Before I became a serious (if amateur) scholar of Sparta, I always assumed that the patron god of the famous warriors of Ancient Greece would be God of War, Ares. After all, Athens, the city of the philosophers and seamen, had chosen between Athena and Poseidon, the Goddess of Wisdom and the God of the Sea respectively. But for Sparta, I thought, there could really only be one choice: Ares. It came as a surprise to learn that the Sparta’s patron goddess was Athena.
As I learned more about Sparta, of course, the choice made more sense. Sparta was not, as modern commentators would like us to believe, a society obsessed exclusively with war, but a society which placed as high a value on training the intellect as the body. Sparta valued thought and science. (See the excellent article by w. Lindsay Wheeler, “Doric Crete and Sparta, the home of Greek Philosophy,” in Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 3, # 2). So giving pride of place to Athena was understandable. But, Ares must then come second, I thought.
Wrong again. As Nikolaos Kouloumpis outlines in his article “The Worship and the role of Religion in the formation of the Spartan state,” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, #1), Sparta’s most important festivals, the Karneia and Hyacinthia, were dedicated to Apollo. Even the Gymnopaedia, arguably the most famous of Sparta’s annual festivals, was dedicated to Apollo and Artemis, Dionysus and Leto. Clearly, there is a relationship between the reverence for Apollo and Sparta’s renown in the field of music and dance. Certainly, these festivals dedicated to Apollo provided the occasions for choral and dancing competitions, and the performances attracted tourists from throughout the ancient world, who in turn admired Spartan prowess in these disciplines.
The more infamous than famous festival of Artemis Orthia was, as the name implied, dedicated entirely to Artemis. Apparently, the cult of Menelaus and Helen was only slightly less important, although we did not know how the Eleneia was celebrated. In fact, in addition to these, Kouloumpis lists cults to Asclepius (!), Achilles, Hercules, Alexandra/Cassandra, Agamemnon, Castor and Pollux/Polydeukes and Helios. Ares does not rate even an “honorable mention.” While the heroes Achilles, Hercules, Agamemnon, Castor and Polydeukes clearly have close associations with Sparta’s legendary roots, the reason Sparta should honor Asclepius and Helios with festivals is not readily apparent – at least to me.
Turning from festivals to sanctuaries, Pausanias, in his detailed guide to the “significant” sites of Sparta, records only three temples out of more than 150 temples, sanctuaries and shrines that are dedicated to Ares. Two are notably located outside of Sparta proper, one in Amyclae and the other even farther away in Geronthrai. The only temple to Ares in Sparta itself is one in which the God of War is shown in chains, according to Pausanias because “in Lakonia they think the god of war will never desert them if they keep him in chains; [just as] in Athens they believe Victory will stay with them forever because she has no wings.” (Pausanisus, Book III, 15:6). By comparison, there are ten temples/shrines to Athena, six to Zeus, and five to Aphrodite. The Devine Twins, Castor and Polydeukes, Apollo, Artemis, and Poseidon and Asklepios also all rate more temples than Ares.
While the large number of sanctuaries dedicated to Athena and Zeus hardly need an explanation given their power and prominence in the ancient Greek pantheon, it does seem odd that Aphrodite, Poseidon and Asklepios should receive comparatively more honors than the god of war in land-locked, warlike Sparta. Poseidon might be explained in that he was also called the “Earth Shaker” and, given impact earthquakes had on Lacedaemon, the Earth Shaker was clearly a god to be appeased. Notably one of Sparta’s temples to Poseidon is to the “Horse-Breeding” Posiedon, and so a reflection of Sparta’s interest and success in equestrian sports.
But why do Aphrodite and Asclepius place ahead of Ares in terms of the number of sites dedicated to them? One possible explanation would be the association of Aphrodite with Kythera, which was part of Lacedaemon for the better part of 500 years. Allegedly, the worship of Aphrodite originated on Kythera, and conceivably the cult spread from there to the mainland of Lacedaemon. However, it is notable that to date the only temple from the Classical period to have been identified on Kythera was dedicated not to Aphrodite but to Asclepius. Possibly the worship of the God of Healing also moved from Kythera to Sparta. Alternatively, the need to treat battle injuries fostered a particular reverence for Asclepius. Such an interpretation and the fact that there appear to have been more temples to Asclepius than Ares suggests the Spartan’s trusted more to their own skills to win wars, than survive the aftermath.
More important, however, is not the relationship between Ares and Asclepius as such but rather the fact that Sparta was filled with sanctuaries and temples to a great diversity of gods, demi-gods and heroes. By no means was Spartan worship narrowly focused upon the god of war, or even warrior heroes such as Achilles. Instead, the heroes Heracles, Castor and Polydeukes, whose greatest deeds were performed outside the context of war, receive more attention. This plethora of religious/cult focus in turn suggests that Spartan society was far less narrow-minded and obsessed with things military than most commentators imply. At a minimum, the religious landscape of Lacedeamon should give us pause and induce us to question whether Sparta worshiped war at all.