Images of divinities in functional objects : a study of seventh-century BCE perirrhanteria in Greek sanctuary contexts

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Angell, Amy Beth

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Perirrhanteria in Greek sanctuaries are described in general terms as water basins for the purpose of purification. From the mid-seventh century to the early sixth century BCE, the perirrhanteria were made of marble, featured sculptural figures in the place of columnar stands, and found wide distribution among a variety of Greek sanctuaries. Due to the striking motif of the figurative stands, three or four female figures flanked by lions or standing on their backs, scholarship regarding the stone perirrhanteria has been centered on iconography and early monumental sculpture. Although preceding sculptural analyses provide useful information for the history of a motif, the relatively short lifespan of this particular basin type and its appearance in sanctuaries dedicated to an array of deities begs further study of its function in context. A close study of the perirrhanterion from Isthmia—its location at the entrance to the Temple of Poseidon and the effective power of monumental imagery in Early Greece—supplies the necessary contextual information for a broader understanding of the basin’s function. This study proposes that the perirrhanteria served as boundary markers, and the divine figures represented on their stands acted as guardians of the boundary, facilitating passage into a more sacred zone. An understanding of the sanctuary landscape as a series of increasingly exclusive areas, from the temenos boundary to the innermost room of the temple, presents the perirrhanterion as a cult instrument useful at various locations within a Greek sanctuary. Its adaptable function and Orientalizing iconography contributed to its broad dissemination. Addressing five other stone perirrhanteria from this period that are attributed to a common production center in Lakonia based on marble analysis, this study considers local cults in the Spartan region and arrives at an identification of the perirrhanteria’s female figures as Artemis. Noting associations of early Artemis with Potnia Theron and Early Greek perceptions of the goddess as a guardian of margins, both physical and conceptual, this study argues that the presence of Artemis on the basins is crucial to their function. In addition to their role as vessels for purificatory water, the perirrhanteria served as landmarks in transitional and ambiguous space.



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