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Housing the Chosen: The Architectural Context of Mystery Groups and Religious Associations in the Ancient World

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

Housing the Chosen: The Architectural Context of Mystery Groups and Religious Associations in the Ancient World

By Inge Nielsen (Contextualizing the Sacred 2). Pp. xvi + 322, figs. 136, b&w pls. 62. Brepols, Turnhout, Belgium 2014. €120. ISBN 978-2-503-54437-3 (paper).

Reviewed by

Comparison is a complicated task. Done well, it dusts off our perceptions, opens new pathways for investigation, and makes one field or topic accessible to scholars of another. It offers a healthy response to the hypercritical, positivistic approaches that can come from too narrowly relying on one case study or specialization; it is often the unexamined cousin of the interdisciplinarity that has become the de rigueur claim for relevance in the academic world. The risks of comparison are as substantial, however, as the rewards. Overly broad statements and errors of fact lurk when one ventures into multiple topics with complex bibliographies. The enticing analogies that emerge from the view from 30,000 feet are only the first step—if a vital one—toward analyses that problematize the apparent similarities and use them to frame historically contextualized investigations. Paradigms of diffusion and evolution are natural companions of those first glances: these bring their own challenges in a scholarly environment that may tend to dismiss them as 19th- and early 20th-century paradigms.

In Housing the Chosen, Nielsen brings together the evidence for an architecture of religious associations and mystery cults in the Greek and Roman world, with the goal of establishing a typology for initiations and meetings of groups linked by the shared experience of esoteric rites. The topic is timely: studies over the last 15 years in New World, Indian, Polynesian, as well as Mediterranean contexts explore ritual architecture from the perspectives of emerging complexity, phenomenology, and practice theory (G. Schachner, “Ritual Control and Transformation in Middle-Range Societies: An Example from the American Southwest,” JAnthArch 20 [2001] 168–94; P.G. Johansen, “Landscape, Monumental Architecture, and Ritual: A Reconsideration of the South Indian Ashmounds,” JAnthArch 23 [2004] 309–30; B.D. Wescoat and R.G. Ousterhout, eds., Architecture of the Sacred: Space, Ritual, and Experience from Classical Greece to Byzantium [Cambridge 2012]). Surveys and sourcebooks combine textual and material evidence to make the array of secret cults accessible to specialists and to classrooms (H. Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World [Princeton 2010]); J.N. Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World. Münchner Vorlesungen zu Antiken Welten 1 [Berlin 2014]). Scholarly journals have devoted issues to new perspectives on the mystery cults (Religion and Theology 12.3 [2005]; Electronic Antiquity 12.1 [2008]).

Nielsen focuses on the establishment of a typology suitable for both mysteries and religious associations, establishing comparability among the wide range of built structures in which initiations and celebrations of the gods took place. Her thesis is that architecture can provide more objective insight into the functions of mysteries and associations, and the social and religious institutions that created them, than studies based primarily on iconography, epigraphy, or written sources, and that such a study will respond to a general failure to consider the role of architecture in the investigation of Greek and Roman secret rites. She brings together data from an exceptionally diverse range of sites and associations, including Eleusis, Samothrace, Lemnos and Thebes, Dionysian Technitae, Isis and Sarapis, Cybele and Attis, Syrian and Phoenician gods, Dionysos, Mithras, diasporic Jewish groups, and Early Christian church houses. The academic specializations behind these different cults include philosophy, Greek and Roman history, and biblical studies, as well as Greek and Roman epigraphy, archaeology, and architecture: this is an unequivocally ambitious undertaking.

Nielsen divides the different mysteries into categories appropriate for the study’s architectural focus, drawing distinctions between “collective” mysteries, tied to particular places and open to many people, and “individual” mysteries, experienced in more locations and smaller groups. Individual mysteries are further divided into those chiefly connected to sanctuaries of the gods and those performed in a range of locations, often special-purpose rooms outside sanctuary contexts, familiar from the celebrations of Dionysos or Mithras. Collective mysteries are characteristically one-time events for initiates and do not need facilities for regular gatherings; individual mysteries involve regular meetings among the initiates, offering analogy especially to Early Christian and diasporic Jewish groups.

The book’s divisions reflect both chronological and typological distinctions. Part 1 presents the architectural evidence, divided into pre-Hellenistic and Hellenistic and Roman periods. The pre-Hellenistic evidence is covered in chapter 1 on the ancient Near East and Egypt, and chapter 2 on Greek and Italian sites. For the Hellenistic and Roman periods, chapter 3 reviews rooms for religious assemblies inside sanctuaries and chapter 4 rooms for assembly outside of sanctuaries. Part 2 surveys the cultic functions of religious groups; chapter 5 offers synopses of the events postulated for collective and individual mysteries; and chapter 6 presents an overview of the evidence for communal banquets. The conclusion is provided in part 3, in which Nielsen offers a three-part typology for architectural settings that respond to the needs of both mystery groups and religious associations: the temple type, the cave/grotto-type, and the banqueting/house-type. Readers are encouraged to abandon the conception of temples as houses for cult statues and accept that they were multifunctional structures, with cellae that could accommodate religious assemblies, meals, initiations, and celebrations of mysteries. A four-page summary of the dimensions of 168 halls is provided as evidence of their relative spaciousness.

 Nielsen achieves her goal of establishing a typology, and unquestionably she has assembled an enormous range of information. The objectives of the work translate, however, into some challenges for the reader. In method, the content is more descriptive than theoretical; it is characterized throughout by the rapid presentation of archaeological, architectural, literary, epigraphic, and iconographic material from widely diverse regions and chronological periods. Examples of the cave/grotto-type of facilities, for example, range from the artificial grotto Marc Antony built to house a drinking party at Athens to the Cybele sanctuary at Kapikaya and Mithraic caves. Literary sources tend to be referenced uncritically, and the volume is not the place to seek contemporary theoretical debates in architecture, the sociology of secrecy, or the most up-to-date bibliography for each site. The goal of establishing a broad typology does not leave room for the dozens of debates attending the individual cults and sites. The author’s framework for mystery cults relies on generalizations rejected by Burkert (Ancient Mystery Cults [Cambridge, Mass. 1987]). Strong assertions of continuity and development from the Bronze Age into the historical period and of the Oriental roots of Hellenic forms are much in evidence. Connections are made, for example, between the Ugaritic Marzeah groups of the 14th to the sixth centuries B.C.E. and the thiasoi, phratriae, hetairoi, and symposia of the Greek world. Analogous connections are proposed between the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Orphic and Dionysiac gold leaves. There are numerous typographical errors, which are most troubling in the case of ancient names and terms, such as “Oppius” Hill for Oppian Hill (75), or anthrophylakes for antrophylakes (250). While the book does provide a broad perspective, caution is recommended before assigning it for classroom use. The abundance of untranslated specialized terms—such as herdraumtempel, analemmata, and podiumsaal—would challenge most students, and the book would have benefited greatly from a map and a chronological chart locating the sites and cults in space and time.

The reader will be well served, however, by using this book for the purposes the author intended: a broad, ambitious overview, which brings together an impressive array of evidence and illustrations and presents a new typology that seeks to encompass both mysteries and associations. A measure of the lasting value of this collection will be the extent to which this typology can inspire new questions, pursued with rigorous attention to detail and employing the critical paradigms that help close the gap between speculation and testable hypotheses.

Sandra Blakely
Department of Classics
Emory University

Book Review of Housing the Chosen: The Architectural Context of Mystery Groups and Religious Associations in the Ancient World, by Inge Nielsen

Reviewed by Sandra Blakely

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Blakely

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