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Devotionalism, Material Culture, and the Personal in Greek Religion

K.A. Rask
p. 9-40


Despite emphasis on public, ritual-centered aspects of ancient practice, Greek images and objects attest to private and personal encounters with divinities. This paper uses archaeological evidence to explore personal, lived features of ancient Athenian religious life. Although sometimes described as ‘transactional’, the development of personal relationships with the gods, together with the manipulation of material things, appears to be one of the most prominent elements in Greek religious experience. This paper examines religious materiality and devotional behavior as it existed outside of organizing systems, ritual, and sacred space. Greek evidence suggests that material culture was ‘religion’ in physical form, part of devotees’ methods for developing remarkably intimate relationships with holy figures in a process termed ‘devotionalism.’ Athenian women used a commonplace item from daily life as a form of religious media: the tainia (ribbon). Women employed them in all the places of their lives, including homes, festival sites, and shrines. Pottery also suggests that Athenians employed such devotional media to interact with the deceased in cemeteries.

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Full text document will be published online on October 2018.


Defining Greek Religion, Personal Experience,
and Votive Religion
Personal Religion and Acceptable Interactions with Gods
Personal Religious Experience in Greece
Devotionalism, Material Religion, and Divine Presence
Devotionalism in Classical Greece
Devotees in a Material World: Archedamus and Pantakles
A Case Study: Fabric Garlands, Everyday Life, and Relationships with the Invisible Dead
Final Conclusions

First lines


In the late twentieth century, the general consensus among scholars of Greek religion held ritual to be the central, most powerful act. According to Marcel Detienne, for nearly ten centuries, guided by immutable cultic statutes, the Greeks never failed to maintain relations with the divine powers through the highly ritualized killing of animal victims… Yet the longevity and coherence that Detienne saw in ritual can likewise be found in the individual practice of leaving objects in shrines. Some archaeologists, faced with thousands upon thousands of physical offerings (a number that dramatically increases with every excavation), characterized Greek practice as “votive religion.

Many studies of Greek religion have glossed over personal devotion and instead emphasized ritualization and the social forces at work underlying Greek practice. It has been difficult for some excavators to fully embrace these models because the very method of inquiry directs our attention to arti...

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Bibliographical reference

K.A. Rask, « Devotionalism, Material Culture, and the Personal in Greek Religion », Kernos, 29 | 2016, 9-40.

Electronic reference

K.A. Rask, « Devotionalism, Material Culture, and the Personal in Greek Religion », Kernos [Online], 29 | 2016, Online since 01 October 2018, connection on 24 March 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/kernos.2386

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About the author

K.A. Rask

Duquesne University

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