The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia: History & Temple

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Artemis Orthia is not one of the most well-known of the Greek goddesses, but there's a lot we can learn from her temple. In this lesson, we'll explore this site and see what it tells us about the ancient world.

The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia

If there's one thing most people know about the ancient Greek city of Sparta, it's that the Spartans really liked warfare. However, there was more to their civilization than this. The Spartans, like other Greeks, had an active religious culture as well, and it's been pretty well preserved at the ancient Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.

History of the Sanctuary

Built just northeast of Sparta, this spot where the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia stood was a sacred site for centuries. The oldest shrine seems to have been built back in the 9th century BCE, based on the sort of pottery found at the deepest levels of the excavation. However, the actual temple was built around 700 BCE and rebuilt several times after that.

The Goddess

Now that we know where the temple is located and when it was built, we have to ask the obvious question: Who was it dedicated to? We know this as the temple of Artemis Orthia, but what does this mean? Artemis was a very popular Greek goddess worshipped across the Greek cities. She was associated with the hunt, as well as nature in general.

Artemis was primarily identified as a huntress.
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Artemis, like most Greek deities, had epithets (monikers that identified her with a specific power or role). However, the epithet of Orthia isn't found anywhere else in Greece but Sparta (and perhaps the Spartan vassal-city of Messene). So, what's up with this?

It seems that Orthia was a local goddess originally worshipped only in Sparta. Orthia was a goddess of nature and hunting, as well as fertility, childbirth, and vegetation. It is likely that worship of this uniquely Spartan deity fused with worship of the more widely celebrated Artemis, and the two melded into one: Artemis Orthia, or the Artemis with the powers and roles of Orthia. There are actually many instances of this happening throughout Greece where local deities merged with more popular ones.

Rituals

Greek temples were the sites of important festivals and rituals, central to maintaining their culture. Sparta was no different, and the temple of Artemis Orthia was likely the site used to host one of Greece's most brutal coming-of-age ceremonies: public beatings.

All Spartan males served in the military, which was famed for the quality of its warriors. When young boys came of age, their ceremonial initiation into Spartan society involved some sort of ritual where they were flogged at the temple of Artemis Orthia. The Athenian scholar Xenophon said that the ritual included a race that required stealing cheese for the altar and a whipping. A later Greek author, Pausanias, said that a priestess with a wooden statue of the goddess oversaw the beating of the boys until they bled and the goddess was satisfied. Either way, the ceremony was meant to toughen the children, prepare them for life in the military, and induct them into Spartan society.

Offerings

One of the fascinating things about excavating a Greek temple is finding the offerings inside, given to the deity as part of a prayer. Artemis Orthia must have been a popular goddess, because her temple was packed with offerings. The most common were small votive statues, made specifically as offerings. Most were made of lead, but gold, silver, ivory, and bronze objects were also uncovered.

Spartan figurine of a warrior, similar to some of those found at the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia
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There are three motifs that define these votive statues. First are animals. Hundreds of animal votive statues reinforce the idea of Artemis Orthia as a huntress and may have been used in prayers related to hunting. The second types of votives were winged female figures (presumably the goddess), literally thousands of which were uncovered. Archaeologists think that these were left by women to pray for support in childbirth, which Artemis Orthia was believed to provide.

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