Understanding Cypriote Cult
Potnios Theron and the Search for a Principal Male Divinity in Iron Age Cyprus
Derek B. Counts [+–]
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
This monograph explores the intersection of iconography, religion, and cultural identity during the period of the city-kingdoms of Cyprus and after their dissolution (ca. 800-100 BCE). The material remains of Cypriote religion represent an especially conspicuous witness to the longue durée of cultural exchanges in the eastern Mediterranean. Votive sculptures displaying foreign iconography (e.g., Greek, Phoenician, Egyptian, etc.) and multi-lingual dedicatory inscriptions betray the intense movement of artistic and religious symbolism. Perhaps not surprisingly, current scholarship dealing with divine representations found in Cypriote sanctuaries inevitably focuses on identifiable Greek, Near Eastern, or Egyptian artistic elements (e.g., dress and attributes). Based on the wide range of iconography and types, foreign influences have been marshaled as a means of exposing the ‘ethnic origins’ of the divinity or even the donor; divine images are thus identified based on their relationship to similar images found abroad. Cypriote sanctuaries are reconstructed as repositories for a pantheon of foreign divinities imported from Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, without regard for their Cypriote context or meaning. The result is a rather static conception of the relationship between iconography, meaning, and identity. Little attention has been paid to the religious continuity and artistic koine expressed by these images; likewise, the significance of regional variations, the island’s own political topography, and the potential links between elite power, cult and community during the periods in questions has been largely ignored.
Understanding Cypriote Cult calls for a new direction in the study of Cypriote religion—particularly in the case of male divinities—based on the critical framework of postcolonial theory. In particular, postcolonial concepts such as Third Space and hybridity provide more nuanced mechanisms for interpreting Cypriote material culture in the face of successive episodes of cultural contact and clash with foreigners. This monograph represents the first attempt to foreground the productive capacity of these cultural entanglements in the formation of Cypriote religious iconography The author offers a new reading of the multi-vocal iconography present in Cypriote sanctuaries and argues that male divine images represent hybrid forms that reveal the creation of a new divine persona (the Potnios Theron, or master of animals) through the recombination and recomposition of existing referential modes—at once recognizable, yet equally incommensurable. It was through the agency of cult that existing cultural boundaries began to be blurred.
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