Distant Deities, Central Places

Conference Paper

Session 4: Scalar Dynamics: Interactions and Identity
Saturday 2023-04-08
09:00 | 12:10

Daphne: A sacred grove in Hellenistic-Roman Syria

Rolf Strootman (Utrecht University), 2023-04-08, Time: 09:40 - 10:20


Daphne is a sacred grove of exceptional beauty in a wooded valley halfway the ‘royal cities’ Antioch and Seleukeia-in-Pieria in NW Syria (present-day Hatay, Turkey). It combines several aspects of the so-called ‘extra-urban sanctuary’ that are central to this conference. The site was believed to be the place where the maiden Daphne was transformed into a laurel tree, and thus the location of an epiphany of Apollo. The grove was directly connected to Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi by a subterranean river that brought water from the sacred spring Kastalia to Syria; the ‘doublet’ of Delphi’s Kastalia Fountain at Daphne was a famous oracle of Apollo in Hellenistic-Roman times.

First recognized as a sacred place by wandering Herakles – who built an altar and planted trees there – the site allegedly was rediscovered after the Macedonian conquest. There is evidence however that the grove in pre-Hellenistic times housed a local, Syrian cult. Under the Seleukids, Daphne became an important regional sanctuary, devoted to the dynastic deities Apollo and Artemis. It was the central hub in a wider sacred landscape that included in addition two peak sanctuaries; this in turn was linked to the imposition of Macedonian imperial rule in Syria and Seleukid colonization politics.

In the second century BCE, Polybios described the celebration at Daphne of a panhellenic festival with traits of Babylonian Akītu. In Roman times Daphne became the location of several festivals, the most important of which were the four-yearly Olympic Games. In 351 CE, the Christian emperor Constantius Gallus built a martyrium for the remains of Saint Babylas near the Kastalia Spring to nullify its prestige as a pagan oracle; ten years later, Julian the Apostate found the oracle indeed inactive, and ordered the removal of the saint’s body, after which the Temple of Apollo was destroyed by lightning. The Olympic Games however were still held as late 520.

Apart from the various epiphanies and festivals associated with Daphne, the sanctuary’s importance is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that nearby Antioch was known in Antiquity as Antioch-by-Daphne, rather than the other way round. This, together with the site’s association with several cities and its probable existence as a sacred place before the foundation of these cities, problematizes the characterization of Daphne as an ‘extra-urban’ or ‘non-urban’ sanctuary.


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