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  • Religion and Society in Middle Bronze Age Greece by Helène Whittaker
  • Daniel J. Pullen
Helène Whittaker. Religion and Society in Middle Bronze Age Greece. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv, 291. $99.00. ISBN 978-1-107-04987-1.

The Middle Helladic (MH) period (the Middle Bronze Age of mainland Greece, ca. 2000–1700/1675 BC) has over the last decade finally emerged from scholarly obscurity, no longer completely overshadowed by the MBA of palatial Crete. Much of this new interest is due to new questions and approaches such as Whittaker’s study, one of the first monographic treatments of MH Greece, with its focus on the interconnected topics of religion and the great social transformations that characterize the emergence of Mycenaean society in the Shaft Grave period of the late MH and early L(ate)H(elladic) eras. She demonstrates that Mycenaean society and culture of Late Helladic Greece has its roots deep in the MH period, if not even back into the Early Helladic (EH). Whittaker places great importance on the power of analogy and comparison, both historical and cross-cultural, in archaeological explanation, and thus avoids the occasionally myopic approaches of Aegean scholars.

One of the great strengths of this book is the careful evaluation of the evidence for external influences on MH and early LH Greece, in contrast to local developments. Here I would include Whittaker’s lengthy discussion of supposed Indo-European ethnic social and cultural characteristics, and their introduction to Greece (20–26, 45–55, and elsewhere); she concludes that Indo-European explanations remain an open question. Influences from southeastern and central Europe receive as much attention as those from Crete, and Whittaker shows how the emerging Mycenaean elites manipulated these influences from wherever to suit their own purposes. Whittaker provides the novel model of a pastoral substratum in the later Neolithic through EH II periods and argues that the profound changes beginning in EH III represent a “fundamental shift in mentality” whereby pastoral or nomadic values (i.e., those often associated with Indo-European “ethnicity”) begin to dominate: more egalitarian organization, less materialistic or permanent expressions of wealth, respect and honor through personal achievement, and hospitality in social relationships (58–60). She identifies the tumulus, widespread throughout mainland Greece during the EH III–LH I period, as a key component in the materialization of religious beliefs, whether through burials in the tumuli or other usages. (The appendix provides an up-to-date catalogue of the tumuli, burials, and finds accompanied by a series of maps.) [End Page 580]

Whittaker weaves a complex argument about the development of warrior culture, the rise of elites and hierarchical sociopolitical organization, and the emergence of a distinctive Mycenaean religion. Part of her argument uses evidence from the site of Kolonna on Aegina, with its early Shaft Grave and the Large Building Complex, and how that society influenced mainland Greek ones. Whittaker draws our attention to contemporaneous warrior graves and related cultural features elsewhere, and places importance on parallels and connections with continental Europe, rather than the Near East, such as the appearance of swords, amber, and horse-handling technology (and most recently reinforced by the publication of a LH I horse-bridle piece of Carpathian-Danubian origin found at Mitrou by J. Maran and A. van de Moortel in the American Journal of Archaeology 118:4 [2014] 529–48).

Elite sponsorship of feasting and drinking as a means of realigning social structure and asserting power is another important component in Whittaker’s model for the development of early Mycenaean elite warrior culture. But feasting and drinking, as well as religious rituals, seem to be always characterized as communal affairs in this study, with little allowance for individual or group agency. Surely the votive deposition of warrior equipment and other items at the early Mycenaean cult site Mt. Kynortion (Epidauros), which provides support for her model of the interrelationship of religion and warrior culture (189–194), are acts of individuals, not of a community. She does not fully explore the processes by which individuals contribute to the sociopolitical shift from an egalitarian/kinship basis to elites and the emerging warrior elite ideology...


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