The ancient Greeks, curiously, did not have a word for either pilgrim or pilgrimage, in the precise modern sense of these words. The nearest they came were theoros and theoria, but a theoros was an official delegate to a religious festival outside a city's borders, and theoria had such a wide range of reference that it covered both official festival participation and the contemplative ideal postulated by Aristotle as the highest good for man (whence our "theory"). Matthew Dillon, in his extremely useful monograph, is nevertheless right to identify pilgrimage as a key component of the classical Greek experience, to classify it generally as "a religious activity which involves travel away from home, a break from normal affairs, and a time away from domestic duties", and (probably) to apply it broadly even to some religious activity occurring within the borders of one's own civic community.
Perhaps he is not so clearly right to describe in detail such religious festivals as the Olympic Games, open only to adult male Greeks, or the mass initiation rituals (secret, hence "mysteries") at Eleusis, open to all who could understand sufficient Greek, including both women and slaves. But these descriptions do further the author's aim of comprehensiveness. Indeed, an entire chapter is given over to women's (unofficial, private) participation in pilgrimage, reminding us that religion was the one aspect of Greek life that enabled a respectable Greek wife and mother to travel far outside the limits of her community.
An example may perhaps serve to illustrate most of Dillon's chapter headings: official pilgrimage invitations and sacred truces; the sanctity of Greek pilgrims; pilgrimage destinations; pilgrimages by ethnic groups; cult regulations at sanctuaries; the female pilgrim; and organisational requirements at pilgrimage sites. An example is the Amphiareion at Oropos, a sanctuary located on the borders between Boeotia, dominated by Thebes, and Attica, the civic territory of Athens.
Amphiaraos was a divinised hero rather than a god, a figure of lively mythological elaboration, honoured by his Attic and Boeotian worshippers with two temples. At Oropos he served specifically as a healing power, though his sanctuary not only hosted the characteristic ritual of incubation, which was practised in a dedicated "sleepery", but also boasted an oracle and was besides the site of a competitive festival. At the heart of much ancient Greek religious ritual and belief was animal sacrifice. Pilgrims to the Amphiareion would perform such a sacrifice very likely before and after incubation. A preserved fourth-century inscription lists a series of cult regulations, including the payment of a fee by pilgrims and the presence of a priest.
Sometimes, though, pictures can speak louder than words. One such is the stone relief dedicated to Amphiaraos by one Archinos. It is described, incompletely and inaccurately, by Dillon, whose book unfortunately includes no illustrations. I quote instead the description of Vassilios Petrakos:
"It shows, on the left side, Amphiaraos standing, performing a surgical operation on the shoulder of a young man, Archinos from Oropos. On the right we see the young man in the stance of a suppliant and in the middle of the representation the same young man is shown asleep on a bed while a snake is licking his presumably ailing shoulder."
Archinos was the lucky one. Many other pilgrims seeking a cure at a healing shrine died in pain and discomfort amid insanitary and uneaseful conditions. Others travelling to watch or participate in a competitive festival were kidnapped or robbed. Pilgrimage may have comforted the ancient Greek man or woman's soul but it was not always good for their bodily or mental health.
Paul Cartledge is reader in Greek history, University of Cambridge.
Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in Ancient Greece
Author - Matthew Dillon
ISBN - 0 415 175 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00
Pages - 308
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