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Religion and Society in Middle Bronze Age Greece

Religion and Society in Middle Bronze Age Greece

By Helène Whittaker. Pp. xiv + 291, figs. 14, tables 4, maps 7. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-04987-1 (cloth).

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The commonly held view that the topic of religion in the central and southern Greek mainland during the Middle Helladic (MH) and the Late Helladic (LH) I phases (ca. 2100/2000–1500 B.C.E.) constitutes an “archaeological nonstarter” (2) is explained by Whittaker as the outcome of an exclusionist view of religion “as a category of human experience separate unto itself” (36). Her highly welcome initiative here is to review evidence for belief and ritual in MH–LH I contexts classifiable as domestic or funerary.

Chapter 1 (1–37) goes beyond stating the book’s scope to review certain theoretical topics, including the relationship between religion and ideology, the definition of religion (3–10), and the application of cross-cultural parallels and analogies (32–4). Trends in the past study of Helladic religion are also reviewed (11–32), although Evans’ influence on Nilsson’s and Persson’s syntheses is not considered.

Chapter 2 (38–71) reviews the transition from the complex Early Helladic (EH) II societies to the MH world, with sober discussion of such controversial topics as the “coming of the Greeks” (39–55). The interesting possibility that a part of the MH population may have been nomadic (55–62; originally M. Hielte, “Sedentary Versus Nomadic Life-Styles: The ‘Middle Helladic People’ in Southern Balkan, Late 3rd & First Half of the 2nd Millennium BC,” ActaArch 75 [2004] 27–94) is difficult to argue positively. While acknowledging the EH II–III watershed, Whittaker allows for possible continuity in tomb types and the practice of intramural burial (61–71), although similar types may have concealed quite different ideas and mortuary beliefs. The EH III/MH Kynortion pit (69–70), dug into EH II settlement debris, supports rupture; the character of Mount Lykaion, cited as evidence for EH II–Hellenistic cult continuity (69), is unclear before LH IIB.

Chapter 3 (72–129) discusses evidence for religion during MH. Besides isolated finds not suggestive of any common pattern, such as double axe–shaped simulacra (Lerna) and similar pendants (Kastroulia) and figurines (Lerna, Ayios Stephanos, Eleusis) or possible cult places (Nisakouli, Kynortion, Malthi), Whittaker highlights evidence for beliefs that may be concealed in household or mortuary contexts. The association of hearths or intramural burial with ritual action in domestic context is plausible, although not certain: there is the underrated probability that burials considered “intramural” were in fact located in abandoned houses (89). Positive evidence exists for widespread beliefs regarding afterlife sustenance (as food/drink offerings suggest), the practice of funerary meals, and perhaps necrophobia. Composite vessels are discussed as possibly intended for ritual use (87–8). Evidence for ritual in burial tumuli is extensively discussed (92–116). With few exceptions (e.g., the “solar” symbolism of tumuli [96–7]), Whittaker’s discussion of these monuments is sound and well supported (e.g., the ingenious proposal that pithoi or built structures allude to the domestic sphere [111]). The concluding discussion of MH society (116–22) is admirably balanced, a refreshing counter to the image of stagnation, poverty, and dullness, and it is followed by a short assessment (122–29) of those features that make Kolonna on Aegina highly atypical (e.g., the warrior “shaft grave” and the remarkable “Large Building Complex” used throughout MH and LH I–II). Whittaker’s account is well put, although certain points, such as the putative tumulus covering the “shaft grave” (124) or Kolonna sharing MH values (129), can raise objections.

Chapter 4 (130–46) reviews late MH developments, unsurprisingly focusing on the rise of unprecedented funerary ostentation. A lack of interest in exploiting ritual as a power resource is argued on negative evidence, despite positive evidence for elite funerary rituals possibly serving similar ends (145–46).

Chapter 5 (147–206) discusses evidence for religion during LH I, focusing on evidence from two Argolid sites: Mycenae Shaft Graves (predominantly Grave Circle A) and the Kynortion ash altar. Whittaker’s discussion of Grave Circle A is the first general account to integrate the data revealed by Stamatakis’ notebooks and recent analyses of human remains. Military/hunting prowess is intensely advertised in male burials, and the hypothetical identification of those two without weapons (Grave III) as ritual specialists (166; cf. O.T.P.K. Dickinson et al., “Mycenae Revisited Part 4: Assessing the New Data,” BSA 107 [2012] 175) is interesting. The religious role of women was also emphasized in burial, as indicated by the grave goods from Grave III. The gold masks, now shown to have accompanied both male and female burials, plausibly reflect some belief related to the “continuing existence of the individual beyond the grave” (169), but, if so, we must consider why not all burials have them. She interprets the deposition of weaponry in LH I Mycenae and the Kynortion site as evidence for “militarization of religion” (197), which contributed to the spectacular rise of Mycenae in the Argolid (189–99). Whittaker proposes a selective appropriation of Minoan/Minoanizing elements stimulated by the appeal of Minoan strategies of political manipulation of religious beliefs (198), but it must be underscored that the shaft graves also included non-Cretan exotica.

Although discussion of many aspects is thought-provoking, the question of how representative Grave Circle A is of the LH I mainland is barely asked. Rich burials occur broadly at the time, but the degree of elaboration apparent in Grave Circle A is unparalleled, masks are unique to Mycenae, and the cut “shaft grave” type occurs mainly in the Argolid during LH I. Sites other than Mycenae are only summarily considered (200–6), and this is an important omission. Regionalism and diversity is a key feature of the Early Mycenaean funerary record that Whittaker’s discussion focuses on. Messenia, for instance, presents some distinctly local traits in LH I, such as the proliferation of tholos tombs (203) or the bending of swords (133), and it would have been extremely profitable to look into their significance regarding, say, the homogeneity of contemporary traditions.

The short concluding chapter (207–9) may have been the most appropriate place for attempting to synthesize the data discussed and review diachronic changes. This is not really attempted, although a convenient summary of the main points is offered. An appended descriptive catalogue of MH and Early Mycenaean tumuli (147–206) facilitates intimacy with certain lesser-known sites but includes certain doubtful examples (Kokkolata), monuments that may be remains of tholos tombs (Samikon A and Makryssia), and Messenian examples not yet excavated (for caution in using such data, cf. R. Hope Simpson, “Interdisciplinary Survey in Messenia, Southwest Peloponnese, Greece,” Geoarchaeology 22 [2007] 114–18).

Although Sven von Hofsten’s very good drawings provide considerable compensation (but fig. 13 might give the false impression that figure-of-eight shields were almost flat), the scarcity of artifact illustrations will cause difficulty with those readers not already familiar with the material discussed.

Minor criticisms aside, Whittaker managed to produce a thought-provoking work offering many valuable sidelights into MH and Early Mycenaean ideologies. As the first serious attempt to address at length such an inherently difficult topic, her book is likely to remain a discernible marker in the study of Aegean religion, thereby deserving thorough consideration and response.

Vassilis Petrakis
Section of Greek and Roman Antiquity
National Hellenic Research Foundation
Institute of Historical Research

Book Review of Religion and Society in Middle Bronze Age Greece, by Helène Whittaker

Reviewed by Vassilis Petrakis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 4 (October 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1194.Petrakis

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