In Sparta they sacrificed puppies for Ares. In Colophon the goddess Hecate got a little black dog, while it was inferred that Helios, the sun god, would rather the animals killed in his honour were white. Once a year on Mykonos, a sheep and ten lambs were offered to the river Achelous: the sheep and two of the lambs were sacrificed at the altar, the other eight lambs in the river. In Paestum, Hera, goddess of marriage, was offered uxorious geese. Visitors to the shrine of Persuasion (Peitho) on the island of Thasos in the northern Aegean were advised that it was forbidden to offer the goddess a goat or a pig. But pigs were the preferred offerings to Demeter and her daughter Persephone; all around the classical Mediterranean, archaeologists have come to realise that a layer of pork chops means they have stumbled on a sanctuary of the goddesses of agriculture. Unusually careful sifting of the earth in Demeter’s sanctuary in Corinth, however, revealed that her worshippers were also fond of fish, although it is not probable that they sacrificed them to the goddess before eating them – hard to tell with fishbones. A tuna was certainly sacrificed to Poseidon in the Attic parish of Halai. And someone or other was so proud of the big fish he offered to Zeus Pankrates – discovered in 1952 and now buried under the statue of Harry Truman in Athens – that he commissioned a stone frieze to mark the occasion. Well, it could be a fish or it could be a large Cornish pasty – the sculptor was not a master of his art.
In Rome on 15 October, they sacrificed one of the horses of a winning chariot team and then cut off its head and garlanded it with loaves: the October Horse. The horse’s blood was kept, and then mixed with the ashes of an unborn calf removed by the most senior of the Vestal Virgins from its mother’s womb when the cow was sacrificed to the goddess Earth on 15 April. A week after that, the mixture of horse blood and burned cow foetus was sprinkled on bonfires lit in honour of the god(dess) Pales. Sheep and shepherds were encouraged to jump through the fires to purify themselves. The Spartans meanwhile sacrificed a horse ‘to the winds’ at the top of Mount Taygetus, the winds carrying the ashes to all four corners of their territory. And the people of Rhodes sent an entire four-horse chariot team into the sea in honour of the chariot-driving Sun, their patron divinity.
Sacrifice generally took place not in temples but out of doors. Altars could be huge staired monuments in the shape of a squared U, like the gigantic Altar of Zeus from Pergamum which takes up one (enormous) room in Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum. More often they were minimal affairs, a small block of stone with a garland sculpted on it. Theoretically, each cult for each metaphysical entity had its own separate altar. So it was notable that Heracles shared his altar with his beloved Iolaus, called his symbomos or ‘altar-sharer’. It would seem that the curious lingam-like mounds known as ‘navel’ or ‘boss’ (omphalos) characteristic of the cult of Apollo could also be used as altars. They were generally dressed with a net of what look like knotted sheets.
Most of these altars were not slaughter tables so much as markers of slaughter sites, although it seems to have been a requirement that some of the blood from the dying animal was used to redden the stone, hence ‘blood-sacrifice’. They were also fireplaces for holy barbecues. Mostly inedible pieces of the animal – head, thigh bones, spinal column and tail – were burned for the gods; tastier pieces were roasted on prongs, like marshmallows on a beach, for human consumption; the valuable animal skins were often reserved for priests and/or sold; many exceptions tested these rules.
Not all material offerings to the gods involved animals. Among the commonest were libations of wine, poured from a phiale, a bowl of oriental lotus-petal design with a dent in the bottom so you could keep a discreet grip as you tipped it; wreaths woven of certain plants and flowers, worn on some significant occasion; and cakes. Among the most pathetic offerings were clothes of formerly pregnant women, as thanks for relief from labour pains from those who survived, as a grim memorial for those who didn’t. Some sanctuaries published regular inventories of their collections of women’s clothing, with comments on colour, cut and current condition; sometimes we seem to watch a particular garment get gradually more ragged over time.
If you visited Rome in March, you couldn’t fail to notice the 12 Salian priests wearing scarlet and decorated tunics and banging figure-of-eight shields in honour of Mars. Singing a song that no one understood the meaning of, they paraded through the city on several days, stopping at certain places to perform some fancy footwork. Said to be nimble, complex and graceful, the dance included a move called the tripudium, three stamps of the foot so heavy that Catullus worried that if they performed the dance at Colonia they might demolish its bridge. The same triple stamping was included in the rites of the Arval Brethren revived by Augustus, and always thereafter including the reigning monarch among the performers. Perhaps wisely, this dance of grandees took place behind closed doors, in the temple of the goddess Dia. They danced with book in hand while singing the Arval Hymn, in which the brothers called on Mars three times three times, climaxing with five shouts of Triumpe, a unique word that sounds more transparent than it probably was.
Sparta was famous for one dance festival in particular, the Gymnopaidiai (‘bareskin plays’) in honour of Apollo. Ancient commentators couldn’t agree about what these were. Some thought they were nude dances performed in the marketplace to commemorate a great victory or a great defeat. Others said it was a ritual ‘in which the ephebes ran around the altar at Amyclae’ – the great shrine of Apollo and tomb of Hyacinthus – ‘whipping each other on the back’. There was more whipping in the Spartan sanctuary of Orthia (‘Upright’) in a bizarre version of It’s a Knockout, in which ephebes aged under 20 tried to steal cheeses from an altar guarded by young men aged 20 or over. A priestess stood by, holding a little wooden image of the goddess, who was identified with savage Artemis. If the whipping was too restrained and not enough blood was spattering her altar, Artemis would grow impossibly heavy until the floggings improved. In Roman times a theatre was built so that tourists could watch the event. Among those who came was Plutarch; he claims to have seen boys flogged to death. This particular Artemis was so bloodthirsty because she came from the region of Odessa (the ‘Taurians’), where she had grown accustomed to human sacrifice. But her priestess Iphigeneia had stolen the image and brought it to Sparta – or Brauron or Halai or Rhodes. For there was much dispute about who owned the true effigy; the cruelty of the Spartan rite could be seen as a legitimation strategy. All that the people of Halai could offer in support of their claim was that their Artemis was called Tauropolos (‘Bull-hatted’) which sounded a bit like ‘Taurian’; at some point they added a mock human sacrifice to buttress their claim.
Never easy to make sense of, the religion of the Greeks and Romans has just become infinitely more difficult, thanks to the publication of five volumes (plus index) of the Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum, which aims ‘to present scholars with a comprehensive account of all substantial aspects of Greek, Roman and Etruscan religion’, and thereby to overwhelm any attempt at general theory by providing masses of exceptions to the rule. It is the follow-up project of the team that brought us the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, an 18-volume catalogue – each volume in itself capable of provoking a lawsuit if it slipped your grip, as well it might, and fell onto the head of a bottom-shelf browser – of all known images of figures from ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan mythology/religion. Conceived by the late Lilly Kahil in 1969, who drove the project to fruition, it was published at the end of the last century. It allows one to survey something close to all the Greek images of the goddess Aphrodite, for instance, or of Sisyphus or Odysseus’ mother, Anticlea, or to compare and contrast images of the Greek goddess Dawn with her more important Etruscan counterpart, Thesan. It was a bold undertaking and is now universally recognised as one that succeeded magnificently, if expensively and exclusively; only now are moves being made to make it available on the web and to the less than quadrilingual.
The (near) comprehensiveness of the project produced surprises. Not everyone had known that there were quite so many images of a huge, winged lady Dawn raping ephebes, but here they were, page after page of them, or that Sisyphus had been mysteriously involved with Odysseus’ mother, that the first bird to abduct Ganymede was not an eagle but a swan, or that beloved Iolaus was also popular in Etruria, under the name of Vile. By the same measure, some of the myths we had come to see as central and important – the ‘invention’ of sacrifice, the theft of fire, Pandora’s box – seem barely to have figured in the ancient imaginaire (so far as images were concerned). As for the heroes of the Trojan War, the myths mentioned in Homer’s Iliad now seemed measurably less important than the ones he missed out: the judgment of Paris, the rape of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, at Cape Cuttlefish in Thessaly, Achilles’ murderous advances towards Hector’s little brother Troilus, his battle with Memnon ‘the Ethiopian’ over the body of his beloved Antilochus, and some mysterious mythical game of counters he had with Ajax.
What was missing, however, from the Lexicon Iconographicum was some brief cultography: a list of known cults of ‘mythological’ figures, cults of what nature, to the figure in which aspect, when and where. It was this gap that I hoped the ‘comprehensive’ Thesaurus would fill. Unfortunately, the team seems to have been rather more ambitious than that. Flushed with success, they decided to spread a globalising net over the whole massive topic and then to slice its victim up into lots of thematic pieces to be distributed to scholars around the world, 153 of them from 17 countries. The result includes some superb paragraphs, columns and pages by a pantheon of the world’s most learned and intelligent students of ancient religions. Very occasionally, a sub-sub-section even comes close to something like a full catalogue of current evidence for a sub-sub-topic. Organisationally, however, it is a mess, a lesson in how an ambitious international grand projet, supported with oodles of money, eons of scholar-hours and lashings of good will, and concealing within the innumerable nooks of its labyrinthine structure plenty of astute commentary and the occasional mind-blowing map, can nevertheless be a huge disappointment.
But how do you set about dividing such a topic without seeming to mimic Borges’s Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge? First they made one big slice, separating ‘static elements’, such as cult personnel, cult instruments, altars, temples and pictures of temples – vols IV and V – from the level of the ‘dynamic elements’, of activities, which are ‘covered’ in the first three volumes. After that, they sliced up those two named but unnumbered slices into numbered but untitled sub-sections, 1 to 6 for dynamic, 1 to 2 for static. Did no one suggest that a continuous numbering, 1 to 8, might have been a better idea?
The elaborate and emphatic, if unsystematic, structure of the Thesaurus is, of course, continually overwhelmed by the Borgesian resistance of the materials that need to be fitted into it. The sub-chapters on sacrifice include a lot on banquets, altars, music, instruments, prayers, processions and personnel, which are also treated elsewhere, although the man who actually did the sacrificing in Greece, the mageiros, seems to have slipped through the net. I could not find poor little Trojan Troilus, decapitated at an altar-omphalos of Apollo, a sacrilege which led to Achilles’ death, in the Greek list of human sacrifices in myth, although it is perhaps the most central and ubiquitous such myth in Greek art. Instead, he is briefly mentioned at the end of a section on Etruscan human sacrifice. There was no mention at all of sacred prostitutes (hierodouloi) in the ‘Static’ section on cult personnel, but I did find a couple of paragraphs on them in ‘Dynamic 3b: Consecration, Foundation Rites’, alongside holy water and death by lightning.
I had hoped that the index would provide some kind of tug to pull this Titanic to shore, but it turned out to be a list of cities and museums where the objects pictured can be found. Not much hope should be placed in a further index to be published only after a newly announced third level, ‘Synthesis’, has been added to ‘Dynamic’ and ‘Static’, organised according to occasion and daily life. The problem is that the contributors never seem to have reached agreement on some basic questions of what the Thesaurus was supposed to achieve. John Boardman’s introduction claims it is a ‘comprehensive guide’ but he admits that while some of the collections of evidence are nearly complete, ‘in many cases they are highly selective’. There seems to have been not nearly enough cracking of the whip.
What is needed is a much less ambitious volume that simply lists dated testimonies for currently known cults of Ares, certain, probable and possible, or timings, where known, of festivals of Artemis, or days of the month when sacrifice was made to Apollo, or which cities had cults of the White Goddess, Leucothea. Maybe a pattern or two might emerge that we had previously missed. What we have instead in the Thesaurus as it stands is something more like three interleaved companions-cum-sourcebooks of Greek, Etruscan and Roman religion of widely varying levels of partiality in four intransigently interwoven languages and occasional splashings of Latin and Greek.
One could, of course, read the messiness of the Thesaurus as simply a reflection of the inherent messiness of ancient religions despite the best efforts of the best scholars to discover some kind of order. Robert Parker in Polytheism and Society at Athens, his synthetic study of gods and cults in one small but document-rich area, compares the ever-increasing pantheon to an overflowing clothes-drawer, ‘which no one felt obliged to tidy’. Nevertheless, he wants to avoid offering ‘that meaningless parade of many cults which Durkheim feared’.
Parker was snatched, shockingly, from the ranks of Oxford’s tutors in literature to become its Wykeham Professor of Ancient History; his elevation represents something of a belated acknowledgment by the university of the validity of the study of religion as a historical topic. Although, like many others, I was first attracted to the ancient Greeks by way of a primary school project on their gods, I managed to get through twenty years of formal study of them without being taught anything, unless parenthetically, about their beliefs and cult practices. I am pretty sure I got my degree without even a basic understanding of what a sacrifice entailed. Only at the very tail-end of my training, in the early 1990s, did I stumble on a graduate seminar on the subject of religion that Parker had organised with the late, unforgettable Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood. What was immediately apparent then is no less apparent now: Parker’s extraordinary scrupulousness when handling sources and reluctance to leap to conclusions.
The study of Greek religion that flourished so unexpectedly after the Second World War was long dominated by the Paris school of Vernant, Vidal-Naquet and Detienne, and then by Walter Burkert of Zürich, a school in his own right. In each case, immense learning was combined with an intent to see patterns and make sense of them. In the former case the method used was structuralism: relationships of difference and similarity, opposition and identicality, in symbolic objects, myths and activities, with nature and its products – plants, animals, colours, genders and human gestures – viewed as acculturated signs in a language-like synchronic (if centuries-enduring) network. This process was used to find links between, say, Thetis, the cuttlefish, the control of horses and the ‘cunning intelligence’ Athena inherited from her Zeus-eaten mother. It soon became apparent that Burkert took nature’s givenness more seriously, sometimes pushing the evidence rather forcibly in the direction of universalising and sociobiological interpretations; he was not above viewing some rituals – such as homosexual ones – as inheritances from ‘ape prehistory’.
It would be wrong to see Parker as merely a pedant siever of these rivers of Continental discourse, looking for the true gold amid the fools’ sort; he is perfectly capable of writing witty, sharp and thoughtful articles on big, difficult topics such as ‘grace’ (charis), and in his first book managed to find a sure-footed way through the marshlands of miasma. In this book, typically, he manages to include a clear, clever couple of pages on the theory of ritual, flirting with the suggestion that the question ‘how does ritualisation work?’ will replace ‘what do rituals do?’ But he then shruggingly continues with his theme, ‘some of the things that ritual can do’. This may seem like an overly deft, even flippant, deflection of the possibilities of a committed theoretical approach, but to anyone who witnessed his double-act with Sourvinou-Inwood, not a scholar anyone would have accused of methodological flippancy or lack of theoretical commitment, it looks, rather, like one side of a dialogue with a missing discussante, thanked ‘above all’ in the acknowledgments, as well as a desire simply to get on with things. Parker does not seem, thankfully, to have spent too much time thinking about how the subject should be taxonomised, so that chapters generally represent groupings of things rather than ‘sub-divisions of a unitary field’: ‘Things done at festivals’, ‘Women’s festivals’, ‘Parthenoi [Maidens] in ritual’.
On the other hand, carefulness of fact is his characteristic Oxfordian contribution. Before he ventured to try to survey and understand Athenian religion, he first wrote a history of it in 1996, just to be sure that any comparisons he might be tempted to make were between cults that actually coexisted, and many readers will turn to Polytheism and Society for what’s not there as much as for what is, rather as one might revisit the Sistine Chapel after a cleaning. In books about Greek religion, the certain, the probable and the not impossible are often to be found side by side without any marks of discrimination. What is in Parker is, generally speaking, that which is better substantiated.
Ludwig Deubner, for instance, in Attische Feste (1932), included a festival called the Maimakteria in honour of ‘Stormy’ Zeus Maimaktes, because Athens had a Novemberish month called Maimakterion and months were almost always named after festivals, though not necessarily in accordance with the festival’s given name. H.W. Parke, in his popular 1977 handbook of Athenian festivals, followed Deubner’s example, although he noted that this particular festival was not mentioned ‘in popular literature’; in fact, it wasn’t mentioned anywhere at all. Parker has expunged the festival of Stormy Zeus from the record. As it happens, a couple of decades after Deubner, the stormy festival of Maimakteria did indeed turn up, but on the island of Ionian Thasos in the north Aegean. Few would contest that there was at some point an Ionian festival of such a name. Will Parker then be kicking himself if an inscription turns up in Athens, finally confirming Deubner’s presupposition? Probably not. It’s just that his text tends to weight the known knowns to the considerable disadvantage of the may-well-have-beens, and it may emerge that Maimakteria was simply another name for, or a part of, another Novemberish festival held in honour of Zeus, addressed more hopefully as ‘Zeus Be Nice Now’ – Meilichios.
Many, doubtless, will conclude that Parker has overcleaned his canvas, confusing what can’t be proved with what didn’t exist, and/or that he could have done a little more making sense of things had he not been quite so careful. For instance, in a meticulous but necessarily finicky attempt to reconstruct the drunken Dionysian Anthesteria, he concludes that there is evidence for gatherings at the temple of Dionysus-in-the-Marshes on the first and third day of the festival, when there was also, at some point, a competition of big-knobbed comic actors, but not on the second day, which was the only day of the year on which this particular temple was open (and all others closed). One myth that is usually connected to the Anthesteria would seem to offer confirmation of just such a pantomime of now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t frustration, big knobs and all: Dionysus appears as a handsome boy, sends the local yokels mad with an urge for sex, then vanishes, leaving them with intractable erections, eventually transmuted into phallic images to be dedicated to the god. But Parker doesn’t even refer to this myth in his discussion of the festival, and when he does eventually mention it, in a chapter on myth and ritual, insists it has no particular relevance.
Sometimes he seems a little too keen to demolish assumptions, arguing that there is ‘rather little’ truth in ‘the popular modern claim’ that the most important polis festival, the Panathenaea, was seen as a celebration of Athena’s birth from Zeus’ head. But one possible meaning of Athena’s epithet Tritogeneia is ‘third-born’, and the festival was held on the day of the month Athenians, down-counting, called ‘third (of the waning)’, and her birth, after all, was the scene sculpted on the front of the Parthenon, which is decorated, most unusually, with scenes of the Panathenaic procession. Who, processing, would not have made the connection? Alternative theories, to which Parker gives more emphasis, since they seem to be attested earlier, associate the festival with the invention of the chariot by Erichthonius, the first Athenian, earth-born from sperm shot off by Hephaestus and wiped from Athena’s thigh, and with Athena’s killing of an earth-born giant called Star or Starry.
In his scrupulousness, however, Parker neglects to mention that the evidence for Erichthonius as first charioteer comes from a late catalogue of asterisms – he is the constellation Auriga (‘Charioteer’) – and that Athena’s shield, the aegis, sometimes shown decorated with an image of the night sky (we learn from a footnote), is Auriga’s bright shoulder (Capella). Such star myths are usually, for no good reason, considered alien to Greek religion, late superficial additions to the corpus of authentic myth. Given that the Panathenaea was preceded by an all-night festival, the various myths about its origins may have appeared less of a mishmash than Parker would have us believe. We may still be some way from joining the dots up, but we could at least have been told that most of the dots to be joined up had a presence in astrography.
Parker also denies that this was a New Year festival. But he seems to be going too far in making unsense of things here, even forgetting his normal carefulness with sources. An important feature of the Panathenaea, for instance, was a nude streak by ephebes. Lighting their torches at the altar of Eros in the Academy, they raced past the tombs of the great and the good and all those who had died for their country, down through the Dipylon Gate, where vulgar people would gather to slap the laggards and the out-of-puff. From here the ephebes raced through the agora and up the great ramp of the Acropolis to light the altar, probably, of the city goddess, Athena Polias, a little, very old-looking idol, a palladium, that had once fallen from the sky.
Such nude coming-of-age coming-out streaks are known from elsewhere in Greece, and one would assume that these literally ‘blooming’ ephebes are new citizens, who would recently have been paraded in front of their fellow parishioners and the state council to prove that they were ‘not less than 18’. This is more than mere assumption: each batch of new ephebes was known thereafter by the name of the chief magistrate installed in the New Year of the year when they came of age, and Demosthenes states straightforwardly that he passed his citizen-scrutiny ‘immediately after’ a marriage that occurred in the last month of the year. But Parker, keen to desynchronise turning points, puts the coming-of-age, the ‘ephebic New Year’, months after the end of the political New Year and the Panathenaea. By the time these blooming ephebes got to run naked from the altar of Eros they would have been a distinctly faded bunch, and the magistrate from whom their class took its name would no longer have been in office.
Elsewhere, Parker can seem a little too keen to make sense. He accepts, for instance, that the women-only festival of Demeter called Thesmophoria is closely linked to the myth that told how the goddess’s daughter Persephone was snatched by Hades, the god of the Underworld, how Demeter mourned and how her daughter was eventually restored for two-thirds of the year. The myth also told of how a swineherd lost his pigs in the chasm that Hades opened up in the ground, and during the festival, Parker concludes (following Burkert), pigs were deposited in underground pits or ‘chambers’, and the rotted remains of the previous deposit were retrieved to fertilise the crops.
This was another three-day festival, a ritual configuration of Persephone’s tripartite year, and Parker agrees that its middle day, a day of fasting, remembers Demeter’s loss. The problem is that the first day of the festival was called anodos, or ‘Coming Up’, a term that almost always, in this context, refers to Persephone’s return from the Underworld, but ‘she should surely not return on the first day, before a fast.’ ‘Coming up’, therefore, according to Parker, has nothing to do with the myth of the rape and return of Persephone and refers simply to the celebrants going up to the sanctuary of Demeter, ‘set notionally, and often actually, on a high place’. Parker is being far too sensible here; more likely, the festival structurally reversed the order of events in the myth: the fertile rotted pigs must also have been retrieved from ‘the Underworld’ before the new ones went, like Persephone, into the chasm. Which may seem illogical or perverse, but that would not be uncommon either.
That there are things to argue with in a book which is so rich and full should not be surprising. Parker’s carefulness is not mere tentativeness or the dodging of difficult questions. Having thoroughly reviewed the evidence, he is quite prepared to stick his neck out and draw conclusions that many will not expect but which he has decided are necessary. It remains one of the best books I have read on ancient religion and one of the most useful. Which is not necessarily the same thing, as the Thesaurus proves.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.