Ancient History

Full Texts Legal Texts Search Help

Studying History Human Origins Mesopotamia/Syria Egypt Persia Israel Greece Hellenistic World Rome Late Antiquity Christian Origins
IHSP Credits

Ancient History Sourcebook

Accounts of Personal Religion, c. 430 BCE - 300 CE

This is collectionof snippets from various sources about the social history of paganism--function of temples, festivals, manner of worship, needs & expectations, etc.


Herodotos, The Histories, c. 430 BCE

In other respects the festival is celebrated almost exactly as Dionysiac festivals are in Hellas, excepting that the Egyptians have no choral dances and no plays. They also use phalli four cubits [6 feet] high, pulled by ropes, which the women carry around, and whose male genitalia are operated by strings to go up and down. A piper goes in front, and the women follow, singing hymns in honor of Dionysos. The erection of the phallus, however, which the Hellenes observe in their statues of Hermes, they did not derive from the Egyptians, but from the Pelasgians; from them the Athenians adopted it, and afterwards it passed to the other Hellenes. The Athenians, then, were the first of the Hellenes to have an erect phallus....

Letter of Demophon to Ptolemaios, c. 245 BCE

Send us at your earliest opportunity the flutist Petoun with the Phrygian flutes, plus the other flutes. If it is necessary to pay him, do so, and we will reimburse you. Also, send us the eunuch Zenobius with a drum, cymbals, and castanets. The women need them for their festival. Be sure he is wearing his most elegant clothing. Get the special goat from Aristion and sent it to us. Send us also as many cheeses as you can, a new jug, and vegetables of all kinds, and fish if you have it. Your health! Throw in some policemen at the same time to accompany the boat.

Strabo, Geographia, c. 20 CE 

A festival is celebrated every year at Acharaca; and at that time in particular those who celebrate the festival can see and hear concerning all these things; and at the festival, too, about noon, the boys and young men of the gymnasion, nude and anointed with oil, take out a bull and with haste run before him into the cave; and, when they arrive at the cave, the bull goes forward a short distance, falls, and breathes out his life.

Dio Chrysostom, Or. c. 110 CE 

Some people attend the festival of the god out of curiousity, some for shows and contests, and many bring goods of all sorts for sale, the market folk, that is, some of whom display their crafts and manufactures while others make a show of some special learning---many, of works of tragedy or poetry, many, of prose works. Some draw worshipers from remote regions for religion's sake alone, as does the festival of Artemis at Ephesos, venerated not only in her home-city, but by Hellenes and barbarians.

Lucian, De Salt., c. 160 CE 

The Bacchic dance is taken especially seriously in Ionia and Pontus, although it belongs to Satyric drama, and has so taken hold of people there that, in the festival time, they put aside everything else and sit the day through, watching corybants, satyrs, and shepherds; and people of the best lineage and foremost in every city dance, not in the least embarrassed but proud of it.....Each town or region celebrates the festivals of the gods with its own rites; thus, to Egyptian deities generally by lament, to the Hellenic for the most part by choruses, but to the non-Hellenic by the clangor of cymbalists, drummers, and flutists....At Delos not even the sacrifices are offered without dancing. Boy choruses assembled and, to the pipe and kithara, some moved about, singing, while the best performed a dance in accompaniment; and hymns written for such choirs are called dances-for-accompaniment."

Pausanias, Description of Hellas, c. 175 CE 

Every year too the people of Patrai celebrate the festival Laphria in honor of their Artemis, and at it they employ a method of sacrifice peculiar to the place. Round the altar in a circle they set up logs of wood still green, each of them sixteen cubits long. On the altar within the circle is placed the driest of their wood. Just before the time of the festival they construct a smooth ascent to the altar, piling earth upon the altar steps. The festival begins with a most splendid procession in honor of Artemis, and the maiden officiating as priestess rides last in the procession upon a car yoked to deer. It is, however, not >till the next day that the sacrifice is offered, and the festival is not only a state function but also quite a popular general holiday. For the people throw alive upon the altar edible birds and every kind of victim as well; there are wild boars, deer and gazelles; some bring wolf-cubs or bear-cubs, others the full-grown beasts. They also place upon the altar fruit of cultivated trees. Next they set fire to the wood. At this point I have seen some of the beasts, including a bear, forcing their way outside at the first rush of the flames, some of them actually escaping by their strength. But those who threw them in drag them back again to the pyre. It is not remembered that anybody has ever been wounded by the beasts.

Clementis Recognitiones, c. 220 CE

Most men abandon themselves at festival time and holy days, and arrange for drinking and parties, and give themselves up wholly to pipes and flutes and different kinds of music and in every respect abandon themselves to drunkenness and indulgence.

Letter of Aurelius Asclepiades to Aureleus Theon, c. 295 CE 

I desire to hire from you Tisaïs, the dancing girl, and another, to dance for us at our festival of Bacchias, for fifteen days from the 13th Phaophi by the old calendar. You shall receive as pay 36 drachmai a day, and for the whole period 3 artabai of wheat, and 15 loaves; also, three donkeys to fetch them and take them back.


Herodotos, The Histories, c. 430 BCE

And so the word which came to Cleomenes [King of Sparta] received its fulfillment. For when he first went up into the citadel, meaning to seize it, just as he was entering the sanctuary of the goddess, in order to question her, the priestess arose from her throne, before he had passed the doors, and said, "Stranger from Sparta, depart hence, and presume not to enter the holy place---it is not lawful for a Dorian to set foot there." But he answered, "Woman, I am not a Dorian, but an Achaian." Slighting this warning, Cleomenes made his attempt, and so he was forced to retire, together with his Spartans.

Inscription, Miletus, 275 BCE

Whenever the priestess performs the holy rites on behalf of the city, it is not permitted for anyone to throw pieces of raw meat anywhere, before the priestess has thrown them on behalf of the city, nor is it permitted for anyone to assemble a band of maenads before the public thiasos has been assembled. And whenever a woman wishes to perform an initiation for Dionysos Bacchios in the city, in the countryside, or on the islands, she must pay a piece of gold to the priestess at each biennial celebration.

Philo Judaeus, De Providentia, c. 20 CE 

At Ascalon, I observed an enormous population of doves in the city-squares and in every house. When I asked the explanation, I was told they belonged to the great temple of Ascalon---where one can also see wild animals of every description, and it was forbidden by the gods to catch them...

New Testament, 1 Corinthians 8, c. 56 CE 

So about the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, we know that "there is no idol in the world," and that "there is no God but one." ...But not all have this knowledge. There are some who have been so used to idolatry up until now that, when they eat meat sacrificed to idols, their conscience, which is weak, is defiled.....If someone sees you, with your knowledge, reclining at table in the temple of an idol, may not his conscience, too, weak as it is, be "built up" to eat the meat sacrificed to idols?

Ps.-Lucian, Am., c. 85 CE 

Around the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Knidos was an orchard, and under the most deeply-shadowy trees were cheerful picnic places for those who wanted to provide a banquet there; and some of the more well-bred used these, sparingly, but the whole city crowd held festival there, in truly Aphrodisiac fashion. And at Formiae, a benefactor staged each year a ceremony for Jupiter, at which he would distribute 20 sesterces to each of the city senators dining publicly in the grove.

Plutarch, Moralia, c. 110 CE 

It's not the abundance of wine or the roasting of meat that makes the joy of sharing a table in a temple, but the good hope and belief that the god is present in his kindness and graciously accepts what is offered.

Pausanias, Description of Hellas, c. 175 CE

They say that someone uninvited entered the shrine of Isis at Tithorea and died soon after...I heard the same thing from a Phoenician in regard to a temple of Isis at Coptos.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, c. 200 CE 

Sacrifices were devised by men, I do think, as a pretext for eating meals of meat.


Strabo, Geographia, c. 20 CE 

On the road between the Tralleians and Nysa is a village of the Nysaians, not far from the city Acharaca, where is the Plutonium, with a costly sacred precinct and a shrine of Pluto and Kore, and also the Charonium, a cave that lies above the sacred precinct, by nature wonderful; for they say that those who are diseased and give heed to the cures prescribed by these gods resort there and live in the village near the cave among experienced priests, who on their behalf sleep in the cave and through dreams prescribe the cures. These are also the men who invoke the healing power of the gods. And they often bring the sick into the cave and leave them there, to remain in quiet, like animals in their lurking-holes, without food for many days. And sometimes the sick give heed also to their own dreams, but still they use those other men, as priests, to initiate them into the mysteries and to counsel them. To all others the place is forbidden and deadly.

Persius: From Satire II, 60 CE 

Mark this day, Macrinus, with a white stone, which, with auspicious omen, augments your fleeting years. Pour out the wine to your Genius! "A sound mind, a good name, integrity"---for these he prays aloud, and so that his neighbor may hear. But in his inmost breast, and beneath his breath, he murmurs thus, "Oh that my uncle would evaporate! what a splendid funeral! and oh that by Hercules' good favor a jar of silver would ring beneath my rake! or, Would that I could wipe out my ward, whose heels I tread on as next heir! For he is scrofulous, and swollen with acrid bile. This is the third wife that Nerius is now taking home!"---That you may pray for these things with due holiness, you plunge your head twice or thrice of a morning in Tiber's eddies, and purge away the defilements of night in the running stream.....You ask vigor for your sinews, and a frame that will insure old age. Well, so be it. You are eager to amass a fortune, by sacrificing a bull and court Mercury's favor by his entrails. "Grant that my household gods may make me lucky! Grant me cattle, and increase to my flocks!" Yet still he strives to gain his point by means of entrails and rich cakes. "Now my land, and now my sheepfold teems. Now, surely now, it will be granted!"

Philostratos, Life of Apollonios of Tyana, c. 190 CE 

When the plague broke out at Ephesos and there was no stopping it, the Ephesians sent a delegation to Apollonios asking him to heal them. Accordingly, he did not hesitate, but said, "Let's go," and there he was, miraculously, in Ephesos. Calling together the people of Ephesos, he said, "Be brave; today I will stop the plague." Then he led them all to the theater where the statue of the God-Who-Averts-Evil had been set up. In the theater there was what seemed to be an old man begging, his eyes closed, apparently blind. He had a bag and a piece of bread. His clothes were ragged and his appearance was squalid. Apollonios gathered the Ephesians around him and said, "Collect as many stones as you can and throw them at this enemy of the Gods."The Ephesians were amazed at what he said and appalled at the idea of killing a stranger so obviously pitiful, for he was beseeching them to have mercy on him. But Apollonios urged them on to attack him and not let him escape. When some of the Ephesians began to pitch stones at him, the beggar who had his eyes closed as if blind suddenly opened them and they were filled with fire. At that point the Ephesians realized he was a demon and proceeded to stone him so that their missiles became a great pile over him. After a little while Apollonios told them to remove the stones and to see the wild animal they had killed. When they uncovered the man they thought they had thrown their stones at, they found he had disappeared, and in his place was a hound who looked like a hunting dog but was as big as the largest lion. He lay there in front of them, crushed by the stones, foaming at the corners of his mouth as mad dogs do.....

Temple Inscriptions:

1. Thanks to Minerva, that she restored my hair.

2. Thanks to Jupiter Leto, that my wife bore a child.

3. Thanks to Zeus Helios the Great Sarapis, Savior and Giver of wealth.

4. Thanks to Silvanus, from a vision, for freedom from slavery.

5. Thanks to Jupiter, that my taxes were lessened.

6. I pray for the safety of my colony and its senate and people, because Jupiter Best and Greatest by his numen tore out and rescued the names of the decurions that had been fixed to monuments by the unspeakable crime of that most wicked city-slave who refused to work...

Oracular Inscriptions:

1. Shall I receive the allowance?

2. Shall I remain where I am going?

3. Am I to be sold?

4. Am I to obtain benefit from my friend?

5. Has it been granted me to make a contract with another person?

6. Am I to be reconciled with my children?

7. Am I to get a furlough?

8. Shall I get the money?

9. Is my lover who is away from home alive?

10. Am I to profit by the transaction?

11. Is my property to be put up at auction?

12. Shall I find a means of selling?

13. Am I able to carry off what I have in mind?

14. Am I to become a beggar?

15. Shall I become a fugitive?

16. Shall I be appointed as an ambassador?

17. Am I to become a senator?

18. Is my flight to be stopped?

19. Am I to be divorced from my wife?

20.Have I been poisoned?


The Satires of Juvenal, Persius, Sulpicia, and Lucilius, trans. Lewis Evans (London: Bell & Daldy, 1869), pp. 217-224

William Stearns Davis, ed. Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 268, 289

Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources, (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vols. II: The Greek World & III: The Roman World; The Bible (Douai-Rheims Version), (Baltimore: John Murphy Co., 1914)

Herodotus, The History, trans. George Rawlinson, (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862)

Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1885)

Strabo, The Geography of Strabo: Literally Translated, with Notes, trans. H. C. Hamilton, & W. Falconer, (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857)

Philostratus, the Athenian, The Lives of the Sophists, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright, (London: Wm. Heinemann, 1922)

Pausanias, Pausanias' Description of Greece, trans. A. R. Shilleto, (London: G. Bell, 1900)

Plutarch, Moralia, trans. Philemon Holland, (London: J.M. Dent, 1912).

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to ancient history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. No representation is made about texts which are linked off-site, although in most cases these are also public domain. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, August 1998

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall, created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 30 March 2023 [CV]