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Ritual Dynamics in the Ancient Mediterranean: Agency, Emotion, Gender, Representation

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

Ritual Dynamics in the Ancient Mediterranean: Agency, Emotion, Gender, Representation

Edited by Angelos Chaniotis (Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien 49). Pp. 390, figs. 56. Franz Steiner, Stuttgart 2011. €62. ISBN 978-3-515-09916-5 (paper).

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This compendium of 14 articles emerged from a set of papers on Mediterranean subjects delivered at a major conference in 2008, “Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual,” sponsored by the Collaborative Research Center on Ritual Dynamics at the University of Heidelberg. Eight of the participants’ papers appear in this volume, along with six additional papers solicited by the editor. Although the authors come from an array of European countries, all the papers are in English; in addition, words and passages in Greek and Latin are consistently translated, making the book accessible to scholars in many disciplines.

The study of ritual dynamics is based on the premise that ritual is a set of behaviors repeated over time by defined groups, usually in specific locations, yet is subject to variability and change. Contributors to this volume identify and explain evidence of changes in case studies of rituals of many types and scales, from the second millennium B.C.E. through late antiquity, on Egyptian, Punic, Italian, Greek, and Roman subjects. Several papers stretch the definition of ritual, such as des Bouvrie’s contention that Attic theater qualifies, or Icks’ argument for Roman processes of imperial investiture as ritual. Whether one agrees with such broad notions of ritual, the authors’ justifications, such as des Bouvrie’s summary of social theory and ritual, are themselves instructive. Consistency of form and clarity of presentation help link themes across disparate times, places, and methods of analysis. Each contribution begins with an exceptionally clear introduction that connects the topic to ritual dynamics, followed by related headings, and a concluding summary. Although no one will be familiar with all the subjects discussed here, taken together the articles present a web of interconnected ideas and valuable comparanda.

The four themes, of agency, emotion, gender, and representation, appear in groups of articles, yet the interdisciplinary nature of ritual study means that distinctions are often blurred, that most papers incorporate multiple themes. The book grew out of papers on agency, represented here by the first eight articles. Perego’s study of female agency expressed by inscribed votives in the Iron Age Veneto, Martzavou’s paper on women portrayed as Isis in Roman Athens, and López-Bertran’s on active protagonists in ritual at two sites in Eivissa, Balearic Islands, emphasize the empowered participant as ritual actor, based on archaeological evidence; the first two also stress female agency. The article by Stavrianopoulou on Greek written texts codifying practice and Patera’s account of modifications over time in Eleusinian rites both focus on tradition invoked as a rationale for change, with astute observations on the use of inscribed texts to effect change and establish common practices. Graf analyzes three cases of legitimizing innovation in rituals at sites in Roman Greece and discusses introducing changes (including socially reinforcing practices such as processions) for political reasons. After an extensive theoretical argument for Greek drama as ritual, des Bouvrie considers the Athenian Dionysia as aimed at political goals by manipulating behaviors and emotions of audiences of both comedy and tragedy. The longest paper in the volume, this contribution encompasses a broader scope than the rest. Its relevance here depends on the author’s case for theater as ritual, an assumption open to question. Frisone’s paper explores archaic and classical Greek laws governing funerary behavior using literary accounts and especially epigraphic texts with rules and regulations, some reinscribed. Besides stressing funerals as performance, she, too, observes the agency of the inscribed text. Six of the papers on agency and three of the six articles on other themes focus on Greek topics, a distribution the editor tried to balance with additional contributions, with only partial success.

There are fewer papers on emotion, gender, and representation, but these themes recur in articles throughout the book. Emotion is addressed most directly by Verbovsek’s work on Egyptian funerary rites to manage grieving and also royal succession and by Chaniotis’ paper on “emotional communities” generated by participation in ritual in Hellenistic and Roman Greece. Issues of gender permeate the studies by Perego, López-Bertran, and Martzavou. Representation, a broad theme that here includes visual and verbal images, is central to McCarty’s paper, which describes iconographic and archaeological evidence of changes in sacrifice and burial at Punic Hadrumentum (Tunisia) from the seventh century B.C.E. to the second century C.E., from personal to public. Verbovsek, Perego, López-Bertran, and Martzavou also incorporate evidence from images in their studies. Letoublon’s contribution on prayer and supplication in Homer treats the verbal depiction of ritual behavior, and Icks’ study of Roman imperial investiture focuses on historical reports of deviations from expected actions. In Connelly’s study of movement in sacred spaces, archaeological structures, along with objects and texts, constitute representation. Graf, too, notes the importance of motion, especially processions, as does Chaniotis. Besides movement, several authors note sensory aspects of ritual experience, including smells and sounds, as well as sight, and the emotional responses they provoke.

Overall, the variety of places, times, and themes is far from balanced, with Greek topics and the theme of agency predominant; however, the intent is to offer case histories, and there is a sufficient range of subjects and methods. United by a strong editorial vision, this volume of diverse scholarship on a wide range of subjects features varied methods and theoretical constructs. It offers specific applications of ritual dynamics and exemplary attention to evidence in a rich and enlightening smorgasbord that is a valuable presentation of multidisciplinary material.

To conclude with lesser issues, there are occasional errors, some typographic, others probably a consequence of translation into English. A few sources cited in notes do not appear in bibliographies. The quality of the small, often dark illustrations is not commensurate with the production values of the rest of this otherwise impressive book.

Mary B. Hollinshead
Department of Art and Art History
University of Rhode Island
105 Upper College Road, Suite 1
Kingston, Rhode Island 02881

Book Review of Ritual Dynamics in the Ancient Mediterranean: Agency, Emotion, Gender, Representation, edited by Angelos Chaniotis

Reviewed by Mary B. Hollinshead

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Hollinshead

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