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Mapping Ancient Polytheisms Cult Epithets as an Interface between Religious Systems and Human Agency

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MAP (Mapping Ancient PolytheismsCult Epithets as an Interface between Religious Systems and Human Agency)

Período documentado: 2020-10-01 hasta 2022-03-31

The ERC Advanced Grant MAP Mapping Ancient Polytheisms. Cult Epithets as an Interface between Religious Systems and Human Agency project is funded by the European Research Council (project n°741182) for five years, from October 2017 to September 2022, in the PLH laboratory (Patrimoine Littérature Histoire, EA 4601) at University Toulouse – Jean Jaurès. As Principal Investigator of the project, Corinne Bonnet, Professor of Ancient Greek History, leads a team of specialists in ancient religions, spatialisation, and digital humanities (especially webmapping and databases).

The project is aimed not only to the academic world but also to the general audience interested in understanding the dynamics of ancient religions.The MAP project deals with the way ancient societies named their gods. The main investigation is about how the people, using variable appellatives in variable combinations, conceived and shaped complex, fluid and interrelated divine powers. Previous understanding of gods as singular or personified beings appears to be simplistic and does not allow to consider the structural and dynamic complexity of ancient religious systems.

What is at stake in MAP is to analyse networks of multifaceted divine powers and their environments.To understand divine powers and their interconnexions, the MAP project takes into account “onomastic sequences”, that is to say combinations of various types of divine names or elements (nouns, epithets, titles, sentences, etc.). Some names were specific and others were shared by different gods and goddesses. These onomastic elements played a strategic role in ritual communication by targeting one or several divine interlocutors relevant to a given context.

The MAP team addresses both Greek and West Semitic worlds by a comparatist method, on a long-term scale (ca 1000 BCE – 400 CE). In a truly Mediterranean dimension, this approach includes several polytheisms and a monotheism (Israel) and thus intends to question these two notions by analysing the naming strategies. Great attention is being paid to time and space variations, which contributes to innovations in the web mapping of divine onomastic sequences.All divine onomastic sequences in inscriptions and papyri will be collected, as well as in a selection of literary sources. They will be recorded in an open access database, hosted by the HUMA-NUM platform. This database will also provide abundant metadata relating to (ritual) contexts and (social) agents. The users of the database will have the ability to carry out multi-criteria searches. Data will also be analysed through statistic, cartographic and web mapping tools.

In the frame of the project a wide range of scientific activities are organised, such as seminars, workshops, conferences, publications, trainings for junior researchers, communications to a larger audience… These events take place not only in Toulouse but also in other different places, thanks to many national and international partnerships. The team also welcomes academics and young researchers on a regular basis for stays up to four months.
During the first 18 months of the project, we worked in four main directions:

1. The organization of the team and the management of the project
2. The conception of the database
3. The consolidation of the conceptual framework
4. The dissemination of our first results

1. Organization of the team and management of the project
The core team is composed of the PI, two colleagues, four postdocs, one team manager and one database ingeneer. Two Italian PhD joined the team for a six-month stay, and two visiting scholars arrived in March 19. All in all, the team is composed of approximately ten persons, with different languages, work practices and tools, objectives and schedules. In order to homogenize the team management, we have fixed common procedures, such as a shared space for documents and agendas, shared procedures for the administration (travels, expenses, books orders…), guidelines for meeting reports, for the use of logos, images, for the communication strategy, a collective meeting every Wednesday morning with a specific agenda, team building activities twice a year… In the evereyday life of the project, we use French, English and Italian as common langagues according to the people involved and the objectives. The team manager, together with the PI, play a decisive role in fixing “smart” (specific, measurable, acceptable, realistic, and time-bound) objectives, improving them and planning future activities.
As announced in the proposal, a member of the team serves as Assistant Director of the project for one year to take on a variety of responsibilities and to gain project management skills that will help them advance in their career. Each activity or work package is assumed by two or three members of the team a comparative perspective (between the Semitic and Greek area).
If much has been done in this first period of the project in order to make each member of the team responsible and autonomous, progress are still necessary to improve the sense of collective responsibility. Some new procedures will be proposed at the beginning of year 3 (October 2019) to reach this objective.

2. The conception of the database
The database (DB) if the the first collective output of the project. It is conceived as a fundamental tool for further developments within the MAP programme and also as an open data ressource to be offered to the scientific community. This is why a huge part of our efforts during the frst phase of the project has been concentrated on the conception of the DB.
In the period between October 2017 and February 2018, when the DB Ingeneer joined the team, we met at least two times a week all together to elucidate our assumptions and expectations for the DB. We progressively realized how complex the evidence is and how many metadata could be registered in the DB. The biggest challenge was to host in the same DB data from Greek and Semitic documents. The comparison between two distinct linguistic evidence represented a huge difficulty, but it also prompted us to rethink in depth our categories. Our first collective article (see below) derives from that important conceptual input. It is worth mentioning the fact that we established very productive collaborations with the computer scientists and the linguists of the University of Toulouse, who are interested in our challenges and will help us find innovative solutions.
Our requests concerned one DB for both the epigraphic, papyrological, numismatic, and literary evidence in Greek and Semitic, with two interfaces: input and query, with webmapping (PostGIS) and network analysis (Gephi) tools. The process ran through the following steps: the identification of need (our needs and the users’ needs), benchmarking with other DB, comparative reflection on the PostgreSQL or XML systems, elaboration of data dictionaries (with many entries), elaboration of the conceptual data model (1st version July 2018, last version February 2019), DB hosting on the TGIR (“Très Grande Infrastructure de Recherche”, CNRS) Huma-Num (30-year maintenance guarantee). The development of the input interface is done (external service provider), the query interface will be realized by an IT intern (11 weeks, April-June 2019). The webmapping tool is done by our DB Engineer, while the SNA will be launched in the beginning of 2020. During the second part of 2019, the guidelines for the DB will be prepared, for both the MAP team and the external users. We plan to give a full open access to the DB in June 2020, before the end of year 3 of the project.

3. The consolidation of the conceptual framework
As mentioned above, the reflection on the DB conception has raised many crucial questions on the conceptual framework of the project. It was initially based on the idea that the divine names contain two main elements: the “theonym” (the “proper name”) of the god and an “epithet”, which qualifies the god and tells more precisely which aspect of his/her multifaceted power is mobilized in a specific literary, artistic, or ritual context. However, although this kind of sequence is quite frequent it does not do justice to a variety of cases where it is impossible to distinguish between “theonym” and “epithet”, or where the name of the god is followed not by an epithet strict sensu, but by another substantive, a participle, a relative sentence… So in a collective article appeared in January 2019 we have formulated a strong conceptual proposal: to renounce to the binomial “theonym + epithet”, and to consider that each name given to the gods is an “onomastic sequence”, made of different “onomastic attributes”. This proposal puts the emphasis on the combinatorial nature of the names and suggests to question the relation between “onomastic attributes” and “iconographic attributes”, in as much as the name provides a synthetic portrait of the god’s powers. This first important proposal has been very positively welcomed and immediately adopted by different colleagues, even in other fields of research, such as the Roman or Mesopotamian world.
Moreover, in order to reinforce our conceptual equipment, we organize, within the MAP team, once a month, a common reading. We choose a recent or seminal book/article and we discuss it together during a whole half-day. Our notes are available to all in the common drive. They represent a shared conceptual bedrock for future publications. The two first common readings have given birth to a review essay in the press.

4. The dissemination of our first results
Our dissemination plan focused on three main aims: our fellow colleagues, specialists in Ancient History and especially Ancient Religions; the general public; and, in between those two poles, students in Ancient History as well as colleagues dealing with other fields.
Our main dissemination activity is the bimonthly MAP Seminar “Noms de dieux !”, open to guests, colleagues, graduate students, and a wider public from Toulouse. The communications are recorded (audio) and broadcasted through our website. The papers of session 2 of the Seminar (October-December 2018) will be published in the Archiv für Religionsgeschichte; the next sessions will also be systematically published.
The MAP team also organized several events. First of all, the first Conference, entitled EURYOPA. Embrasser du regard les épithètes divines et leur circulation, took place in Banyuls-sur-Mer (10-11 September 2018). It gathered more than 30 specialists of (mostly) Ancient Greek Religion and Literature, but also students from Master to PhD. Futhermore, we endeavoured to give a general presentation of the project to various audiences in Toulouse, Rome, Lausanne, Paris, Rennes, Lille, Montpellier, Le Mans, Merida. C. Bonnet will be keynote speaker at the FIEC Congress in London (July 2019).
Publications of the MA team follow a similar trend: they combine general presentations of the project with more specific case studies. They have been (or are about to be) published in different international peer reviewed journals. In fact, since the MAP project is at the crossroads of several fields (Ancient History, History of Religion, Ancient Greek History, Phoenician and Punic Studies, Biblical Studies…), we try to keep a certain balance between journals pertaining to each of them. We publish so far in both French and English.
Particular attention is given to the Open access obligation, which is also a convinction. This is a crucial criterion for us in the choice of publishers. In this perspective, the MAP-team uses the HAL Open-archive tool, where we have created our own collection (
The MAP-website ( is the main showcase of the project. Apart from the presentation of the project and the team, it provides every information (calendar for instance) about our scientific events (seminars, workshops, conferences) and publications. Podcasts of the papers presented in the MAP-Seminar are also available on the site. Last, but not least, the website will give access to our Database and tools of mapping and webmapping.
Each member of the team is in charge of (at least) a course at the Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès (from Bachelor to Master’s degree), which gives the occasion to present some issues of the project to the students. We also supervise a Master’s Thesis directly connected with the project and we organize a Summer School in Jerusalem (9-19/07/2019), where we will offer courses and trainings for PhD students on Ancient Religions and Digital Humanities
Even if most of our scientific activities are open to a wide audience, our dissemination plan includes specific actions dedicated to the general public. First of all, the members of the team have given a series of lectures (9 lectures of 2 hours) entitled “Noms de dieux!” at the “Université du Temps Libre (Free-time University)” of Toulouse, which offers academic courses accessible to a wide audience and plays a crucial role in the dissemination of scholarly knowledge. Convinced of the utility of such a commitment, we have already proposed a new series of lectures for 2019/2020. This series will be extended by the publication of a book dedicated to a wide audience of specialists, students and non specialists. An agreement has already been made with a publisher, and the book is to be released on the first semester of 2020.
From the early dictionaries of mythology to many recent publications on religions in Antiquity, the architecture and functioning of the divine world has been approached through the lens of “individual gods” gathered in “pantheons” seen as an aggregate of individual gods. The MAP project addresses the gods as multifaceted and interrelated divine powers, and goes therefore beyond static definitions and drawing up genealogies that oversimplify, even distort our understanding of complex religious systems.
By putting the emphasis on the naming process, and by taking seriously into account the message delivered by the different components of the divine names, the MAP project shows that each god and the many different configurations of gods functioned as complex, fluid and relational network of divine powers, which reveal the cartography of the divine world as well as human strategies for communicating effectively with the gods.

The concept of “onomastic sequence” put forward by MAP (see above) represents a serious progress in the attempt to grasp what is at stake in the naming processes: experimental knowledge on the gods, social strategies of distinction, crucial connections with the territories, multicultural trends in a connected Mediterranean, representation of the gods’ modes of action in the world... The notion of “onomastic attributes” coined for the elements present in the sequence points to another innovative path of research: how people explain, recount, make clear, through texts and images all the potentialities of polysemic onomastic attributes and sequences.
Three other aspects go clearly beyond the state of the art. First, the attention paid in the database to the spatialization of data. Every data concerning the source, the onomastic sequence and the agents involved will be registered according to five spatial scales (from the “big region” to the “archaeological site”). The aim is to provide very precisely located information on how gods are connected with the territories.

Secondly, in order to facilitate an accurate ranking of the data according to its precision and reliability, the reading of the text, the location of the source and its chronology will be associated with a coefficient (from 1 to 3).

And finally, in collaboration with the computer scientists of the University of Toulouse, we are constructing an automated script able to treat the huge amount of information contained in the onomastic sequences. Beyond its semantic significance, we are interested in the internal connections between the elements within the sequence. We thus propose to modelize these internal relations through four connectors: coordination, juxtaposition, qualification, equivalence. Every onomastic sequence can thus be translated into a formula, which will be analyzed by the automated script in order to detect shared features, specificities, singularities... With this innovative tool, we adopt a Big Data approach to our evidence. The colleagues who have been informed of that experimental approach are extremely enthusiastic.
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