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Current Approaches to Religion in Ancient Greece: Papers Presented at a Symposium at the Swedish Institute at Athens, 17–19 April 2008

Current Approaches to Religion in Ancient Greece: Papers Presented at a Symposium at the Swedish Institute at Athens, 17–19 April 2008

Edited by Matthew Haysom and Jenny Wallensten (SkrAth 8°, 21). Pp. 315, figs. 49, table 1. The Swedish Institute at Athens, Stockholm 2011. Price not available. ISBN 978-91-7916-059-3 (paper).

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This volume results from a conference held at the Swedish Institute at Athens and at the British School at Athens in 2008. As the editors underline, the book inserts itself into the modern field of studies on ancient Greek religion, which reflects scholars’ acquired awareness of the centrality of religion to Greek culture and focus on the worshipers “and on their social and mental world” (12), rather than seeking to discover the forgotten origin of gods or the ancestral function of their rituals, as in former times. The organizers of the symposium aimed to pursue the famous tradition of conferences on religious subjects whose proceedings have been published in the series Acta Instituti Atheniensis Regni Sueciae and chose to give academics in the early stages of their careers the opportunity to present their work. Of the 14 contributions, all with English abstracts, 13 are in English and 1 is in French. They cover a variety of subjects through the use of an equally wide range of approaches: archaeological, epigraphic, iconographical, philological, historical, and anthropological.

Konaris examines Karl Otfried Müller’s account of Apollo and the debate over the origins and nature of the god in 19th-century scholarship. The paper provides a clear picture of what is meant by “traditional approaches” to the study of Greek religion as opposed to the “current approaches” and illustrates at the same time the significance of Müller’s views on Apollo in the later scholarship not only on Greek religion but on Greek culture in its entirety.

Apollo is also the subject of Wallensten’s, Mili’s, and Herda’s essays. Wallensten avails herself of epigraphic evidence to prove that Apollo and Artemis function as protectors of the family and especially of its younger members when they are both recipient deities in dedications, as their kin relationship symbolizes brotherly and sisterly love. The author refers to the cases when Apollo and Artemis have no epithets and therefore, in her view, they have no specific function, but they “become epithets of each other” (28). This is indeed an interesting idea, and it certainly works as a general criterion of interpretation; however, in my opinion, Wallensten’s point would have been stronger if she had thoroughly considered not only the dedicatory inscriptions themselves but also the contexts in which they were found. Mili demonstrates that the cult of Apollo Kerdoos in Thessaly is deeply related to the character of Thessalian society and confirms that divine personalities need to be studied both at a Panhellenic and a local level in order to comprehend fully their nature and function in different places of the Greek world. Herda offers a rich overview of the results of his studies on the cult of Apollo Delphinios at Miletos. Focusing on epigraphic and archaeological evidence, he emphasizes the close interconnection between the administration of this cult and political life, a link that can also be detected in the fusion of religious and public spaces within the topography of the city. Moreover, Herda indicates that the complementary pair Apollo Delphinios and Apollo Didymeus played a significant role in the Milesian colonization in archaic times.

Mylonopoulos, Papalexandrou, and Scott address questions of viewing, accessibility, and functionality vs. symbolism in Greek sanctuaries, thus emphasizing the role of worshipers and their perceptions, as well as highlighting an intertwining of relationships that operate on various levels between worshipers and cult elements and between sanctuaries and poleis in the wider religious and political frameworks of the Greek world. Mylonopoulos combines archaeological, epigraphic, and literary sources to investigate the meaning of a peculiar architectural element that figures in some Greek temples, a barrier of diverse materials placed before the cult statue. His study reveals that these barriers had the function—both physical and symbolic—of preventing the worshipers from getting too close to divine images in temples whose “opening times” were rather extended, as the area around the cult statue was inviolable.

Mylonopoulos, Papalexandrou, and Scott share an anthropological approach with Kavoulaki and Pilz. While the former achieves new perceptions on the widespread phenomenon of processions in the Greek world through a careful analysis of its terminology and linguistic usage in literary texts, Pilz borrows the concept of performance theory from the social sciences and applies it to the investigation of Greek ritual, taking the Athenian Oscophoria as case study. His research underlines the role of the legomena as reenactment of myths alongside bodily movements in ritual activity; and moreover, it leads to a reinterpretation of the Oscophoria that takes into due account both the agricultural and the initiatory aspects, as well as the specific role of each group of participants.

The focus on archaeological objects characterizes Mitsopoulou’s and Prêtre’s papers, although each scholar employs a different methodology. A close examination of rare iconographic evidence related to the Eleusinian processional vessels—a vase shape peculiar to the Eleusinian cult in Athens and Attica and produced during the Classical and Hellenistic periods—allows Mitsopoulou to draw new, significant conclusions on the use of the vessel during the Mysteries, as well as on the reasons behind its choice as an official symbol of the Eleusinian rites. Dealing with Delian inventories and centering on the dedication of a “Cretan shield with a skorperota as episema” (227), Prêtre demonstrates the need to combine several fields of study, such as epigraphy, archaeology, philology, and iconography in order to achieve a full comprehension of the offerings registered in Greek sanctuaries.

The importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach in the study of Greek religion is also emphasized by Haysom’s, Pakkanen’s, and Kolotourou’s essays. The former explores the “strangeness” of Cretan religion in comparison with other parts of Greece and points out that the real puzzle is not the island’s oddity but its similarities to the rest of the Greek world; therefore, he stresses that instead of focusing on differences and idiosyncrasies, scholars may gain more advantage by addressing the issue of “the nature and development of the consistencies across Greek religion” (103), which should be seen as a long process extending across both the prehistoric and historic periods. Pakkanen examines how Greek religion has been conceptualized by classical scholarship and focuses on the opposition between private and public religious spheres, taking the Poseidon sanctuary at Kalaureia on the island of Poros as case study. By analyzing iconographic, archaeological, and textual sources related to the subject, Kolotourou proves to what extent the majority of Greek musical studies have underestimated the religious meaning of percussive performance. As “a ritualistic mimesis of the divine nature” (176), percussion enables mortals to connect with gods, while from a natural and social point of view it turns out to be an ever-present element in human life, being associated with and beating every passage from one stage to the next.

Readers will find that the content of the volume under review is faithful to its title: the wide range of topics covered as well as the variety of approaches taken and, most of all, the strong interdisciplinary perspective that permeates all the papers to a greater or lesser degree really make this volume "current.” Indeed, this book gives an insight into how scholars are dealing with ancient Greek religion today: it provides an update on some of the most recent research on the subject, and it is rich in suggestions for anyone interested in Greek religion.

Ilaria Bultrighini
Department of Classics from Antiquity to Contemporary
“G. d’Annunzio” University of Chieti-Pescara

Book Review of Current Approaches to Religion in Ancient Greece: Papers Presented at a Symposium at the Swedish Institute at Athens, 17–19 April 2008, edited by Matthew Haysom and Jenny Wallensten

Reviewed by Ilaria Bultrighini

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.Bultrighini

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