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Phallic Cult Volume 54 Number 2, March/April 2001
by Carolyn Swan

[image] A cave in Croatia yielded evidence of cultic rituals of the ancient Illyrians. (M. Darmanin/Nakovana Cave Project) [LARGER IMAGE]

Hundreds of fine ceramic vessels used in Illyrian drinking, feasting, and fertility rites--possibly of an orgiastic nature--have been discovered along with a phallic-shaped stalagmite in a cave near the abandoned village of Nakovana, on the southern tip of Dalmatia, the region of Croatia bordering the Adriatic Sea. Archaeologists hope the finds will clarify previously hazy theories about the religious beliefs of the Illyrians, warriors and neighbors of the Greeks, who lived in the area during the last few centuries B.C.

For ten years, the Royal Ontario Museum's Tim Kaiser and Staso Forenbaher of the Institute of Anthropology in Zagreb have directed a team studying the region's Illyrian and earlier occupants. In 1999, they discovered a central, phallic-shaped stalagmite in the second of the cave's three connected chambers. Surrounding the stalagmite was a large number of artifacts, including sherds of high-quality Hellenistic Greek and Illyrian pottery. Among these were broken votive offerings with dedications to Dionysos and Aphrodite scratched in Greek on cups and jugs. Returning last summer, they noticed the absence of a corresponding stalactite, which led them to conclude that the Illyrians had deliberately moved the stalagmite to the chamber's center, where it could be illuminated by sunlight. The Illyrians additionally reshaped it into a more perfect phallic form.

"The archaeological evidence strongly points to some mysterious, previously unknown cult activity, which may have been practiced in secrecy by the Illyrians," says Kaiser. "These cups and amphorae were among the finest of the day and their use in the cave underscores the gravity of the rituals enacted there."

The Illyrians are somewhat of a mystery to modern scholars, as only a handful of their settlement and burial sites have been excavated. Although described in Greek sources as warriors and pirates, the Illyrians had a soft spot for anything Greek, trading with or raiding colonists to accumulate pottery and other goods.

In addition to Greek and Illyrian pottery, artifacts from 6000 B.C., such as an Early Neolithic fireplace and flint fragments found in the cave, suggest that it was a place of importance over the ages.

Nakovana Cave is now a nationally protected cultural monument. Kaiser's team will continue its excavations this summer. For more information, visit

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America