Religious Individuality in Antiquity

I will briefly review some of the most interesting areas of individual appropriation of religion in antiquity, singling out three classes of activity, each consisting of at least two subclasses.[1]

Structural Individuality in Ancient Polytheism

It is comparatively easy to detect how individuals combined gods according to their situational or role-specific needs in different fields. Domestic cults and the collections of statuettes at house altars comprise the first specific area of study under this heading. When viewed statistically, the results for specific places or regions are not very surprising.[2] The predominance of certain divine signs (that is, gods) is easily explained by reference to typical functions or local traditions.[3] And yet, the specific pattern, the combinations of gods and materials, and the different age and provenance of statuettes and images of any particular household show the very individual character of each collection.[4]

In antiquity, the choice was not made from a catalog. Objects handed down from older members of the family found their place beside those that were newly purchased, selected from local producers or merchants. Local public cults were very influential, but this type of formation was occasionally supplemented or even supplanted by knowledge derived from texts or personal travels. The archaeological finds—comparatively rare, as the easily transportable items were usually removed when the inhabitants left their place—are the synchronic image of a long biographical, perhaps transgenerational, process. These selections were, of course, influenced by the selections of others, those who had significant relationships to an individual, and even more so by publicly accessible documents of dramatized selections (that is dedications, votive offerings, and inscriptions in temples), or even by participation in such rituals.

Publicly accessible sanctuaries consequently offered a second sphere for religious action. As we learn from Aelius Aristides (AD 117—after 177), one could even be drawn into ritual proceedings unintentionally. Aelius was admonished by Asclepius to go into his sanctuary, offer sacrifice, put up dedications, and distribute sacrificial shares to all present,[5] certainly a nice surprise (or an expected form of dining?) for the latter. Children would learn such rituals from participating, for instance, by forming choirs to perform hymns.[6] Individuation was a social process, just like socialization. To conform is as much a matter of learning as is to understand the extent of one’s personal competence and legitimate difference.

Not every vow and dedication was a crisis ritual, and many “crises,” moreover, were normal and frequent, such as illness, crop failure, childbirth, or emancipation of slaves. And yet individual competence in ritual performance was universally recognized. Inscriptional details about familial or occupational positioning vary widely in degree of detail, and we see the invocation of gods that were unknown locally. In order to define situations, divine help was invoked as precisely as possible; innovative combinations and, even more so, innovative names were created. At Carthage, for example, we find a single instance of a juxtaposition of Juno, Minerva, and Bellona with a Diana Caelestis Augusta. Dedicants might simultaneously address deities as distant as Sicilian Venus Ery- cina and the Thracian hero,[7] thus attesting individual variation rather than standardized practices.[8] One might call this a cult pragmatic individuality. Again, however, we should not think of these as isolated actions. What we find are perhaps also, at least partly, the results of priestly consultation and artisans’ knowledge. It is the very individual “confessional inscriptions” from Lydia and Phrygia that most clearly demonstrate the close collaboration of clients and priests within the context of a sanctuary.[9]

  • [1] More extensively in Rupke and Spickermann 2012; Rupke 2013c; Rupke and Woolf2013.
  • [2] See, e.g., Cicala 2007; Bassani 2008; Frohlich 1991; Kaufmann-Heinemann 1998.
  • [3] Van Andringa 2009, 265-69.
  • [4] Ibid., 265; Bodel 2008, 261.
  • [5] Aristeid. Hieroi Logoi 2.27. See below, chapter 7.
  • [6] Aristeid. Hieroi Logoi 4.43; see in general Leeuw 1939 and Brelich 1969.
  • [7] Rives 1995, 186—93, pointing to Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 8.999, 24528, and 24518and Inscriptiones Latinae Africae 354.
  • [8] Ibid., 190-92.
  • [9] See Petzl 1994 and the interpretations of Belayche 2006, 2008.
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