Cults and Sanctuaries

So today I was reading Ancient Greek Religion (2nd ed.) (AGR) by Jon Mikalson. It’s a really great book, especially for its first chapter. It takes one, step-by-step, through the process of founding a new cult, from catalyst to festivals. The example used by Mikalson is that of Poseidon Soter at Sunium, a fortification and village of Athens. Mikalson does a fantastic job capturing the mind of the reader, and for the reconstructionist, he may as well have called it a handbook. Because this is something I planned on addressing in my book, I figured I’d go over the basics for what founding a cult of Ares might look like.

For the purpose of simplicity, I will outline the process as ordered in AGR: Location, Altar, Temenos, Priests and Priestesses, Sacred Days, Dedications, Statue and Temple, and Worship. Like Mikalson, I will be rather generic in my application here, so as not to unnecessarily mix and match specific, established cultic elements from various times or places, but rather choose common cultic elements associated with Ares.

For the sake of example, I will set up a cult to Ares Enyalios, the Lord of War. In our hypothetical situation, we are ephebes tasked with establishing a new garrison on the road between our city and the next. We want to ensure not only our safety, but also our strength, in the event our neighbor becomes unfriendly. In addition, we must also ensure the safety of the road from bandits and thieves who may attempt to prey on farmers and merchants travelling the road.


I: Location.

Ares’ sanctuaries are often extramural, that is, outside the city gates. This is because He must be there to protect both the chora (farmlands surrounding a city) but be in such a position so as to prevent the enemy from reaching the polis. For Ares, we might also look for springs, hills and other natural “fortifications”, or even ancient battlefields. Or, if no inherently sacred place presents itself, divination may suffice. Because we want to include our cult as part of a garrison, we find a nice, rocky outcropping overlooking a major road between the two cities.

2: Altar.

The altar is the primary material focal point of any cult. The size and beauty are testament to both the prestige of the cult and its function; small altars serve smaller cults, and vice-versa. Altars also vary on the type of cult, Ouranic (sky) or Chthonic (underworld). Chthonic cults usually have pit-like altars, or are in some way open to the earth. However, Ares Enyalios is an Ouranic aspect, so our altar will be made of stone. Most altars were oriented east; Ares’ altars have been known to be oriented both east and west. We can say our garrison shall be east of a road travelling north-south, so we will go with greater tradition and point our altar east, facing away from the road. Because our garrison is rather small, maybe 100 strong, we will only set up a small stone altar, about 6’x3’x3′. We would chisel the name Ares Enyalios into the stone, and that would establish our most basic cult.

3. Temenos.

Once the altar is established, we must establish a temenos, or a cut-off portion of land that becomes the sacred property of the god. This border is not necessarily meant to protect or limit access to the altar, but it sets aside the sanctuary as sacred space, one which those who have been polluted are barred entry. However, pollution affects everyone, so at the entrance of the temenos is a stone basin for khernips. Because we’re setting up our sanctuary within a fort, we want to keep our temenos smaller, perhaps no more than 30’x30′, small enough to fit inside the battlements but big enough to fit the assembled soldiers.

4. Priests and Priestesses.

Mikalson gives a general pattern of men serving gods and women serving goddesses. In the case of Ares, both were common, given the prevalence for single-sex cultus. However, as a garrison which contains only men (at least in ancient times), we will have a priest, most likely the commander, who would be the most well-versed in the worship of Ares. It would be his responsibility to ensure the temenos was kept clean and ritually pure, as well as to lead group sacrifice on holy days and special occasions. Individuals, as always, could make offerings on their own behalf at their leisure.

5. Sacred Days.

Each cult has its own holy days, and these will vary even within the cult of the same deity in different locations. We may make a group sacrifice on the same day each month, or hold an annual festival commemorating a victory or the founding of the cult. Perhaps it is a festival of thanksgiving, where local farmers and merchants gather at the garrison to thank Ares and the ephebes for their protection.

6. Dedications.

Mikalson classifies a dedication as anything given to the god that is in someway permanent, such as a votive, war spoils, etc. This is opposed to consumables, such as incense,  animals, wine, or other foodstuff. Common in any sanctuary would be the weapons and armor of those who fell in battle, especially the enemy. Such gifts are signs of Ares’ favor and strength, and the power that he gives his followers. Soldiers may dedicate small statuettes of Ares or horses. When something becomes broken, it can either be disposed of within the temenos, or recycled; a collection of old spear-heads may be melted down and cast as a statue. As votives and other offerings pile up, the group decides they need a place to put the objects, leading to…

7. Statue and Temple.

Temples often serve two purposes: first, they are a “dwelling place” for the god to reside in when invoked; second, they serve as storehouses for the god’s property. Little if any worship actually takes place inside the temple; that takes place outdoors at the altar. However, if the ephebes need a place to store votives or protect the god’s property from the elements, they might build a temple. We only need a small temple, maybe 10’x10’x10′, enough to house a statue of Ares and some of his more valuable or vulnerable objects. As mentioned before, old votives made of bronze or other metals can be recycled into a new cult statue. Considering our cult is very martial, we might choose to portray Ares in full armor and in a pose of battle, or perhaps in a chariot commanding troops. Much of this may be determined by…

8. Worship.

Worship in Greek religion is deceptively simple: honor the gods. We offer honor to the gods by giving gifts and praising them, by keeping our vows, and by acting with virtue. We respect the god, his priests, and his property. We do our best to avoid profaning or polluting his sacred space. We sacrifice before a battle to ensure our safety, and afterwards to thank him for victory. We sing hymns and offer prayers, and honor the god with prowess in battle. From pouring wine to slaughtering beasts, we keep Ares ever in our mind, aiming for his honor and our own.


See how simple that was. Sure, getting land these days is not easy, nor has it ever been cheap, and Ares wasn’t exactly what you might call a household deity. However, as long as there’s a will, there’s a way (and a blessing from Olympos wouldn’t hurt, either). So, in the name of Ares, and in the names of the other gods, get out there and start something. You never know where it may end up. Hail Ares!



7 comments on “Cults and Sanctuaries

  1. Austin H. says:

    Great post! I know temples to the gods still exist today in more subtler forms (domestic sacred spaces, for example), but wouldn’t it be great if we continued the Greek traditions of building physical temples to our deities?

  2. […] Pete Helms has posted on cults and sanctuaries within modern Hellenismos: So today I was reading Ancient Greek Religion (2nd ed.) (AGR) by Jon […]

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