Divine sensations

In ancient Greece, religious rites aimed to produce a particular state of receptivity. This book, dedicated to the tools of the sensory encounter with the gods, contributes to sensory turn which is currently renewing historical studies.

What roles did the senses play in ancient Greek rites?? How did the Greeks feel when they sacrificed their gods?? What music, what smells, what tastes came to excite their senses? These are the questions that Adeline Grand-Clement intends to address based on a simple hypothesis, but rich in perspectives: the specific combination of sensory stimulations accompanying these rites was intended to produce, in the participants, a state of increased receptivity capable of making them feel the divine presence.

Sensory contexts

Man pouring a libation while a young man passes under the fire of spits carrying the meat of a sacrificed animal. nocho red figures, c. 430-425 BC AD Muse of the Louvre.

The author does not claim to explore such a subject, but to open paths in a field that is still barely covered and contribute to the sensory turn which has been renewing historical studies for several years. If anthropologists have opened this path, historians of ancient religions cannot blend into the sensory universe that they study. They must content themselves with the puzzle provided here by an ancient author, there by a religious regulation on stone, elsewhere by the ruins of a sanctuary.

Adeline Grand-Clment proposes a partial and partial selection of these elements. Like anthropologists, she opts for a mic and comparative approach. On the one hand, the categories used by the Greeks themselves are taken up by the historian, who understands the rite as a singular act aimed at establishing a form of communication with invisible entitiesusing the definition formalized by Angelos Chaniotis.

On the other hand, comparison with other civilizations allows old documentation to be asked new questions. A chape in Tamil country is proposed, to put into perspective ancient Greek rites and Hindu rites of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. But the question remains: where and when did the Greeks perform these rites and for what reasons did they make these choices?? The four files reviewed by the author show that these spatial and temporal dimensions were conditioned by myths.

Sensual, too sensual

The portrait painted in its Characters by the philosopher Thophrastus (370-265 BC) of superstitious defines the latter as one who feels the presence of the gods excessively and responds to it with excess rites. The author describes it ashypersensitive ritual and links this portrait to the contempt of certain Greeks for deities of foreign origin, whose cults were considered too noisy, too sensual, too sensory.

LHomeric hymn Dmtercomposed in VIIe century before our era and recounting the wandering of the agrarian goddess, raises the question of the choice of the sanctuary of Deleusis, a village in the south of Athens where the goddess received a cult which was studied by Jan Bremmer and Kevin Clinton in particular. Adeline Grand-Clment shows that leusis owed its eloquent title toodorous to the mythical stay that the goddess made there and to the plants and herbs she brought there, according to legend.

In the cave of Pitsa, near Corinth, a painted tablet placed as an offering to the Nymphs represented a sacrifice scene emphasizing the sound (flute and lyre players) and olfactory (smoke rising from the altar) dimensions of the rite. In a mise en abyme, the scene and the cave illustrate the importance given by the Greeks to the sensory break induced by the rites, which do not go without unusual places, smells, sound or visual ambiances.

A detour through the theater, particularly throughIon of Euripides anddipe Colone by Sophocles, which both take place in a sanctuary, confirms the feeling of strangeness induced among the Greeks by these places. Whether by the beauty of the Elphic sanctuary in Euripides or by the fear inspired in Sophocles' characters by the goddesses Eumenides, associated with fear and divine vengeance.

The objects and substances of the rite

Greek rites mobilized substances and objects that were contextually sacred, but which belonged to everyday life. Their properties therefore depended on their modes of use, their multiple symbolisms and the context which gave them unusual properties.

Sacrificial procession in honor of Artmis, votive bas-relief, – 350-300. Wikipedia, Archological Muse of Brauron

The ritual regulations inscribed at the entrance to the sanctuaries prohibited the use of various ordinary objects or the deposit of certain offerings, often following local logic. Despite the recommendations of Marcel Mauss, the historian gave too little importance to the materials of these objects, which often explain their ban by their impurity. The sensory dimension was nevertheless never absent, as shown by the example of the flute, preferred to bronze instruments that were much more sonorous and which would have covered prayers or songs.

The question of psychotropic drugs and their use in a ritual context has been raised by anthropology for a long time, especially since Mircea Eliade proposed analyzing certain Greek rites through the prism of shamanism. But a careful examination shows that the Greeks did not use any psychoactive substance in a ritual context, not even leusis, where the kykon drunk by the participants seemed more symbolic. Likewise Delphi, where the laurel fumigations had no other purpose than to mark the time of consultation with the god by his prophetess.

Although omnipresent in Greek rites, wine did not play the role of a psychotropic drug either. It retained its role as a daily drink, serving as an offering to the gods and an instrument of sociability with them. The indulgence that he could induce was therefore not a means of entering into contact with the divine. THE Bacchantes of Euripides show it, with their heroes taken by Dionysus and obeying the orders of the god, not because they drank his wine, but because they joined his worship.

Gestures, voices, clothes

Censer (thymiaterion) of Vulci in bronze. 2e half of 6e s. av. J.C. (Wikipedia)

The bodies of the Greeks themselves played a key role in these rites and contributed to their unfolding, their contextualization, by distinguishing from everyday life these times of coming into contact with a divine world which exposed them to extraordinary sensations.

The gestures carried out in a ritual context were also those of everyday life, since the functions of priest and priestess were not carried out by trained professionals. But simple gestures could take on a symbolic and sensory role in a ritual context.

The removal of shoes prescribed by numerous ritual regulations was certainly explained by the presumed impurity of the shoe or its material, but it also accompanied the prohibition of wearing a belt, a headband, a scarf or any other real or symbolic link which hindered the body, its freedom. to move and feel the divine presence.

Likewise, silence was required for certain phases of animal sacrifice, for which the author uses the analysis grid by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge. Its apparent opposite,ololug, was a ritual cry uttered collectively by the women during the killing of the sacrificed animal. Cries and silences participated in the same logic: to punctuate the ritual, to mark its successive phases, so as to make the associated sensations collective and simultaneous.

The clothes of the rite were also those of everyday life, but with attention paid to their color. The prescribed hues, among which the author studies especially red, did not seem to have a unique meaning common to all contexts. Rather, they constituted a form of visual break with everyday life, and therefore another sensory means of distinguishing the actors and moments of the rite.

To the pleasure of the senses

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Vintage festival, 1871

Adeline Grand-Clement therefore notes the great diversity of contexts, modes and sensory tools of ritual encounter with the divine. But it also identifies a constant: the break with ordinary and daily sensations allowing contact with these essentially other entities.

Historians have, according to her, neglected the pleasure of the senses that the Greeks derived from the meeting with their gods. A pleasure that the author suggests qualifying as synesthesia in the Greek sense of the term: the common perception of a set of simultaneous sensory stimuli. Common to men, but perhaps also to the gods, who were also thought of as sensory beings.

studying the history of sensations therefore means thinking about other aesthetic systems, other ways of feeling the world and making it present. The author sees it, at the conclusion of this sensory journey, as another way of responding to one of the emergencies of the contemporary world: the need to make us once again sensitive to the nature that surrounds us and that our dull senses have ended up neglecting.