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Beyond the Polis: Rituals, Rites, and Cults in Early and Archaic Greece (12th–6th Centuries BC)

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

Beyond the Polis: Rituals, Rites, and Cults in Early and Archaic Greece (12th–6th Centuries BC)

Edited by Irene S. Lemos and Athena Tsingarida (Études d’archéologie 15). Brussels: Centre de Recherches en Archéologie et Patrimoine 2019. Pp. 302. €80. ISBN 9782960202922 (paper).

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This book, a collection of essays from the proceedings of the conference “Beyond the Polis: Ritual Practices and the Construction of Social Identity in Early Greece (12th–6th Centuries BC)” held at the Free University of Brussels 24–26 September 2015, focuses on rituals and religious practices in the Greek world (the mainland, Cyclades, Crete, and Sicily) from the end of the Bronze Age to the sixth century BCE. This would usually be regarded as the period of polis formation, but “beyond the polis” in the title suggests a different thematic focus, described by one contributor as temporally “before” the polis, structurally “beneath” it, or geographically “outside” it, as in the case of regional sanctuaries (17). The 17 essays are organized into four sections: one on theoretical considerations, two longer series of case studies, and a final short section on bioarchaeological approaches. The quality of the individual contributions and the insight they provide on recent approaches and important discoveries will make the book required reading for students of Greek religion.

The theoretical section gets underway with François de Polignac focusing on the sanctuaries of Amphiaraos at Oropos, Apollo at Kalapodi, and Apollo Ptoios in Boeotia. These cases illustrate moving beyond the polis in chronological and spatial terms. Although decidedly a polis-period foundation (ca. 420 BCE), the sanctuary of Amphiaraos occupies a no-man’s-land between Athens and Boeotia and cannot be regarded as a territorial landmark of either side. De Polignac sees private initiative rather than state action as the prime mover in this case, with the sanctuary operating at a level “beneath” the polis (18–19). The two other cases, both sanctuaries of Apollo from earlier periods, are seen as operating at threshold geographic situations on important land routes connecting different regions. The author proposes a changing role for Kalapodi and the Ptoion, from central places to border zones, as neighboring poleis consolidated their territories and took a firmer hand with these sanctuaries in the sixth century BCE (21). Readers familiar with de Polignac’s earlier connection between sanctuary activity in the eighth century BCE and the rise of the polis will find a much more nuanced presentation here. Matthew Haysom’s contribution deals more explicitly with theoretical approaches and definitions of ritual and religion, particularly as they have been applied in the more challenging reconstruction of Aegean prehistory. The distinction that past scholars such as Colin Renfrew have made between a more diffuse and safe label “ritual” and a more specific concept of “religion,” Haysom argues, has trapped the debate in modern definitions poorly suited to the realities of the ancient world (54). Haysom instead employs Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion as a framework for symbolic actions, establishing special moods outside normal experience, in a case study of religious spaces at Karphi on Crete. This study encourages a dialogue between the alien religious practices of the Bronze Age and the more familiar religious system of Classical-era Crete (55–62). The other paper in the methodological section, by Birgitta Eder, functions more as a general historical survey of sanctuary activity from the Late Bronze to the Early Iron Age (1300–900 BCE) but brings into discussion the polis by proposing a sixth-century decline of some sanctuaries as state territories emerged (41, 43). This lays the groundwork for the case studies of the next two sections.

A good place to begin is with the four papers focusing on the recent discovery of the “Ritual Zone” at Lefkandi. The authors (Lemos, Caroline Thurston, Alex Mulhall, and Alexandra Livarda and Georgia Kotzamani) consider architectural features, terracotta figurines, animal bones, and plants to present a cumulative picture of ritual activity in the 12th–10th centuries BCE, the earliest period considered in the volume. This example raises a host of issues, some anticipated by Haysom, concerning how prehistorians identify ritual without written records or established architectural types such as temples. At Lefkandi, there are three structures with unusual features (clay drums and raised platforms), signs of feasting, and some sort of ritual expressed by figurines and burnt deposits (75–79). From parallels Lemos draws for ritual activity at other contemporary sites, we can say that the Ritual Zone is distinctive for its location near what may be a fortification wall, suggesting a symbolic meaning to the community (85–86), and a large figurine assemblage of unusual types (92–93). 

Mary Voyatzis’ contribution deals with another recent field project, the sanctuary of Zeus at Mount Lykaion, and it briefly alludes to the earlier history of the site (Mycenaean pottery and radiocarbon-dated bones, 136–38) before concentrating on the Early Iron Age, when Lykaion became a sanctuary of regional significance, drawing participants at first from proximate Arkadia and eventually Laconia and Messenia. The paper ends with a comparison of Lykaion and Olympia; ash altars served as the religious focus at both sites, and the mountain may have prefigured Olympia as a Panhellenic sanctuary (143–45).

Alexandra Alexandridou anchors her contribution on the sanctuary of Apollo at Despotiko later in the formative period of the polis, during the Geometric period. Apsidal Building O and a building replacing it yielded animal bones, pottery, metal items, and figurines suggesting cultic feasting in honor of a female deity or deities (198–200). Despotiko seems to have functioned as an extra-urban sanctuary marking Parian territory, with the special twist that the frontier is a small island two steps removed from the political center (205–7). Another paper, by Ioannis (Yangos) Chalazonitis, focuses on votives at the sanctuary of Artemis on Thasos, a sixth-century foundation roughly contemporary with the establishment of the polis and physically placed near a gate in the original city plan, an expression of civic importance analogous to the Ritual Zone and fortification wall at Lefkandi (149–52). This study of the votive assemblage showcases one of the strengths of classical archaeology in its access to textual evidence such as the cult titles of Artemis as she was worshiped at Thasos (i.e., Polo, Hekate, and Eileithyie). Chalazonitis makes a compelling case for reading the votives as expressions of childhood rites of passage in different symbolic terms for girls (weaving instruments) and boys (drinking paraphernalia) and then extends the argument with a close reading of the votives from two more sanctuaries on the mainland opposite Thasos with links to the Thasian assemblage (152–67). The modification of the de Polignac paradigm here is that the Artemis sanctuary emerges as the heart of a wider religious system connecting an island center to its mainland frontiers. 

The last three papers noted here stand apart from the rest. They deal with rituals outside sanctuary contexts and have a common focus on the polis and its social constituents. Reine-Marie Bérard’s contribution is the only one dealing with Magna Graecia and the only study of funerary practices. It connects the planned cemetery spaces of Megara Hyblaea, their inclusiveness with respect to the burials of children, and a general absence of patterning with regard to social structure to the egalitarian principles of the polis. Family units are the primary actors in this study, and the conclusions regarding the construction of social identities for women and children in this colonial setting are far-reaching. The tombs signal most clearly an indigenous or hybrid identity in the case of children provided with Italian dress pins and whose burials conform to native traditions (252–54). The last two papers to be noted here, Gudrun Klebinder-Gauss on the Westkomplex at Kolonna (Aegina) and Tsingarida and Didier Viviers on the funerary complex at Itanos (Crete), both deal with rituals, memory, and ancestors in similar ways and nearly the same period (sixth and fifth centuries BCE); they can almost be read as companion pieces. At Kolonna, the special characteristics of feasting include the location of the building in a former funerary landscape, with at least one standing Protogeometric grave marker, and the religious dimensions represented by burnt offerings and miniature vessels. Those feasting in the Westkomplex arguably belonged to subdivisions of the polis—phratries, tribes, clans, or some other kinship group—and regarded the tombs as ancestors (117–19). Tsingarida and Viviers apply the same attention to archaeological context in their explanation of a feasting building (which they call the “Funerary Complex”) with a strange location in the midst of a cemetery. Participants feasted and performed rituals at the site of two earlier tombs marked by cooking pots (219–26). The authors interpret the building as a place of ancestor worship and see the participants as elite members of extended lineage groups. But the social model they propose is not fully resolved, for the same elites that revered ancestors here downplayed elite status in austere andreia mess halls and left no archaeologically detectable burials of their own in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, suggesting an effort to de-emphasize membership in prominent families (229–39).

This review is intended to give a sense of the range of topics treated in the volume, though it could not cover them all. As a whole, the book challenges us to take a harder look at how we define rituals and religion in the archaeological record. It also provides an initial assessment of important new discoveries, and for both reasons it will have lasting value for students of Greek religion in its formative stages.

Brice Erickson
Classics Department
University of California at Santa Barbara

Book Review of Beyond the Polis: Rituals, Rites, and Cults in Early and Archaic Greece (12th–6th Centuries BC), edited by Irene S. Lemos and Athena Tsingarida
Reviewed by Brice Erickson
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Erickson

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