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Religion in Athens

Updated: Jul 5

Get to grips with Greek Religion in five minutes in this blog series! If you’re an A Level Classics or Ancient History student, each of these blog posts are a five-minute summary of some of the main topics you will need for your exams. For university-level scholars or independent researchers, we’ve included clickable links to useful literature and canonical scholarship you need to be acquainted with to get started.


In this post, discover religion in the great city of Athens!

We often think of Athens as the embodiment of the Greek Enlightenment: the birthplace of democracy and the centre of philosophy and rationality. Yet, this did not guarantee the religious freedom that we associate with Western democracies today.


In 433 B.C.E., a decree was passed allowing the public prosecution of impiety (lack of reverence for the gods). The great philosopher Socrates was charged with this before being put to death in 399 B.C.E.


Some people think that Socrates was tried for political reasons, not religious ones. Paul Cartledge, however, disagrees. Cartledge  points out that we cannot distinguish a ‘political’ from a ‘religious’ charge in Athens at the time, given how intertwined religion was with political life: “Religion…was implicated with everything…”


This makes sense when we consider that Athens had recently suffered military disasters such as the catastrophic defeats at Sicily in 413 B.C.E. and Aegospotami in the Hellespont in 405 B.C.E. These and the Great Plague of 430-427 B.C.E. made Athenians think that the gods were punishing them for their impiety. The great statesman Pericles refers to the plague as ‘heaven-sent’ or ‘supernatural’, alluding to the common belief that divine elements were involved in the city’s fortunes.


This was linked to the concept of miasma (pollution) and the idea that some people or events should be stigmatised for the good of society. As Robert Parker puts it, “In theory, one man’s crime could through such pollution bring disaster to a whole state.”


David Potter adds that miasma is linked to divine justice because “…a society that does not take care to ensure the punishment or purification of individuals who had incurred miasma (pollution) invites divine punishment for the society as a whole...”


We’ve talked a lot in this series about how humans have a reciprocal relationship with the gods. This is certainly true of the people of Athens.


The Demes of Athens


Athens was separated into demes (districts), which had their own set of religious festivals and traditions. For example, the rural deme of Erchia honoured gods relevant to its own livelihood through the festival of Proerosia, a pre-ploughing festival in honour of Demeter.


Erchia had twenty five days of sacrifice per year. They worshiped the six Apollos: Apotropaios (averter of evil), Delphinios (of Delphi), Lykeios (of wolves), Nymphegetes (leader of nymphs), Paion (leader) and Pythios (the Pythian – referring to Delphi).


The heroes Epops, Leucaspis and Menedeius seem only to be worshipped in Erchia, although this could be a result of limited archaeological and literary remains.


Athena’s High City


Some aspects of Greek religion united the whole city; none more so than the worship of Athena, Athens’ patron goddess. Athena came to be Athens’ patron following a contest with her uncle Poseidon. While Poseidon had offered the city a spring of saltwater, Athena had offered an olive tree, which would give the people food, oil and wood.


The Acropolis (“high city”) is Athens’ ancient citadel, including the iconic Parthenon and other religious monuments. The Parthenon, named after the virgin Athena, is a Doric-style temple begun in 447 B.C.E on the highest part of the Acropolis. Friezes (horizontal, decorative bands) of the Parthenon include the Doric frieze, depicting mythical combat on metopes (carved rectangles). The Ionic frieze depicts the Panathenaic procession and the pediments (triangular gable walls) shows scenes related to Athena.


Other monuments are the Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the Acropolis, the immense statue of Athena Promachos and the Temple of Athena Nike. There is also the Erechtheion (Erechtheum), a sacred Ionic temple in honour of Athena and several other gods and heroes.

There were already temples dedicated to Athena before the Greek Dark Ages (800 B.C.E. to 480. B.C.E). In the early fifth century, Athenians started building a marble temple known as the Old Parthenon, but this was destroyed by the Persians in 480. B.C.E. Then, during Athens’ Golden Age (460 B.C. to 430 B.C.), Pericles initiated a huge building project.


The Panathenaea


Athena was honoured in the city’s Panathenaea festival, which included a procession from the Dipylon Gate through the Ceramicus (potters’ quarter) and agora (market) to the Acropolis.


There was a ‘night festival’ (pannychis) of choirs of boys and maidens, before various representatives of Athenian society marched or rode in the procession. Sacrifices followed and a peplos (Panathenaic robe) was given to Athena’s statue in the Erechtheion.


Louise Bruit Zaidman argues that these events were about civic unity and community: there is an “inseparability of festivals from the very definition of Greek civic life” and that religion “impregnated each and every civic activity.” Julia Kindt conversely, argues that these events were religious, motivated by personal belief.

My own view is that this specific festival was a civic way of honouring the goddess. Not only was it a state occasion, it was also a way of demonstrating Athens’ importance to the wider Greek world. This was especially true in the 5th century, when Athens’ allies were required to participate in the procession as a symbol of imperial power.


We can see this in the ‘greater Panathenaea,’ held every four years with athletic and musical competitions open to all Greeks. Athena was given a much larger peplos, which was used as a sail in a wooden ship rolled up to the Acropolis to symbolise Athens’ naval power.


The City Dionysia


The City Dionysia was the major dramatic festival in Athens and another chance to show off Athens’ accomplishments. The festival took place at the start of the sailing season, which maximised exposure to visiting Greeks.


This was certainly a religious festival, associated with Dionysus, the god of theatre, wine, revelry, mania (ritual madness or ecstasy) and subversion. The day before the festival, a statue of Dionysus was paraded through the streets of Athens and taken to the theatre of Dionysus (built next to his temple) where a sacrifice was made and libations were poured to the twelve Olympian gods.

However, this was also a civic festival, bound up with the politics of Athens and sponsored by the state. It was organised by the eponymous archon, a politician who appointed a choregos (financial backer) for each playwright.


The sacrifice was followed by civic presentations and performances of dithyramb (songs in honour of the gods) developed into a state-sponsored singing competition between tribes of Athens. The Dionysia itself is an example of how religion and the state were interwoven in ancient Athens.


In our next post, explore the panhellenic and personal aspects of Greek religion!


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