Foreign Gods, Syncretism and Hellenismos


While some would argue that syncretism and foreign deities were unimportant elements of Hellenismos, I believe the evidence indicates that this is mistaken.  For one thing, many of the “Hellenic” deities, including some that are considered the Hellenic deities par excellence such as Apollon are at root, foreign deities, who were incorporated into the pantheon.  The more I research this aspect of Hellenismos, the more it is clear to me that even at relatively early periods, foreign deities were either incorporated directly into the pantheon, or they were  accepted and worshipped alongside the original pantheon.

An argument recently raged which began in part over the acceptance of Zeus Ammon into the culture and worship of Mainland Greece itself.  In light of this, I will start my discussion with this deity.

Zeus Ammon is the name of the deity who presided over the Oracle of Ammon at Siwa.  He first came into the awareness of the Hellenes, after they founded the colony of Kyrene (Cyrene) on the Libyan coast in the 8th century a.e.v.  The colony of Kyrene was a Dorian colony, settled from Thera (itself originally colonized it is said by Sparta).  Kyreneians began to use the oracle, and later accepted the worship of Ammon, whom they associated with their own ruling deity, Zeus, as Zeus Ammon, with Ammon becoming an epithet (a word or phrase that has become fixed and often used as a nickname or descriptor).  Ammon becomes translated as “sandy” (from ammos) and the name means “Sandy Zeus.”  This is a good description of a Zeus who resides in a shrine in the midst of a desert.  This association also led the Greeks to name Egyptian Thebes the city of “Diospolis” (Zeus’s city, much as Khnum, city of Thoth became Hermopolis Megale).

His association with the Egyptian god Amun, (or Ammon in Greek) was fixed, when the ram’s horns of Amun became visualized on the head of Zeus under this epithet. This imagery can be seen on coinage from Kyrene.  He became, alongside Apollon and Kyrene the nymph, the chief god of their colony. (1)   Herodotus mentions in his discussion of Dodona, an explicit link between the Oracle of Zeus there, and the Oracle of Zeus at Siwa. (Histories 2:54-57), as told by Priests of Thebes, “that two priestesses had been carried away from Thebes by Phoenicians; one, they said they had heard was taken away and sold in Libya, the other in Hellas; these women, they said, were the first founders of places of divination in the aforesaid countries.” He then goes on to relate a tale of two doves (prophetesses called peleiades), one who flew to Dodona, and one to Libya, and established the two oracles at the same time, as related by the priestesses of Dodona itself, confirming the Egyptian tale.

Pausanias mentions (iii. 18 sec 2; ix. 16 sec. 1,  2 ) how the Kyrenians spread the worship of Zeus Ammon back to their homeland, Sparta and Thebes.  By the time of the Peloponnesian Wars, Sparta, a very conservative city state indeed, had established a temple to Zeus Ammon, and favored him highly.  A Theban of the same time period, Pindar (533-455), was a devotee of Zeus Ammon. Pausanias records that a temple to Zeus Ammon existed in Thebes in his lifetime, and that Pindar devoted a statue to this god, made by the sculptor Calamis, there.  (ix. 16. 1).  He also mentions the deity in Pythian Odes IV.16 and IX.89 (both composed in honor of Kyrenian victors in the Pythian Games). He explicitly identifies Zeus with Ammon in Pythian Ode IX.  Pausanias, and a scholiast on Pythian Ode IV (3) both mention that Pindar composed one of the first odes to Zeus Ammon himself, beginning Ammwn Olumpou despota (Ammon, Master of Olympos). Ptolemy I Soter, son of Lagus later inscribed this hymn on a stone pillar and dedicated an altar in that temple.

Pausanias mentions a statue of Zeus Ammon as being found in the Arcadian town of Megalopolis (VII. 32. 1.). Arcadia is a very isolated area of Greece, land-locked and far from the sea and outside influences generally. It is also very rural. The presence of a shrine or statue to Zeus Ammon here indicates that even this rural and conservative area (much like Sparta), is indicative of the widespread devotions to Zeus in this form.

In Aphytis in Chalcedonia (near Thessalonika), a shrine to Zeus Ammon existed from the fourth century a.e.v. (4)  This area fell under Macedonian domination under Philip II of Macedon, and Alexander III (“the Great”) was apparently aware of this shrine.  It is thought by some that one reason the home of Pindar was spared by Alexander in the sack of Thebes was out of respect for Pindar’s devotion to this deity. (5).

In this same time frame, a temple to Zeus Ammon was built in the Piraeus by the Athenian State. They also named one of the state warships, the Ammon.  (4)   A phiale dedicated to Zeus Ammon was found in Athens dating from 375 a.e.v., and the temple was in existance by 333/2, and is thought to date to 363/2. In 330, the State honored Pausiades of Phaleron for his services as Priest of Ammon, and in 333/2 the State held a public sacrifice to Zeus-Ammon. (6)  Plutarch in his life of Cimon (18.6-7) mentions that this Athenian statesman went to Siwa to consult the oracle in 450 a.e.v., as did Alcibiades (Nicias 13.1) before the Syracusan Expedition of 415 a.e.v.

Also significant, we find the city of Elis, protector of Olympia, worshipped Zeus Ammon as well. Pausanias (V. 15. 5.) writes:

“”Each month the Eleans sacrifice once on all the altars I have enumerated. They sacrifice in an ancient manner; for they burn on the altars incense with wheat which has been kneaded with honey, placing also on the altars twigs of olive, and using wine for a libation … The traditional words spoken by them in the Town Hall at the libations, and the hymns which they sing, it were not right for me to introduce into my narrative. They pour libations, not only to the Greek gods, but also to the god in Libya, to Hera Ammonia and to Parammon, which is a surname of Hermes.”

Note that they are also worshipping Hera Ammonia and Hermes Parammon, both apparently Libyan or Egyptian deities.

This evidence indicates that the worship of Zeus Ammon spread throughout mainland Hellas, from the most cosmopolitan cities (Athens) to the most conservative (Sparta), from urban centers like Sparta, Athens and Thebes, to rural areas (Arcadia).  It went from the southmost part of Hellenic civilization (Kyrene in Libya), to the northernmost (Macedonia).  States and peoples were dedicating statues, altars and rituals to this god across the Hellenic world. Clearly then, syncretism and the worship of foreign deities was not the province only of elites and intellectuals, but of all strata of Hellenic society.

Zeus Ammon is not the only Egyptian deity to penetrate into Hellenic civilization in this time period (Archaic-Classical).  Isis, too, spread her wings over Greece, with temples and cult found across the Hellenic world.

Herodotus relates in (II.171) that he believes the Egyptian daughters of Danaos, the Danaids, brought the rituals of the Thesmophoria to Argos with them, and from there they spread across Hellas. Herodotus associated Isis with Demeter, and thus these rituals, were, in his eyes, rituals originally to Isis. “At a very early period the ‘holy’ accounts (hieroi logi) of the Heraion of Argos identified Io with Isis, and Epaphos with the bull, Apis.  Aeschylus took his inspiration from it in his tragedy, The Suppliants (Turcan p. 75) Later than this, we find a man with the name Isigenes (Born of Isis) at Athens, born around 400 BC. Earlier that century, Isis was being worshipped at the Piraeus, as recorded by Aristophanes in The Birds, something he credits to a Lycurgus “the Ibis.” (Turcan 1992 p. 81).  A temple to Isis was built n Athens around 333 a.e.v. on the orders of the Assembly. (op. cit. p. 76).  Later still, she had a sanctuary built on the slopes of the Acropolis itself, while Isis’s basileion and later the Goddess herself appeared on Attic coinage (Op. cit. 81-2) Turcan also relates that usually, these foreign Nilotic cults were the province of the lower classes, but in Attica itself, they also attained the attendance and loyalty of the elites. The implication is that the poor and the commoners were more likely to engage in foreign religious practices, rather than the elites of the society, a fact that is quite counter-intuitive.

Temples to Isis were found scattered all over the Hellenic world. A few places where she was found include: Delphi, Corinth (on the Acrocorinth, the acropolis of the city), Argos, Sicyonia, Methana, Mantinea (in Arcadia), Eretria, where a temple had many priests, Isis had several sanctuaries on Delos, Thessalonika also had a temple up in Macedonia, Thracian Maronea, the colonies on the Euxine sea, Thasos, Lesbos, Cos, Rhodes (where the Basileion appeared on coinage), Smyrna, a temple stood next to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, Halicarnassos, Priene had special cloisters of her devotees, and temples were also found in Crete and Cyprus.  Turcan also mentions cheap terracotta Egyptian votives being spread as far as Spain by Naucratian merchants, Greeks settled in Egypt.  Terracotta votives were the equivalent of the cheap plastic Jesuses and Marys of popular Catholicism of today, and imply a decidedly popular market.

In short, the cult of Isis, was found over the entire Hellenistic Aegean world, and Eastern Mediterranean colonies.  Once again, we see cities like Mantinea, far inland, as well as port cities.  Cities in Ionia, and Macedonia, and the Mainland.  These were widespread cults, found all over, with enough prestige to be included in the coinage of many of these cities, a major concession, and probably indicative of widespread popular support.

Another foreign deity who attained widespread recognition in the Hellenic world, was Cybele, or Kubileia of Phrygia.  “The goddess with the lions reached Greece, and even Magna Graecia, in the sixth century BC.She appeared in a chariot drawn by a pair of wild animals in the Gigantomachia of the Treasure of Siphnos at Delphi (around 525 BC).”  (Op. cit. p. 29).  Turcan also mentions cheap terracottas of Cybele from the same century at Cyprus.  He mentions as well finds a Massalia (Marseilles), probably arriving via Phocaea, the metropolis of Massalia.

“In Athens, the construction of a temple in homage to the Mother (Metroon) was said to have been in expiation for throwing one of her roaming priests or ‘metragyrtes’ into the barathrum (a ravine into which criminals were hurled), which had provoked the anger of the goddess and brought the plague.” (ibid p. 30)

The Metroon in Athens, was in the old Bouleterion (Council of 500 building), in the Agora. Munn argues that Alcibiades instituted this cult in c. 408 a.e.v. (7, 8).  The Metroon was known as the Metroon, and used as a state archive, about 80 years prior to Lycurgus of Athen’s oration Against Leoncrates of 330 a.e.v. (9) which would place the archive at around 410 a.e.v.

Turcan then adds: “Some years later, in 415 BC, a man leaped on the altar of the twelve gods and castrated himself with a stone…the incident was taken to be an evil omen before Alcibiades’ expedition to Sicily.” (op. cit. 30).  This implies that the Metroon and worship of Cybele predates the 415 expedition to Sicily, much less the 408 date for the establishment of the Metroon given by Munn.  Since the incident with the metragyrtes is said to coincide with the war against Xerxes in 480, an expiation and establishment of the Metroon earlier in the 5th century a.e.v. is likely in my estimation.  Following up on this Galli-like behavior in Athens in 415, Turcan also mentions the discovery of a plaque of Attis found in the Piraeus dating from the year 300 a.e.v. (ibid p. 31)

Strabo (Geography X.3.15-18) specifically refers to Attis and nocturnal cries of “Hyes Attes, Attes” in the 4th century in Athens, and associated strongly with Sabazius, apparently arriving with Sabazius as a son of Cybele before 600 a.e.v.  Euripides mentions Cybele in his Bacchae, “Raise your native Phrygian timbrels, invented by Rhea, Great Mother and me…” (lines 58-9).  Cybele was associated with Rhea, but was from Phrygia.  A Phrygian Rhea would be Cybele. The mad dances of possession, were also mentioned by Euripedes in Hippolytus lines 141-4, and Plato has Socrates compare the antics of Sophists to the dance of Cybele’s Corybantes in Euthydemus 277 d-e.  All of these indicate a familiarity with the rites of Cybele.

In addition to a temple in Athens, Cybele was as mentioned earlier, depicted in devotional artwork at Delphi, and had a Metroon built to her at Olympia, home of the Olympic games at the end of the 5th century a.e.v.  Later, her cult had a strong center in the Greek city of Pergamon.

Lynn E. Roller’s book In Search of God the Mother also makes the following comment: “Her cult was particularly prominent in central Anatolia (modern Turkey), and spread from there through the Greek and Roman world. She was an enormously popular figure, attracting devotion from common people and potentates alike. (13)

Athens was also home to another foreign deity, the Thracian Goddess Bendis.  In The Republic Plato sets the dialog as taking place on Socrates’ return to the city from the inaugural Bendideia, the annual festival of Bendis established by the State of Athens.

“I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess, and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful. When we had finished our prayers and viewed the spectacle, we turned in the direction of the city…” (Republic I. 327)

Here, Socrates is relating going down to pray to Bendis, the Thracian Artemis as the footnote in my copy of the Republic calls her, he also mentions the procession of inhabitants (i.e., citizens of Athens).

“Adeimantus added: Has no one told you of the torch-race on horseback in honour of the goddess which will take place in the evening?

“With horses! I replied: That is a novelty.  Will horsemen carry torches and pass them one to another during the race?

“Yes, said Polemarchus, and not only so, but a festival will be celebrated at night, which you certainly ought to see.  Let us rise soon after supper and see this festival…” (Ibid 328)

Plato gives a few more details on the festival here.  At the close of the First Book, Thrasymachus says the following to Socrates, which makes the name of the festival explicit:

“Let this, Socrates, he said, be your entertainment at the Bendidea.” (Ibid 354)

For one thing, this passage indicates that the Athenian citizenry took part in the festival of this Thracian goddess, as well as watching the festival.  On doing a bit more research I found the following information which was interesting:

“Plato then chose the inaugural Bendideia, arguably one of the largest and most elaborate annual celebrations in Athens, but does not explain certain details:  Athenians created four separate cultic societies (orgeones) to accommodate the foreign goddess Bendis and her hero companion Deloptes.  Part II examines the uniqueness of orgeones (thiasoi of sacrificial votaries) in Athenian society:  specifically with regard to phratriai.  These votaries blurred distinctions between citizens and non-citizens.  Orgeones were not, by definition, members of a hereditary thiasoi, yet an orgeon could petition acceptance into a hereditary phratry, and the phratry offered access to Athenian politeia.  The outright creation of an orgeones group was unprecedented (until Bendis) and the total size of Bendis/Deloptes’ groups was staggering. …

The dialogue’s opening draws attention specifically to the Thracian and “native” processions of Bendis marching into Peiraieus.  This cult whose membership numbered up to 3,500 could offer a substantial “backdoor” to Athenian citizenship privileges for a large number of otherwise unqualified individuals.” (10)

Notice this, the Bendideia is described as one of the largest and most elaborate of the Athenian festival.  There were up to 3500 Thracians in this cult, who could gain access to Athenian citizenship via participation in her cult.  There must be some major concession here for the jealously guarded Athenian citizenship to be granted to votaries of a foreign deity.  Given that the Athenian citizenry numbered about 20,000 to 30,000 (11), this is a potential increase in citizenship of ten percent or more in one shot. also lists the following information:

“BENDIS (Bendis), a Thracian divinity in whom the moon was worshipped. Hesychius (s. v. dilonchon) says, that the poet Cratinus called this goddess dilonchos, either because she had to discharge two duties, one towards heaven and the other towards the earth, or because she bore two lances, or lastly, because she had two lights, the one her own and the other derived from the sun. In Greece she was sometimes identified with Persephone, but more commonly with Artemis. (Proclus, Theolog. p. 353.) From an expression of Aristophanes, who in his comedy “The Lemnian Women”

called her the megalê theos (Phot. Lex. and Hesych. s. v.), it may be inferred, that she was worshipped in Lemnos; and it was either from this island or from Thrace that her worship was introduced into Attica; for we know, that as early as the time of Plato the Bendideia were celebrated in Peiraeeus every year on the twentieth of Thargelion. (Hesych. s. v. Bendis; Plat. Rep. i. 1; Proclus, ad Tim. p. 9; Xen. Hell. ii. 4. § 11; Strab. x. p. 471; Liv. xxxviii. 41.)” (12)

She’s common enough to be mentioned in Aristophanes, and that he calls her “megale theos” or “The Great Goddess.” She is the third biggest State festival in Athens in the fourth century. “The cult of Bendis is one of the most interesting and enigmatic foreign cults to be found in Athens. For, in contrast to all other foreign cults, the cult of Bendis was early on adopted by the Athenian state and the sacrifice of the Bendideia was the third largest public sacrifice in the fourth century.” (14)

“Finally, there is one significant problem with the book’s conception which I would like to point out. This is the very definition of ‘foreign mystery cults’. Robert Parker has argued that instead of talking about foreign cults, it is better to distinguish between those traditionally honoured in Athenian public cult and all others.5 Dionysos is the best-known example of a Greek deity that can be portrayed as coming from abroad and whose ecstatic cult is dominated by women and effeminates, in precisely the same way as the foreign cults under discussion. Thus, the definition of foreign cults is not as clear-cut as it could seem on first sight. This becomes even more complicated when what is described as a foreign cult can also have a domesticated Greek version, which seems quite different, as we saw in the case of Cotys, who is described as both Thracian and Dorian / Corinthian / Sicilian. It would thus have been particularly helpful if the author had also included among the foreign cults under study the cult of the Mother of the Gods. For here is a very good example of a cult that can be described as both foreign and domestic at the same time. Some scholars are willing to see the cult of the Mother as a very old Greek cult,6 while others argue in favour of its introduction from Anatolia and its subsequent transformation.7 One way or another, the cult of the Mother had official recognition by the Athenian state, while at the same time there existed, side by side, another version of the cult, which was far more exotic.” (ibid)

These four examples make abundantly clear in my view, that the “Hellenic” pantheon is not as cut and dried as we like to pretend it is, sometimes.  Foreign deities were worshipped all over the Hellenic world, long before the post-Alexander III “Hellenistic Era” when we normally think of foreign syncretisms as creeping into Hellenismos.  Cybele, Isis, Zeus Ammon, all had cult centers and worship in important cult centers in Hellas.  They were formally accepted by the states, liberal and conservative, for instance.  They received worship in cosmopolitan Athens and Corinth, and also in rural Arcadia.  They stretched from the poor to the rich.

No commonly accepted stereotype of foreign worshipper holds true.  The poor and rural, as well as the rich and educated worshipped these foreign gods all over Greece. It was not just the cosmopolitan and the well-travelled, but also the farmer who worshipped them.  It is not accurate to describe these gods as being outside of the mainstream or the popular religion in any way. If they are being found at Olympia, and Delphi, being voted on by the popular Assembly, and being found mostly in the lower strata of society, and only rarely among the rich and powerful, and placed in the Acropolis and Agora of cities, then there is no way to make a distinction between foreign and native in the popular religion of ancient Greece.

It is also clear to me that neat little generalizations we pick up from Academics, such as “Oriental and syncretic cults are an artefact of the Hellenistic Period” simply do not hold water. Indeed, it is increasing obvious that constructs like the Hellenistic Period are alien impositions by modern Academics, making distinctions that are not really there, nor that the peoples of that time would acknowledge as being real. It is a bit like the academic preferal of the term Byzantine to describe the Eastern Roman Empire.  The Eastern Romans certainly did not call themselves Byzantine or their empire Byzantium. They were Romans (Rhomaioi) and their city was Constantinople or The New Rome.  They kept old traditions and culture alive.  Yet we impose an alien name on them, and distinguish them from “Rome” and “Romans” despite every aspect of Byzantine society can be seen quite clearly in Late Antique Roman times East or West.  Likewise, we view the Hellenistic Period as being somehow distinct and different from “The Classical Period” even though the ancients living in that time did not think of themselves as living in a “Classical” or “Hellenistic” period.  Supposed markers, such as “foreign deities and cults, and syncretism” which are hallmarks of the “Hellenistic period” are actually present and widespread a century or more earlier.  Rather than being a debasement of the “pure Greek religion” and culture, as some academics seem to present it, these things instead seem to be integral aspects of Greek culture and religion.

I am also coming to the conclusion that any attempt to argue that Hellenismos is in any way exclusivist is blatantly wrong.  Whether we’re talking about Minoan deities coming into Hellenic religion, or the arrival of Anatolian deities like Artemis and Apollon in the Dark and Archaic periods, to the import of foreign deities in the Classical period, its pretty clear that foreign deities were incorporated at all times.  It is also pretty clear that the ancients had no compunction in “crossing pantheons” which is likely how any deity got incorporated in the first place.

Once again, the all-too-common modern “Lets not have the peas touch the carrots” approach to religion is shown to have little real support in terms of actual ancient practice. In this case, it is not only the Intellectuals and scholars like Herodotus and Plato who are making associations or importing foreign deities, but the city-states themselves, and the commoner buying a terracotta icon to put in his hovel’s shrine.


Appendix 1

Other Foreign Deities incorporated into Greek Religion

It may be surprising to some, but several of the key Hellenic deities, chief among them, Aphrodite, Hekate, Apollon and Artemis are not Greek in origin, but come from the Ancient Near East.  They were incorporated in the Dark Ages and/or early Archaic Age.

Despite being the Hellenic diety par excellence, Apollon was not Greek. Even in Homer, at an early stage of Hellenic written history, recalls Apollon, not as a Greek deity, but Trojan.

“And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto” (Iliad Bk. I.8)  When Chryses prays to Apollon, and lists his holy sites, all are in Anatolia or the Anatolian islands: “O god of the silver bow, that protectest Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tendedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe.” (Iliad I.38)  Throughout the Iliad, Apollon sides with the Trojans and aids them, even fights on their side with them. Apollon struck the blow which stuns Patroklos and allows manslaying Hektor to kill him. Homer repeatedly refers to Apollon as “Lycian-born.”

“The cult of Apollo is now thought not to be Greek but Anatolian or Cypriot in origin…Interestingly enough his name does not appear in the Linear B tablets so far unearthed. [ed. note: Paijan, or Paion, an epithet of Apollon is mentioned once, but is thought to be a local demigod later associated with Apollon] In classical times his cult was particularly strong in the Troad: according to the geographer Strabo ‘his worship extends all along the coast.’  In addition to his island shrines on Lesbos and Tenedos [ed. note: Tenedos is explicitly named in Chryses’ prayer], he had several important cult centres, the most famous of which was the Smintheum at Hamaxitus/Chrysa where there are traces of occupation as early as the third millenium BC.  It is possible then that the proto-Apollo was indeed the god of the Troad in the late Bronze Age and that Homer has preserved a genuine memory of the Trojan religion.” (Woods 1986 p. 265)

In addition to this strength in Asia Minor, and the references to him as Lycian, known cult centers to Apollo go back to the eighth century only.  His cults are strongest in places like Sparta, which apparently received him via the Dorian colonies near Lycia and Caria, centered on Halicarnassos.

Artemis, his sister is also apparently an Anatolian deity. In Homer, Artemis sides with her brother and fights for Troy, not for the Achaeans and Danaans.  Vermule, in her book on Bronze Age Greece, comments on the Linear B references: “On misses the goddesses who seem in classical religion to have old Aegean characteristics: Aphrodite, Artemis.” (Vermule 1964 p. 294). There is, however a passing reference to her as having a servant in the Linear B texts.(Chadwick 1976 p. 99)  Her most important cult center was the colony at Ephesus in Anatolia.  There, however, she is not the youthful huntress, the maiden with her deer. Instead she is a magnificent Meter, or Mother.  Wrapped in a Near-Eastern ependytes, like the Syrian Mother, and the Syrian Jupiter, she is covered from bosom to foot.  Like Cybele, she wears the turreted crown, or a crown of small storyed buildings.  As Potnia Theron, Mistress of Animals, her girdle or Zonei has compartments showing deer, sheep, cattle, felines, sphinxes/gryphons, bees and flowers, and women’s busts with wings rising from the calyx of a plant.

Her chest is described as “polymastic” (mutlibreasted) though the exact identity of the items is not known, they are not the same color as the exposed skin, so it is a corsage or pectoral of some sort.  Her clergy adopted the same sort of attire, further emphasizing the idea that the “breasts” are nothing of the sort.

Like Meter Megale or Cybele, Artemis of Ephesus also had her college of castrati priests, the megabyzes, and her own set of curetes or corybants (Strabo XIV. 1. 20.).

Turcan reports that “Replicas and variants, whole or fragmentary, of the many-breasted Artemis have been found at Salonae, Athens, Cos, Caesarea of Palestine, in Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, but above all in Italy: in the port of Aquileia…at Verona, Liternum, Ostia and Rome, which alone has yielded around fifteen examples…In the temple of Diana on the Aventine where according to Strabo (Geography IV. 1. 5.), the cult idol recalled the one in Marseilles.”  (Ibid 255-6)  Phocaea, in Anatolian Ionia was the metropolis of Massalia (Marseilles), and the cult of Ephesian Artemis probably made its way to Massalia, and then from there to Rome.

The temple of Aventine Diana, was also built by the King Servius Tullius, in the early sixth century a.e.v., to mark Rome’s leadership of the Latin League, whose tutelary deity was Diana.  “The Statue in the temple was in fact a copy of the Artemis of Massilia (Marseilles), itself a copy of the great Artemis of Ephesus.” (Jones & Pennick 1995 p. 39)

Caria seems to have been a major center for Leto, and Artemis and Apollo, and could have spread their cults from there via Halicarnassos or Cyprus. The major cult center for Apollon, not in Anatolia is of course, the island of Delos, in the middle of the Cyclades, and being right on the trade and migration routes to Miletus and Halicarnassos.

Another deity of Near Eastern origin is Aphrodite.  Like Apollon and Artemis, she is portrayed as an alien deity, hostile to the Achaeans in Homer.  Her cult center of greatest importance was Paphos (followed closely by Aphrodisias in Anatolia) on Cyprus.  Cyprus has always been central and important to her cult and mythology.  When born from the genitals of Ouranos in the sea, she emerges off the coast of Cyprus.  Her cult center there dates to 1200 a.e.v., (Jones and Pennick p. 11, 21).  The temple at Paphos itself, was apparently originally dedicated to Astarte, the Near Eastern Goddess of Love and War.  Interestingly, the closer to Cyprus one goes, the “Darker” and more “warlike” Aphrodite becomes.  Sparta was famed for having a statue of Aphrodite armed with a sword for instance.

“Two new deities, Apollo and Aphrodite, are named by Homer and have cult sites going back to the eighth century and the twelfth century respecteively.  They again were originally local deities, both of them apparently introduced from the Near East via Cyprus.  The culture of the eastern Mediterranean was one large interrelated continuum.” (Jones and Pennick p. 11).

Like Cybele, with her black stone, Aphrodite’s original image was aniconic. It was in fact, yet another black stone, a meteorite, called a baetyl. This stone still exists, in a museum in Cyprus. (Jones and Pennick p. 21).

Finally, there is one major Hellenic deity, with a known Anatolian provenance.  This is Hekate.  She came from Miletus, one of the earliest Hellenic colonies known. (The colony was established by Minoans, and later when the Mycenaeans took over the Minoan trading empire, Miletus fell to them.  Well established in the Bronze Age, Hittite diplomatic texts demarcate the border between Miletus and the Hittite vassal states in the western Anatolian area).  She plays an exalted role in Hesiod’s Theogony.  In a note to the edition of Hesiod which I have, the author comments:

“Perhaps, as West suggests, Hesiod’s father, who came from Asia Minor, learned Hekate-worship in Miletus, an early centre of her cult. If he did, says west, ‘It will be no coincidence that he gave one of his sons the name Perses, the name which Hesiod attributes to Hekate’s father’ (Hesiod, Theogony, M.L. West, ed. p. 278)” (Hesiod and Theognis, D. Wender 1973 p.153)

Several writers have commented on the apparent personal reasons that Hesiod portrays Hecate in such powerful imagery, and his descent from a Milesian seems to explain this nicely.  Hekate, however, always is portrayed as a foreign divinity.  Hekate is the goddess of Khalkis, where Medeia is her priestess for instance.  We are probably seeing, in Hesiod a snapshot of how deities move back to the homeland and take root from the colonies.

Here then, we have four major “Greek” gods who turn out to be, on deeper analysis to be non-Greek at all.  So the whole distinction of Greek versus Foreign deities seems rather moot, in my estimation.  Hard and fast lines between pantheons and cultures simply does not seem to have been a common characteristic or determining factor in ancient Hellas at any time period, even leaving out the obvious pre-Greek incorporations (Rhea, Athene, etc) into the pantheon sometime in the Bronze Age. The pattern seems to be that whenever the Greeks encountered new deities, those deities were incorporated into worship.  The constant refrain that rises up from the past is the injunction to honor the gods, but there does not seem to have been any quibbling about which gods one should honor.


Chadwick, John. The Mycenaean World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, 1976
Jones, Prudence and Pennick, Nigel. A History of Pagan Europe, Routledge, London and New York, 1995
Turcan, Robert. The Cults of the Roman Empire, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford and  Malden, MA, 1992
Vermeule, Emily. Greece in the Bronze Age, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1964
Wender, Dorothea. Hesiod and Theognis, Penguin Classics, London, New York, 1973
Woods, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985, 1996



One Response to Foreign Gods, Syncretism and Hellenismos

  1. Pingback: Foreign Gods, Syncretism and Hellenismos « WiccanWeb

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