Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
Places of worship: groves
This post is the first of a new series, a series on places where worship took place in ancient Hellas. In future installments, I will talk about the household, about temples, about caves, springs, and other special places. A little while ago, I spoke about nature religions, and how I feel Hellenismos is not a nature religion in the Neo-Pagan sense. Because I like to make life difficult for myself, I will now write a post which basically says that the ancient Hellenes practiced much of their worship in nature, partly in sacred groves. Before reading this post, it might be good to read the post about Hellenismos and nature religions first.
For me, the most famous of groves is one written about by Sophocles, in Oedipus at Colonus, amongst others, the grove of the Erinyes, which is entered by a spiritually polluted Oedipus, for a rest, and to relieve his suffering. It is here that his daughters tend to him and perform sacrifice to the Erinyes in his name:
Sacred groves, for which the ancient Hellenic term is 'alsos' (αλσος), plural 'aseelio' (ασυλιο) or 'alse', are religious sanctuaries. They are places of contact between the divine and human worlds. Theoretically, sacred groves differs from wild woods, flower and vegetable gardens, vineyards, and orchards, but their exact nature is hard to define, as little was written about them, and even more was lost, including many of the groves themselves. There is a description of the Roman version of the alsos, however, described by the grammarian Servius:
This description is woefully inadequate; however, it does give a glimpse into their purpose. Sacred groves are often but not always associated with temples. There might be archeological bias in this, however, as temples attract archeologists, where patches of trees without (m)any ancient stone structures tend to get overlooked. A description of the grove of Asklēpiós near the asklepieion at Epidaurus can be found in Pausanias' 'Description of Greece'. It gives us another clue of the use and importance of sacred groves:
It's important to note, for those not well versed in the ways of the ancient Hellenes, that 'no death of birth...' refers to a practice linked to miasma. Within Hellenic practice, miasma describes the lingering aura of uncleanliness in regards to a person or space through which contact is made with the Gods. It occurs whenever the space or person comes into contact with death, sickness, birth, sex, excessive negative emotions and bodily fluids. It also comes from a lack of contact with the Theoi. With deaths and births, it is not so much the actual acts of dying and giving birth that pollute, but the opening up of the way to the Underworld. Note that not all groves seemed to have this rule of miasma linked to death. Pausanias describes the sanctuary of Saronian Artemis at Aegina, for example, which became the burial place of the man who founded it:
Groves were sacred places, places where ritual was held to the Theoi. The alsos was either part of the temenos surrounding the temple, or a functioning temenos in and of itself, as is hinted at by Pausanias when he discussed the offering that must be eaten within the bounds of the grove in its entirety; an attribute also of the temenos surrounding the temple. It seems that groves near temples had two ways of developing: either from a naturally wooded tract of land with sacred attributes up, where an altar was added to the grove, boundary markers were added, and eventually a temple arose, or as a designed landscape deliberately planted to accompany an existing temple or altar.
It is, of course, also possible that parts of the natural landscape were marked as sacred due to the influence of deity, and begun to attract a cult. The grove might have eventually received an altar, but a temple structure was most certainly not always feasable or required. Especially in more rural areas of ancient Hellas, groves would have existed on their own, without the need for a temple. On top of that, some altars might not have had groves or temples, and not all temples had groves.
Many groves have been discovered--again, mostly near temples--but to name a few the temple of Zeus at Nemea had cypresses; tree pits, neatly arranged in rows, were found at the sanctuary of Hephaestus above the agora in Athens; the gymnasia of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus had one, and part of that grove has since been replanted; the temple of Apollo Hylates at Kourion in Cyprus, where excavated channels and pits show clearly where trees were planted; and so on.
The main function of a grove was to give sacrifice to the Theoi, both blood sacrifice, as well as bloodless. Yet, sacrifice was not limited to groves, although if a grove was present at a temple, the sacrificial altar could have very likely stood inside of it. Another primary function of a grove--beyond the religious--was to serve as asyla, a safe haven. For a person to receive asylia, asylum, at the sanctuary, he or she had to openly declare what crime they had committed, and perform a special rite: the rite of hiketeia. In the context of this rite, the person in need of help sat down at the altar or at a statue of the Theos or Theia to which the temple, sanctuary or grove was sacred, while holding a certain symbol identifying him as a suppliant, either a freshly broken off twig or a strand of wool. From this moment on, he or she (male: hikétes; female: hikétis) became a supplicant, and entitled to protection from prosecution. To break asylia was a heinous crime, and was punished almost always by death. It did happen, on occasion. Pausanias, again, describes how Kleomenes--King of Sparta in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BC--violated asylia at the grove of Argos:
Who could enter a sacred grove depended greatly on who the grove was dedicated to, and if it was a festival day or not. Gendered rules of admittance were common. Only women were allowed in the groves of Hera at Aigion and of Demeter at Megalopolis, for example, while only men were allowed to enter the grove of Ares at Geronthrai. Some groves could only be entered by initiates, while others only allowed clergy. Domesticated animals were hardly ever permitted on the grounds, even if the grove was the only shady spot available.
For a last, but so beautiful, description of a grove, I will again turn to Pausanias. It is part of a wonderful description of the sanctuary of Despoinê in Arkadia, which I will most likely quote more of in a later post within this series about sanctuaries. In it, Pausanias touches upon the last point I want to make about groves:
In Ancient Hellas, the Alseids (Ἀλσηΐδες) were nymphs associated with groves. Hómēros calls them 'Alsea'. Alseids did not gather as much interest from classical authors and poets as did other nymphs. They were often described in reference to the groves they were linked to. In the Odysseia, four Alseids can be found in the presence of Circe:
Sacred groves were special places of worship, guarded by nature spirit and Theoi alike. They offered protected, enclosed, places of worship, often with shade and a source of water--the value of which can not be underestimated while worshipping under the hot rays of Hēlios. Groves offered shelter for those of need, and sometimes even an alternative source of income for the temple associated with it, as some of the trees grew fruit. Much of that fruit would be sacrificed, or consumed by clergy and supplicants, but most likely not all.
In ancient Hellas as in modern day, groves provide places of worship that are affordable, relatively easy to set up and keep, and which are still very rewarding in a day-to-day practice. A grove does not even need to be huge: it can be of any size. Adding an altar means the opportunity to perform one's daily rituals in a space dedicated to one of more Gods, while still keeping the space inconspicuous. The possibilities are endless.
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