Geoscience Horizons

Press Release

University of Oregon

Oct. 31, 2003

Ross West
(541) 346-2060
Greg Retallack
(see Availability Note below)

Geologist Says Greek Deities Sprang from Soil

AVAILABILITY NOTE: In Seattle (Nov. 2-5), contact Retallack through Ann Cairns, Geological Society of America communications director, at (206) 219-4615.

EUGENE, Ore.-After studying temple sites of Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite and other Greek gods, a University of Oregon geologist suggests that local cultures and deities can be read not only in books of history and mythology, but also in the soil on which ancient worshipers once stood.

Gregory Retallack argues that classical Greek gods and goddesses came not from an imaginary poetic city on Mt. Olympus, but personify ancient local lifestyles. The various deities reflect specific ancient lifestyles, such as fishing, hunter-gatherer, pastoral and agrarian. Retallack studied soils at 40 well-known temple sites in Greece and Cyprus, and consistently found the same kind of soil associated with particular deities.

For example, temples for Demeter and Dionysos, deities associated with the harvest, vineyards and other agricultural activities, stand on soils suited to farming. The mysteries of Demeter, like the cycle of planting and harvest, involved belief in an afterlife and spiritual rebirth.

In contrast, temples for maritime deities Aphrodite and Poseidon are on coastal terrace soils that are too dry for productive agriculture. The sailor's cult of Aphrodite was one of adventure and celebration.

Specific soil types can be related to particular deities. Retallack even analyzed soils at temples to different gods near one another and found soil types consistent with each god near its respective temple.

"Different soils fostered different cultures and lifestyles," Retallack says. "My findings suggests that Greek religion was not so much a polytheistic state religion, as multiculturalism in an ancient urban society with great religious tolerance."

Retallack, an expert in paleosols (ancient soils), will present his findings, "Soils and Agricultural Potential at Sacred Sites of Classical (480-338 BC) Greece and Cyprus," during the 115th annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. The professional association of more than 7,000 geologists is meeting Nov. 2-5 in Seattle, Wash.



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