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Religion in Spartan Society
Transcript of Religion in Spartan Society
Religious Roles of the King
The Kings of Sparta were regarded as representatives of the gods and held office as long as gods pleased - every nine years, ephors looked in skies for signs of gods approval/disapproval. The kings served as chief priests, reinforcing the amalgamation of religion and government. They were the most important priests in Spartan society and were expected to frequently offer sacrifices for the success of their city and the safeguard of the army. The kings carried out sacrifices:
to their respective patron gods, Zeus Uranios and Zeus Lacedaemon
on behalf of the people of the city on the first and seventh day of the month in the temple of Apollo and the temple of Athena at the Bronze House
at the important annual festivals - Hyakinthia, Gymnopaedia and Karneia
prior to leaving for war
before crossing the frontier
and, at the dawn on the day of the battle when a female goat was sacrificed to seek the omens.
The kings were accountable for the preservation of gods' happiness and if something negative occurred, the kings were held responsible. They were also responsible for the safe-keeping of all oracles.
Sources of Evidence
Herodotus, Pausanias and Xenophon provide majority of the primary evidence in regards to religion in Sparta.
Herodotus wrote about Sparta during the Fifth Century BC prior to visiting Sparta, therefore providing valuable and reliable evidence as to their religious customs and beliefs. However, as Herodotus is believed to be pro-Athenian (however, not openly anti-Spartan) bias may be present in his work, this can also be supported by the idea that he collected material from all over, including repeated stories.
Pausanias wrote about Spartan society in the Second Century AD, recording what he saw of Sparta in his own day. His records are believed to be honest and his accounts of Laconia provide a useful supplement to the surviving archaeological record.
Xenophon had close connections with the Spartans, joining a Greek army fighting under several Spartan generals and becoming friendly with the Spartan king, Agesilaus. This suggests that Xenophon had a very knowledgeable idea of Spartan society, however bias could be prominent as he was pro-Spartan,
Although these writers give modern-day historians a basis of knowledge in regards to Spartan religion of the time, much of the current knowledge has been gathered from the excavations of sites such as Artemis Orthia and the Menaleon.
Gods and Goddesses
Religion in Spartan Society
Funerary Customs and Beliefs
"Religion in Sparta was a way of bringing the community together and uniting the Gods with the everyday social and political institutions of the Sparta state."
Spartans strongly supported and has serious attitudes toward their religion.
The Spartan ideal of an elite military state influenced the approach to religion and the ways in which religion would be constructed to suite state doctrine, therefore highlighting the importance of religion in upholding the values of Spartan society. Religion in Sparta was interpreted to uphold Spartan values; some of which are endurance, loyalty, obedience, conformity, and skill. A role of religion was to support military organisation, hence supporting the state. Another role was to support the political organisation, with religion being used as a way of influencing society to support the governing. Religion was also used to create social coherence; important in promoting conformity and in controlling the society under the ideals of the military state.
Celebration and recognition in death was determined according to achievement. Marked graves were 'rewarded' to men who died on the battlefield and to women who died giving birth.
Evidence regarding funerary customs and beliefs is non existent for the Spartiates, however it is believed that they practised simple burial customs either in pit or tile graves. E
Evidence exists to limited amounts regarding the funerary services of the kings.
Death of a Spartan King
"News of the [king's] death is carried by riders all over the country.." (Herodotus, The Histories)
If a king died in combat a statue would be constructed and form part of the funerary procession through the city streets, attended by all Spartan's society sections.
At the funeral, the crowds would strike their heads and mourn, showing a public outpouring of emotion for their deceased leader.
Women would stroll through the city beating their cauldrons during the funeral, highlighting significant religious rituals.
All political activity would be refrained from for a period of 10 days.
Failure to commit to the customs of Spartan funerals resulted in heavy penalties.
Evidence about funerary customs and beliefs are provided by Herodotus.
Herodotus emphasises the importance of religion to the Spartans in the famous story at Pheidippides, the Athenian runner who was sent to Sparta asking for assistance in the battle of Marathon; "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 laws. It was the ninth day of the month and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full."
Cartwright, M. (2013, May 28). Sparta . Retrieved from Ancient Encyclopaedia : http://www.ancient.eu/sparta/
Hurley, T., Medcalf, P., Murray , C., & Rolph, J. (2008). Antiquity 2 . South Melbourne: Oxford University Press .
Lump, J. (n.d.). Ancient History . Retrieved from HSC Online : http://hsc.csu.edu.au/ancient_history/societies/greece/spartan_society/sparta_religion/ancient_sparta_religion.htm#DeathofaSpartanKing
Roberts, P. (2013). Ancient History Book 1 . Glebe : Pascal Press.
Sparta . (2010, June 23). Retrieved from Slideshare : http://www.slideshare.net/ahendry/sparta-religion-death-burial
Spartan Religion . (2009). Retrieved from Legends and Chronicles : http://www.legendsandchronicles.com/ancient-civilizations/ancient-sparta/spartan-religion/
The Spartans followed Hellenic religious traditions by worshipping the Olympian gods and goddesses. "They believed that the gods were responsible for every aspect of their lives."
The religion of Sparta was Polytheism, meaning the Spartan believed in more than one god.
All gods and goddesses were admired by the Spartans and it was common practice for them to make religious offerings to their deities as a symbol of respect and honour.
As is visible from archaeological evidence, it is interesting to note that majority of the Spartan gods were armed. "At Amyclae there was a statue of Apollo with a spear in one hand and a bow in the other. There was also a statue of an armed Aphrodite."
The importance of gods and goddesses in Sparta is highlighted through the militaristic society when Socrates states "those who honour the gods most finely with choruses are best in war."
As the Spartans worshipped the Olympian gods, they also formed their own local goddesse; Artemis Orthia.
Major festivals celebrated by the Spartans included those common to other Greek city states, along with festivals unique to the Spartans. "All major festivals in Sparta honoured Apollo as a young man, thus indicating the Spartan obsession with the youth."
The festivals of Hyakinthia, Gymnopaedia and Karneia were the three major festivals. These festivals were extremely important to the citizens of Sparta and this is evident in the fact that celebration of religious festivals would take precedence over all other activities, even war, which is expressed in Herodotus' story.
The combining of the two deities of Artemis and Orthia produced the Spartan goddess of hunting and wild animals.This goddess was comprised of aspects of the two deities where Artemis was the goddess of fertility and childbirth, protector of children and women's health, associated with forests and is occasionally known as the 'mistress of the wild'.
The festival associated with Artemis Orthia consisted of young Spartan boys trying to steal cheese from the goddesses' altar as it was defended by older youths who whipped the younger boys - identifying the concept of hunting and wild animals. This ritual has been interpreted as a rite of passage. According to Pausanias, the goddess wasn't satisfied until the altar was soaked with the blood of the cheese thefts.
The most important archeological site of Sparta is the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia located at the entrance of the modern city, excavated during the years of 1906-1910. At the sanctuary the ancient Spartans used to perform dances wearing masks and the place used to be the centre for the agoge.
"Hyakinthus was the son of Amyclas, a Spartan king. He was loved by Apollo and Zephyr, but since he preferred Apollo, Zephyr blew Apollo's discus at his head and killed him. Hyakinthus' blood became the flower that bears his name. Its petals are inscribed with the letters 'AI', signifying woe."
The Hyakinthia was a three-day festival celebrated in early summer based on the myth previously stated for the purpose of mourning the death of Hyakinthus.
The festival was held at the sanctuary of Amyklaion at Amyclae. It composed of two stages:
1. day of ritual defilement and grief (marked by rites of sorrow)
choirs of boys, lead by lyres and flutes, singing the praises of the god
processions, dancers and chariot races
sacrifices were held
feasts were consumed
the elite Spartiates entertained the Helots.
The play Lysistrata, by the Athenian dramatist Aristophanes, paints a theatrical picture of the singing and dancing while referencing the Spartan's devotion to Apollo, Athena, Castor and Polydeuces, and Helen.
The Gymnopaedia, translating roughly to 'naked sports', was a unique five-day festival held in the agora in the month of July. Originating in 668BC, it was linked to the agoge and consisted of athletic competitions and musical events. The athletic competitions incorporated gymnastics and dancing; closely linked to the Spartan training regime. The festival was celebrated in honour of the slain at the ancient battle of Thyrea in 550BC. It also honoured the god Apollo as an expression of thanks and gratitude for military success. The festival included:
a battle of champions
troops of young and old men singing heroic deeds
dancing and gymnastics, probably corybantian dance
a grand parade at the closing of the festival.
"It is believed that young boys participated in the morning, before it became too hot, while the men performed in the afternoon, and the old men in the evening."
Corybantian dance, the type of dance most likely danced on Gymnopedia festivals.
The Karneia was a nine-day festival held in the holy month of Karneios; August/September. The concept of this festival revolves around harvesting and celebrating the migration and colonisation of the Doric peoples. The festival took its name from Apollo Karneios (the god of the herd/the ram god).
The festival was believed to be a celebration connected with the return of the sons of the Herakles and the founding of Sparta. However, according to the ancient Spartan writer Sosibius, it became a musical festival during the 20th Olympiad celebrating heroic deeds and great events.
Two rituals are believed to have been implemented at the Karneia:
1. a procession with model rafts - possibly symbolising the return of the sons of Herakles
2. a runner, wearing a garland of wool on his head, first prayed to the gods for his polis and then ran away - if he was caught, the omens for the city were good; if not, they were bad.
Features of the remaining of the festival included:
a feast, held under tent-like shelters
sacrifices and offerings
athletic contests and games - organised on military lines with close associations with the agoge.
Archaeologists have uncovered coins depicting evidence related to Apollo Karneios.
Poseidon is one of the twelve Olympian deities, being the god of the sea, fresh water, horses and earthquakes (which were attributed to his mood changes). He was widely worshipped in ancient Greece with numerous temples and shrines. Laconia provided several sanctuaries of Poseidon and there was a major temple near Cape Taenaron.
The famous Spartan hero, Lysander, dedicated a military victory to Poseidon.
"The Lacedaemonians put to death men who had taken refuge in the sanctuary..." - Pausanias
As Sparta was military focused, one of the most beloved and honoured gods in the polis was Apollo. He was traditionally the god of the sky, but he was so important to the Spartans as they honoured him as a young man associated with warfare, being an archer - warrior god.
There was a sanctuary of Apollo-Hyakinthia found on the hill at Amyclae and called the Amyklaion. This was an important place of worship for the Spartans. Here, there was a throne of Apollo surrounded by the colossal, column-shaped statue of the god.
All Sparta's major festivals were to honour Apollo as a young man, therefore making his role so important. He came to be recognised as the god of light, music and truth and was associated with health.
Ancient sarcophage depicting the festival of Gymnopaedia - associated with Apollo
Ruins of Amyklaion