Immortalizing Death at the Sanctuary of Orthia

Elite Traditions between East and West

Megan Daniels


The corpus of carved ivories from the sanctuary of Orthia at Sparta has often been invoked as evidence of religious and artistic interrelations between Sparta, Crete, and the Levant in the Iron Age. In this talk, I explore these long distance interrelations through the lens of shared ideologies of death operating amongst communities of elites across western Asia and the Aegean in the eighth to sixth centuries BCE. In particular, I examine a seemingly anomalous scene on two ivory plaques showing three figures mourning a deceased male and its mythical and ritual place within the larger votive repertoire from the sanctuary of Orthia. Through comparative evidence from contemporary Greek epic and elegiac poetry and Near Eastern mythical texts, I argue that worshippers of Orthia were tapping into long-term mythical and ritual tropes cultivated amongst elites from Mesopotamia to Italy, and expressed most potently through the figure of the dying god. This type of divinity, popularized by James Frazer and later maligned by his critics, offers interpretative potential for understanding the expression of social power in the realm of death when divorced from its unilinear evolutionary beginnings and refitted to the dynamic interactions taking place between east and west. Yet, placing the funerary scenes amidst local developments in archaic Greece also demonstrates how longstanding ideologies were negotiated and reconfigured in new socio-political contexts.

Megan Daniels is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology at SUNY-Buffalo. Previously, she was the Lora Bryning Redford Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Puget Sound. She received her Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University, completing a dissertation that examined the shared ideologies of divine kingship between Greece and the Near East through the figure of the Queen of Heaven. Her core interests center on the transmission and transformation of elite ideologies through ritual and mythical practice in the late Bronze and Iron Ages in the eastern Mediterranean. She also has interests in the application of social sciences and quantitative approaches to the study of ancient religion, and is currently preparing an edited volume on this topic. Most recently, she has stepped way back to examine new and integrated methodologies for modeling migration and mobility in human history, an interest that forms the subject of a forthcoming conference and edited volume through SUNY Press. Lastly, Megan is an active field archaeologist, currently involved in the study of ceramics as proxies for maritime economics and cross-cultural interaction on sites in Turkey and Tunisia.

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