Hybridism of Greek River Gods. Animal Traits as « Relational Elements » within the Freshwater Pantheon

Doralice Fabiano


The present article will focus on the partially theriomorphic (mainly bovine) aspect of the river deities in ancient Greece, which is an interesting case study of the interaction between animals and gods in ancient religion. The first part of the article, which is more historiographical, will focus on the importance assumed by the theriomorphic element in historians of religions' readings of these deities. In fact, the animal hybridism that characterizes river gods has often been interpreted, from an evolutionist point of view (Mannhardt, Nilsson), as an intermediate stage between the worship of natural elements and the creation of perfectly anthropomorphic deities.
The second part of the article will instead deal with some ancient sources relating to river gods without claiming to be exhaustive. Beginning with a passage from Elianus (Varia Historia 2, 33), we will first show how the theriomorphic element is not generalised but significantly associated with certain rivers (Acheloos, Cephysus) in different ways (completely bovine form, bovine horns and human appearance, human face, and bovine body, human or bovine depending on the document). The analysis of this small dossier intends to suggest that the hybrid traits of river deities should not be considered an ontological characteristic of river deities. This set of traits may or may not be activated within a representation, and if they are, it is because they respond to specific needs.
These can be local identity strategies, iconographic needs, and the desire to attribute to the river deities a metamorphism typical of some water deities.

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