Beliefs of the Athenians in 5BCE

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Beliefs of the Athenians in 5BCE


This paper is an investigation into the portrayal of the divine by the Dramatists. There are many issues when writing about the beliefs of the ancient Athenians, and no religious historian would take the tragedians portrayal of the divine at face value; the plays were not mere mimics of real life;

"The point to be made here is not that dramatists are careless of verisimilitude but that the dramatic event, although mimetic, is not of the same order as the real event" [1]

One can easily tumble into the comfort of extracting religious ideas from the tragedies and comedies of the Greek golden age of drama. If we do not question the role of religion from tragedy, the picture one gains from muddying the water between drama and reality is simply a poor imitation of reality. It does not go far enough to state that the religious historian must simply be wary of the evidence from drama, as this can lead to assumptions and lead us away from the reality on the ground. There must be a thorough investigation into what types of evidence can be found relating to religion and how far this evidence supports the view of religion in drama. It may be that such an investigation finds very little difference in the view between drama and evidence from the ground. However, the investigation ought to be undertaken in order to clearly define the boundaries between art and religion.

Therefore, the rationale behind this work is to make clearer the very blurred line between what we accept as dramatic licence and what we can accept as normal religious belief as understood by the contemporary audience. As there is scant evidence to build a religious picture replete with the beliefs of the Athenian citizens, metics and slaves; one must start from humble beginnings. This is a large remit and one beyond the boundaries of this dissertation, accordingly this work will attempt to reduce the scope somewhat by dealing with the portrayal of the divine in two plays that deal with the divine and their relation to humans, Aeschylus' Eumenides and Euripides Hippolytus.

Various types of evidence ranging from contemporary sources from Athenian law to archaic epic will be utilised in order to gain a clearer picture of the way in which the divine in drama would have resonated with the audience.

Themes and Approaches

There are a few points to be made before we embark upon this investigation. Primarily one needs to ascertain what the term Athenians refers to in this context. The bulk of evidence for religion in this time alludes to the male citizens of Athens but this is too narrow a definition for this work. If we are to ascertain as far as possible the religious beliefs of the Audience of these plays, we must construct as best we can the religious landscape of the audience, which must include the metics, females and to a small degree the slaves. Of course the evidence is far more robust for the beliefs in the literate higher echelons of Athenian society, but at least some attempt must be made for as full a picture as possible. Seeking out the hushed voices of the women, the slaves and the general mass of people that made up Athens can be done, albeit in a limited manner through small pockets of evidence such as the defixiones of this time.

Another matter to be borne in mind is the reason for the plays and the context in which they were performed, this not only gives context to the plays but can give some indication as to the aim of the dramatists.

To ascertain to what degree did the beliefs of the Athenians in 5BCE reflect the portrayal of the divine by the Dramatists has a very large remit for the scope of this work. Containing this question to two plays assuages this problem somewhat but in order to approach this subject in a meaningful manner, only the main religious themes of the dramas will be taken and investigated against evidence on the subject.

Pollution and purity loom large in both plays. Euripides presents a Hippolytus obsessed and proud of his purity, purity he is fanatical about keeping and one that leads to his ultimate downfall. Aeschylus in the Eumenides deals with blood revenge, the dread pollution of murder and Orestes's quest to be free of pollution and from the avenging Erinyes. To discover what these pictures of pollution had in common with the beliefs of the Athenians, we must turn to evidence from the time concerning pollution this evidence is provided by contemporary inscriptions from cult, law tracts and literature ranging from Hesiod to Plato.

Both plays contain divinities as characters, in Hippolytus there is the dread Aphrodite, and the chaste hunter Artemis. The relentless and youthful Apollo and the sage Athena ruler of men and conveyer of justice loom large in Eumenides alongside the chthonic and repulsive Erinyes. Through the evidence of cult and literature from this time the contrast, if any, between the divinities in drama and day to day religious ritual and belief will be ascertained.

From this, a comparison can be tentatively made between the reality of the beliefs for the Athenians and one rarely finds a democracy in which the whole society are as one in their beliefs systems, it can be seen if the dramatist portrayal of the divine as anything in common with them. The varying beliefs of the Athenians also include the dramatists themselves. By comparing the two plays against the evidence it will be possible to start to identify whether Euripides and Aeschylus held orthodox beliefs or heterodox.

Religious Landscape of Athens in the fifth century.

The plays were performed at the religious festival Dionysia. The context of religious festivals for the plays, while although a significant factor, is not of paramount importance. Many Greek competitions were set in the context of religious festivals. These were places and times to gather and be entertained as well as times of worship. Tragedy renewed and developed stories from myth, mixing the actions of Gods and men just as previous literature had done, as we can see from Homer.

It is difficult and not of any great use for this work to try and ascertain the divide between myth and religion in Greek thought. For Greeks these terms were not utilized. Myth was simply a "series of narratives with argumentative and pragmatic value that describe, in poetic form, the heroic past of Greek cities of the "Greek" community form, the heroes past of Greek cities." [2] The religion of the Greeks was concerned with these heroic and divine figures, ritual, cult and spaces concerning these Gods and there place in the day to day life of the social group. What is interesting and useful is trying to ascertain if Tragedy bore any relation to the rituals and corresponding Athenian beliefs and expectations of the Gods and Heroes.

"Ancient piety was not so much a matter of particular kind of subjective feeling, the emotion of beliefs, the tremor of awe, but rather the performance of the required rituals considered to be valid within the terms of one's community"[3]

The Athenians religion was not a dogmatic one, there was no sacred text and myths gave the Gods a personality and character that day to day ritual life did not provide the dramas of the fifth century played a dominant role in myths and Hero Cults

"Myth indeed is the soil in which Greek hero-cults grow, and, since the most important mythological genre in the fifth century was tragedy, tragedy too gave it nurture" [4]

The historian of religion can perceive that religion was not a stagnant and dogmatic affair in the Athenian times as the wealth of different myths and actions of the Gods show. The fifth century religious landscape was a shifting one and it is doubtful that Athenians agreed amongst themselves about their beliefs. The city of Athens' traditional relationship with the divine manifested itself through festivals, ritual and cult worship. There is a paucity of evidence for the religious historian for Athens in the fifth century, which, whilst not a council of despair behoves the scholar to synthesis the evidence from across Greece and to some extend beyond the boundaries of contemporary evidence. This is not ideal as the rituals of one city state in Greece vary widely from another and religious cults and practises changed over the centuries. However, as long as one bears in mind the restrictions of synthesised evidence one can still garner some useful information from it. Cults and some practices varied from city to city but there was a basic similarity throughout about the Olympian gods, although the separated divinities took differing aspects according to the city or cult they were associated with.

There was an influx of new gods during the sixth and fifth century and even though new gods did not immediately replace old ones there was the possibility and fear that new religious practices gradually replaced the more traditional belief. Athenians voted in new shrines as they thought fit, for example, Theseus' bones were bought to Athens and lodged in a new shrine in 470BC. In addition to gaining new shrines, existing gods gained new epithets for example, Athena Nike and Artemis Eukleia. New gods were also imported from other city states, such as Asclepius from Epidaurus.

Even amongst the plethora of gods and cults that underwent significant changes, there remained a place in Athenian society for charges of impiety. Nicomachus was charged with introducing new sacrifices at the expense of the old.

"But of course, gentlemen of the jury, we are not to be instructed in piety by Nicomachus, but are rather to be guided by the ways of the past. Now our ancestors, by sacrificing in accordance with the tablets, have handed down to us a city superior in greatness and prosperity to any other in Greece so that it behoves us to perform the same sacrifices as they did, if for no other reason than that of the success which has resulted from those rites." [5]

The 415 mutilation of the Herms in front of the houses of citizens before the expedition to Sicily resulted in a massive reaction with subsequent impiety trials and the prominent Athenian Alcibiades was alleged to have profaned the mysteries and subsequently charged for it. [6]The most famous trial and subsequent execution was the 399 trial of Socrates, charged with introducing new gods. Whether the reasons for the trial were as Aeschines and other believed a political move or whether it was a religious one, the fact remains that there was an active law proscribing impiety. Although there are arguments that these trials was one of series instigated in the late fifth century against a rising tide of religious crisis, the claim labour due to a lack of reliable contemporary evidence. [7]

These charges were selective and scarce in relation to the rise in scepticism about traditional beliefs in the fifth century.

"We hear scientific determinists; critics of myth, or of divine morality, or of divine justice, or of divinations; various kinds of allegorists, for instance that Earth and Mother and Rhea and Hera are the same, thinkers of another stamp who offer explanations of how men first came to form a conception of the divine"[8]

On the whole these discussion and debates were accommodated into a polytheistic religion lacking sacred texts and associated dogma. Contradictions and debate was inherent into a religion replete with so many varying aspects and myths concerning the gods. On the whole one could discuss many varying propositions into the aspect of the divine, as long as one followed the cities rituals and public festivals. The impiety laws already mentioned all contained some form of political aspect to them and widespread charges against sceptics does not occur throughout this rising time of debate and religious scrutiny. Therefore the sceptics did not significantly alter the ritual landscape of Athens. They enriched religious and philosophical debate but, on the whole, there is little evidence for this rise in scepticism having any lasting impact on the traditional life of the city.


The Eumenides was written in 458BC by Aeschylus as the final play in his trilogy the Oresteia. The story of the slaying of Agamemnon by his wife and the subsequent revenge exacted by her son Orestes culminates in the Eumenides with Athena founding the court of the Areopagus and the trial of Orestes with the backing of Apollo and the prosecution by the Erinyes.


Apollo in the Eumenides is an ambivalent God, who is protector of suppliants, prophet and a purifier of the polluted. His attitude to the Erinyes is contrasted with the respect given to them by Athena. Apollo is a scornful God towards these ancient forces. [9] He leads Orestes into matricide and attempts to protect and purify him. When this fails, he argues for Orestes at the court set up by Athena in Athens.

Apollo was a relatively young God; in the Homeric hymn to Apollo he is described as long haired, signifying his youth and his position on the verge of entering adulthood.[10] Images of Apollo are also usually long haired and or un-bearded , such as in the mid sixth century Athenian Black-ware neck Amphora attributed to Lysippides [11] The juxtaposition of Apollo with Athena in images is rare. There is the late sixth century Putman vase where the two Gods appear together along with Dionysus. Moon posits that this could have been something to do with the Pyanepsion festival of Apollo where on the 7th day the Oschophoria both Athena and Apollo were honoured. [12] The Oresteia places only Apollo and Athena together but the play was written for and obviously performed at the Dionysia.

In an early mirror Apollo is portrayed with a laurel spray opposite Dionysos with long hair, Jane Harrison describes this image as;

"Typical Ephebos, wearing but a chlamys and with his unshorn hair coiled in a krobylos" [13] Burkert also indentifies Apollo with the initiate, the temple of Apollo and Thermos was centre for Aetolian gatherings where male youths were admitted as new members. [14]

Apollo and initiation

His sanctuaries often lay on the boundary between the countryside and the city;

"Where Apollo's jurisdiction in the Greek's Pantheon and the groves in Apollo's sacred landscape is where that which is natural and outside the city intersects with the social and religious structure of the Greek city State "[15]

The Athenians identified Apollo Patroos with the Apollo Pythia[16]

In tragedy Apollo " is an awful , horrible god" who lacks all the measure attributed to his Delphic aspect of Medan agan (nothing in excess) [17]

Deborah Rose places Apollo's oracular function as the basis to his ambiguity. In her work Apollo and his Oracle in the Oresteia it is the nature of the prophetic God to be caught in contrast between the positive future and the tragic present. [18] This is an interesting point but many characters in Aeschylus, especially the divinities, are ambivalent and so her argument would have to be more robust in order to persuade that the basis of Apollo's ambivalence is entirely oracular in nature. Anton Bierl refutes Rose quite correctly for defining Apollo purely in the role of an Oracular deity,

"Robert's unilinear explanation of Apollo's ambivalence confuses one particular aspect of the god's appearance with his whole nature"[19] He attributes the "immoderate, one -sided, irritable, rough and rude" aspect of Apollo in the Eumenides as a consequence of being the god of initiation because Orestes is "during his ephebic transition, is in a state of liminality" So Apollo is single minded and disrespectful to the Erinyes because he is protecting his initiate. [20] His arguments are cohesive and detailed but he gives too little credence to the cessation of initiation as an institution in lieu of service to the polis. Apollo has both oracular and ephebic aspects in the Eumenides and an attempt to elevate one at the expense of the other is flawed.

The Oracle at Delphi

The prologue celebrates Apollo and the Delphic oracle. The Pythia recounts the various gods linked with the Oracle. From the "first of the gods to prophesy" Themis, through the Titans Phoebe and Phoebus to the current god of the Oracle, Apollo; "made him fourth in the dynasty of seers to mount this throne" 18

The Delphic oracle emerges from Greek history in the eighth century during the height of Greek colonisation. There are references to Delphi in Homer, but these are short references which make it difficult to ascertain much about the origins of the oracle purely from epic.[21] There is archaeological evidence of some form of settlement there from the Late Helladic III but there is no evidence of cult or any form of sanctuary in the vicinity. There are the remains of a Minoan feline- shaped rhyton at this early settlement but this cannot provide enough evidentiary weight to suggest cult practise at this period. [22]

The first dedications at the site are in the late geometric period after a break in the settlement marked by a fire. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo describes Apollo's hunt for an oracle centre for man.[23] The slaying of the great female serpent at Delphi is indicative of Apollo's slaying of the powers of the Erinyes. The prologue of the Eumenides does not mention a serpent but it is implicit in the Pythia's reference to the civilizing of the wild and the taking of the oracle from Themis the chthonic deity. Early accounts refer to the serpent at Delphi being female; it is only around the time of Euripides when the serpent is male. It is likely that the serpent killing in the Homeric Hymn is similar to the prologue, in that Apollo the new god has come to Delphi and supplanted the chthonic deities of old with the new civilizing Olympian Gods. Snakes in Minoan religion were venerated and therefore the serpent imagery sits well with the idea of the archaic form of worship at Delphi being taking over by the newer religion. There is no adequate archaeological evidence for this theory but the later classical myths hint at such earlier cult practices. Parke hypothesis that the claim that Apollo supplanted Themis at Delphi was due to a contest between the two oracles Delphi and Dodona. The latter oracle claimed Deucalion as its founder and it was this claimed antiquity of a rival primal centre of oracle that prompted the idea of the original Earth Goddess as founder of Delphi.[24]

Blood Vengeance and the Gods in the Eumenides

Orestes has been purified by Apollo at Delphi but the Erinyes still hunt him, tracking him through "the reek of human blood." The reason for this continuing chase is vengeance, blood vengeance and its corresponding pollution. Orestes may have been purified by Apollo but to the Erinyes he is still stained by murderous blood. [25]

These ancient Furies are so shocking in their appearance that the Pythia is reduced to crawling on her knees in revulsion and horror at the sight of them. The Pythia uses descriptions for other ancient monsters in the Greek past to describe them, even though they do not share the same traits. So they are Gorgons although they do not look like them, they are the harpies that stole the food of Phineus but this explanation does not work either, as the Erinyes have no wings. They are regarded as female horrors, archaic powers from a time past and from the bowels of the earth. These are the oldest chthonic powers representing the old ways of implacable revenge, blood for blood. By starting the prologue with the celebration of Apollo's ascendancy over the old powers at Delphi and then following with the description of the Erinyes with terminology linking them to the dark earth, and terrifying old powers the audience are alerted to the contrast between the old and the new from the start of the play.

The Erinyes complain that not only did Apollo order Orestes to kill his mother, but that after organising matricide he gave his protection and harboured a polluted man. Although Apollo managed to purify Orestes he is unable on his own to stop the Erinyes from getting their revenge. These ancient beings have powers that are separate to the young gods, their powers are seen as rights that have been "right, spun for us by the Fates" This is repeated a few lines later that the Fates gave the powers to the Furies and that the "deathless gods must keep their hands far off- no god may share our cups, our solemn feasts. We want no part of their pious white robes" [26] The last reference to the pious white robes refers to the garments worn at festivals. These ancient chthonic beings want nothing to do with the festivals that marked out the calendar for the Greeks. These beings are separate from the polis but they are not separate.

The function in society of these old powers was to keep the society in check. They would punish the wrong doers through proscribed ways of living. If one broke the rules for whatever reason, these old powers would come and not only destroy the guilty but anyone and any place that harboured them.

Aeschylus uses the youthful Apollo juxtaposed with the ancient Erinyes to place young against old, the new regime out of the old.[27] The Erinyes state that the new god is taking the powers and roles of the old. A peaceful solution to new adaptations in society and religion stressed the unity of the polis, the accommodation of old with new (as long as it is the old that changed!) It becomes obvious in the play that it is the Erinyes that must change as they demand nothing less than Orestes full destruction for his crime and Apollo will not allow this.

Earlier in the play, the Erinyes admit to only being concerned with destroyers of their own flesh and blood.[28] Apollo disagrees with this as this omits the killers of husbands such a Clytemnestra, Apollo places the marriage of a man and woman to Fate which is where the Erinyes purport to get their powers from. This is an interesting point from Apollo, that marriage is tied to the Fates and "strong than oaths" This point in the play is very interesting for a couple of reasons. In the Choephori, Apollo informed Orestes that unless he avenges his father's killing by his mother, the Erinyes will hunt him down and Orestes will be ruined under 'leprous boils' and madness until he at last will die in agony.[29]

In the Eumenides, the Erinyes deny that they would have cared, as Clytemnestra was not blood kin to Agamemnon. It could be explained that this transition between the two roles of the Erinyes is simply due to the transition of time, that the Erinyes used to revenge killers of their spouse but it is an unsatisfactory solution. Conacher's explanation that Aeschylus adopts varying aspects of the Erinyes to suit each play is also unsatisfactory. The Erinyes make no reference to a change in their roles and Apollo makes no case for previous responsibilities in taking revenge on a husband killer in the Eumenides. It is true that in general the Erinyes were thought of as more generalised avengers of unnatural deeds but it is ungainly for Aeschylus to change their roles without reference from one play to the next.[30] This is problematic and leaves two options, either Apollo was lying in an attempt to force Orestes to the matricide or Apollo thought that the Erinyes protected marriage in the same way as they protected the blood relative.

The latter point sits more comfortable with the narrative of the Trilogy. For Apollo, marriage was the family and through this view of Apollo we can see a solution to the discrepancy. To Apollo, if the Erinyes took vengeance on kin killers, they would have to take vengeance on Clytemnestra, as the husband was the most important of kin and the centre of the family. It is a new concept of family that Apollo adheres to, the patriarchal model, we see this is his astonishing claims to descent through the male later in the play . ADD INN

Evidence for Erinyes and the Eumenides

Homer associates the Erinyes with vengeance for the death. The Erinyes are mentioned six times in Homer connected with vengeance. [31] Linear B tablets from Knossos contain the early name Erinu for the Erinyes alongside Zeus, Athena and other Olympian Gods.[32]

There is little evidence of cult for the Erinyes in the fifth century. There is a minor reference to Demeter the Erinyes in Pausanias 8.24 but there is no solid evidence for an archaic widespread cult.

".. to the mind of a fifth-century Athenian, Eumenides and Semnai Theai would have been creatures of local cult and popular belief, while Erinyes would have been mainly, if not exclusively, creatures of myth and literature." [33]

Brown is optimistic but ultimately reasonable in presuming that a lack of evidence presupposes a lack of belief in the Erinyes. It would be odd to make such dominant literary characters if there was no context for their belief and the Knossos tablets refer to an earlier belief in the Erinyes.

There is a clue as to why no cults have been found in line 34-53 with the chorus:

""The deathless gods must keep their hands far off-

No god may share our cups, our solemn feasts.

We want no part of their pious white robes" [34] These deities kept away from the other festivals and rituals of the gods, they were not worshipped, they existed only to track down kin killers, polluted with blood. Unlike the Eumenides, the Erinyes were purely harmful deities and therefore did not necessitate votive offerings so worship at a sanctuary would not be pertinent.

The discussion is ongoing about the connection between the Erinyes and the Eumenides. It is not known when the Erinyes were connected with the Eumenides with some believing they were always equated with each other as Jane Harrison suggests but others such as Brown believe that they were first connected with each other in Aeschylus.[35] It is beyond the scope of this work to fully investigate this but suffice to say the connection between the two is a difficult and to some extent a tenuous one.

Sophocles in Oedipus C speaks of a sacred grove where they Eumenides near Athens at Colonus Pausanias does not mention this grove but Brown in his Eumenides in Greek Tragedy believes that:

"Nevertheless, I do not doubt that it genuinely existed in Sophocles' day; a grove could easily have failed to survive from the fifth century B.C. to the second A.D., and Pausanias' account of Colonus is in any case brief. Sophocles mentions the Eumenides alongside other deities who were certainly worshipped in the neighbourhood (O.C. 39-63), and this would have confused the audience if the cult had been fictitious, though it may well have been of little importance." [36]

Pausanias recalls a grove in Sicyon and describes the sanctuary founded by Orestes where anyone under "blood defilement or any other impurity or any wickedness who goes in to consult there immediately goes out his mind with terror." [37]

Brown provides interesting evidence in the form of five votive tablets :

"The evidence consists of five votive tablets, dating, it seems, from the fifth to the third centuries B.C. Three of these tablets bear inscriptions to the Eumenides, and two of these three also bear reliefs of three stately goddesses, each with a snake in one hand and a flower in the other, facing their worshippers. The snakes and flowers provide perfect confirmation of the ambivalent associations of these goddesses; we are reminded of Persephone.8 On one of the other tablets, however, they bear snakes in both hands. And also evidence from "Near Cyrene. The evidence is a series of inscriptions on rocks and altars, said to date from the fifth to the third centuries B.C. recording dedications to chthonic deities, including Eumenides" [38]

By line 429 the Chorus refers to itself as Arai (curses). Conacher suggest that: " Some Scholars take it as a precise equivalent, nevertheless, the term suggest curse-fulfilments in general, not merely ones arising from kin slaying" p.153 [39]This prepares the reader for the broadening of the Erinyes functions later in the play.

Pollution and Blood vengeance in Athens

The vengeance that the Erinyes demand is powerful and dogged, even the God of purification Apollo has no power over it. It takes the vote of two gods, a jury, persuasion and the eventual transformation of a group of deities to rid Orestes of a terrible revenge for the murder of his mother. Was blood pollution one that Athenians understood and to what extent did pollution impose on everyday life? In order to investigate this issue further we must turn to the evidence for blood vengeance and pollution in Athens at the time.

"The most important point of all about pollution in real life as in myth, is its connection with truth, its dogged insistence on the fact that an unacceptable deed has been done, its refusal to be sidetracked by considerations of motive." [40]

Blood vengeance and pollution is rife in the Tetralogies ascribed to Antiphon.[41] The issue as to what extent these cases bore relation to the reality of the legal process in Athens is tempered by the fact the main audience were Athenians. Parker argues in his work on pollution in the Ancient World that because the intended audience of the Tetralogy were Athenians who knew their own homicide laws, this:

".means they can be confronted with the one body of homicide law that is well known to us; and the very form of the Tetralogy, designed to show how the same topic of argument can be exploited and re-exploited by both parties means that the full potential of the argument from pollution is here displayed as in no other text"[42]

However Sealy draws a different conclusion;

"Consequently the Tetralogies are not sufficient testimony to Athenian law and practice, unless there is additional evidence from less suspect sources."[43]

There are some "less suspect" sources to turn to which refers to pollution in the law courts but these are more circumspect in number and are in the minority. The references to pollution in the Tetralogy are numerous. [44] This preoccupation in pollution is not mirrored in the law cases of Lysias but they are not totally absent from the record:

"In genuine Athenian speeches delivered on charges of homicide (Antiphon 1, 5, 6; Lysias 1, 12, 13) references to pollution are not totally absent but they are rare. The speaker of Antiphon 5 says that trials for homicide are held in the open air, so that the innocent shall not share a roof with the polluted, and that people have often suffered from admitting a polluted person to the same boat, but those sailing with the speaker have enjoyed good voyages (5.11 and 82). Prosecuting Eratosthenes, Lysias says in a merely incidental manner that the Thirty Tyrants polluted temples by entering them (12.99). Those three passages are the sole references to pollution that the present writer has noticed." [45]

Aelian in the Varia Historia refers to the revolution at Sybaris where a lyre player was murdered whilst seeking sanctuary. Aelian recounts what the Pythia had to say to the Sybarite embassy:

"Go from my tripods away, for all over thy hands still is dripping

Murder vast and unchecked, and it holds thee back from my threshold.

Never to thee will I prophesy, thou who hast killed at the altar of Hera

One holy slave of the Muses; thou hast not avoided gods' vengeance.

Those who do evil must pay the full measure of justice: no mercy

And no delay must be granted, not even to great Zeus's offspring.

But fast to their own heads, and in the midst of their children,

It keeps on clinging, and grief upon grief comes upon all their households.[46]

Aelian is writing many centuries after the episode he recounts but it is interesting in that it conveys the fact the even hundreds of years after the fifth century, it was reported that pollution was regarded as having the ability to infect everyone who came into contact with it.

Sealey is ultimately the most sensible in his conclusions on the validity of the Tetralogies, unless more solid evidence can support the findings from these Tetralogies, we cannot take the themes firm evidence for Athenian Law and Practice. However, Parker is correct in presuming that they do show at the very least a preoccupation in society about pollution and although rare, there are certainly at least some cases concerning pollution in more solid texts concerning Athenian Law.

The Tetralogies demonstrate that the main preoccupation of the prosecution at least at some level in the Athenian consciousness is that the polis should not be tainted by an un-revenged killing:

"It is against your interest to allow this polluted man to enter divine precincts and pollute their sanctity"

"Do not allow the whole city to be polluted by him" [47]

Compare this warning with reference to polluting the city with Orestes opening remarks to Athena and her response:

"Threat of pollution, sweep it from you mind" (line 466 )

"A suppliant, cleansed, you bring my house no harm" 489

Pollution from blood revenge and the threat to the polis therefore had some substance in the city of Athens although the Justice system appeared to have been more detached from the language of pollution than art and literature of the time, this could be the natural progression for an emerging sophistication in Athens at this time. Once logic and reasoning has entered the court systems, there is less of a role for blood revenge and subsequent pollution to both the guilty and the innocent for deeds gone un-revenged. However this would not have wiped the idea of such things from the bulk of Athenian society, such pivotal changes in a society's psyche do not progress in a lightening and linear fashion. Society changes slowly and the ideas of pollution and divine vengeance must have lived on through art and literature. Indeed, too many living around Athens, the rule of law impacted little on their day to lives, the rules of blood revenge and pollution may still have been dominant for a large proportion of Athenian society.

" The atmosphere of Aeschylus and the Tetralogies is too thick with spirits for everyday habitation, but they perhaps, by their imaginative exaggeration, set before us the fundamental structure of popular belief "[48]

Third Tetralogy "The victim of murder leaves behind him the anger of the avenging spirits, which acts as an agent of god's vengeance on behalf of one robbed of the divine gift life" quoted in parker p105

In a society without centralised authority man protected himself and his family through vengeance and the threat of violence. Out of all the crimes it is the killing of guest and kin that draws the most divine anger.

Therefore the fear of pollution emanating from the guilty to the innocent due to un-avenged murder worked as a self policing policy. Society would exclude in some way the polluted person in order to rid themselves of possible negative effect from pollution and divine retribution. This new view of the family makes the husband central to the family and degrades the role of mother into a small insignificant one. In this world view it is not for Clytemnestra to disagree with the actions of her husband and therefore she has no excuse at all for murdering him. This also means that the killing of a mother who has transcended the new laws in reacting to her husband's crimes is now a sacrosanct act. Murdering the woman who acts outside the role of a woman is not only forgivable but totally just. The role of the Erinyes in protecting the mother and not necessarily the husband from murder is an outdated one that would not have had a place in the male dominated society of Athens. The discrepancy in the vengeance of the Erinyes puts to the two divinities views in juxtaposition with each other and is part of the wider narrative about the roles of the Erinyes in the Olympian world view. Apollo would have presumed the Erinyes took vengeance for the murdered husband, he can see no other way, his reaction to their denial of this aspect to their vengeance is violent and shocked and strengthens this narrative. Marriage is given new ancient roots with Apollo's linking of marriage with fate and calling it stronger than oaths also gives the impression that this is just as strong if not stronger than the old blood ties. Marriage is not simply a civil affair, held together by oaths but it is integral to polis life.

Athena and the Areopagus

To be added

The city and social structure of Athens had changed dramatically within only a generation or two from the personal to the communal, oikos to polis. Courts such as the Areopagus now stayed the hand of pollution. There was refuge in Athenian law for the man who killed a polluted man who entered sacred places. Killers of traitors to the democracy were untouched by guilt or pollution. This shift from the all pervasive blood vengeance to a pollution controlled by societies own rules gave poets and Tragedians scope to provide aetiological myths bases on orthodox religious beliefs which helped reconcile the new society with their religious beliefs. Aeschylus responds to this in an orthodox manner, showing the difference between the primal law of the Erinyes and the secular law of Athenian law courts, shown symbolically by the change in scene from Delphi to Athens. Sealy posits;

"Pollution and spirits of vengeance were evidently matters of concern to the audiences who first appreciated the Oedipus the King of Sophocles and the Libation Bearers of Aeschylus. Yet it is conceivable that Athenians disregarded in court considerations which moved them in the theatre, and in this connection a feature of the Eumenides is suggestive. At line 235 the scene changes from Delphi to Athens. In the earlier part of the play Orestes has been purified of pollution; the question of guilt remains and is argued before the Areopagus. Thus, in 458 Aischylos could expect his audience to grasp the distinction between the religious and the secular aspects of matricide."[49]

Aeschylus portrays the transition from primitive to complex advanced society with both judicial law and an adequate framework to support it. In such a society, older laws regarding pollution especially blood revenge, have made way for a complex institution which deals with mitigating circumstances. These mitigating circumstances such as the boy who accidentally killed another in a javelin throwing accident in Tetralogy 2 supersede the older notions of innocent or guilt over a deed. In Athenian courts there was always some room for discussion about how or why the deed was done in addition to asking if it was done or not. This is a new way of looking at guilt in society and one Aeschylus provides a narrative for. He explains the transition from avenging Erinyes to Eumenides, which in itself is a transition from the old social laws to Athenian law.

"The weary course of action and reaction, and of wild justice in the shape of personal revenge, is ended but the application of the higher law which changes the Erinyes into the Eumenides, the Furies into gentle powers, the curse into a blessing." Campbell Religion in Greek Literature. P. 278

Hippolytus and the Divine

Hippolytus was written in 428BC. Euripides (484-406BCE) was the youngest of the great tragedians of his day. It deals with the son of Theseus' rejection of Aphrodite for a pure life worshipping Artemis and Aphrodite's retaliation in making his father's wife fall in love with him. Phaedra's suicide and accusation of rape results in Theseus cursing his son through Poseidon, who fulfils Theseus' wishes and kills Hippolytus with a divine bull from the sea. The play we know today is a rewrite of Euripides after the original play came in last place. In the original play, Phaedra was much more aggressive in her pursuit of Hippolytus.


Representations of Aphrodite in Hippolytus

Aphrodite opens Hippolytus and in it sets the action for the rest of the play. She lays claim to helping those who "revere her power." whilst ruining those who are too much hubris towards her. [50] Aphrodite is aware that Hippolytus refers to Artemis as the "greatest of divinities" it is not jealousy that she admits to. Aphrodite is not concerned about these things but will destroy him "for the wrongs he has done me" In her opening monologue, Aphrodite describes how before she left Athens for Troezan, Phaedra built a temple to her on the south slope of the Acropolis then Aphrodite declares her intention to destroy the man who spurns her. This frames the crux of the play, Aphrodite is ruthless in her retaliation, she does not help Phaedra who reveres her, instead she destroys her in order to strike against the proud Hippolytus.

The Euripidan Aphrodite is a powerful dread goddess, she destroys not only those who deny her but those who worship her too.

Representations in Literature

Representations of Aphrodite vary in the Classical literature. In Homer, Aphrodite the daughter of Zeus, provides some comic relief, when she enters battle the mortal Diomedes manages to wound her and when Aphrodite flees back to Olympus the other Gods including Zeus chide her for straying from her designated role[51] In the Odyssey she is the subject of the ribald story recounted by Demodous. Hephaestus sets a trap to catch his wife in the arms of Ares, once caught in the craft god's chains he calls the other Gods to come and see the two naked in their shame, a situation highly amusing to the other gods. [52]Notwithstanding this, Aphrodite still retains formidable powers that even Zeus is susceptible too, in Book 14 at the behest of Hera she provides a garment that seduces Zeus and distracts him for Hera's purposes.

Hesiod gives Aphrodite a more archaic beginning. In the Theogony she is the result of Zeus' castration of his father, Ouranus and Aphrodite is named after the foam (aphros) that resulted from the genitals of Ouranus falling to the sea. This foam drifted to Cyprus where she was born, hence the appellation Cypris.[53]

Evidence of local cult for Aphrodite.

The evidence for a temple set up to Aphrodite by Phaedra on the south side of the Acropolis is scarce. Pausanias writes about a memorial to Hippolytus on the south side of the Acropolis but there is little physical evidence for this. However, there is an interesting votive relief that shows a suppliant approaching Aphrodite alongside other deities on the South slope of the Acropolis.[54]

There were other well attested cults of Aphrodite in Attica. Aphrodite Pandemos was associated by the Athenians with Theseus when he united the people. [55]The title, according to Apollodorus, was given when an archaic sanctuary was also the place of assembly for the people.[56] A marble head of Aphrodite Pandemos was excavated in 1857 which was likely to have come from the original sanctuary to Pandemos, the grooves on the back of the head hint towards it being a cult object set in wood. [57]

Festival of Aphrodite

The Aphrodisia was the festival where Aphrodite Pandemos and Peitho were celebrated. The altar was purified with dove's blood and then the cult statues carried down to the shore for washing. There is a third century Hymettian marble stele inscription which describes this procession and festival further.[58]

By making Hippolytus deny Aphrodite who had as Aphrodite Pandemos in Athens and was identified strongly with uniting the polis, Euripides highlights Hippolytus' aloofness. He is a man above the people; he denies his father's favoured Deity and sets himself apart from the polis. Euripides utilizes the local festivals and rituals linked to Aphrodite to show the hubris of Hippolytus. Not only does he deny the Goddess in doing so he denies his attachment to Attica and the polis

Pollution in Hippolytus.

Pollution is a common theme in Greek Tragedy and Hippolytus and Eumenides both have a theme of pollution running through them. The purpose of this chapter is to investigate to what extent the portrayal of pollution in Hippolytus is in agreement with alternative evidence on pollution from Greece.

Medan agan

The dramatic tension of this play lies with the spurning of Aphrodite by Hippolytus.

Hippolytus disregards Aphrodite in an attempt to stay pure and it is purity that plays an important part in Hippolytus; it is alluded to for the start of the play. Hippolytus is "reared by pure Pittheus"[59] This purity that is stressed in the opening stages of the play refers to the opening stages of Hippolytus' life. Early in the play there is a passage which dwells heavily on sacred purity. The untouched meadow where Hippolytus constructs Artemis a wreath "fashioned from an untouched meadow, where neither shepherd thinks it right to feed his flocks is a sacred place, pure of the day to day realities and pollution of mortal life. [60]

Phaedra spends three days fasting and tells her nurse that her mind is touched by pollution.[61]

Does Euripides mark out the themes which would have resonated with the Athenian audience? All of these instances have some grounding in the life of the average man in the fifth century.

Artemis the Pure

Add in from notes regarding the worship of Artemis and her virgin aspect/

The untouched meadow where Hippolytus makes the wreath had protection in law as this fourth century inscription from Chios demonstrates:

"Resolved by the council, Tellis presiding: In the sacred groves there is to be no pasturing or dumping of manure. If anyone does herd sheep, pigs or cattle, the person who sees it should report it to the basileis in order to remain pure in the gods' sight."[62]

The sacred, pollution and purity of individuals and their polis played a large role in the Classical world. Most pollution concerned keeping the sacred pure from pollution, either by keeping a sacred place pure or by keeping oneself pure when dealing with the divine.

Hesiod in his Works and Days stipulates "Never pour gleaming wine to Zeus in the morning with unwashed hands, or to the other immortals, for then they pay no heed and spit out your prayers" [63] Here there is a concern about pollution and prayer, the mortal cannot convene with the immortal fouled with pollution. Homer has the same view as Hesiod regarding the pollution and the divine:

"There is no means for a man to pray to the dark-misted son of Kronos, with blood and muck all spattered upon him" [64]

"Atreus' son told his people to wash off their defilement. And they washed it away and threw the washings into the salt sea. Then they accomplished perfect hecatombs to Apollo."[65]

Theophrastus in the fourth century in his Character Sketches writes that the superstitious man is "not willing to step on a grave, or approach a corpse or a woman in childbirth, on the grounds that it is better for him to avoid the pollution."[66]

Keeping sex separate from the sacred was routine to the Greeks of this time, according to Herodotus it was through the Egyptians that the Greeks learnt to refrain from sexual activity in temples and to wash prior to entering the temple if they had previously had intercourse.[67] This to Herodotus was a custom only the Egyptians and Greeks shared, other less civilized people were unaware of such sacred niceties. Hesiod also proscribes being naked after intercourse in front of the hearth which had the divine connection with the Virgin Goddess Hestia.[68]

However this purity is a physical purity and Hippolytus is carrying his theme of purity much further. For the Greeks, the physical act of sex could pollute and therefore could not come in contact with the divine but there is no evidence from the time of Euripides that sex in itself was perceived as dirty or wrong in the way that Hippolytus does. There is a strong sense of disgust about sex and the pollution it can cause from Hippolytus; he is morally affronted by it. Hippolytus is not just interested in keeping chaste himself, he sees no reason for propagation through sex at all, preferring the idea of bartering for babies and he literally wants to wash away the taint of the words of passion the nurse conveyed about Phaedra as, to even hear, is polluting to Hippolytus. [69] This moral objection to sex does not seem to have a substantial counterpart in the everyday religious beliefs of the Athenians. The symbolic phallus in the cults of Dionysus were carried in all the processions and it was at the Great Dionysia , and it was at this festival that had abundant indecent images and where the Comic plays were performed by actors wearing a comedy wooden phallus, that this play with the indignant chastity of Hippolytus was performed.

Hippolytus believes in a sacred purity that elevates him above others, only he can converse with Artemis and only he among all mortals can hear her. Barrett in his commentary on Hippolytus comments on this disparity:

"Now this by ordinary Greek standards is a quite astonishing claim: normal 5th-cent. practice required, certainly, that the man who entered a sacred place or took part in a sacred ritual should be pure, but this purity was a purely formal affair of observing taboos (of avoiding, or purging, pollution caused by such things as physical uncleanness or contact with some aspect of birth, sex, or death . . ). Hippolytus' requirement of moral purity is alien to the ordinary Greek cult until Hellenistic times . . .; his insistence that the purity must be innate would be extraordinary even then."[70]

The ideas of purity and pollution in the classical world at this time were not without their critics. The Euripidan character Iphigenia complains about purity laws and Artemis. The stoic Chysippus criticised them as being irrational and Euripides has both Phaedra and Hippolytus have been too rash in their pursuit of purity.[71] He hints as much with the response from the Nurse about Phaedra's illness and by repeating the famous words of attributed to one of the seven wise men, Medan Agan (nothing too much) the Nurse sums up a pertinent point regarding religion and emotions in this play, religious devotion is only correct when in moderation.[72]

Love Spells

In Hippolytus Line 510 the nurse recommends obtaining a lock of hair or something from Hippolytus' garments in order to get a love spell for Hippolytus.[73] There is evidence in Athens for the production of love philtre. For example in the Magna Moralia there is a case cited where a woman who administered a love philtre to a man who later died was tried at the Areopagus for poisoning. [74]

" I was ready to torture the defendants' slaves, who knew that this woman, my opponents' mother, had planned to poison our father on a previous occasion as well, that our father had caught her in the act, and that she had admitted everything— save that it was not to kill him, but to restore his love that she alleged herself to be giving him the potion."[75]

Other evidence for people wishing to get a loved one through spells or prayers to the chthonic deities can be found in the Defixiones of the time. These objects were left by all sections of ancient society and as over 1500 have survived many in situ; they are a unique window into the personal desires and passions of everyday people. They cross the boundaries of education, social status and literary genres and as such are a very important and often underutilised aspect of Classical religion.

Most of the tablets are thin sheets of lead inscribed with a bronze stylus but other materials such as wax, gemstones, papyrus and ceramic were less commonly used.[76] Lead has many advantages over the other materials in that it is cheap and widely available It was easy to make, it had been used commonly for writing in the ancient world and it was adducive in its attributes to the underworld being cold and heavy


"just as these names are cold , so may the name of Alkidamos be cold"[77]

"Just as this lead is cold and useless, so let them (my enemies) be cold and useless"

Most of these tables were not simply inscribed with whatever the person wished, there are signs that there were scribes and magoi who may have been paid to help write the sometimes highly formulaic curses. This does not discount the possibility that amateurs made use of well known recipes or formulas and wrote their own. The love spells and curses to do with love show that many people in Athens who had problems in their love life turned to defixiones and spells to solve them. INSERT EXAMPLE HERE FOR SOME DEFIXIONES CONCERNING LOVE from notes.

Cult of Hippolytus

At the end of the play Artemis assures Hippolytus that she will give honours to Troezan "for unyoked maidens before marriage will cut off locks of mourning for you" There is later evidence for a Troezian cult of Hippolytus.

Pausanias describes a precinct with statue, temple and lifelong office for a priest. [78]

"It seems originally to have been a hero cult (centering on a grave where the hero was thought of as living on, and with forms derived from the rites paid to the dead. There was a grave mound in the precinct" [79]

The Troezians refused to show the grave and maintain that he never died but became the constellation Auriga which could imply that the cult had deified Hippolytus by Pausanias' time.

Insert chapter conclusion here


The tragic poet had to entertain their audience. In order to do this, some form of common purpose or bond had to be established. The play must have catered in some way to the audience's beliefs and desires. For example, Euripides first version of Hippolytus obviously did not resonate with the audience and so Euripides radically rewrote many aspects of the play such as the context and the character of Phaedra. This means the overriding concern for the poet is not purely theological but dramatic resonance with the audience. The religious references in the plays must have been reasonable enough to be of dramatic use in a play. This does not mean these references to the diving are necessarily accurate reflections of the audience's beliefs, just that they were recognisable to them.

"While tragedy makes many references to the worlds of religion law, politics, and so on, and makes use of various technical legal expressions to its own world, it must always assimilate such references and expressions to its own world, thereby submitting them to a transformation which belongs only to the world"[80]

Both Aeschylus and Euripides use traditional beliefs about the gods in new ways in their drama. Aeschylus has utilised previous beliefs to tell an aetiological story about the change from the archaic to the classical world. His Gods epitomise the aspects of old familial social groups and the newer polis based society of Athens. Throughout his work he investigates some of the problems inherent in such a polytheistic society and explains them throughout theology and original thought.

Euripides has aspects of the divine familiar to his audience but his main preoccupation is with the mortals' behaviour towards the divine, he has little further to comment on the aspects of his Gods and characters. It is unlikely that Euripides believed fully in the anthropomorphic deities in Hippolytus but it is enough that he represents them in a familiar way to the Athenians. Grube believes that although Euripides did not believe in the literal truth his representation of the gods they were truthful as an essential part of the myth which is "being dramatized before us as this is the only way to get the full effect of the drama. If Euripides was trying to disprove the Gods Grube believes the effect would split the audience's attention and split the dramatic effect.[81]

Grube holds the better position in this discussion as Euripides shows an image of the Gods in line with contemporary beliefs; it is the mortals who behave in a manner contrary to the polis. Caution should be applied to his subsequent argument that Euripides "shows mankind as helpless against the gods." This is accurate to a degree, once Aphrodite has moved against Hippolytus there is little he could do to stop the train of events. However, Hippolytus, Theseus and Phaedra have all committed offences against the natural order of things. Hippolytus by failing to recognize the gods, a charge brought against Socrates nearly thirty years later, Phaedra in accusing Hippolytus unjustly and Theseus for his rash judgement against his son. Euripides is concerned with the failings of the mortals, the Gods he presents as immutable forces of nature but quite in line with Athenian beliefs.

FINISH WITH NOTES as needs serious revision.

[1] Michelini, Euripides and the Tragic Tradition, (London, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987) p. 281

[2] Claude Calame, 'Greek Myth and Greek Religion' in ed Roger D. Woodard, The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007) p. 259

[3] Most, G. W 'Philosophy and Religion' in Sedley, David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. p. 303

[4] Parker, Robert. Athenian Religion a History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.p. 141

[5] Lysias. "Against Nicomachus ." edited by W.R.M. Lamb. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1930. 30

[6] Thucydides. "History of the Peloponnesian War." In Penguin Classics, edited by M.I Finley. London: Penguin 1972 6.27, 6.53,

[7] For a fuller discussion see Parker p.209,

[8] Parker, Robert. Athenia