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Appropriating Religious Space

Written prayers, the wax tablets mentioned in some authors of the first and second centuries AD,[1] prolonged the presence of a prayer, and thus the duration of the ritual. Placing the text on the legs of the statue allowed the supplicant to transcend the temporal restrictions on presence and performance. In this case, writing could replace repetition, sometimes hinted at by exhortations on objects of dedications to repeatedly kindle lamps or replace or add coins.[2] The idea of “perpetuated action” might also apply to images and their performance of a “pictorial act.”[3] In cases of asocial wishes, the writing of a prayer and its secret deposition—in a fountain such as that of Anna Perenna, in a sacrificial hearth such as the one at Mayence, or in a grave—might have served to avoid the social exposure of praying aloud, but above all these actions exercise the same techniques of appropriating a special place in perpetuated action, relying on speech as much as on graphic and representational elements, from unusual or distorted letters to the treatment of the material bearers of such texts.[4]

Without doubt, dedicatory tablets, the notices of thanksgiving that accompanied objects, had a similar function. They permanently attested the power and beneficence of a deity, even if the laudatory section of texts was usually brief, and formulas such as ex voto or ex visu would simultaneously have referred the objects to the processes of communication. These elements furthered individual acts of worship in open, public spaces; that is, they were religious communication centered on sacred areas.

Analysis of religious texts of this type has concentrated on other elements: the dedicants figure prominently. Frequently, self-descriptions were not restricted to a name, but also included information about status, or even a career description. An excellent example is found in a narrative from Aelius Aristides (Hieroi logoi 4.45—47) that I present in summary:

After several performances of a chorus for Zeus, Aelius intended to dedicate a tripod made of silver, a “symbol of gratitude toward the god, but also as a memorial of the choroi,” as he formulates. He produced a distich, running thus: “Poet, judge, and choreutes in one person, I dedicated this memorial to you, o lord, for the foundation of the chorus.” The following two verses named the donator and claimed the dedication to be under the tutelage of the god.

In a dream, however, the god sent another text: “Not unknown to any Hellene, Aristides has dedicated me—Aristides, the famous dirigent of eternally streaming words and a hero.” In a discussion with the priests all participants agreed to set up the memorial in the temple of Zeus Asklepios. The tripod, adorned with three golden statues of Asklepios, Hygieia, and Telephoros, held the new inscription and a note that it was added as a consequence of a dream. In order to fulfill an older oracle, Aelius also set up another dedication for Olympian Zeus. He finished his narrative with the remark that he devoted himself to oratory, being convinced that his name would survive the centuries as the god had characterized his speech as “eternally streaming.” (4.47)

The story offers a splendid illustration of the mechanisms of religious communication and the agency arrogated by religious action. In talking to the gods, people communicated with their fellow citizens, contemporary or yet to come. Motives might have been diverse, but hoping for a public honorific statue (even paid for by oneself) would have been futile for many, while the funerary cursus honorum would come too late for the more ambitious. Here, religious communication offered an alternative; there was here no need to find somebody else to put up a votive inscription with your name on it. Women would not be as inclined to engage in such activities, as there was no position of agency for them to arrogate: of the Isis officials in the city of Rome, twenty-one sacerdotes are known. Ten males and one female are known from dedicatory inscriptions set up by themselves; nine females and one male are known from tomb inscriptions.[5]

At the same time, religious communication must be taken seriously in its religious dimension. The text of Aristides makes his diverse motives explicit, but shows that the communicative efforts were concentrated on the deity above all.[6] Mary Beard, by contrasting the standard practices of open polytheistic cult in ancient cities with those of more tightly organized groups, identified the naming in dedicatory inscriptions as the functional equivalent of membership lists.[7] But would signaling a stable relationship with a certain deity prevent the dedicants from addressing themselves to other deities? The many instances of multiple acts of communication and different addressees suggest that this was not the case. Aelius’s discussion with priests and temple personnel led to a change in the addressee,[8] and the dedicated object itself referred to several deities. In the end, that change also induced him to produce a second memorial.

Another facet is added to our interpretation of dedicatory inscriptions: if we take the problems of communication and its many risks into account, the emphasis must have been on the successful completion of communication rather than on a special relationship with one god to the exclusion of others. The author presents herself or himself as a person that is capable of establishing a communicative link with a deity, of gaining an audience and receiving an answer. Far from self-evident, this is a noteworthy individual religious accomplishment, even if one’s success was surely perceived as partially attributable to familial and social status. Such a person would also be able to address other gods with similar reliability and success, and hence the inscription prepared the social environment for such new communications. If we accept that ancient societies were not hierarchically but heterarchically organized, on the combined criteria of social and political power, it is to be assumed that religious authority was an independent type of power.[9]

Of course, in Aelius’s narrative about the change of the epigram, the special feature is the oracular prompt. The prophecy was addressed to an author who was obsessed by language and immediately started training in order to fulfill the prophecy. A note on Aristides’s tripod added the information ex visu, “from a vision.” This again points to an intention to make the dedication an organic part of the communication between the dedicant and the god. It is the location that eliminates any ambiguity about the addressee: the tripod is directly associated with the large temple statue. Again, it is a particular trait of Aelius’s text that the addressee is not explicitly named. There is, rather, an explicit deliberation about the addressee and the interpretation of the location.[10]

Aspects of the scene described by Aelius can be generalized: prayers are often addressed to the di immortales as a generic group. In many instances it is not necessary to specify a particular addressee; during public festivals there was no need to be especially concerned about each of the many deities that appear in prayers or as statues. Such laxness was not admissible for occasions—and I should like to stress the difference—as specific and individual as we suppose the situations leading to dedications to have been. Admittedly, formulas like sive dea, sive deus show the ancients at pains to determine the correct deity. But what would be the range of choices? It was not a list learned by heart from teachers or parents. Temples offered the most obvious choices, and at first glance it would seem that this must have significantly limited the options available to those who were not inhabitants of larger cities. Yet a single temple might offer space for the veneration of multiple deities; the phenomenon of the synnaoi theoi was widespread.[11] Dedicatory inscriptions from a given site often feature the names of deities other than the divine owner or owners of the site—which is sometimes difficult to establish given this situation. Thus, existing dedications further determined the range of plausible choices for a new communication or the identification of the divine collocutor in a successfully concluded communication. At times, the more general invocation of “all gods” or the explicit refusal to name a specific not unquestionably plausible agent might have helped counter the competing claims or challenges of bystanders.

The rhetorical connotations of “plausibility” seem to be very fitting. The problem is to name—that is, to construct—the divine addressee in a way that is as successful and plausible to oneself as it is to others. As an

Copy of the tomb stele of Vibius, son of Urbus, who died at the age of four and is presented with the Horus lock, indicating youth in Egyptian imagery. The stele was dedicated to the di manes by his grandmother Vibia. From Pulst, Karnten, third century AD. Romermuseum Theurnia. Photo by J. Rupke, used by permission of Landesmuseum fur Karnten.

earlier part of Aristides’s narrative made clear,[12] people might meet others in temples, offer each other assistance, and reinforce each other’s attempts. Hence, naming was a situational strategy, not an absolute one. There was, for example, no need to name one’s parents on a family tomb area,[13] but perhaps this was a helpful reminder of the individual construction of their divine status. On the other hand, a neighboring inscription might have stressed that there is nothing to follow the life that has passed. The model of a religion restricted to a rule-based system called “cult” is not adequate to describe the cumulative outcome of such decisions.

Religious metacommunication, that is, communication between humans about communication between humans and gods, was not restricted to inscriptions. Narratives such as that of Aelius Aristides explored problems of establishing communication and hinted at alternatives. In other instances iconography replaced words. Even treatises we would call “systematic theology,” such as Varro’s handbook Antiquitates rerum diuinarum, participated in such metacommunication, the communication about ritual communication. I doubt, however, that this would have been more relevant to most religious actors than the inscriptions visible in temples.

  • [1] Juv. 10.56; Apul. Apol. 54; Philostr. Her. 3.2; Versnel 1981, 32.
  • [2] Van Straten 1981, 74. See also Derks and Roymans 2002.
  • [3] Weiss 2015, 66—67 (for Egypt).
  • [4] See Gordon 2015a.
  • [5] Rupke 2006b.
  • [6] See Rosenberger 2013a for the importance of divination; in general C. P. Jones 1998;Petsalis-Diomidis 2006, 2010.
  • [7] Beard 1991.
  • [8] See McLynn 2013.
  • [9] Ehrenreich, Crumley, and Levy 1995; Smith 2011.
  • [10] Aristid. Hieroi logoi 4.45—46.
  • [11] See Nock 1930.
  • [12] Aristid. Hieroi logoi 4.42—43.
  • [13] I reinterpret the material presented by Laura Chioffi (Chioffi 1996).
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