The Material Culture of Religion in Ancient Greece

About the Project

The project comprises an unprecedented wholesale reinterpretation of the religious landscape of Ancient Greece in the archaic and classical periods (roughly 800 – 323 BCE). It will utilise a theoretical framework I have developed specifically for this study: ‘Haptic Belief’ (HB). This framework takes an interdisciplinary approach considering the emotional, sensory, and cognitive dimensions of religious and ritual practices.

The study of ancient religion can only ever be the study of traces left by the people who practised it. Those traces are the words, objects, landscapes, and other ephemera that have come down to us. Using these traces, we must reconstruct the bricolage of religious experiences, emotions, sensations, and actions that occurred through each individual’s participation and interaction with other people, places, communities, objects, and systems. 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. Such a study cannot be conducted from an etic position – we must also interrogate the internal position of practice. This can be achieved by studying the traces, objects, spaces, and words left behind.
The project will focus on three core research questions:

  1. In what ways is the relationship between individuals and the divine articulated in the socio-cultural landscape of archaic and classical Greece?
  2. How can a touch-based sensory approach to embodied religion (e.g. HB) expand our understanding of religious practices and beliefs in the ancient world and the social, cultural, and political landscapes?
  3. Can we use our understanding of the relationship between individuals and the divine and a new touch-based sensory approach (HB) to substantively move our knowledge of the ancient world forward, particularly in understanding faith and belief?

Haptic Belief: The Theoretical Framework Religious practice is an inherently dynamic process necessitated by multi-directional relationships between body and mind and between each individual and the collective, the situated environment, and the divine. The primary relationship is formed between the individual and the divine regardless of the number of intermediary layers, although these layers shape both individual and divine in ways that neither can be independent of. That is, our experience of the world is facilitated by our experiences through the world. This facilitation is led primarily by sensory and emotive feedback, inseparable from religious belief: the ‘felt-life’ of belief (Morgan 2010: 57); Aristotle (De. An. 435a; Gen Corr 329b), too, says that touch is a bodily perception. In this way, haptics relates not only to touch but to the feedback of touch: the things we use, the energy we expend making and moving, and the environment we move in and through. The body is an instrument of religion, which has the same affect as other objects and things (referring specifically to objects taxonomically ‘unspecifiable’). This builds an ecology of objects and spaces, within which the person is only one part. Haptic Belief centres on the interaction between objects, spaces, and the people they affect. It enables us to examine how people experience religion physically, emotionally, and sensorily. 
Religious experiences are delineated and enhanced by the objects, spaces, and traditions people encounter in their everyday worlds. The sensations and feelings of daily life are focused through the lens of the gods and their worship. This occurs in three interconnected but distinct ways. The first is through belief (and non-belief), which cannot be replicated from person to person but hangs together through a system of coherences (that is, people share common understandings about what things mean religiously) (Mackin Roberts 2020:12-14). The second is that ancient Greek religion is largely orthopraxic, so when one behaves ‘correctly’, they are accepted by the community regardless of personal beliefs. Finally, religious communities are fluid because ancient Greek religion allows individuals to retain some autonomy in crafting their religious practice by participating in various public and private cults. Thus, belonging to a religious community is a multi-layered experience, a bricolage of networked experiences, sensations, thoughts, beliefs, and practices. While political identity is required for participation in some religious communities, others require different kinds of identity. These might include households and families, neighbourhoods, age or gender groups, or more broadly encompassing several poleis (‘citizen-states’) or even the entire Greek world. In tracing the material remains of these beliefs, this project will give a new understanding of individuals’ religious – and, therefore, everyday – lives in Ancient Athens and Attica. 

Material culture and site-based experience embodies – and is embedded within – religious practices, which occur through participation in the groups and institutions that make up the city’s civic, social, and private spheres. HB differs from other material or sensorial methods because it crucially describes how the body becomes an object in religious practice to define the embodied nature of religious practice in a system predominantly driven by tradition.

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.