Sparta was the most powerful state in the ancient southern Peloponnese. By the fourth century BC it controlled more territory than any other Greek city state due to its disciplined, militaristic society. Like all the Greeks, the Spartans worshiped the Olympian pantheon. Certain gods, however received greater devotion in ancient Sparta. Their worship emphasized the attributes most relevant to the city’s ideals.
Three major festivals honored Apollo in Sparta: the Gymnopaedia, the Hyacinthia and the Carnea. The Gymnopaedia celebrated Apollo as the god of music with choral competitions which lasted for hours. The Hyacinthia centered on the sanctuary of Apollo of Amyclae, which was three miles south of the city. Here, sacrifices were made to the god and his dead lover, Hyacinthia. So important was this festival that the warlike Spartans refused to bear arms for its duration, even refusing to aid the Athenians against the Persians at the battle of Marathon. The Carnea was the most significant festival. Lasting for nine days, its focal point was the Staphylodromoi, a race run by the boys of the city. After praying to Apollo, one of the boys was chased by the others. If he was caught, Sparta was blessed with luck. But most importantly, the race gave young men a taste of the military way of life ahead of them and helped prepare them for manhood.
The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia was one of the most important in Sparta. Spartan dedication to her cult is evident from the 100,000 small dedications found around her shrine. The goddess was a hybrid of the Olympian Artemis and Orthia, a local deity. Artemis Orthia’s rites centered on rites of passage into adulthood and fertility. It was at her sanctuary that young Spartan boys underwent harsh ritual initiations. Masked, they were charged with stealing cheese from the goddess’s altar. They were also ritually scourged to purify them. A priestess oversaw the beatings while holding the cult statue of the goddess. If the beatings were not hard enough, the statue was said to become too heavy to bear. The blood shed by the scourging served as a substitute for the human sacrifice banned by Lycurgus, possibly to ensure the fertility of the land. Other rituals shared this aim. Young girls sacrificed to Artemis Orthia during the springtime, bringing clothing or ploughshares as an offering. Ritual dances were also held as part of these agricultural rites.
Athena occupied a special position in Spartan society as guardian of the city. She was known as Athena Khalkioikos, or Athena of the Bronze House, because of her bronze-plated temple on the Spartan acropolis. She was also associated with the military might of Sparta and a goat was sacrificed to her before armies went into battle.
Although not divine, Helen and Menelaus, the legendary rulers of Sparta, were revered as gods. The Menelaion, their cult center was situated a couple of miles south of the city on the site of an ancient Mycenaean palace. They were not the only demi gods or mortals worshiped by the Spartans. Caster and Pollux, the semi divine Dioscuri, were also local heroes. Lycurgus, the founder of the rigid Spartan way of life, was also worshiped as a god.
- The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion; Simon Price, et al
- University of Chicago: The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta
- Theoi Greek Mythology: Athena Cult 2
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images