BMCR 2024.04.18

Naming and mapping the gods in the ancient Mediterranean: spaces, mobilities, imaginaries

, , , , , , , , , Naming and mapping the gods in the ancient Mediterranean: spaces, mobilities, imaginaries. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022. 2 vols. Pp. xx, 1069. ISBN 9783110796490.

Open access

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


This monograph is a product of a conference held in February 2021 by the Mapping Ancient Polytheisms (MAP) project, a collaborative venture among scholars from several European and American universities. A major goal of the project and the main objective of this monograph is to understand how communities and individuals created opportunities for communication between humans and the divine by relating the fields of onomastics and the study of divine locations.[1] The two volumes of this monograph reflect the broad geographical and chronological parameters of the project, including evidence from Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Near East spanning from the 3rd millennium  B.C.E. to 400 C.E. Authors employ a variety of methodologies, from analyzing inscriptions on pottery to archaeological formation processes.

After a general introduction by the editors, the monograph is organized into three thematic sections on 1) the relationship between divine onomastics and places of worship, 2) the presence of gods in physical spaces, and 3) urban religion.[2] Contributions are further sorted within the thematic sections by geographic region, allowing readers to quickly find chapters of interest.

The analysis of epithets links the diverse contributions in the first thematic section. Chapters by Giuseppina Lenzo, Mark Smith, Anna Elise Zernecke, and Andrew Filone offer perspectives on the divine names of the Egyptian Osiris, epithets in Ugaritic texts and the Hebrew Bible, the name and character of the Hebrew god Elyon and divine epithets in the Περὶ θεῶν of Apollodorus of Athens. Corinne Bonnet suggests that Greek and Semitic naming processes of gods on Cyprus were a means of bridging macro- and micro-scale contexts. She argues that regionality and localism could be quite rigid, with the names of gods referring to specific spatial contexts at every level despite significant interconnectedness. In Greek literature, Mary Bachvarova argues that divine epithets form toponymic connections between gods in the Iliad and indicate that separate original poems were combined to create the epic: Agamemnon’s appeal specifically to the Zeus of the Trojans rather than the Olympian Zeus (Iliad 3.276–280) provides an example.

The specific link between toponyms and epithets is also explored across disciplines. Fabrizio Gaetano discusses divine toponyms in Herodotus, and José Marcos Macedo considers the use of place names as divine epithets in Pausanias. Micaela Canopoli focuses on epithets of the goddess Artemis, arguing that they either originate from geographic toponyms or can take on their meaning, strengthening political and religious ties between the cult and the land. Three other chapters also focus on Artemis: Alessio Sassù considers Artemis’ epithet Eukleia; Erica Angliker explores the cults of Apollo and Artemis on Paros; and Massimo Giuseppetti explores the appearance of the cult of Artemis Agrotera in lyric poetry. Claudio Biagetti’s chapter reconsiders the association of the epithet ἀρχηγέτης/-ις with colonial foundations and royal power from the Archaic period through the Roman empire. Sylvain Lebreton analyzes epithets of gods that proclaim them as the rulers of the territories of their cults, such as Zeus who-rules-over-Dodona.

Other chapters in this section focus more closely on worship spaces. Emrys Schlatter analyzes the language used to refer to gods who were worshipped in the same ritual spaces, such as shared temples or altars. Beatrice Lietz analyzes the literary evidence for a Hellenistic sanctuary outside of the Sicilian town of Enguium where entities known as the “Mothers” were worshipped and may have been associated by the Romans with Magna Mater. Audrey Ferlut examines the mobility of the cult of the Quadruviae in Europe and suggests that the gods changed their function based on the needs of their worshippers. She specifically credits women associated with the army with spreading the cult, with the deities originally worshipped as nymphs or household gods in Roman contexts and shifting to goddesses of roads, crossroads, and frontiers as they are adopted in the Germanic provinces.

The second thematic section focuses on the presence of the gods in physical space, and most of its contributions employ archaeological evidence. Audrey Eller assesses the competition for control of the first cataract of the Nile between the Egyptian gods Khnoum and Isis at their respective sanctuaries at Elephantine and Philae. Nicola Laneri discusses the materiality of ancient religiosity in Mesopotamia, focusing on the origin and development of the concept of the High Temple, or ziggurat, and its acquisition of a negative connotation in the Old Testament. In Phoenicia, Giuseppe Garbati focuses on the connections between divine and funerary cults, and Ida Oggiano reexamines the archaeological evidence for liminality in rituals. Adriano Orsingher analyzes cave sanctuaries in the Western Mediterranean, and Romina Carboni looks at the syncretization of Astarte, Isis, Aphrodite, and Venus in the coastal town of Nora on Sardinia in the Roman period. Jaime Alvar Ezquerra investigates religious activities in amphitheaters in the Roman province of Hispania, examining the evidence for both shrines in the arena as well as the roles of certain gods in rituals and prayers related to the games. Francesa Prescendi discusses the hierarchy of gods among themselves and how it manifests in the locations with which each god is associated. Csaba Szabó argues that religious traditions in the Danubian provinces were reinvented and Romanized through “religious glocalization” in micro-, meso-, and macro-spaces as they were incorporated into the Roman empire. Three chapters focus specifically on figurines. Barbara Bolognani analyzes the production of hybrid Greek and Phoenician figurines. Marianna Castiglione uses figurines to examine the presence of foreign gods in Hellenistic Kharayeb in the hinterland of Tyre. She suggests that the imagery of the divine was flexible, referencing both the god’s original meaning, such as the importance of Aphrodite to the Macedonians, and the new local meaning, the connection between Aphrodite and local goddesses. Focusing on material from the Phoenician city of Kition on Cyprus, Pauline Maillard examines the use of both salt from the Larnaca salt lake and figurines of gods in local votive practices.

Other authors in this section analyze literature and inscriptions. Eric Trinka analyzes four of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions to examine the presence, absence, and mobility of gods at the site, which was a waypoint for travelers in the area. Hélène Grosjean and Christophe Nihan discuss the relationship between place and power through the persistence of polytheistic structures in the Hebrew Bible alongside the concept of Hell. Ombretta Cesca considers the movements of the messenger goddess Iris in Archaic Greek poetry, and Michel Briand analyzes the relationship of χάρις with the performances of human and divine choruses in Pindar and Bacchylides. Doralice Fabiano examines the cultic spaces of nymphs in the Greek world as they are represented in the works of Euripides, arguing that the nymphs’ physical placement at the margins of civilized spaces reflects their role as gatekeepers between the center and periphery. Gabriele Roccella argues that the musical contest between Pan and Apollo in Lydia as it is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses XI, 146–194, is an allegory for the Romanization of Asia Minor under Augustus in which Apollo’s victory symbolizes the triumph of Roman order. In the final contribution to this section, Kevin Bouillot analyzes references to oracular shrines in ancient literature, comparing those to smaller oracular shrines with those to the more famous sanctuaries such as Delphi or Dodona.

The third and final thematic section of the monograph takes up the entire second volume and focuses on urban religion and sacred spaces within cities. In its final subsection, chapters by Jörg Rüpke and Asuman Lätzer-Lasar offer theoretical foundations for the analyses of other authors. Rüpke considers the mutual dependence of urbanity and religion. Grounding his argument in an analysis of Varro, he argues that while religion shapes the city, the city also shapes religious practice, asserting that “making a god is place-making” (900). Lätzer-Lasar’s following chapter continues the discussion of divine placemaking, arguing that by engaging with a network of place, actors, objects, practices, intellectual entities, and time, the community created an identity through religious places.

The other chapters in this section focus on specific cities. In Egypt, Briana Jackson investigates the material evidence for Aten cult at the provincial sites of Abydos and Akhmim, suggesting that Akhenaten chose both these sites as locations for the Aten cult because they were homes to creator/regenerative gods whose creative properties the Aten was meant to assimilate. Bernhard Schneider augments previous studies of the build-up of the mounds of the city of Nippur through the integration of archaeological and epigraphical evidence, focusing specifically on the “Temple Mound” and the evidence for sanctuaries of the gods Enlil and Ninurta. Rocío Da Riva examines how architecture both influences and is influenced by religion as she explores how temples and procession routes affected urban planning in Babylonia in the first millennium BCE. She argues that the gods were the very arteries of the city, with streets named after them and designed around procession routes. Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider closely examines the city of Hatra of Shamash and the relation of its name to local religious life.

Four chapters focus on Greek cities. Lucio Maria Vallette examines the network of sanctuaries, territories, and communities in Archaic Sparta, reconsidering local divine epithets and the relationship between the articulation of sacred spaces and collective practices. Sabine Neumann analyzes the introduction and embodiment of new deities in the Athenian landscape using the concept of the “Social Imaginary” developed by Castoriadis.[3] She argues that the construction of sacred spaces for new gods such as Bendis, Isis, and Sarapis illuminates underlying power dynamics in the city’s social and spatial landscape. Natacha Trippé explores the articulation of sacred and civic spaces through her analysis of the sanctuary of Zeus in the Thasian agora. Daniela Bonanno investigates the role of specific cults in the refounding of New Smyrna, particularly the Nemeses, who appear to Alexander in a dream and encourage him to found the new city.

One chapter by Fulvio Coletti and Francesca Diosono addresses Late Republican Rome; the authors argue that the practice of the cult of Magna Mater in Rome parallels the changing power relations in the empire from the Second Punic War to the Julio-Claudians. Further west, Angélique Guigner analyzes the role of urban sanctuaries in the ritualization of the landscape and territory in Iron Age Spain.

In the two chronologically latest chapters, Emiliano Urciuoli discusses how early Christians navigated polytheistic sacred spaces in the 3rd century C.E., notably Roman temples and the associations of specific gods with specific places, in contrast with their own contemporary relatively inconspicuous sacred spaces. Nicola Luciana considers how pilgrims in medieval Rome would have traversed the vestiges of polytheistic sacred spaces along their path to the Lateran Palace and Basilica. The monograph concludes with an epilogue by Philippe Boissinot, who asks the question at the heart of this project: what is needed to make a sanctuary?

Overall, this publication makes a valuable contribution to the study of ancient religious topography. Its chronological and geographical breadth is a significant strength, but its contributions assume varying degrees of in-depth knowledge of their readers; for example, translations from ancient languages are inconsistent, with some authors translating completely, others not at all, and some only certain sections. The book is clearly written for a specialist audience, with significant use of field-specific terminology. This would not be a noteworthy observation, except that likely very few readers are experts in all geographic areas and chronological periods covered in the book. The majority of the chapters effectively use tables to visualize their data, however, making it accessible despite the jargon. The two volumes are also well-illustrated, with many maps, images, and graphs included in color. While the text is dense at times, scholars of religion, literature, and archaeology will find this publication a worthy contribution to the study of sacred topography.


Authors and Titles


Introduction (Corinne Bonnet, Thomas Galoppin, Elodie Guillon, Sylvain Lebreton, Max Luaces, Fabio Porzia, Jörg Rüpke)

1 Naming and Locating the Gods: Space as a Divine Onomastic Attribute

1.1 Egypt and Near East

The Names of Osiris in the Litany of the So-Called Spell 141/142 of the Book of the Dead in Ancient Egypt (Giuseppina Lenzo)

Divine Epithets as Perspectival Discourse (Mark S. Smith)

Nomina nuda tenemus: The God Elyon (ʿlyn) (Anna Elise Zernecke)

Naming and Mapping the Gods in Cyprus: a Matter of Scales? (Corinne Bonnet)

1.2 Greece: Literature

Regional Loyalties in the Iliad: The Cases of Zeus, Apollo, and Athena (Mary R. Bachvarova)

Agrotera: Situating Artemis in Her Landscapes (Massimo Giuseppetti)

πολύθεοι ἕδραι: Terms for Spatio-Cultic Relationships in Greek (Emrys Schlatter)

Les épiclèses toponymiques comme outil interprétatif chez Hérodote: quelques exemples (Fabrizio Gaetano)

ΚΥΠΡΙΣ. Ovvero l’interpretazione degli epiteti divini nel Περὶ θεῶν di Apollodoro di Atene (244 FGrHist 353) (Andrea Filoni)

Place Names as Divine Epithets in Pausanias (José Marcos Macedo)

1.3 Greece: Local and Regional Approaches

Artemis and Her Territory: Toponymic and Topographical Cult-Epithets of Artemis in Attica (Micaela Canopoli)

Alla ricerca della “Buona Fama”: Eukleia tra epiclesi di Artemide e teonimo indipendente (Alessio Sassù)

Insights into the Cult of Apollo and Artemis at the Parian Sanctuaries (Erica Angliker)

Founders, Leaders, or Ancestors? Ἀρχηγέτης/-ις: Variations on a Name (Claudio Biagetti)

Zeus “qui-règne-sur Dodone” (Hom., Il. 16.233–234) et ses épigones. Les attributs onomastiques construits sur medeôn, -ousa + toponyme (Sylvain Lebreton)

1.4 Rome and the West

The Quadruviae: Cult Mobility and Social Agency in the Northern Provinces of the Roman Empire (Audrey Ferlut)

Naming the Gods in Roman Sicily: The Case of Enguium (Beatrice Lietz)

2 Mapping the Divine: Presenting Gods in Space

2.1 Egypt and Near East

Khnoum d’Éléphantine et Isis de Philae: la lutte pour le contrôle de la première cataracte du Nil et du Dodécaschène (Audrey Eller)

From High to Low: Reflections about the Emplacement of Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (Nicola Laneri)

A New Mobilities Approach to Naming and Mapping Deities: Presence, Absence, and Distance at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Eric M. Trinka)

Entre espace et puissance: le séjour des morts et la persistance de structures polythéistes dans la Bible hébraïque (Hélène Grosjean and Christophe Nihan)

2.2 Phoenician and Punic World

Death at the Centre of Life: Some Notes on Gods and the Dead, Temples and Tombs in the Phoenician Context (Giuseppe Garbati)

In and Out. What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Role of Liminality in the Phoenician Rites (Ida Oggiano)

Graeco-Phoenician Figurines in Phoenicia. A Medley of Imports, Derivatives, Imitations, and Hybrids (Barbara Bolognani)

The Gods of the Others: Images of Foreign Deities in the Hellenistic Cult Place of Kharayeb (Marianna Castiglione)

Remarques sur le rôle du sel dans les pratiques votives de Kition: un exemple d’interaction entre les figurines divines et leur milieu (Pauline Maillard)

On Gods and Caves: Comparing Cave-Sanctuaries in the Ancient Western Mediterranean (Adriano Orsingher)

Between Astarte, Isis and Aphrodite/Venus. Cultural Dynamics in the Coastal Cities of Sardinia in the Roman Age: The Case Study of Nora (Romina Carboni)

2.3 Archaic and Classical Greece

Déplacements, mobilité, communication. Quelques réflexions sur le mode d’action d’Iris dans la poésie archaïque (Ombretta Cesca)

Spatialité, performance, choralité divines et humaines: les Charites de Pindare et Bacchylide (Michel Briand)

Linking Centre and Periphery: Nymphs and Their Cultic Space in Euripides, Electra 803–843 (Doralice Fabiano)

2.4 Rome and its Empire

La plebs des dieux. Réflexions sur la hiérarchie et la spatialité des dieux romains (Francesca Prescendi)

A Contest for the Control of Ideological Space in Ovid’s Metamorphoses XI 146–94: Apollo/Augustus, Pan, and an Allegory of the Romanization of Hellenistic Lydia (Gabriele Roccella)

The Gods at Play: Mapping the Divine at the Amphitheatres in Hispania (Jaime Alvar Ezquerra)

Spaces of Reinvented Religious Traditions in the Danubian Provinces (Csaba Szabó)

Where Did the Gods Speak? A Proposal for (Re)defining “Oracular Sanctuaries” on the Basis of Anatolian Data of the Hellenistic and Roman Period (Kevin Bouillot)



3 Gods and Cities: Urban Religion, Sanctuaries and the Emergence of Towns

3.1 Egypt and Near East

Akhenaten and His Aten Cult in Abydos and Akhmim (Briana C. Jackson)

Nippur: City of Enlil and Ninurta (Bernhard Schneider)

Urban Religion in First Millennium BCE Babylonia (Rocío Da Riva)

Hatra of Shamash. How to assign the city under the divine power? (Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider)

3.2 Greek World

Un réseau de rapports symboliques. Santuari, territorio e pratiche collettive nella Sparta arcaica (Lucio Maria Valletta)

Spatializing ‘Divine Newcomers’ in Athens (Sabine Neumann)

L’articulation de l’espace religieux et de l’espace civique: l’exemple du sanctuaire de Zeus sur l’agora de Thasos (Natacha Trippé)

Squaring Nemesis: Alexander’s Dream, the Oracle, and the Foundation of the New Smyrna (Daniela Bonanno)

3.3 Rome and the West

Gods in the City (Jörg Rüpke)

“Religious Ancient Placemaking”: une nouvelle approche méthodologique pour l’évaluation des religions à l’époque antique (Asuman Lätzer-Lasar)

Cybele and Attis from the Phrygian Crags to the City. History, Places and Forms of the Cult of Magna Mater in Rome (Fulvio Coletti and Francesca Diosono)

La ritualisation des territoires ibériques: les sanctuaires urbains de l’Âge du Fer (Angélique Guigner)

Jumping Among the Temples: Early Christian Critique of Polytheism’s “Spatial Fix” (Emiliano R. Urciuoli)

The Space of “Paganism” in the Early Medieval City: Rome’s Polytheistic Past along the Real and Imaginary Topography of the Pilgrims’ Paths (Nicola Luciani)


Que faut-il pour faire un sanctuaire? (Philippe Boissinot)



[1] The project has also produced an open access database of onomastic information.

[2] These topics have also been a focus of the earlier work of the scholars represented here, especially Rüpke on urban religion (eg. Jörg Rüpke 2020. Urban Religion: A Historical Approach to Urban Growth and Religious Change. Berlin: De Gruyter.; Jörg Rüpke and Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli 2023. “Urban religion beyond the city: theory and practice of a specific constellation of religious geography-making,” Religion 53 (2): 289–313, DOI: 10.1080/0048721X.2023.2174913)

[3] Cornelius Castoriadis 1987. The Imaginary Institution of Society. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Cambridge: Polity Press.