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date: 05 December 2023

sanctuaries, Greekfree

sanctuaries, Greekfree

  • Margaret M. Miles


Greek sanctuaries were areas set apart for devotion to the gods, where people made sacrifices and other offerings. Reflecting the underlying unity of Greek religions across a broad geography, the sanctuaries are found where Greeks settled and formed communities, from the east coast of Spain to Ukraine, and the south coast of France to Libya and northern Egypt. The sanctuaries could be as simple as a rural shrine by a spring, in a cave, or by a crossroads, or contain busy temples in cities or large complexes as at Delphi, Olympia, Dodona, and Delos. Most were open to everyone, and they became focal points for many aspects of Greek culture: social life, politics, commemoration, music and poetry, athletics, medicine, and displays of dedicated art and architecture. Sanctuaries often enhanced the economies of their regions. They marked coastlines, trading routes, and territorial borders. What they have in common is an area set apart with defined boundaries, thought of as belonging to a particular Greek deity or deities, with an altar for sacrifices. Many of them were in use for at least a thousand years.


  • Greek Material Culture
  • Greek Myth and Religion

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Greek sanctuaries were set apart from ordinary use because they were dedicated to a deity who legally owned the land, its buildings, and its contents. The primary function of sanctuaries was to facilitate human access to the gods through rituals that helped establish communication and a relationship with them. People used them to make sacrifices, set up votive dedications and other offerings to the gods, and perform hymns, paeans, and dances in their honour. Greek sanctuaries were typically established and used by local people, but a few sanctuaries became panhellenic and even international, attracting non-Greek devotees, with a program of festivals or the operation of oracles. Such a broad clientele led to an acquired political dimension for some activities in the sanctuaries, as in the placement of military commemorations and dedications by individual poleis.

Study of Greek sanctuaries is based on excavations, literary and historical testimonia (especially that of Pausanias, Pindar, Plutarch), and inscriptions. Some Greek statuary, sculpted reliefs, Attic pottery, and metalwork provide ancient views of activities in sanctuaries. Over the past 150 years, prominent sanctuaries in Greece (Delphi, Olympia, and Delos [Figure 1]) and in Italy (at Paestum, Selinous, and Agrigento) have been carefully excavated, with ongoing research. Newly discovered sanctuaries, such as the Artemision at Amarynthos on Euboea, offer excavators the opportunity to recover information even more fully using current scientific techniques for analysis of flora and fauna, and improved conservation of finds.1 Because Greek sanctuaries were so central to ancient Greek life, the archaeological sites and finds illuminate many facets of Greek culture.

Figure 1. View of the excavations of the sanctuary of Apollo on Delos, carried out by the French School of Archaeology in Athens.

Source: Margaret M. Miles.

Visitors and Refugees

The rituals carried out inside sanctuaries were public and communal, and they were meant to benefit the community. Most sanctuaries were accessible to everyone regardless of gender, status, or origin (men, women, children, enslaved, Greek or non-Greek, local or not), but exceptions include the sites for mystery religions that were restricted to initiates or those about to be initiated (as at Eleusis), and a few smaller sanctuaries open only once a year, or to only one sex, or prohibited to non-locals. Access was typically denied to those guilty of blood-crimes or those who were considered polluted in some other way. The large panhellenic sanctuaries associated with stephanitic contests (Delphi, Olympia, Isthmia, Nemea) attracted visitors from abroad, and foreign dignitaries participated in some parts of the festivals, such as equestrian events. Oracles were consulted by foreigners as well as Greeks, and famously by King Croesus of Lydia (Hdt. 1.46–49). Any sanctuary could harbour refugees, including those accused of a crime or under political disfavour, fleeing heads of state, runaway slaves, or others at odds with their community (see Tegea, Taenarum).2


Greek sanctuaries were prominent in Mediterranean landscapes, and the temples were the most colourful buildings in any locale. High visibility gave sanctuaries along trade routes and sea lanes a special status as beacons for travellers. Just why sanctuaries were built where they were is a long-standing question: excavations show that continuity of sacred place is observed in sequences of temples on the same spot over time.3 A few sanctuaries clearly had Bronze Age antecedents, such as the Heraion at Samos, where a deposit of Minoan conical cups was found on a Bronze Age pavement under the stump of a sacred tree dated to the 7th century bce; at Miletos, where extensive Minoan finds were excavated under the Temple of Athena; and at Kalapodi (ancient Abai), where a sequence of temples goes back at least to the Late Bronze Age.4 Such finds show continuity of sacred place, but not necessarily continuity in the particular cult, deity, or rituals: continuity and disruption between the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age are much-discussed issues as new evidence emerges.5 Literary and epigraphical testimonia recall traditional origins: the Homeric Hymns to Demeter and Apollo give origin stories for the sanctuaries at Eleusis, Delos, and Delphi that involve the gods themselves. Epiphanies of deities, remembered or imagined later, became part of some local histories, as at the sanctuary of Athena at Lindus, where epiphanies are listed in an inscribed chronicle (I.Lindos 2) (see epiphany, Lindus).6

For newer cities in the Greek west (southern Italy and Sicily), practical considerations of division of space were weighty factors in the situation of temples, with attention needed also to housing, a political centre, and fortifications.7 Whether political factors such as mediation, competition, and sovereignty figured in the placement of sanctuaries on frontiers or borders during the Early Iron Age, first proposed by François de Polignac, is now a standard consideration in the histories of individual sanctuaries.8 What many observers have noted is the beauty and readily apparent suitability of so many settings of sanctuaries, and the expansive views across landscapes they provide (Figure 2).

Figure 2. View of the acropolis of Selinous (modern Selinunte), with the reconstructed flank of Temple C, likely dedicated to Apollo, visible at centre. The city has four sacred areas with at least eleven temples; excavations are ongoing.

Source: Margaret M. Miles.

The perimeter of the sanctuary was marked with boundary stones or a stone wall that gave security and privacy; the area within the boundary is the temenos. Some sanctuaries had a monumental entrance gate that set a liminal zone between the ordinary outside world and the sacred area within, subject to regulations of behaviour (purity, dress, use of fire, consumption of meat), and prohibitions against giving birth, dying, and having sex (Figure 3). The protocol for entering a sanctuary varied. Basins of water (perirrhanteria) near entrances offered purification (see Propylaea).

Figure 3. View from inside the propylon of the sanctuary of Athena Lindia at Lindus.

Source: Margaret M. Miles.

The immediate environs of sanctuaries (inside and out) usually had sources of water and groves of trees. Particular groves and certain individual trees within the sanctuaries were considered sacred, as at Dodona and Aulis. Animals (herds of cows, deer, dogs) and birds (peacocks, guinea hens, owls, swallows) lived in some sanctuaries as property of the deity or under his or her protection. Contributing to the visual ambience were large accumulations of glittering votive offerings: a whole population of colourful statuary and relief sculpture on pedestals and bases, arms and armour, military trophies, large metal tripods, and inscribed stelai with painted lettering.

Temples, Stoas, and Facilities

The orientation of temples within the sanctuary has become a current topic of scholarly interest, thanks to computer programs which reconstruct with great accuracy the night-time sky for any date. Some temples were oriented to specific constellations or stellar progressions and served as viewing platforms for significant celestial phenomena.9 The stars offered precise timekeeping, certifying the right season and time for a particular age-old ritual, and gave bright confirmation of celestial participation in the activity of the sanctuary.

Many sanctuaries had temples that housed images of the presiding deity and were themselves prestigious and costly works of art, often decorated with sculpture on the outside, and paintings on the inside. Temples in the Early Iron Age were built of wood and mud-brick, but over time the use of local limestone, marble, and terracotta or marble roof tiles (typically imported from Naxos and Paros) meant temples were durable, fire-resistant, and highly visible. Architects experimented with proportions and types, and gradually established paradigms for their overall appearance that became increasingly flexible over time (see architecture, Greek). Large temples typically had colonnades on all four sides that gave shelter from sun and rain, and could be used for dances, processions, and literary recitations. In most sanctuaries people could go inside the temples, which were filled with votive offerings of all sorts, commemorations and trophies, textiles, furniture, relics, and natural curiosities.10 Like the open space of the sanctuaries, crowded with statuary and outdoor votives, the temples came to be museum-like with shelves and tables of precious vessels, painted portraits, and items nailed to walls and ceiling beams.11

An altar was usually built outdoors in front of the temples to allow maximum participation and viewing for congregants (see altars, Greek). Altars could be simple stone rectangular platforms, or more elaborate structures with marble volutes at the corners, or a Doric triglyph and metope frieze around the perimeter, or with steps leading up to the top, or even small columns around the exterior, as in the altar for Temple A at Selinous (modern Selinunte). Simple, free-standing altars (with no associated buildings) could be numerous, set up all over a sanctuary, or in a row as at Kameiros on Rhodes. In the Hellenistic period, altars were expanded in scale, like the altar of Zeus at Syracuse, c. 196 m. (643 ft.) long (one stade), or given pavilions equipped with bronze rings embedded in the ground to assist massive sacrifices of bulls as at Dion (sanctuary of Zeus) and at Magnesia (Temple of Artemis). Both scale and decoration figure notably in the Pergamon Altar to Zeus and Athena, which has an elaborately sculptured exterior, a sweeping flight of steps to an upper level, and an Ionic colonnade surrounding the sacrificial altar (much of this is now reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin).

An early architectural offshoot of temples was the stoa, a colonnaded porch, with columns and a front that borrowed from the Doric (and later, Ionic) orders used for temples (Figure 4). This versatile building type, perhaps used first in the Heraion at Samos in the 7th century bce, became ubiquitous in Greek sanctuaries: the stoas provided shade, space for dedications and paintings, and enhanced the monumentality of the sanctuaries (see stoa, Samos, Heraion). Another offshoot of temple architecture were small-scale rectangular buildings, called “treasuries,” often with two columns in front and highly decorated. They were set up in some urban sanctuaries (such as the Athenian Acropolis in the Archaic period) but were especially numerous at Delphi and Olympia, where they advertised the wealth and success of the individual cities that built and dedicated them. In sanctuaries where feasting was an important ritual, separate facilities for dining (hestiatoria) could be elaborate, even built of marble (as on Delos, Thasos, Aigina, Naxos, and at Despotiko near Paros).

Figure 4. The polygonal wall supports the terrace for the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The white marble columns in front of the wall are part of the Stoa of the Athenians, dedicated to Apollo after a military victory, where at one time naval trophies were on display.

Source: Margaret M. Miles.

Additional facilities were added to some sanctuaries in the 4th century bce and later, including theatres, like the well preserved one (still in use today) in the Asclepieion at Epidauros; athletic facilities, such gymnasia, practice tracks (xystos), large stone stadia; hotels (katagogeia); and bathing complexes. The Tholos or Thymele (a circular building) in the Asclepieion at Epidauros, c. 350 bce, is now interpreted as a purpose-built venue for musical performances, with foundations that were left hollow to amplify the resonation of the music.12 By the Hellenistic period, architectural types developed originally for sanctuaries spread outward into general civic use because of their prestigious visual impact.

Rituals and Traditions

Processions linked urban centres to distant sanctuaries, extending and marking both space and time in honour of a particular deity, and they set a festive and receptive mood for devotees entering the sanctuaries. These significant public rituals often included a wide range of participants, as in the Panathenaic festival at Athens. They could express both social and political hierarchies depending on who was allowed, or even required, to participate, and in what order.13 The annual procession to Eleusis from central Athens for the Eleusinian Mysteries, always on foot, followed the Sacred Way (hieros odos) some twenty-one kilometres (c. 13 mi.) long along a route lined with significant markers and memorials that recalled the stories of Demeter (see processions, Iacchus). Sacred Ways lined with monuments have been excavated at Didyma and Samos.

Choral performances of hymns and paeans within sanctuaries were especially important as they addressed the deity and maintained or established a relationship with him or her. The composition of the hymns, rehearsals, and inclusion of different groups of people (varying by sex and age) allowed for a broad participation. By the 4th century bce, some hymns were inscribed in sanctuaries, two with musical notations (see hymns, Greek).

The primary ritual was conducting sacrifices on or near the altar, typically of domestic animals (cows, goats, sheep, pigs, occasionally birds), and vegetal and liquid offerings, with the selection and combination varying depending on which deity was receiving the sacrifice. Preserved inscriptions attest to the careful scrutiny, prescription, and close regulation of sacrifices, including their cost. Libations of wine, oil, water, or honey were poured on the altar; such libations could be poured in other contexts. The sensory ambience in sanctuaries was enhanced by the burning of incense, either on the altar or in censers (thymiateria), and incense was used for libanomancy (divination). Prepared formal prayers were spoken aloud by the priest or the attending group before and after sacrifices and offerings. The precise nature and significance of sacrifice are current topics of lively scholarly interest.14

Within many sanctuaries priests and priestesses carried out the sacrifices and supervised the placement of votive offerings (see priests). They are sometimes depicted in art carrying keys to the temples and treasuries (see women in cult). This prestigious job varied in scope, duration, and responsibility, and the position could be hereditary, or voluntary, won by lottery, election, or even purchased.15 It sometimes came with recompense: for example, the priestess of Athena Nike, on the Athenian Acropolis was paid with the legs and hides of the sacrifices, and fifty drachmas a year (IG I3 35). But the priests and priestesses did not form a special social class, nor were they expected to have exceptional knowledge or expertise, and their authority within the sanctuary was limited—they were not intermediaries between humans and gods, but rather facilitated the rituals in the sanctuary to benefit the community. The Pythia at Delphi is an example of a mantis or prophet who served an oracle.

Anyone could make an offering in sanctuaries, and one category of archaeological evidence stands out for its abundance and ubiquity: small terracotta figurines are found in great quantity at sacred sites across the Mediterranean, usually in the thousands, even tens of thousands at some sites.16 The earliest (c.8th –7th century bce) are handmade and represent people (and possibly gods), animals (bovines and horses), wheels, and shields. Mould-made types emerge with even greater variety; they continue to be offered in great number through the Hellenistic period, especially in sanctuaries of female divinities. Miniature vessels are also found in great number, and sometimes are decorated and represent distinctive common shapes.17 Each of these objects represents the dedicator’s prayer or vow or gratitude, probably made privately to the deity. They attest to the variety of possibilities for worship in Greek sanctuaries. Other important categories of perishable offerings, such as dedicated textiles, are known indirectly through inscriptions and literary testimonia.18

Time in sanctuaries was marked by a cycle of festivals, tied to the lunar year. Inscribed calendars of sacrifices, such as the one for Thorikos, list by month the deities, heroes, and heroines to receive sacrifices, the type of offering, the cost, and other administrative matters (c. 430 bce, OR 146). Because there were so many festival days (in Athens, some 120 days out of the lunar year of 364), such calendars were necessary (see calendar, Greek, festivals, Greek, time-reckoning). Each polis had its own set of festivals, with some overlap. The panhellenic festivals of Zeus (at Olympia and Nemea), Apollo (at Delphi), and Poseidon (at Isthmia) were held in a four-year rotation and were distinctive for their prestigious athletic and musical competitions and large participation. Heralds (spondophoroi) announced temporary truces (ekecheiria) in time of war, so that travel was feasible. The Panathenaic festival at Athens was modelled on the Panhellenic festivals to some extent, and included musical, athletic, and equestrian competitions (Figure 5).

Figure 5. View of the Athenian Acropolis and its entrance, from southwest. The Panathenaic Procession wound through the city and up to the Acropolis.

Source: Margaret M. Miles.

Sanctuaries of Asclepius, the healing god, became widespread in the Greek world from the late 5th century bce onward. People would spend the night in designated buildings inside the sanctuary, where they dreamt of Asclepius or his family, who would heal the individual or suggest a cure in the dream (see Asclepius, miracles). Oracular sanctuaries offered visitors the opportunity to consult the god about proposed actions, particularly at seven notable sanctuaries (Delphi, Abai, Dodona, Oropos, Lebadeia, Didyma, and in Libya at the Siwah Oasis), of which the one at Delphi was pre-eminent. Less formal oracles could be obtained in other sanctuaries, using knucklebones (astragaloi) and beans (as in the Corycean cave above Delphi, sacred to the Nymphs and Pan). A third type of specialized sanctuary is that for initiation into mysteries, most famously the Eleusinian Mysteries at Eleusis and the Samothracian Mysteries. In both, people went through a cycle of events inside the sanctuaries that was kept secret, and they acquired special knowledge about life and possibly the afterlife, and protection in the present. The sanctuaries had purpose-built buildings (the Telesterion at Eleusis, the Hieron at Samothrace) specifically for initiation rituals (see mysteries, Eleusinian, Samothrace).

Administration, Finances, and Security

The administration of sanctuaries usually fell to the care of the local polis, or its deme or subdivision, which controlled the territory that included the sanctuary (Figure 6). Officials, elected or appointed, oversaw the finances and accumulated treasuries of the sanctuary, which were economic “actors” by the regular purchase of building material, expenditure on maintenance, and circulating revenue from visitors. Careful accounting was necessary, since the deity owned the property, as attested by numerous inscriptions, especially for Delphi, Epidauros, Athens, Eleusis, and Delos.19

Figure 6. The south flank of the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, a deme of Athens.

Source. Margaret M. Miles.

The stewards were expected to maintain and even expand the resources of the sanctuary, and this was done through loans of money (at interest), leases of property (land and buildings), and taxes. Magistrates also took inventories of the contents of the temples and published lists to establish security. Wealthy devotees sometimes gave endowments to sanctuaries for their maintenance. The sanctuaries thus functioned in some ways like banks for local persons: documented loans of “sacred” (hieros) money by Nemesis at Rhamnous date to c. 450 bce (IG I3 248, OR 134).

Sanctuaries of especial importance, such as Calauria, Delphi, and Olympia, were under the supervision of an association of nearby communities (amphictyony) that had mutual interest in them. An amphictyony usually took a benign role, with duties including the supervision of maintenance, construction of new buildings, organization of festivals, and resolution of minor disputes, but the Delphic amphictyony became politically contentious, even leading to “Sacred Wars” over the control of the sanctuary (see amphictyony, Sacred Wars). A third type of administration arose from the koinon, or associations of federated states, in the Classical and later periods. An essential study by Emily Mackil demonstrates how regional sanctuaries became hubs of interactions that brought cohesion among federated poleis, such as the sanctuary of Poseidon at Onchestos for Boiotians, and of Apollo at Thermon for Aitolians.20

A great deal of wealth was stored in sanctuaries, and its security was a concern. Basic security was provided by walls around the “perimeter boundary” temenos, and grills with locks in temples and treasuries. But the greatest protection was the unquestioned and widespread inviolability of sanctuaries as property belonging to a deity. Incidents of violation and embezzlement, called hierosylia, were taken very seriously and punished, but customary reverence protected sanctuaries for several centuries. A deeply felt trauma, remembered for generations, rippled through Greek lands when during the Persian Wars the invading Persians deliberately burned temples as well as looting them.21 Another convulsive change came when Greeks themselves, the Phocians, plundered the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi starting in 356 bce, in order to pay mercenaries with coins minted from melted votives. This released at least ten thousand talents of precious metals into the general economy, triggered the Third Sacred War, and led to Macedonian dominance in Greece. In the Hellenistic period, communities sought to protect their sanctuaries with recognition of asylia (inviolability, see asylia).

Changes over Time

Subsequent vicissitudes, invasions and warfare led to further plundering of Greek sanctuaries across the Mediterranean, particularly by the conquering Romans, and by the Roman emperors Caligula and Nero. Apart from specific episodes of plundering, however, Romans respected Greek sanctuaries both as tourists and devotees, and made many dedications, benefactions, and improvements to Greek sanctuaries, particularly under the emperors Augustus, Claudius, and Hadrian.22 While some countryside sanctuaries fell into disuse in the period of Roman domination in Greece, others flourished, until they were closed by the decrees of Theodosius I in 391 ce. In following centuries, some temples were converted into Christian Churches, such as the Parthenon and Hephaisteion in Athens, the Temple of Athena at Syracuse, and the Temple of Concordia at Agrigento (Figure 7). Today the challenges for administering excavated Greek sanctuaries include conservation, storage, and exhibition of finds, and accommodating modern tourism.

Figure 7. View of the Temple of Concordia (a modern nickname) at Akragas (modern Agrigento).

Source: Margaret M. Miles.


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