Myths as theoretical models for religious identity in ancient Greece

Room:    Auditorium 2
Time:      13:30–17:45
Format: Standard paper session
Organisers: Signe Barfoed (University of Oslo) – Søren Handberg (University of Oslo) – Ada Nifosi (University of Kent)

The theme of this session, “Myths as theoretical models for religious identity in ancient Greece”, concerns the relationship between cultural memory theory and mythology. Based on Jan Assmans’ (2011) proposition that, “cultural memory transforms factual into remembered history, thus turning it into myth”, the topic of this session will address how this theoretical framework can be related to ritual behaviour, practices, and identity in ancient Greece.

As Assmann suggested, cultural memory is imbued with an element of the sacred, which could be expressed in a religious festival. The ceremony of a festival keeps the past alive and provides a basis for identity creation for the participating groups. Consequently, according to Assmann, such planned ceremonies and repetitive events, which also include texts, dances, and images, help shape memory.

The aim of this session is to explore how/if myths can function as a model for religious identity and how this might be recognized in the archaeological record. Can ancient Greek myths serve as a framework for understanding the specific ritual behaviour in local and regional cults? How can we perceive religious identity of specific ethnic or civic groups in the face of changing group affiliations and flexible ritual behaviour?

Speakers are invited to present on topics related to the interconnectivity of myth, cultural memory, and religious identity, for example by looking at:

  • aspects exploring the connection between theory and mythology
  • cultural memory as embodied in ritual/cult (foundation deposits, ritual breakage of votives, etc.)
  • cult related to and expressed in specific myths
  • civic and/or ethnos identity
  • material and iconographical analyses relating to (regional/local) myths
  • any combination of the above

Funded by the research group “The Ancient Mediterranean: Archaeology, History, and Society”, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, UiO

1. Chosen glory or chosen trauma? Cultural memory and ritual visitation to abandoned defensive settlements on Crete

Author(s): Sarah Bell (Brown University)

In mainland Greece, the break between the Age of Bronze and the Age of Iron is held to have created a “crisis of legitimacy” in the Greek sociopolitical world—one which required connections to an ancestral or even mythical past to overcome (Antonaccio 2016, 119). Cults that arose in association with visitation to monumental Bronze Age architecture in this area have, thus, been interpreted as being motivated by a desire on the part of a rising elite to legitimate their authority and status through association with heroic ancestors. This interpretation has been similarly applied to episodes of post-abandonment visitation dating to this period on the island of Crete at monumental sites like Knossos, Phaistos, and Agia Triada. A second category of architectural remains also attracted post-abandonment visitation on the island during this period, however. These were the so-called “defensive” or “refuge” settlements which were established in remote mountainous locations, particularly in eastern Crete, immediately following the “collapse” that occurred around 1200 BCE. This paper suggests that “chosen glories” were not the only basis upon which cultural memory was constructed during this pivotal period of history on the island. “Chosen traumas”, or the communally held and perpetuated memories of difficult pasts, also had a profound effect on the creation and perpetuation of post-collapse identity through ritual activities at abandoned Bronze Age sites.

2. How to become a god’: Menelaus’ previewed deification in the Odyssey

Author(s): Ronald Blankenborg (Radboud University)

This contribution argues for the identification of a glimpse of mysticism-into-cult in the announcement of the deification of Menelaus in Homer’s Odyssey. The wording of the conditions and circumstances of this previewed apotheosis provide a necessary addition to the well-known epic aetiology behind the cultism connected to locations and monuments.

In Odyssey 4.561-569 the ‘old man of the sea’ Proteus allegedly predicts the deification of Menelaus, who is alive at the time of the prediction, divulges the announcement of his deification, and claims to have been the sole witness of Proteus’ utterance. In his rendering of the announcement, he is careful to list the conditions: his deification is divinely initiated, to be considered a form of reward as it contradicts the troubles of humanity, and subject to his close contact with gods, especially his divine spouse Helen (Foley 2001; Allen 2006; Nagy 2016; Edmunds 2019). From archaeological, and literary and documentary evidence it has become sufficiently clear that both Menelaus and Helen were worshipped in Sparta as cult figures (Burkert 1985), the heroes and heroines reminiscent of the main characters of Homeric epic, and so often rationalised back to in genealogical and antiquarian epic (Larson 1995; Ratinaud-Lachkar 2000; Rozokoki 2011). Whereas the Homeric epic suggest the cultic status of locations and (grave) monuments (e.g. Achilles’ future tomb, Od. 24.80-84), Helen and her husband are the only heroes to be not only divine or deified, but also to be ‘prayed to as gods’ (cf. Od. 15.181).

I will show that Menelaus’ predicted deification as a cult-hero is a unique instalment of the procedure that links the development of heroism to mysticism and cultism in practice.

3. Herakles through a hypoleptic frame

Author(s): Amy C. Smith (University of Reading)

Herakles eludes much scholarship on religion because he was neither strictly Olympian nor explicitly local. Surveys and analyses of his mythic persona consider his disparate cultural contexts but skirt around or merely accept his contradictory nature, as clarified by Kirk, Loraux, and Padilla. Adapting Assmann’s concept of hypolepsis, ‘new form[s] of cultural continuity and coherence’, I will read the hero’s contradictory nature as the essence of his importance in religious practice as well as myth throughout Greece. A hypoleptic frame makes it clear that: (1) Herakles’ contradictory nature enables and encourages hypolepsis; (2) the evolution of his mythic persona is a recursive process that feeds on the interplay of repetition (tradition) and variation (hypolepsis); (3) the hypoleptic nature of cultural memory ensures simultaneously the reception of new adaptations and adherence to tradition. This evolution of cultural memory is evidenced through a mélange of material and textual sources attesting ritual practice. Herakles’ pivotal role at Troy, which earned him the epithet Kallinikos, for example, was celebrated in dances at Athens and elsewhere, repeated in theatrical contexts, and alluded to by generations of dynasts, particularly in the East, who used this epithet to affiliate themselves with this hero par excellence. Other groups adapted Herakles’ processional activities associated with his erga and travels, not least in service to King Eurystheus to religious practice, for example, at Eleusis. In viewing Herakles’ contradictory nature through a hypoleptic frame, therefore, I seek to understand and explain manifestations of Herakles’ mythic persona in cult and religious practice.

4. Shaping identities and creating memories on the Acropolis of Athens

Author(s): Ioannis Mitsios (University of Athens)

There is no denial that the Acropolis formed the religious center of the city of Athens. It was on the Acropolis where the greatest religious festivals — such as the Panathenaia, the Plynteria and the Kallynteria — took place and, most importantly, Athena, the patron goddess of the city, was worshiped. From all the temples and sanctuaries on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion was undoubtedly the most sacred and important of all. Besides Athena, on the Erechtheion (and its wider area) several other gods and heroes received cult, including Erechtheus, Boutes, Hephaistos, Pandrosos and Kekrops. It was on the area of the Erechtheion where the contest of Athena and Poseidon for the city of Athens took place and in its wider topography were the martyria of the gods: Athena’s olive tree and Poseidon’s trident. Most importantly, in the Erechtheion was placed the sacred xoanon of the goddess, a sacred relic from the distant past fallen from the sky.

In my paper, by employing and interdisciplinary approach — taking into consideration the literary sources, the iconographic, epigraphic and topographic evidence, in close relation to the historical and ideological context — I will examine the identity aspects of the Athenian heroes who received cult on the Acropolis of Athens, with special emphasis on the ideology of autochthony. Additionally, I will examine the Erechtheion, as a “lieux de mémoire”, a place of memory connected with the Athenian mythical past.

5. Striking Thessalian identity: the cult of Poseidon Petraios and the myth of the first horse

Author(s): Rosanagh (Rosie) Mack (University of Reading)

The cult of Poseidon Petraios is only attested in Thessaly. According to Herodotos, 7.129.4, the Thessalians believed that originally their land was under water, but Poseidon clove the mountains at Tempe with his trident, allowing the water to escape to the sea, leaving the fertile plains. Literary sources also relate that Poseidon created the first horse, Skyphios, in Thessaly, either through striking a rock with his trident or through an emission of semen. The sources for the myth of Skyphios are problematic as they are much later and not Thessalian. However, a series of coins struck in the fifth and fourth century BC in the name ‘of the Thessalians’ clearly depicts this event: a horse emerging from rocks on the obverse, and a sprouting cereal grain on the reverse. These coins are important as there is no extant evidence of this Thessalian myth in other visual media. In this paper, I will analyse the iconography of the coinage together with the sources for the myths relating to Poseidon Petraios, the festival of the Petraia, and evidence from the archaeological record regarding Thessalian identity. These coins have been seen as evidence of a federal body of Thessalians, but this should not be assumed, and neither should we presume that these coins represented all Thessalians. We must also consider that smaller groups might also have made claims of ethnicity relevant to local legends. The paper will discuss these questions and seeks to illuminate the role played by these myths in the cultural memory of the Thessalians and the construction of their ethnic identity.

6. The mystery cult of Despoina in Lycosura: the role of symbols as a medium of the collective religious identity creation

Author(s): Sotiria Dimopoulou (University of Münster)

This paper, based on my dissertation about the Cult Group from Lycosura, aims to present the role of the symbols to the mystery cult of Despoina in Lycosura in the region of Arcadia, Peloponnese. It will be discussed how the symbols, preserved by the archaeological findings, the philological and epigraphical sources can affect the collective religious identity of the participants in the Mysteries of Despoina. In order to understand the secret character of this cult combined with the worship of Artemis, Demeter and Anytos, it will be examined how far the attributes that accompanied the divines visualized myths and traditions of the past and affected the religious conscience and thought.

Very important factor of interpreting such ritual practices in secret cults is not only the literary tradition but also the religious beliefs that have been approached under the members of a close religious community. Festivals and ritual ceremonies, accompanied by strict clothing or sacrifice regulations compose the need of the revival of the mythological past as a part of a religious life. How can one interpret the various and diverse cult objects, such as torches, snakes, or dancing human beings on animal masks? Are we talking about a specific cult tradition, or a combination of religious myths based on experiences of the past?

7. Myths, genealogies, and cults of Pan in forming the Arcadian identity

Author(s): Thomas A. Husøy (Swansea University)

In this paper, I will look at the role of the myths, cults, and genealogies of Pan in the construction of the Arcadian regional identity. Arcadia makes up the mountainous inland region of the Peloponnese and likely formed as a regional identity group in the Archaic period, possibly with the basis of three smaller regions; Parrhasia, Azania, and eastern Arcadia. Another factor contributing to identity formation is outside pressure, as it is in contact with others cultural differences and memories become more important. The Archaic period saw increasing influence for both the Spartans and Eleans, which may have contributed to the unification of the three regions into the Arcadians. Therefore, the focus will be on how we can perceive the changing religious identity in light of Arcadia’s changing group affiliations and ritual behaviours. It will be argued that the various Arcadian genealogies, myths, and sacred sites of Pan allow us to understand the local and regional significance of the great god Pan. The myths and the genealogies of Pan may represent a cultural memory of the three regions as incorporated into Arcadia.

8. Maenads in minds: Using cognitive theories to explore the role of cultural memory in the creation of maenadic ritual experience

Author(s): Vivienne McGlashan (University of Bristol)

Every two years across ancient Greece, women came together in groups to perform a night-time dance ritual for Dionysos. Their dance took the form of a representation of the maenads, the devoted female followers of Dionysos who dance across countless sympotic vessels and are embodied most vividly in the joyous choral songs of Euripides’ Bakchai. For the women who performed this ritual, these role-models were not simply figures from myth but a shared cultural concept stretching back into the quasi-mythical early history of Greece. Diodorus described them as ‘the women who, history tells us, accompanied the god in the old days’; Pausanias visited the tomb of one such maenad who died in Dionysos’ war against the Argives.

Under Assman’s cultural memory theory, such ritual representation reaffirmed the link between this ancient age and the present; cultural memory not only informed ritual practice but affected the lived experience of practitioners, forming a dynamic relationship between participants and role models. But the question of the extent to which maenadic ritual created a new religious identity for participants has perplexed scholars for generations, with interpretations ranging from a complete ‘loss of self’ to a dry and bloodless ‘faking it’.

This presentation explores the interaction between role-play and cultural memory using models drawn from the cognitive studies, including narrative immersion, meta-awareness, and predictive processing. From narrative immersion theories we will establish that performance creates a self-contained narrative world in which everyday identities and boundaries become blurred. Neurological studies suggest that role-play splits cognitive resources, sharing them between two concurrently-held identities. Predictive processing offers a model of how cultural knowledge directly affects how we interpret data to generate experience. Drawing together these theories, I will show how a ritual participant’s cultural knowledge informed her ritual experience, quite literally creating for herself a new religious identity.