume stems from the 2016 conference of the Society of Ancient Mediterranean Religions, held in Palermo in 2016. The papers shed light on “encounters at the boundaries of cultures, landscapes, chronologies, social class and status, the imaginary, and the materially operative” (p. 2). In the Introduction, the editors (Blakely and Collins) propose the concept of convergence as one that provides common ground in a theoretically complicated and “semantically dense field” such as study of ancient religions. If total thematic and methodological coherence is impossible in a large conference volume, this theme does hold the volume together, with only some chapters less overtly engaging with the issue. Most importantly, the chapters offer a glimpse into current research interests and “hot spots” for the study of religion and cross-cultural contact, and a rich sample of methodologies coming from a wide range of materials and subdisciplines, including archaeology, historiography, philology, epigraphy, numismatics, art history, the study of magic, and modern reception.

The editors divided the studies into four Parts of six chapters each, under the concepts of Site, Text, Object, and Action. One can imagine a number of other possible organizational principles, for instance geographical or cultural, or by discipline, all of which the editors likely considered, but they chose neutral categories that cut across ethnic-cultural and disciplinary boundaries. The reader will find a feast of crisscrossing themes, sites, divinities, types of artifacts, ritual actions, and modes of contact throughout the volume, and various overarching themes will become salient for different readers. I highlight the threads that I found most interesting from my own corner of ancient studies.

The chapters concentrate heavily on two areas: the central Mediterranean, with nine chapters featuring Sicily, in addition to one on Carthage and one on central Italy, and Anatolia, with eight chapters. Other essays center on Greece and the eastern Mediterranean (Persia, Egypt), while only Chapter 24 is on a topic (the Roman emperor and animal sacrifice) detached from any particular geographical area. These foci are not accidental: Sicily is a natural arena for the study of religious convergence between local, Greek, Phoenician, and Roman cultures, being a crossroads of eastern and western Mediterranean networks since prehistory (Ch. 13, Tusa). In turn, the concentration on Anatolia (Hittite texts, Cilician inscriptions, Lydian religion) is an interesting indicator of the growing importance of this area for cross-cultural studies. While more variety would have been welcome (Iberia, Sardinia, North Africa, Cyprus and other productive areas are absent), the volume was not intended to cover the entire Mediterranean, and its variety lies in the interests, methodologies, and materials brought to it by international scholars at different stages in their career.

Religious convergence is most evident in chapters that focus on shared religious spaces and shared deities, such as in Sicily. Especially prominent is the goddess worshipped by local Sicilian groups as well as Phoenician, Greeks, and Romans (Ashtart, Aphrodite, Venus, also Hera / Juno), as the overseer of fertility, renewal, and prosperity; she was also a protector of seafaring and its associated economic activity. Hence these goddesses were present at harbors and industrial areas, as well as enclaves with fresh water. The mountain-top sanctuary of this goddess at Eryx is discussed in several chapters (Chs. 1, 3, 6), as is her worship at the temple of Ashtart at Motya (esp. Ch. 5, Nigro, also Ch. 3, Miles, Ch. 6, Olivieri), while analogous goddesses are also discussed at other sites of Sicily (Lilybaeum, Segesta, Selinous: Ch. 2, Giglio; Ch. 3, Miles; Ch. 4, Morris), and Magna Graecia (Ch. 1, Brown and Smith). Female goddesses and their symbols also feature prominently in the study of the overlap between Lydian and Greek gods (Artemis, Kufawa / Kubaba / Cybele, Malis / Athena) (Ch. 12, Payne), and in the ritual treatment of the cult statue of Hera at Samos (Ch. 21, Beck-Schachter). This is a welcome development, for the networks of male gods, especially Herakles / Melqart, have for long been the center of attention in the discussion of Phoenician and Greek interfaces, but the “network of Ashtart” and analogous goddesses also provided a crucial node for colonial and commercial relations.[1] This female figure was overlaid on local deities from Iberia to the Aegean, which explains why Aphrodite was assumed to originate in the Phoenician milieu (Hdt. 1.105.3). In other words, ancient observers already attributed to the female goddess a role in cross-cultural convergence.

Cultural contact also serves as the framework for several chapters about ritual texts or actions, for instance the rites performed by both Persians and Spartans when invading the enemy’s land (Ch. 22, Polinskaya); the Hittite adaptation of ritual texts from Mesopotamian over a long period of convergence (Ch. 7, Rieken); and the comparison between Hittite and Aegean rites for girls (Ch. 19, Rutherford). But the entanglements between religious components also took place on a vertical axis, within communities or regions, illustrating how there is no such thing as a monolithic culture or religion. Two chapters deal with the Hittite administration’s appropriation of ritual texts and practices from different peripheral regions at particular historical junctures (Ch. 9, Gilan; Ch. 10, Collins), and another with the convergence of myth and ritual in the Hittite use of historiolae (Ch. 8, Görke). The analysis of the terracotta masks found at Carthage (Ch. 15, Orsingher) localizes the impetus for innovation within a long Canaanite-Levantine tradition, and the use of some types of protective statues in classical Athens and Hellenistic-Roman Egypt reflects influence by popular talismanic traditions, crossing over from the personal and domestic to the civic realm (Ch. 14, Faraone).

Some of the chapters bring to the fore the convergence between religion and imperial power. The propaganda machine of the Hittite administration, for instance, fostered the royal grip on ritual life as a means of legitimization of territorial expansion (esp. Chs. 9-10, Gilan, Collins); the funerary monument found in Iron Age Sam’al / Zincirli establishes Katumuwa’s status within his community through a particular combination of cosmopolitan, Assyrianizing, and local aesthetics and language (Ch. 20, Herrmann). The figure of the Roman emperor as a sacrificer was likewise intended as a unifying religious symbol, as he consolidated the roles of maker and recipient of sacrificial offering, thus becoming the highest offerant on behalf of the community and a divine benefactor at once (Ch. 24, Rives). States such as Persia and Sparta sought the support of the gods of those whose lands they were about to conquer, which also fits this theme, in contrast to the approach of Athenians and others (Ch. 22, Polinskaya).

Several essays grapple with the challenge of teasing out local, non-canonical, or non-Graeco-Roman traditions and identities subsumed under dominant classical and Hellenistic sources and artistic models. This dynamic makes it difficult to access Lydian religion (Ch. 12, Payne), or understand the symbology of Punic coins of Sicily, which adopted Greek motifs (Ch. 16, Puebla Morón, although he applies a rigid Hellenocentric model that hardly accounts for the complex convergence of Phoenician and Greek cultures and religions as currently understood).[2] Similarly, Graeco-Roman aesthetics have obscured the meaning and significance of schematic terracotta heads used by locals as votives in the Italo-Latial-Campanian domain (as argued in Ch. 23, Dicus), and both in Greece and Egypt the weight of classical monuments has shaped assumptions of their primacy over humble individual artifacts and practices (Ch. 14, Faraone). Exploring the relationship between landscape and local religion faces similar challenges, in one case of how to connect versions of the Cybele and Agdistis myth (preserved in Roman sources) to mountains in Anatolian myths (Ch. 11, Bachvarova). Bachvarova’s framework seeks to find the threads of oral tradition imprinted in the surviving texts.[3]

Archaeologically speaking, funerary culture and votive behavior are the most productive points at which we can access the religion of non-elites. Votives and sacrifice are present in the volume, whether in the offerings and animal remains found in rooms of one of the Phoenician temples at Motya (Ch. 17, Spagnoli); in the terracotta masks found at Carthage (Ch. 15, Orsingher), which bridge the funerary and votive realms; in the clay heads and faces dedicated across central Italy (Ch. 23, Dicus); and in the role of the Roman emperor as the performer and recipient of sacrifice (Ch. 24, Rives). Finally, the biographies of temple statues encapsulates issues of cultural and religious identities: the rituals and stories surrounding cult statue of Hera on Samos (Ch. 18, Ruprecht) reveal tensions and negotiations between the Karian, Argive, and Ionian elements on the island, while the treatment of the statues of the temple of Aphaia on Aegina by nineteenth-century British and German collectors and intellectuals reveals much about the spiritual and ideological trends of western European Romanticism (Ch.18, Ruprecht).

Looking to my own specialty, fascinating possibilities not covered in the case-studies are revealed when we add a Phoenician dimension to the comparison. The Spartan and Persian oaths (Ch. 22, Polinskaya) are not too far in spirit from the oath that opens the treatise between Carthage and Macedonia (215 BC), in which all the gods of both sides are invoked as witnesses, including river demons and other nature gods (as in some Spartan instances) (Polybios, Histories7.9.2–3). Also, at the sanctuary of Ortheia in Sparta we find the only Greek concentration of terracotta masks matching the Punic types treated in the volume (Ch. 15, Orsingher), which suggests the presence of Phoenician artisans there, even if the function of the masks remains obscure.[4] The meeting of Greek and Carthaginian cultures on Sicily might help explain the Hellenic influence on the later “theatrical” masks (this is also the direction in which the cult of Demeter and Persephone came to Carthage); and the overlap of Phoenician and Greek deities on the island may lie behind the puzzling statue of Aesculapius (Asklepios) at Lilybaeum / Marsala (Ch. 2, Giglio). The place was a home for the above-mentioned love goddess, and the Phoenician healing god Eshmoun was worshipped alongside Ashtart in the Phoenician realm (e.g., at Sidon). Finally, the cosmopolitanism of the Katumuwa statue from Zincirli (Ch. 20, Herrmann) is also expressed through the use of the Phoenician script, and the iconography of the enthroned ruler receiving funerary offerings finds a beautiful parallel in the sarcophagus of Ahiram from tenth-century BC Byblos.

Overall, I see two main trends emerge from this volume: first, the “material turn,” whereby archaeological discovery drives much of the new discussions on religious interfaces, and, second, the decreasing interest in “origins” and universal interpretations of ritual, which long dominated the field. The current preference for social functionalism is more invested in finding the nexus among texts, sites, objects, and praxis and in integrating various disciplines (p. 9). From that standpoint, these studies interrogate the human experience of religious spaces and actions, both physical and literary. When there is a comparative element, the contexts show a gamut of possible relationships, from deliberate adaptation to convergence and assimilation over centuries, to cases where there is no indication of transmission but similar phenomena occur (and illuminate each other) among cultures under “similar environmental and social conditions” (Ch. 19, Rutherford, p. 393) Moreover, in the early Mediterranean the meeting spaces explored here (physical and non-physical) would have functioned as nodes along networks that did not correspond with later ethnic (let alone national) boundaries.

Beyond the insights gained from each case-study, this stimulating and rich volume (with plenty of illustrations and two indexes) successfully showcases a wide range of mechanisms by which religious communities adapted to change and contact. The editors and authors should be congratulated for keeping the complex nature of these convergences visible in our understanding of cult and religion (paraphrasing Ch. 4, Morris, p. 77). Finally, Religious Convergence is also a beautiful tribute by the editors to the Sicilian archaeologist Sebastiano Tusa, who fostered the conference from which this book emerged, but passed away before its publication.

Table of Contents

Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
Table of Contents (pp. vii-x)
Abbreviations (pp. xi-xxii)
Contributors (pp. xxiii-xxx)
Introduction Gods, Mortals, and Models: Religion and Convergence in the Ancient Mediterranean (pp. 1-16)  Sandra Blakely

Chapter 1 Guardian Goddess of the Surf-Beaten Shore: The Influence of Mariners on Sanctuaries of Aphrodite in Magna Graecia (pp. 19-42)  Amelia R. Brown and Rebecca Smith
Chapter 2 Lilibeo e i suoi culti: Nuovi esempi dalla ricerca archeologica (pp. 43-58)  Rossella Giglio
Chapter 3 Large Temples as Cultural Banners in Western Sicily (pp. 59-76)  Margaret M. Miles
Chapter 4 Close Encounters on Sicily: Molech, Meilichios, and Religious Convergence at Selinus (pp. 77-100)  Sarah Morris
Chapter 5 The Temple of Astarte “Aglaia” at Motya and Its Cultural Significance in the Mediterranean Realm (pp. 101-126)  Lorenzo Nigro
Chapter 6 Venere del Mare: Testimonianze del culto nel trapanese (pp. 127-146)  Francesca Oliveri

Chapter 7 Hittite Prayers and Their Mesopotamian Models (pp. 149-162)  Elisabeth Rieken
Chapter 8 Mythological Passages in Hittite Rituals (pp. 163-172)  Susanne Görke
Chapter 9 Religious Convergence in Hittite Anatolia: The Case of Kizzuwatna (pp. 173-190)  Amir Gilan
Chapter 10 The Arzawa Rituals and Religious Production in Hattusa (pp. 191-202)  Billie Jean Collins
Chapter 11 Survival of “Popular” Mythology: From Hittite Mountain Man to Phrygian Mountain Mother (pp. 203-230)  Mary R. Bachvarova
Chapter 12 Native Religious Traditions from a Lydian Perspective (pp. 231-248)  Annick Payne

Chapter 13 Funerary Practices and Rituals on Sicily from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age (Sixth through Second Millennia BCE) (pp. 251-268)  Sebastiano Tusa
Chapter 14 The Convergence of Guardian Statues in the Ancient World: Top-Down or Bottom-Up? (pp. 269-294)  Christopher Athanasous Faraone
Chapter 15 Across Traditions and beyond Boundaries: The Masks of Carthage (pp. 295-312)  Adriano Orsingher
Chapter 16 Greek Coins, Punic People: An Iconographic Analysis of the Punic Coinage of Sicily (pp. 313-328)  José Miguel Puebla Morón
Chapter 17 Ritual Practices, Food Offerings, and Animal Sacrifices: Votive Deposits in the Temple of the Kothon (Motya) (pp. 329-358)  Federica Spagnoli
Chapter 18 Romantic Receptions, or, The Aeginetan Sculptures’ Long March to Munich (pp. 359-388)  Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.

Chapter 19 From Zalpuwa to Brauron: Hittite-Greek Religious Convergence on the Black Sea (pp. 391-410)  Ian Rutherford
Chapter 20 The Politics of Ritual Performance at Assyrian-Period Sam’al: Local and Imperial Identity in the Katumuwa Mortuary Stele from Zincirli (pp. 411-436)  Virginia R. Herrmann
Chapter 21 The Tonaia and Samian Identity (pp. 437-454)  Aaron Beck-Schachter
Chapter 22 Sparta and Persia: Rituals for Invading the Land of the Gods of Others (pp. 455-500) Irene Polinskaya
Chapter 23 Using Your Head: Reading a “Local Style” Adapted for Foreign Ritual (pp. 501-522)  Kevin Dicus
Chapter 24 Roman Empire and Roman Emperor: Animal Sacrifice as an Instrument of Religious Convergence (pp. 523-540)  J. B. Rives

Subject Index (pp. 541-552)
Ancient Sources Index (pp. 553-566)


[1] E.g., chapters in Bonnet, C., Bricault, L., Quand les dieux voyagent: cultes et mythes en mouvement dans l’espace méditerranéen antique. Histoire des religions. Genève, Éditions Labor et Fides, 2016.

[2] See S. Rebecca Martin, The Art of Contact: Comparative Approaches to Greek and Phoenician Art, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

[3] Along these lines, F. Rojas, The Pasts of Roman Anatolia: Interpreters, Tracers, Horizons. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019.

[4] J. B. Carter. “The Masks of Ortheia,” AJA 91: 355–383 (1987).