Sunday, March 22, 2009


Michael Wedde (ed.), Celebrations: Sanctuaries and the Vestiges of Cult Activity. Selected papers and discussions from the Tenth Anniversary Symposium of the Norwegian Institute at Athens, 12-16 May 1999. Papers from the Norwegian Institute at Athens, 6. Bergen: Norwegian Institute at Athens, 2004. Pp. 303. ISBN 82-91626-23-5. $87.50 (pb).
Reviewed by Naoise Mac Sweeney, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge UK (

Cult practice is a long-standing and perennially-popular area of study for Aegean archaeologists and historians. It has often proved fertile ground for the development of radical new ideas and for the testing of new interdisciplinary approaches. In such a dynamic and fast-moving field, research must be both innovative and insightful to stand out above the crowd, and it is unfortunate that very few papers in this edited volume from the Norwegian Institute at Athens do so.

The volume is compiled from papers presented a symposium held in May 1999, organised to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Norwegian Institute at Athens. During the lag between presentation and publication however, nine of the original twenty papers given at the symposium were not submitted for inclusion in Celebrations, leaving the volume with eleven papers of variable quality. The book included six essays on the Bronze Age, four on archaic and classical Greece, and (as has become a tradition in Norwegian Institute publications) a final paper on the Norwegian Iron Age. The book does not suffer, however, from this variety in chronological (or even geographical) focus -- such variety has the potential to present some illuminating comparisons. Rather, it is the lack of rigorous editing, and the rather loose relationship between the papers and the overall theme, which mean that the volume does not really hang together as a complete whole.

Hielte-Stavropoulou opens the volume with her discussion of Middle Helladic burials, arguing for a re-evaluation of Middle Bronze Age tombs on the basis of their geographic location and relationships with the surrounding landscape. However, Heilte-Stavropoulou fails to follow through with her promising argument, and the papers ends in some confusion, without any detailed analysis of material.

Morris and Peatfield's paper on altered states of consciousness and the sensory experience of Minoan ritual is one of the highlights of the book. Using iconographic evidence and ethnographic comparisons, they make an intriguing case for shamanic trance playing a role in some Minoan rituals. Although some of the ethnographic evidence is tenuous, the paper does explore an important new direction in the study of ancient cult. Several works have recently highlighted the role of embodiment, performance and experience in religion, and this paper makes an interesting and valuable contribution to the discussion.

In a completely different but also very interesting paper, Konsolaki presents material from the recent excavations at Ayios Konstantinos in Methana. Although the Linear B texts tell us that there were many rural sanctuaries in Mycenaean times, few non-palatial sites have been excavated to date, and Konsolaki's paper offers the reader useful information about an important new ritual site. This is followed by an especially weak paper by Whittaker von Hofsten on Mycenaean animal sacrifice. The uncertainty of the final argument is not helped by the poor use of cross-cultural comparisons or an eclectic selection of evidence.

The issue of ritual and landscape, so tantalisingly mentioned in the first paper, is taken up by Albers with reference to the Mycenaean period. She argues that the Cult Centre at Mycenae and the sanctuary at Phylakopi were both regional cult centres, drawing their congregations from across the Argolid in the case of the former, and across the Cyclades in the case of the latter. Such cultic centralisation, she argues, suggests political centralisation as well. However, the evidence offered for religious centralisation in itself is not overwhelming, and furthermore the jump between the religious and political spheres is not properly discussed. But perhaps most jarring is that Albers makes her case so confidently and strongly, despite the poverty of the evidence available.

Wedde's paper on glyptic art is the opposite, in this sense, to Albers'. Wedde deals expertly with a fascinating body of material (scenes from Minoan and Mycenaean sealstones), but stops short of coming to any social or religious conclusions from his material. Wedde focuses in particular on scenes which show processions and offerings, presenting a detailed analysis of the variants of each type of scene illustrated by useful line drawings. It is somewhat disappointing that the rich evidence is only presented, rather than discussed, but it is hoped that such discussions will find their way into other publications.

The transition between the prehistoric and historic papers is made by Voyatzis, who lays out the development of the sanctuary site of Athena Alea at Tegea, taking in all periods from the first scant Mycenaean remains to the monumental temple of the mature classical period. The presentation is informative but brief, and serves to whet the appetite for the past and forthcoming publications of the excavations. It is especially appropriate that the excavations at Athena Alea were conducted by the Norwegian Institute itself.

Handelman's paper on the City Dionysia considers the festival in terms of its relationship to wider Athenian society. In it, Handelman debunks the idea that rituals either serve to confirm the established social structures or to transform social and cosmic relationships. The City Dionysia, he argues, does both. Whilst the structure of the festival itself would mostly have acted to uphold the social order, the dramas staged during the festival would also have questioned and transformed this social order. Despite being written in a somewhat confusing style, the argument is essentially a good one. However, a more serious concern is that Handelman sets up something of a straw man to knock down -- few theoretically-aware scholars would ever suggest that rituals work in a strict either/or fashion. Instead, most would argue that social acts and social practices always serve both to create and express society at the same time.

From a polis festival to a Panhellenic one, the next paper discusses pilgrimage and process at Olympia. Des Bouvrie suggests that the experience of physically getting to Olympia was as important in the manufacture of a Panhellenic spirit of unity as actually being there. The formal procession from Elis and the secluded location of the sanctuary are highlighted, and much discussion is given over to how the particular gods and heroes honoured at Olympia would also have promoted a Panhellenic ideal.

Thomassen rounds off the archaic and classical section of the volume with a consideration of blood sacrifice in classical Greece. He identifies two main approaches to blood sacrifice in classical scholarship, as represented by the arguments of Burkert and those of Vernant and the Paris school. Burkert's interpretation of animal sacrifice was that it was a visceral, emotional act, with an emphasis on primordial violence and the killing of the victim. Vernant, in contrast, considered sacrifice as a means of transforming 'raw' nature into 'cooked' culture, and stressed the preparation, cooking and eating of the ritual meal. Thomassen's thoughtful and interesting piece encourages us to eschew both extremes, instead viewing Greek animal sacrifice as a complex process, in which all stages of the ritual (including prayers, procession and garlanding) all have their place.

The final paper in the book is the now-traditional Iron Age Norway contribution. Kristoffersen presents us with a concise and engaging discussion of gendered grave goods in Migrations-period Norway, making use of later Norse poetry as well as the archaeological material. Krisoffersen notes the strict gender distinctions in the burial assemblages, before going to discuss how typical female roles in life are represented through the choice of grave goods.

Overall, Celebrations includes several strong papers which make interesting contributions to our understanding of cult practice in the ancient Aegean (and Norway). However, the weaker papers in the volume are notable. The book would have benefited from sterner editing, excluding papers which did not make the grade and tightening the arguments of those which are carelessly or confusingly written. In addition, there is little sense of an overarching theme which unites the papers. 'Ritual' or 'cult' is a vague touchstone for such a varied collection of papers, and each relates to the central theme in its own individual way.

There is one idea, however, which runs through several of these papers, and which could have been highlighted perhaps in the initial introduction. How ritual is experienced is an idea explored explicitly by Morris and Peatfield, Handelman, des Bouvrie and Thomassen, and this would have been an interesting thread for the volume to follow. Unfortunately, however, many of the threads in this book are left loose and hanging, and are not woven together for offer readers a coherent experience of their own.

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