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Kristina Ferreira

on 2 March 2015

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Gods In Sparta
Some of the most prominent and most interesting Gods in Sparta include:
- Zeus
- Poseidon
- Apollo
- Dionysus
- Artemis
- Herakles
Religious Festivals In Sparta
The Four main religious festivals in Sparta include:
- The Festival of Karneia
- The Festival of Hyakinthia
- Artemis Orthia
- The Festival of Gymnopaedia

HTA Ancient History Study Guide Textbook.




Spartan Society the Battle of Leuctra 371 BC.
Importance of Religion in Sparta
The Spartans shared a common culture, language and heritage with their fellow Greeks. Thus, it is not surprising that their beliefs in Gods and admiration for mythical heroes have similarities with other Greek states. There were however variations of the Gods in terms religious belief and practice across Greek states, and this was certainly the case in Sparta. Religion was in essence a kind of contract for the Spartans. They believed giving offerings to the gods such as sacrifices and offering liberations would result in the gods protecting and assisting them through aspects like fertility and success in battle. Religion was also a part of establishing the identity of the people and a specific group of society. This was often achieved through worship of a particular god and promotion of specific mythical stories peculiar to Sparta.

The Spartan festivals celebrated in Sparta also brought about a sort of social unity, cohesion and sense of belonging among Spartans. Religion often offered a rare chance for recreation, an enjoyment of food and a form of social release from Sparta’s rigid rules. Archaeological evidence that has survived indicates that many gods who were armed and match the military, austere nature of Spartan society were significant. Herodotus said; 'The Spartans, though moved by the appeal, and willing to send help to Athens were unable to send it promptly because they did not wish to break their law... they said they could not take the field until the moon was full.'
Evidence of Religion in Sparta
Evidence for religion in Sparta is relatively lacking and minimal when compared to other Greek states, this is largely due to the lack of public buildings and large market places. However, the evidence we do have includes quotes by various writers and some remains of temples and altars dedicated to certain gods. Most of the evidence we have been able to attain points to the fact that in most instances, the Spartans took religion very seriously. Some of the most prominent elements of archaeological sources found in Sparta include: the temple of Athena on the Bronze House, tombs within the city walls, the Temple of Heroes, the shrine to Apollo, the shrine to Achilies, the Sanctuary and Temple of Artemis Orthia, the Temple of Athena, the Sanctuary of Poseidon and the Temple of Helen and Herakles. Various quotes from an array of writers also indicate the importance of religion. Such quotes include: '... I have witnessed many of them dying under the lashes they received at the altar of Artemis Orthia'- Plutarch, '...The Karneia was the festival which prevented the Spartans from taking the field in the ordinary way...'- Herodotus and 'there are sanctuaries of Helene and of Herakles [in Sparta]; the former is near the grave of Alkman, the latter is quite close to the wall and contains an armed image of Herakles…'- Pausanias.

Zeus was the god of the sky and the king of gods and men. His primary weapon was a thunderbolt which he hurled at those who displeased or defied him, especially those who lied and broke oaths. He was married to Hera but often tested her patience, as he was infamous for his many affairs. Zeus, the presiding deity of the universe, ruler of the skies and the earth, was regarded by the Greeks as the god of all natural phenomena on the sky; the personification of the laws of nature; the ruler of the state; and finally, the father of gods and men. There is lacking archaeological evidence of the worship of Zeus in Sparta. However the kings of Sparta were chief priests of Zeus Lakedaimon and Zeus Ouranios.
Poseidon was the god of the sea and protector of all aquatic features, he was widely worshiped by seamen. He married Amphitrite, one of the granddaughters of the Titan Oceanus. His key weapon was a trident, with which he could shatter objects and cause earthquakes. Poseidon was viewed by many to be second to Zeus in power amongst the gods. He was considered by Greeks to have a difficult quarrelsome personality. Combined with his greed, he had a series of disputes with other gods during his various attempts to take over the cities they were patrons of. Spartans were assumed to be punished by Poseidon for murdering Helots who sought refuge in one of his sanctuaries by earthquake. Worship of Poseidon in Sparta can be seen through a number of sanctuaries in Sparta, one in Tairon was known for Helots taking refuge there. 'Not far from the theater [of Sparta] is a sanctuary of Poseidon...' -Pausanias.
Apollo was the great Olympian god of prophecy, oracles, healing, and the aversion of plague and general harm. He was also the protector of youths and the patron god of music and poetry. He was the son of Zeus and Leto, twin brother of Artemis. He was the god of music, and he is often depicted playing a golden lyre. Additionally he was also known as the Archer, far shooting with a silver bow; the god of healing, giving the science of medicine to man; the god of light; and the god of truth. One of Apollo's most important daily tasks was to harness his four-horse chariot, in order to move the Sun across the sky. The God Apollo was believed to be one of the most worshiped and popular gods of Sparta. The three major Spartan festivals the Festival of Karneia, the Festival of Hyakinthia and the festival of Gymnopadeia were all in honour of Apollo. A shrine dedicated to Apollo has also been uncovered a few kilometres south of Sparta at Amyclae. 'Apollo, sacred guard of earth's true core, Whence first came frenzied, wild prophetic word...' - Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, and he was one of the only gods with a mortal parent. Dionysus was the god of fertility and wine, additionally after some time he was considered a patron of the arts. He created wine and spread the art of viticulture. He had a dual nature; on one hand, he brought joy and divine ecstasy; or he would bring fierce and blinding rage, hence reflecting the dual nature of wine. The Spartan lifestyle has been noted for its austere, militaristic nature and focus on discipline and self control, thus the God Dionysus was not seen as a suitable figure of worship. However there is some evidence of the worship of Dionysus, through a temple in Limnai. Strabo states 'the site of Sparta is in a rather hollow district, although it includes mountains within its limits; yet no part of it is marshy, though in olden times the suburban part was marshy, and this part they called Limnai; and the temple of Dionysus in Limnai stood on wet ground.'
Artemis was the goddess of fertility and childbirth, protector of children and women’s health. She was associated with forests and uncultivated lands. She is occasionally known as the 'mistress of the wild thing' and is shown in art as a woman (sometimes with wings) holding animals. Artemis was one of the most prominent features in Spartan religion, as can be seen from the festival in her honour and the large sanctuary found dedicated to her. The sanctuary of Artemis Orthia stood near the Eurotas River outside the centre of Sparta, here there were temples, altars and an area for spectators. Strong structures have been found here which date from the 6th century BC. From the site thousands of votive offerings have been found including clay vessels, terracotta’s, lead and ivory figurines. These may have been given to the god by pregnant or infertile women or as thanks for a successful birth. Strabo mentions 'it is after this Limnai, also, that the Limnaion, the temple of Artemis in Sparta, has been named.'
It was a celebration of migration, the colonisation of the city, the foundation of the Doric peoples and of various military events. For this celebration, the men were divided up into nine groups of three phratries who dined together and each occupied a skias, an area which contained tents. In addition, some citizens carried models of rafts, which also symbolised the coming of the Dorians. These activities embodied the early history of Sparta. The origins of the Karneia festival are unclear, some believe it may have been celebrated in order to honour the origins of Spartan life. It is estimated to have began in Sparta around the 7th century B.C.

The Karneia was a festival which linked the worship of Apollo with a cult of an older god named Karneios. The word Karnos means ram and this may explain why Apollo is occasionally depicted with horns of a ram. A ram was sacrificed during the festival. The Karneia festival was celebrated in August or September, marking the harvest of the grape crop. Music was also a key part of the festival, a music contest was held called the ‘agon’, it is thought that the musical aspect of the festival derived Terpander of Lesbos. During the festival, young men called ‘staphylodromoi’ would chase a nominated young man who would wear a wooden headband, this was an extremely important proceeding. If the young man was caught, it was believed that the god would show favour to Sparta and bring good luck the coming year. However, if the young man was not caught it was considered a bad omen.

Demetrios of Skepis described the Karneia and the games as 'a reflection of the military training system’, which has been reiterated by many modern scholars in an attempt to adequately comprehend this festival. Five unmarried people, called the karneatai, were chosen from each phyle to cover the costs of the festivals, including both sacrifice and chorus. However, another point to be made is the pacifist nature of the Karneia. During the festival, Spartans were not allowed to venture to wars or battles. This was the reason behind the late arrival of the Spartans at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Overall, the Karneia had a communal aspect, emphasising heroic exploits. 'The cult of Apollo Karneios has been established among all the Dorians ever since Karnos, who was seer of Apollo.'-Pausanias
This festival was named after Hyakinthos, a youth who was the lover of the god Apollo and died when Apollo accidentally hit him with a discus. The festival was held over three days in the summer and was held at the ancient shrine of Amyclae, which was the location of a huge statue of Apollo, the tomb of Hyakinthos and an open area for festival dances. There were two distinct phases of the festival.

The first stage involved rites of sorrow and mourning in honour of Hyakinthos. There was a ban on the wearing of wreaths and on joyful songs, only rhythmic wailing and chanting was permitted. Offerings were placed at the dead youth’s tomb. The eating of bread and cakes was forbidden; there was a special funeral meal, then a day of ceremonious grief.

The second stage was astranomically different to the first, it involved rejoicing in honour of Apollo, the wearing of wreaths, the singing of joyful songs, a sacrifice was made to Apollo, a festive meal, a procession to Amyclae, and a choral song and dance. The historian Hooker has interpreted the festival as 'a festival for the dead on one hand, combined with a thanksgiving for life on the other'. The Hyakinthia contained some other strange elements. Sausages were attached to a wall which old men would gnaw on. In this festival, the Spartians actually entertained the Helots through plays.
Artemis was the goddess of fertility and childbirth, protector of children and women’s health. She was associated with forests and uncultivated places. She is sometimes called the 'mistress of the wild thing' and is shown in art as a woman (sometimes with wings) holding animals. The sanctuary of Artemis Orthia stood near the Eurotas River outside the centre of Sparta, here there were temples, altars and an area for spectators. Beyond, in the distance, are the Taygetos Mountains. In May or June, was a time of separation of young men in the wild and a cheese-stealing ritual at the altar of Artemis Orthia. The altar was defended by older youths with whips. A test of endurance took place in front of family and friends. The shedding of their blood was the final step of their initiation. Plutarch writes: 'I have witnessed many of them dying under the lashes they received at the altars of Artemis Orthia. Michell akso states: '... the sprinkling of blood of the participants in this ceremony was a nature of a blood bong between gods and human beings... they became united with the divinity in a bond sealed with their own blood...'. Songs and dances were followed by a parade of the young men in fine clothes after their ordeal.
This was 'The Festival of the Unarmed Boys'. The festival was held in the Spartan agora (market place). It was commemorative of the battle of Thyrea fought against Argos in 550 B.C. Four key aspects of the Gymnopaidiai were:
- The Anapale or ‘wrestling dance’. Boys would move in time with music and display various wrestling moves in a cordial manner.
- The Embaeterion was a quick-step march rather than a dance. Boys would do this quick-step march, accompanied by the playing of flutes.
- The Hyprochema was a religious dance performed in honour of Apollo. Girls were permitted to perform this dance, which was done around a blazing fire on the altar.
- Another dance in honour of Apollo and Artemis was the Bryallicha. this was a womens dance, thought Michell implies that it may have been performed by men wearing women's masks.

Although much has been written about the violent aspect of the festival, it has been interpreted as a rite of passage on the way to manhood for Spartan boys, an initiation of sorts that indicated membership or belonging in Spartan society. Through it we see the warrior code which initiated the young soldier into a life of physical excellence, involving enduring pain and being incredibly brave and strong for the good of the Spartan state. '... troops of boys, young men and old men sang one after the other, the children singing what they would do when they were grown up, the young men boasting of their strength and prowess and the old men telling of their deeds in their prime...'.- Michell.
Herakles is most well known as the strongest of all mortals, and even stronger than many gods. He was the deciding factor in the triumphant victory of the Olympians over the giants. He was the last mortal son of Zeus, and the only man born of a mortal woman to become a god upon his death. Offsetting his strength was a noticeable lack of intelligence or wisdom. There is minimal evidence of the worship of Herakles, however Pausanias states 'there are sanctuaries of Helene and of Herakles; the former is near the grave of Alkman, the latter is quite close to the wall and contains an armed image of Herakles…'

Sanctuary of Karneios
Apollo and Hyakinthia
Engraving of the Agora in Sparta

The sanctuary of Artemis Orthia
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