By Linda B Glaser
Figurines reveal cross-pollination of religions in ancient Greece
The sectarian wars raging around the globe attest to the rigidity of many religious outlooks today. But in the second century BCE, residents on the Greek island of Delos saw nothing wrong with using others’ gods in their prayers.
"What’s interesting is the degree to which these foreigners - Italians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Syrians and Jews - interacted with each other’s deities and the cross-pollination among worshipers," says Caitlin Barrett, assistant professor of classics and author of the newly published 831-page "Egyptianizing Figurines From Delos: A Study in Hellenistic Religion" (Brill 2011).
Barrett examined terracotta figurines found on Delos to determine what influence Egypt’s religion had on the Hellenized inhabitants and their daily lives. "Terracotta figurines represent potential evidence for the religious ideas of a wide swath of the population, not just the rich," says Barrett. Such inexpensive figurines were accessible to many because they could be made rapidly and in bulk.
Although most of the figurines were produced by local craftspeople, many of them have iconography reminiscent of Egyptian deities. The Greco-Macedonian Ptolemies ruling Egypt at this time worshiped the Greek gods, not just the traditional Egyptian pantheon. "This led to the creation of syncretic imagery that combined aspects of both Greek and Egyptian traditions, and that could speak to members of this heterogeneous population. Some of that imagery wound up becoming hugely popular in the rest of the Mediterranean as well," says Barrett.