Cos: A Typical Example of Hellenistic Religion?

This essay has first been presented at the workshop « Approaches to Greek Cult », Institute for Classical Studies, London, March 2013. It is based on the conclusions of my book Cultes et sanctuaires de l’île de Cos (Liège 2013).

In the year 366 BC, various settlements of the island of Cos were united by synoecism to form a single polis. This political reform necessarily led to a reorganisation of older cults, including a reconfiguration of the local pantheon, which is evidenced in a number of inscriptions dated to the mid-fourth century BC. This reorganisation is the result of a careful blend of new cults and old traditions, aiming at providing all the members of the newly established polis with a shared religious identity.1 Consequently, the polis, its longevity, and its unity became a major concern that also reflected on religious representations, whether on the profile of certain deities, or on the orientation given to certain cults.

A typical example illustrating this assertion comes from the unusual, prominent place of Zeus within the civic pantheon. Many cult-epithets qualify the god, some of which directly relate to the political sphere (Polieus, Phatrios, Boulaios, Patroios, Soter, etc.), as do some of his associations with other gods (Hera, Hestia, the Twelve Gods and the Damos). It is, however, the pair he forms with Athena that is the most significant: the gods share five epithets in common, which refer to different areas of expertise, but which are always somehow connected to the polis and articulated around a central pairing, Zeus Polieus and Athena Polias.2 Furthermore, some of the features of the two-day festival celebrated in honour of Zeus Polieus in the month Batromios clearly show an underlying concern of unity. This festival is regulated by a fragment of the fourth-century BC cult calendar and was presumably derived from the post-synoecism cult reorganization.3 The culminating point was the sacrifice of an ox, which had been selected on the previous day through a very elaborate process involving subdivisions of the polis: each chiliastys (i.e. a third of the tribe) had to provide an ox, so that the three tribes each drove three oxen to the agora. In the agora, all the animals were mixed together and each tribe drove three oxen towards a table where the priest and the hieropoioi sat, “to see if one of them may be chosen” – the exact selection criterion is unknown. If none of the oxen were chosen, the process could be repeated up to three times (i.e. 36 oxen) before they decided to choose one directly. Once the ox had been chosen, they put it up for sale: all the citizens of Cos had to “pay the price to Hestia”, so that the ox could be considered as an offering truly shared by the whole Coan community, and not just provided by one civic subdivision. Finally, after a series of preliminary rites had been performed, the ox was escorted from the agora to the sanctuary of Zeus Polieus to be sacrificed the next day. To summarise, the ox followed a geographical route in the form of a procession from the agora, the centre of political life, to the sanctuary of Zeus Polieus, the god literally “of the city”, as well as a symbolic route, which lead from the smallest civic subdivision (the chiliastys) and the tribes to the whole community. This symbolic route is especially significant given the fact that from all the oxen presented at the beginning (from 9 to 36), in the end, only one was chosen to be sacrificed, representing even more the unity of the civic community.

Another consequence of the synoecism on Coan religious life is the new articulation between the civic centre and the demes through cult practice. Two examples are particularly relevant in this regard. On the 9th of the month Panamos, a sacrifice was offered to Aphrodite Pandamos – whose epithet relates to the unity of the people – which took place simultaneously in the polis and in at least two demes (Halasarna and Isthmos).4 In the deme of Phyxa, a sacrifice to Zeus Soter and Athena Soteira was performed on the same altar on the 25th Artamitios, just fifteen days after the same gods were honoured in the polis by the festival called Pythocleia on the 10th Artamitios.5 The religious life of the demes may not however be reduced to a mere imitation of the religious life of the polis, but results from a tension between the centralisation of the cults by the polis and local particularities which probably went back to a pre-synoecism period.

The synoecism of Cos is but one example of the specificity and dynamism of local pantheons, which crystallised the concerns of the communities elaborating them. However, although the structure of the Coan pantheon has undoubtedly been marked by local historical circumstances, it nevertheless found its place within a religious system common to the Greek world: the constant tension between local differences and the Panhellenic religious dimension is essential to our understanding of Greek polytheism.6 Therefore, the study of the cults of the island of Cos can take advantage of a comparison with religious systems from other Greek cities. On the other hand, the example of Cos allows us to confront several conceptual tools developed by modern scholarship. In this essay, I will focus on two of them.

One of the characteristics that emerges from the study of Coan religious life is the importance of the polis: the polis and its subdivisions regulate, organise, and control a large part of the religious activity. Many examples can confirm this assertion. Civic subdivisions (tribes, demes, gene) are directly involved in the performance of a large number of rituals, whether as part of a whole, or individually. The religious articulation between the centre and its periphery (i.e. the demes) notably manifests itself through “mirrored” rituals, as we saw earlier. The polis formally consecrates the priests and priestesses, defines their prerogatives, and dictates their behaviour in matters of purity, thus conferring upon them a role of mediator between the community and the gods. Finally, as much as it is a truism that pantheons were shaped according to the interests of the communities, the Coan paradigm allows us to observe directly, to a certain extent, how a polis at a precise moment set about restructuring its pantheon so that it would correspond to its aspirations.

By contrast, religious activities that fall out of the scope of the polis are not very well known. Furthermore, in the few documented cases, the line between the (much-debated) categories “public” and “private” often appears flexible. For instance, an inscription dated to the second century BC concerns the foundation of a festival honouring Zeus Soter and Athena Soteira, funded by a private donation by an individual named Pythocles: the regulation, organisation, participation and aim of this festival were the responsibility of the polis, whereas both priesthoods were attributed to Pythocles’ descendants.7

All these characteristics seem to validate the model of “polis religion” as developed by Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood in two complementary essays, where she essentially argued that “the polis provided the fundamental framework in which Greek religion operated” and “anchored, legitimated, and mediated all religious activity”.8 This model has been recently questioned,9 notably on the assumption that it could not encompass all aspects of religious activity, some of which undoubtedly escaped the polis. Another argument is based on the fact that this model primarily concerns the Classical Athenian paradigm, abundantly used by Sourvinou-Inwood to make her point. The Coan example, however, tends to prove that the model of “polis religion” may have some validity outside Athens and may quite well account for the religious life of a polis at the Hellenistic period.

On the other hand, the Coan example is at odds with a certain perception of the Hellenistic period that has long prevailed in scholarship, although it is now widely debated: Hellenistic religion has long been viewed as a decline of Classical polis religion that would have been the consequence of political changes due to Alexander’s conquests. These changes included the loss of independence of the poleis, the rise of kingdoms ruled by his successors, and the large population movements it entailed. At the core of such an evolution, it has been assumed, figured a strong “individualisation” of religious practice and belief, implying an increase in the importance of private cults and religious associations at the expense of traditional cults. At the centre of these new cults were foreign, oriental or Egyptian, deities, which would have more easily promoted the development of a “personal” piety.10 This out-of-date perception has been rightfully questioned in recent studies that have, on the contrary, underlined the continuity between the Hellenistic period and previous times as regards ritual practices.11

Along the same lines, numerous Coan inscriptions attest to the dynamism of cults organised by the polis until the first century BC, and archaeological excavations have shown intensive building activities within public sanctuaries during the third and second centuries BC. Comparatively, private cults and religious associations appear to have had less importance and, as pointed out previously, are difficult to isolate completely from the scope of the polis. Furthermore, the current evidence does not allow us to conclude on a particular dynamism of foreign cults on Cos. Egyptian cults are scarcely evidenced in the late Hellenistic period, but most occurrences comes from the Roman period and the corpus of funerary horoi of cult associations: therefore, the cult of these deities probably belonged to a funerary context. As far as oriental deities are concerned, these mostly occur in bilingual dedications set up by visitors to the island in honour of gods belonging to the pantheon of their native region.

To conclude, Coan religious life appears to be a remarkable example of how the much-debated “polis religion” model operated and of its dynamism throughout the Hellenistic period, which should lead us to revaluate the mechanisms of religious practice in that period. One problem, however, remains. Primary evidence for the study of the cults of the island of Cos is epigraphical. Inscriptions cover a range from the mid-fourth century BC to the second century AD, but the epigraphical habit reaches its peak during the third and second centuries BC. The virtually non-existent evidence before the synoecism of 366 BC makes it very difficult to evaluate continuities and changes in Coan religious life between the Classical and the Hellenistic periods. Secondly, this evidence is mainly composed of decrees issued by the polis or by another “official” body, such as the demes and the tribes. To what extent could the nature of this evidence distort our representation of Coan religious life, by presenting only one side, that of the cults organised by the polis, and minimising the importance of private cult practices? Cult practices falling outside the scope of the polis may well constitute a blind spot in the documentation, the extent of which it is difficult to evaluate. The question seems unresolvable: is this “public” trend of the evidence due to a mere coincidence in the transmission, or perhaps to a particular epigraphical habit of the polis of Cos, which tended to inscribe more texts than average? Or, conversely, were marginal cult practices naturally less documented, although not necessarily non-existent? I would like to suggest a hypothesis that stands midway between these two extremes. As I said before, after the synoecism of 366 BC, the newly established polis of Cos reorganised, probably to a large extent, the cults of the island in order to build a religious identity shared by all the citizens. Therefore, this particular character of the documentation may well be the result of a continued attempt by the polis to centralise religious matters as much as possible after the synoecism.


Bremmer, J.N. (2010). “Manteis, Magic, Mysteries and Mythography. Messy Margins of Polis Religion?” Kernos 23: 13-35.

Eidinow, E. (2011). “Networks and Narratives: A Model for Ancient Greek Religion.” Kernos 24: 9-38.

Festugière, A.J. (1954). Personal Religion among the Greeks. Berkeley/Los Angeles (Sather Classical Lectures, 26).

Festugière, A.J. (1972). Études de religion grecque et hellénistique. Paris (Bibliothèque d’Histoire de la Philosophie).

Graf, F. (1995). “Bemerkungen zur bürgerlichen Religiosität im Zeitalter des Hellenismus.” In: Wörrle, M., Zanker, P. (eds.), Stadtbild und Bürgerbild im Hellenismus. München (Vestigia. Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte, 47). 103-114.

Kindt, J. (2009). “Polis Religion – A Critical Appreciation.” Kernos 22: 9-34.

Mikalson, J.D. (1998). Religion in Hellenistic Athens. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London.

Mikalson, J.D. (2006). “Greek Religion: Continuity and Change in the Hellenistic Period.” In: Bugh, G.R. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World. Cambridge. 208-222.

Parker, R. (2002). “The Cult of Aphrodite Pandamos and Pontia on Cos.” In: Horstmanshoff, H.F.J. et al. (eds.), Kykeon. Studies in Honour of H.S. Versnel. Leiden/Boston/Cologne (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 142). 143-160.

Parker, R. (2009). “Subjection, Synoecism and Religious Life.” In: Funke, P., Luraghi, N. (eds.), The Politics of Ethnicity and the Crisis of the Peloponnesian League. Washington, DC. 183-214.

Parker, R. (2011). On Greek Religion. Ithaca/London (Townsend Lectures/Cornell Studies in Classical Philology, 40).

Paul, S. (2010). “À propos d’épiclèses “trans-divines”. Le cas de Zeus et d’Athéna à Cos.” ARG 12: 65-81.

Paul, S. (2013). Cultes et sanctuaires de l’île de Cos. Liège (Kernos, suppl. 28).

Shipley, G. (2000). The Greek world after Alexander: 323-30 BC. London.

Sourvinou-Inwood, C. (1990). “What is Polis Religion?” In: Murray, O., Price, S. (eds.), The Greek City from Homer to Alexander. Oxford. 295-322.

Sourvinou-Inwood, C. (2000). “Further Aspects of Polis Religion.” In: Buxton, R. (ed.), Oxford Readings in Greek Religion. Oxford. 38-55.

Stewart, Z. (1977). “La religione.” In: Bianchi Bandinelli, R. (ed.), La società ellenistica. Economia, diritto, religione. Milano (Storia e Civiltà dei Greci). 503-616.

Tarn, W.W., Griffith, G.T. (1952). Hellenistic Civilisation. London.

  1. For cult reorganisations after synoecisms, see recently Parker 2009. This essay is based on the conclusions of my book on the cults of the island of Cos: Paul 2013. []
  2. Polieus/Polias, Machaneus/Machanis, Soter/Soteira, Phatrios/Phatria, Alseios/Alseia. I have studied these pairs elsewhere: see Paul 2010. []
  3. IG XII 4, 278. []
  4. Cos: IG XII 4, 302, l. 26-31; Halasarna: IG XII 4, 303, l. 1-4; Isthmos: IG XII 4, 280, l. 12-14. Cf. Parker 2002, 153. []
  5. Phyxa: IG XII 4, 279, l. 49-51; Cos: IG XII 4, 281, l. 33-34; 350. []
  6. Parker 2011, 225-236. []
  7. IG XII 4, 350. []
  8. Sourvinou-Inwood 1990; Sourvinou-Inwood 2000. []
  9. Kindt 2009; Bremmer 2010; Eidinow 2011. On these criticisms, see the recent clarification by Parker 2011, 57-61. []
  10. This vision is notably found in Tarn/Griffith 1952, 336-360; Festugière 1954, 39-41; Festugière 1972, 124-125. For a complete bibliography, see Mikalson 1998, 1-2 and n. 1. []
  11. Stewart 1977, 503-529; Graf 1995; Shipley 2000, esp. 153; Mikalson 1998, 283-323; Mikalson 2006. []

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