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Emma Aston

Section One : Cults and composition of mixanthropic deities

Section One: Conclusion

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1. Cult

1Diverse as is the material collated above, it is possible to discern some features notable for their manifestation in a number of instances. These will be summarised. Many will also be returned to in more depth in subsequent chapters, and their contribution to the wider thematic picture examined.

  • 1 Larson (2007). She rightly notes (p. 56) that the idea of a clear category of ‘nature deities’ (and (...)

2First, mixanthropic deities show a strong tendency towards worship in extra-urban settings. They had a place within the cultic environment described by Larson in her recent article on nature deities in Greek religion.1 Like the nymphs, deities such as Pan and Acheloos belonged, in both literary imagination and religious reality, to the god-haunted countryside with its sacred mountain-tops, caves and springs. This was an essential feature of their character as recipients of cult. The prevalence of extra-urban sites is not, however, the whole story. Mixanthropes were not absent from the urban sphere. Attic religion especially placed key mixanthropes, most notably Pan and Kekrops, at the heart of the city; Pan had a sacred cave on the acropolis, and at the same time numerous cave-sites in rural Attica. The two aspects of his worship are important in combination.

3Within the duality of urban and extra-urban, the cave is of crucial importance. Wherever a cave was located (in Athenian thought at least, and no doubt more widely) it stood for the land beyond the city and its environs, for the uncultivated zone of shepherd and hunter. It is no accident that several mixanthropes were brought within the cave-setting and its symbolic preserve. That is not to say that they did not have long-standing cave associations (Cheiron for one did), but this association is hugely reinforced in the cults of Pan and Acheloos, especially within Attica. Neither Pan nor Acheloos was worshipped in a cave in their earliest cult sites (in Arkadia and Akarnania respectively), and yet the cave-setting came to dominate the worship of both across Greece. This happened because the cave was symbolically suitable for the mixanthrope in a way that the built temple was not; we find almost no evidence of mixanthropic gods worshipped within significant man-made structures.

4The prevalence of caves has the function of simultaneously connecting mixanthropic gods with the realm of animals, and at the same time of setting them apart. In the Greek imagination (and to a certain extent in geological reality) caves were placed within the untamed and mountainous territory associated with wild animals. Wild animals in myth use mountains as places of refuge and of aggressive power. However, they are almost never described as living in caves. Why is this?

  • 2 Buxton (1994), 90, 104-5.
  • 3 Hom. Od. 9.116-35.
  • 4 Apollod. Bibl. 2.5.4.

5In Greek thought, caves are proto-houses. They are an earlier stage of the human modus vivendi as defined, in large part, by some form of roofed dwelling-place. This is reflected in beliefs that early humans lived in caves,2 and also in the fact that, in myth, primitive Urmensch figures such as the Kyklopes and the group-centaurs consistently live in them. The Cyclops Polyphemos lives in a cave in a parody of domestic order, but just as his home is naturally occurring, so he himself lives without agriculture, the crucial symbol of man’s manipulation of the natural world.3 The centaur Pholos receives Herakles into his cave as if it were an oikos like any other, but while his guest feasts on roasted meat he prefers his raw.4 In these cases, caves allow for an inversion of human norms, in which the setting – a house that is not a house, a dwelling that was not built by man – plays an important rôle. The beings that live in caves, likewise, are not completely inhuman (wild animals), but are often combinations of beast and man, beings that combine elements of civilisation with elements of wildness. Given this character in myth it is not surprising to find that the actual worship of mixanthropes in caves is similarly prevalent.

6So mixanthropes were increasingly included in the divine groupings of the rural sphere. Another – not unrelated – group in which they had an important rôle is that of Dionysos. Dionysos himself sometimes had mixanthropic features, though not with any iconographic consistency; more importantly, perhaps, he appears to have collected mixanthropic figures about him. A retinue of satyrs is a feature of his iconography as far back as may be seen; but his ties with other mixanthropic deities grow stronger from the Classical period onwards. This is especially so of Pan and Acheloos. Once again, as with the extra-urban and specifically cave-based locations, it is a matter of a natural affinity enhancing an existing feature of mixanthropic deities, rather than a case of outright innovation. Divine collectives grow in prevalence, and yet even in the earliest material it is rare to find mixanthropes worshipped singly; rather, we find several significant pairings, such as Zeus and Cheiron on Pelion, Zeus and Pan on Lykaion, and Zeus and Acheloos at Dodona. In the last two of these three situations there is also a mantic element, shared by the two deities.

7These are not the only manifestations of a not infrequent, yet highly variable, connection between mixanthropes and prophecy. These may be divided into two (sometimes overlapping) types: an oracular function in ritual, as seen in the cases of Pan and Acheloos, and an element of the mantic in general character, as typified by Cheiron and Proteus.

  • 5 See Ustinova (2009), 55-67.

8The oracular contexts of Lykaion and Dodona in which Pan and Acheloos respectively participated are of course highly specific; this should not, however, obscure a wider ritual trend in the case of Pan at least. As Ustinova has recently shown, Pan’s rôle as an oracular deity was widespread in sacred caves, but operated chiefly in collaboration, so to speak, with the nymphs. This should not surprise us, given the constant concurrence of Pan and the nymphs in cave cults, already noted, but there is more to it than juxtaposition, as Ustinova demonstrates: prophecy in these sites is often associated in ancient texts with the mania which results from possession by Pan or by the nymphs.5 However, despite this strong convergence through the themes of inspiration and possession, the two groups cannot simply be elided; the prophetic powers of the nymphs extend beyond those of Pan and in many contexts are independent of him. Likewise, Pan’s rôle on Lykaion gives him a dimension particular to him. Despite this important distinction it may be said that prophecy is a common shared feature of the ‘divine collective’ which so often operated within the sacred cave environment, in which Pan was a significant player.

  • 6 Eur. Iph. Aul. 1064.
  • 7 Most famously by Menelaos: Hom. Od. 4.385-6.

9Turning to mantic properties for which no actual ritual dimension is attested, we may recall that Cheiron is referred to as a mantis,6 this being one aspect of the ancient emphasis on his wisdom. This wisdom finds a very particular manifestation in the case of sea-gods; though Thetis generally receives erotic approaches, Proteus is caught and held by heroes7 who seek information and insight such as only he can give.

  • 8 Though Silenos is an exception to this rule, at least in later sources (see Ael. VH, 3.18).

10Prophetic properties, with or without a ritual aspect, cannot be seen as distinguishing mixanthropic gods from non-mixanthropic gods, since it is by no means a universal quality of the canon, nor is it limited to deities with mixanthropic representation. What it does on the whole do is distinguish divine from non-divine mixanthropes. The mantic wisdom of Cheiron is not shared by the brute rabble of the group-centaurs; that of Pan is not shared by the satyrs or the Silenoi.8 It is not the case that all half-animal beings are by their very nature imbued with a special knowledge. The distinction between wise mixanthropes and their less lofty counterparts will be revisited in Chapter 5, where it will be shown that age is an important symbolic component of mixanthropic wisdom.

11The final strong pattern is an association with death in various forms. Kekrops, Proteus and the Sirens received a form of tomb-cult, and so fall within the broader category of dead heroes in Greek religion. Acheloos, Dionysos, the Sirens and the centaurs (and by extension probably Cheiron) had distinct underworld connections. Demeter Melaina has often been described as a chthonic power, and though this is a rather loose and unsatisfactory designation her underworld links are undeniable. (It must be noted, however, that this is common to Demeter in general and not specifically related to her mare-headed form, though this does not negate the undoubted rapport between mare-associations and underworld-associations.) The significance of the themes of death and burial will be dealt with in depth below.

12Of the deities studied in this book, Demeter Melaina is unusual in that she is a mixanthropic version of a deity with, in other contexts, an Olympian dimension. On the whole, however, it is helpful to regard mixanthropic deities as having less in common with the Olympian gods and goddesses than with the heroes, heroines and nymphs accorded cult throughout the Greek world. Heroes in particular share with many mixanthropes a mantic function, a tendency towards tomb-cult, and a stronger connection with particular sites than with the pan-Hellenic dimension. Heroes, heroines and nymphs give us a good broad model for viewing the cults of mixanthropes. Mixanthropes of course have their own peculiar identity, expressed in their distinctive peculiar form; the exploration of this identity is the purpose of Section Two.

2. Composition

13Composition presents us with, if anything, a rather less coherent picture. Patterns are not absent. There are strong types at work in mixanthropy. One of these is the arrangement of an animal – or chiefly animal – head on a largely human body: this is the type of Pan and of several river-gods. In this type, the concentration of animality is on the head and face, but other extremities, such as feet and legs, tend also to be affected. As a rough reversal of this is the second chief type in which an animal body is paired with a largely human face, and sometimes shoulders and torso. This type includes Proteus, the Sirens, Cheiron, Kekrops and Acheloos in his most common form, and demonstrably owes more than the first to non-Greek artistic models. It is also rather more strongly associ­ated with non-divine monsters and with the negative character they possess.

  • 9 On the strong ties between centaurs and satyrs, see Hedreen (1992), 73. He notes, however, that whe (...)

14These generalities, however, should not blind us to the aspects of mixanthropic composition which display diversity. Important to note is the lack of any sense of consistent hierarchy between human and animal parts, deriving from or related to anatomy. One would think, surely, that the face would be the greatest signifier, and that a largely human face would indicate a largely human identity, and an animal face likewise. This does not appear to be so to any reliable extent. Cheiron, human-faced, has many civilised and quasi-human qualities; but the same cannot be said of the group-centaurs. They arguably have more in common with the satyrs, whose personality theirs closely resembles.9 True, Cheiron tends to have a larger portion of human anatomy than the group centaurs, and this no doubt reflects his more civilised persona, but the fact that they share a basic compositional type is clearly no guarantee of shared character. Likewise, Pan’s animal face may be thought to reflect his conspicuously bestial nature; but can we really say the same of Demeter Melaina? No one rule seems to govern the whole matter of identity across the board.

15A similar picture is seen in the matter of animal species. As has been said, it is not possible to determine a single ‘meaning’ which will apply to a particular type of animal component regardless of place and time. This is unsurprising, given the acknowledged regional variety of Greek religious thought and practice. At the same time, it has been shown that animal elements, though varied in their symbolic force, are not disposed chaotically or at random. It is possible, by taking mixanthropes on a case-by-case basis, to make some observations as to the significance of animal species, when interpreted within the overall context of a cult, its mythology and its iconography.

16Even regional variety should perhaps not be overstated. As will be revealed in Section Two, mixanthropic deities are bound together by strong interconnecting themes. It seems that mixanthropy itself is extremely important and distinctive; the precise nature of that mixanthropy, however, does not always respond to exhaustive rationalising analysis. What defines the class is the very fact of animal/human combination. The significance of this overarching condition over­rides, I would argue, the significance of details regarding species or arrangement.


1 Larson (2007). She rightly notes (p. 56) that the idea of a clear category of ‘nature deities’ (and even more, the implied existence of deities who had nothing to do with nature) is a modern one not exactly mirrored in ancient thought. The deities she deals with, however, which include Pan and river-gods, are distinguished because they ‘personified special features in the landscape or phenomena.’ This characteristic, combined with the prevalence of extra-urban cult sites, is typical of a significant number of mixanthropes.

2 Buxton (1994), 90, 104-5.

3 Hom. Od. 9.116-35.

4 Apollod. Bibl. 2.5.4.

5 See Ustinova (2009), 55-67.

6 Eur. Iph. Aul. 1064.

7 Most famously by Menelaos: Hom. Od. 4.385-6.

8 Though Silenos is an exception to this rule, at least in later sources (see Ael. VH, 3.18).

9 On the strong ties between centaurs and satyrs, see Hedreen (1992), 73. He notes, however, that when the centaurs and the satyrs are compared and contrasted by ancient authors, this tends to be favourable to the centaurs; Plato, for example, refers to centaurs as fierce, to satyrs as weak and cunning. (Plat. Plt. 291a-b.)

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