On Athenian Religion: A Material Exploration of Belief, Practice, and Society in Ancient Attica

About the Project

The study of ancient religion can only ever be the study of traces left by the people who practised it. These words, objects, landscapes, and other ephemera enable us to reconstruct the bricolage of religious experiences, emotions, sensations, and actions that occurred through each individual’s participation and interaction with other people, places, communities, and objects. These interactions form the basis of religion in ancient Greece; they are vital to our understanding, not only of Greek religion but of Greek society more broadly, as religion was deeply embedded within all other aspects: political, economic, and socio-cultural. Religion, as it was lived and experienced, is inseparable from its material context, and this material aspect of religion is significantly under-utilised in holistic studies of Athenian religion. However, as yet, the material culture of ancient Greek religion has not been given sufficient prominence, limiting our understanding of the lived experiences of religion. Thus, the overarching aim of this project is to reconstruct the complex religious landscape of ancient Athens during the archaic and classical periods by primarily analysing the material culture of religion, interrogating the sensory aspects of the religious landscape, and shedding light on the interplay between individual beliefs, societal dynamics, and the polis-centred religious framework within the broader socio-cultural context of ancient Athens. This study will focus on three main research questions:

  1. How did the material culture of ancient Attica shape and reflect the belief systems, religious practices, and societal dynamics of Athenian society during the archaic and classical periods? Through analysis of archaeological remains, including architectural structures and artefactual evidence, I will systematically interpret the material traces left behind by ancient Athenians, enabling a comprehensive reconstruction of the religious landscape and a deeper understanding of its intricate connections to the broader social fabric.
  2. What insights can be gained by integrating sensory and material exploration of the religious landscape into our current understanding of the literary sources to create a more comprehensive picture of ancient Athenian religion? By engaging with Sensory Archaeology and the Material Study of Religion, we can expand the analytical toolkit of ancient Mediterranean studies more broadly. Incorporating sensory perceptions, embodied experiences, and the materiality of religious practice into our interpretation will provide a richer and more nuanced understanding of the religious landscape of ancient Athens.
  3. In what ways did personal beliefs and experiences intersect with the polis-centred religious framework in ancient Athens, and how did this interplay contribute to the overall religious landscape of the city? By exploring the role of the individual within the religious framework of the polis, I aim to elucidate the dynamic relationship between personal beliefs, public practices, and the connections between individual religious experiences and the larger socio-political framework of ancient Athens.

The study will primarily involve a series of case studies that, when connected, form a more complete picture of the Athenian religious landscape. Ancient Greek religion was neither static nor wholly coherent. As such, the case studies presented will aim to encompass a wide range of experiences. It is important to note that this study does not seek to conclude that there was a single religion or religious landscape in archaic and classical Greece. Such a conclusion would oversimplify the rich diversity of ancient religious practices and beliefs. A diverse range of case studies will allow for a comprehensive exploration of the interplay between religious belief, practice, and societal dynamics in ancient Athenian culture. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Examining the experiences of girls involved in weaving the dress dedicated to Athena and gifted to her at the Panathenaia festival.
  • Exploring the experiences of girls whose bodies were used as ritual implements during ‘rites of passage’ conducted at the cults of Artemis in the outskirts of Attic territory.
  • Investigating the vast body of material evidence in the form of votive offerings left by individuals in both public and private settings. How do we interpret the multi-layered audiences of these offerings, including the divine, the individuals or groups who made the offerings, and the wider community members who encounter them?
  • Analysing cases of individuals who may be considered ‘outsiders,’ such as a Thracian man living in Eleusis during the mid-fourth century BCE. This case demonstrates intentional religious behaviour leading to social and fiscal privileges, as evidenced by inscriptions on a large tablet erected by the local municipal council in the main sanctuary area. It supports the argument that ancient Greek religion operated between civic and personal components.
  • Investigating the role of religion in military contexts, particularly during the initiation of young men into the military as ephebes (around the age of 16).
  • Examining the ‘rites of passage’ associated with citizenship enrollment at various municipality levels, including the deme and phratry.
  • Exploring religious rituals associated with the meetings of political bodies.
  • Investigating large-scale public, state-sponsored festival events, such as the Panathenaia and the City Dionysia.
  • Examining large-scale private festival events, including the Eleusinian Mysteries.
  • Studying family-based religious practices, including regular offerings to household divinities and occasional rituals to celebrate events such as marriages or births.
  • Investigating deme and phratry-level religious festivals, including animal sacrifices during state festivals on behalf of the deme.

OAR will significantly reshape our understanding of the archaic and classical Athenian religious landscape. By delving into the material culture and integrating sensory explorations, this study will provide a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective on ancient Greek religion. By moving beyond the confines of literary evidence and exploring the lived experiences of religious practices, we will gain invaluable insights into the dynamic and evolving nature of Athenian religious beliefs and rituals. OAR will stand as a transformative endeavour that will reshape our understanding of Athenian religion and its significance within the political and cultural fabric of ancient Greece. By expanding our knowledge and disseminating the findings, we aim to spark further exploration and uncover new dimensions of this captivating field. Through subsequent projects, we will continue to explore the wider Greek world, building upon the foundations established here and enriching our comprehension of ancient religious landscapes.

The Material Culture of Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook

About the Project

This will be the first sourcebook for ancient Greek religion that focuses predominantly on art and archaeology. There will be texts included where they either describe art and architecture which has been lost or are fictional, or to supplement and describe the beliefs, practices, and use of art and archaeology, as it relates to religious practice.