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RA 1A.2: Eschatology in the northwestern Black Sea region and beyond



 Altar from Olbia




This project aims at investigating the processes that shape and transform individual and collective identity among Greeks settling away from home and not least their (religious) response to new living conditions. It takes its point of departure in the observation that it is in the Greek ‘colonies’ in the Black Sea region as well as in Magna Graecia we find the earliest and contemporary development of quite similar religious thinking centred on transcendent, otherworldly hopes. The particular attraction was the promise to the group of initiates not just of a better fate in the underground afterlife, but even of a ‘new life’. This thinking was furthered and manipulated by the local Greek elites, as a means of securing their own positions in the new, ‘colonial’ Greek world. Particularly important are the finds from Olbia made in 1950s, 60s, and 70s which provide an insight into the advanced religious thinking surrounding the worship of Dionysos Bakchaios in the city in the late 6th and 5th century BC. The Olbia finds are known in the West, but their potential has not been used adequately, because they lack an unfolded contextualisation in the local Pontic milieu. The project will therefore undertake to investigate the eschatological currents in the Black Sea region in further detail. The analysis will provide basis for considering whether this development is the result of local Greek culture being under pressure from the indigenous population, whether it is inspired by local religious thinking, and/or whether this is the creative outcome of the meeting of cultures in a border/frontier situation. A clarification of this issue may contribute to further understanding also of processes in Greek ‘colonial’ environments of the Mediterranean.


I am currently studying a large group of terracotta altars with relief scenes, the so-called “Tarantine altars”. Magna Graecia is normally considered particular due to a local preference for cults with a strong eschatological component, such as Orphism, Pythagoraeism and the cult of Persephone and Dionysos. However, the earliest literary and archaeological evidence for these eschatological preferrences are found in the western Black Sea region, but evidence has been considered slight and isolated. Through an analysis and interpretation of the altars it can be demonstrated that (a) these eschatological currents were much more widespread in the western Black Sea region than has been acknowledged until present, that (b) it was connected with the elite, e.g. wealthy landowners, and that (c) it was not confined to the late Archaic and early Classical periods, but also flourished in the second half of the 3rd century to at least the 1st century BC. This provides an interesting parallel to the picture of the religious milieu of Magna Graecia, which makes Magna Graecia less particular. To be investigated is therefore, whether particular colonial situations provide the same kind of religious response, or whether other factors were at stake, for example the non-Greek indigeneous contribution: were the eschatological currents pervading the Black Sea region a response to the local milieu, either the unsecure daily life, or local crises? Or were they syncretistic movements responding to the mixed ethnic situation?


Responsible: Pia Guldager Bilde

Preliminary results:

Guldager Bilde, P. in print
Hvad er meningen? Refleksioner over en gruppe hellenistiske terrakottaaltre med reliefdekoration, in: Klassisk Arkæologiske Studier 3. Copenhagen 2006.

Guldager Bilde, P. in print
Nøglen til dødsrigets porte? Bentavler fra sortehavsbyen Olbia, Sfinx 2006.

Guldager Bilde, Some reflections on eschatological currents, diasporic experience, and group identity in the northwestern Black Sea region, paper presented at the conference Meetings of cultures in the Black Sea region: between conflict and coexistence, Sandbjerg, 8.1.2006 - 10.1.2006.

Guldager Bilde, P. 2005
The Olbia situla revisited, Bosporskij Fenomen. St Petersburg 2005, 207-216.

Guldager Bilde, P. 2005
Roadmap to salvation? Reflexions on a group of Hellenistic terracotta altars, in: Black Sea Area in the System of the Hellenistic World. 11th International Symposium on the Ancient History and Archaeology of the Black Sea Area Vani, September, 2005. Vani, 78-81.

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