ActaAth-4°, 59: The stuff of the gods


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The stuff of the gods. The material aspects of religion in ancient Greece

Edited by Matthew Haysom, Maria Mili & Jenny Wallensten

The “material turn” in the humanities and social sciences has brought about an expanded understanding of the material dimension of all cultural and social phenomena. In the Classics it has resulted in the breaking down of boundaries within the discipline and a growing interest in materiality within literature. In the study of religion cross-culturally new perspectives are emphasising religion as a material phenomenon and belief as a practice founded in the material world. This volume brings together experts in all aspects of Greek religion to consider its material dimensions. Chapters cover both themes traditionally approached by archaeologists, such as dedications and sacred space, and themes traditionally approached by philologists, such as the role of objects in divine power. They include a wide variety of themes ranging from the imminent material experience of religion for ancient Greek worshippers to the role of material culture in change and continuity over the long term.

Chapter abstracts and author affiliations listed below.


Matthew Haysom, Maria Mili & Jenny Wallensten, ‘Introduction’, 7–14

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Robin Osborne, ‘Stuff and godsense’, 15–24

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Maria Mili, ‘Why did the Greek gods need objects?’, 25–34

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Cécile Durvye, ‘Of things and men in the sanctuary of Aphrodite (Delos). Does the content of a sanctuary define the personality of the god?’, 35–45

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Hedvig von Ehrenheim, ‘Incubation rituals. Creating a locality for the divine?’, 47–55

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Petra Pakkanen, ‘Movable sacrality. Considerations on oscillating sacredness of material objects relating Greek sanctuaries’, 57–68

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Gunnel Ekroth, ‘A room of one’s own? Exploring the temenos concept as divine property’, 69–82

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Tyler Jo Smith, ‘Resistant, willing, and controlled. Sacrificial animals as “things” on Greek vases’, 83–95

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Jenny Wallensten, ‘Decisive dedications. Dedications outside of sanctuary contexts’, 97–109

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Caitlín E. Barrett, ‘The affordances of terracotta figurines in domestic contexts. Reconsidering the gap between material and ritual’, 111–132

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Matthew Haysom, ‘Investigating the instability of religious material culture in Greek prehistory. The case of “bench shrines”’, 133–148

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Catherine Morgan, ‘Adding buildings to Early Iron Age sanctuaries. The materiality of built space’, 149–166

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Charlotte R. Potts, ‘An external view. Architecture and ritual in central Italy’, 167–180

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Gina Salapata, ‘Ambiguity versus specificity in modest votive offerings’, 181–191

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James Whitley, ‘Writing to the gods? Archaic votives, inscribed and uninscribed’, 193–213

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Nassos Papalexandrou, ‘The asethetics of rare experiences in early Greek sanctuaries’, 215–223

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Troels Myrup Kristensen, ‘Dephi and the omphalos. Materiality, replication and the mythistory of the Sanctuary of Apollo’, 225–234

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Caroline Vout, ‘The stuff of crowded sanctuaries’, 235–246

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‘Index’, 247–248

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Bibliographical information

Matthew Haysom, Maria Mili & Jenny Wallensten, eds, The stuff of the gods. The material aspects of religion in ancient Greece (Skrifter utgivna av Svenska institutet i Athen, 4°, 59), Stockholm 2024. ISSN 0586-0539. ISBN 978-91-7916-068-5. Hardcover: 248 pages.

Chapter abstracts

Stuff and godsense

By Robin Osborne (University of Cambridge)

In the Greek world, as in the modern world objects were evidence not only for past people and events, they were also evidence for worlds distant not in time but in ontology—the world of the gods. This paper looks at the different ways in which both texts and objects formed a picture of the gods and at the ways in which that picture was changed both by deliberate intervention to control the gods’ material environment on earth and by the consequences of independent changes to the material world. It argues that stuff with which they are encompassed in their earthly sanctuaries both enables gods to be measured in relation to humans and offers, as texts can never do, both a means for and a parallel to gods’ independence of all human values.

Why did the Greek gods need objects?

By Maria Mili (Glasgow University)

Objects were ubiquitous in the world of the gods. The gods lived in houses, sat at tables and slept in beds, wore beautiful clothes, and moved with chariots. These objects, described often as ageless and immortal like the gods themselves, could be of unique craftsmanship, creations of Hephaistos for instance, and made of precious materials, mostly gold. But the gods were also associated with particular, special objects, which were intimately linked with the exercise of their power, such as the bow of Apollo, the thunderbolt of Zeus, or the trident of Poseidon. This article discusses these “special” objects. What can stories about these special objects tells us about the Greeks gods and about how their power was perceived?

Of things and men in the sanctuary of Aphrodite (Delos). Does the content of a sanctuary define the personality of the god?

By Cécile Durvye (Aix-Marseille University)

A major contribution of the anthropological movement known as the “ontological turn” is to make us consider objects not only as the resultsand testimonies of actions, but also as actors in a society. The use of this theory in the field of archeology leads us to move from a one-time perspective to diachronic analysis, considering the object from its production to its abandonment; in this duration, thinking about the object as an actor requires analyzing its influence on the fluctuating network of social ties in which it is engaged. This paper discusses the case of a Greek sanctuary in this perspective, in order to understand how the offerings that people made to a god contributed to define or strengthen the personality of a divinity. To what extent did the objects which filled a sanctuary direct the way in which a regular or a first-time visitor pictured the god? The case of the Aphrodision of Delos, a cult site which is well documented by archeological sources for almost the entire duration of its use (c. 304–c. 69 BC), brings a qualified answer.

Incubation rituals. Creating a locality for the divine?

By Hedvig von Ehrenheim (Uppsala University & Stockholm University)

This paper argues that the epiphany of a god or hero in incubation cults was tied to a certain locality above all because the assignation of one place of epiphany for the group incubating made it easier for them to imagine the presence of the divine. In particular the iamata of Epidauros as well as the Lex Sacra Hallenstrasse from Pergamon are examined with respect to this question.

Movable sacrality. Considerations on oscillating sacredness of material objects relating Greek sanctuaries

By Petra Pakkanen (Finnish Institute at Athens)

In this article material objects related to sanctuaries are considered in relation to two main frameworks, namely their spatiality and their perceived ownership. Land and terrain as locus for more fixed sacredness provides a starting point to elaborate less fixed sacredness of movable items which often were profitable also in profane commercial terms. Changes and fluctuation in the perception of sacredness of such objects is connected with the changes in the ownership of them and with the spatial location they were kept or deposited. Material, such as meat and hides from sacrificial rituals, (hierothyta) was often further sold or used in the production of utensils, and in such cases the original sacredness was recognised in a higher esteem of the quality. It is argued that since sacred was not rendered as a polar opposite to profane and whereas consecration was a central principle and ritual act in Greek antiquity it did not manifest in an opposite of ritual of desecration.

A room of one’s own? Exploring the temenos concept as divine property

By Gunnel Ekroth (Uppsala University)

Greek gods had their allotted spaces where worship took place, designated temenos, “that which has been cut off ”, but even if such a plot was the property of the deity and circumscribed by particular rules, it was not exclusively frequented by the divine owner. Mortal visitors may have used a temenos just as intensively as a god did, but in a different manner, and humans were also the caretakers and administrators of the god’s property. This paper explores the temenos concept from the point of view of sanctuaries as set apart from gods but mainly used by men, and how immortal and mortal practices and manifestations were to be accommodated within this space. Two points will be addressed, the marking of boundaries for temene, and notions of purity and pollution when humans visited sanctuaries to worship the gods. It will be argued that a physical demarcation of the temenos was not a divine prerequisite and that the construction of a wall was a human responsibility depending on local cultic conditions. The caretaking of a temenos as divine property required particular rules at sacrifices, since human needs and desires were not always appropriate to the gods. Of particular interest are the handling of animals, the cooking and food consumption after sacrifices, the management of human waste as well as the impact of humans staying in temene.

Resistant, willing, and controlled. Sacrificial animals as “things” on Greek vases

By Tyler Jo Smith (University of Virginia)

The iconography of sacrifice in ancient Greek art has been studied from a variety of angles. Relevant vases and votive reliefs have been collected and categorized, and consideration has been given to the possible meanings and messages (i.e. political, religious, social) embedded in the imagery. Sacrificial victims have also been identified and scrutinized in terms of their value and cultic significance, and other material manifestations of the ritual (i.e. altar, kanoun, tables) have received a certain amount of attention. An important area to explore is the position, treatment, and behavior of sacrificial animals in the scenes. How is the relationship between man, beast, and the divine understood and conveyed by vasepainters? Using the concept of materiality as an interpretive framework, this paper will focus on vases from Corinth, Athens, and Boiotia, where the evidence is best and most plentiful. When animals are categorized as ritual objects, or “things”, in their own right, the idea of the “willing” victim, and the handling and control of animals in a specialized context may be investigated and questioned.

Decisive dedications. Dedications outside of sanctuary contexts

By Jenny Wallensten (Swedish Institute at Athens)

We tend to strongly associate the presence of votive material with the presence of a sanctuary, since gifts to the gods were presumably mostly offered and kept in sacred space. However, many dedications were never placed in sanctuaries proper, but in the agora, the gymnasion, etc. This paper discusses the implications of placing gifts outside of sanctuary context. Taking dedications from two groups of magistrates, agoranomoi and nomophylakes (specifically the nomophylakes of Cyrene), as my case studies, I will argue that the materiality of the gifts affect the character of the space surrounding them and that the gifted objects can express the identity and power of the donors, as well as the relationship between gods and men, by means of a tangible thing.

The affordances of terracotta figurines in domestic contexts. Reconsidering the gap between material and ritual

By Caitlín E. Barrett (Cornell University)

Domestic religion has been the subject of renewed interest in recent years, yet much work remains to be done on the material dimension of ritual practice within Greek households. This paper focuses on a form of domestic material culture whose complex relationship to religious ritual bears further investigation. Terracotta figurines are common finds in Hellenistic houses, and discussions of domestic terracottas’ function and perceived value commonly treat them either as cult objects or domestic decoration. However, the implied binary opposition of “religious” and “decorative” functions raises serious questions, as it presumes the relevance of modern distinctions between “sacred” and “secular” objects. Focusing on figurines from Hellenistic houses and concluding with a case study from Delos, this study uses material and textual evidence to investigate the multiple affordances of terracotta figurines in domestic contexts. Among other things, figurines might facilitate human-divine encounters, defend the safety of the oikos, impress or amuse viewers, present their owners as cultural sophisticates, prompt guests to contemplate their own social performance, or even take part in magical rituals. In generating, mediating, and participating in a wide range of domestic interactions, Hellenistic figurines inextricably interweave the human, divine, and material worlds.

Investigating the instability of religious material culture in Greek prehistory. The case of “bench shrines”

By Matthew Haysom (Newcastle University)

The radical shift in the conceptual status of objects that has been brought about by the “material turn” in the humanities opens the door for a recasting of old questions. Archaeology now plays host to a wide variety of interrelated theoretical perspectives, from phenomenology to actor-network theory, that emphasise the degree to which objects can form people so that objects and people are co-constituted and interdependent. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the study of religion where the subject matter has naturally led scholars to give priority to beliefs and interactions between people. In this paper I will focus on one prominent episode of religious materiality in Greek prehistory: that of the so-called “bench shrine”. My aim is twofold. First, to clarify the history of this type of space, which has sometimes been considered the archetypal built religious space of Greek prehistory, but which has a complex historiography. Second, and concurrently, to think about how approaches aligned with “materiality” can help us understand this history.

Adding buildings to Early Iron Age sanctuaries. The materiality of built space

By Catherine Morgan (All Souls College, Oxford)

During the Early Iron Age, the decision taken in many parts of Greece to adapt available technologies to erect buildings of varying forms on often long established cult sites implies visions (plural) of the ways in which built space could contain, shape, or help to articulate activities linked to religious belief. This article explores the insertion of cult buildings into sanctuaries and analyses how they then came to operate as material objects within sacred space. Such a materiality-based perspective will enrich the complex discussion of temples and other cult buildings in Early Iron Age–Archaic religion, previously dominated by questions focussing on architecture and/or the rise of the polis.

An external view. Architecture and ritual in central Italy

By Charlotte R. Potts (University of Oxford)

This comparative paper discusses two ways in which Etrusco-Italic temples were differentiated from surrounding buildings during the Etruscan Archaic period (approximately 580–480 BC): firstly, by the introduction of a religious aesthetic for the exteriors of cult buildings that distinguished them from vernacular architecture; and, secondly, by the erection, in select contexts, of precinct boundaries. These changes created new settings for religious activities and may reflect a changed conception of the divine and its role in ancient communities. Beyond exploring these changes in design, however, it attempts to move from studying the appearance of sanctuary buildings to considering the ways in which they were experienced by ancient worshippers, questioning whether visual differentiation necessarily conveyed physical or conceptual segregation. It suggests that the two methods of delineation adopted in the Archaic period could represent a desire to create an inclusive rather than exclusive experience, and in so doing challenges simple readings of the demarcation of the sacred in antiquity.

Ambiguity versus specificity in modest votive offerings

By Gina Salapata (Massey University)

One problem associated with the identification of modest anthropomorphic figurines dedicated at Greek sanctuaries is their degree of specificity. Especially in the Archaic and early Classical periods, distinguishing representations of divinities, or even divinities and mortals, is difficult because their attributes are often non-specific, ambiguous or unidentifiable (at least by us), or because they lack identifying features altogether. This ambiguity and flexibility could have been intentional for both technical and ritual reasons. Manufacturers definitely benefited by producing figurines with broad iconography that could be used for different purposes and serve various cults. Clients also benefited: non-specific figurines of divinities or mortals could be dedicated at various sanctuaries, acquiring specificity and significance through cultic context and function. At the same time, workshops could also respond to clients’ demands or to new cultic needs by creating or adapting types. Generic figurines could be endowed with a more specific meaning by the dedicator: they could have been personalised through the oral prayer accompanying the dedication or by the construction of a personal narrative through the grouping of offerings. On the other hand, in some cases, the merging of divine and mortal features, assimilating the dedicator with the god, may have been intentional.

Writing to the Gods? Archaic votives, inscribed and uninscribed

By James Whitley (Cardiff University)

Every Classical scholar interested in Greek religion is familiar with the ἀνέθηκε (ανεθεκε) formula, where X dedicates Y to a deity. But it is wrong to think that what is familiar is what we fully understand. Not all votives were so inscribed, or even inscribed at all, and the ἀνέθηκε formula was by no means universal across the Greek-speaking Mediterranean in the Archaic period. In this paper I explore what factors might have led to a votive being inscribed, and to look at whether inscriptions made any difference as to how votives were used and valued. Were inscribed votives in use for longer, or did they remain visible for longer, than uninscribed ones? This paper will adopt a contextual approach to an examination of the contexts in which such objects were used and found. It will take as its starting point the idea that writing is there to inscribe agency (sensu Gell 1998) in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. It will concentrate on the evidence from Olympia between 800 and 420 BC, with a particular focus on dedications of armour and weapons (which can sometimes be grouped into trophies). It will also look at other factors that may have affected a votive’s use and longevity (exotic origins, and other, non-Greek inscriptions).

The aesthetics of rare experiences in early Greek sanctuaries

By Nassos Papalexandrou (University of Texas at Austin)

Drawing from recent advances in theories of materiality and sensory archaeology, this paper explores how materiality shaped an aesthetic of rare experiences in the large panhellenic sanctuaries during the so-called Orientalizing period. At the core of my approach is the consideration of physical and cognitive approaches to wondrous objects assembled by sanctuaries as part of a systematically sought after “Wunderkammer” aesthetic. As a study case, I focus on cauldrons with siren, lion, and griffin attachments. These highly complex artifacts were endowed with physical (e.g. scale and material) and formal properties (e.g. lifelikeness), the negotiation of which by viewers or users required the activation of a new perceptual “software”.

Delphi and the Omphalos. Materiality, replication and the mythistory of the Sanctuary of Apollo

By Troels Myrup Kristensen (Aarhus University)

The omphalos embodied the notion of Delphi as the religious nexus of the Greek world. The concept worked on at least two different scales: at one level, it served as a pars pro toto metaphor for the whole sanctuary of Apollo (e.g. as used by Pindar in Pythian 6); at another level, the omphalos was a discrete object in itself that is generally thought to have been on display inside Apollo’s temple. At this concrete level, it would then seem that the omphalos offers us an intriguing example of how sacred geography could be translated into material form, an act of translation that poses some important questions that have often been glossed over or only treated in a cursory fashion. For example, at which point in its history did the omphalos become a thing? It is unlikely that we will ever be able to pinpoint the exact moment of the invention of the concept of the omphalos, but more positively, what we can do is to study how the story of the omphalos was constructed and put to use across time and in different contexts.

The stuff of crowded sanctuaries

By Caroline Vout (University of Cambridge)

When we think about ancient Greek sanctuaries, we conjure a landscape densely populated by statues and other votive offerings. Yet still we focus on selected features (the cult statue, temple pediments, particular reliefs or inscriptions) and on how these features interacted with one another to create spaces for sacred viewing. In contrast, this paper looks neither at single statues, nor for sightlines, but at crowding and the ecstasy and truth that comes from the suffocating, some might say, de-sensitizing, sense of experiencing masses of objects, many of them positioned haphazardly. Few dedications in Greek sanctuaries had the charisma of the Delphi Charioteer, but even the most mundane of votives might grow in aura, animacy even, when put next to other objects. Shifting the focus away from epiphany and ecphrasis towards ”shock and awe”, this paper asks that we also look for the ancient experience of god in repetition, redundancy and plethora.

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