Religion played a central role in Spartan society in the ancient world. In addition to being well known for their fierce fighting force, Spartans were well known amongst other Greek city-states for their devotion and serious attitude towards religion and the gods. Because of their strict devotion to religious practises, they were often mocked by other Greek states. The gods were to be obeyed completely and were to be respected completely by all Spartans, though in theory, this relationship between the Spartans and the gods was believed to have been based on mutual respect.
Religion was seen as a way of combining the gods with everyday social and political/governmental aspects of Spartan society, so much so that Spartan kings also served as chief priests. There are numerous sources from Ancient Greek writers providing evidence that Spartans took their religion very seriously. For example, Herodotus recorded that in 480 BC, King Leonidas lead a small army consisting of 300 Spartans (with several thousand other Greek soldiers), who were to confront the powerful Persian army in a battle which is now known as the Battle of Thermopylae.
The reason that Sparta only sent forth 300 soldiers to the battle because Sparta was in the middle of the religious festival of the Karneia, and according to Herodotus, the Spartans would only ‘march with all the troops at their disposal’ at the conclusion of this celebration. In ancient times, the Greeks shared in common many gods and other religious aspects of society. As recorded by Herodotus, the Athenians told 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 sacrifices.
Though the gods worshipped were the same, there were gods of differing importance who may have been more important to specific city-states. To the Spartans, one of the most important gods were the mythical twin heroes the Dioscuri (meaning ‘youths of Zeus’), who were believed to be of Spartan origin. The Dioscuri were namely associated with the athletics, horsemanship and warfare on young men. It is evident as to why the Dioscuri were so important to Sparta, as their society heavily revolved around warfare.
The kings acted as the most significant priests throughout Spartan society, and served an important role as representatives of the gods. Both of the kings were believed to be lineal descendants of Heracles and, as a result, both of divine heritage. The kings were expected to frequently offer sacrifices to the gods to ensure the triumph of their city and army. Regular Spartiates could also sacrifice and make offerings to the gods within their own homes, as often as they pleased. Not only kings, but all Spartan political components such as the Ephors and Gerousia had some role of applying religious duties as part of their occupation.
If a Spartan king was not victorious in a battle, or did not take part in a battle at all, he could be forgiven entirely if he had a reasonable religious excuse. An example of this is provided by Herodotus, who related the well-known story of the Athenian runner Pheidippides, who was sent to Sparta to call for help for the pending battle of Marathon. According to Herodotus, 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. It was the ninth day of the month, and they sit they could not take the field until the moon was full.
Religion throughout Spartan society greatly influenced customs and laws on death and burial practises and rituals. According to Plutarch , with reference to Lycurgus, only men who died in the service of battle or women who died in child-birth were given an inscribed grave or tomb, whilst others were simply buried in pits as part of Spartan religious custom. It was Spartan custom that each Spartan would mourn any deaths for a strict period of 11 days, then on the twelfth day a sacrifice was made to Demeter (the Greek goddess of harvest and the cycle of life and death). This sacrifice signified the end of grieving.
If death of the king occurred, Spartan horsemen travelled across Laconia to spread the news. Herodotus noted that; News of the death is carried by riders all over the country, and women go the rounds of the capital beating cauldrons. This is the signal for two people, one man and one woman, from every citizen’s household to put on mourning – which they are compelled to do under penalty of heavy fine. At the king’s funeral, thousands of Laconians are forced to attend and show great signs of grief. If the king was killed in battle, a statue is made in his honour which is placed at his burial.
Burials of Spartans were held within the city, unlike that of most other Greek city states such as Athens who buried their citizens outside the city. This was done in Sparta to encourage its people not to fear death, but embrace it. In conclusion, this essay has demonstrated the importance of religion in Spartan society. Examples have been provided along with written sources from ancient writers identifying Spartan attitudes towards religion, aspects of religion in Spartan society and rituals associated with Spartan religion relating to death and burial.
Kathryn Welch, Spartan Society in Spartan Society to the battle of Leuctra 371 BC, St John the Evangelist Catholic High School, 2010, pg. 57-60 Plutarch, The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, Random House Inc. , 1864 http://www. hsc. csu. edu. au/ancient_history/societies/greece/spartan_society/sparta_religion/ancient_sparta_religion. htm http://www. slideshare. net/ahendry/sparta-religion-death-burial http://webcache. googleusercontent. com/search? q=cache:9VXaUhvlwP0J:www. mrsgraham. net/Spartan%2520religion%2520essay. doc+spartan+religion&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=au
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