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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
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
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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
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).
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
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
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 would
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).
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).
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
The other point of view was that of the soldier-historian
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
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
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.
. . . 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
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
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
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
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
Throughout this paper, we have seen the psychological
theme. Le Roy Eltinge, author of Psychology of War, offers
. . . 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).
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
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