Associations in the Greco-Roman World, a Sourcebook

GRAI wanted to bring your attention to a book that may be of some interest to readers of this blog. It’s by a professor I’ve worked with at York, Philip Harland, and since I was hired as a research assistant on this project, I can personally vouch for its contents!

The book, Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations and Commentary, is the second volume in a series (The first volume can be found here). It collects inscriptions from Asia Minor and the north coast of the Black Sea and is a valuable resource for those seeking to understand antiquity from the ground up. Topically, this volume focuses on associations, a broad category which includes religious groups, trade guilds, and funerary associations among others.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction on the topic of religion and associations:

While immigrant, occupational, and familial associations are sometimes easier for the social historian to identify, others are less so. In particular, with many groups, all we know is that numerous individuals joined together regularly to form a society, to honour a particular deity, or to be initiated into the mysteries of a deity. And in many of these cases no further information is available concerning how these individuals may have been connected before the formation of the association. This latter situation has often led to the rather unhelpful scholarly category of the “cultic association” or “religious association,” with, in some cases, scholars debating whether or not this or that group was “religious” enough to be called a “cultic association,” or whether a particular group was merely a “club,” or a “political association,” or what have you. Although it is true that a given group may have focussed more on honouring certain deities than some other group, these distinctions are, now, largely unrecoverable for the historian. We shall see that immigrant groups, occupational guilds, neighbourhood associations, and others were similarly concerned with honouring the gods, so virtually all groups discussed in this work had a cultic function and were, in some sense, “cultic associations.” (Harland, 3)

What I think is really valuable about this text is that this material is not the most easily accessed of ancient sources—the translations can be tricky and the source material is often partial, and they lack the “star power” that our regular sources, such as Livy or even (ugh) Tertullian, possess. It is this latter aspect that I think provides the most value to scholars in that these inscriptions offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of those living in the Hellenistic era and Roman Empire.

If this sounds like your thing, you can get the book at the DeGruyter website, though be warned it’s quite pricey.

This being my blog, I am going to take a moment to highlight my important work on this book: I indexed sections IX and X, as well as did a bit of proofreading. Perhaps one day I will also have my own book of translations, but until then I’ll content myself with a nice mention in the acknowledgements section.

Posted in Academic, Ancient, Greek, The Mysteries

Satyrs and Maenads: Themes in the Mysteries of Dionysus

The Greek wine-god Dionysus was a popular figure, both in public religion as well as in more private settings, such as with his mysteries. Scholars look to many sources to understand his mysteries, with artistic evidence—such as that found on murals or vases—comprising one way to understand what his worshipers did and believed.

Common themes are often found in this art. There is Dionysus, who is wreathed in ivy and attended by fawn-skinned cloaked maenads, female worshipers who carry thyrsoi and fend-off the advances of satyrs, half-man/half-goat creatures of Greek mythology. These characters find themselves in a variety of situations, one of which is that of the “sleeping maenad.” The sleeping maenad appears on vases and in statues, and also on reliefs. The trope here is as follows: The maenad sleeps while some horny Satyrs look on—often with lewd results. We know the Satyrs are horny because they are depicted with giant erections. If you are squeamish about that last sentence, I recommend not reading any further because the rest of this post is totally not safe for work.

So the maenad sleeps and the satyrs do whatever they do. In one case, a Satyr gropes the thigh of an underwearless-maenad, as his stimulated companion eagerly looks on (ARV 188/68 at the Musée de Antiquitiés in Rouen—but you can find it closer to hand in Barbara Goff’s Citizen Bacchae, pg. 269). For those who are wondering, yes this was pretty rape-y, but it was the ancient world and you could do awful things to women back then. Sometimes the satyrs didn’t physically assault the sleeping maenad, which brings me to another situation which is, well, perplexing. I am referring to a relief found on a Roman sarcophagus which depicts this common theme of sleeping maenad/horny satyr. But this time there’s a twist: The satyr pleasures himself with a statue. See, um, below. Satyr

Here the maenad sleeps, and the Satyr watches on. But instead of taking a swipe at the lovely lass, he appears to be mounting himself on the erect penis of a statue behind him. Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. The Satyr is partially shielded by a curtain, which appears to be held by another Satyr, while grape leaves and pine cones decorate the scene, making a clear connection to Dionysus. The maenad reclines while another satyr emerges in the background, but she appears unscathed. The rest of the sarcophagus appears to depict some sort of nighttime revelry connected with the mysteries of Dionysus: there are torches, a woman carries the sacred basket on her head, and one man is unable to stand up without a bit of help—perhaps he was overpowered by some initiation rites or maybe he indulged in too much wine. Bacchanalia

This sarcophagus presents a great example of the problems which surround studying the mysteries in that it combines both mythological themes with actual human activities. Do the activities of the Satyr represent ritual activity? Are they simply part of the teachings that might have been revealed doing initiation? Did women play a passive role in these mysteries? And the big one: Was it only about sex or was it an allegory with a deeper meaning? That such a graphic image would be found on funerary item is shocking to our modern sensibilities. Regardless, these scenes were of great importance for the person to whom this sarcophagus belonged, and tapped into a theme that was widespread in antiquity: the horny satyr and sleeping maenad. I do not know if the “statue penetration” is a common theme as well, but here it gets play within what was an otherwise common story.

Posted in Ancient, The Mysteries | 4 Comments

Blogroll Update: Summer 2014

The blogroll is constantly a work in progress—new finds get added, dead links are taken away, and sometimes the overall shape changes as Invocatio itself changes.

Over the past little while, I’ve added some new blogs to the sidebar and I wanted to bring a few of them to your attention in a more formal way. So here goes:

Albion Calling
Most readers of this blog will already be familiar with Albion Calling, the blog of British archaeologist Ethan Doyle White. In addition to providing a back-door look at the academic study of paganism, he features interviews with up-and-coming scholars in the field as well as more established academics, like Ronald Hutton. This is a welcome addition to the field in so many ways and I encourage you to give it a look if you haven’t already.

This is the blog of Christian Apocrypha scholar (and York professor) Tony Burke. Full Disclosure: I worked with Burke on the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium and he’s also supervising me on a project this year—so perhaps I am biased. Nevertheless, Burke is a mover and shaker in the field of non-traditional biblical studies, best exemplified by his efforts to create a scholarly dialogue around the (you guessed it) Christian Apocrypha and other non-canonical Christian literature. If you want to know more about Jesus was doing outside the pages of the Bible, then this is the blog for you.

Three Principle Rounds
When I first met Sheldon Kent at ESSWE4, we discussed the world of academic blogging. Kent was working on such an interesting research topic (Mormonism! Esotericism! Esoteric Mormonism!) that I immediately suggested he consider starting a blog of his own. I am so happy to see that he has followed through! Three Principle Rounds combines both academic-y posts on the subject as well as his observations on current trends in the Mormon community as it adapts to the 21st century. His perspective is a much-needed one and provides a knowledgeable—and objective—angle that significantly differs from first-person sources or straight journalistic coverage of Mormonism.

All these blogs are worth a read and if you haven’t had a chance to get to know them, I strongly suggest you do. In addition to the above-mentioned blogs, there are a few other new links to peruse and, of course, I welcome your suggestions for blogs I might have missed. Enjoy!


Posted in Culture | 2 Comments

Iamblichus, Orientalism and Peer Review

The latest issue of the Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies was released this week. Quick scale-up: The Pomegranate is a peer-review academic journal, and features articles by scholars who study paganism and esotericism. It is one of the pillars which support the academic study of paganism and magic. Other journals that also come to mind here are Aries and Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft.

This issue is a special issue. For regular readers, they will notice that it is super-sized and features double the articles. But on a more personal note, this issue also features my first peer-review journal article.

This is a weird feeling for me because it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been published. As someone who spent several years as a professional writer, getting published isn’t new to me. I’ve had hundreds of by-lines in newspapers and magazines, and logged plenty of cover stories in my brief career. And those are great memories. Quite honestly they’re pretty awesome memories.

But this is peer review, and that’s a totally different beast with wildly different standards. It helped that I had Chas Clifton on my side to help guide me though the process, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect.

The peer review process is a blind process where one’s work is judged anonymously. The author is anonymous and the reviewers are anonymous. This doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.

Basically you strip your paper of any indication of who the author is, so the reviewer can judge the work on its merits without any sort of personal biases getting in the way. It then goes out anonymously to reviewers. Obviously, it’s the reviewers hold all the power here, and they determine whether your article will see the light of day. A good review will point out areas for improvement, and suggest changes to be made for publication. But you could also be on the receiving end of a flat-out “no.” At which point you drown your sorrows in cheesecake, the umbrage of tears smearing the ink on your carefully wrought paper that you worked so, so hard on.

The take-away here? Peer review is a bit of a crapshoot. It’s also a bit nerve-wracking.

Anyway, my paper made it through (Hooray! Celebration—not sadness—cheesecake!). So now what?

Now you read it! This paper is a fresh version of a paper I posted a couple of years ago called “Orientalism in Iamblichus’ The Mysteries” (which was removed long ago for copyright reasons, etc.). This version features some additional discussion about the perception of magic in the Greco-Roman world, and is tightened up a bit more than the original

Here is the abstract:

Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries of the Egyptians is part of a larger Neoplatonic debate over the soundness of theurgical practices and Eastern ritual. The discussion of Egyptian practices in The Mysteries reveals the legitimating structures which underlie Iamblichus’ argument, specifically, an Orientalizing discourse which contributes to a larger esoteric market of knowledge. This is figured both through stereotypes of Egypt as a site of ancient mysteries, but also from a very real inaccessibility of Egyptian religion to the Greeks. This emphasis on timeless, secret knowledge converts Iamblichan theurgy, a disputed new system of Platonic thought, into a unit of social currency which confers worth, prestige and power upon its creator and sets it apart from the dominant mode of philosophical rationalism.

I would like to thank my reviewers for pointing out valuable ways to broaden my discussion, and providing a relatively smooth transition into academic publishing. Of course, I would like to thank Chas Clifton for all his help in making this happen, but more importantly, for his patience with my lousy footnoting (despite my best efforts!). Thanks are also due to my Professor, Phil Harland, for toughening me up and challenging my thinking about these issues—without his advice I wouldn’t have written such a good paper in the first place. And thank you to The Husband for being The Husband and generally supporting me, even when it means turning-in late to bed. Anyway, this is a really special experience for me, and I am very grateful and thankful for everyone who helped me get here. Huzzah!

Photo by nomadic lass.

Posted in Academic, Hermetica, Magic, mysticism, Theurgy | 5 Comments

Gods—They’re Just Like Us! (Apollo’s Vacation and the Boozy House-sitter)

The gods in antiquity often came under fire for their human-like behaviour. Jealousy, lust, revenge—these are just a few of the traits that were criticized as being less than divine. Xenophanes famously said that if horses could depict their gods, they would look like horses. Of course, this speaks to the question of which came first: the human or the god. The argument here is that when gods do human things, it’s because humans are projecting themselves upon the divine.

Case in point: Apollo.

Despite the obviousness of Xenophanes’ observation, once in a while, I am struck by how the gods do very human things. You know, how they act all normal when they’re not turning into mythical animals or smiting their enemies with lightning bolts. Recently, I found a discussion of the relationship of Dionysus and Apollo which seemed particularly indicative of this humanizing of the gods. In a commentary to the Orphic “Hymn to Dionysos Liknites,” Apostolos N. Athanassakis observes how the epithet Liknites was particular to the worship of Dionysus at Delphi (153-154).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Delphi the home of Apollo? And, yes. Yes, it is. But sometimes Apollo goes on vacation, and when that happens, Dionysos watches the house. Gods—they’re just like us!

Like the Canadian snowbirds who head to Florida when the weather turns cold, or those who skedaddle to the Bahamas during Spring Break, Apollo similarly takes a winter vacay. Giving his keys to Dionysus, the god of divination puts his mail on hold and absconds for three months of R&R, presumably to do whatever it is gods do. I assume it involves a sandy beach, a frosty margarita, and being fanned by palm fronds—but perhaps I am reading a bit much into it here.

Actually, I am. Apollo just went north to Thrace to hang out with the Hyperboreans. Which I’m sure is fun in its own way.

Why was Dionysus looking after Delphi in Apollo’s absence? Athanassakis observes that there is a pre-Apollonian link between Dionysus and Delphi, and perhaps a link between Dionysus and the snake, or Python, which Apollo slayed when he took up residence there. Furthermore, it is said by Plutarch that Dionysus was buried at Delphi:

The people of Delphi believe that the remains of Dionysus rest with them close beside the oracle; and the Holy Ones offer a secret sacrifice in the shrine of Apollo whenever the devotees of Dionysus wake the God of the Mystic Basket. (Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 201-202)

Perhaps this is a reference to the belief that Dionysus was ripped apart by the Titans. Or perhaps it refers to the half-god, half-human status of Dionysus (Born to Zeus and the mortal Semele). Either way, there was a belief that Apollo shared his space with Dionysus, either while he was alive or after his death. But most definitely while he was on vacation.

In much of the ancient literature, we often find associations between gods that deviate from the standard stories we know from “mythology.” New genealogies are created and strange alliances formed based on regional peculiarities or how the god is interpreted by his worshipers. The Orphic Hymns certainly fall into this category, and the “Hymn to Dionysos Liknites” underscores the atypical relationships the gods may have with each other. In this case, we meet Dionysus, not as the god of wine, but as the god of house-sitting.


  • Athanassakis, Apostolos, and Benjamin M. Wolkow. 2013. The Orphic Hymns. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Plutarch. Isis and Osiris. Full text can be found online here.

Photo by xymox.

Posted in Ancient

The Linguistic Origins of Sacred Space

In the Roman Empire, sacred space was not limited to physical structures—the gods were everywhere, and nearly all facets of life were imbued with the sacred.

There were however, some spaces which were more sacred than others. These spaces were known as templum, a word that looks an awful lot like our modern “temple” but actually refers to a segment of space deemed sacred, rather than a building or something like that (to which the term aedes would apply).

In On the Latin Language, Varro attempts to explain where this term came from. He says the following:

The word templum is derived from the word ‘to gaze’ [tueri], and so likewise is the word ‘to contemplate’ [contemplare]…the notion that a temple [templum] is a consecrated building [aedes sacra] seems to have stemmed from the fact that in the city of Rome most consecrated buildings are temples… (Varro, On the Latin Language, VII.8-10)

Varro’s explanation connects the word “templum” to the actions of augurs, who ultimately determine the boundaries of sacred space. They can do this in many ways, but here Varro details the establishing of sacred boundaries by trees, and how one sees the physical space between them. Basically, the auger eyeballs a specific space, chooses a few boundary points (in this case, trees), and designates that area as holy.  Easy peasy.

But…I think Varro is wrong. Ok, well not totally wrong. But not totally right, either.

Now, before we really get into this, I want to make clear that I am not a linguistic expert. I have a few years of Greek under my belt, but I still have a lot to learn and my translations are usually a bit bumpy. That said, I do know a few things, and I think they are applicable to this dilemma.

In Greek, the word for sacred space is τέμενος, a word whose root is τμ and is related to the idea of cutting or separating (verbal form: τέμνω). According to the most-holy-and-venerable LSJ, this word means “a piece of land cut off II. A piece of land dedicated to a god, the sacred precincts.”

We can see, in this use that a physical space is cut away from regular space, and given a special status. The idea is the same as the Latin one, this is an area set apart for things related to the gods.

Transliterated, τέμενος is temenos. Already, we see a shared word structure with temple—they both have the same “tm” (τμ) root! Furthermore, the act performed by the augurs in Varro’s description, can be seen as a “cutting apart” of sacred space from the secular. The key concept in both words is one of sacred demarcation. The question is: Is this conceptual sharing reflected in the root of the word?

I think it is. I certainly think it tells us more about the conceptualization of space than Varro’s explanation, which seems a bit circular to me. The Greek word τέμενος encapsulates not only the idea Varro is hinting at—that the word templum is related to other words of sacred space—but also shows the linguistic root at the heart of the concept.

Anyone who studies Latin and Greek will eventually notice similarities, despite the different alphabets used. It strikes me as strange that Varro didn’t put that together here. Perhaps there is a political reasoning behind his explanation that has to do with establishing Roman religious autonomy. Either way you slice it (ugh), sacred space in the Roman world was defined as a place physically separated, or cut away from regular space.

Varro’s attempts to determine the linguistic roots of templum show that the word had much in common structurally and conceptually with the Greek word τέμενος, which suggests that the idea of sacred space was similar throughout these parts of the ancient Mediterranean. While Varro may have some good instincts here about what the word templum means, it seems we can get a bit more clarity from going back to the Greek.

Photo by Sharon Mollerus.

Source: Varro, On the Latin Language, VII.8-10

Posted in Academic, Greek | 3 Comments

Per Faxneld’s Satanic Feminism: A New Approach to the Dissertation?

Satanic Feminism

Some of you may be familiar with scholar Per Faxneld. For those of you who don’t know his work, Faxneld researches the subject of Satanism, specifically the archetype of the female within Satanic currents. For example, his contribution to The Devil’s Party, looked at how negative feminine stereotypes were inverted by Stanislaw Przybyszewski, whose ambiguous portrayals of demonic women could be read as a reversal which imbued them with power rather than inferiority.

When a Satanist writes of woman as satanic, it logically has a rather special meaning and should in all likelihood be considered a form of praise. (Faxneld, 75)

Faxneld is getting ready to defend his dissertation, Satanic Feminism, at Stockholm University. Furthermore, he’s taking a wider approach to his defence. Faxneld has released a companion soundtrack which explores the themes in his dissertation through a merging of music and spoken word. The music is atmospheric veering towards the atonal, perhaps indicative of the disruptive nature of his topic, while the spoken word pieces are performed by a host of up-and-coming scholars, such as Manon Hedenborg-White, J. Christian Greer and Christian Guidice.

This is a really creative presentation of the dissertation, one which certainly challenges new scholars to consider the life of their work beyond the written page. It is great to see how this topic has been re-imagined into a totally different context, one which allows the audience to experience the milieu researched by Faxneld in an accessible and immediate way.


Faxneld, Per. “Witches, Anarchism, and Evolutionism: Stanislaw Przybyszewski’s fin-de-siecle Stanism and the Demonic Feminine” in The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity. Oxford University Press. 2013.

Posted in Academic, Satanism | 1 Comment