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Stream, stone, oikos, polis: sacred space and ancient mystery cult sanctuaries.

Scholarship on the ancient mystery cults illustrates that streams and rock formations are common features in the sanctuary topography of many early, rural Mediterranean cults. By the Hellenistic period, the three mystery cult sites at Eleusis, Samothrace, and Thebes had all expanded and developed into large temple complexes, mirroring the general layout and geography of the ancient city, polis. This paper suggests that the mystery sites at Eleusis, Thebes, and Samothrace and their civic counterpart--the ancient polis--reflect Durkheimian dichotomy of the sacred and profane. (2) This binary generated entire sacred cities--the mystery sanctuaries--in opposition to the profane polis. The natural topographies of these sanctuaries, all useful natural resources integral to the polis, were sanctified and stood apart from their civic counterparts. In the sanctuaries, rocks lay unquarried, wells and streams remained unused for practical, utilitarian, and economic uses and benefits.

Eleusis, Samothrace, and Thebes are home to three of the earliest and, arguably, most well-known mystery cult sites of ancient Greece. What are the mysteries or mystery cults? Marvin Meyer defines them as "secret religious groups composed of individuals who decided, through personal choice, to be initiated into the profound realities of one deity or another." (3) Albert Schachter suggests that Thebes, located in the southern region of Boeotia--40 miles northwest of Athens--functioned in an identifiably ritual capacity at least as early as the sixth century BCE. (4) At the sanctuary at Samothrace, an island in the northern Aegean Sea, excavation of a Hellenistic period rotunda, the Arsinoeion, revealed a seventh century structure on top of which the Arsinoeion had been built, and more significantly, a large sacred rock "dating from the first centuries of the first if not from the second millennium" BCE. (5) In the case of Eleusis--12 miles west of Athens--which Marvin Meyer regards as the "most influential and popular of the Greek mysteries," archaeological research of the structure Megaron B in the complex suggests that cult activity may have begun there as far back as 1400 BCE. (6)

These three cult sites, as exemplars of mystery complexes, share several characteristics, two of which I seek to highlight. The first trait is historical development. Archaeological research presents similar paths of architectural growth and expansion in all of the mystery cult sanctuaries from one or a few minimalist structures to, at their largest, intricate temple complexes consisting of numerous elaborately constructed buildings.(7) This shared architectural growth supports two points of scholarly inference. First these mystery cult sites, and possibly many more sites, were ultimately incorporated into the sphere and control of the nearest city, polis, marking a transition to the status of a public, or civic, enterprise. It is this latter public status and its relationship to the look and feel of the ancient polis that we will return to later.

The second trait is topographical: stones and bodies of water were all sacred natural features of mystery sanctuaries. (8) The three sites with which we are concerned epitomized this trait: at Eleusis, one could find the Mirthless rock and the I'arthenion [Maiden Spring], as well as the Kallichoron [Well of the Beautiful Dances]; (9) at Thebes, the Kabeirion rock formation and two converging streams; (10) at Samothrace, various rock altars including the aforementioned last first century millennium rock altar beneath the Arsinoeion and two parallel-running streams. (11)

Though their significance is rather uncontestable, why are these sorts of natural resources considered sacred? Literary sources--the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Diodorus Siculus's Library of History, and Pausanias' Description of Greece, would assert that these natural topographies are sacred because they are directly connected to the divine. Homeric Hymn to Demeter, concerning Eleusis, is the best literary example. Probably written in the seventh century BCE and providing a fully developed mythology and etiology of the cult, the Homeric Hymn depicts the Mirthless rock in Eleusis as the stone on which Demeter sat to mourn the abduction of her daughter, Persephone. According to the writer of the poem, it was while sitting there in anguish that the daughters of Bang Keleos of Eleusis, on their way to the Parthenion, happened upon Demeter. (12) The Homeric Hymn to Demeter and its counterparts for Thebes and Samothrace do provide useful information about the cult and sanctuary. However, that information is obscured and filtered through the lens of the composer to suit his literary agenda and reflecting seventh-century BCE cultural context. Furthermore, the myth Homeric Hymn to Demeter as a seventh-century text, and its counterparts were composed well into the history of the sanctuary, making a strong case for understanding these texts as retroactive mythologization or historiography, if we were to, rightly, evaluate the mysteries sanctuaries as centers of ritual practice, then the words of William Robertson Smith best apply: "in almost every case the myth was derived from the ritual, and not the ritual from the myth." (13) During and following the seventh century BCE, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter explained the sacred status of the terrain, but the topography had been sacred for centuries, and thus it does little to explain the reasons and origins of that sanctity.

Alternatively, scholars of ancient Greek history and religion suggest that the early stages of these cults reflect a time in which assumptions about divine beings included a strong connection to natural phenomena, such as rocks and rivers, and "ideas that identified the world of nature with the world of the gods." (14) As Stanley Stowers remarks on the ancient frame of reference, "gods belonged to the natural order and were inhabitants of the Greek lands before the Greeks." (15) Large rock formations, for example, were taken to indicate the dwellings of deities, and so were "natural temples." (16) As a result, people built their own temples near these locations and then established cities near or around both the "natural temples" and those temples of their own construction. (17) In the case of our three mystery cults, their chthonic deities were subterranean, chthonic meaning "in the earth, i.e., under it." (18) As the Greeks saw it, the jutting out or breaking through of rocks and water were points of convergence, gateways between those on Earth and those below. This relationship between bubbling springs and the chthonic deities was articulated as early as the fifth century BCE. (19) The specific locations for the sanctuaries at Thebes, Samothrace and Eleusis were thus most likely chosen due to the rock formation and springs in the area, based on the ancient understanding of the divine. (20)

The fifth-century sophist Prodicus of Ceos might assert, "The ancients accounted as Gods the sun and moon and rivers and springs and in general all the things that are of benefit for our life, because of the benefit derived from them, even as the Egyptians deify the Nile". (21) Regardless of if hit this way, Prodicus' reference to the Nile River transforms, at its worst, a critique of ancient religion as an example of human self-indulgence and superficiality, into a profound presentation of the divine as a projection of a community's well of prosperity and livelihood, pun intended. Clearly in the case of Egypt, that well is the Nile. I submit that in the case of Greece during and following the Hellenistic period, that well is the polis, whose walls Socrates never set foot beyond according to Plato, and the construct of culture "first founded that we might live, but continued that we might live happily" according to Aristotle. The position of the polls as the well of prosperity and livelihood prompts a return in discussion to the first shared trait of Samothrace, Eleusis and Thebes briefly mentioned earlier: historical development. (22)

The layout, architecture and mood of the sanctuaries in their earliest and latest stages of development present two very identifiable and different social constructs. Schachter suggests that the "haphazard way in which the earliest buildings were grouped" at Thebes echoes its "domestic family-oriented origins." (23) Moreover, the discovery of earthenware can be seen to suggest that "dining at the Kabirion was a family affair." (24) Michael Cosmopoulos asserts that Megaron B, the earliest structure at Eleusis, had a "residential function." (25) The remains of Megaron B, reflecting a simple rectangular structure, look like a house. With their amphitheatres, halls, roads, gates, statues, and dedications to the royal families, the later extensive sanctuary complexes of Eleusis, Samothrace, and Thebes resemble cities. In fact, there are few cosmetic differences between the plans of these complexes and the plan of the acropolis at Athens, the archetypal polls. What then makes Athens a city and Eleusis, for example, a sanctuary? Thebes, Samothrace, and Eleusis reside in and are sacred space, where Athens does and is not.

In "Theorizing Ancient Household Religion," Stanley Stowers presented this binary of sacred and profane in a smaller scale to compare the classical oikos (house) and temple. He states, "a temple is ... a version of house-building, but very different from any mundane house." (26) Though physically similar, die temple, those in it, the objects housed and used are all set apart and made different from their counterparts in the home. This deliberate differentiation by human agency is the modus operandi for the sanctification of space, and makes the temple and house ontologicaliy oppositional. (27) Catherine Bell similarly employed this understanding of separateness for sanctification, or more appropriately ritualization, of action, delineating ritual from everyday habit or practice. (28) The process of sanctification generates a dichotomy, then: sacred and profane, two terms that are and must be defined in relation to each other. (29) Sacred can only exist in contrast to profane. Returning to the mysteries, I would suggest that Eleusis, Thebes, and Samothrace reflect this very same notion of sanctification discussed above, but on a larger scale, generating an entire sacred city in opposition to a profane polis (city).

An expected critique of this thesis lies in the casting off of the polls (city) into the realm of the mundane, the concept of polis of which I only just recently boasted as the Nile of Greece. The archetypal polls, Athens, housed many temples, "had its own constellation of divinities" and "was a gift from the gods," to its residents, exhibiting features that impress a strong sense of sacred space. (30) My thesis does not intend to minimize the understood divine conception of and presence in the polls. However, by the Hellenistic period and following, I would suggest that where the sole or at least majority purpose of the sanctuary was cult practice existing within the realm of sacred space, the polls was a fully operating sociopolitical machine, brimming with the mundane. Thebes, Samothrace, and Eleusis, by the Hellenistic period, were sacred cities in the sense that every part of the sanctuaries was sacred. Thus, the polis, which did not hold to the sorts of sanctity standards that these three cult complexes did, was not sacred in any relevant sense of the word. Furthermore, manifestations of the sacred-profane binary in the case of sanctuaries and the polis are numerous. Where the city is public and open, the sanctuary is private and closed. As Meyer writes, "unlike the official religions, in which a person was expected to show outward, public allegiance to the local gods of the polis or the state, the mysteries emphasized an inwardness and privacy of worship within closed groups." (31)

What does this thesis mean for the rocks, streams, and other natural topography given sacred value? Within the confines of the polis, stone and water were crucial raw materials and natural resources, providing building material, food, drinkable water, commercial waterways, waste disposed locations, and connection to die rest of the Mediterranean. With that many benefits, stone and water were well-used and consumed. As sacred topography in the mystery sanctuaries, however, the setting apart of rock and streams reflects the antithesis of their civic counterparts: not quarried, not touched, and not consumed; their value was not based on utilitarian or economic benefit. In the hundreds of years that the sanctuary at Thebes functioned, through all of its renovations, modifications and expansions, its sacred rock formation remained "unaltered and untouched," its inherent sacred value requiring neither alteration nor refinement. (32)

Stanley Stowers poignantly remarked that Greece was "polluted with temples" in antiquity. (33) However, as I have tried to show above, I have good reason to disagree with this view and, instead, put forth the idea that ancient Greece was in fact purified, or at least sanctified, with temples.

(1.) A version of this paper was presented on October 21, 2011 at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for the fourth annual Student Symposium on Science and Spirituality of the Zygon Centers Religion and Science Student Society. The author would like to thank her friends at the University of Chicago Divinity School for their help in the editing process and her parents for their continuous support and encouragement.

(2.) Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain. (New York: Macmillian, 1915), 47.

(3.) Marvin W Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 4.

(4.) Albert Schachter, "Evolutions of a Mystery Cult" in Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Creek Secret Cults, cd. Michael B.Cosmopoulos (London: Routledge, 2003), 126.

(5.) Karl Lehmann, Samothrace: A Guide to the Excavations and the Museum 3rd ed. (New York: J.J. Augustin, 1966), 49-55.

(6.) Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries, 17; Michael B. Cosmopoulos, ''Mycenaean Religion at Eleusis: The Architecture and Stratigraphy of Megaron B," in Greek Mysteries: lite Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults, cd. Michael B. Cosmopoulos (London: Routledge, 2003), 19; Melanie A. Fillios, Measuring Complexity in Early Bronze Age Greece: The Pig as a Proxy Indicator of Socio-Economic Structures (Proquest, 2006), 10-12.

(7.) Kevin Clinton. "Stages or Initiation in the Eleusinian and Samothracian Mysteries" in Creek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults. Michael B Cosmopoulos. cd. (London: Rouiledee, 2003), 61-63; Cosmopoulos, "Mycenaean Religion," 19; Schachtcr, "Evolutions of a Mystery Cult," 119-121.

(8.) Schachter, "Evolutions of a Mystery Cult," 115.

(9.) Ibid.; Cynthia Kosso and Anne Scott, The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Brill, 2009), 132; Herodotus, Histories, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), IX.65.2; T. Leslie Shear Jr., "The Demolished Temple at Eleusis," in Hesperia Supplements, vol. 20, Studies in Athenian Architecture, Sculpture and Topography, Presented to Homer A. Thompson, 1982, 133.

(10.) Schachter, "Evolutions of a Mystery Cult," 115; Pausanias, Pausanias' Description of Greece an English translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 volumes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1918), 9.25-5.

(11.) Schachter, "Evolutions of a Mystery Cult," 11 5; Clinton, "Stages of Initiation," 62 fig.3.2; Karl Lehmann, "Samothrace: Fourth Preliminary Report," in Hesperia: The journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, vol. 20. no. 1 (Jan.-Man., 1951), 2.

(12.) Meyer, Ancient Mysteries, 20; Homeric Hymn to Demeter, trans. David G. Rice and John E. Stambaugh, Sources for the Study of Greek Religion, Society of Biblical Literature Sources for Biblical Study; no. 14. (Chico, Calif: Scholars, 1979), 171-183.

(13.) William Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. First Series, 1 st ed. (Edinburgh: Black, 1889), 19.

(14.) Susan Guettel Cole, "Demeter in the Ancient Greek City and irs Countryside," in Placing the Gods: Sanctuaries and Sacred Space in Ancient Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 199.

(15.) Stanley K. Stowers, "Theorizing Ancient Household Religion," in Household and Family Religion in Antiquity, eds. John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan (Blackwell, 2008), 14.

(16.) Ibid.; Cole, "Demeter," 200.

(17.) Cole, "Demeter," 200.

(18.) Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Franz Passow and Henry Drisler, A Greek-English Lexicon: Based on the German Work of Francis Passaic, Part 2. (New York: Harper, 1852), 1661.

(19.) Euripides, The Bacchae (excerpted), in Meyer, Marvin W. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts (Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).

(20.) Schachter. "Evolutions of a Mystery Cult." 115.

(21.) Semis Empiricus, Against the Physicist, Against the Ethicists, trans. R.G. Bury. vol. 311 (Cambridge: Loeb-Harvard University Press, 1997), II.

(22.) Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hacked 1995), 230c6-e4; Aristotle. Politics, trans. Ernst Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 1.2.1252.

(23.) Schachter, "Evolutions of a Mystery Cult," 117.

(24.) ibid, 128.

(25.) Cosmopoulos, "Mycenaean Religion," 19.

(26.) Stowers, "Theorizing Ancient," 11.

(27.) Durkheim, Elementary Forms, 47.

(28.) Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 218-222, 74.

(29.) Roger Caillois, Man and the Sacred (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 19.

(30.) Cole, "Demeter," 200.

(31.) Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries, 4.

(32.) Schachter, "Evolutions of a Mystery Cult," 115.

(33.) Stowers, "Theorizing Ancient," 14.

Georgia Maull Master of Arts Student, University of Chicago Divinity School
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Author:Maull, Georgia
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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