On Ancient Greek Thymiateria and Their Purpose
Keywords:thymiaterion, incense burner, frankincense (libanos, incense), myrrh (muron), the Northern Black Sea region, Bosporus, Phanagoria, Athenian red-figure pottery of the 4th century BC, Attic West Slope Vase Painting, Hellenism
The paper looks at the ancient Greek thymiateria and aims at finding data in literary, epigraphic and visual sources that would cast light on the use of thymiateria in private and public rituals of the VIІ th century BC – IVth century AD. Systematic collection of data and its comparative historical analysis were in the core of the methodology. Among the main methods of analysing the collected sources, one should mention empirical, analytical, structural-typological and iconographical methods. A thymiaterion (an incense burner) is firstly mentioned in the Vth century BC in Herodotus’ Historia. In centuries to come, the panhellenic name of thymiaterion would dominate and enter to Roman and Germanic languages. This device was used solely with fire, charcoal or heated pebbles to burn aromatic compounds, incense and aromatic plants and flowers in particular. Thymiateria didn’t have any fixed shapes or sizes. In narrative sources, they were also named bomiskos, libanotis (libanotris), escharis, tripodiskos etc. In this paper, I examine the basic constructive elements of thymiateria. As visual sources and lyric poetry suggest, they were used in the archaic period. The earliest instance of the use of thymiateria in the ritual practice date late to the VIth century BC in the Phanagoria of the Bosporus. The thymiateria is depicted on mostly in mythological scenes on the Athenian red-figure pottery late of the Vth – IVth centuries BC found in Panticapaeum and in the surrounding area. The Greek iconography of mythological scenes on the vases was clear for the locals. The majority of visual, numismatics and epigraphic sources that reveal the use of thymiateria on the Bosporus are dating to the IVth–ІІth centuries BC, when they were spread in Hellenistic Greece and, especially in sanctuaries of Delos. Although aroma was an essential part of thymiateria culture, only Orphic Hymns cast light on the use of particular incenses (in pure form or in compound) for each gods or heroes. One important question persists: which aromas were burnt in thymiateria and from which countries were they brought to Greece? From literary sources, we know that plant-based aromas, namely incense and myrrh were brought from South Arabia and Syria. Thymiateria were used during rituals in sanctuaries and temples, during religious processions, funerals, symposiums and wedding that were accompanied by aromatic smoke. The present essay should be regarded as a starting point for the further in-depth study of thymiateria from the Northern Black sea region and Olbia in particular.