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Author Topic: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods  (Read 1080 times)

Zlote Jablko

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Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« on: April 17, 2019, 01:10:04 am »
Hello all,

I’m currently starting on a fascinating book titled “The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom.” By Yulia Ustanova. It is already shaping up to be a fascinating yet confusing read.

The book deals with temples and religious art of the Bosporan kingdom, built by Greek colonists in the far northern region of the Black Sea. Today this would be the southern coast of Ukraine and southwestern Russia. The culture described is a syncretic one combining Greek and local Scythian elements.

One of the main subjects of the book is the “celestial Aphrodite” or Aphrodite Ouranos who appears to have been very popular there. There’s also an anguipede (snake-legged) female figure who seems to have been conflated with Medusa, yet worshipped as a Goddess. Some of this stuff seems pertinent to modern Russian folklore. Yet while the wealth of Greco-Scythian art offers insight, it’s also very confusing because of the diverse cultural elements. The same can be said of many Greek-influenced cults in the near east, as well as Romanized cults as far west as Britain.

What do you think of these Romanized/ Hellenized cults? Are they informative, or are they a pretty unreliable way of interpreting local cultures? On one hand, contact with Greece and Rome seems to have the benefit of producing written sources, inscriptions, statues etc. that can be analyzed, yet it is inevitably through a syncretic cultural lense. How should a person go about looking at this information?

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Re: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« Reply #1 on: April 17, 2019, 04:47:54 pm »


Somewhat tangentially to looking for specific information about a specific culture, one of the things I find particularly valuable and interesting about syncretic cultus is that it demonstrates that people do that thing, all over the place, when cultures run into each other.  It gives me a certain amount of forgiveness for myself when I wind up at "Is this interpretation Hellenicised?" or "Is this interpretation modern?" or similar things.  It's just such a concrete example of flexibility and fluidity, even if it's infuriatingly scant on the "What is this like without the overgloss?"
as the water grinds the stone
we rise and fall
as our ashes turn to dust
we shine like stars    - Covenant, "Bullet"

Eastling

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Re: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« Reply #2 on: April 18, 2019, 02:10:19 am »
One of the main subjects of the book is the “celestial Aphrodite” or Aphrodite Ouranos who appears to have been very popular there.

"Aphrodite Ourania" turns up in numerous instances of the interpretatio graeco, which is a persistently interesting topic to me. She's often paired with Dionysos as a stand-in for the region's main male deity as well.

Quote
What do you think of these Romanized/ Hellenized cults?

I think they teach a salutary lesson on the fact that our information about ancient beliefs is never singular and pure. It always comes through someone's lens, and the way religion worked before the invention of canon means there's probably another version through someone else's lens out there.

Quote
Are they informative, or are they a pretty unreliable way of interpreting local cultures?

Yes. We can learn a lot about both the Hellenic Greeks or Romans and the culture they were looking at by examining these sources--but it'll take some guesswork and a lot of comparing against other related sources.

Quote
How should a person go about looking at this information?

Very carefully and with a wide net.

Full disclosure: I'm on the other temporal side of this issue currently as I examine a culture that existed before Hellenic Greece and was absorbed into its foundations. My greatest success so far has come from seeking far and wide for sources: citations on Wikipedia, primary sources on Theoi.com, modern academic articles from Academia.edu, books recommended by other pagans. I am studying the cultures surrounding the Minoans in time and place as well as the remains of Minoan Crete itself, and I triangulate from there.

When you have nothing concrete, everything you do have becomes a clue. Ariadne is remembered for her thread, so let's investigate the evidence of weaving in prehistoric Crete. When did viticulture reach the island? That should tell us something about Dionysos.

It's a kind of echolocation, almost, and it offers little certainty. But it's like doing the edges of a puzzle first. You start with the clearly-defined bits on the outside and work your way towards the mysteries at the center.
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arete

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Re: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« Reply #3 on: April 18, 2019, 09:01:26 am »
Hello all,

I’m currently starting on a fascinating book titled “The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom.” By Yulia Ustanova. It is already shaping up to be a fascinating yet confusing read.

The book deals with temples and religious art of the Bosporan kingdom, built by Greek colonists in the far northern region of the Black Sea. Today this would be the southern coast of Ukraine and southwestern Russia. The culture described is a syncretic one combining Greek and local Scythian elements.

One of the main subjects of the book is the “celestial Aphrodite” or Aphrodite Ouranos who appears to have been very popular there. There’s also an anguipede (snake-legged) female figure who seems to have been conflated with Medusa, yet worshipped as a Goddess. Some of this stuff seems pertinent to modern Russian folklore. Yet while the wealth of Greco-Scythian art offers insight, it’s also very confusing because of the diverse cultural elements. The same can be said of many Greek-influenced cults in the near east, as well as Romanized cults as far west as Britain.

What do you think of these Romanized/ Hellenized cults? Are they informative, or are they a pretty unreliable way of interpreting local cultures? On one hand, contact with Greece and Rome seems to have the benefit of producing written sources, inscriptions, statues etc. that can be analyzed, yet it is inevitably through a syncretic cultural lense. How should a person go about looking at this information?
In Greece way back in the ancient times, there was a huge cult combining greek and egyptian gods. By this combination, the greeks could understand the egyptian gods well. cults help in finding comon ground. and with cults we can understand even our own gods better. in my opinion  :)

Zlote Jablko

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Re: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« Reply #4 on: April 18, 2019, 10:06:43 am »
"Aphrodite Ourania" turns up in numerous instances of the interpretatio graeco, which is a persistently interesting topic to me. She's often paired with Dionysos as a stand-in for the region's main male deity as well.

I’m trying to learn a bit more about her. It seems like she corresponds to a lot of the “Queen of Heaven” Goddesses of the near east like Inanna, Astarte, Asherah, etc. I definitely see a streak of Asiatic influence, even as far north as the Crimea. There she seems to be depicted as winged, sometimes flanked by two lions or panthers. They seem to have regarded her as Aphrodite, but also a kind of Potnia Theron. It seems like an attempt to make a multi-functional local Goddess intelligible to Greeks.

She reminds me a bit of the beautiful enchantress Yelena the wise from Russian folk tales. She drives a chariot pulled by a snake, is often winged, and is attended by dove maidens. She also has a mirror that will show her anything she wants. She is often indistinguishable from Maria Morevna, warrior daughter of the sea.

She sounds a lot like this Pontic Aphrodite Ourania. If she did have a partner in the Bosporan Kingdom, it looks like it may have been Heracles, oddly enough.



-...I’m on the other temporal side of this issue currently as I examine a culture that existed before Hellenic Greece and was absorbed into its foundations. My greatest success so far has come from seeking far and wide for sources: citations on Wikipedia, primary sources on Theoi.com, modern academic articles from Academia.edu, books recommended by other pagans. I am studying the cultures surrounding the Minoans in time and place as well as the remains of Minoan Crete itself, and I triangulate from there.

When you have nothing concrete, everything you do have becomes a clue. Ariadne is remembered for her thread, so let's investigate the evidence of weaving in prehistoric Crete. When did viticulture reach the island? That should tell us something about Dionysos.

It's a kind of echolocation, almost, and it offers little certainty. But it's like doing the edges of a puzzle first. You start with the clearly-defined bits on the outside and work your way towards the mysteries at the center.

I’ve worked mainly with folklore and some medieval sources up until now. Granted, I’ve covered the folklore of the entire eastern half of Europe. It’s only recently that I came to appreciate all the intricate Greco-Scythian art that has been uncovered in the region. It’s something new and exciting.

I do wonder, when it comes to the Minoans, do you do any kind of comparative analysis? Greece is the obvious place to look, but what about the rest of the eastern Mediterranean? Do you see parallels there as well?

Eastling

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Re: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« Reply #5 on: April 18, 2019, 05:22:42 pm »
I’m trying to learn a bit more about her. It seems like she corresponds to a lot of the “Queen of Heaven” Goddesses of the near east like Inanna, Astarte, Asherah, etc.

IMO "Aphrodite Ourania" as a term/epithet is definitely the Greek way of reconciling the fact that they called Hera the Queen of Heaven but so many cultures around them assigned that title to a much more Aphrodisiac goddess.

Quote
She reminds me a bit of the beautiful enchantress Yelena the wise from Russian folk tales. She drives a chariot pulled by a snake, is often winged, and is attended by dove maidens. She also has a mirror that will show her anything she wants. She is often indistinguishable from Maria Morevna, warrior daughter of the sea.

That's pretty interesting. The dove maidens above anything else strike me as a connection to Aphrodite in particular, but the other motifs point to Asiatic influence. Of course, Aphrodite herself is pretty firmly established as to a certain extent Eastern--she is probably native to Cyprus, with a lot of influence from the surrounding Aegean and Anatolian cultures.

Quote
I’ve worked mainly with folklore and some medieval sources up until now. Granted, I’ve covered the folklore of the entire eastern half of Europe. It’s only recently that I came to appreciate all the intricate Greco-Scythian art that has been uncovered in the region. It’s something new and exciting.

One of the academic books I've been poring over mused that in a way, scholars of the Bronze Age Aegean are lucky not to have texts to work with, because it's made them all the more resourceful in finding other ways to cast light on their subjects--from art to residue analysis to shipwrecks.

Quote
I do wonder, when it comes to the Minoans, do you do any kind of comparative analysis? Greece is the obvious place to look, but what about the rest of the eastern Mediterranean? Do you see parallels there as well?

This is common practice among Minoan scholars, actually. "Projecting backwards" from Hellenic Greece is heavily discouraged (because early scholars did it very self-indulgently and with little logic or restraint), but comparing the Minoans to contemporary cultures such as that of Ugarit or Egypt is common.

To take an example of how I work with this: the question of how Zeus became the god he was in the Homeric texts is a big mystery. He was originally the Indo-European progenitor god of the clear daylight sky, not a storm god associated with authority over a lawful society. However, archaeology and primary sources both indicate that in the so-called Dark Ages, when Zeus was not yet the head of the pantheon, he was heavily worshiped in Crete especially--a place granted a certain amount of mystique and prestige by the inhabitants of the mainland. We know that in Minoan times, Crete existed in a cultural koine where the most common head honcho of pantheons was a storm god associated with fertility and the transference of divine authority. So my takeaway is that we can very roughly reconstruct the late Minoan god of storms and kingship (perhaps named Velchanos, later a Cretan epithet of Zeus) by examining the way Zeus changed in the Dark Ages.
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Zlote Jablko

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Re: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« Reply #6 on: April 24, 2019, 06:37:44 am »
IMO "Aphrodite Ourania" as a term/epithet is definitely the Greek way of reconciling the fact that they called Hera the Queen of Heaven but so many cultures around them assigned that title to a much more Aphrodisiac goddess.

That's pretty interesting. The dove maidens above anything else strike me as a connection to Aphrodite in particular, but the other motifs point to Asiatic influence. Of course, Aphrodite herself is pretty firmly established as to a certain extent Eastern--she is probably native to Cyprus, with a lot of influence from the surrounding Aegean and Anatolian cultures.

Well, I've finished the book, and a lot of the material does seem to support the near-eastern connection. There was even a Bosporan queen from the Taman penninsula, Kamasarye Philoteknos, who dedicated a pair of statues to the Gods "Sanerges and Astara." So it looks like some kind of Astarte/Aphrodite cult got pulled into the mix somehow. There's even one statue I suspect long-term contacts from Anatolia, just across the sea.

Another common feature of Aphrodite Ourania on the Bosporus seems to be the wearing of a Calathus-shaped crown on her head. I've tried looking up the Calathus as a head ornament, and the two main matches link to the cult of Cybele in Asia minor and a statue of Aphrodite from Cyprus. Interestingly though, there is a very similar head-dress worn by nomads from Central Asia. The similarity of the Calathus to this northern head-dress tradition may have helped the Goddess look more impressive to the locals.

What seems bizarre, and hard to explain is the fact that she seems to be accompanied by an anguipede (snake or tendril-limbed) handmaiden who is closely associated with her, but somehow "less august." This appears to be a local innovation, because Herodotus describes a similar being as the divine ancestor of all Scythians.


This is common practice among Minoan scholars, actually. "Projecting backwards" from Hellenic Greece is heavily discouraged (because early scholars did it very self-indulgently and with little logic or restraint), but comparing the Minoans to contemporary cultures such as that of Ugarit or Egypt is common.

To take an example of how I work with this: the question of how Zeus became the god he was in the Homeric texts is a big mystery. He was originally the Indo-European progenitor god of the clear daylight sky, not a storm god associated with authority over a lawful society. However, archaeology and primary sources both indicate that in the so-called Dark Ages, when Zeus was not yet the head of the pantheon, he was heavily worshiped in Crete especially--a place granted a certain amount of mystique and prestige by the inhabitants of the mainland. We know that in Minoan times, Crete existed in a cultural koine where the most common head honcho of pantheons was a storm god associated with fertility and the transference of divine authority. So my takeaway is that we can very roughly reconstruct the late Minoan god of storms and kingship (perhaps named Velchanos, later a Cretan epithet of Zeus) by examining the way Zeus changed in the Dark Ages.

Yes, this seems like a smart way to analyze Zeus and his role in Greek mythology. I used to view him as a variant of the Indo-European storm God, and he *kind of* is in some contexts, but that's not really who is is in others. A good example would be his two sons, the Dioscuri. They are clearly the divine horsemen twins of Indo-European mythology, and their collective name "Dioscuri" means "sons of Zeus." Literally the "kouroi of Dios."

In the Baltic there are two terms. In Lithuania, they are called the Asvienai, cognate to the Indian Ashvins. (Asva= horse) However, in Latvia, they are referred to as "Dieva Deli." The sons of Dievas. What's interesting is that Dievas is not the storm deity. In Latvia, that role goes to Perkons. Perkons the thunderer is not the father of the divine twins, the way that Zeus is to the Dioscuri. Instead, it seems that the elder sky God Dievas is more the counterpart of Zeus.

So the sky father and parent of the divine twins is distinct from the thunderer in Latvian tradition. In Zeus we have both of these roles merged, presumably due to Mediterranean influence which demanded an almighty God King who also wielded the ultimate weapon and also controlled the rain.

As a consequence, I think we have a lot of the thunder God mythology getting left behind with Zeus' club-wielding son Hercules, who spends his life fighting serpents literally from infancy.

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Re: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« Reply #7 on: April 28, 2019, 04:29:38 am »
To take an example of how I work with this: the question of how Zeus became the god he was in the Homeric texts is a big mystery. He was originally the Indo-European progenitor god of the clear daylight sky, not a storm god associated with authority over a lawful society...
I kinda have a flipped, but kinda similar view. That is, I agree with you in that Idon't think Zeus was originally a storm god, and was a god of the daylight sky, yes. But I disagree that he didn't originally pertain to law and rulership.

We can see across Indo-European cultures the presence of gods who wield the power of storms who are not rulers or lawgivers, but representatives of abstract strength and power, such as Thunor/Thor/Donar, Perun, or Taranis; Mars, possibly, and I think the cyclops Brontes as well might fit here. We can also see that the gods with whom Zeus shares the strongest linguistic connection are all deities with whom the rule of law is closely associated.

My hypothesis is that, instead, Zeus was the god of law and rulership, and of the daylight sky, possibly linking the sky with citadels and high places. Over time, he acquired attributes of a storm god from whoever the native storm god was. Perhaps Brontes is a later reflection of that deity, but made explicitly subservient to Zeus. Perhaps the existing association of sky-god, law-god, and god of high places was reinforced in Crete by the native storm god being associated with mountain cults, but I don't think the association started there.

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Re: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« Reply #8 on: June 07, 2019, 02:27:26 am »
Another common feature of Aphrodite Ourania on the Bosporus seems to be the wearing of a Calathus-shaped crown on her head. I've tried looking up the Calathus as a head ornament, and the two main matches link to the cult of Cybele in Asia minor and a statue of Aphrodite from Cyprus.

You cannot swing even the most docile of cats in comparative religion studies without hitting at least two comparisons of some goddess or another to Kybele or Aphrodite. Some of this is due to sloppy scholarship to be sure, but it's hard to ignore certain striking constellations of similarities in major goddesses in a streak of geography coiling around Southern Europe and Western and Central Asia, perhaps even extending up into Northern Europe. Some of the connections are stronger than others--the Venn diagram is a complicated and messy one--but there seems to be a real shared phenomenon/Mystery there, not just something imposed from the outside by modern scholars.

Quote
What seems bizarre, and hard to explain is the fact that she seems to be accompanied by an anguipede (snake or tendril-limbed) handmaiden who is closely associated with her, but somehow "less august." This appears to be a local innovation, because Herodotus describes a similar being as the divine ancestor of all Scythians.

This is fascinating; it's clearly distinct from the Mediterranean serpent imagery I usually work with but may share some common points.
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Eastling

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Re: Interpreting Hellenized/ Romanized Gods
« Reply #9 on: June 07, 2019, 05:19:55 pm »
I kinda have a flipped, but kinda similar view. That is, I agree with you in that Idon't think Zeus was originally a storm god, and was a god of the daylight sky, yes. But I disagree that he didn't originally pertain to law and rulership.

I'm drawing mainly on Olga Zolotnikova's work here, and her main argument is that all but one of the sites dedicated to Zeus's worship in the Dark Ages (which were quite rare--only 22-27 out of 300 known cult sites from this era can be linked with Zeus) were found outside of city centers, unlike those dedicated to Apollo and Athena. If you'd like to see more of her reasoning, you can find her academic work here.
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