Experiencing Epiphany in the Ancient Greek Sanctuary (20 min)


Jessica Paga, William & Mary


Sensory studies of embodiment have gained traction in recent years as unparalleled tools for examining the vicissitudes of ancient lived experience. When used in conjunction with cognitive studies, it becomes possible to tease out the links between (over)stimulation, deprivation, and religious transformation. Kinesthetics, in particular, can facilitate a nuanced embodied account of approach, (in)accessibility, and viewshed orchestration, by prioritizing the role of the body in movement within the landscapes and edifices of the built environment. The intersection of space, place, and body within the religious setting of the sanctuary thus becomes a nexus of gradually unfolding experience, understanding, and transformation.

Through a series of three case studies drawn from the fifth–third centuries B.C.E., this paper focuses on how divine epiphany, made manifest through the multisensory experiences within the Greek sanctuary, served as the key to the transformative effect of ritual, a crucial component to understanding ancient religion. Eleusis, the site of the renowned Mysteries, serves as an example of how the combination of sensory overstimulation and deprivation can prime the body of the worshipper to receive the divine knowledge at the root of the ritual. Delphi, the oracular heart of Greece, showcases how physical exertion in service to the gods constituted its own form of worship and prepared both worshippers and priestly attendants to communicate with the god. And Samothrace, home of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, ties together the strains of sensory stimulation and physical expenditure of energy into a synesthetic encapsulation of ritual transformation within a charged sacred landscape.

Ultimately, this paper reveals the role of multisensory experience in the religious transformation that lies at the heart of Greek ritual practice by foregrounding kinesthetics as the link between the human participant and sacred built environment.