Cult and Society in Ancient Athens

Cult and Society in Ancient Athens
Contributing member:
  • Dr. F. van den Eijnde
Related projects:
In recent years, cult has come to be viewed as the dominant medium defining – as well as being defined by – group identity and group ideology. In Classical Athens, various cults defined the social status of foreigners, (young) women, craftsmen etc.Without reliable literary sources, however, the society of the Early Iron Age and the Archaic period (ca. 1050-480 BC) is decidedly more difficult to interpret. Although much is still unclear about the social stratification of early Greek society, there is enough evidence to suggest that the cultic system of Athens emphasized the identity of various Athenian communities in a territorial sense. Local groups defined their position with respect to neighbouring communities through the exclusive worship of ancestors or mythical heroes. Ties between these communities were established through the cult of Athena Polias and the rural sanctuaries of the Olympian gods throughout the countryside.The study of the cultic history of early Attica has important implications for the process of constitutional development, because the integrity of the political system appears to have depended to a large degree on its cultic cohesion. In this dissertation, I will argue that the cultic definition of groups in Attica before ca. 600 BC, is characterized by the fragmentation of society into numerous local communities and that this was a result of the process of internal colonization. In the sixth century cultic behaviour was determined in part by a desire to reverse this fragmentation. This was accomplished through a concerted policy of cultic integration that was focused on the Acropolis.Religion was one of the most integral aspects of public life in Greece. This view has increasingly become accepted and presents an important aspect of the work that is being done within the VICI-funded research group on Athenian citizenship of which this Ph.D. project is an integral part. In this project religious cults are examined for their integrating and cohesive qualities.

One specific group that is particularly suited for this kind of approach has been defined as those cults that were introduced in Athens on account of their territorially cohesive qualities. An important motive for the introduction of new gods in Athens seems to have been the religious integration of those communities that became part of the “franchise” of the Athenian polis. These cults were transported from the more peripheral areas of Attica and introduced in the city. Such cults, like the Eleusinian mysteries and the cult of Artemis Brauronia, added to the feeling in local communities of being part of the larger Athenian polis, because of the share “their” divinity was granted within the religious structure of the Athenian polis. In cases like this the connection between religion and politics seems to be particularly strong.

At the end of the Dark Ages, a dramatic process of political unification took place within the Attic peninsula, which lasted well into the sixth century. During this process, and as a result of it, Athens was established as the political, economical and religious center of the locality. This so-called synoikismos can be deduced from archaeological finds as well as the emergence of Athenocentric genealogical myths and hero-cults. In the sixth century the unification of Attica continued and was invigorated by the exchange of local cults. Local cults were raised to the level of polis cults and physically introduced in the city where the community as a whole could participate in them. Some cults, like that of Dionysos Eleuthereus, were subsequently “exported” to the countryside, where they would receive even wider exposure. In the fifth century the process of cult exchange in Attica ceased, which might be taken as evidence that the process of political and religious integration had been completed. Some cults were still being introduced, but now the provenance lies outside Attica and should probably be considered as part of Athens’ imperialistic program.