Spartan Religion, Death and Burial

« The power of prophecy, the sanctity
of sanctuaries and festivals are all
distinctive features of Spartan
Religion »
Describe one festival
 Explain the features of Spartan Religion
 Explain the role of Spartan Religion
 Discuss the importance of Spartan
Athenians telling the Spartans; “We are
all Greeks sharing both the same blood
and the same language and we have
temples of our gods in common and our
 Sparta was the only Greek state to receive
its Constitution from the Oracle at Delphi
Problems of Evidence
While written sources such as Pausanius,
Herodotus and Xenophon are essentially
non Spartan and elite, much of our
current knowledge has been gathered
from the excavations of such sites as
Artemis Orthia and the Menaleon
It is interesting to note that all
images of the Spartan gods are
“The three principal festivals
all honour Apollo, the model
R. Parker
Castor and
Although Dionysus was
worshipped, the Spartans
never developed the
drinking rites associated
with the Cult
Hero Cult
Athenians at Marathon
The most unique aspect of Spartan
religion was their strict adherence to
religious ritual.
“ The Spartans ,though moved by appeal, and
willing to send help to Athens, were unable to
send it promptly because they did not wish to
break their law . It was the ninth day of the
month and they said they could not take to the
field until the moon was full.”
Characteristics of Spartan Religion
Belief in Anthropomorphic gods
Merging of Religious and Secular; Kings as
Chief Priests and the worship of hero cults
Belief and Importance of Oracles
Importance of Ritual blood sacrifice
Importance of competitive games and festivals
Procession an important element of festivals
The Role of Religion
To explain the natural world and seek to
control it. Fertility , both natural and human
could be guaranteed by appeasing the gods at
such festivals as the Karneia and the
To avert disaster by ritual sacrifice, libations
and divination
Gain advantage through war by the use of
oracles and the protection of the Dioscuri
4 Religion reinforces social values. Hero worship, most
often soldiers who had died in battle transmitted the
values of bravery (Hero worship of Menelaus
5 Competition in festivals emphasized the importance of
athleticism and physical fitness. ( Karneia)
6 Inclusiveness of festivals created a community identity,
while exclusion from festivals defined ones inferior
status ( Agemoi at Gymnopaedia)
7 Certain festivals provided rites of passage from
adolescence to adult or warrior status ( stealing of the
Sacrifice and Divination
The king served as Chief priest, but their must
have been other priests who served on a daily
basis, carrying out sacrifices and acting as
caretakers at Sanctuaries such as Amyclae
A Spartiate could sacrifice and make offerings
in his own home
A shrine of the herald Talthybius ( originally
the herald of Agamemnon) was tended by a
group of hereditary heralds
Frequency of Sacrifice
The gods spoke to the Spartans
through public sacrifice. The warning
of the conspiracy of Cinadon was
revealed by such means. The first
recipients of these messages apart
from seers were the kings themselves
The power to consult the gods though
was diffused among the decision
making bodies. Lycurgus himself had
received sanction from Apollo
through the oracle and the ephors
were expected to read omens ( sky
gazing)every nine years. If a shooting
star was seen it was a sign that the
King had committed a religious
offence and should be deposed.
Sacrifice for Battle
Cleomenes in 494 set out to
invade Argolid by land, but the
omens were bad, so he was
obliged to go by sea. On three
separate occasions during the
Pelopponesian War invasion of
Argolid was abandoned because
of bad omens
At Plataea the Spartans resisted
Persian attack until by a
desperate prayer to Hera,
Pausanius procured favourable
omens for advance.
Kings made sacrifice
3 times on the way to
war. Once before
leaving Sparta, once
at the border of
Sparta and once
before engaging
Belief in Oracles
Now, a four-year study of the area in the vicinity of the
shrine is causing archaeologists and other authorities to
revisit the notion that intoxicating fumes loosened the lips
of the Pythia. The study, reported in the August issue of
Geology, reveals that two faults intersect directly below
the Delphic temple.
The study also found evidence of hallucinogenic gases
rising from a nearby spring and preserved within the
temple rock
The oracle was believed to
be possessed by Apollo
Spartan Oracular
Hear your fate, O dwellers in
Sparta of the wide spaces;
Either your famed, great town
must be sacked by Perseus'
sons, Or, if that be not, the
whole land of Lacedaemon
Shall mourn the death of a
king of the house of Heracles,
For not the strength of lions
or of bulls shall hold him,
Strength against strength; for
he has the power of Zeus, And
will not be checked till one of
these two he has consumed
A Lame King
Beware, great Sparta, lest there come
of thee,
Though sound thyself, an halting
Troubles, both long and unexpected too,
And storms of deadly warfare shall
Merging of Secular and Religious
The Agamoi were the men who had not
produced sons as the state required. This
group was excluded from the
. They were also shown signs of
disrespect at other gatherings as young
men would not give them their seats and
they were forced to give their seats to the
On their market-place the Spartans have images of Apollo Pythaeus of Artemis
and of Leto. The whole of this region is called Choros (Dancing), because at the
Gymnopaediae, a festival which the Lacedaemonians take more seriously than
any other, the lads perform dances in honor of Apollo. Not far from them is a
sanctuary of Earth and of Zeus of the Market-place, another of Athena of the
Market-place and of Poseidon surnamed Securer, and likewise one of Apollo and of
[10] There is also dedicated a colossal statue of the Spartan People. The
Lacedaemonians have also a sanctuary of the Fates, by which is the grave of
Orestes, son of Agamemnon. For when the bones of Orestes were brought from
Tegea in accordance with an oracle they were buried here. Beside the grave of
Orestes is a statue of Polydorus, son of Alcamenes, a king who rose to such honor
that the magistrates seal with his likeness everything that requires sealing.
[11] There is also Hermes of the Market-place carrying Dionysus as a child,
besides the old Courts of the Ephors, as they are called, in which are the tombs of
Epimenides the Cretan and of Aphareus the son of Perieres. As to Epimenides, I
think the Lacedaemonian story is more probable than the Argive. Here, where the
Fates are, the Lacedaemonians also have a sanctuary of Hestia. There is also Zeus
The Lacedaemonians have no citadel rising to a conspicuous
height like the Cadmea at Thebes and the Larisa at Argos.
There are, however, hills in the city, and the highest of them
they call the citadel.
[2] Here is built a sanctuary of Athena, who is called both
City-protecting and Lady of the Bronze House. The building
of the sanctuary was begun, they say, by Tyndareus. On his
death his children were desirous of making a second attempt to
complete the building, and the resources they intended to use
were the spoils of Aphidna. They too left it unfinished, and it
was many years afterwards that the Lacedaemonians made of
bronze both the temple and the image of Athena. The builder
was Gitiadas, a native of Sparta, who also composed Dorian
lyrics, including a hymn to the goddess.
[3] On the bronze are wrought in relief many of the labours of Heracles and many
of the voluntary exploits he successfully carried out, besides the rape of the
daughters of Leucippus and other achievements of the sons of Tyndareus. There is
also Hephaestus releasing his mother from the fetters. The legend about this I have
already related in my history of Attica There are also represented nymphs
bestowing upon Perseus, who is starting on his enterprise against Medusa in Libya,
a cap and the shoes by which he was to be carried through the air. There are also
wrought the birth of Athena, Amphitrite, and Poseidon, the largest figures, and
those which I thought the best worth seeing.
[4] There is here another sanctuary of Athena; her surname is the Worker. As you
go to the south portico there is a temple of Zeus surnamed Cosmetas (Orderer), and
before it is the tomb of Tyndareus. The west portico has two eagles, and upon them
are two Victories. Lysander dedicated them to commemorate both his exploits; the
one was off Ephesus, when he conquered Antiochus, the captain of Alcibiades, and
the Athenian warships and the second occurred later, when he destroyed the
Athenian fleet at Aegospotami.
On the left of the Lady of the Bronze House they have set up a sanctuary of the
Muses, because the Lacedaemonians used to go out to fight, not to the sound of the
trumpet, but to the music of the flute and the accompaniment of lyre and harp.
Behind the Lady of the Bronze House is a temple of Aphrodite Areia (Warlike).
The wooden images are as old as any in Greece.
Athena of the Bronze House
emphasizing warrior values
Synchretism; Artemis Orthia
goddess of wild animals
Statue of Apollo at Amyclae
found at
Dioscuri ; Castor and Pollux
Student Activity
Using your Spartan Society handout
complete the following table
For archaeological evidence, download Power point, Significant
Archaeological Sites of Sparta at
Death and Burial
Greeks traditionally fearful of the dead.
They believed in daimones or spirits that
hovered near dead bodies and around
places of burial.
 The body was normally cremated on a
funeral pyre and later the bones were
collected and buried with ceremony.
 Funeral Rights of Kings ( see Herodotus)
Lycurgan Reform
“ Firstly he did away with superstitions
altogether by allowing them to bury bodies in
the city itself and to have memorials in the
vicinity of sacred places…..Secondly he
permitted nothing to be buried with them.
However they covered the body with the
scarlet cloak and olive leaves…It was not
permitted to inscribe the name of the dead
person on their tomb, unless it was a man who
had died in war or a woman who had died in
sacred office” *
Archaeological Evidence of
The amphora which marked the
grave at Mesoa depicts hunting
scenes and battle
In 1964 Christou discovered
four cist graves ( lined
cavities in the ground ). They
contained two males, one
adult female and a child). The
burials were covered by
tumulus mound and the earth
contained bones of oxen wild
boars and horses. The grave
was dated as late 7th century
Pthos burial at Limnai
Fragment of a Pythos found at
Sparta – 6th century
Near the river
Eurotas, a male
pithos burial was
discovered with iron
weapons, a sword
and a dagger and
bronze ornaments.
It was dated to late
8th century
Two Story Tombs
During the late archaic and
classical period monumental
tombs were recorded by
Pausanius. The primary burial
was located in the bottom
story. After the body decayed
the bones were collected
wiyh offerings and relocated
in the second story. One
hillside tomb dated to early
6th century Stella Raftopoulou
has been interpreted as hero
cult worship. 22 Laconian
vessels, were found, thought
to be the remains of a
funerary banquet.
Historians on Religion in Spartan
“It is impossible to find any other
advisors in such matters except gods.
They know everything, and give signs to
those they wish to through sacrifices,
birds of omen, voices and dreams.”
 Hipparchicus
 “The charm of divination for the
consultant is that he may never feel
that he is acting at random.”
 Robert Parker
“ The power of prophecy, the sanctity of
sanctuaries and festivals, the threat of divine
punishment; it is on issues such as these that
the distinctiveness of Spartan religion
Robert Parker
“The more an individual feels subject as a
social being to a set of rules that he must
obey without question, the more he is bound
within a hierarchical structure of power, the
more likely he is to understand religion too as
a matter of fixed and formal observance, of
strict obedience to rules.”
Mary Douglas
“Spartan religion was Spartan more in its
insistence on orderliness and obedience than
in any particular military emphasis it may have
had….Thus it contributed to her success by
supporting the dominant norms of Spartan
Robert Parker