Explain the importance of the role or religion in Spartan Society

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Explain the importance of the role or religion in Spartan Society.
Religion in Sparta, like in many societies, had a purpose to support the ideals of a militaristic society The Spartan ideal of an elite military state influenced the approach to religion and the ways in which religion would be moulded to suite state doctrine, therefore highlighting the importance of religion in upholding the values of Spartan society such as endurance, loyalty, obedience, conformity, and skill Religion was also use to create social coherence, important in promoting conformity and in controlling the society under the ideals of the military state. At an individual level religion provided a way of ensuring fertility both human and natural as well as averting disaster and ensuring victory in war. Our sources stem largely from non Spartan writers such as Xenophon, Plutarch as well as Pausanius. The caution must be taken with any sources which appear to perpetuate the “ mirage” of the perfect society force us then to value the archaeological temple and cult remains
Robert Parker states that “The power of prophecy, the sanctity of sanctuaries and festivals, the threat of divine punishment are all distinctive features of the Spartan religion.” However what was unique about these typically Greek features was their obedience and devotion

The religious connection to the military can be first seen in the Greek Gods the Spartiates emphasised and worshipped. The principal Spartan Gods were Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Discouri and Zeus. Apollo, Artemis and Athena more explicitly demonstrate the militaristic nature of Sparta with the three Gods associated with victory, wisdom, and skill in battle. Even Gods that were not usually known for battle were given militaristic traits, like the statue of the Armed Aphrodite [Goddess of love] in Thornax. The worship of Apollo and Artemis and their high status reflects the military value of Spartan society in training the youth for future defence. Such devotion to Apollo and Artemis can be seen in the Sanctuary of Apollo at Amyclae where coins in the likeness of Apollo were found and at the Temple of Artemis Orthia where thousands of votive offerings were found .

Rites of passage within Spartan society were also carried out at the Artemis Orthia and can be likened to a vigorous military test of endurance with religious overtones. Young boys endured harsh whippings whilst trying grabbing stringed cheeses off the shrine. Those who could withstand the punishment were given honour and moved onto another stage in their military training. Religion in this case was used to sort out those with better warrior potential.

Religion was important for the State and this could also be seen in the war-time practices of the Spartan Army. According to Powell, Spartans believed in military divination, following an army to war was a herd of sacrificial animals ready to appease the Gods. Consultative sacrifices were held before embarking on a military campaign, before a battle and when stepping into the threshold of the enemy. As written by Herodotus, Cleomenes in 494 on an invasion campaign to Argo was sent troops home because he had seen bad omens at the river Erasinus. Spartans also consulted Oracles at Delphi for predictions, famously at the battle of Thermopylae Leonidas was told to give up or fight to the death against Persian troops. The Spartan reliance on divination is reflective of how religion was used for military organisation and was important in supporting the state with battle strategy and on issues of joining battles. The reliance on religion creates a sense of reassurance for warriors if they had been given a good battle prediction and also a justification for retreat with a bad omen, as seen through Cleomenes.

Another function of religion in Spartan society was to train the hoplites. Hoplites were taught religiously devotional dances and songs, but the worship taught in the barracks also had military purpose. The song and dance helped with coordinating war movement, as the musical devotions not only praised the Gods but taught ideas of rhythm that was used in coordinating Phalanx in battle and the ability to move in a manner that was in harmony with the other warriors. Other examples of religion being a form of endurance training and test can be seen in the Spartan festivals. In the Carneia, the participants had to live in barracks as though on campaign and were made to run and chase a figure to train, test and celebrate athletic ability. The festival was associated with military success and the state used this festival as a way of glorifying past victories, therefore promoting the successes of the military state. According to Hooker ‘The Principle aim of the Gymnopaedia [another festival] was the habituation of the Spartan manhood to arduous activity’. The festival consisted of athletic competitions, musical events and dancing as displays of strength and endurance. This gave the state the opportunity to train hoplites, and separate the strong from the weak

The role of religion was to support the miliary organisation and was vital to a state which valued an elite defence force and celebrated skill in battle. As shown above religion was used a form of preparation, training assurance and guide in military situations.

Another function of religion in Spartan society was to support the political system and this affected the governing forces and how they were viewed within the community. Religion was important in Spartan politics in validating the actions of the Kings and vital to a society which valued strict social discipline. Religion in politics promoted military campaigns and an adherence amongst people to the military guidelines set by the governing force. According to Herodotus, Sparta worshiped their Kings as Gods. Their semi-divinity is associated with the twin sons of Zeus, the Dioscuri, and it is believed that this is where the concept of a dual kingship had originated. The Dioscuri also represented young men pursuits such as athletics, horsemanship and warfare, which are reminiscent of Spartan ideals towards the youth. The Spartan kings also held priesthoods of their royal ancestors, the priesthoods of Zeus [Lakedaimon and Ouranios], which gave the kings unlimited sacrificial rights, ‘places of honour, precedence and double portions at all public sacrifices and competitions’[Powell]. The Spartan Kings derived prestige and subsequently their power from such religious privileges within the society. The divine ancestry and religious connection was a source of authority for the Spartan kings. Religion was then important politically to maintain power. Spartans also traced their decent back to Heracles, the great warrior and thus to Zeus, implying that the militaristic ideals of Sparta are in their divine ancestry.

It was believed in Sparta that “a king by virtue of his divine descent should perform all the public sacrifices on the city’s behalf” [Xenophon]. The Kings acted as a priest towards the Gods. Aristotle, “Dealings with the Gods are assigned to the kings” Ritual responsibility was associated with political power giving kings special authority in religious interpretation or jurisdiction [Powell]. The divine messages of Gods were first received by the kings through public sacrifices and Kings could also consult the oracles as they wished. As divination was passed through the kings to the rest of society, the Kings had the power to make the people to bow to the ‘Gods’ will. Religious authority equates to political power an example of such power was when King Cleomenes refused to go into battle [which was a criminal offence], but got off trial by saying that the omens were bad so he could not fight. If a Spartan King had reasonable religious excuse he could be forgiven for losing battles and refusing battles. Such religious connection was important in gaining, loyalty and obedience in the political arena, the divine status of the Kings was sign of military elitism. Spartan society according to Xenophon depended on the king and was loyal to the King, even believing that if an untitled person occupied the royal seat military disaster and famine would ensue.

Spartans had special departments which were in charge of dealing with the oracles from Delphi and keeping records of signs from God. The power to consult the Gods however was exclusively among the authoritative forces of the state just as power itself was. Even Ephors had divination powers and all political classes of Sparta had religious duties to perform. It is evident that religion in Sparta functioned as political organisation; religion was used to demonstrate prestige, power and authority which were vital to society that honoured divinity and, religion also assisted in creating a way for the governing forces to manipulate the wider society with claims of celestially ordained political decisions. The political connection to religion was a way of promoting the Spartan ideal of an elite warrior society.

Spartan society valued conformity, coherence and believed in strong social controls, which religion then reinforced. Sparta’s social organisation was formed to encourage a sense of community and kinship which in turn intruded on private religious practice. The Spartiate was required to share sacrificial meat with his mess-companions. Religion was interpreted to support the system of shared messes. Other ideals or Social cohesion can be seen in the Spartan religious festivals. ‘Religion in Sparta was a way of bringing the community together and uniting the Gods with everyday social and political institutions of the Spartan state.’ [Welch]. Athennaeus [in Pausinas] observed at the festival of Hyakinthia that, “The citizens entertain their acquaintances at diner and their own slaves as well. No-one is missing from the festivities; in fact the city of Sparta is emptied for the spectacle.” In this festival people would communally mourn the dead and have a thanksgiving to life, it was to religiously as a community reaffirm the need for a close society. The festival of Carneia also emphasised a communal time of celebration, which honoured heroism and past successes in battles. During this time the Spartans were not allowed to travel to wars or battles, the Carneia being the reason they were late to fight in the Marathon 490BC and the lesser numbers at Thermopylae.

The religious festival Gymnopaediae also promoted social cohesion however, also reaffirmed social controls and the social hierarchy. Those who did not follow the Spartan standards were excluded. According to Plutarch, those excluded were forced to re-enact it in winter and also required to sing a song stating their punishment and justification as they had not followed the laws of Sparta. All Spartans took part and were controlled under one choirmaster [as it was a festival of song and dance], seating positions in the chorus were indicative of social standing. Shamed member of society such as the Tresantes [cowards] and Agamoi [infertile fathers] were given humiliating choruses in the Gymnopaediae. ‘Religious festivals were occasions of public display; they could be exploited as opportunities for humiliation.’ [Xenophon] The statement supports the concept that religious festivals were used as a form of social control making an example of those who did not adhere to Spartan values, promoting social cohesion, and conformity. For example, as social control the Gymnopaediae was used as an opportunity to oppress the large population Helots who were forced to perform ridiculous song and dance, therefore religion in Sparta promoted social cohesion in this was important to uphold the ideals of a disciplined military nation.

Spartan religion can easily be related to the society that produced it and to the Spartan discipline and values. Religion was taken very seriously, the gods were to be obeyed unsuspectingly, based on the mutual respect that in return ‘the gods were on their side and would assist them in all their legitimate ventures’ [Welch]. Mary Douglas states that the forms of social discipline in a society are reflective of its conceptions of divine power. Spartan religion was interpreted to assume the roles of a military organisation, political organisation and a force of social coherence. The importance of such roles and they way in they were approached ultimately reflect the ideal of the elite Spartan military state and the roles were represented to support state doctrine.

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