Iberian Religion

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IBERIAN RELIGION . The term Iberian religion is used here geographically. It refers to the religious systems of Iberia, the name the Greeks gave in antiquity to the Iberian Peninsula, from the arrival of the Phoenicians (documented by the ninth century bce) to the time these places were incorporated into the Roman Empire in the first centuries ce.

Tartessos is the name that identifies the peninsula in the first historical records dating to ancient Greek literature. That is the time of the expansion of Eastern cultural influence on other parts of the Mediterranean (from the eighth to sixth centuries bce). Tartessian culture had its core in lower Andalusia and seems to have developed from the cultural contact between the indigenous late Bronze Age population and Semitic colonizers who arrived from the eastern Mediterranean. Later, a secondary Greek presence contributed to the culture.

Tartessos and Religious Contact with the Phoenician World

Phoenician materials appear in several shrines, most importantly in Gadir (Cádiz), the site of the famous temple of Melqart, patron god of Tyre, assimilated to Herakles and described by such authors of the Roman Empire as Strabo (Geographica 3.5), Silius Italicus (Punica 3.144), and Philostratus (Vita Apollonii 5.5). Other examples are El Carambolo, near Seville, and the Cerro de San Juan, in Coria del Río, probably dedicated to Baal Saphon, protector of navigation. Phoenician religious pieces, such as altars, betyls, and liturgical bone spoons, are documented also in the interior, near Carmona (in the province of Seville), and in Cancho Roano in the municipality of Zalamea la Real, province of Badajoz. The latter complex was destroyed in the late fifth century bce and seems to have been an Easternized indigenous sanctuary that served as a dwellingthe residence of the ruler and his family. It also fulfilled economic, political, and religious functions. It was a space to display power and a site to worship ancestors, and it also allowed control of access to the region. The Poggio Civitate complex in Murlo, Etruria, with its multiple functions, was comparable to Cancho Roano.

The problem presented by these sites is that of their identity. Are they indigenous sanctuaries influenced by the Phoenician religious system? Or are they Eastern enclaves placed in indigenous locations that would have also operated as centers of commerce? The sanctuaries of Muela de Cástulo in the province of Jaén; El Acebuchal in Carmona, Seville; and Montemolín in Marchena, Seville, are special cases. They show evidence of sacrifices performed on platforms or altars and dating to the seventh century bce. The cooking and consumption of sacrificial animals (cows, goats, sheep, and pigs) recorded in these sites are well-known practices documented in the biblical texts of Exodus (29:1518) and Leviticus (7:3233).

The few existing Phoenician inscriptions, generally property marks preserved on ceramic vases or other objects, document names associated to Melqart, Baal, Eshmun, and Astarte. An inscription associated with Astarte found on an image in El Carambolo (Seville) suggests that indigenous elites would have been attracted to the cult by assimilating Astarte to an indigenous fecundity goddess. The same could have happened with Melqart, who like Reshef is always depicted in the statuettes.

The necropolises document characteristic elements of Phoenician funeral rites, such as the use of plates, libation jars, and perfume burners. The "treasure" of La Aliseda, like the necropolis of Medellín in the province of Bodajoz, is proof that Eastern objects spread out by land all the way to the northeast of the peninsula, the source of mineral wealth. The graveyards (La Joya in Huelva and Los Alcores in Carmona) display evidence of both cremation and inhumation; stelae and markers are common features. Especially interesting is the necropolis of Las Cumbres in Castillo de Doña Blanca, province of Cádiz. There the oldest cremation sites, dating to the first half of the eighth century bce, were local and presented little evidence of social differences. A later group of burials, dating from the seventh century bce, evidenced funeral rites that included libations, incense, and oil-based perfumes, all Phoenician traits that indicate a clear social hierarchy.

Besides the archaeological data, there is extensive literary data from Greek and Latin authors who speak of two "mythical" dynasties in the region. The first is that of Geryon, about whom Stesichorus of Himera wrote a poem (Geryoneia ) in the sixth century bce. The poem narrates how Herakles stole Geryon's bulls and carried them off to Mycenae. Geryon is depicted in archaic Greek pottery as a three-headed being, and it is possible that the tricephalous image evidences an influence of Celtic culture in the Tartessian world.

The second dynasty is that of Gargoris and Habis, recorded in Justin's third century ce summary of the work of the historian Pompeius Trogus (Epitoma Historiarum Philippicarum Pompei Trogi). Gargoris, the ancient god of the Curetes, forest-dwelling hunters, discovered the value of honey and taught his people to use it. Gargoris's incestuous relationship with his daughter begot Habis, who was abandoned to be devoured by wild beasts but miraculously survived (a frequent theme in the story of a hero's infancy, as in those of Sargon, Moses, Cyrus the Great, and Romulus and Remus). As king, Habis "tied the people to the law and the oxen to the plow" (Justin, Epìtoma 44.4, 11). He is thus the prototype of the civilizing and legislating king. This myth illustrates the transition from a barbarian state (Gargoris) to one of urban culture (Habis). The debate centers on whether these are expressions of an indigenous culture or simply an invention of the Hellenic scholars in which some previous historical elements, perhaps of Tartessian origin, subsist.

The ancient poem about the seacoast by a Punic or Greek author from the sixth century bce, Ora Maritima, which inspired Rufus Festus Avienus in the fourth century ce, mentions a series of sacred places located in Tartessos. As happened later with Punic and Iberian deities, the poem translates, through the process the Romans called interpretatio, the name of the Tartessian or Phoenician gods into those of their Roman or Greek counterparts, or into Greek and Roman deities that fulfilled similar functions to them, such as Herakles, Venus, or Saturn.

Religion of the Iberian Peoples

After the late sixth century bce,the Iberian culture was influenced by the contacts between the peoples of the south and east of the peninsula (living between the Huelva estuary and the Rodanus in France) and the Greek and Punic colonizers. After the late third century bce those contacts included the Romans. The study of Iberian cultural spaces and necropolises has increased among modern scholars.

Following the decline of the Tartessian world, monumental funerary complexes confirm the existence of an aristocratic power. The complex of Pozo Moro (Albacete), shaped like a tower and dated to around 500 bce, is reminiscent of Eastern monuments, such as Amrit or the tomb of Cyrus the Great, and neo-Hittite models in its art. The monument displays extraordinary iconographythe scene of a sacrificial banquet with a human victim and an animal one and a hero carrying the tree of fertility and uniting in hierogamy with a goddess. Perhaps it is a depiction of a mythical tale of origin or an exaltation of the heroic deeds of the dynasty's ancestors or the ruling elite. By the first half of the fifth century bce another imposing funeral complex was built in Cerrillo Blanco within the municipality Porcuna (Jaén) that depicts as a central element a hero's struggle with a lion or gryph (which has such well-known parallels as the stories of Dumuzi, Sargon the First, and Melqart or Herakles). It also shows combat between armed warriors.

Besides the towerlike burials of the kind found at Pozo Moro, Iberian necropolises present two types of arrangement of monumental sculptures in "princely" graves. One is known as "stelae pillars," which depict, atop columns, sculptures of bulls, sphinxes, lions, does, or wolves of an apotropaic nature (typical of Contestania, a region between Valencia and Murcia that seems to have been the true center of Iberian culture). The second kind consists of the arrangement of sculptures directly on the funeral mounds, as found in Los Villares (La Hoya Gozalo, Albacete).

Toward 375 bce there must have been a social crisis that translated into the destruction of several complexes and resulted in important changes to the society of the "princely graves." There is a documented transition to the world of sanctuaries, where the collective image of society is expressed through deities and where new sources of expression emerge, such as silver trays and especially pottery, that developed their richest iconography after the third century bce. Of the two distinguishable periods in pottery iconography, the first (300150 bce) shows, through its depictions of warriors, hunters, and ladies, the values of the urban ruling classes, whereas the second (20050 bce) centers more on the depiction of deities, myths, and religious rituals (Aranegui Gascó, 1998).

Sanctuaries and rituals

Punic materials are characteristic of such sanctuaries as La Algaida in the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, where thousands of votive offerings have been found, some from Etruria and the eastern Mediterranean. They are also characteristic of the Gorham Cave (Gibraltar), Carteia (Algeciras), the Peñón de Salobreña and the Cerro de la Tortuga near Málaga, Baria (Villaricos, Almería), and the Cova d'Es Cuyram (Ibiza) devoted to the Carthaginian goddess Tanit. The last contained splendid terra-cotta figurines, now exhibited in the island's archaeological museum. In these sanctuaries Astarte did not replace Tanit, but rather the two were assimilated beginning in the middle of the fourth century bce.

Greek and Latin authors related the existence of sanctuaries on the coast of the peninsula that were devoted to certain deities "translated" into their Greek and Roman counterparts, Herakles, Kronos, Hera, Asklepios, Phosphorus, Hephaistos, and Aletesthe mythic discoverer of the silver mines of Carthago Nova, according to Polybius (Historiae 10.10.1). Technical progress in archaeology and the increased number of excavations have broadened the evidence considerably, and it is possible to classify the different sacred spaces.

There is a distinction between urban and nonurban sanctuaries. Among the latter there are three kinds: suburban or periurban sanctuaries in close proximity to inhabited centers; great supraterritorial sanctuaries; and rural sanctuaries, including caves, which are characteristic of the Valencian region.

Sierra Morena in Jaén is the center of the most characteristic territorial and mountain sanctuaries in the Iberian world. These played an important role in the territorial development of the Oretanian peoples. The Collado de los Jardines (Santa Elena) in Despeñaperros and El Castellar de Santisteban were probably centers of salutiferous cults. The most characteristic elements of these sanctuaries are bronze figurines depicting males and females offering gifts (or praying), warriors, riders, and even priests.

The complex rituals typical of the southeast have different characteristics. El Cerro de Los Santos and El Llano de La Consolación in Montealegre del Castillo, Albacete, were characterized by stone statuary. Other good examples include El Cigarralejo (Mula) and Nuiestra Señora de La Luz (Verdolay, Murcia). Of the more than two hundred statues that have been found in Cerro de Los Santos, the most famous are of worshiping females, which probably depict devout aristocrats or priestesses. Most of these sanctuaries were active into the advanced Roman imperial age.

The last category of sanctuaries includes those located in urban settlements. Martín Almagro-Gorbea and Teresa Moneo (2000) developed a typology that includes three parameters of differentiation. The three descriptions of domestic/dynastic family, properly urban, and entrance sanctuaries correspond to the three parameters within the category of urban sanctuaries. First are domestic or dynastic family sanctuaries, which were integrated into a noble family's dwelling inside the oppidum or fortified village. La Serreta de Alcoy in Alicante; Sant Miquel de Lliria in Valencia, and Ullastret in Girona are good examples.

Second are urban temples (Templos urbanos propiamente dichos ), isolated structures with an autonomous relationship to the oppidum. These include two kinds. First are the "open-air" areas (La Alcudia de Elche and Campillo Island in Alicante), which consist of square enclosures (temenos ) and the remains of columns or structures that have been interpreted as altars or offering tables typical of the Phoenician world. The other type consists of buildings set on stone bases and located on the highest point of a settlement. Typical examples include Azaila (Teruel) and Ullastret (Girona). They present influences from Emporion (Ampurias) in the expansion of this kind of Roman-Hellenic temple.

Third are "entrance sanctuaries" located next to a settlement's entrance, in some instances inside the walls (especially in the east and northeast of the peninsula) and in some outside the walls. Sanctuaries located outside the city walls are often located near caves or springs, associated to offerings that suggest fertility rites and rites of passage or social incorporation. Some of these sanctuaries are associated with river ports, such as that in La Muela de Cástulo, or seaports, like that of Artemis, in Sagunto.

The third century bce is the time of the emergence of great periurban sanctuaries at the territorial level, while territory-wide periurban sanctuaries associated with the construction of ethnic or political projects, coincide with the decline of ritual caves, which were especially common in the fifth and fourth centuries bce. Some of the complexes (El Cerro de Los Santos, La Luz, and La Encarnación in Caravaca Murcia) experimented with a process of monumentalization in the second and first centuries bce, when they adopted Italo-Hellenistic concepts. Human terra-cotta masks found in some sanctuaries may have been used by the faithful when performing ritual dances like those known to have taken place in the Artemis Orthia sanctuary in Sparta and other locations.

Necropolises show a wide diversity of funerary practices related to cremation. The exceptions are child burials, performed inside homes. Bodies range in age from fetuses to six months old and have been documented in eastern Spain (from Alicante to the French Languedoc) and in the midEbro River valley. When the remains are found within structures, such as walls or benches, they have been interpreted as sacrificial in nature, having a functional or propitiatory character, and are accompanied by or substitute for animal sacrifices. They have some parallels with those from Etruscan Tarquinia, Latium, and the Greek world.

The iconography offers valuable information about initiatic rites and rites of passage into puberty or heroization. Such subjects as the struggle between a youth and a beast of the underworld, often incarnate in a wolf (portrayed in the pottery of La Alcudia de Elche and in sculptures from the "frontier" sanctuary at El Pajarillo in Huelma, Jaén) were set within city territory. The "goddess of the wolves" found in Moratalla, Murcia, was probably an initiatic figure. Hand-to-hand combat scenes between warriors and hunting scenes also reflect the value system (ethos ) of the elites. Sacrificial scenes are depicted in such objects as the silver tray of Tivissa (Tarragona), which is dated to the third century bce; depictions of dances and processions are found in the pottery of Sant Miquel de Lliria (Valencia). It is possible that certain themes, such as the sphinx carrying the deceased found in the park of Elche, the pillar of Jumilla, and the wolves with open jaws and human heads of Santisteban del Puerto in Jaén, refer to travel to the afterlife.

The presence of priests in the Tartessian world of the period of Hellenization is documented in the Phoenician sanctuary of Melqart in Cádiz by Silius Italicus (Punica 3.1), who writes that the priests wore linen tunics with purple embroidery and shaved their heads. There is no such information regarding the Iberian period after 500 bce, although archaeological data suggests there was a priesthood. The existence of priests is inferred from sacrificial knives found in graves and sanctuaries, the tonsured characters found in the Collado de los Jardines (Jaén), and the bronze from Segura de la Sierra (Jaén), which is dated to the fifth century bce and depicts a man slaughtering a goat on the water of a river. These priests would have been recruited among the ruling class and hierarchized according to the types of sanctuaries. Domestically they would have been heads of household.

Elusive divinities

In contrast to Indo-European Hispania, the names of the gods worshiped by the Iberian peoples of the coastal regions are not known, with few exceptions, probably because religious acculturation had occurred for centuries and the divine personae were expressed through Punic and Phoenician names (or the Greco-Roman ones with which the Semitic deities were assimilated). One example of such assimilation is in Torrepardones, Jaén. On the forehead of a female stone figure a devotee inscribed, in the second or first century bce, the caption "Dea Caelestis," the Latin name of Carthage's goddess Tanit.

Fortunately iconography contributes to the understanding of certain divine characters. It seems clear that there was a protecting goddess associated with the earth, death, and regeneration. Some depictions, besides aniconic representations such as pillars, are the statue of the Lady of Baza, the sitting Ladies of El Cigarralejo, La Alcudia of Elche, El Cabecico del Tesoro in Verdolay, and probably the Lady of Elche. That goddess, sometimes winged and linked to the Punic Tanit, appears "emerging" from the earth and associated with birds or flowers in Elche-Archena pottery, whereas on some Turdetan coins she is represented as a stalk of wheat. There are about ten examples of representations of the despotes hippon, the "horse-taming" god originally from the Aegean, which appear from Villaricos (Almería) to Saguntum (Valencia). Some votive pieces depicting horses are associated with that deity, like the ones found in El Cigarralejo (Murcia) and Pinos Puente (Granada), as are the Iberian coins from the Ebro Valley, which show the typical rider brandishing a spear or palm, a divinity or mythical ancestor that illustrates the values of the equestrian elites.

The iconography of perfume burners with female headsassociated with Demeter or Tanitis reproduced in a limestone female head uncovered in La Luz (Murcia), probably a cult image. Perhaps the most interesting of divine iconographies is that of a woman holding her suckling child. Such images were known in Cyprus in the first millennium bce and were documented in a bronze from the Fundación Gómez-Moreno in Granada, in some sitting statuettes from Alicante and Murcia, and especially in a terra-cotta group from the sanctuary of La Serreta in Alcoy (Alicante) dated to the third and second centuries bce. Ricardo Olmos Romera (20002001) has suggested that the image represents a regional feast where the mothers of the area present their children to the goddess, an event similar to some documented in Locri (southern Italy) and Greece.

Some scenes are interpreted in a mythical key. That is the case of the farmer with a team of oxen depicted in a vase from Cabezo de La Guardia de Alcorisa (Teruel), probably a representation of the god or mythic ancestor who taught men to plow (as Habis did in the Tartessian myth).

Religion in Indo-European Hispania

Latin epigraphy from the first centuries ce have offered more than five hundred names of deities from Indo-European Hispania (which does not mean so many gods were worshiped, because several names can refer to the same god invoked under different epithets). There is a clear contrast between the western and northwestern regions in the peninsula and the eastern Celtiberian Plateau. Most of the names preserved originate in the former, where Lusitanian, an Indo-European language more archaic than the Hispano-Celtic language known through Celtiberian texts, was spoken. Fewer indigenous names of deities have been preserved in the central areas of the two plateaus of the peninsula or in Celtiberia. That is the result of broader religious acculturation from the Greco-Roman world, which influenced the Iberian peoples of the coast.

The gods

The literature on Indo-European gods in Hispania is minimal. Strabo (Geographica 3.3.7) states that the peoples of the north sacrificed hecatombs of men and horses to a war god he identifies with the Greek Ares. In another passage Strabo (Geographica 3.4.16) says the Galicians were atheists, whereas the Celtiberians and their northern neighbors worshiped an unnamed deity, in honor of whom they danced on nights of the full moon. The supposed atheism of the Galicians contradicts the abundant religious offerings in the northwest, and thus should be interpreted as a denigrating strategy by Strabo to underline the extreme barbarism of the peoples living farther away from the Mediterranean. A minor degree of barbarism must have been that of the Celtiberians, whose gods were yet unnamed (like those of the pre-Greek Carions mentioned by Herodotos (Historiae 2.52). On the other hand, Macrobius (Saturnalia 1.19.5) mentions that the Accitani of Granada worshiped a god named Neto, astral in nature and equated with Mars, named in a couple of Lusitanian inscriptions and probably appearing as the Neito of the first Celtiberian Bronze Age in Botorrita (Zaragoza).

The cultural geography of the Hispanic Indo-European pantheon allows several levels of differentiation. First are those gods worshiped in ancient Celtica, such as Lugus, the Matres, or Epona. Lugus is the deity worshiped in the mountains of Peñalba de Villastar (Teruel), a great "border" sanctuary between Celtiberia and the eastern Iberian world. His name is also found in Northwest Celtiberia (in the plural, Lugoves). He is an astral god, interpreted to be the Gallic Roman Mercury (Caesar, Bellum Civile 6.17). The Matres, who show the Celtic influence of triads (and thus appear represented on a stone in Aquae Flaviae in Chaves, Portugal), are fecundity goddesses worshiped mostly in Celtiberia, as was Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses.

A series of gods are documented mostly in the west of the peninsula. The most common group is formed by four names, Bandua (or Bandis), Cosus, Nabia, and Reva, addressed with various epithets, which probably document the emergence of federative deities and those that protect the territory. But the best-documented Lusitanian deities are Endovellicus and Ataecina. The sanctuary of the former (who seems to be related to Vaelicus, worshiped by the Vettones in the sanctuary of Postoloboso, Avila) is in San Miguel da Mota (Alardoal, Alto Alemtejo, in Portugal), which is under excavation. There are scores of inscriptions with his names, which makes him one of the best-documented gods in the western provinces of the Roman Empire. There are nearly forty inscriptions related to Ataecina, fifteen in the sanctuary of El Trampal (Alcuéscar, Cáceres). Some include the epithet Turobrigensis, a city in Celtic Beturia (Pliny, Naturolis Historie, 3.14), from which her cult extended to Sardinia or Noricum. She is mentioned in some execratory inscriptions, and she was assimilated into Proseprina, which suggests she was a diabolical deity.

Sacred spaces and rites

In Indo-European Hispania rites were performed in the open air, often in hierophanic spaces and in some instances documented in rupestrian inscriptions. Some sources document human sacrifices among peninsular peoples, such as the Lusitanians (divinatory in nature, Livy, Periochae 49; Strabo, Geographica 3.3.6), the Bletonenses near Salamanca (Pliny, Naturolis Historie 30.12), and the mountain people in the north of the peninsula (Strabo, Geographica 3.3.7). The subject is a commonplace of Greco-Latin writings on druidic religion, but such sacrifices must have been exceptional. Such sources are likely to have been used to emphasize the barbarism of "others."

There is much more evidence of animal sacrifices, documented in sanctuaries, such as the one in Picote, Tras-os-Montes; in inscriptions, such as those in MarecosPenafiel or Cabeço das Fraguas in Portugal; and in various depictions. Among the depictions are six "sacrificial bronzes" from different locations in the northwest of the peninsula that include cauldrons, torques, or axes. The species mentioned in the Lusitanian inscription from Cabeço das Fraguas (bull, sheep, and pig) correspond to those shown in these bronzes and are similar to the victims of Roman suovetaurilia and Indian sautramani.

The sanctuary excavated in Castrejón de Capote, Badajoz, is especially important. The site, destroyed by the Romans in the mid-second century bce, includes an altar with a running bench that opens into the main street of the town. The animal and material remains (knives, a stake, grills, cups, and glasses) give proof of collective sacrifices and banquets celebrated with the cooked flesh of the animals (Berrocal-Rangel, 1994). Similar rituals took place in rupestrian sanctuaries, characterized by the presence of ladders, cavities, and receptacles of different sizes in which the victims' blood would have been gathered and their entrails handled. They are characteristic of the Celtiberian area, the plateau, and especially the Galician-Lusitanian northwest. The ritual sanctuaries of Ulaca (Avila) and Panoias in Portugal, where inscriptions mention the continuation of the cults into the Roman era, are the most important ones.

Posidonius and other authors (Diodorus, Bibliotheca Historica 5.29; and Strabo, Geographica 4.4.5 regarding the Gauls) documented the rite among Celtic peoples of "cutting off the head" ("cabezas cortadas ") of a prisoner or a defeated foe. In the Iberian Peninsula the practice is recorded in a type of fibula, in which the human heads are depicted hanging from horses, with or without riders, and in some skulls, sometimes perforated by nails, unearthed in Numantia, Ullastret, Puig Castellar, and Garvâo, Portugal. They are similar to the skulls displayed in the Celtic-Ligurian sanctuaries of Provence.

There is significant data regarding the role of priests, mostly Celtic, in Indo-European Hispania. Proof of their role is the oracular practice in the sanctuary of Endovellico, in San Miguel da Mota (where epigraphic formulas indicate they received instructions from the deity through dreamsincubatio ). Further evidence appears in some Celtiberic words that point at priestly functions and in the iconography (in a vase from Numantia, an individual wearing a trunklike tiara sacrifices a rooster on an altar).

Some of the literature sheds light on funeral rites different from the traditional cremation. Silius Italicus (Punica 3.340343) and Elianus (De natura animalium 10.22) document how Celtiberians and Vacceans performed a ritual of leaving dead warriors in the open to be devoured by vultures, which carried their souls to the heavens (Sopeña Genzor 1995). The ritual indicates some concepts about an afterlife in the heavens (thus the rich astral iconography found in the Hispano-Roman gravestones of these areas). This is confirmed by scenes depicted in the different stelae and in pottery from Numantia. The rite seems to have been common among other peoples of Celtic Europe and explains the boldness and fearlessness of these peoples for whom, according to Lucanus (Pharsolio 1.468), death was but the halfway of a long life.

The statues of the so-called Lusitanian warriors, created under the influence of Romanization, seem to depict deified ancestry and in some instances were placed in the entrance to a village (Santa Comba, Mozinho, or Sanfins). The golden diadems of Moñes in Piloña, Asturias, should be interpreted as scenes of warrior heroization. They depict warriors and riders, birds and fish together with figures carrying enormous cauldronsreceptacles that in the Celtic tradition symbolize abundance and immortalitya key element that is a symbol of the "last voyage."


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Translated from Spanish by Fernando Feliu-Moggi