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See the Forest for the Trees: Human-Environmental Entanglement in the Sacred Cypress Groves of Ancient Greece

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posted on 2022-11-09, 05:22 authored by Eva G. Rummery

Significant features of the ancient Greek landscape were its open-air cult sites, one of which was the ἄλσος, translated in modern English to 'sacred grove'. Sacred groves were areas of natural forest, or trees that were planted as spaces of worship. In these spaces, religion was interwoven with the landscape; wherein human-nature interactions formed a foundation for cultural practice. Yet, despite the connection between landscape and religion in these spaces, research in the field of sacred groves has focused primarily upon their religious qualities: scholarship has rarely delved into sacred groves as natural ecosystems, and their roles as ecosystems in ancient Greek religion. This approach has overlooked the inherent entanglement between nature and culture in ancient Greece, as well as the agency of sacred groves as natural ecosystems in the ancient Greek world. Accordingly, this thesis asks: what is the nature of entanglement between humans and ancient Greece's sacred groves? To examine this question, it compiles 21 sacred cypress groves attested in the ancient Greek textual and archaeological record, and analyses these groves through the methodology of Environmental History. Using the sacred cypress grove at Nemea as a case study, it is demonstrated that sacred cypress groves are spaces which do not exclusively exist either in nature or culture, but rather in both – formed through an intimate process of entanglement with their local culture. The mythologies and histories of ancient Greece were influential in the creation of sacred cypress groves, but these landscapes were equally complicit in the shaping of these mythologies and histories. Moreover, this thesis illustrates that these landscapes were significant ecological agents, valuable in their environments for the prevention of soil erosion, and the retention of water in their environment. The combined archaeological and ecological approaches used within this project are essential in opening a line of historical inquiry which illuminates the dynamic connections of ancient humans with their larger ecosystem. 


Table of Contents

1: Introduction -- 2: The Research Context -- 3: The Cypress Groves of Ancient Greece in The Textual and Archaeological Record -- 4: A Case Study of Nemea -- 5: Analysis and Discussion -- 6: Conclusion -- Bibliography -- Appendix: Ancient Sources


Submitted in partial fulfilment of the Master of Research (MRes)

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes


Thesis (MRes), Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, 2021

Department, Centre or School

Department of History and Archaeology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Susan Lupack

Additional Supervisor 1

Ian Plant


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