The ladies of Dion

Dion was the oldest and most important sanctuary of ancient Macedonia. We do not know when it was first established, but an altar dedicated to Zeus must have existed here since an early period. The setting was splendid; the sanctuary occupies a narrow strip of land between the towering mass of Mount Olympus to the west and the wine-dark waters of the Thermaic Gulf to the east. It is a mystical environment of freshwater springs, lush vegetation, and soaring trees. As Macedonia evolved into a powerful empire, the sanctuary became home to a select group of ladies, whose presence is still felt among the waterlogged ruins of Dion.

Celebrations of masculinity

And yet, in the very beginning, there was almost no indication that this site would prove so inviting to them. In the late 5th century, King Archelaus I  instituted a nine-day festival of athletic and dramatic competitions in honor of Zeus and the Muses, and commissioned Euripides, the great Athenian tragedian, to produce two tragedies that may have been performed at Dion (Archelaus and Bacchae). Other Macedonian rulers, though, used the sanctuary to celebrate military achievements. Philip II organized races after his decisive victory at Olynthus in 348 BCE; ten years later, he came back to make sacrifices in thanksgiving for his triumph against the Thebans and the Athenians in the battle of Chaeronea.

Alexander the Great also organized an impressive sacrifice before invading Persia. He erected a tent that could accommodate a hundred dining couches and invited his Companions, his officers, and ambassadors from many Greek cities to a lavish banquet. He distributed sacrificial animals to the entire army and celebrated the traditional festival for nine days, naming each day after one of the Muses. After the battle of the Granicus River (334 BCE), the young king ordered the sculptor Lysippus to create twenty-five bronze statues in honor of the Companion cavalrymen who died in an audacious charge against the Persians.

The oldest resident

Contemporary visitors would be hard pressed to identify any sign of these military triumphs. The 100-couch tent and the bronze equestrian statues are gone, but the ladies of Dion are still here. Despite the martial character of the festivities recorded by the ancient writers, the oldest temple of Dion belonged to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Her temenos consisted of a series of temples belonging to different periods but located side by side. The marble head of her statue was discovered in 1973, but its identity was only confirmed when her name was found incised on a nearby cup. Her sanctuary was always full of votive offerings (mostly terracotta statuettes), vases, jewelry, and lamps, while animal sacrifices were an indispensable part of the rituals associated with Demeter.

Equally indispensable was the presence of Baubo, an old woman from Eleusis in Attica, who was able to entertain Demeter with an obscene gesture; she lifted her skirt to reveal her genitals. Baubo was worshipped alongside Demeter and we even know the name of one of her priestesses: Menekrite, daughter of Theodorus.  

The Egyptian

Isis Lochia, the goddess who looked after the women after childbirth, was a late arrival in Dion. Her cult was probably introduced from Egypt in the 3rd century BCE and her sanctuary was located outside the town, on the shores of the river Baphyras. The goddess was depicted holding a sheaf and a scepter. A small statue dedicated by Aristio, daughter of Mentor, indicates that Isis supplanted Artemis Eileithyia, another goddess related to childbirth, whose shrine was probably replaced by that of Isis.

The beautiful neighbor

The temple of Isis made extensive use of water to remind visitors of the aquatic landscape of the river Nile. Her neighbor was Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Her statue still occupies a niche on the wall in a small temple to the north of the sanctuary of Isis. She is known as Aphrodite Hypolympidia, a name only attested in Dion, so it seems fairly likely that we are dealing with an old local tradition. The architects designed an elaborate ground plan that incorporated the aquatic element (the floor of the shrine is actually a pool) to commemorate the primordial, alpine landscape of Mount Olympus, where the Macedonians originally worshipped the goddess.      

The elephant in the park

And what about the Muses? Archelaus, after all, dedicated his festival to them to call attention to his interest in culture and intellectual life. The nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. They were born in Pieria and spent their blessed lives near springs in verdant woodlands. Poets, musicians, historians, and dramatists turned to them for inspiration and identified each one with individual duties and symbols. The Macedonian kings were always mindful to stay on their good side; even Eurydice, the grandmother of Alexander the Great made dedications to them. Their presence is felt throughout the Archaeological Park of Dion, but so far only the statue of Terpsichore, the muse of dancing, has been discovered; she holds the lyre and stands on the rocks of Mount Olympus (?), a perennial reminder to all passersby that Dion is the land most favored by the gods.

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The World of Alexander - Mentor - Study abroad in Greece
Link to The World of Alexander – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

The World of Alexander – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

Study abroad for a panoramic view of Alexander the Great’s life and legacy. Develop an understanding of the nexus between geography and imperialism in Alexander’s military accomplishments that resulted in the creation of a grand empire spanning Egypt, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and India.

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