Theriomorphic Figures in Hellenistic and Roman Arcadia: Nostalgia and Ritual

In: Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas

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Abstract

The mountainous region of Arcadia has yielded a collection of unusual theriomorphic representations that have puzzled scholars for over a century. Arcadian depictions of zoocephalic dancers, masked men, and theriomorphic deities have been dismissed as oddities of an isolated region, remnants of “primitive” cult practices. Although there are earlier examples, these fantastical figures flourished in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This study investigates the theriomorphic terracotta figurines and related imagery found at the Arcadian sanctuaries at Petrovouni, Lusoi, Tegea, Lykosoura and Phigalia, and contextualises them within the broader coroplastic tradition of masked figures. This distinctive iconography finds its closest parallels in earlier and contemporary Cypriot representations of masked figures found in sanctuaries and tombs.

This paper argues that Arcadian cults drew from older, indigenous traditions, but at the same time were possibly also inspired by Cypriot rituals featuring animal-masked participants. Although a connection between Cyprus and Arcadia dates back to the beginning of the Iron Age, this association was later intentionally emphasised during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The coroplastic votive tradition not only preserves religious rituals, but also reflects the intersection between religion and politics in the international world of the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean.

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