Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus

  Dignas, Beate, and Kai Trampedach, eds. 2008. Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Figures from Homer to Heliodorus. Hellenic Studies Series 30. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

3. Professionals, Volunteers, and Amateurs: Serving the Gods kata ta patria

Susan Guettel Cole

Alexandra Consults the Oracle

In the second century AD, a priestess of Demeter Thesmophoros at Miletus consulted the oracle of Apollo at Didyma. A third-person account of her query survives:

With good fortune.

Alexandra, priestess of Demeter Thesmophoros, puts a question to the oracle, because, since the time when she took on the priesthood, never have the gods become so manifest through visitations, sometimes through maidens and women, and sometimes through males and children; (she asks) why this is so and if it is for some auspicious reason. The god spoke in oracle speech: “The Deathless Ones, coming among mortals [—], pronounce their judgment and the honor that [—].” (IDidyma 496a).

Alexandra does not identify the gods appearing to her constituents, but we can tell from her question that she is alarmed. The gods are not behaving predictably. [1] Concerned about change, she consults the oracle, aware that any change in divine behavior could be an ominous sign. The priestess assumes responsibility for examining anomalies in divine response because even the gods were expected to behave in traditional ways.

As priestess of Demeter Thesmophoros, Alexandra represents a divinity whose rites were among the oldest the Greeks knew. Because Demeter was considered responsible for regulating food supply and diet, any irregularity in her attention, even in second-century Miletus, could be serious. The other side of the stone block on which Alexandra’s question is paraphrased contains an oracular response describing the functions of Demeter, perhaps part of a reply to a second query of Alexandra:

Demeter’s regimen and Demeter’s rites separate her worshippers from savages. The oracle claims for the residents of Miletus a special responsibility to the goddess, maintaining that their founder, Neleus, had brought from Attica the sumbola of the Eleusinian mysteries. These tokens confer on Milesians the privilege of performing Demeter’s Eleusinian orgia, rites so sacred that they could not be described (arrhēta). Apollo’s response enjoins the Milesians to do nothing that could jeopardize this relationship and permanent obligation.

kata ta patria

Greek ritual was by nature conservative. Relentless repetition, the rigid calendar of festival schedules, and the formulaic patterns of ritual gesture and ritual speech gave to every performance the impression of great antiquity and long history. The experience of each reenactment of ritual implied that what was being done had always been done the same way. Claims of divine mandate for religious practice were simple to make. Such claims could be endorsed by cooperative oracles and were rarely challenged in public. The details of ritual practice were not a concern to historians or even to poets; we know only the barest outline of the rituals actually performed. We can tell from the epigraphical record, however, that practice was shaped by discussion, details were decided by legislative procedures, and disputes were subjected to the scrutiny of experts appointed to oversee public ritual.

Inscriptions give us some idea of how procedures were supposed to be managed. Here we notice that administrators often relied on written texts preserved in local archives. Political changes were accompanied by an audit of ritual procedures. At Cos, for instance, the fourth-century synoecism required all sanctuaries of Demeter on the island to be managed from the central town. Purification ritual was standardized and the demes mirrored the poleis. [5] All the priestesses of Demeter had to follow the same regulations. Two epistatai were chosen to collect from the nomophulakes and the priests the regulations written down in the sacred laws about purification, and to display these rules in the sanctuaries of Demeter and Asclepius. The goal of the officials was to regularize public rituals according to the sacred and hereditary laws (kata tous hierous kai patrious nomous). Appeals to antiquity made the regulations stronger. At Ephesus, where Demeter Karpophoros was installed in the prutaneion in the imperial period, an inscription of the third century AD gives the regulations for care of the sacred fire and instructions for numbers of sacrificial victims. This late text reproduces two selections from an earlier sacred law. The first selection is called a summary of a hereditary law (kephalaion nomou patriou); the second is called another part (allo meros; IEphesos 10). [6] The first selection directs procedure for rituals entrusted to the prutanis. The hierophant is to lead him around “on the customary day” and teach him exactly what is “customary” for each god. In addition, the hierophant is to explain the singing of the paean at the sacrifice, the procession, and the pannukhia, which “must be performed according to ancestral custom” (kata ta patria). We rarely have such explicit detail about professional training for officials with part-time ritual responsibilities. [7]

As Angelos Chaniotis has shown, for the most part, the day-to-day administration of both public and private cult was left to officials and attendants who were not required to have special training. Those in charge were held accountable to public boards and local political administrators, but procedures for evaluation placed more emphasis on inventory of public property and auditing of accounts than on supervising the content of rituals. There was a great deal of variety in demands of service. Some offices may have required as little as a single day of service in the entire year. Above all, although service could be lifelong or annual, there is no guarantee that longer service implied deeper ties, higher commitment, or even more responsibility.

Demeter at Erythrae

Eligibility for service seems to have been more a matter of status than a matter of experience, but if most priests and priestesses were in fact amateurs rather than professionals, who set the standards, who decided how ritual should be performed, and who was responsible for seeing that the rules were carried out? What happened on the ground on a day-to-day basis?

Professionals and Amateurs

Did it matter that some were professionals, others only amateurs, and that, except for those who held long-term hereditary priesthoods, all others (whether appointed, elected, or competing to purchase) were in some sense volunteers? Like political office in Cleisthenes’ Athens, priestly responsibilities often circulated among a wide group of qualified individuals. Who, then, actually did the work of sanctuary management; who decided what rituals should be performed; and who organized the cleanup of ash, blood, and fat of animal slaughter and roasting of meat after a major festival was concluded? Finally, who was responsible for maintaining the official record and who gave instructions for transmitting the details of cult practice to the next generation?

Administrative Structures

Inscriptions are concerned with procedure. On fourth-century Cos, as we have seen, deme priestesses of Demeter had to meet the same purity standards as the city priestesses of Demeter Olympia in town (LSCG 154). [18] The effects of synoecism are apparent in other ways. At Antimachia, where annual selection was offered by both purchase and sortition in the late fourth century, the system for selecting priestesses seems to have been spliced together from two different procedures at the time of the synoecism. Several priestesses were chosen at the same meeting, so individual demes of Antimachia must have been represented. The women who served swore an oath on assuming office (SIG3 1006; LSCG 175). [19] Most towns had several priestesses of Demeter because Demeter was worshipped in every neighborhood. At Mantinea there was even a koinon (organization) of priestesses of Demeter and Persephone. The organization held meetings and passed motions to regulate banquets and to vote honors for their colleagues. The procedures guaranteed collective decisions and provided a means of publishing awards of public praise for the accomplishments of individual priestesses (IG V ii 266; IPArk 12, with commentary). Priestesses were required to meet the expectations of the community, and even the smallest divisions of the polis were considered “symbolic representations” of the whole. [20] In the Athenian deme of Melite, Satyra, another priestess of Demeter Thesmophoros, received public honors from the demesmen for her service and for her generosity in contributing more than one hundred drachmas for the annual sacrifices (Broneer 1942:265f no. 51). [21] In addition to commendation by the deme, Satyra is granted a crown of myrtle and the right to set up a painted portrait of herself in the temple of Demeter and Kore, the same privilege granted to other priestesses of Demeter.

Local rules were set and ratified by local male assemblies. On Cos it was the husband of the priestess of Dionysus, not the priestess herself, who reported infractions to the local council (LSCG 166.28–30). A deme decree from Piraeus, recognizing the authority of the priestess of Demeter with respect to ritual, denied women the use of the sanctuary of Demeter if the priestess was not present (IG II2 1177). The deme assembly was prepared to recognize women’s rites that could be called traditional, citing the Thesmophoria, the Plerosia, the Kalamaia, and the Skira; and they acknowledged the propriety of further events—“if the women come together on any other day kata ta patria.” Alexandra was not the only priestess of Demeter to worry about precedent and appropriate behavior. The priestess of Demeter at Arcesine, concerned about women making free use of Demeter’s sanctuary at forbidden times, requested that the local council and assembly fix a penalty for asebeia (LSCG 102). [24] She herself had no special jurisdiction. However, priestesses did have prerogatives protected by tradition. Archias, the fourth-century Eleusinian hierophant charged with impiety (asebeia) because he performed sacrifice in defiance of ancestral tradition (para ta patria), was executed for usurping the place of the priestess of Demeter at a sacrifice at the eskhara at Eleusis ([Demosthenes] 59.116; Athenaeus 13.594b). [25] Theano, priestess of Demeter at Eleusis who refused to perform the public curse of Alcibiades, apparently was not punished for her disobedience (Plutarch Alcibiades 22; 33). [26] The rights of priestesses were protected. Nevertheless, the fact that priestesses of Demeter were recognized as women of authority did not grant them special power. The authority of any priest or priestess did not reach outside the boundaries of the sanctuary. [27]

Even though rituals of Demeter were modest, protected by requirements of secrecy, and performed away from the eyes of the male community, ruling bodies and authorities had a stake in seeing to it that the rituals of the goddess were properly carried out. A deme decree from Attica about responsibility for supplying commodities for the Thesmophoria in Cholargus illustrates commitment to precedent:

… the hieromnemones;

and with regard to those serving in common as leaders (arkhousai), both are to give to the priestess for the festival and for the care of the Thesmophoria the following:

a twelfth medimnos of barley;
a twelfth medimnos of wheat; a twelfth medimnos of barley meal;
a twelfth medimnos of wheat meal (?)
a twelfth medimnos of dried figs;
1 khous of wine;
1/2 khous of olive oil;
2 kolutai of honey;
1 khoinix of white sesame seeds
1 khoinix of black sesame seeds;
1 khoinix of poppy seeds;
2 fresh cheeses, not less than 1 stater each;
a pine torch not less than 2 obols;
and 4 drachmas of silver;
and this is what the two leaders are to give.

The assembly paid for the inscription; the women who held annual office as arkhousai paid for the ingredients for the ritual cakes. The arkhousai were the women appointed in each deme to take charge of the annual banquet. The menu for Demeter was always prescribed. This particular inscription records the recipe “letter by letter” so that Demeter’s cakes could be reproduced in precisely the same way every time the Thesmophoria took place in the deme. The arkhousai themselves probably served on an annual basis. The responsibility for ritual continuity did not rest on their shoulders because the deme assembly claimed authority to make decisions about the women’s ceremonies and publicly claimed that their decisions were in effect forever. It should be no surprise to find that the men of Cholargos knew the recipe for Demeter’s cakes so well that that their regulation reproduced the shopping list for the arkhousai. [
29] The demesmen may have been excluded from the ceremonies of the Thesmophoria, but they were certainly familiar with the festival’s menu.

For a festival of Demeter, Kore, and Zeus Bouleus on Mykonos, preparations were just as complicated (SIG3 1024). Here the hieropoioi paid for the wood and the sacrificial victims. For another festival for a female clientele, priests and archons had jurisdiction. The text issues an invitation to any of the women of Mykonos who wished to attend, as well as any of those women living in Mykonos who had completed the required cycles of special ceremonies for Demeter. No priestess is mentioned for these sacrifices (LSCG 96.15–20), but we may expect that a priestess officiated at the ceremony.

Good Girls, Bad Girls

It is instructive to examine the case of Timo closely. Subordinate temple-warden of the chthonic goddesses at the sanctuary of Demeter pro poleōs at Paros, Timo was taken captive when Miltiades laid siege to the city. In an interview with Miltiades she told him that the defense of the city could be broken if he took a shortcut through the sanctuary of Demeter to reach the city gate. Miltiades followed her advice and attempted to examine the sanctuary even though it was off bounds for males. He jumped the precinct wall, but when he tried to open the herkos of Demeter Thesmophoros, he found the doors locked. Herodotus suspects that Miltiades intended to do something in the megaron, either to “move something that could not be moved or do something or other,” but before Miltiades could even begin, a wave of fright and horror came over him, and he turned back the way he had come. In his fear, he hurt his thigh jumping back over the fence and thus incurred the injury that would lead to his downfall and death.

Demeter appeared to Timoleon as she did to others in wartime to confirm support for those she favored. She was also present in the apparition perceived by Dicaeus and Demaratus on the Thriasian plain in 480 just before the battle of Salamis. These two men saw a cloud of dust moving from Eleusis and heard the ritual cries of the Iacchus song, normally sung by worshippers in procession from Athens to Eleusis. The perceptions of Dicaeus and Demaratus were stimulated by both sight and sound even though this was the year the mysteries could not have been celebrated. With the Persian fleet almost at the harbor of Athens, the Athenians had already abandoned Attica to the gods. The vision seen by Dicaeus and Demaratus, however, was a sign that the gods would protect Attica even when the Athenians themselves were absent. Demeter indicated her concern for the Greeks again the next year at Plataea. Although fighting took place all around her sanctuary, she made her protection manifest by allowing no Persian to fall dead on her sacred ground (Herodotus 9.65).

Hereditary Priesthoods and Ritual Stability: Reviving the Old Woman

The integration of the sacred text into Messenian tradition required the cooperation of the hereditary priesthood of the goddesses. Pausanias tells us that the priesthood of Messenian Zeus at Ithome was an annual appointment (4.33.2), but he makes it clear that the priesthood of the Great Goddesses at Andania was controlled by a single genos whose line the Messenians traced back to Aristomenes’ day. The chief Andanian ritual specialist, like the chief priest at Eleusis, had the title hierophant. Survival of the genos depended on a connection to Eleusis. Eleusis was both ancestral home and haven because the Messenians believed that their own mysteries had been brought from Eleusis to Andania by the Eleusinian hierophant Caucon at the time of the original foundation of the sanctuary (4.14.1). As the traditional account makes clear, the genos of priests took refuge at Eleusis during the first Messenian War and did not return home until the Messenian revolt. According to Pausanias, this genos was still marked as special almost three centuries later. The task of recording on papyrus bookrolls the ritual of the teletē preserved on the page of tin belonged to the priests of this genos because only the priests could have anything to do with the content of the ritual outside the performance of the mysteries themselves (4.27.5). [41] The actual rites could not be recalled without the discovery of the instructions on the tin tablet, but the family responsible for conducting those rites could still be identified. The survival of the genos of priests secured Messenian sovereignty over the land.

Even Pausanias admits that 287 years is a long time, but he is confident that the Messenians would have forgotten neither their customs nor their Doric habits of speech (4.27.9–11). Further, he recognizes the Andanian mysteries of the Messenians as belonging to the most sacred rites of all Hellas, surpassed in sanctity only by the Eleusinian mysteries (4.33.5). Like the oracle about Demeter at Didyma, the story Pausanias tells considers the connection to Eleusis a connection to a distant, but formative past. Both Miletus and Messene strove to represent themselves as specially designated ritual heirs in a direct line extending back to Eleusis. Caucon figures in both accounts. The Messenians recognized him in the hierophant who appeared in dreams to Epaminondas and Epiteles (4.26.8), the priest who had instructed them about the mysteries in the first place. He was a descendent of Phlyus, Athenian of the earth-born generation (4.1.5–9). [42] The Neleids at Miletus, who were called Kaukōnes, were said to have arrived at Miletus from Pylos by way of Athens. Both cities have grafted their rituals on an Athenian stem. [43] Pausanias does not believe everything he hears. He introduces the claim for the identification of the “aged hierophant” as Caucon with the qualifying verb form legousin (they say) because, like Herodotus discussing the rites at Samothrace or commenting on the Thesmophoria, [44] he is restrained by his own experience of ritual from disclosing everything he knows (4.33.5). Nevertheless, his Messenian narrative demonstrates that the institution with the strongest claim for preservation was not the mysteries themselves (because they required continuity of place and performance, and both had been lost), but the Andanian hereditary priesthood said to have been preserved with support from Eleusis. Genealogies could be fabricated and traditions conveniently altered. The oral histories recited locally in ceremonies or proudly summarized for tourists did not always have to be corroborated by documents. The prestige conferred on local cults by hereditary priesthoods may have offered enough evidence.

The Consolations of Narrative


[ back ] 1. Robert 1960:543–546 takes the expressions with “through” to indicate that the gods appeared in the form of women, young girls, males, and children. He adds that the text names the female worshippers of Demeter first, followed by males, not usually a concern to the Thesmophoroi, underscoring the unusual nature of the events that led Alexandra to ask her question.

[ back ] 2. The text (with translation) is included by Fontenrose 1988:207–208 no. 22, in his collection of Historical Responses at Didyma.

[ back ] 3. For numerous observations and many answers to these questions, see Chaniotis in this volume.

[ back ] 4. For instance, [Demosthenes] 59.75.

[ back ] 5. LSCG 154 AI, for the procedure; AIIa for Damatar Olumpia en poli; AIIb for Damatar en Isthmōi.

[ back ] 6. Suys 1998:174–175.

[ back ] 7. See now Chaniotis in this volume on LSS 25 and IdCos ED 236, two texts with detailed instructions for ritual, available to priest and priestess.

[ back ] 8. Clinton 1974 collects the evidence for the Eleusinian organization of priestly duties. I will concentrate here for the most part on other examples.

[ back ] 9. For a new fragment of a sale list, see SEG 37.921. I am indebted to Jonathon Strang’s seminar report on the inscriptions of Erythrae for calling to my attention the significance of this dossier for rituals of Demeter. For a discussion of the list, see Dignas 2002:251–255.

[ back ] 10. Dignas 2002 suggests that the priestess was paid more because there were more female than male worshippers/initiates.

[ back ] 11. Second century BC.

[ back ] 12. Tais opisthē theais, line 20, probably a reference to the location of their sanctuary, behind the polis, as opposed to pro poleōs at Smyrna, ISmyrna 655; and Paros, Herodotus 6.134.

[ back ] 13. A ram for Persephone, Attica LGS I 26; a male piglet at Sparta, IG V i 364 line 11; a boar at Mykonos, LSCG 96, line 1, fourth century BC; and for Kore, a bull, Attic deme Phrearrhioi, Hesperia 1970:48, line 13.

[ back ] 14. At Patmos a young female who had served as hydrophoros for Artemis graduated to rank of priestess: Kernos 2001 no. 175; Steinepigramme 01/21/01.

[ back ] 15. IG II2 1175 (Halai Axionides); 1177 (Piraeus); 1184 (Cholargus); Hesperia 1942:265–274. See Whitehead 1986: 79–81 for more examples.

[ back ] 16. Compare 5.6.7.

[ back ] 17. Only the four old women could identify the object of their worship. Pausanias says that he never saw it, and that neither foreigner nor local Hermion male ever did either.

[ back ] 18. Comparing IIa with IIb, fourth century BC.

[ back ] 19. Late fourth century BC.

[ back ] 20. Sourvinou-Inwood 2000:40; for priestly responsibilities, see 38–44.

[ back ] 21. Early second century BC.

[ back ] 22. A woman did not necessarily purchase an office herself; at Halicarnassus the husband of the priestess of Artemis Pergaia, for instance, acted on her behalf: see LSAM 73.

[ back ] 23. Whitehead 1986:81.

[ back ] 24. Fourth century BC. Two other decrees issued in women’s names, LSAM 61 and LSS 127, must refer to an assembly of women constituted for a festival. Neither preserves the name of the divinity concerned.

[ back ] 25. He also sacrificed on a day when sacrifice was not permitted. The issues are discussed by Kron 1996:141n13. Clinton 1974:17n41 points out that the sacrifice in question (at the Haloa) was for Dionysus, not Demeter. If the speech known as Diadikasia of the Priestess of Demeter against the Hierophant (included in the fragments of Dinarchus) refers to the same case, the priestess of Demeter herself brought the charge. See Clinton 1974:23 with n85.

[ back ] 26. By decree all the priests and priestesses of Athens were commanded to publicly curse Alcibiades, convicted of asebeia for impersonating the Eleusinian hierophant. The real hierophant, Theodorus, participated in the original public curse. When a second decree rescinded that curse seven years later, he claimed that because he had uttered the city’s curse, not his own, he had meant no harm. As Clinton 1974:16 points out, asebeia was a state crime. For public curses as the responsibility of priests and priestesses on Delos, compare SEG 48.1037 and Chaniotis in this volume.

[ back ] 27. Garland 1984:75: “The competence of the Greek priest extended no further than the enclosure wall of his sanctuary.”

[ back ] 28. In 334/333 BC.

[ back ] 29. Demeter has more cakes, more flavors of cake, and more shapes of cake than any other divinity. For discussion of ritual cakes, see Brumfield 1997 (thirty-nine varieties mentioned in epigraphical and literary sources); Kearns 1994.

[ back ] 30. Taken captive as a result of the retaliation by women for male intrusion at their festival, as Pausanias reports, 4.17.1.

[ back ] 31. Herodotus tells the whole story in 6.134–136. The actual events may not be as he reports, but the description of the sanctuary as “in front of the town” and of a megaron in a precinct surrounded by a wall, is consistent with many known sanctuaries of Demeter.

[ back ] 32. As listed by Richardson 1974:252.

[ back ] 33. With thanks to Gil Renberg for reminding me about this text.

[ back ] 34. Discussed by Richardson 1974:207–211, 252–256.

[ back ] 35. Mid or late fourth century BC.

[ back ] 36. Pritchett 1981:3.17 summarizes the account.

[ back ] 37. For discussion of sources, see Pritchett 1981:3.34.

[ back ] 38. Where the grave of a priestess is marked with an altar dedicated by her children and local mystai so that those in need of a vision can pray for one here.

[ back ] 39. My account here is inspired by Alcock 2001.

[ back ] 40. Piolot 1999:207–223 discusses the problems of identifying the divinities.

[ back ] 41. For (re)discovery of a lost talisman of an interrupted mystery ceremony, compare the story about the priest Trocondas, who “discovered” something and handed over the “sacred mystery rites” of Artemis Ephesia to the Pisidians; Horsley 1992:119–150 (BE 1993.95; Kernos 1996:100). On Trocondas, see also Chaniotis in this volume.

[ back ] 42. The tradition is confused, but one consistent feature is the tendency to associate the early history of the Messenian mysteries with Eleusis and Athens.

[ back ] 43. The evidence is collected by Robertson 1988:230–261.

[ back ] 44. For the reticence of Herodotus on mysteries and other restricted rites, see 2.51 (on the mysteries at Samothrace) and 2.171 (on the Thesmophoria).

[ back ] 45. Henrichs 2002 and 2003 for distinctions between the various kinds of texts.

[ back ] 46. Higbie 2003:199–201.