Stealing cheese in Sparta

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Our web designer, Gav Clarke, introduces our logo, recalls Shakespeare’s Juliet puzzling over the value of names and reflects on the practice of votive offerings:

Look to the head of the page and our little walking warrior. He’s one of thousands of such small lead figures found at the ancient sanctuaries of Laconia, the southeastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula. His helmet and shield identify him as a Hoplite warrior. He comes from the the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia and dates from 6th–5th century BC. He is now living at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That migration from sanctuary to museum is somewhat fitting – more on this below – as treasuries at these temples can be thought of as similar in some respects to the museums we visit today to appreciate antiquities and beautiful objects.

These votive figurines of cast lead were intended as tributes to the gods. Perhaps a warrior would offer a figure of himself to either propitiate or thank his gods, be they the great divinities or the homely deities of his farm and hearth. Perhaps they were intended as a general supplication for safety – that interpretation would allow that the donors were of various ages and of either sex, we really don’t know. We find reference to the practice of votive offering throughout Greek literature. Pausanias (Παυσανίας, c. CE 110 – c. 180), the Greek geographer and traveller of the second century, writes of visiting many sanctuaries and accounts of the votive offerings (anathēmata) he finds. He relates the ancient story of Polyneices making an offering before attacking Thebes, indicating that later Greeks of his own day believed the practice to be as old as the heroic age. Pausanias makes clear that despite their sacred function the treasuries had been subject to looting over centuries: “It is clear that Augustus was not the first to carry away from the vanquished votive offerings and images of gods, but was only following an old precedent.” [8.46.2]. Recalling this long history of looting and the blank refusals that have met calls for the repatriation of treasures such as the Parthenon marbles it is cheering to see President Macron of France publicly announce that returning stolen artefacts from France’s colonial era to their countries of origin would be a key priority for his presidency. Similarly the British Museum is in talks with various African countries and in 2018 UNESCO held a major international conference on circulation of cultural property and shared heritage… ah, off again I wander down a kalderimi.

Lead figure of a warrior with a helmet and shield.
Height: 1 7/8 in. (4.8 cm)

Back to the Temple of Artemis Orthia. The character of the Spartans can be read in the descriptions by Xenophon, Pausanias and others of the initiation rites that formed part of the agōgē (ἀγωγή, the rigorous training programme mandated for male Spartan citizens). At these events the stealing of cheese from the altar of Artemis Orthia was a ritual activity staged in order to strengthen the character of young male Spartans:

Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacadaemonians 2

“Someone may ask: But why, if he believed stealing to be a fine thing, did he have the boy who was caught beaten with many stripes? I reply: Because in all cases men punish a learner for not carrying out properly whatever he is taught to do. So the Spartans chastise those who get caught for stealing badly. He made it a point of honour to steal as many cheeses as possible [from the altar of Artemis Orthia], but appointed others to scourge the thieves, meaning to show thereby that by enduring pain for a short time one may win lasting fame and felicity. It is shown herein that where there is need of swiftness, the slothful, as usual, gets little profit and many troubles.”

British School of Athens archaeology digs in Laconia, 1906-10.

You know Artemis as the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and by her bow and arrow and sacred deer but who is this Orthia? Pausanias again: “I will give other evidence that the Orthia in Lacedaemon is the wooden image from the foreigners…”. Orthia was reputedly from Tauride from whence she was stolen by Orestes and Iphigeneia. Pausanias goes on to describe the subsequent origin of the diamastigosis (ritual flagellation) giving a largely similar account to Xenophon. The offerings discovered at the sanctuary are not exclusively characteristic of Sparta’s famed militarism, the many feminine offerings include lead models of cloth and weaving apparatus; animal votives show Orthia in her role as an animal goddess or huntress in which capacity she was merged with Artemis; and nude figurines represent Orthia’s role as a fertility goddess. “What’s in a name”, Shakespeare’s Juliet queried of the bitter divide represented by the names Montague and Capulet and concluded there is nothing incompatible in their nature. ‘Artemis Orthia’ is a merging together of the local (‘Orthia’, long established though foreign in origin) and the dominant cultural traditions (the Greek pantheon), an example of both polyonymy and syncretism, of multiple naming and of assimilating all foreign gods under the Olympian pantheon, what the Romans called in interpretatio graeca (in Greek translation). These are processes not unfamiliar to Christianity, much of the pagan custom of Ireland was accommodated in the Christianity brought by St Patrick. While in other religions such as that of the Cannanites, gods are nominatively determined, they are what they are called – so the god of death is Mot, that is ‘death’, and the sea-god is Yam, ‘sea’, this is not so in Greece. Unlike the Acadians or other surrounding belief systems Greek gods had one name each but could be many-epitheted. In ‘Artemis Orthia’ either name might be considered an epithet of the other carrying with it the qualities associated with that god.

The fascinating history of the site was brought to light by the British School at Athens during their digs in Laconia, 1906-10. At the time, the unexcavated site appeared to consist only of a ruined Roman theatre, largely pillaged after the foundation of modern Sparta in 1834, and about to collapse into the river. The archaeologists, under the leadership of R. M. Dawkins, quickly found evidence of Greek occupation. There is an easy day trip to be made from our base in the Mani to see the sanctuary and to visit Sparta, however, there are no guides at the site and travellers frequently find the site closed off – check before travelling.

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