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Local Legends and Power Politics in the Cult Statues of the Temple of Despoina at Lykosoura

Ashley Eckhardt

Emory University

A cult statue within a Greek temple simultaneously manifested the presence of the divinity in the human realm and communicated that deity’s ties to the local community. A marked escalation in the production of cult statues occurred in the second century B.C.E. as Greek poleis used the erection of sacred monuments to negotiate the changing political environment of this time. Among this production was the monumental cult statue group created for the Temple of Despoina at Lykosoura, which had been incorporated into the Megalopolitan synoecism of 369 B.C.E. I argue that the cult statue group at Lykosoura helped redefine an Arkadian identity in the second century B.C.E. through the employment of a local sculptor, local marble, and allusions to the Arkadian goddess’s local mythology. In so doing, Megalopolis not only solidified its preeminence in Arkadia, but also promoted its own position within the contemporary political turmoil of the Mediterranean by aligning itself with an esteemed cult, largely of its own making.

In the first section of the paper, I examine how the distinctly Arkadian elements of the cult statue group contributed to the creation of a pan-Arkadian identity at Lykosoura. Scholars of Hellenistic religious practices have demonstrated that numerous cities throughout the Mediterranean propagated their patron cults through the implementation of Panhellenic festivals, monumental architectural renovations, and new cult statues (Chaniotis 2002; Parker 2009; Platt 2011; Melfi 2016). I suggest that the renowned second-century B.C.E. sculptor Damophon of Messene created the Lykosoura statue group in such a way as to make the cult of Despoina seem even more venerable than it was in practice. Pausanias described the worship of Despoina as the most prevalent in Arkadia (8.37.9), yet the goddess’s sanctuary is not mentioned in any extant literary or epigraphic source prior to the second century B.C.E. The extant architectural remains of the sanctuary date after the Megalopolitan synoecism, leading Alaya Palamidis (2018) to suggest that the newly established city of Megalopolis transformed Lykosoura into a cult center that communicated a pan-Arkadian identity to link the formerly independent communities together. Damophon expressed this Arkadian character in the Despoina cult group through his choice of figures; the four major figures of the composition were linked only in the local Arkadian mythology of the goddess. The Arkadians worshipped Despoina as a powerful nature goddess tied to the pastoral life specific to the region. Moreover, by using local marble for the cult statue group, Damophon expressed physically the ties between this deity and the natural resources of Arkadia.

In the second section of the paper, I demonstrate how the scale of the cult statue group highlighted the political identities of Megalopolis and the Arkadians. Much scholarship on Hellenistic cult statues has discussed how many smaller temples like that at Lykosoura contained comparatively colossal cult images in this period, thereby clearly evoking the power and majesty of the divine figure (Cain 1995; Faulstich 1997; Damaskos 1999; Ridgway 2000; Mylonopoulos 2011). Damophon used the temple’s small dimensions to his advantage; though they would have stood just under six meters tall, the Lykosoura figures filled the entire back wall of the temple’s cella. As such, they commanded an imposing presence that illustrated the magnificence of the deities. However, I suggest that this monumental scale further highlighted the significance of the sanctuary within Arkadia through the illusion of an awe-inspiring monument, reminiscent of the famed cult statues of the Classical period. Through his choice of content, materials, and scale for the Lykosoura cult statue group, I argue in this paper that Damophon created a monument that exhibited a distinctly Arkadian character while also providing the sanctuary with an air of antiquity and veneration that masked its relatively recent creation. This monument thus fabricated simultaneously the local identity of the community and the significance of this pan-Arkadian cult in order to bolster Megalopolis’s political position in the second century B.C.E.

Session/Panel Title

Monumental Expressions of Political Identity

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