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Cybele and Attis in Domestic Cult at Olynthos: Evidence for Flexibility in Household Ritual

Debby Sneed

The existence of domestic cult in ancient Greece is agreed upon, but the deities worshipped or rituals practiced are not often explored or discussed in detail. With this paper, I will examine one aspect of domestic cult at a single site, Olynthos, to demonstrate that domestic cult involved more personal choice than the limited references in literary sources suggest. I will use domestic assemblages at Olynthos to argue that some residents there chose to worship Cybele and Attis in their domestic rituals. By looking at the individual deities who occupy a prominent physical presence in domestic contexts alongside evidence in texts and on vases, it is possible to move toward an understanding of domestic cult and its importance more generally.

Because Greek religion, public and private, was more about action than any particular and defined belief system, ritual assemblages can be used to recreate the behaviors of those involved in such practices. The presence of terracotta figurines in domestic contexts at Olynthos, usually associated with built and portable altars, demonstrates that individual households chose to worship Cybele and Attis. One house, for example, contained at least five altars, a libation dish, and a terracotta bust of Attis; the proximity of these religious implements to one another suggests that they may have been used as an ensemble. Furthermore, this house and others show that there was no single dedicated room in the house for ritual, but that there was flexibility in the use of space.

The worship of Cybele and Attis in the home is not attested in written sources. Ancient authors limit their discussions to the worship of Hestia, Zeus Ktesios, and Zeus Herkeios as the primary, if not only, household gods. Some authors speak in general terms, listing not gods but practices. Hesiod, for example, says that one should propitiate the gods daily with libations and offerings before bed and again in the morning (Works and Days 336-341). Xenophon has Ischomachos mention storing in his house vessels that the household uses for sacrificing, presumably in a domestic cult context (Oeconomicus 9.6).

Vase-painting also has limited value in helping us understand what actually happened in household rituals. A red-figure pyxis from the later 5th century BCE shows three women, one of whom kneels before a household altar, placing an offering on it. It is not clear from this or similar representations if women were the only dedicants at household altars or whom the women are worshipping. I aim to resolve the ambiguities present in texts and on vases by combining what information they do contain with the material remains from households engaged in domestic cult. I will analyze ritual household assemblages from Olynthos with textual and iconographic data to argue that households could and did worship more than just the gods attested in texts. Focus on the site of Olynthos is justified by the nature of the evidence there, because it is securely dated (432-348 BCE) and in a fairly homogeneous context (the city was sacked by Philip II and only partially reoccupied). 

Previous discussions of domestic cult focus on reconciling its function within the framework of civic religion (Sourvinou-Inwood 2000) or enfranchising women in domestic cult proceedings (Faraone in Boden and Olyan), but rarely on the actual practice of religion and ritual in a domestic setting. I argue that the evidence, taken all together, makes it possible to reconstruct the practice of domestic cult, especially its flexibility in location and practice, and to suggest that Olynthians and probably Greeks in general exercised individualized rituals in their houses.

Session/Panel Title

Practice and Personal Experience

Session/Paper Number

8.3

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