Reckoning with the gods: changing patterns of votive deposition in Ionian sanctuaries (7th/6th – 5th/4th c. BCE)

Both archaeological remains and literary texts relating to the 7th and 6th centuries document a lively tradition of votive deposition in the cult sanctuaries of Ionia. Offered to the gods were many objects—weapons, jewellery, figurines and vessels. Major dedications were recorded in inscriptions and noted by Herodotus. Though there are differences between different sanctuaries—the Samian Heraion has a particular wide range of so-called cultic ceramics, the Ephesian Artemision of jewellery and Didyma of weaponry—particularly notable is the vast number of ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’ dedications or deposits. The gods, it seems, were willing to accept a vast array of different forms of offerings during the Archaic period.

All of this disappears dramatically after the Ionian revolt, i.e. during the first half of the 5th century. Far fewer objects are deposited, their diversity of type and origin are starkly reduced and literary references to gifts to the sanctuaries become very few. From a local Ionian perspective, the temptation is to attribute this fundamental change to the economic depression the region experienced during the 5th century, as a result of the Persian wars. But as A. Snodgrass noted nearly 20 years ago, a decrease in the number and quality of objects deposited in sanctuaries can be witnessed in many other parts of the ancient Greek world. Whether or not these changes happened simultaneously or in the same way in different sanctuaries, the overall outcome appears to have been comparable across the entire Greek world. Seeking the cause of this complete abandonment of earlier traditions of ‘worship’ or interaction with the gods cannot therefore be sought only in the ‘pinpoint’ historical events but instead in wider economic or social processes. The key questions are, then: exactly what processes transformed the relationship between humans and gods, and how can we use the evidence to better describe and delineate this phenomenon more precisely?

Discussion of the changing dedicatory tradition has been of interest to archaeologists periodically for some time. Snodgrass’s review examined a wide range of potential explanations, emphasizing the importance of economic and social factors. B. Alroth re-iterated the probable role of changing social structures (albeit of an under-defined nature), and argues that votive practices changed in response to this. A few years later, in the publication of the small finds from the Itonia sanctuary near Philia in Thessaly, I. Kilian-Dirlmeier proposed instead that the lack of 5th century votive deposits was not a result of changing cult practices at all, but instead of rising levels of looting and removal of finds which nonetheless continued to be given. Archaeological visibility also formed the basis of H. Frielinghaus’s recent discussion of changing votive traditions. She suggests that the transformation was not in the number of votive gifts, but their destination: whereas in the Archaic era, large sanctuaries received the bulk of dedications to the gods, from the Classical era onwards, gifts were deposited in smaller shrines—difficult for us to identify or excavate. The question of archaeological visibility is certainly challenging (does the change measure the balance of god’s income or later thefts or redistributions? did the gods start to prefer to collect from smaller shrines?), but the fact that literary mentions seem to fall as well as material remains is suggestive of deeper and real changes at the point of transfer between mortals and gods.

If we assume that the archaeological record indeed reflects a real change (7th/6th century high number of offerings vs. 5th/4th century low number of offerings), then we need to think about possible changing relationships between the earthly world and the world of the gods, and how the balance of reciprocity might have changed—economically, politically and philosophically. We understand the 7th and particularly the 6th centuries as a period of intense and vivid efflorescence in new or borrowed thinking about the natural world and causality. The early (pre-Socratic) texts are normally studied in terms of their early place in an evolution of ideas toward modern philosophy. But the texts also form a historico-ethnographic source for contemporary responses to changing social worlds. The subjects on which such thinkers dwelt and the kind of vocabulary used have the potential to offer insights into changing attitudes to life and death, on relationships between objects and people, on movement through the landscape and on the emergence of a ‘scientific’ (or at least a less theological) approach to understanding the natural processes. In the context in which some influential thinkers begin to claim that the gods may have less influence on the fates of individuals and cities than before, the economic relationship between mortals and gods might indeed have been more open to renegotiation. But it may only have been in the later 6th and 5th centuries in which the Greek world in general and Ionia in particular suffered a number of severe social upheavals which surely had a great impact on the people and the region at a whole: this period is a characterised by external and domestic instability, a high in- and outflow of parts of the population, a temporary disruption of both Ionian and Mediterranean networks (and thus potential pilgrims to the large sanctuaries). We may therefore speculate whether it was not also political events that created an environment in which older traditions could be more easily rejected, and accelerated a shift in the economic relations—the balance of accounts—between gods and men.