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Back to the Future: Inscribing Change in a Remote Past

Panel Chair: Philippe Swennen | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

In numerous religious systems, a change in practice needs to be justified if it reflects an evolution of the belief systems. A frequent strategy justifies the mutation of the practices and an underlying justification, which affirms the restoration of an original cult model. The newness is not claimed as such and the progress does not consist in assuming a change. The legitimizing of the innovation could be done in several forms: 1- by constructing a fiction, that of the returning to the initial states. 2- by referring to an ancestral past that one would only reactivate its existence. The argument could be constructed over diverse methodologies that explain the complexity and ambivalence of the notion of origin itself. The present panel wishes to provide some examples of this diversity by taking as testimony, religious systems that could be perceived as completely alien to each another.

Vinciane Pirenne

The politics of Olympus at Olympia: the various 'inventions' of games and cults

The traditional date of the foundation of the Olympic games, 776 BC, is an a posteriori result of the chronological compilation by Hippias of Elis in the 5th century BC. The Elean writer certainly enhanced the role of Elis in this context and it remains very difficult to establish the ‘pre-Elean’ situation in terms of cults and games. Rather than recovering absolute dates for a period where few are available, this paper aims at questioning the mythical narratives from the Classical to the Roman periods, adding up various founders at Olympia, both for the games and the cults performed there, in honour of Zeus himself, or of the whole ‘Olympic’ pantheon around him. The intertwined identities involved at Olympia – local, regional, ‘panhellenic” – are at stake in each ‘reading’ of the past in such a famous sanctuary.

Philippe Swennen

How can an embryo become a prophet?

Both Vedic and Avestan sacrifices show us how a sacrificer tries to take contact with his gods in the context of complex liturgical ceremonies implying the presence of priests who offer several kinds of gifts, for instance poems, libations or slaughtered cattle. In both cases the religious doctrine justifying the liturgical process explains that the sacrificial ground and space correspond to the beginning of Time, but the definitions given to these beginnings are extremely divergent. This is surprising, because Indo-iranian linguistics strongly suggests that both religious systems should be genetically very close. In Vedic India, the sacrificer represents an embryo, which should have been a god, but begets the human race. In Iran, he renews the first perfect ceremony achieved by Zarathushtra, the so called prophet who chose to revere Ahura Mazda. How did one similar doctrine produce two so different products?

Saskia Peels

The vocabulary of tradition in Greek ritual norms

Inscriptions that presented cultic rules and guidelines regularly claim that things should be done κατὰ τὰ πάτρια, ‘according to ancestral norms’, that ἀρχαίους νόμους ‘ancient customs or laws’ should be applied, or something similar (e.g. Chaniotis 1996) These phrases were sometimes used as authority statements, next to or instead of a norm’s presentation as the decision or advise of the people, a god, oracle or priest. This paper asks how the ‘vocabulary of tradition’ functions in relation to other authority claims to legitimate cultic rules, building on the work of Parker 2005 on the normative character of leges sacrae. Moreover, although the semantic field of ἀρχη and cognates has been contrasted with other notions of ‘origin’, such as τὸν πρῶτον/τὰ πρῶτα, πάλαι/παλαιός (e.g. Classen 1996), this paper proposes to study the the notion of τὰ πάτρια in respect to these other notions.

Céline Redard

Innovation and tradition in the transmission of the Avestan manuscripts

The Avesta has been subject to a long period of oral transmission before being written down in the 4th century AD. In the 7th century after the Muslim invasion a portion of the Zoroastrian community immigrated to Gujarat, India. As the result the Avesta started to have two types of transmission: the Indian and the Iranian. These two schools of transmission seemed very close to one another, however each of them had innovations that are reflected in the manuscript. What do they consist of? Moreover, as long as we are faced with a ritual corpus, which remains faithful to the archetype and cannot be modified without any well-established reasons, how could the changes take place?


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