Salaminian Gods in Athens

The Creation of a Common Past

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In the past decade, the political status of Salamis and its incorporation within the Athenian polis has been the object of renewed scholarly attention. Martha Taylor has recently reformulated what is essentially an old view, that the island was an unofficial Attic deme. She has also restated Ferguson’s original position that the Athenian takeover of Salamis had not been fully resolved when the deme system was reformed by Kleisthenes in 507/6 BC. Salamis’ rather uneasy position within the Athenian polis is well illustrated by the fact that its inhabitants, who in the classical period were Athenian citizens, were enlisted as members of one of the many mainland demes. Thus, a person from Salamis might be called Kleagoras Acharneus, not Kleagoras Salaminios.

From our textual sources we learn that Salamis did not become part of the Athenian polis until the very end of the archaic period, and even then it retained something of a special status. In the Iliad Ajax is the autonomous king of Salamis, which suggests that the island was perceived as an independent entity from an early age. More importantly, a combination of literary and epigraphic sources show that the Athenians and Megarians fought bitterly over the island through what seems to have been the better part of the sixth century BC. Although little about the war with Megara can be said with certainty, it is a fact that by the last decade, the Athenians had gained full control over the island. In a decree belonging to the early years of the democracy the Athenian demos asserted its right to appoint a special archon for its administration, and to regulate taxes payable by its inhabitants. It is received opinion that this decree provides the terminus ante quem for the final settlement of the Megarian war, which some believe started as early as the days of Solon, or even earlier still. In the end, it appears that the political and strategic reality of the late sixth century made Athenian dominance over the island inevitable.

The question I want to address here does not concern the Megarian war or the historical conditions behind the Athenian takeover of Salamis. Instead, I propose to investigate how Salamis was incorporated within the Athenian polis. This question seems particularly pertinent in light of its “unofficial” status within the Athenian constitution as it forces us to rethink the kind of non-political mechanisms that were at play when a peripheral territory became part of a pre-existing political structure such as Athens. As de Polignac and many other scholars in his wake have stated, the main socially cohesive force of the archaic period appears to have been religion. This means that we will have to ask the following questions:

  • How were the Salaminian gods dealt with after the Athenian take-over, or more precisely, what position were they granted within the Athenian pantheon? And
  • How was the Salaminian religious sphere embedded in the ideology of the Athenians’ own mythical past?

Given the short amount of time available, I will limit myself to a discussion of the role played by the members of the Athenian genos Salaminioi in forging religious ties between Salamis and Athens. As implied by their name, the Salaminioi were closely related to the island and as genos members they were primarily responsible for the maintenance of a number of different cults, some of which were closely connected to Salamis. In speaking about the Salaminioi, I mean, therefore, the members of the genos Salaminioi, not the inhabitants of Salamis, which is an important distinction to bear in mind.

As early as the late nineteenth century, scholars have sought to connect the Salaminioi with the Megarian war, as they are thought to have played an important role in the Athenian acquisition of Salamis. Fortunately, we are rather well informed about the Salaminioi, thanks to a fourth century BC settlement decree, which regulates a dispute over property within the genos. What is of interest to us here is not so much the dispute itself, as what the decree tells us about the nature of the Salaminioi and their connection to the island of Salamis. Like most gene, the Salaminioi were responsible for carrying out certain religious duties, which included the organization of the religious rites and the apportioning of the sacrificial meat as well as the selection of cult officials. The decree mentions that they supplied one priestess for the cult of Athena Skiras and one for the cults of Pandrosos and Aglauros and of Ge Kourotrophos, as well as a priest for Heracles and one for the hero Eurysakes.

In the interest of time, it will have to suffice to say that I dismiss the view put forward by a range of scholars from Nilsson to Guarducci, who state that the Salaminioi were Salaminian refugees at the time of the Megarian war, that they were received by the Athenians because of their shared enmity of the Megarians, and that, as a result, they were allowed to set up their own genos and administer a number of cults in Attica. This view seems to be based largely on assumptions about the name Salaminioi and is not supported by independent evidence.

A more constructive view was taken by Ferguson, who argued that the Salaminioi were not, in fact, immigrants from Salamis, but rather native Athenian citizens who at some point became interested in the acquisition of the island. They were called Salaminioi, not because they originated on the island, but because they represented an Athenian party that pushed strongly for Athenian control at the time of the Megarian war. Recent scholarship has shown that the Salaminioi may indeed have played an active role in the acquisition of the island for the Athenians. Stephen Lambert has made the attractive case that the fourth century Salaminioi viewed themselves as the descendants of the original sixth century settlers of the island who seem to be implicated in the Salamis decree. In Lambert’s view, which I follow, the original settlers played a leading role in the governance of Salamis. Perhaps in recognition of their new status, they received the concession to form a genos, and gained control of a number of cults, two of which, as we will see, were directly related to Salamis.

Turning to the cults themselves, it seems that the sixth century Salaminioi formed a genos with the specific purpose of administering cults that endorsed their claims both as inhabitants of Salamis and, paradoxically, as Athenian citizens. These cults were first and foremost those of Eurysakes, who was the son of the Salaminian hero Ajax and of Athena Skiras in Phaleron, who was originally worshipped on the island. The sanctuary of Eurysakes was located near the Athenian Agora and served as the headquarters of the Salaminioi. It was here that the Salaminioi decree was found and it appears that the temenos of Eurysakes served both as a depository of documents relating to genos regulations, and as a meeting place for its members. According to Athenian tradition, Eurysakes was the son of Ajax, Homer’s legendary king of Salamis. Plutarch relates that Eurysakes and his brother Philaios gave Salamis to the Athenians. In return for the favor bestowed by the two brothers, the Athenians allowed them to settle in Attica. The account almost certainly originated during the Megarian war, as it seems to have been designed with the specific purpose of easing the transition of Salamis into the Athenian polis. The element of the brothers settling in Attica can thus be interpreted as the mythological explanation for the Salaminioi’s dual status as both Salaminians and Athenians. At the same time, the account bolstered Athenian claims on the island.

Herodotus informs us that Skiras was the original name of Salamis (8.94). Athena Skiras, then, was an indigenous Salaminian goddess, worshiped by the Athenians at Phaleron in Attica under the auspices of the Salaminioi. But why did the Athenians worship a Salaminian deity and when did they import her cult? Robert Parker has pointed out that fifth century cleruchies usually adopted the cults already present in their new homeland. These cleruchies were a kind of colonies, settlements away from home, but unlike colonies, they retained a much closer political connection with their mother city. Based on the Salamis decree I would argue that the Athenian settlement on Salamis, being, as it seems, the first Athenian cleruchy, adopted the cult of Athena Skiras. Subsequently, the cult was transferred to Phaleron in Attica, and it seems reasonable to seek responsibility for this act with the Salaminioi,{{ }}who were in charge of it.

It is evident that these two cults played an important role in tying the island to the mainland. It is equally evident that the story of Eurysakes fits the ideological battle with the Megarians. Eurysakes’ acquisition of Athenian citizenship as a reward for handing over the island served the point the Athenians would have wanted to make, that the island was Athenian territory by right and that its inhabitants were Athenian citizens. Secondly, the cult of Athena Skiras was imported and settled in Phaleron on Athenian territory. In this way an important symbolic message was conveyed. Through the worship of Salamis’ main deity, the Athenians took an active interest in the island, and through the construction of a temenos of Athena Skiras in Attica, they applied religion to bridge the physical and historical gap between the island and the Attic mainland. Therefore, both cults seem to have been part of a consistent program to tie Salamis into the religious fabric of the Athenian polis in the period leading up to the establishment of the Athenian cleruchy on Salamis.

If we accept that the Salaminioi were instrumental in the acquisition of the island and that they played a leading role in its governance, it follows that they were the ones with the greatest interest in keeping it in Athenian hands. The institution of the cults of Eurysakes and Athena Skiras appears to have been their initiative; it solidified the view that Salamis had been Athenian from times immemorial. By an act of religious usurpation, the Athenians, with the Salaminioi as their agents, appropriated Ajax’ son, Eurysakes, and copied the worship of Salamis’ principal deity, Athena. As a consequence, Athena was transformed and gained a new role as protectress of Athenian interests on Salamis. This represents a most remarkable mirroring of politics in religion. I would even go one step further and take the ideological potential of these cults as the reason for the Salaminioi to form a genos in the first place. Through these cults and, in the case of Eurysakes, a projected image of a common past, they were able to control and shape the religious and political ties between the polis andwhat they seem to have perceived of as their island. One must assume that this was done with the active consent of Athenian influentials, as the ideological force represented by this new genos certainly benefited the territorial cohesion of the Athenian polis as a whole.

Finally, I would like to dwell briefly on Heracles, whose cult is the second of the ones mentioned in the settlement decree as having been administered by the Salaminioi. His cult is not in any way related to Salamis, but was nonetheless of the utmost importance to the Salaminioi as a corporate body. While Heracles himself is not one of the better known of the Athenian gods, his cult was certainly the most widespread. As Stephen Lambert points out in his seminal book on the phratry, Heracles was the primary deity worshipped by most, if not all, Athenian phratry members, and it will be remembered that each Athenian citizen belonged to this institution through right of birth. It therefore appears that by administering one of Heracles’ cults the Salaminioi put an immediate claim on Athenian citizenship. There is however an important distinction to be made with regard to the claim to citizenship effected by the cult of Eurysakes. That cult explained the origin of the Salaminioi’s Athenian citizenship and thus effectively legitimized their claim to it. The cult of Heracles, on the other hand, being far from unique in Attica, put the Salaminioi on an equal level with other enfranchised Athenian citizens, thus effectuating their own citizenship in a religiously, if not legally, binding way.

I will now move to the fourth of the Salaminioi’s cults, to be precise that of Pandrosos, Aglauros and Ge Kourotrophos. The cult of the three goddesses was served by a single priestess selected from their ranks and appears in the fourth century Salaminioi decree beside the cults of Athena Skiras, Eurysakes and Heracles. Scholars have had great difficulty reconciling the two Salamis-related cults with this all-Athenian cult. There seems to be no symbolic connection with the island to explain why the Salaminioi controlled this cult. The following analysis of its mythological context will, hopefully, shed some light on its specific function within the larger framework of the ideological program represented by the Salaminioi as a genos.

The cult of the two sisters Pandrosos and Aglauros and Mother Earth (who in the decree is called Kourotrophos) belongs to the category of lesser-known Acropolis cults, but its mythology is firmly embedded in the main corps of Athenian genealogy. Apollodoros relates the important elements concerning the mythology of Athens’ first legendary kings. He starts with Kekrops, who was half man, half snake and born from the Athenian soil. In a text passage, Apollodoros relates how Athena approached Hephaistos in order to have some weapons made. The god, however, overcome by lust for her, started to pursue her and just when he was about to lay hands on her, lost his seed and soiled her knee. Athena cleaned the semen off with a piece of cloth, indignantly throwing it to the earth, which immediately brought forth the child Erichthonios, who, for the purposes of this argument, I will equate with Erechtheus, the legendary king of Attica. Feeling responsible for the child, Athena took him to her sanctuary on the Acropolis where she gave him into custody of her priestess, Pandrosos, the daughter of Kekrops, but forbade her to look in the basket where he was hidden. The good Pandrosos obeyed, but could not prevent her two sisters, Aglauros and Herse, to secretly have a look inside the basket. As a consequence, both went mad, either because of the horrific image of the snake-child, or because of the unrelenting nature of Athena’s wrath. Aglauros was believed to have jumped of the side of the Acropolis cliff, and it seems fitting that her sanctuary has been found by the Greek archaeologist Dontas on the eastern slope of the Acropolis. Pandrosos was worshipped in the courtyard of the Erechtheion in classical and presumable near the Old Athena temple in archaic times. Ge Kourotrophos had a shrine near the entrance to Acropolis. The location of these three cult spots is of more than a tourist’s interest. Their proximity, both in actual and mythological space is no coincidence. The location of these cult sites connected the worshippers inevitably to the main cult of the Athenian polis, that of Athena.

Thus, it is apparent that the fourth of the Salaminioi’s cults honors three characters that are closely related to one of the central themes of Athenian mythology. From the close connection with Kekrops and Erechtheus, scholars have deduced that the cult must have been very old. Some, like Osborne and Humphreys, have gone so far as to posit an Early Iron Age date for the emergence of the Salaminioi, because it allows them to explain how they came to control a cult they presume was very old, but for which they have no independent evidence. Alan Shapiro has pointed out that the two sisters were already part of Athenian iconography by the beginning of the sixth century, but this does not prove anything about the date of the cult . As it stands, the presence of the cult of Pandrosos, Aglauros and Ge Kourotrophos on the Salaminioi decree remains unexplained and the date of its institution uncertain.

I believe, however that the Erichthonios legend represents a vital clue to understand the position of the Salaminioi within the Athenian polis and the cults they controlled. While the cults of Eurysakes and Athena Skiras tied the Salaminioi to Salamis, the cult of Pandrosos, Aglauros and Ge Kourotrophos connected them directly to the very heart of Athenian religion. Therefore, their function as a genos was not simply to guard the religious ties with Salamis, but also to provide a symbolic link between the island and the Athenian polis. This was done by tapping into the mythological past of Salamis, in the case of Ajax and Eurysakes, as well as of Athens, through the Erichthonios legend.

The Salaminioi thus appear as a hybrid bunch with a diverse but consistent religious program. Their allegiance lies with Salamis, through the cult of its main deity, that of Athena Skiras, which appears to be their raison d’etre as Salaminioi. The cult of Eurysakes has the paradoxical purpose of explaining both the genos’ origins on Salamis, as well as their ultimate membership of the polis, as Athenian citizens. The cult of Heracles, then, secures that citizenship for them. And finally, through the cult of Pandrosos, Aglauros and Ge Kourotrophos, the Salaminioi attach themselves to the main core of Athenian mythology, thus effectuating the religious bond between Salamis and Athens. This diverse spectrum of cults establishes the critical element that made up the very identity of the Salaminioi: The fact that they were both Salaminians and Athenians.

By granting the Salaminioi access to the Acropolis with its connotations of legendary kings and age-old cults, the Athenians recognized the important social position of the Salaminian settlers as well as the instrumental part played by the genos in establishing religious cohesion between the two territories. The sixth century union of Salamis and Athens was, after all, potentially very instable. After losing the war, the Megarians may not have abandoned their claims immediately. Furthermore, the Athenian claim on the once independent island was not per se more valid than the Megarian claim. It is in this light that the cults of the Salaminioi should be viewed. Eurysakes and Athena Skiras linked Athens to Salamis, while the cult of Pandrosos, Aglauros and Ge Kourotrophos with all its mythical associations linked Salamis, through the Salaminioi, to Athens.

If, as Ferguson and Lambert have argued, the emergence of the Salaminioi should be explained against the background of the sixth century Megarian war – and I think it should – we should perhaps not hesitate to date the cult of the three goddesses to that same century, rather than to the seventh or eighth. That they had been a part of the Kekrops-Erechtheus mythological cycle for a long time is not necessarily a problem, but rather a solution to it. It was the fact that they were not yet being used for cultic worship that made the three suitable candidates for inclusion in the chain of Salamis-related cults. After Kekrops and Erechtheus, who were the central figures of Athenian myth during the Archaic period, but who happened to have already been taken, they were the next best choice if it was a stake in the Athenian mythical past the Salaminioi were interested in.

Since this Spring School’s theme, Introducing New Gods, is specifically aimed at both the Greek and the Roman world, it is only appropriate for me to make a short sidestep to the Italian peninsula, before reaching my conclusions with regard to the Attic peninsula. As we learned yesterday from Giorgio Ferri’s stimulating talk, the movement of gods for socio-political reasons was as much an Italian as it was a Greek habit. Livy informs us that in the campaigns of 396 and 395 BC, the edified Roman general Camillus was the first to add, not just land, as had been done before, but the complete city-state of Veii to the Roman dominion, thus effectively founding the Roman Empire. While the political and military importance of the fall of Veii has always stimulated the imagination, it is the religious aspects of its aftermath that we should be most attentive to, here, within the particular environment of this year’s Spring School. When Camillus returned to Rome, he brought with him the Veian cult-statue of Hera, which was given a new home in a newly consecrated precinct on the Aventine hill. How should this act be interpreted? Was it just a brutal act of humiliation at the expense of a poor, conquered nation? I believe not. For the Romans to establish a new cult spot in the city, meant that they were concerned with the religious repercussions of their conquest, which at the time meant a near doubling of Rome’s territory. To guarantee that the conquered city’s patron deity was pacified, her cult was carefully preserved from between the ruins and given a new home. This transplantation of her cult meant that Iuno’s numen was now active on the side of the Romans, rather than working against them. At the same time, Iuno’s recently transported cult statue send out a clear psychological message to those Veites that had not been put to the sword or sold into slavery. The message entailed that Veii has ceased to exist as an autonomous civitas, and was now embedded within the Roman state for good.

As you will have guessed, I believe that this Roman exemplum serves our Athenian purposes just perfectly. It is apparent that the association with the cult of Athena was beneficial to a host of local territories. Their cult-branches on the Acropolis seem to have served as a kind of religious embassy, a place where the periphery was able to present itself in the center. The Eleusinian cult of Demeter and Kore received a city-branch on the north slope of the Acropolis around the middle of the sixth century while another was built for Artemis Brauronia on top of it. By the end of the century, a cult statue of Dionysus was taken from Eleutherai and a precinct was constructed on the south slope of the Acropolis, much like the Romans had done with Iuno, except this conquest happened on much more peaceful terms. In the fifth century the cult of Asklepios from Epidauros found a new home beside the sanctuary of Dionysus.

In each case, this was an arrangement that would presumably be beneficial to both sides. By sharing its rites with the center and creating, on the Acropolis, a physical link with the center’s main cult of Athena Polias, and the mythical cycle that was connected with it, the periphery received official recognition of its prominence within the polis. The center, on the other hand, by accepting these rites, saw its role as the main nexus of power affirmed. In some cases a conscious effort to link these sanctuaries to the ancient Mycenaean fortification can be observed, which is clearly another case in point that the Athenians were actively seeking to connect the periphery with its own conception of the past. It is, however, only in the case of the Salaminioi, that we are fortunate enough to be relatively well informed about the people behind this network of cults and to be able to gain a glimpse of the concomitant ideology of a common past.

Thus, we find the Salaminioi to be a part of a complex religious network, clustered around the cult of Athena Polias and closely related to the Acropolis. This religious network resembled the actual social and political structure of the Athenian polis, at least by the end of the archaic period, and provided the necessary cohesion between the center and the politically less secure periphery. In his recent work The Athenian Experiment, Greg Anderson builds the case that the institutional change that marked the transition at Athens from a weak, inward looking polis to the regional superpower it was to become in the fifth century, was a short process confined to the years between 510-480 BC, and prompted by the constitutional change from tyranny to democracy. As I have tried to show, this is not the whole story. As I will argue in my doctorate thesis, the cohesive forces of this sixth-century network of cults and shared believes about a common past were indispensable for the kind of centralized authority that stood at the basis of the sudden emergence of Athens as one of the leading poleis in the classical Greek world.

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