Cultic Topographies in the Neda Borderlands (20 min)


Shannon M. Dunn, Bryn Mawr College


The river Neda in the western Peloponnese has long been the traditional boundary between the regions of Ilia and Messenia, while its headwaters are in the mountains of Arcadia. From the foothills of Mount Lykaion to the Ionian Sea, the riparian landscape includes steep gorges, dramatic waterfalls, myriad caves, and fertile farmland, along which Pausanias and other sources record many unique cult sites and traditions.

In this talk I use the Neda River to consider the relationships between the environmentboth the topography and the role of the river as a territorial boundaryand mythological and religious traditions. While often described as a remote and isolated area of Greece, the river and the contact zone between political and ethnic regions made it a crossroads. The Neda was a dividing line but also a throughline and focal point for both cultic activity and military action. The history of the river and the communities alongside it is a history of boundary crossings, whether for conquest, refuge, religious practice, or just daily life.

A local web of sacred sites served different needs and were accessible to different groups of people. Many of the larger sanctuaries lie on mountain peaks that share visual connectivity across political boundaries and hold large swathes of the Peloponnese in their viewsheds. Close to territorial edges, they pulled worshippers across the borders, not only from the neighboring territories but from communities further away. Smaller sites, perhaps dealing with strictly local concerns and less affected by the border as a political entity, lie nestled within the landscape and are often less accessible, home to unique and often hybrid deities. The nature of the myths and cultic activities associated with sanctuaries in this landscape is intrinsically tied both to the natural environment of the local topography and to its existence as a border zone.