What was Scythian about the “Scythian Diana” at Nemi? Pia

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • 1

    What was Scythian about the Scythian Diana at Nemi?

    Pia Guldager Bilde, January 2004

    The main aim of this paper is to ask, when and why Diana Nemorensis in her Central Italian

    sanctuary by Lake Nemi was conceived of as the Scythian Artemis/Diana1 and why her cult

    was thought to originate in the land of the Taurians.2


    The Sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, that is Diana of the Sacred Grove, is situated by Lake

    Nemi in the Alban Hills, just 25 km southeast of Rome. It was one of Italys most important

    sanctuaries - and certainly one of the largest and richest. Strabon provides us with the longest

    and most precise description of it preserved from antiquity (5.3.12):

    ...to the left of the way as you go up from Aricia, lies the Artemisium, which they call

    Nemus. The temple of the Arician [Artemis], they say, is a copy of the Tauropolos. And

    in fact a barbaric, and Scythian, element predominates in the sacred usages, for the

    people set up as priest merely a run-away slave who has slain with his own hand the man

    previously consecrated to that office; accordingly the priest is always armed with a

    sword, looking around for the attacks, and ready to defend himself (translation: H.L.


    We shall return to the sanctuary at Nemi and its cult later. But first: who was Strabons

    Tauropolos, and why did he describe the cult in the Sanctuary of Diana by Lake Nemi as having

    barbaric and Scythian elements?

    From Parthenos to Tauropolos

    1Ov. Met. 14.331; Strab. 5.3.12; Luc. Bell. Civ. 3.86; Solin. 2.10-11; Pseudoacron Hor. Carm. 1.7.10. 2Serv. Verg. Aen., 6.136; 7.764; Solin. 2.10-11; Pseudoacron Hor. Carm. 1.7.10.

  • 2

    There can be no doubt that Strabon based his particular combination of the elements barbarian,

    Scythian, Tauropolos, human sacrifice and Diana (Artemis) on Euripides play Iphigenia

    in Tauris (IT) written in 412 BC or slightly earlier. As is well known this play describes how

    Iphigenia administered the sinister cult of a Taurian goddess on the southern shore of the Crimea.

    Euripides description of the Taurian deity and her cult in turn drew on Herodotos story of the

    Taurian Parthenos (4.103) created a few decennia earlier, in the third quarter of the 5th century

    BC (or on a source common to both of them).

    Euripides elaborated on Herodotos (or his sources) providing new facets to the story, first

    of all an interpretatio graeca of the deity: she is now furnished with the name of a Greek

    goddess (Artemis), though the reference to her being called Parthenos (v. 1230, as in Herodotos)

    is also given. But also the way the human sacrifice is described is more in line with Greek

    sacrificial practice than is Herodotos description. In IT the victim is first sprinkled with water

    and then stabbed with a sword, not, as in Herodotos, struck on the head with a club. But of

    particular importance to our discussion of the later reception of the deity are the two new epithets

    for her, tauropolos and elaphochthonos, which do not occur in Herodotos.

    The closing lines of IT reveal Euripides main aim with his play: to explain the rites in

    the Sanctuary of Artemis at Halai Araphnides3 that included a symbolic human offering.

    Euripides plays frequently ended with an aetiological myth. At Halai Araphnides, probably

    modern Loutsa in Attica, there was a famous temple dedicated to (Artemis) Tauropolos, which is

    also known from inscriptions.4 Euripides must have been inspired by Herodotos (or his

    sources) description of the foreign, savage goddess in the Taurian lands by the name of

    Parthenos, which allowed him to relocate the origin of the rite of a (symbolic) human sacrifice at

    Halai to the marginal area of Greek civilisation: the barbarian milieu of the distant, northern

    shores of the Black Sea, and at the same time to provide an explanation for the epiklesis

    Tauropolos of the Halai Artemis. The point of view of the two authors evidently differs: whereas

    Herodotos operated within a general Greek discourse Euripides provided the description of a

    complete outsider. He had never visited the Black Sea, but more importantly, he operated within

    3Also Rives 1995. 4Kotzias 1925-1926, 168-177; Stauropoullos 1932, 30-32; Papadimitriou 1956, 87-89; 1957, 45-47; Knell 1983,

    39-43; inscriptions: see also SEG XXXIV, 103.

  • 3

    a specific Athenian discourse.

    With the explanation that Taur-polos meant worshipped by the Taurians, Euripides

    created a false etymology, as he thereby suggested that the root -polos is passive. The root is

    active, and tauro-plos signifies a person handling or taming bulls in a real context, e.g.

    agricultural, or in a symbolic context, e.g. in cult or ritual.5 This handling of a bull must have

    played a certain role in the ritual makeup of the Halai sanctuary. We do unfortunately not

    possess any evidence of this. But it is significant that in two further sanctuaries of Tauropolos

    closely connected with Halai, Brauron6 and Amphipolis,7 Tauropolos was with certainty depicted

    as a bull-handler riding side-saddle on a bull, frequently with a torch in her hand.

    The cult of the Tauropolos, frequently as an epithet of Artemis but also in one case of

    Hekate, is known from other sources, inscriptions and literary texts.8 Considering the fact that

    with the exception of Euripides mentioning the Taurian goddess Tauropolos, in the Crimea there

    is no evidence that either the Taurian deity, or the later Greek Parthenos were ever celebrated as

    Tauropolos, and none of them were ever depicted as a bull-handler. The connection between the

    various Tauropoloi is therefore still to be studied. It seems most likely that we are dealing with

    two separate phenomena:

    5I am grateful to G. Hinge for providing me with the reading of the word Tauropolos. Oppermann (1934, 35) reached

    the same conclusion with different arguments. Braund has recently combined the two poles, suggesting that

    Tauropolos means Mistress of the Taurians (Braund, forthcoming). Though the suggestion is interesting, we have

    absolutely no evidence that the Chersonesean deity was ever locally worshipped under the name of Tauropolos. This

    epithet is applied to her from the outside, and it remained extraneous to her cult. 6Terracotta reliefs, c. 500 BC; see Kahil 1984, 674, nos. 700-701. 7Kahil 1984, 674, no. 703. This was the dominant reverse type of civic bronze coins minted in Amphipolis between

    Augustus and Commodus (Lorber 1990, 13); cf. SNG American Numismatic Society 7 (Macedonia I), 1987, nos.

    150-154, 195 and numerous coins in-between. The identification is ascertained by frequent inscriptions on the coins

    naming her Tauropolos. 8The only general study of Tauropolos is Hans Oppermanns short article in the RE from 1934 (33-38). Tauropolos

    has not yet been included in LIMC. Note that Oppermann erroneously refers to Aricia as a place, where Tauropolos

    was venerated. The cult place was, in fact, the sanctuary by Lake Nemi, which was administered by Aricia, but not

    within the limits of that town. Since the appearance of Oppermann 1934, the inscriptions have become noticeably

    much more numerous. This makes a modern, updated study of the Tauropolos a desideratum. See Guldager Bilde

    2003, 166-168.

  • 4

    (a) an actual cult of a bull-handling female deity (Tauro-plos) originating in Halai and

    (perhaps) spreading with the Macedonians through Amphipolis, to the Hellenised East as far as

    Ikaros in the Arabian Gulf. The knowledge of this cult is mainly based on epigraphical evidence,

    the majority of which is documented in the 4th-2nd centuries BC.9 Though interesting, this deity

    need not concern us here.

    (b) cult(?) of a female deity worshipped by the Taurians, (Taur-polos), based on the false

    etymology created by Euripides. The notion of this cult was spread throughout the ancient world

    and especially promoted in Strabons writings10 as a literary topos of long-standing popularity.

    The locations of the cult are mentioned exclusively in literary sources, predominantly Roman,

    first of all in connection with aetiological explanations of local bloody rites. The vehicle is the

    presence of the cult image removed by Orestes from the Taurian sanctuary.

    With the exception of what is probably the oldest location celebrating the cult of Tauropolos

    (Halai Araphnides), there is no overlapping between the two above- mentioned groups.

    Parthenos as elaphochthonos

    The second novelty in Euripides IT is the epithet elaphochthonos, deer-killing. This epithet is

    extremely uncommon. It is exclusively found in Iphigenia in Tauris and in one later source,

    Apollonius Dyscolus Grammaticus from the 2nd century AD.11 Similarly, other terms for the

    deer, such as elaphos, or the young deer, ellos, combined with a suffix denoting killing, either

    -phonos, -ctonos, or -bolos are equally unusual, and they are found exclusively as epithets for

    Artemis.12Nebroctonos=ellophonos: Schol. Kallimachos, Hymn to Artemis 190. Elaphebolos

    9Guldager Bilde 2003, fig. 2. 10Guldager Bilde 2003, fig. 1. 11De Adverbiis part 2 1.1, 189, l. 8. 12E