1 David W. Croft Major Terry History 367 20 November 1988 The Practice and Function of Religion in the Military of Ancient Greece INTRODUCTION The Ancient Greeks held their religion to be a personal experience, to be practiced by the common man on a daily basis. Thus, it comes as no surprise to read in the historical works of the period that the people also relied on religion to aid them in military matters. This paper will give historical examples of the people's reliance on the deities and attempt to explain the psychological necessity of these rituals. An examination will be made of the typical forms of rituals, and cite their effects, whether ill or benign, on the military endeavors of the peoples in the age of the Ancient Greeks. RITE OF PASSAGE Many people who experience battle for the first time find themselves panicked, totally unprepared for the horrors of war. Waging war is not a task for the inexperienced civilian. As a result, religious rituals were formed that would brace the aspiring warrior for the obscenities he would face as well as fill him with a sense of obligatory
2 duty through ritual ordaination. Walter Burkert's Greek Religion gives ample detail on the subject: Crete is also the place where myth localizes the Kouretes, who by their name are just young warriors. This reflects a cult association of young warriors meeting at the grotto of Mount Ida, and brandishing their shields in war dances to which the bronze tympana and votive shields of Orientalizing style give their testimony. Every year the birth of Zeus in this cave is celebrated with a great fire, but mention is also made of the burial of Zeus by the Kouretes, and there are rumours of child sacrifice. Birth, the cave, the death of a child, and war dances, are all clear initiation motifs (Burkert 262). The whereabouts of Dirke's grave were known only to the cavalry commander, the hipparchos of Thebes. When he retired from office, he would take his successor to her tomb at night; there the two men would make sacrifices without using fire and cover up all traces of their activity before the break of day. In this way the two cavalry leaders guaranteed the continuity of command by binding themselves to each other in secret communion . . . (Burkert 212). The Spartan cult of the Dioskouroi is found in the context of a warrior society and of initiations in which an encounter with death is also involved. . . . The epheboi make a nocturnal sacrifice of a dog to Phoebe before their ritual fight in the Platanistas. The curious symbol which represents the Dioskouroi in Sparta, the balks, dokana -- two upright supports connected by two cross beams -- may perhaps be understood as a gate in a rite de passage (Burkert 213). A counterpart to the act of encirclement is the act of passing between the bloody halves of a bisected victim. The Macedonian army in particular is purified by being marched between the parts of a bisected dog -- the head to the right, the hind quarters to the left. A sham battle follows. A corresponding ritual exists not only in Boeotia, but even earlier among the Hittites; Old Testament and Persian parallels can also be adduced. The deliberate cruelty is part of the steeling for battle; it may even be said that a man who has refused military service is taken as the blood victim. To this extent the bisected victim represents a special form of the
3 preparation for battle through sphagia [blood victims]. The passing through, the rite de passage, is purification in that it leads to the desired status; for this reason, the expiation of murder and the initiation into war can both be called purification (Burkert 82). BLOODGUILT Obviously, being pure, or free from bloodguilt, was of significant importance to the Ancient Greek spirit. A soldier cannot continue to stomach fighting over a long duration if feels he is committing murder. Thus, the religious ritual came to have a special significance to the soldier in his sense of morality: The Delphic priesthood, as we have seen, could by their responses at times approve of ritual purifications of bloodguilt, even where no question of intention existed. Also in the early seventh century we find the Pythia prepared to expel from the temple a soldier who has shed blood in battle, until he had made a ceremonial atonement. But evidently Delphic thought on this subject later progressed and would substitute for this irrational attitude the reasonable belief that only the deliberate crime could stain the doer. The point is made more emphatic by the balanced pattern of the story. The coward who did not help his friend, but actually shed no blood, is expelled from the temple as accursed: the brave man who shed his friend's blood involuntarily is welcomed as doubly pure (Parke 383). Ancient guilt is associated with the festival, and is made present in the race and the ram sacrifice, but at the same time the ritual atones for the guilt; and therefore the warriors can march out to conquer all the more freely; the violence and bloodshed of the conquest can no longer be charged to their account. For this reason no war may be waged during the Karneia: the festival creates the preconditions for unbridled expeditions of war (Burkert 236).
4 STRATEGY We see that the rituals were necessary for the well- being and performance of the individual soldier, but we now ask how religion influenced the commanders in their strategies and its effects. Here the operation was not so much a ritual, but a divination -- a plea to the gods for advice. As we will see, divination would always bring success and protection to a people and its army. Which nation received this success and protection, however, depended upon how the divination was used. The Argives in 387 had been at war with Sparta, but had managed to stave off invasion by always proclaiming the festival of the Carneia whenever the Spartans were about to cross the frontier. As good Dorians, the Spartans could not lightly violate the sacred truce of Carneia, even when it was being celebrated in defiance of ordinary practice by a process of juggling with the calendar. Ultimately the Spartans decided on sending the expedition under Agesipolis, who, after he had offered the preliminary sacrifices and found them auspicious, then went to collect oracular authority for his unorthodox breach of truce before crossing the frontier (Parke 209). Coenus urged Alexander to postpone his Indian campaign eastward until another time, with another army. And he urged on his king the self-restraint that warded off hybris and catastrophe. . . . but Alexander was angry . . . . Then he prepared to go without them, and sacrificed before crossing the Beas; but at the sacrifice the auspices proved unfavorable. He conferred with his intimates. Then he publicly proclaimed that he was turning back (Barr 426). Faced with the question of whether to attack Cyrus the Persian and try to restore his brother-in-law to the Median throne, Croesus sent rich gifts of gold and silver to the god Apollo at Delphi together with the message: "Shall Croesus send an army against the Persians . . . ?" The Delphic oracle's reply was characteristic: "that if he should send an army against the Persians he would
5 destroy a great empire." He attacked Cyrus, and by doing so he promptly destroyed a great empire -- his own (Barr 81). At last even Nicias agreed to withdraw from Sicily. At that moment an eclipse of the moon occurred, which was taken as a bad omen. The army wanted to delay. Nicias' soothsayer declared that they should wait "thrice nine days" before departing, and Nicias had never in his career failed to exhibit the most pious respect for divination. The besiegers stayed. The Syracusans got wind that the Athenian armada planned to quit the siege of Syracuse, but they did not propose to let the Athenians retreat to some other point on the island only make trouble later. They launched another sea and land attack on the besiegers. . . . And despite Nicias' fatal blunders at Syracuse, Thucydides judged him "a man who, of all the Hellenes of my time, least deserved to meet with such a calamity, because of his course of life that had been wholly regulated in accordance with virtue" (Barr 217). THE DOUBTS Clearly, divination could not be relied upon. For as many examples where the divination was beneficial, there were examples of defeat. The generals who relied upon divination as a strategic advisor had to devise ways of explaining the failures of the predictions in accordance with their beliefs: Whether or not Apollo correctly informed men of the will of Zeus, the information had to pass through several corruptible human agents. There was, first, the Pythia, the priestess, who sat on her tripod, went into a trance, and murmured or mumbled the god's message or cried it out in words that often sounded quite unintelligible. Secondly, there were the priests, who commonly put the message into hexameter verse, the ancient meter of Homer and Hesiod. More than once in Greek history the priests had been charged with accepting bribes. But even if the priests were faithful translators, their messages had a way of sounding like riddles, cynically calculated to cover all contingencies (Barr 334).
6 Another possibility was that they could accept that the reassurances of the gods were not infallible. Polytheism allows every victory to be recognized without inhibition as proof of the power of a Stronger One, as an act of favour of specific gods who are then entitled to an appropriate thanks offering from those whom they exalted; but the gods give no guarantee against vicissitudes of fortune or precipitate downfall (Burkert 69 - 70). The historians, however, could be more objective about the evidence before them. Sophocles and Xenophenes discarded the Olympian gods altogether, and the historian Thucydides in his attack upon religion in general does not even mention them: "When visible grounds of confidence forsake them, some have recourse to the invisible, to prophecies, oracles and the like. These ruin men by the hopes they inspire in them" (Eastwood 103). The other point of view was that of the soldier-historian Xenophon: In any case the gods themselves had in some sense withdrawn from among men. Xenophon . . . could have found no such theophanies in Thucydides' history, . . . he able to find only . . . the costly pride of piety that Nicias displayed before Syracuse, and the auspices and omens that the least pious general always had to respect. Xenophon himself wrote: "If anyone is surprised at my frequent repetition of the exhortation to work with God, I can assure him that his surprise will diminish, if he is often in peril, and if he considers that in time of war foemen plot and counterplot, but seldom know what will come of their plots. Therefore there is none other that can give counsel in such a case but the gods" (Barr 334 - 335). THE PSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECT OF THE BATTLE RITES Xenophon, as a warrior, could see the need in his men for the confidence that only divine reassurance could bring. Moving towards the ritual again, we examine the battle rites
7 which are described in detail with a mind to explaining the importance to and the effect on the men. Thus, we can see that religion is fulfilling a psychological need for the soldier to believe that the gods "are on our side." Even more dangerous, more fraught with death is war. It is therefore more especially accompanied by vows and sacrifices; indeed war may almost appear like one great sacrificial action. There are preliminary offerings before marching, directed to heroicized virgins -- the Hyakinthides in Athens, the Leuktrides in Boeotia. While myth tells of their death, ritual marks the turning away from love to war. On the battlefield, in the face of the enemy, sphagia are slaughtered as a beginning to the bloodshed. The Spartans drove their special sacrifices in order to obtain the omens for battle. Even the mercenary crowd of Xenophon's Ten Thousand did not undertake any looting without sacrifice. After the battle the victor erects a tropaion at the spot where the battle had turned about: weapons looted from the enemy, armour, helmets, shields, and spears, are hung around an oak post. At bottom this corresponds to the hunter's custom of hanging the skin, cranium, and horns of his prey from a tree. The tropaion is an image of Zeus, the lord of victory. Drink offerings, spondai, mark the end of hostilities. Vows before and during the battle result in further sacrifices, votive gifts, and the foundation of temples. Generally one takes out a tenth of the spoils for the god; thus arms, helmets, shields and greaves are dedicated in the local temples or in the Panhellenic sanctuaries such as Olympia and Delphi. These gods were deemed lords of victory and could harldy lend support to the idea of peace. Nevertheless ritual provided a clear demarcation of the stations of beginning and ending, and thus would prevent either an undeclared or an unended war (Burkert 267). Here, besides an initial description of battle rites, we see how the initiation and conclusion of war was marked. This gave the warrior a clear understanding of when it was morally acceptable to kill another man.
8 . . . these are blood sacrifices in the narrower sense, sphagia. They are found primarily in two extreme situations, before battle and at the burial of the dead. . . . Before battle, the Spartans slaughter a goat for Artemis Agrotera; usually, however, the reports mention no god, but just the fact that on the battlefield, in view of the enemy, the general or the seers who accompany the army will cut the throats of animals; whole herds are driven along for the purpose. From certain signs in the victims the seers determine the prospects of success in battle. The quasi- harmless and manageable slaughter is a premonitory anticipation of the battle and its unforseeable dangers; it is a beginning. It is asserted that before the battle of Salamis captured Persians were sacrificed in place of the animals (Burkert 60). Once again, we have seen the shedding of blood to prepare the men for the battle which they are to face. At first the throwers of stones, slingers and archers skirmished in front of the two armies, driving one another before them as light-armed troops are expected to do. Then the soothsayers brought out the customary victims, and the trumpets sounded and called the hoplites to the charge (Thucydides 226). . . . when Xenophon the Athenian, seeing him, rode up from the Hellenic quarter to meet him, asking whether he had any orders to give. Cyrus, pulling up his horse, begged him to make the announcement generally known that the omens from the victims, internal and external alike, were good. While he was still speaking, he heard a confused murmur passing through the ranks, and asked what it meant. The other replied that it was the watchword being passed down for the second time. Cyrus wondered who had given the order, and asked what the watchword was. On being told it was "Zeus our Saviour and Victory," he replied, "I accept it; so let it be," and with that remark rode away to his own position (Xenophon The March 28 - 29). Many believed the ommission of the preliminary sacrifice to be negligence on the part of the commander. It was the responsibility of every aspiring general to become
9 well versed in reading signs so as not to be tricked by traitorous soothsayers. Without the faithful adherence to these traditions, the confidence of the men was diminished. Then, as they went on, his father began to speak to Cyrus on this wise: "My son, it is evident both from the sacrifices and from the signs from the skies that the gods are sending you forth with their grace and favour; and you yourself must recognize it, for I had you taught this art on purpose that you might not have to learn the counsels of the gods through others as interpreters, but that you yourself, both seeing what is to be seen and hearing what is to be heard, might understand; for I would not have you at the mercy of the soothsayers, in case they should wish to deceive you by saying other things than those revealed by the gods; and furthermore, if ever you should be without a soothsayer, I would not have you in doubt as to what to make of the divine revelations, but by your soothsayer's art I would have you understand the counsels of the gods and obey them" (Xenophon Cyropaedia, Vol. I, 88 - 89). The words of Onasander (Strategikos 10.25-27), although written in the first century after Christ, seem to reflect normal Greek practice of a much earlier period: "The general should neither lead his army on a journey, nor marshal it for battle, without first making a sacrifice; in fact, official sacrificers and diviners should accompany him. It is best that the general himself be able to read the omens intelligently; it is very easy to learn in a brief time, and thereby become a good counsellor to himself. He should not begin any undertaking until the omens are favourable, and he should summon all his officers to inspect the offerings, that, after seeing, they may tell the soldiers to be of good courage, since the gods command them to fight. Soldiers are far more courageous when they believe they are facing dangers with the good will of the gods; for they themselves are on the alert, every man, and they watch closely for omens of sight and of sound, and an auspicious sacrifice for the whole army encourages even those who have private misgivings. But if the omens are unfavourable, he must remain in the same place and if he is hard pressed for time he must patiently submit to every inconvenience -- for he can suffer nothing worse that what Fate indicates beforehand -- since, if
10 his condition is going to improve, he must have favourable signs in a sacrifice, and he must sacrifice several times on the same day; one hour, even one minute, ruins those who start too soon or too late" (Pritchett 115). Evidently, if the signs were bad, either from the movements of the animals during slaughter or the state of their entrails, the army must stay until the signs improved. To do otherwise was believed to be suicide. Sacrificing with a view to departure, the victims proved unfavourable to them. Accordingly they waited that day. Certain people were bold enough to say that Xenophon, out of his desire to colonise the place, had persuaded the seer to say that the victims were unfavourable to departure. Consequently he proclaimed by herald next morning that any one who like should be present and help to inspect the victims. Then he sacrificed, and there were numbers present; but though the sacrifice on the question of departure was repeated as many as three times, the victims were persistently unfavourable. . . . Things had now reached such a pass that the men actually came to Xenophon's tent to proclaim that they had no provisions. His sole answer was that he would not lead them out till the victims were favourable. . . . Xenophon was up betimes, and made the usual offering before starting on an expedition, and at the first victim the sacrifice was favourable. Just as the sacrifice ended, the seer, Arexion the Parrhasian, caught sight of an eagle, which boded well, and bade Xenophon lead on (Xenophon The March 183, 185). Hopefully, if a commander were willing to endure hardship on behalf of some bad signs, he could be trusted to accurately report the favorable ones, especially if his successes had a history of being preceded by them. Such a commander could be trusted by the men and thus they were even more inspired by the report of favorable omens. Now when Cyrus found the omens from his sacrifice favourable, and when his army was arranged as he had instructed, he had posts of observation
11 occupied, one in advance of another, and then called his generals together and addressed them as follows: "Friends and allies, the gods have sent us omens from the sacrifice just like those we had when they gave the former victory into our hands. So I wish to remind you of some things which, if you will remember them, I think will make you go into battle with much stouter hearts" (Xenophon Cyropaedia, Vol. II, 197). The effect desired here is psychological. It can be seen in an act of hero worship: Above all, heroes assist their tribe, city, or country in battle. . . . Before the battle of Salamis the Athenians called Ajax and Telamon from Salamis to help them, and they sent a ship to Aegina to fetch Aiakos and Aikidai: a couch (kline) was laid out on the ship as a bed for the invisible heroes (Burkert 207). The Athenians most likely fought better knowing that the heroes, deceased defenders of the cities, fought beside them. Throughout this paper, we have seen the psychological theme. Le Roy Eltinge, author of Psychology of War, offers the following: . . . Napoleon's statement, "In war the moral is to the physical as three to one" (Eltinge 5). "These varied inspirations are the moral factors in war, mysterious forces which lend momentary powers to armies and which are the key to the reasons why at times one man is equal to ten, and at others ten worth no more than one" (Eltinge 6). Thus, all of these rituals can be seen as method to relieve anxiety and give the fighting man the confidence and aggressiveness he needs to win a battle. Any situation of anxiety may present the occasion for a vow [the votive offering] . . . for the community, famine, plague, or war (Burkert 69).
12 The function of . . . ritual [is to] enable a community to deal effectively with the practical issues which press upon it daily in the serious business of living, often in a precarious and unpredictable environment (James 305). SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION We have seen how the religious rituals, specifically the Rite of Passage, prepared the warrior for the mentality necessary to fight effectively. During the battle, the knowledge that the gods supported his side and were watching from signs given in the pre-battle sacrifice gave him the confidence and aggressiveness to win. Finally, after the killing was done, it was the ritual of purification and divine justification that gave him the ability to separate himself from the obscenities of war and thus enable him to continue his profession. We have also seen how the reliance upon divination was both beneficial and catastrophic in the determination of strategy leading many to doubt its effectiveness. It seems that the commander in the days of Ancient Greece did best when he heeded the advice of Cyrus' father: ". . . people who are careful live more securely than those who are indifferent. . ." (Xenophon Cyropaedia, Vol. I, 89). The conclusion: plot your strategy carefully, then tell the men that the gods are on your side. Before a battle they offered sacrifices in the early hours of the morning; then they set out against the enemy, with closed ranks and regular step, to the joyous sound of flutes and the marching song, in which the whole army joined (Blumner 456).
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