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The Cosmos in Ancient Greek Religious Experience. Sacred Space, Memory, and Cognition

Ioannis Mylonopoulos
p. 333-338
Référence(s) :

Efrosyni Boutsikas, The Cosmos in Ancient Greek Religious Experience. Sacred Space, Memory, and Cognition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020. 1 vol. 17,8 × 25,4 cm, 278 p. ISBN : 978-1-108-48817-4.

Texte intégral

  • 1 On the importance of the night, see, however, A. Chaniotis (ed.), La Nuit. Imaginaire et réalités (...)

1The richly illustrated volume represents the probably first serious attempt to bring astronomy, the perception of real and cosmic time, and the nocturnal experience1 of cults and cult places into the discussion about religion and sacred space. It consists of seven chapters—two of which are the introduction and the conclusions—an appendix, a glossary, notes, bibliography, and an index. Between p. 144 and p. 145 the volume contains a series of color plates that duplicate some of the black-and-white figures found in the text.

  • 2 See also E. Winter, Zeitzeichen. Zur Entwicklung und Verwendung antiker Zeitmesser, Berlin, 2013.

2In Chapter One (“Introduction”, p. 1–12), the A. defines clearly the chronological and geographical frame of her study; considered are sacred edifices from the seventh to the first century BCE in mainland Greece, the Greek islands, and Asia Minor. Although Sicily and Cyprus are also addressed, they play a less important role in the book. Sacred sites in Southern Italy and the Black Sea area are not mentioned. Although ancient Greek calendars have long been researched, the A. is right in emphasizing that in most studies, ritual activity is discussed as if it were timeless. She is also right in pointing out that, although nocturnal rituals are known and have been studied, the actual effects of the night and of the diminished or artificial light and the night sky as an important religious point of reference have rarely been addressed adequately. It seems that astronomical knowledge informed cult activity far more intensively than we assumed and the interconnectedness of the (night) sky and religious life can be easily confirmed by the presence of sundials, parapegmata, and other astronomical devices on public display in sacred sites.2 The A. refers, albeit too briefly, to the importance of the field of archaeoastronomy in the understanding of religion in general and rituals in particular. Towards the end of the chapter (p. 11), the A. rightly emphasizes that the spatial turn in the study of Greek sanctuaries did guide us towards a better and more nuanced understanding of sacred space in its terrestrial landscape, but the inclusion of the skyscape has rarely—if ever—been attempted.

  • 3 On movement, see most recently M. Dromain and A. Dubernet (eds.), Les ruines résonnent encore de (...)
  • 4 See, for example, P. Schneider and U. Wulf-Reidt (eds.), Licht-Konzepte in der vormodernen Archit (...)
  • 5 On p. 22, the A. addresses Mnemosyne as the personified memory. The fact that the Greeks personif (...)

3In Chapter Two (“Methodological Advances, Approaches, and Considerations”, p. 13–30), the A. points out that the experience of a (sacred) space is not only influenced by the built environment and the movement in it,3 but also by time. The A. returns to the significance of archaeoastronomy not simply as a form of alignment studies without context, but rather as an integrated approach that focuses on orientation data as only one aspect in a multitude of archaeological and historical evidence. Although the A. is right to point out the scarcity of studies on light and the traditional scholarly insistence on the importance of the main door of a temple as the light source for the cult statue, more recent scholarship has indeed attempted to understand and reconstruct the light situation in Greek (sacred) buildings in a more nuanced way.4 The A. argues convincingly against an older theory (first expressed by Francis C. Penrose in the 1890’s), according to which the orientation of a temple was decided based on the position of the rising sun on a specific day. Based on research on the working processes of human vision, the A. stresses that at night things we “see” can acquire fictional dimensions, as the brain tries to reconstruct details we cannot actually see supported by memory and/or fantasy. In the context of Greek religion, the A. underlines that the experience of nocturnal rituals was often the result of limited nocturnal vision in combination with fantasy and (alleged or real) memory. The manipulation of darkness in such rituals could have played an important role in their enhanced perception and bodily experience by the participants. Memory and the act of remembrance5 shaped and informed ritual experience, although individual and collective memory are not (always) identical. However, one cannot but stress that sacred—built or not—environment and “the ritual performance facilitated mental reconstructions and remembrance” of past ritual experiences, which then informed the new ones in an endless cycle of experience and remembrance. Human ritual experience in and of sacred places helped create a set of memories that then affected the ways these places were perceived, experienced, and remembered in the future.

  • 6 The sample contains in total 240 orientation entries, but the number includes side entrances as w (...)

4Chapter Three (“Worship in Space and Time”, p. 31–70) explores one of the main topics of the entire volume, the placement of Greek temples in their spatio-temporal context. The A. rightly emphasizes that, although orienting architecture—whether civic or religious— and public spaces like agorai to celestial objects and meteorological phenomena was a familiar concept in Greek thought at least since Anaximander, interpretations that attempted to interpret all Greek religious architecture in the same way were rarely satisfactory. The A. positions herself critically opposite William B. Dinsmoor’s analysis (based on a sample of 110 temples) from the 1930’s, after having collected and studied data from 232 (sacred) edifices from Mycenaean to Roman Imperial times in Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, and Cyprus.6 The inclusion of Sicily and Cyprus, but the exclusion of Southern Italy and the Black Sea region are rather problematic; the sample remains, however, large enough to check the validity of Dinsmoor’s assumptions. The A. cannot validate Dinsmoor’s result that 73 per cent of Greek temples were oriented within 30° of due east and thus that the rising sun was of primary importance for the orientation of temples in general. In addition, the A. shows that the movement of the moon played no role in the orientation of temples either. An analysis of the data on the basis of the temples’ erection dates and their divine “owners” confirms the A.’s overall conclusion that sun-related orientation of temples in the way it was assumed in the past never existed. Furthermore, a more focused analysis of edifices traditionally associated with so-called chthonic or heroic cults reveals that their primarily western orientation is most probably a scholarly construct.

  • 7 For a different identification of the Dreran Delphinion, see K. Sporn, Heiligtümer und Kulte Kret (...)

5Chapter Four (“Astronomy and Perceptual Cognition in Apolline Cults”, p. 71–114) focuses on Apolline cults and temples. Although the A. demonstrates already in Chapter Three that the percentage of Apollo temples with an orientation to the east is smaller than that of temples dedicated to Artemis, Zeus, and even Hera, Apollo’s strong solar associations in myth and cult make him a representative case-study. The A. emphasizes the god’s connection with the sun, but more importantly with celestial harmony, as explained by Plato, and discusses albeit briefly an impressive number of important Apolline cults, festivals, and temples in Athens and Attica, Bassai, Delos, Delphi, Didyma, Dreros, Klaros, Miletos, and Thebes. For Delphi, the A. makes the insightful observation that the constellation of the dolphin (Delphinus) played an important role. Bysios, the month of oracular consultation and birth-month of Apollo, was the first full month during which Delphinus was visible in the night sky above Delphi. The same constellation remained visible during the nine-month long presence of the god in his Delphic sanctuary, while it started disappearing or became completely invisible in the three months Apollo spent in the land of the Hyperboreans. The dolphin as a symbol did play a role in Delphi (it appears on coins, for example), but I disagree with the A. about the “interchangeability of Apollo’s epithets” Pythios and Delphinios. Cult epithets, even when they semantically and functionally overlap, address different aspects and nuances of the same divinity. The A. places the Theban festival of the Daphnephoria with its astronomical and cosmological elements in a Delphic context. In Athens, the Pythaistai observed the sky from the precinct of Zeus Asteropaios for three consecutive days and nights expecting to see a divine sign that would allow the Athenian delegation to depart for Delphi. The A. stresses that the end of the Pythaistai watch period coincided with Delphinus’ heliacal rising and setting as visible from Athens. Interestingly, Delphinus’ heliacal rising and setting were visible in Athens approximately three weeks earlier than in Delphi, thus allowing the Athenian delegation to prepare and travel to Delphi for the consultation. On Delos, the birthday of Apollo was on the 7th of Thargelion (May–June), which coincided with the time of Delphinus’ acronychal rising. The most important festival on Delos were the Delia, held either in the month of Hieros (February–March) or Thargelion. Although most scholars favor Hieros, the A. cautiously suggests Thargelion as the month in which the Delia were celebrated, because of the month’s strong astronomical connotations. The temple of Apollo Delphinios in Dreros7 seems to have had astronomical associations with Delphinus’ rising and setting as well, which, however, remain unclear because of our lacunose knowledge about the Cretan calendar(s). The festivals in Miletos and Didyma are not linked with the movement of Delphinus. The A. assumes that they were instead associated with the beginning of the year, determined by the spring equinox, at least from the end of the fourth century BCE on. The Milesian and Didymaean sanctuaries seem to have been more closely connected with the sun—and light in general—than Delphi. Gaps in our knowledge as to when exactly in the year consultation took place in Klaros do not allow any hypotheses about the integration of the Klarian temple “into the rotating cosmos”. The A. focuses instead on the architectural particularities of the temple and the impact they might have had on the sensorial and cognitive experience the visitors to the site had. At Bassai, the eastern (side) doorway of the temple allowed for a small sunbeam to enter the adyton and create captivating visual effects both with respect to the space and the bronze (cult) statue. Based on VRM, the A. demonstrates that the effects would have been most impressive around the spring equinox. The A. argues convincingly that the pair of interior Ionic columns on either side of the central Corinthian column were placed at an oblique angle in order to optimize the amount of light entering the adyton and the cella through the side-entrance. The sanctuaries discussed in Chapter Four are linked in various degrees with astronomical events for timekeeping purposes, but also in accordance with Apollo’s overall cosmological role. Nonetheless, the oracular function of some of the sites has to introduce into the discussion the role of artificial or natural darkness as well.

  • 8 Recently, the traditional identification of the Erechtheion has been challenged, see V. Pirenne-D (...)

6In Chapter Five (“The Cosmos in Manifestations of Identity, Memory, and Remembrance”, p. 115–153), the A. concentrates on festivals and rituals in Athens, Sparta, and Messene in an attempt to reconstruct the possible processes through which the cosmos could become an integral part of religious space. The A. rightly emphasizes that the interplay of myths, festival timing, and ritual performances created cosmological narratives that shaped ritual experience and collective (cultural) memory. On the Athenian Acropolis, the Erechtheion8 was closely associated with the serpentine early kings of Athens and the most important festival of the city, the Panathenaia. A constellation, Draco, seems to have been intrinsically connected with Athena’s participation in the Gigantomachy, episodes of which were woven into Athena’s peplos: Draco was originally one of the giants’ snakes that Athena took and threw to the skies. According to the A., in Athens, Draco was best viewed when standing before the N porch of the Erechtheion or in the area between said porch and the altar of Athena. The constellation was most clearly visible in its culmination phase in the summer (July-August). It seems that the Panathenaia took place around the time when the constellation of Draco was last visible during its upper culmination phase. In addition, the A. remarks that the Parthenon, the E. porch of the Erechtheion, and the altar of Athena were oriented towards the constellations of Auriga and the Hyades. Several, although not all, ancient sources see in Auriga Erichthonios and in the Hyades the daughters of Kekrops who were supposed to take care of Erichthonios. Interestingly, the Kallynteria especially, but also the Plynteria and the Arrhephoria coincided timely with astronomically significant periods in the movement of both the Hyades and Auriga. Through the connections between Draco, Auriga, and the Hyades and the area between the N. porch of the Erechtheion and the E. façade of the Parthenon the cosmos became part of Athens’ mythical past and cultural memory. Moving on to Sparta, the A. offers an insightful reading of Alkman’s fragmentary Partheneion. According to the A., the poem describes the dedication of a robe taking place as the star cluster of the Pleiades rises just before dawn, an astronomical event visible on the Spartan horizon at the end of May. The A. assumes that the robe was dedicated either to Orthia or Artemis Orthia. Based on the orientation of the altars in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia towards the rising position of the Pleiades, the A. suggests more concretely that the ritual took place around May 20. The Hellenistic temple and altar of Artemis Orthia in Messene were oriented closer to Sirius and Orion’s belt than to the Pleiades (in myth they are closely interconnected, since Orion goes after the Pleiades with his hunting dog Sirius). The time of the Artemis Orthia festival in Messene remains unknown, but the A. cautiously suggests that the festival was celebrated at a different time than the rituals associated with Artemis Orthia in Sparta, perhaps during the heliacal rising of Sirius or Orion around August 4. The examples of festivals and rituals discussed in Chapter Five, demonstrate, according to the A., how iconography, performance, and environment created a cognitive ecology that could enforce (ethnic) identity (autochthony in Athens, separation from Laconia in Messene, for example). The involvement of the cosmos in these festivals enhanced the perception that the correct performance of rituals was able to renew cosmic balance and divine order.

  • 9 Given the significance of maritime affairs in the Mysteries of Samothrace and the role of the Dio (...)

7Chapter Six (“Cosmic Time in Greek Mystery Cults”, p. 154–191) revolves around mystery cults and more specifically those in Eleusis, Lykosoura, and Samothrace and their possible interconnections with the cosmos. The absence of light and the nocturnal character of so many mystery cults created the ideal context for an even stronger or rather more obvious involvement of the cosmos in said cults and their ultimately cosmic role. Although well-studied, our knowledge of the Eleusinian Mysteries remains problematic. One can, however, assume that throughout the centuries the time in the year when the mysteries were performed remained unchanged with the Greater Mysteries starting on the 5th of Boedromion and lasting up to nine days (late September–early October). Several ancient sources relate the mysteries with stars and the night sky. Although the A. disagrees with Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood’s connection of the Hyades with Eleusis, she does assume that one should link the timing of the mysteries with agriculturally significant astronomical markers. Interestingly, the Lesser Mysteries occurred around the spring equinox and the Greater Mysteries around the autumn equinox. In addition, the orientation of the Telesterion and the Ploutonion is very close to the rising position of the sun at the equinoxes. The involvement of light in the rituals linked to Persephone’s descend to the Underworld and her return therefrom around the time of the equinoxes underscores the cosmic significance of both the mysteries and the sanctuary. The mysteries seem to have been connected also to the movement of Spica (Stachys, ear of wheat) and the overall movement of the constellation of Virgo, which is often considered the celestial representation of Demeter. The Lesser Mysteries coincided with Spica’s acronychal rising, the Greater Mysteries with the star’s heliacal rising. Furthermore, another bright star in the constellation of Virgo, the ε Virginis—called Protrygeter by the Greeks—was also linked with Eleusis, since its heliacal rising coincided with the beginning of the Greater Mysteries. Ancient parapegmata identify the star as the herald of the grape-harvesting period. The areas before the Telesterion and the Ploutonion allowed mystai to observe these cosmic events during the mysteries, so that in their minds the celestial representation of Demeter holding the ear of wheat (Virgo and its brightest star, Spica) came together with the equinoxes that signaled the eternal journey of Persephone: insights into the (divine) function and structure of the cosmos revealed only to them, the initiated. Lack of meaningful evidence does not allow an in-depth analysis of Lykosoura’s cosmic significance. Nonetheless, the A. observes that the two entrances into the temple of Despoina were oriented towards the position of the sun during three out of the four annual solar events (both equinoxes and the winter solstice). Solar events played a role in the orientation of the Telesterion and the Ploutonion in Eleusis and for this reason, the A. assumes that in Lykosoura, a similarly staged epiphany of Despoina might have taken place. Important ritual and cult elements escape our knowledge of the Mysteries on Samothrace as well. What can be said with some certainty, however, is that nocturnal visitors were guided downwards through a disorienting path filled with changes in direction that aimed at preparing the initiates both perceptually and psychologically for entering the main sanctuary and experiencing the culminating elements of their initiation. In Samothrace, initiation could be organized by arrangement, so that an identification of temporal or cosmic events linked with the initiation is rather problematic. Nevertheless, inscriptions of primarily Roman date demonstrate that at least in this period of time the most popular months for initiation were June and September, linked with the rising of the sun in the constellation of the Gemini and the heliacal rising of the same constellation respectively. These two months are also connected with the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. As the A. points out, the Greek Dioskouroi celestially represented in the constellation of the Gemini were important divinities in the pantheon of the sanctuary on Samothrace.9 However, out of the three buildings considered the main stages of the initiation process, the Hieron, the Anaktoron, and the Hall of Choral Dancers, only the latter seems to have connections with the summer solstice and the constellation of the Gemini. Although the cosmic role of mystery cults in ancient Greek belief has long been acknowledged, the A. rightly stresses that “the participation of the heavens in Greek mysteries” was probably more profound than previously assumed.

8In the concluding Chapter Seven (“Epilogue”, p. 192–201), the A. summarizes the ideas and topics discussed in the volume, while also paving new avenues for further research. The A. emphasizes that when discussing ritual activities, we need to incorporate in our considerations the context—and not as mere background—of rituals, “their landscape, location and visibility within the sanctuary, and the timing in the day or night and in the year”. Rituals together with religious space and, equally important, ritual timing are the components that “negotiated ideas of cosmology, ethnicity and identity” based on the ways they were perceived and experienced by cult participants. Understanding Greek religious practice has to be based on including the totality of physical and cognitive environments. Collective rituals had their own cognitive ecologies, susceptible to temporal, social, and cultural limitations. Experiencing said rituals created individual and collective memories, which, according to the A., could be manipulated by means of embodied and carefully orchestrated ritual staging that incorporated not only space, but also real and cosmic time. Rituals could help invent and reinvent identities and the A. suggests that rituals acted with their astronomical links as mnemonic “devices” that triggered memories of a common (mythical) past and strengthened collective identities. At the very end of the chapter, the A. refreshingly points out that her approach does not pretend “to be universal”, but wishes to offer an additional perspective to the multifaceted study of ancient Greek cult practice.

9The volume concludes with an extremely useful Appendix (p. 202–210) that lists 240 exact orientations of sacred structures. The appendix is followed by a brief Glossary with ancient terms and modern astronomical terminology (p. 211–214), Notes (p. 215–238), and References (p. 239–260) that seem rather heavy on publications in English. The Index (p. 261–263) is helpful, but for such a complex and rich volume painfully short. Typos are almost non-existent, but note the reference to Kallimachos’ (sic!) Partheneion on p. 188.

10There is no point in denying that this is a difficult book to read, but its richness and mind-opening ideas compensate the reader fully for having to become an amateur astronomer in order to follow the A.’s insightful observations, suggestions, and hypotheses. In my view, there have not been many publications that transformed dramatically our approaches to ancient Greek sacred spaces, since the spatial turn in the study of Greek sanctuaries in the late 1980’s and the 1990’s, but the present volume certainly opens up such a possibility. I cannot imagine anyone interested in the study of Greek sanctuaries and sacred space in general affording to ignore this publication.

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1 On the importance of the night, see, however, A. Chaniotis (ed.), La Nuit. Imaginaire et réalités nocturnes dans le monde gréco-romain, Geneva/Vandœvres, 2018 (Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique, 64).

2 See also E. Winter, Zeitzeichen. Zur Entwicklung und Verwendung antiker Zeitmesser, Berlin, 2013.

3 On movement, see most recently M. Dromain and A. Dubernet (eds.), Les ruines résonnent encore de leur pas. La circulation dans les monuments grecs (viie s.–31 a.C.). Actes de la journée d’étude pluridisciplinaire à Bordeaux les 3–4 novembre 2016, Bordeaux, 2021.

4 See, for example, P. Schneider and U. Wulf-Reidt (eds.), Licht-Konzepte in der vormodernen Architektur. Internationales Kolloquium in Berlin vom 26. Februar – 1. März 2009 veranstaltet vom Architekturreferat des DAI, Regensburg, 2011 (Diskussionen zur archäologischen Bauforschung, 10).

5 On p. 22, the A. addresses Mnemosyne as the personified memory. The fact that the Greeks personified both Mnemosyne and Mneme would have required a more nuanced approach here.

6 The sample contains in total 240 orientation entries, but the number includes side entrances as well. Included are besides temples, five Mycenaean megara, fifteen altars, and three stoai.

7 For a different identification of the Dreran Delphinion, see K. Sporn, Heiligtümer und Kulte Kretas in klassischer und hellenistischer Zeit, Heidelberg, 2002, p. 81–83.

8 Recently, the traditional identification of the Erechtheion has been challenged, see V. Pirenne-Delforge, “Un oikèma appelé Érechtheion (Pausanias, I, 26, 5)”, in P. Carlier and Ch. Lerouge-Cohen (eds.), Paysage et religion en Grèce antique. Mélanges offerts à Madeleine Jost, Paris, 2010, p. 147–163, and even more extensively by J. van Rookhuijzen, “The Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens”, Kernos 34 (2021), p. 69–121.

9 Given the significance of maritime affairs in the Mysteries of Samothrace and the role of the Dioskouroi as important protectors of seafaring, it is puzzling that the A. chose not to address this additional connection between the sanctuary and the divine twins.

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