BMCR 2024.07.09

Greek religion in Tauric Chersonesos

, Greek religion in Tauric Chersonesos. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2023. Pp. 226. ISBN 9781803275628.



This monograph, published under the shadow of the Russo-Ukrainian War, deals with the religion of Chersonesos, a Doric colony on the Tauric Peninsula in southwestern Crimea, founded by settlers from Heraclea Pontica and a small group of Delians. This book is the English version of Shevchenko’s dissertation, which was first published in Ukrainian in 2011.[1] It represents a significant effort to connect the scholarly traditions of Western and Eastern Europe regarding a region frequently neglected by Western scholarship. What distinguishes it is its use of no fewer than 360 works, originally written mostly in Russian and Ukrainian, thus making them accessible to the English-speaking public. The recent trend of Anglophone publications on the northern Black Sea region mainly consist of articles, and so this single-authored monograph presents a rare approach, with the author presenting a coherent and comprehensive argument.

Chapter 1 offers a detailed history of scholarly approaches to the religion of Tauric Chersonesos. Rather than a mere summary, this chapter presents Shevchenko’s key critiques of previous binary interpretations of identity, arguing that they overlook the unique aspects of religion in Tauric Chersonesos within the broader context of ancient Greek religious development. The author provides a thorough and insightful critical analysis, identifying the current state of scholarship. She outlines three distinct periods. First, the late 19th to early 20th century was characterized by mythological analyses. Second, the 1940s to 1970s was marked by a deeper exploration into native influences on religious life at Chersonesos, including the theory that attributes indigenous origins to the local deity Parthenos; Shevchenko criticizes this approach as driven by archaeopolitics and problematic notions of ethnicity. Finally, from the late 1970s to the 21st century, a period of extensive research focused on localizing the temple(s) and reassessing earlier hypotheses about cult practices. She then outlines her sources and methodology, drawing from a wide range of literary, epigraphic, archaeological, and numismatic sources and employing a thematic approach centered on polis ideology.

Chapter 2 offers a comprehensive overview of Chersonesos’ principal deities, with the evidence presented in chronological order. The central focus is on Parthenos, the patron goddess of Chersonesos, followed by Herakles, who together formed a dyad of god-protectors of the city. Shevchenko outlines the earliest evidence of city-state cults, dating back to the early 4th century BC, through inscribed dedications and possible fragments of a Parthenos statue. Parthenos initially shared characteristics and iconography with Artemis, but from the 2nd century BC she is depicted (on coins) in a mural crown, and from the first centuries AD, throwing her spear. Parthenos remained the primary deity until the end of antiquity, with regular civic sacrifices in her honor, as attested epigraphically. The Hellenistic period saw the construction of a temple of Parthenos within a sacred precinct located northeast of the city. Herakles is included in this chapter as a supreme god. However, his cult gained importance, notably during the Hellenistic period, particularly as a protector of the countryside (chora). Moreover, the primary evidence for Herakles’ cult mainly includes altars shaped like his club. By the 2nd century AD, his cult was primarily practiced within family contexts. Lastly, during the first centuries AD, the cult of Chersonas[os],[2] the female eponymous deity of Chersonesos, gained significance.

Chapter 3 examines the development of the cults in Chersonesos beyond the primary deities discussed earlier. The author posits that the significance of the cult of Apollo during the city’s early history should be attributed not only to Delian involvement in Chersonesos’ foundation but also to Apollo’s ongoing divine patronage post-colonization. She then delves into the numismatic evidence, revealing that from the 2nd century BC, coins began featuring images of Athena, the Dioscuri, Helios, Hermes, Apollo, Zeus and their symbols. In the first centuries AD, epigraphic sources also mention temples dedicated to Aphrodite and Asclepios. The chapter concludes by discussing the imperial cult during the Roman imperial period, questioning its significance and impact on the people of Chersonesos.

Chapter 4 investigates family cults. Shevchenko analyzes the cultic artifacts found within houses, such as altars and terracotta figurines. A notable aspect of the domestic cult in Chersonesos is the discovery of altars in situ within domestic settings, often associated with basements. In some cases, where the arrangement of terracotta figurines is known, they were found near hearths or walls. Additionally, Shevchenko examines a few tombs containing terracotta figurines, speculating that some may have been attached to the clothing of priests or worshippers. This interpretation is based on the presence of figurines inside a few of the tombs, the iconography of the Mother of Gods, and a single text of Herodotus mentioning that Anacharsis organized a festival in honor of the Mother of the Gods with a kettle-drum and with images hung on himself. The theory is interesting, especially since Anacharsis was a Scythian prince, an identity that the author fails to note, but speculative. The author then explores the epigraphic evidence, particularly theophoric names that include references to deities such as Herakles, Hera, and Demeter. She interprets these names as indicative of familial devotion to these deities within the context of domestic cults in Chersonesos.

In Chapter 5, Shevchenko attempts to identify mystery cults in Chersonesos. She rightfully questions the inference drawn from certain discoveries, such as gold wreaths found in burials as proof of the existence of mystery cults. However, she follows the same interpretive path, concluding that tombs containing terracottas were probably tombs “of those initiated into the mysteries” (p. 140). She also concludes that “evidence of Dionysiac mysteries in Chersonesos probably includes the terracotta masks of Dionysus, Silenus, and a maenad” (p. 143). Although mystery cults may involve such artifacts, these isolated finds do not conclusively establish the existence of mystery cults. The author assumes that wealthy individuals might have traveled to Eleusis, even though there is no evidence. More persuasive evidence is provided regarding the cult of Sabazios, supported by bone pins shaped like hands holding pinecones. Moreover, there are indications of cults dedicated to deities who are normally associated with mysteries: the Mother of Gods, Isis, and Mithras.

The final Chapter 6 provides an examination of the diversity and evolution of burial practices across time. Βurial cult was never homogeneous in Chersonesos, reflecting the varying beliefs about the afterlife held by the populace. This heterogeneity is particularly evident in the Late Hellenistic period, with distinctions in grave construction, grave goods, and gravestone designs. Based on these features, the author concludes that these dissimilarities were rooted in disparities between social classes and individual families, and that gravestones were primarily erected in honor of men, portraying them as heroes, commonly with images of the deceased’s wife seated beside them.

A few points of critique should be raised. The book has not been substantially updated since its first edition in 2011 and lacks some fundamental references.[3] Particularly, the work would have benefitted from incorporating Sourvinou-Inwood’s seminal articles on polis religion[4] and recent insights concerning domestic religion.[5] Additionally, the inclusion of the fibula bearing the inscription SABADIO/VOTVM, published in 2015, could have substantially strengthened the author’s arguments regarding the cult of Sabazios.[6] The same goes for the inclusion of recent papers with evidence on the cults of Artemis,[7] Aphrodite,[8] and Parthenos.[9] The outdated bibliography paired with the extensive introductions on aspects of Greek religion not specifically tailored to Chersonesos has led to some obsolete information or overgeneralizations. For example, Shevchenko posits (p. 28) that ancient Greek worshippers consumed meat only during rituals and festivities, an idea disproved in recent scholarship.[10] Similarly, blood rituals were not solely confined to specific occasions such as “before battles, at burials, and for purification” (p. 28); votive offerings were not always bloodless, as cult instruments were often dedicated subsequent to their sacrificial use. The consumption of oil and wine during the post-sacrificial feast indicates that their significance lies beyond mere “wastefulness”. Additionally, xoana were not universally “movable statues” (p. 49).[11] Lastly,  the idea that “the temple was used for keeping offerings, while sacrifices were made at the open-air altars” (p. 50) comes not from Homer, but rather from a combination of archaeological, iconographical, and textual data.

Several methodological and content-related issues are also evident in the book. In Chapter 1, the author appropriately critiques the scholarship of the Soviet period for its tendency to attribute nearly every phenomenon to local influence. However, she takes her critique to an extreme, neglecting almost any local elements. In so doing, she adopts a fully Hellenocentric perspective, all the while reinscribing outdated concepts of a sharp dichotomy between Greek and “barbarian” worlds. The inclusion of Porucznik’s recent study on cultural identity in the broader region would have greatly enhanced the book’s overall contribution.[12] Moving to Chapter 3, Shevchenko misconceives Emperors’ titles as evidence of emperor-worship, and then misses key evidence, including IosPE III.71, where line 8 has been convincingly restored as [αὐγου]στείῳ or [σεβα]στείῳ. Occasionally, there are minor confusions: e.g., Zeus does not hold a trident but a thunderbolt (p. 61) nor is it clear why a lion facing a kantharos suggests the cult of Apollo (p. 73).

There are also some terminology issues. Firstly, the use of “Supreme God(s)” is not entirely appropriate within the context of Greek religion. An alternative term such as “patron” or “protector” would be more fitting when referring to entities like Parthenos. Additionally, Shevchenko employs the term “barbarian” throughout the text in its ancient Greek sense to denote non-Greek populations, like the Tauri and Scythians. While historically accurate, the term “barbarian” requires careful contextualization, especially for readers who may not be familiar with its nuanced meaning in this context.[13]

However, none of the above detracts from the fact that the book is a significant achievement. The final effect is a valuable overview of the history of religion in the Tauric Religion. Thus, it deserves a wide readership of ancient historians and archaeologists. Those with interests in ancient Greek religion and those who specialize in colonization will find the book useful.



Boedeker, D. 2008. “Family Matters: Domestic Religion in Classical Greece.” In Household and Family Religion in Antiquity, edited by J. P. Bodel and S. M. Olyan, 229–47. Malden; Oxford.

Ekroth, G. 2007. “Meat in Ancient Greece: Sacrificial, Sacred or Secular?” In Meat: Sacrifice, Trade and Food Preparation in the Roman Empire, edited by W. Van Andringa, 1:249–72. Food & History 5. Turnhout.

Faraone, Ch.A. 2008. “Household Religion in Ancient Greece.” In Household and Family Religion in Antiquity, edited by J. P. Bodel and S. M. Olyan, 210–28. Malden; Oxford.

Kathariou, K. 2016. “Artemis Riding Griffin: A Red-Figure Pelike from the Tauric Chersonesos.” In Studi miscellanei di ceramografia greca, EdiArch Series 2, edited by E. Giudice and G. Giudice, 45–66. Catania.

Kostromičev, D.A. 2015. “A Brooch from Tauric Chersonesos with a Dedication to Sabazius.” In Ad Fines Imperii Romani: Studia Thaddaeo Sarnowski Septuagenario Ab Amicis, Collegis Disciplisque Dedicata, edited by A. Tomas, 391–403. Warsaw.

Mylonopoulos, J. 2010. “Divine Images versus Cult Images: An Endless Story about Theories, Methods, and Terminologies.” In Divine Images and Human Imaginations in Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by J. Mylonopoulos, 1–19. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world 170. Leiden; Boston.

Parker, R. 2010. “Eating Unsacrificed Meat.” In Paysage et religion en Grèce antique. Mélanges offerts à Madeleine Jost, edited by P. Carlier and Ch. Lerouge, 137–45. Travaux de la Maison Rene-Ginouves 10. Paris.

Porucznik, J. 2017. “The Cult of Chersonasos in Tauric Chersonesos: Numismatic and Epigraphic Evidence Revisited.” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 23 (1):63–89. doi:

———. 2021. Cultural Identity within the Northern Black Sea Region in Antiquity: (De)Constructing Past Identities. Colloquia Antiqua Vol. 31. Leuven.

Saprykin, S.Y. 2001. “Aphrodite with Two Erotes from Tauric Chersonese.” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 7 (1–2):99–122. doi:

Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 1988. “Further Aspects of Polis Religion.” In Annali di archeologia e storia antica. Istituto Universitario Orientale. Dipartimento di Studi del Mondo classico e del Mediterraneo antico, 10:259–74.

———. 1990. “What Is Polis Religion?” In The Greek City: From Homer to Alexander, edited by O. Murray and S. R. F. Price. Oxford.

Шевченко, T.M. 2011. Релігійний Світогляд Населення Античного Херсонеса. Київ: ІА НАН України.



[1] Шевченко 2011.

[2] In Shevchenko’s text, she is referred to as Chersonas; however, in the epigraphic sources, namely the Diophantos decree (IosPE I² 352), she is referred to as Chersonasou, genitive of Chersonasos.

[3] Only five bibliographical entities are from after 2011.

[4] Sourvinou-Inwood 1988; 1990.

[5] Boedeker 2008; Faraone 2008.

[6] Kostromičev 2015.

[7] Kathariou 2016.

[8] Saprykin 2001.

[9] Porucznik 2017.

[10] Ekroth 2007; Parker 2010.

[11] Mylonopoulos 2010, 5.

[12] Porucznik 2021.

[13] There are also some typographical errors, especially of Greek words, transliterated or not (ẻλαφοχτόνος (p. 12), ảρχηςθαί (p. 43), μύστησ, μυστικá (p. 129), Tauroconos (p. 157), Magara (p. 189)). Names are inconsistent (Herakles-Heracles, Asclepios-Asklepios-Asclepius, Cabeiri-Cabiri, Serapis-Sarapis).