The Participation of Slaves in Athenian Religion: Three Case Studies Open Access

Smagh, Hannah Bailey (2015)

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In this thesis, I investigate the interconnections between slavery and religion in Athens. Religion was deeply ingrained in Athenian society, as was slavery; the participation of slaves in religious rituals and festivals is therefore not surprising but yet often overlooked. I focus on three Athenian cults in which slaves participated and suggest that this participation adds to our understanding of the character of slavery and, to some extent, the slave experience in Athenian society. In his book Slavery and Social Death (1982), Orlando Patterson argued that chattel slavery can be understood as a form of "social death," the state of no longer belonging to a community and having "no social existence outside of [a] master." Religion, however, is one area in which Patterson's idea of "social death" can be critically engaged. I argue that slave participation in religious rituals and festivals challenges Patterson's idea of "social death." By participating in cult activities, the slaves were able to regain some of their lost personhood despite the dehumanization they experienced within a slave society. The affirmation of personhood and benefits the slaves gained from religious rituals suggest that slaves in ancient Athens were not necessarily in a full state of "social death." I explore this topic through three cases studies: the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Thracian cult of Bendis, and the Kronia festival. The mysteries of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis initiated slaves and foreigners alongside male and female citizens. The Thracian cult of Bendis allowed anyone to participate as long as he or she could afford the membership fee. Bendis also had ethnic ties and attracted many people from the large population of Thracians, slave and free, in Athens. The Kronia was a festival in honor of the god Kronos, where slaves dined together with their masters, recalling the "golden age" during which all humans were equal and chattel slavery did not exist. Through these case studies, I hope to contribute to the historical understanding of not only ancient Athens as a slave society but also as a slave society in which slave and free participated together in religious events and festivals.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1: Slave Participation in the Eleusinian Mysteries 6

Chapter 2: Thrace and Athens: the Role of Slaves in the Cult of Bendis 24

Chapter 3: Imagining the Golden Age: the Festival of the Kronia in Athens 50

Conclusion 60

References 62

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