Blood Thirsty Sparta – The Rituals and Sacrifice to Artemis Orthia

After our very brief visit to the ruins of Sparta in my last post, it is time to see some more of the region! the author of this contribution, Dr. Carla Ionescu, an expert on all things Artemis, takes us into the Spartan wilderness to find the very elusive temple of Artemis Orthia, a local version of the goddess of the hunt who was worshiped in the region around Sparta. 

by Dr. Carla Ionescu

The first time I went to Sparta I was still a doctoral student. My mother and I were on a six-week mother-daughter vacation that took us across most of Greece, Italy and parts of Turkey. We arrived just before sunset in the small Greek town of Sparta. My mother and I shared a meal with our tour mates after which she decided to take a nap and chill while I bribed a couple of my new travel friends into hiking to the olive forests to see the ruins of an ancient theatre and find the temple of Artemis Orthia.

Our guide was of little help when we asked him how to get to the Spartan cliffs. I think his exact words were, “Umm, go up the hill, and then keep going up.” *insert deep and long eye roll here.* Luckily, our bus driver was a proud Spartan and he gave us very specific instructions on where to climb the hills and reach the olive woods. He also gave us a very stern warning to stay out of the Roma camping grounds, which were dispersed throughout the forests just outside the city limits. We were told repeatedly that the Roma would be aggressive, try to milk us for money, and maybe even hold us at knife point for our cameras or phones. Needless to say, my mother was not impressed at all by my wanting to hike the ancient trails, though for some reason she felt my two companions, Sylvia, and American accountant, and Kenny, a Korean student, would be a decent deterrent for the scary Romaniis.

If you’ve traveled at all through Europe, you know that Roma is the accepted term for the nomadic culture Europeans have referred to as ‘gypsies’ for many centuries. As a Romanian, the Roma have been among my culture for generations. Romanians use the derogative term ‘tigani’ even today, though the Romaniis have repeatedly asked them not to. When I was a kid, I was darker skinned than my blond, blue eyed brother and my mother used to tease me that she bought me from a travelling Roma tribe for a pound of malai, cornmeal. Anthropologists believe that the Roma are modern day descendants of ancient Indo-European tribes that used to roam all over the western and eastern continent more than 5000 years ago.  I always found nomadic life particularly romantic and although I knew my parents were joking, I used to daydream about travelling the world with a tribe of pagans with magic powers who wore beautiful bright scarves and skirts. As an adult I realized the Roma have a very difficult, and so often persecuted lifestyle, and the shine wore off my magic and pretty skirts fantasies. But not the travelling.

And so, my companions and I began our trek to find my Goddess. According to our tourist brochure on the temple location, the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia was built near the banks of the river Eurotas, in the ancient district of Limnes, and remained one of the most significant sanctuaries in religious and cultural life in Sparta for generations. (Sparta 2006). Boys were trained at the sanctuary from early childhood, and girls participated in life cycle initiations that transitioned them from wild childish bears to women of a mariable age.

In antiquity, the goddess of this region was recognized as a deity of fertility and the patron of all plant life. Once the worship of this goddess became associated with Artemis (Diana) the sanctuary became a religious center to educate Spartan youth. Her original name is open to interpretation, one of Pindar’s reviewers gives us the following etymology, “Orthia, meaning he/she who prepares people to be saved or prepares them to be born.” This association with being born may be why the Greek Artemis was so easily appropriated here. Pausanias tells us that, “[the statues of Artemis] was not only called Orthia (upright) but also Lygodesma (willow-bound) because it was found entangled in a willow, and the willow osiers held the statues upright.” (Pausanias, 3.16). Another possibility, provided to us by Herodotus, is that the cult statue may have been brought to Sparta from Brauron. Her image is said to have been brought over, or stolen, from Brauron and consequently drove men mad (Redfield 1990, p. 128).  Tradition states that some quarrel or competition among the earliest tribes of Sparta led to violence and death around the altar of Artemis. After the slaughter there was a plague, and the Oracle prescribed that the altar be soaked in blood. The citizens selected an individual by lot who would be the human sacrifice (Herodotus, Histories 1.65).

As we made our way up the mountain, we started seeing signs of excavation and ruins that looked to be organized in circular form. I knew we had come across the temple’s amphitheaters built in the 3rd century BCE and that we were now east of the sanctuary itself. I cannot describe to you the beauty of the olive forests in the valley of the mountains. The pictures do it little justice and the sounds of thousands of tiny olive leaves flowing in the wind are more reminiscent of an ocean shore, rather than forest floor. From the cliff above the amphitheater, we had a bird’s eye view of the ancient and the modern city. The trees looked like velvet, the breeze soft on our skin, dried the moisture of climbing off our back and called us to just sit and breathe in the history of this magnificent place. And so my friends, sat and enjoyed a cold drink and some snacks we brought with us, while I ran around the amphitheater taking pics of every nook and cranny. The ruins were left open to visitors and there were no gated spaces or secured sections. You could run free to your hearts content, pretending you were a Spartan citizen, watching the whipping contest that was so popular among Spartan boys and men 2500 years ago.

The theater was built due to the popularity and fame of the sanctuary and the Goddess who ruled there. During the Roman period the original tradition of human sacrifice was eventually considered barbaric, the ritual of whipping contests was adapted by the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus so that boys were scourged at her altar in such a manner that it became sprinkled with their blood. This cruel ceremony was believed to have been introduced in the place of human sacrifices (Nicholson, 2018), and according to Redfield, it was not boys who were scourged but warriors, and instead of one of them dying they could all bleed together (Redfield 1990, p. 128). In these ‘games’, adolescent boys lent against the altar and underwent public flogging, sometimes to death. Those who remained standing were rewarded as altar victors. Parents and family members encouraged their sons to participate in this ‘feats of strength’ ritual to bring pride and bravery to their names. While the boys were whipped the temple priestess stood beside the boys holding a statue of the Goddess. Part of her job was to encourage the floggers to create as much blood spatter as possible so that the ‘blood thirsty’ statue of Artemis could be covered in adolescent sacrifice and the wild Goddess would be satiated.

These ‘games’ were later moved outside the sanctuary and into the amphitheater so that all Spartans can bear witness to the bravery of each youth.  Looking at my feet on the reddish-brown earth I wondered how much blood was spilled here over generations, and how many boys left their lives on the theater floor. But it was more than the bloody needs of a wild Goddess that had me touching the sun warmed ground and letting the soil run softly between my fingers. I was reminded of how powerful communal ritual can be, how energy is raised and transformed when an entire city of people come together to witness sacrifice.  This practice is not just for youthful boys, preparing for battle. This is a ritual of the community, and as such, it is physically and spiritually inscribed on the body of its citizens. This ritual denies any differences among Spartan citizens, it is both natural and cultural, so that all Spartan men were treated equally (Redfield 1990, p. 129: Redfield claims that the demand of the god is equality, and thus the function of the divine within Spartan ritual is to make sure this equality is maintained. Artemis is the embodiment of this sentiment as she presides over both male and female initiation rites in which participation is both necessary and equal.).

And so, emboldened by the bloody memories of the ancient ruins, I called out to my companions, who were lounging lazily on the outer walls, “I am ready to take on all the street villains and sneaky robbers in reaching my Goddess. We head east friends, with bravery in our hearts and strength in our step!” (yeah ok, so I was channeling some LOTR in addition to the wild Goddess, but it woke my friends and off we went) To say we got completely lost, “going East” is an understatement. With no one to ask in the empty forests, and the sun going setting beyond the mountains we took our chances veering left and right on the footpaths that looked like they’d seen heavier traffic and finally came upon the sign pointing us to the temple site. But! Looking down the road that would take us to the sanctuary, it was very easy to see that we would encounter people camping out, or living out of a sleeping bag. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Sylvia whispered, hoping no one would hear us at the top of the road. “Sure,” I replied, pretending a confidence I did not feel. “Well,” Kevin stepped in front of us, smiling a little manically, “It this Sparta??” he shouted, obviously referencing the movie 300 (the most cliché film ever) and heading down the bushy path like a Hollywood Spartan soldier taking on the Persian army (insert double eye roll here). But it worked. We followed, cause one, I wanted to see this sanctuary, and two, my life mottos is pretty much no man gets left behind.

Aaaaaannnnddd, believe it or not, absolutely nothing happened on our way to the temple. Either the people living in the spaces we passed were off to dinner or some other gathering, or they were deeper into the bushes on either side of the road and decided that three young history nerds wondering a back road at sunset probably weren’t carrying anything of value on them. Or maybe, just maybe, the people living on the sides of these roads had no intensions on robbing or threatening anyone and were just living their happy nomadic lives wherever they could in as much peace as they could find. Believe what you like dear reader, we were not accosted or even approached and so we walked our way to the temple site and found ourselves in front of the temple gate that had a massive CLOSED sign mocking our ‘brave’ adventure.

Undeterred by the bureaucracy of gating and closing ancient sites before 6:00pm (though I am a vigilant proponent of site protection and conservation) I stuck my camera through the barred fence and took as many pictures of the temple ruins as I could get. Work on this temple site probably began in the 9th or 8th century BCE. There are a few structural remains still on the site that are said to date back to about 700 BCE. According to the temple site information sign, the building was probably destroyed by a flood in early 6th century BCE and a new, and much larger temple, with Doric pillars and a pediment depicting front facing lions was built in its place. Some of the remnants of the pediment and the lions has been recovered. This reconstruction remained intact well into the 4th century CE when all non-Christian worship was banned during the persecution of all pagans by the Roman Church.

It is here that the most significant of votive offerings to the Goddess were housed and protected. Archeologists have found numerous vessels, thousands of small lead statuettes, votive marble steles, as well as sickles that were embedded into the temple walls and given out to the victors in the Orthia games. These sickles were symbolic of earlier traditions when the Goddess who ruled the region was responsible for fertility and plant life. Some of the inscriptions on the stelae provide information on the games in honour of the Goddess. It tells us who dedicated them, the age and names of those who won or lost in the games and give us an overall impression of life at Sparta. It is through these findings that we have learned about the moa and keloa contests for singing and reciting poetry, and the katthirotorio contest which was similar to the hunt.

Among the many archeological finds at Sparta, is an interesting lead figure from the sanctuary of Artemis that shows a female dancer wearing a bear mask (Gimbutas 1991, p. 116). We know that in the initiation rites for girls at Sparta, Artemis and her companions sometimes assumed the shape of bears. The term arkteusai means “to be a bear,” and becoming a bear was often used in reference to the consecration of virgins to Artemis, before they were married off (D’Este 2005, p. 71). During rites of initiation, young girls become the bears of Artemis. The ancient Greeks saw bears everywhere, especially in the stars, and attributed the characteristics of the mother bear to Artemis, both as the creature and as the stellar constellation of Ursa Major, “the Great Bear.”

As a result, Artemis Orthia was an ever present, ever guiding force, in the transition from childhood to adulthood for Spartan citizens. The complexity of her cultic practice places Artemis in the position of presiding divinity in the early lives of Greek boys and girls. She plays a complicated dual role as both ‘stiff and stern’ Olympian, as well as an archaic goddess of fertility and plant life. As such she might’ve been described in modern world terms as a non-binary divinity; her games and contests of bloodshed and retribution, were often viewed as biologically male characteristics, and her role in mercy and healing, were often viewed as the realm of the biological female. Artemis at Sparta straddled the boundaries of biological expectations while allowing all Spartan youth to be part of rituals that guaranteed their place within their deeply stratified community. Her rituals may have been bloody and wild, but Spartans relied on her vicious judgement to maintain peace and order in a complex, often battle infused, societal structure.

Finding the temple of Artemis Orthia, despite the dire warnings and lack of any navigation system, is one of the highlights of my travels in search of the Goddess. She never makes it easy, but she is always worth it.  It is my sincerest (and academic) opinion that Artemis is the only Goddess that gained such bloody sacrifice, respect, and dedication from the Spartans. And while she was not the only Olympian to be worshipped at Sparta, she was definitely the most ‘Spartan’ of them all.

Further reading:

D’Este, Sorita. Artemis: Virgin Goddess of the Sun and Moon. London: Avalonia, 2005.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language Of The Goddess. Harpersanfrancisco, 1991.

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Michael A. Flower and John Marincola. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Ionescu, Carla. She Who Hunts. Artemis: The Goddess Who Changed the World. Tellwell Press. 2022.

Nicholson, Oliver. The Oxford Dictionary Of Late Antiquity. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Pausanias. Description of Greece. Translated by W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Omerod. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann, 1918.

Redfield, James. “From Sex to Politics: The Rites of Artemis Triklaria and Dionysus Aisymnētēs at Patras.” In Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, edited by David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, 115–134. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

Sparta, An Archaeological and General Guide. The Municipality of Sparta, 2006

Dr. Carla Ionescu is a one of the leading experts in the worship and ritual of Artemis Ephesia and author of the book ‘She Who Hunts. Artemis: The Goddess Who Changed the World’, which deals with all things Artemis. Her research centers on the influential nature of Artemis both in the Greek world and in Ephesus. Her work provides evidence which suggests that Artemis is the most prevalent and influential goddess of the Mediterranean, with roots embedded in the community and culture of this area that can be traced further back in time than even the arrival of the Greeks.  Dr. Ionescu spends most of her time teaching in the field of Ancient History and Women’s Studies, and/or applying for grants to support her research travels. In the summers she scavenges new locations and cities world wide, digging through the remains of grave sites, ruins, and abandoned buildings, trying to uncover the long lost mystery that is Artemis, The Great Mother. For all of her other projects, including a book club and the Goddess Podcast, check out her website or follow her on instagram



You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *