A Classics school trip to Greece offers the perfect opportunity for students to immerse themselves in the ancient worlds they study. Our Classics school trip specialist, Hannah, is here to underpin the top 5 sites in Greece that showcase the wonders of Ancient Greek history – with a closer dive into Greek religion.
1. Castalian Spring – Delphi, Greece
Delphi has been attracting visitors for thousands of years and is an ideal stop during a school trip to Greece. It was a centre of prophecy in the ancient world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors cannot miss the Temple of Apollo, the stadium, and the treasuries lining the Sacred Way – all of which show the architectural importance of the site to city-states around the Greek world. Before an ancient visitor entered the temenos (sacred space), they had to pass the Castalian Spring to perform purification.
This ritual displays the importance of orthopraxy – the correct behaviour towards the gods. Visitors to Delphi would wash themselves in the spring water to avoid polluting the sacred space within the sanctuary, in fear of acting disrespectfully towards Apollo. Greek myth and epic stories often include tales of humans that disrespected the gods, and none of them fared well. Ordinary Greeks would have known these stories and heeded the lessons from them of the importance of orthopraxy in their own lives. The Castalian Spring at Delphi stands as a reminder of the importance of correct religion and is a point of connection between ancient and modern visitors.
2. Abaton – Epidaurus, Greece
Just as the Castalian Spring prompts us to think of ancient religion as something lived rather than observed, the abaton at Epidaurus reveals the reciprocal nature of Greek religion. Nestled in the heart of the Sanctuary to Asclepios (god of healing), the abaton was a space of incubation for the ill. They would sleep in individual rooms, hoping Asclepios would appear in their dreams and reveal either a remedy or heal them himself. There are many tales from antiquity of healing in this space; for example, a blind woman dreamt that Asclepios poured a mixture into her eye sockets and she allegedly woke to be able to see! As far-fetched as the examples may sound, ancient visitors travelled to the abaton with the same faith as Catholic visitors to Lourdes – hoping their god would intervene and heal them.
The abaton exemplifies to students the reciprocal nature of Greek religion. The woman with the healed eyes, for example, was instructed to give Asklepios a silver piglet in thanks. Healing was one of the many things Greeks could expect from the gods in return for their sacrifices and offerings. Sanctuaries to Asklepios, like the one at Epidaurus, grew in popularity during the 4th century BCE. They are a testament to how ordinary people believed that the Olympian gods were present and could be relied upon to cure them of their ills. At Epidaurus we see that religion was not simply performative, but something that could yield genuine results.
3. Theatre of Dionysus – Athens, Greece
On the Acropolis’ slopes sits the Theatre of Dionysus, the home of Greek theatre and a monument to the civic importance of religious festivals. Being the god of wine and revelry makes Dionysus a popular god to worship, as Dionysia often had a party atmosphere! Beyond having a good time, the religious themes of the plays performed during the Dionysia, link this space to the very idea of Athenian citizenship. The themes of Greek Tragedy explore the worst and most anti-social parts of the human psyche. Medea, Oedipus, and Antigone all break with social normality, though some are in more extreme ways than others. Extremes and transgressions were part of Dionysus’ nature, so it is unsurprising that tragedians explored these themes.
The Theatre gave the Athenians a space to safely explore transgressions and the extremes of human emotions, all while paying respect to the wild nature of Dionysus before going back into their ordinary lives. The comedies followed these themes through exaggerated physical forms and ‘topsy-turvy’ social scenarios. Dionysus’ wild and dangerous character was worshipped through Greek drama within a space that reinforced the Athenian community. This made the Theatre of Dionysus a poignant space for Athenian religious and civic identity.
4. Temple of Poseidon – Sounion, Greece
There are few temples that can boast a more beautiful setting than the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion. Perched on the cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea, this temple has been attracting visitors for centuries. Lord Byron being one, who even carved his name into the marble! While a cliff overlooking the sea is a fitting place for Poseidon’s temple, there’s more to it than aesthetics. The Olympian gods justified natural events with anthropomorphised deities whereby, the sea was an extension of Poseidon to tame or whip up as he dictated.
Sounion would have been a useful marker and vantage point for Piraeus – the ancient port for the city of Athens. This meant that the shining marble temple would have welcomed them into the harbour as they sailed by and given a reminder to thank the god that had got them there safely. For a society dependent on the sea for travel and trade, this made Poseidon an important god to have on side. Any sailors worshipping at Sounion could look out over the stormy seas and ensure their sacrifices were extra generous before taking to the boats! The positioning of the temple places the worship of Poseidon as close to his realm as possible and speaks to the natural power the Olympians held.
5. Funerary Lekythos of Myrrhine, National Archaeological Museum – Athens, Greece
In the National Archaeological Museum of Athens sits a marble lekythos that functioned as a grave marker in the late-fifth century BCE. It is a tall and slender oil container carved in shallow relief and is one that visitors must get close to appreciate the emotion within the scene. The relief shows a young woman named Myrrhine being led by Apollo Psychopompos, Escorter of Souls. For students, the lekythos reveals a personal side to religious practice. We see the family of Myrrhine raising a hand in either farewell (if they are living) or greeting (if they are deceased) as she makes the journey to the realm of the dead. This idea would have supported the family’s remembrance of Myrrhine at festivals of the dead, such as the Anthesteria, and granted her ongoing memory.
This lekythos harnesses the belief that Apollo would lead the deceased to the Underworld with a chance of being reunited with loved ones. It would have comforted the family and acted as a focus for their grief. As modern viewers, we can connect to the raw human emotions displayed and understand the personal importance of ancient religion. Even in a museum gallery, removed from its funerary context, the Myrrhine Lekythos stirs sympathy in viewers and brings the study of funerary customs to life.