Ritual objects and ancient Greek nomenclature

 The semantic relationship of “objects” and “names” often appears self-evident, but when examined closer it becomes clear that the relationship is complex and less straightforward. In this post, I would like to introduce some of the challenges involved in the interpretation of ancient objects, often termed “ritual objects”.

All objects have many meanings and various connotations. This diversity and ambiguity in their interpretation can lead to multiple understandings and readings. Take for example a statue of a woman carrying a baby. Whether she holds it in her arms or has it sitting on her lap, there are various options for identifying the scene. The first thing one may think of is a loving mother. For someone with a Christian upbringing, however, this is obviously Mary with Christ. The viewer’s knowledge and experience are, in this instance, the determinant factors for the identification and interpretation of the statue. Yet there are other interpretive possibilities, not to mention artistic or aesthetic considerations. Depending on the size of the statue, we may think of it as a doll in an every day context or of a statue carried in a religious procession. Size and space are two crucial parameters here. If the statue is to be seen in a church, it is meant to invite reverence and admiration on the part of the worshippers who will definitely identify it as a depiction of Mary and Christ. The same statue moved to a museum takes on different or additional meanings. Removed from its original context, it now acquires the status of an artwork. Whether a viewer identifies it as a religious object or not, within a museum environment it will initially stir up admiration for its artistic beauty rather than reverence for the representation itself – thus context adds and/or alters meanings and interpretations.

When we turn our attention to ancient objects, we also need to consider the parameter of time. As a consequence, the difficulty of accurately identifying a given object increases. And when we turn to “ritual objects” more specifically, we need to consider the particular occasions in which these objects were used.

This brings forward a larger issue with regard to interpretation: examining ancient ritual objects concerns ancient categories and practices. How do we know that what we identify as a “ritual object” was considered as such in antiquity? “Ritual” and “object” are concepts that we often take for granted, but these terms are actually culturally constructed notions that can be ambiguous. Rituals are practices performed within particular contexts that aim specifically to influence the course of things. Objects, on the other hand, refer to material and durable things. When scholars mention “ritual objects”, they do not distinguish between objects that are used in ritual (which are not necessarily used consistently or continuously) and so-called “sacred objects”, although these have different connotations. They are supposed to reveal some facets of ancient society, just like objects and monuments today reflect, at least to some extent, the perceptions of modern identity and culture.

Within this new framework, the category of “ritual objects”, when assigned to objects associated with ancient Greek religious practices, is a modern one. As a consequence, using it to understand ancient Greek realities necessitates some adjustments. We have to go “back to the beginning” in a way and try to understand how these objects used within ritual might have been perceived by the people in the past. Is there in fact an ancient Greek word for these objects? If we analyze the contexts in which Greek terms related to “objects” and “ritual” appear, we can obtain a clearer idea of their semantics. Since most of these terms have been interpreted using modern concepts and ideas, it is difficult to translate accurately these terminologies. For instance, ancient Greek employs numerous terms for the notion of “object”, but they all carry different connotations from the terms we tend to use to translate them. The ancient terms, at the same time, have nuances that go beyond our understanding of materiality. To give an example: what is commonly translated by modern scholars as “sacred objects” (hiera) is an equivocal term that may actually refer either to objects we handle or to practices we perform. In other words, while the term hiera is an ancient category, it does not necessarily point to objects. If the context is not sufficiently informative, one can only guess the nature of these hiera. Just like in all processes of interpretation, we ought to try to be aware of our modern point of view.[1]

Epistemologically this argument falls into the debate of “etic” and “emic” approaches, popular amongst anthropologists and archaeologists. The term “etic” refers to what is described by modern scholarship, while the term “emic” tends to adopt the perspective of the people in the past in considering the terms, objects, and practices and how they were meaningful to them. It is within the “emic” approach that I would like to understand, interpret and reconstruct the use of “objects within ritual”. Ancient Greek categories are indeed not shaped according to the same criteria we use and they do not privilege the same features. These topics will be discussed in my next post.

[1] This builds on my earlier research, a Ph.D. thesis on offerings now published as Offrir en Grèce ancienne. Gestes et contextes (PAwB 41), Stuttgart 2012.