Studies on the orientation of ancient Greek religious structures – Part 1

In this post we present extracts from studies considering the orientation of ancient Greek religious structures.

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Abstract Despite its appearing to be a simple question to answer, there has been no consensus as to whether or not the alignments of ancient Greek temples reflect astronomical intentions. Here I present the results of a survey of archaic and classical Greek temples in Sicily and compare them with temples in Greece. Using a binomial test I show strong evidence that there is a preference for solar orientations. I then speculate that differences in alignment patterns between Sicily and Greece reflect differing pressures in the expression of ethnic identity.

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Introduction It has long been proposed that classical temples may have been aligned with respect to sunrise on certain dates. The idea was first proposed by Nissen in 1869. This idea was developed further by other authors such as Penrose and Dinsmoor, who argued that a temple could be dated from its astronomical alignment. This explanation was rebutted in the 1980s by Herbert on the grounds that plenty of Greek temples did not face east.

Following a survey of Sicilian and southern Italian temples Aveni and Romano reasserted that there is an astronomical pattern to the alignment of Greek temples, but the two most recently published statements on the subject both state that there was no evidence of astronomical intent. At best, there is no consensus about the answer, though a more accurate summary would be that opinion is shifting away from the notion of astronomical alignments being embedded within Greek temples.

The presence or lack of such alignments is an issue as it reflects upon Greek religious practice in the archaic (750–480 BC) and classical (480–323 BC) periods. Salt and Boutsikas have proposed that Greek religious festivals, in particular Panhellenic events, may have been calibrated against the seasons using astronomical observation. Hannah also observes that the observation of celestial bodies helped govern the cycles of Greek civic life. The interaction of local topography, architecture and astronomy may therefore helped shape the day-to-day functioning of a city.

A further use for the study of temple alignments is in the examination of evidence for cultural continuity across the Mediterranean. The results of a survey of Greek Sicilian temples presented below and a comparison with a recently published survey of Greek temples by Retallack, provides a means of studying the degree of similarity of alignment of temples. The alignments provide an ‘astronomical fingerprint’, allowing a determination of what extent ‘Greek’ culture differed in the two locations.

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Results and Discussion Result from the survey, that 40 of 41 temples face east, is a highly improbable result to have occurred by chance. There is no commonly accepted standard of what is significant in archaeoastronomy. Indeed, it is impossible to define what is significant purely from statistics. If written documentation exists describing the use of a site then an alignment could be declared significant even if it is the only data point in a set. The value of historical records is that you can construct an argument that the measured data and the tests applied are meaningfully connected, rather than running enough tests a data set until something ‘significant’ happens.

Retallack has recently argued that temple dedications are connected with local soil types. As part of his survey he examined the astronomical alignments of temples in Greece in order to discount their effect on dedication. Retallack surveyed 84 temples. Of these many were in a ruinous state and no meaningful alignment could be recorded, which leaves just 51 temples in the sample. This is not a major problem. The confidence in the results is derived from the sample size, not the percentage of the total number of Greek temples and 51 is a similar number to the 41 temples surveyed in Sicily. Of greater difficulty is that he only measured alignments as pointing to one of the eight major compass directions. East, northeast and southeast all face the eastern half of the horizon, and west, northwest and southwest all face the western half. It is less certain which half north-facing and south-facing temples face. I have excluded these from the survey as their easterly or westerly orientations are as unknown as for the temples with no recorded alignment. This leaves just 42 temples with clearly defined easterly or westerly orientations.

In this sample 38 temples face east and 4 face west. This is a less emphatic result than Sicilian sample, but nonetheless would support the proposal that Greek temples face east.

One reason for the difference in results might be the context of their construction. Temples in Greece were frequently built upon sites that had been sacred for generations, reaching back into the Bronze Age at places like Thermon, where the later classical temples were built over the remains of Mycenaean era megaron. There was the matter of historical tradition which meant that temples built in the archaic and classical periods might be built not only according to the cosmology of the time of construction, but also within the restraints of prior religious thought. The temples in Sicily were built in cities that, at the time of building, saw themselves as immigrants in a distant land. Therefore there was no historical precedent to shape the construction of the temples. They were much more likely to be purely the products of seventh-, sixth- and fifth-century cosmology. The lack of prior foundations gave the Sicilian Greeks more freedom to express current thought in religious practice through their temples.

I believe discussion above does show there was a significant preference for easterly orientations in the alignment of ancient Greek temples.

(Source: “The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples”, by Alun M. Salt)

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Abstract This paper revisits the generally accepted view that the normal orientation of ancient Greek temples is toward the east through a general analysis of 107 Greek temple orientations collected by the author. The paper also attempts to establish whether there existed a general principle that related to specific astronomical observations and could have determined the orientation of Greek temples. The analysis applies archaeoastronomical methodology in investigating orientation patterns of Greek temples from the Geometric to the Hellenistic periods in Greece. These first results show that the Sun does not seem to have played as decisive a role in the orientation of temples as currently thought. Instead, there appears to be a much larger variation than accounted for at present that cannot be simply explained by the concept of the predominance of eastern orientations. It is concluded that all-encompassing interpretations do not appear to apply in Greek religion and cult practices and that the study of Greek cult needs to account for local variations, traditions, and landscapes.

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The study presented here intends to offer a much needed structured and rigorous approach through the discipline of archaeoastronomy as prescribed byAveni (2002), McCluskey (1982, 2004), and Ruggles(1984, 1999, 2000a, 2000b). These scholars have pioneered methods of archaeoastronomical research, leading to new directions with regard to the contribution of archaeoastronomy to the reconstruction of past societies and practices (Ghezzi and Ruggles 2007), wherever possible in conjunction with ancient written sources (McCluskey 2006; Vail and Aveni 2004).

This paper challenges for the first time the argument that Greek temples had a predominantly eastern orientation, raising as a result serious doubts about the assumed role of the Sun in the orientation of many Greek temples. The study presents a general analysis of the orientation of 107 Greek temples from the Greek mainland and the islands of the Aegean collected by the author and covering a time period from 900 to 200 B.C.. The analysis that follows tests the existing ideas on the general orientation of Greek temples and—through a quantitative assessment of the distribution of the orientations—presents new data in order to test current understanding of the role and function of the orientation of Greek temples. It demonstrates that Greek religious structures were placed over a far wider range than can be simply explained by a solar orientation.

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Sample description The dataset of this study includes some of the most important and representative sites of the periods during which they were constructed and some of the earliest self-standing religious structures found in Greece from around 900 B.C. (e.g., Apollo Thermios, excluding the megara, the function of which has not been firmly established to this date). The region covered by this study includes the area covered by the modern Greek state rather than the world of Hellenic city-states as a whole, which extended from the western Mediterranean to the Black Sea. In the selection procedure of temples to be surveyed, no deities or types of sites have intentionally been given greater emphasis. This study includes the vast majority of religious sites that could be measured within the study area. All religious structures for which permission was given and whose preservation was sufficient have been surveyed (including those of foreign deities). The geographical area covered by the sample presented here includes the Greek mainland and the Aegean islands of Aigina, Delos, Kos, Naxos, Poros, Rhodes, Samos, and Tenos.

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Field Methodolgy The measurements comprising this study were collected using a magnetic compass and clinometer over four field seasons. A compass, duly corrected for magnetic declination, will only determine the direction relative to true north to an accuracy of around one degree. Taking into account the highest level of astronomical precision that the ancient Greeks would have been capable of measuring, this level of accuracy is considered adequate.

The structures of this study were all of rectangular shape. To determine their orientation the magnetic bearing was recorded along each of the long walls from either end. In those cases where only half of the structure survived, the long and the short walls were measured from either end. This repetition of measurements was necessary to ensure the most accurate readings of the temple’s orientation. In addition to measuring the magnetic orientation of each structure, horizon profiles were also recorded for the horizon surrounding each structure.

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Data reduction This study improves the methods of analysis applied to the orientations compared with previous studies by accounting for the height of the local horizon (altitude), refraction, and atmospheric extinction.

The data have also been divided into chronological periods in order to investigate whether a practice of deliberate general orientation of Greek temples was introduced at a specific period or whether, if present, it declined after a certain time. In the vast majority of religious sites we encounter continuity in the construction of religious buildings; the destruction of temples from natural disasters (e.g., the temple of Apollo at Delphi, destroyed in 373 B.C. by an earthquake) or by human action (e.g., the destruction of the temple of Poseidon at Sounion by the Persians) was followed by their replacement with new structures.

The investigation of changes in orientation as a result of the precession of the equinoxes between successive building phases cannot be examined at this stage. In order to do so it is necessary to determine the celestial body toward which the structure was aligned, but such a conclusion needs to be determined through the examination of archaeological and literary evidence rather than by using the orientation of  subsequent structures in order to fix on a celestial body that simply shares the orientation.

The declinations from this study were split into subgroups by chronological period as determined by archaeological finds: Geometric (900–700 B.C.), Archaic (700–480 B.C.), Classical (480–330 B.C.),and Hellenistic (330 B.C.–A.D. 14).

A preliminary study of the sites included in this study indicates a frequent shift of orientation between earlier and later structures. The dataset includes, among other cases, four sites with four successive reconstructions of the same temple (e.g., the Heraion of Samos and the temples of Dionysos in Sagri, Naxos), six sites with three successive reconstructions (e.g., the temples of Apollo and Artemis on Delos), and nineteen sites with two reconstructions (e.g., the temples of Dionysos in Athens, the temples of Poseidon in Isthmia, and the temples of Demeter in Dion). In a number of cases two or more successive temples with different orientations fall in the same chronological subgroup (e.g., the two temples of Poseidon at Isthmia and the two temples of Asklepios in Kos). The general scheme of chronological periods, as given above, rests on identified changes in technology, the architectural development of structures, and changes in pottery and art. It becomes apparent that the boundaries of these periods are not directly applicable to a study that investigates successive religious structures.

The general distribution of temple orientations reveals clusters of data that may or may not be deliberately placed by the groups who built them. For more conclusive arguments on either the dismissal of the possibility that Greek temples were astronomically oriented or, alternatively, in support of a case for deliberate astronomical orientation, further investigation of possible reasons and principles behind potential deliberate placing of temples would be necessary.

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Discussion Previous research by Dinsmoor, Penrose, and Nissen focused on the significance of the Sun in the orientation of Greek temples. To this day this idea has been offered as the explanation for the general principles behind the orientation of temples. In doing so, however, we overlook a very large body of data that falls outside positions in the horizon that are visited by the Sun. Dinsmoor’s ideas have persisted for years without any attempt at verification or testing by other researchers who have used his results.

The present dataset does not include temples from Asia Minor, Italy, and Sicily, as earlier researchers attempted. I believe that these areas need to be surveyed just as thoroughly and to be examined independently before we can attempt to put forward an all-encompassing model and interpretation of Greek temple orientations.

The data presented here suggest that the Sun alone was not the all-encompassing phenomenon determining the placement of the vast majority of Greek religious structures. In fact, this appears to be a gross oversimplification of a much more complex and more interesting pattern of temple orientation and religious practice. The general analysis shows that 58 percent of the temple orientations falls within the points on the horizon that the rising Sun visits in a year and 7.3 percent within the points of the setting Sun. A total of 34.7 percent of the sample falls outside the solar range. This also indicates that we need to explore other ideas about temple orientation and that Panhellenic trends appear unlikely to explain this pattern. Had the Sun been the predominant factor determining orientation, we would expect temples to be oriented within the solar range alone or at the very least to find only a few exceptions to this rule.

Although it is acknowledged that the meaning androle of the night sky is neither self-evident nor common between peoples and is, instead, subject to social processes and use (Saunders 1991:13), because of the volume of data presented in this paper, only an analysis of orientation patterns can be presented here.

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New directions If we suppose for a moment that temples pointed toward a part of the horizon in which a certain astronomical phenomenon was observed or predicted at the time when the annual festival was to be held, this phenomenon had to be annual, like the religious festivals, and connected either to stellar (i.e., the heliacal rising or setting of stars, apparent acronychal rising, apparent cosmical setting) or to solar observations (i.e., the point on the horizon where the Sun rises on a specific day in the year). As the solar explanation can be eliminated at least for the data falling outside the solar range, we may examine the possibility of stellar associations. Homeric references (circa 750 B.C.) to such stellar observations (Iliad 18.483–489, 22.26–31), Hesiod’s Works and Days (383–384, 609–611)(circa 700 B.C.), and the use of  parapegmata from at least the fifth century B.C. (Hannah 2005b) testify that alternative timekeeping methods to the lunisolar calendar were known and practiced by the Greeks since the Geometric period. These methods were thus available in those cases when precise timekeeping was of the essence, such as the performance of agricultural activities. In the religious sphere we know that the gods had to receive their sacrifices at the correct time every year (Aristophanes Clouds 615–626). The use of star calendars for religious purposes is much easier to demonstrate during and after the Classical period. Astronomical observations based on the fourth-century parapegma of Eudoxos are displayed in an Egyptian papyrus from Hibeh, a festival calendar dating to 300 B.C. that recorded astronomical movements of interest to the religious authorities, assisting in the keeping of the festival celebrations: “in time with the agricultural seasons to which the cults were attached” (Hannah 2005a:62).

Rising and setting stars span the entire range of declinations. The plethora of stars in the night sky means there is a strong risk of identifying totally spurious correlations between structure orientations and stellar bodies. Thus, it is essential that appropriate criteria are employed in order to avoid random and ungrounded associations. For a convincing case to be made, a study of the orientation of a structure must draw upon epigraphic, historical, mythological, and archaeological evidence when considering possible correlations. The simple association of stellar bodies to a structure that is purely based on the structure’s orientation is no longer sufficient.

Preliminary results from the oracle of Apollo in Delphi (Salt and Boutsikas 2005), the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia in Sparta (Boutsikas 2008), and the Erechtheion (Boutsikas 2007:119–145) suggest that there may be a connection between the timing of a religious activity and a stellar event visible in the part of the horizon toward which the main temple in the sanctuary was oriented. The temples of Artemis Orthia in Sparta and Apollo in Delphi may well have been oriented toward the heliacal rising of a particular star or constellation, and in the case of the Erechtheion the associated cult rites seem to be tightly timed at the most significant phases of the culmination of a constellation associated with the myths surrounding the structure and the Acropolis. The association
between the deity and the specific constellation is demonstrated in all three cases by mythology, by the connection between the movement of the constellation and the timing of the annual festival, by ancient historical records, by archaeological finds, and by the
foundation myth of the cult. Such a network of interlocking relationships is hardly surprising: throughout archaeological and anthropological research we learn about the enmeshing of landscapes and places with meanings and symbolism and the necessity of human actions to maintain the cosmic balance (Ruggles1999:120–121). Greek religious practice and cult in its early stages prior to the development of temples were performed in the open air. This implies that normally cult practices and ritual preceded temple construction. Further studies will establish whether temple orientation is in fact strongly contextual and largely determined by local rather than regional trends in cult practice, in other words, whether the construction and orientation of a temple were unique and historically situated within the particular group that built it.

(Source: “Placing Greek Temples: An archaeoastronomical study of the orientation of ancient Greek religious structures”, by Efrosyni Boutsikas)

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Abstract A number of archaic and later temples on the Greek mainland have an axial alignment toward a related high-prestige cult site over the horizon. These orientations should be viewed as potentially intentional. As such, they invite reconsideration of the social and political as well as religious considerations underlying a given temple’s construction. A cluster of cultic alignments toward Delos might be connected to the role of Apollo and Artemis as plague gods. Other alignments suggest that the Roman habit of coopting local gods before key battles had Greek antecedents. The relative accuracy of these orientations, compared to that of Islamic mosques a millennium later, implies more sophisticated geometric capabilities than we usually attribute to 6th c. BCE Greece.

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Two Alignments The earliest monumental temple in the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus near ancient Pisa in southwestern Greece was offered, Pausanias tells us, to the goddess Hera. A line extended along that temple’s central axis leads to the Argive Heraion, an internationally recognized sanctuary connected in local legend with the birth of Hera.

The true bearing from the Hera temple to the Argive Heraion is 86.3° The average of six Google Earth (GE) azimuth measurements along temple walls and stylobates is 86.3°. On a humbler scale, the so-called Athena temple at Karthaia on the island of Kea aligns almost due north (358° per GE). A line drawn through it accurately intersects, 12 km away, the island’s original Mycenaean settlement, Ayia Irini, where a famous Late Helladic cult center evoked a local goddess. That cult center continued to receive offerings through the Classical period, i.e., well after the Athena temple was built.

No other point in the Peloponnese would be an equally appropriate target for the Hera temple.

Praying toward a sacred place, codified in Islam (toward Mekkah, Koran 2.144), is a common practice in Jewish tradition, one unlikely to have been invented by the prophet Daniel, who prayed κατέναντι Ιερουσαλήμ in the biblical text bearing his name (Dan. 6.10). A Greek example of directional prayer is that of the Spartan general Pausanias in 479 BCE. He is described as making a desperate effort to improve the omens as battle with the Persians was about to be joined near Plataia “Turning toward the Heraion, his face wet with tears and raising his hands he prayed to Kithaeronian Hera and the other gods that hold the Plataian land” (Plut. Arist. 21; Hdt. 9.61).

For another example of religious devotion with a geographical orientation, we have the opening lines (29-31) of the Hippolytus by Euripides (performed 428 BCE). The goddess Aphrodite is the speaker, expounding a foundation myth for the temple referred to in an inscription of 425 BCE as Aphrodite in the Hippolyteion:

And before coming to that Troizenian land By this rock of Pallas, looking down/opposite (katopsion) At that land, [Phaedra] established a temple of Kypris.

Euripides has the love-struck Phaedra choose the site for a temple to Aphrodite because from there she could see Troizenian territory and thus, by extension, her beloved Hippolytus.

Temples construction required an extraordinary mobilization of resources by the society that built it. An expensive sacred structure, constructed from stone blocks cut to millimeter tolerances, is likely to have been laid out by its architects in a manner that reflected the reasoning that mobilized that society. Scholars assume that a temple’s decoration and setting conveyed a message to worshippers and the public. The direction a temple faces is another obvious opportunity to express meaning.

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One ancient source, the Roman architect Vitruvius, gives us a professional’s view of how
temples ought to be oriented. His advice, which combines religious piety and practicality, takes for granted that the direction faced is one aspect of the act of worship:

The quarter toward which temples of the immortal gods ought to face is to be determined on the principle that, if there is no reason to hinder and the choice is free, the temple and the statue placed in the cella should face the western quarter of the sky. This will enable those who approach the altar with offerings or sacrifices to face the direction of the sunrise in facing the statue in the temple, and thus those who are undertaking vows look toward the quarter from which the sun comes forth, and likewise the statues themselves appear to be coming forth out of the east to look upon them as they pray and sacrifice. But if the nature of the site is such as to forbid this, then the principle of determining the quarter should be changed, so that the widest possible view of the city may be had from the sanctuaries of the gods. Furthermore, temples that are to be built beside rivers, as in Egypt on both sides of the Nile, ought, as it seems, to face the river banks. Similarly, houses of the gods on the sides of public roads should be arranged so that the passers-by can have a view of them and pay their devotions face to face. (Vitr. 4.5.1, tr. Morgan, adapted)

Greek temples, however, point in many directions and rarely have their principal entry to the west. This gap between Vitruvian theory and Greek practice has freed modern scholars to indulge their intuitions regarding temple alignment, most notably through a personalized reading of the visible landscape. In most cases, sighting along the temple axis does not reveal a plausibly sacred summit or other interesting terrestrial target.

A second alternative is to look to the heavens for an astronomical aiming point. The fact that many of the best known Greek temples align more or less east-west encouraged the hypothesis that temples might be oriented toward the sunrise on a specific, cult-related day.

There is an epistemological reason as well not to prefer astronomical explanations when others might be available. Even in the rare cases when a temple’s construction date can be fixed within a given decade, multiple correlations can always be found, with the sun or moon or with morning or evening constellations associated with one or several mythical narratives. From these alignments we have little choice but to accept the one that most faithfully fits our prior assumptions regarding the cult supposedly practiced there. Thus, the alignment offers no fresh information.

Before abandoning hope of deriving useful analysis from temple alignments, we should examine the possibility hinted at by the Hera temple at Olympia, that some temples might be aimed toward a religious target out of sight over the horizon.

Greek gods were worshipped in their local manifestations, under specify epithets that were often geographic, well after they evolved into a semi-fixed Hellenic pantheon and were elevated to a celestial Olympos. Some gods had well-known birthplaces. Many had physical representations, such as an ancient wooden image, that for certain purposes equated to an authentic physical presence of the god. Each city had its own set of stories linking its gods to specific locations.

For Vitruvius in far-off Italy, associating Rome’s Greece-influenced gods with the direction of the sunrise would often be a reasonable approximation of their accepted birthplaces. In Greece, however, divine geography was more precisely defined. In examining Greek temples for a possible orientation toward a more ancient or higher-status cult site of the same or a related deity, we should bear in mind that the intentionality of a given orientation cannot be judged by the accuracy of the alignment.

We could reasonably expect alignment errors of several degrees from Greek architects working a millennium or more earlier using basic surveying tools and trigonometric approximations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Toward Apollo’s Birthplace For Leto … loosed her girdle in Zoster in Attica and gave a name to the place; and walking ever to the east under the guidance of Athena Pronoias, from the tip of Attica boarding the islands, she stopped at Delos and gave birth to gods for the city, Artemis and Apollo Patroos. (Aelius Aristides, Panathenaicus 97.25)

It would be reasonable for temples dedicated to Apollo to acknowledge that god’s nearby birthplace. The axis of the Apollo Zoster temple on the west coast of Attica points toward the island of Delos, 140 km to the southeast, with an divergence of about 2.5° from the heading of the Apollo sanctuary. Leto’s next footstep brought her to Cape Sounion. The classical Doric temple in the Poseidon sanctuary at Sounion, which preserves the orientation of a late Archaic predecessor, points directly to Delos. In this case the true bearing toward the sanctuary of Delian Apollo (103.7°, 113 km) is very close indeed to the axial measurement of the temple itself. That Apollo was one of several gods worshipped at Sounion is made clear by dedicatory inscriptions.

A tiny Classical shrine in the nearby Athena sanctuary at Sounion, traditionally assigned to Phrontis, the steersman of Menelaus, also aims directly at the birthplace of Apollo.

In 1994 the foundations of a Doric temple of the second half of the 5th century BCE were discovered near Gerakas/Stavros in Attica. They were identified by the excavators as the temple of Athena Pallenis. The foundations are oriented at 118 degrees, strikingly close to the 118.1° actual bearing on the Apollo sanctuary at Delos.

Another temple to consider is the Apollo Daphnephoros temple in Eretria, Euboia. Nothing in the local topography imposes its orientation of 133.7°. The bearing to Delos is 130.1°. The distance (170 km), irregular topography, and sixth century date of the earlier temple might explain the 3 degree angular error.

Across the border in Boiotia, the 5th century BCE temple of Artemis at Aulis also faces generally southeast toward the palm tree in Delos, beside which she was born in some versions of the myth. The distance, 185 km, and the intervening mountains, often in unfriendly hands, would have made direct surveying problematic. The angular error is 6 degrees, (true heading to Delos is 127.4°, bearing is 133.5°).

A major Archaic temple assigned to Apollo, that at Kolonna on the island of Aigina, also faces Delos, 167 kilometers distant, with an error of 3°.

The 6th century temple in the Heraion on Samos is aligned precisely to the Apollo sanctuary on Delos, diverging by about 0.6° (146 km).

Taken individually, each Delos alignment can be dismissed as a coincidence. When several temples whose orientation is relatively unconstrained by their site are oriented in different directions relative to the eastern horizon but point at the ancient birthplace of Apollo on Delos, we should suspect a deliberate pattern. This pattern can be extended to other divinities as well.

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Toward Asklepios ’s Birthplace One of the accepted birthplaces of the healing god Asklepios was near Epidauros. From his sanctuary there, his cult spread to other states. It should not seem surprising if Asklepios sanctuaries that housed a copy of the god from Epidauros, or wanted to show their gratitude for that god’s intercession, might memorialize the sacred connection through their architecture. The Asklepieion complex at Troizen is built on two separate orientations, one of which faces with reasonable accuracy toward the Asklepieion of Epidauros.

The temple of Asklepios at Pheneos points toward that same Asklepieion (error < 1°), as does one structure in the Delos Asklepieion.

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Toward Isthmian Poseidon Poseidon is a god who inspired offerings in connection with maritime operations, such as the Greek naval victory at Salamis, but also when earthquakes suggested he was angry and needed to be calmed. The most prominent Poseidon sanctuary of the Greek world, that at Isthmia, sits athwart Greece’s most exuberant earthquake zone, but in a location well suited to Poseidon’s maritime portfolio as well. Which of those roles motivated temple builders is of course debatable.

T. Leslie Shear, in his 2016 magnum opus on the Periklean building program, has argued plausibly that construction of the Erechtheion, or sekos of Erechtheus/Poseidon on the Acropolis, was an Athenian attempt to placate Poseidon Earthholder following terrifying earthquakes around 426 BCE. This fascinating idea finds reinforcement in the fact that the Erechtheion aligns with formidable accuracy toward the sanctuary of Isthmian Poseidon.

The temple on Profitis Ilias mountain west of Asea, sometimes identified as that of Athena Soter and Poseidon (Pausanias 8.44.4), also faces the Poseidon sanctuary at Isthmia (85 km, 1 degree off).

The late 5th c. temple in the Argive Heraion, and its earlier predecessor, face the Poseidon sanctuary at Kalaureia on Poros, with an error of less than 1° (106.6° heading, azimuth 106°).

Tempelanlage in Paestum der Tempel der Athene

Pointing toward victory? Some temples with no obvious terrestrial alignment might be associated with forgotten military triumphs.

Tempelanlage in Paestum der Tempel der Athene

Olympian Zeus Given Zeus’s cultic importance and the gratitude conventionally owed him for military victories, one might expect at least a handful of temples to be aligned toward his great sanctuary at Olympia. A first reasonable candidate for that orientation is Temple C at Pallantion, with an error of 0.8° at 65 km.

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Summing Up Temple orientation should be an obvious method, along with siting, scale, and sculptural decoration, for endowing a promised offering to the gods with the necessary meaning to reassure all elements of the ancient polis that the correct gods would be appropriately appreciative. However, in any direction one faces the Greek landscape is cluttered with myth and history. Every Greek temple axis will intersect at least one interesting cultic or political counterpart, especially if one accepts, as one must for Islamic mosques, angular errors of three degrees or more. The seductiveness of any particular alignment is a function of our historical imagination or lack thereof.

There are, as I have shown, a striking number of Greek temples that seem to point to a related cult site. Designing a meaningful statistical test to measure the likelihood of multiple plausible alignments being the result of pure chance is difficult. We should also expect the accuracy of these alignments to be greater in more expensive temples, in later temples, and in temples closer to the presumed target. This seems generally to be the case.

Temples are offerings made for specific purposes distinct from the requirements of routine worship. A key advantage of testing potential terrestrial targets is that the process forces us to reexamine not only mythology, a notoriously rich and contradictory body of evidence, but also local history and politics, in isolation from which we have little hope of reaching a useful understanding of the highly political buildings we are examining. These alignments can be a useful corrective to an anachronistic view of temples as churches for the worship of one specific deity. By adopting as a working hypothesis that a given terrestrial alignment was an intentional decision by the temple builders, we can sometimes integrate previously known historical or excavation data into a fresh, interesting theory that might accord well with historical parallels elsewhere.

(Source: “Gods Over the Horizon: Terrestrial Orientations in Greek Temples”, by John Brady Kiesling)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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