Ancient Sparta: Religion, Death & Burial

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Sparta holds a special place in Western history as a military powerhouse, but its religious traditions are no less impressive. In this lesson we'll explore Sparta's beliefs and the ways that it honored its military dead.

Spartan Gods and Goddesses

As in many Greek communities and city-states, Spartan culture included the worship of many gods and goddesses. This was common practice across Greece due to fear that if gods or goddesses were overlooked, they might retaliate fiercely, and the fact that the plethora of gods and goddesses had disparate functions and specialties (god of the sea, goddess of war, etc.). Here are some of the gods and goddesses worshiped by the Spartans, along with what their worship reveals about Sparta:

  • Artemis Orthia was worshiped at her temple sanctuary. She was the birth goddess, which points to Spartan recognition of the female role in society and in sustaining life.

Ancient figurines of Artemis Orthia, an important Spartan goddess.
Arrtemis Orthia

  • Poseidon was an important figure of worship because he was recognized in Greek mythology as the bringer of earthquakes. Sparta was ringed by mountains and not far from the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, both of which held real concern for the people of Sparta.
  • Apollo was worshiped due to his military prowess and the fact that he was known as a light bringer and preserver of life.

Several other gods and goddesses were worshiped as well, including Aphrodite, the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins), and Athena. Aphrodite was important due to her role in marriage and sexual fertility. Athena was obviously important as the goddess of war, who could grant conquest and assist the Spartans in battle. Castor and Pollux, known as the Dioscuri, were sometimes both identified as demigods, although Pollux was known to be the son of Zeus by Leda and Castor was the son of Leda and Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. The Spartan connection through Tyndareus was the closest tie to the Dioscuri; however, they were also known for their prowess in war as they fought with Jason and the Argonauts on the famous adventure to find the Golden Fleece.

Most devotees offered prayers, sacrifices, libations (drink offerings), and gifts to these various deities, asking for protection, success, and honorable death in the face of certain defeat. Spartans never backed down, so faith and honor were mainstays in their philosophy of life. One unusual feature of Spartan religion was the worship of the spirits of Laughter and Fear. The worship of Fear specifically was likely due to the Spartan fear of dishonor, for to die in a cowardly or dishonorable was was not only an embarrassment to Sparta but an affront to the gods.

The Spartans also celebrated various religious festivals. Gymnopaedia was held in July, the hottest part of the year, and included musical and athletic competitions. The festival was a rite of passage for young soldiers and ended with the induction of young soldiers with a presentation to Apollo. The most important Spartan festival, Hyakinthia, was a complex festival dedicated to Apollo. It was named in memory of a past lover of Apollo, Hyakinthos, and praised Apollo for life and light. Prayers and requests for conquest, life, and prosperity are also made to Apollo.

An image of Apollo and Hyakinthos. Apollo accidentally killed his lover Hyakinthos with a discus, and Hyakinthos became the central figure of a major Spartan religious festival honoring Apollo.
Hyakinthos

Death of a Spartan

Death in battle was not uncommon in Spartan warrior culture. To die in battle was considered the most honorable way for a Spartan soldier to leave this plane of existence. If a Spartan turned from this duty, he was considered a traitor and executed. To die a coward was considered the most embarrassing end for a Spartan.

Along with death came the final commitment of the Spartan to the earth and the gods. Most Spartan soldiers who died were actually buried on the battlefield as Spartan society was more interested in wartime efficiency than sentimental gestures. As a result, most Spartan grave markers have been discovered on ancient battlefields rather than in Spartan cities.

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