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Stream, Stone, Oikos, Polis: Sacred Space and Ancient Mystery Cult Sanctuaries

By Maull, Georgia | Currents in Theology and Mission, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Stream, Stone, Oikos, Polis: Sacred Space and Ancient Mystery Cult Sanctuaries


Maull, Georgia, Currents in Theology and Mission


Scholarship on the ancient mystery cults illustrates that streams and rock formations are common features in the sanctuary topography of many early, rural Mediterranean cults. By the Hellenistic period, the three mystery cult sites at Eleusis, Samothrace, and Thebes had all expanded and developed into large temple complexes, mirroring the general layout and geography of the ancient city, polis. This paper suggests that the mystery sites at Eleusis, Thebes, and Samothrace and their civic counterpart--the ancient polis--reflect Durkheimian dichotomy of the sacred and profane. (2) This binary generated entire sacred cities--the mystery sanctuaries--in opposition to the profane polis. The natural topographies of these sanctuaries, all useful natural resources integral to the polis, were sanctified and stood apart from their civic counterparts. In the sanctuaries, rocks lay unquarried, wells and streams remained unused for practical, utilitarian, and economic uses and benefits.

Eleusis, Samothrace, and Thebes are home to three of the earliest and, arguably, most well-known mystery cult sites of ancient Greece. What are the mysteries or mystery cults? Marvin Meyer defines them as "secret religious groups composed of individuals who decided, through personal choice, to be initiated into the profound realities of one deity or another." (3) Albert Schachter suggests that Thebes, located in the southern region of Boeotia--40 miles northwest of Athens--functioned in an identifiably ritual capacity at least as early as the sixth century BCE. (4) At the sanctuary at Samothrace, an island in the northern Aegean Sea, excavation of a Hellenistic period rotunda, the Arsinoeion, revealed a seventh century structure on top of which the Arsinoeion had been built, and more significantly, a large sacred rock "dating from the first centuries of the first if not from the second millennium" BCE. (5) In the case of Eleusis--12 miles west of Athens--which Marvin Meyer regards as the "most influential and popular of the Greek mysteries," archaeological research of the structure Megaron B in the complex suggests that cult activity may have begun there as far back as 1400 BCE. (6)

These three cult sites, as exemplars of mystery complexes, share several characteristics, two of which I seek to highlight. The first trait is historical development. Archaeological research presents similar paths of architectural growth and expansion in all of the mystery cult sanctuaries from one or a few minimalist structures to, at their largest, intricate temple complexes consisting of numerous elaborately constructed buildings.(7) This shared architectural growth supports two points of scholarly inference. First these mystery cult sites, and possibly many more sites, were ultimately incorporated into the sphere and control of the nearest city, polis, marking a transition to the status of a public, or civic, enterprise. It is this latter public status and its relationship to the look and feel of the ancient polis that we will return to later.

The second trait is topographical: stones and bodies of water were all sacred natural features of mystery sanctuaries. (8) The three sites with which we are concerned epitomized this trait: at Eleusis, one could find the Mirthless rock and the I'arthenion [Maiden Spring], as well as the Kallichoron [Well of the Beautiful Dances]; (9) at Thebes, the Kabeirion rock formation and two converging streams; (10) at Samothrace, various rock altars including the aforementioned last first century millennium rock altar beneath the Arsinoeion and two parallel-running streams. (11)

Though their significance is rather uncontestable, why are these sorts of natural resources considered sacred? Literary sources--the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Diodorus Siculus's Library of History, and Pausanias' Description of Greece, would assert that these natural topographies are sacred because they are directly connected to the divine.

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Stream, Stone, Oikos, Polis: Sacred Space and Ancient Mystery Cult Sanctuaries
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