Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


1 May 2018

Cypriot ritual and cult from the Bronze to the Iron Age: a longue-durée approach

Giorgos Papantoniou Journal of Greek Archaeology 1 (2016): 73-108

In two recent studies on Early Iron Age Cypriot sanctuaries and religion –the first dedicated to the memory of John N. Coldstream, the second to the memory of James R.B. Stewart– I attempted to show that looking at Cypriot ritual places (and practices) ‘before and after’ can be a stimulating and valuable methodological tool for understanding Cypriot ritual and cult diachronically. A drastic transformation imprinted upon the physical and socio-political landscape of the island during the Early Iron Age relates to the establishment – for the first time in the history of the island – of the extra-urban temenos sanctuary, related to the territorial formation of the Cypriot polities. After a careful analysis of Early Iron Age sacred topography and material culture assemblages, the next step would be a meticulous examination of their associated rituals, cults, and iconography in order to illustrate better the transplantation and transformation of Late Cypriot ideas (and ideals) into the Iron Age. In using the terms ‘transplantation’ and ‘transformation’, I refer to the transfer of earlier ideas (and ideals) – as read in ritual practices, cult and iconography – within an Iron Age sacred landscape, functioning within the context of a newly emerged political topography. Thus, my claim for long-term continuity is based exclusively on the evidence provided by rituals, cults, and iconography; I am not implying direct continuity in other critical facets of the transition from the Late Cypriot to the Iron Age. Although we are far from understanding the details of this transition, seemingly it was not an episode which took place at one specific moment in time and in the same way across the island. As this contribution aims to show, however, the interrelation between ritual, cult, iconography and the politico-economic sphere had a significant impact on the diachronic development of Cypriot religion and society.

Ritual remains a key issue in the creation and maintenance of forms of both personal and communal identities. Thus, understanding ritualization as a process that involves various culturally specific strategies for communicating certain activities between people is of particular importance. In this respect, following T. Insoll, ritual is often a facet of religion but certainly not its whole. This concept generates his central thesis: religion is more than ritual alone. In other words, ritual can also be part of a secular system. In this study, the term ‘ritual’ with respect to the Late Cypriot period is used to bridge the much debated existence and function of a ‘religious system’ in Late Cypriot society. The debate is related to the attempt to separate ‘public’ or ‘secular’ from ‘cultic’ or ‘religious’ space. In my view, usually there is nothing really being debated; rather, the debate is simply a matter of contemporary perception or terminology.

The Early Iron Age will serve as the point of departure for the discussion that follows. I will first try to identify evidence of ritual and cult at the ‘extra-urban’ sanctuary site of Agia Irini (Figure 1) before attempting to establish their connections with the Late Cypriot ritual system of the urban center of Enkomi. I will then focus on the transformations that the cult of the ‘Cypriot Goddess’ underwent from the Late Cypriot to the Early Iron Age in an effort to emphasize the importance that this cult acquired in the later Iron Age, that is, the Cypro-Archaic and the Cypro-Classical periods. I will finally turn to the Iron Age polity of Amathous, endeavoring to detect connections with (and embodiments of) an indigenous Late Cypriot past. Before engaging in this discussion, let us first briefly examine the historical context of the transition from the Late Cypriot period to the Iron Age.


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