BMCR 2024.05.16

The local horizon of ancient Greek religion

, , The local horizon of ancient Greek religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. vii, 408. ISBN 9781009301848.


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


Amid the last decade’s burgeoning interest in interconnected networks and globalism across the ancient Mediterranean, the category of “local” and localism are undergoing reimagination.[1] This volume’s application of the “local” lens to the topic of ancient Greek religion provides a welcome departure from more traditional, universalizing perspectives, in which evidence is mined and combined from all over the Greek-speaking world to construct a complete and coherent picture of a shared, Panhellenic religion. Such artificial models necessarily elide variations in practices, rituals, and beliefs (e.g., divine identities, festivals, epiphanic experiences). While there was undoubtedly a universal element to ancient Greek religion, the disproportionate focus on it comes at the cost of regional (beyond just the polis unit) and individual perspectives and lived experiences.

The present volume reminds us that Greek religion was rooted in place, embedded within the local physical and imagined landscape, such that the local dimension (or horizon) preconditioned religious practice. Moreover, the editors and contributors to this volume engage the local not merely as a descriptive category but as an ontological one. The local dimension is treated not as (at best) a version of or (at worst) a deviation from the universal norm, as is common, but rather as constitutive of religious experience and expression. As such, this volume aims to dismantle the local/universal dualist opposition and instead examine how they intersect and inform each other. In doing so, not only is local religious experience elevated, but the unique character/dynamic of Greek religion, as a flexible and open pluriverse, is brought to light.

The opening two chapters, one by each of the volume’s editors, deal primarily with the relationship between the local and universal in Greek religion. In her contribution, Julia Kindt focalizes the relationship between these two categories through a case study on the divine persona. When the local and the universal are treated as opposing poles, as has been common, one is foregrounded at the expense of the other. As such, one risks either overlooking diversity or treating the local as a divergence. Instead, Kindt advocates for studying the interplay between local and universal in order to capture the different aspects of ancient religious experience. Along these lines, Hans Beck’s chapter applies an ‘epichoric’ lens to the religious networks of the Saronic in order to position the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Kalaureia not simply as the seat of an amphictyony (as has been done previously) but as a blending point between local and regional spheres. Using literary, archaeological, and numismatic evidence, Beck argues that Kalaureia and Troizen were connected politically as well as ritually. Kalaureia both gained translocal importance through its spatial entanglement with Troizen and, through Poseidon’s Kalaureian guise, influenced the religious flavor of the region. In seeing the local and universal as relational principles, these two authors set the stage for the kinds of investigations that follow in the volume.

The next two chapters take as their focus the process of localization. Given the emplaced nature of ancient religions, Susan Lupack examines the ways in which Mycenaean migrants on Crete gradually embedded their religion within the local landscape. Assemblages from Knossos show that, while early settlers predominantly practiced the religion they brought with them, later Mycenaeans not only worshipped local Minoan deities but impressed their own gods into the Minoan landscape. This contribution is particularly valuable because it resonates with broader trends in culture contact studies that emphasize the agency of different groups in deciding what and how much to adapt when encountering other groups and landscapes.[2] Jan Bremmer turns to the localization of Hera on Samos through the incorporation of local landscape into cultic practice. The myths, dedications, and festivals to Hera at Samos, like the Toneia and Heraia, all showcase a uniquely Samian flavor (e.g., maritime associations of Hera), and point to the gradual shift in the cult’s character from global to local over time.

The next three chapters edifyingly highlight the diversity within the local dimension. Tulsi Parikh analyzes dedicatory assemblages at three nearby sanctuaries — Poseidon at Isthmia, Hera at Perachora, and Demeter and Kore at Acrocorinth. Parikh compellingly concludes that the differences in type, size, expense, material, and quality of dedication between the three complexes should not be attributed to social factors alone (e.g. gender, wealth). They must be seen as active choices reflecting the plurality of ways that worshippers construed the divine at a local level. Diana Burton’s chapter reassesses the peculiar cow-killing ritual in the cult of Demeter Chthonia at Hermione through a local lens. The local topography (arid, stony, filled with chasms) closely linked Hermione with the underworld; it was even thought that Hermionians had a shortcut to Hades. The landscape’s underworld associations, as well as the nearby cult of Klymenos, lead to a uniquely local articulation of Demeter Chthonia’s eschatological and agrarian functions. In the next chapter, Katherine McLardy approaches the Thesmophoria from a comparative perspective, investigating the celebrations in Attica and Sicily. While similarities abound, several notable differences (lack of evidence for the aischrologia in Athens; mulloi cakes only attested in Sicily; three days of celebration in Athens vs. ten in Sicily) challenge the scholarly tendency to construct and impose a “monolithic template” (207) of the festival from regional evidence. The local is instead constitutive of embedded religious experience.

Post-synoikism Rhodes is the subject of chapters eight and nine, particularly the tension between Lindian and Rhodian identity. Jeremy McInerney argues that the Lindian Chronicle, in preserving and constructing memory (e.g., linking the town to an archaic, mythical past), plays a central role in asserting and negotiating local identity. In this chapter, the relational nature of categories like ‘the local’ and ‘the general’ are stressed as Rhodes is positioned simultaneously as the local in relation to Rome, and the general in relation to the Rhodian town Lindos. Juliane Zachhuber situates the stele alongside other local decrees restricting access to ta hiera to the local Lindians, showcasing how Lindians sought to retain distinct local presence. In both these pieces, religion and politics are intertwined in the local sphere.

Chapters ten and eleven investigate how people shaped their locality. In chapter ten, Julietta Steinhauer examines the “multi-ethnic melting pot” (290) of Delos. The local population of this global island, living amongst foreign visitors and immigrants, shaped their locality by developing local cults (Apollo and Athena Kynthios), introducing new ones (gods of Ascalon), and appropriating global cults (Isis and Serapis) for local use. The result was a religious pluriverse that met the needs of the diverse population while still embedded in the local context. Irene Polinskaya similarly focuses on the initiatives undertaken by individuals to cultivate a particularly local identity. In particular, Polinskaya’s interest lies in attempts of individual citizens and foreign residents to turn acts of private worship into communal cults, and in the local community’s response of opting in or out.

In a particularly creative and interesting contribution, Greta Hawes explores the relationship of local and universal in Pausanias’ Periēgēsis, one of our richest sources on the local dimension and lived experience of Greek religion. Pausanias is simultaneously concerned with the granular perspective while writing from a supra-local normative viewpoint (347). Thus, he denies Argos’s claims to tombs of Deianeira and Helenos on the basis that they infringe on the claims of Herakleia and Epeiros. In contrast, while at Epidauros he denies Asklepios’ Messenian origins, in Messenia he adopts the deity’s local origins without cross-referencing the alternative traditions. Pausanias’s localism is therefore scripted, steeped in his personal attachments and biases, but nevertheless provides valuable insight into epichoric claims within a shared culture. The tension between the local and universal features also in the volume’s final chapter, by Peter Funke. Funke challenges the labelling of certain sanctuaries as ‘Panhellenic,’ as though such places were not shaped by local specificities as well (e.g., the exclusion of Thebans from the Oracle of Amphiaraos, or Dorians from the temple of Athena on the Athenian acropolis). Instead, these sanctuaries could be said to operate multidimensionally (the sanctuary at Delphi was the site of an amphictyony, the Panhellenic games, a global oracle, and polis-dependent religion) and must be studied on a case-by-case basis. Funke’s piece is, in his own words, preliminary, but aims to set the stage for future exploration. Corrine Bonnet’s epilogue reiterates the premises of the volume and displays a surprising (given the volume’s general critique of the polis model and its limitations) sympathy with the so-called “French school.” She particularly applauds the contributors for highlighting the diversity and complexity of the ancient Greek religious system.

I am in wholehearted agreement with Bonnet that one of the strengths of this impressive volume is its emphasis on the diversity of ancient Greek religious belief, practice, and experience. The volume certainly accomplishes its stated goals, set out in its brief preface, of elevating ‘the local’ to an ontological domain of meaning, illustrating the various ways in which religion is embedded in environment, and teasing out complex interplay between the local and general spheres. The emergence of ‘the local’ as a relational concept ensures its wide-ranging utility and establishes it as a productive approach in the study of Greek religion.

I would offer only two minor points of critique. The first is that the book needs more structure beyond the brief preface and short abstracts preceding each chapter. An introduction that lays out the state of the problem, the urgency of the volume, and a thematic overview of the chapters would have been useful. Readers unfamiliar with Beck’s recent work on localism, upon which this work builds, may well have a difficult time grasping the question, definitions of ‘localism’, and aims of the book. So too, given that more than a few contributors to this volume are collaborators in Beck’s LoRAG project, some description of its trajectory and findings would have been helpful. This lack manifests in an uncertainty about what ‘the local’ actually is. Throughout the book, ‘the local’ refers to a sanctuary (e.g., Parikh) and/or its surrounding topography (e.g., Burton), a collection of related sanctuaries (e.g., Beck, Steinhauer), regional entities (e.g., McInerney, Zachhuber, Bremmer), and more. While this flexibility offers some advantages, it also renders the term so broad as to be unwieldy. On this point, some attention to theoretical work on place as a relational node, as lived, as a locus of meaning-production among multiple agents, would have been beneficial.[3] Theories of lived place would help to dismantle binaries of local/universal and personal/communal, move beyond the dichotomies of the polis-model, and contribute to the discussion of whether ‘the local’ is the correct term to apply when thinking about different scales and networks of place.

Even with these critiques in mind, The Local Horizon of Ancient Greek Religion is an innovative and exciting work that will appeal to a wide audience. It establishes beyond doubt the importance of local dimensions in the study of Greek religion and sets the stage for future inquiry.


Authors and Titles

  1. Julia Kindt, “Localism and the Study of Ancient Greek Religion: The Example of the Divine Persona.”
  2. Hans Beck, “Refitting the local Horizon of Ancient Greek Religion (Including Some Remarks on the Sanctuary of Poseidon on Kalaureia).”
  3. Susan Lupack, “Mycenaean Greek Worship in Minoan Territory.”
  4. Jan N. Bremmer, “Hera on Samos: Between the Global and the Local.”
  5. Tulsi Parikh, “Polytheism and the Distribution of Votives in the Corinthia.”
  6. Diana Burton, “Demeter Chthonia at Hermione: Landscapes and Cult.”
  7. Katherine R. L. McLardy, “Local Variation in the Thesmophoria Festival: A Case Study of the Attic and Sicilian Thesmophoria Festivals.”
  8. Jeremy McInerney, “The Lindian Chronicle and Local Identity.”
  9. Juliane Zachhuber, “Shifting Identities and Defensive Localism: Conflicts of Religious Narratives in Post-Synoikism Rhodes.”
  10. Julietta Steinhauer, “Between Local and Global? Religion in Late-Hellenistic Delos.”
  11. Irene Polinskaya, “Personal or Communal? Social Horizons of Local Greek Religion.”
  12. Greta Hawes, “How to Write a Local History of Imperial Greek Cults: Observations from Pausanias.”
  13. Peter Funke, “Panhellenic Sanctuaries: Local and Regional Perspectives.”

Epilogue. Corinne Bonnet, “A Tribute to Potnia of the Labyrinth.”



[1] See, for example, Irene Polinskaya, A Local History of Greek Polytheism (Leiden, 2013); and Hans Beck, Localism and the Ancient Greek City-State (Chicago, 2020).

[2] E,g., Philipp W. Stockhammer, “From Hybridity to Entanglement, from Essentialism to Practice,” Archaeological Review from Cambridge 28 (2013): 11-28; James Cusick (ed.), Studies in Culture Contact (Southern Illinois, 2015).

[3] For theoretical work on lived place, see Julian Thomas, “Archaeologies of Place and Landscape,” in Archaeological Theory Today, ed. Ian Hodder (Blackwell, 2001), 165-186; Tim Ingold, “Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge,” in Being Alive (Routledge, 2011), 145-155. For application of lived place to the ancient Mediterranean, see Rubina Raja, Jörg Rüpke (eds.), A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), particularly the introduction and chapter 23, “Complex Sanctuaries in the Roman Period”; and Emma-Jayne Graham, “Place,” in Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy (Routledge, 2021), 41-76.