In the modern world we practice religion in specialized institutions - churches - overseen by trained professionals. No comparable arrangements existed in the ancient world. There was no vocational ministry: priests were recruited from the general population, or from particular families; in neither case did priests receive specialist training. Likewise much ancient religious observance was civic, which is to say that religious and political orders were integrated. This connection is apparent in the constitution of the various worshiping groups, which coincided with the organization of the political order, ranging from the entire political society to its smaller subdivisions; at the same time these groups were independent economic entities. Among the more important functions of group religious activity is the manifestation of the group to itself: the acknowledgment in the action of communal belonging. Through ostentatious participation religious activity contributes to community solidarity - or, when activity is articulated in smaller groups, it can promote social tension.
The association of state and worship is attested in the political codification of religious observances. The earliest known sacrificial code in Athens dates to the archaic period and was traditionally associated with the name of the lawgiver Solon. We know that it was publicly displayed into the classical period. This ‘‘Solonian’’ code was revised and re-displayed at the end of the fifth century by decree of the state, on the initiative of a certain Nikomachos. This ‘‘Nikomachean revision’’ of the state’s religious code is mentioned in literary sources (notably Lysias 30), and fragments of its inscriptional display have been discovered in the excavations of the Athenian agora.
The entire community participated in many of the great religious festivals of Athens, and the organization of participants mirrored the categories of ‘‘political society.’’ At the festival of the Panathenaea almost the entire Athenian population turned out to parade and sacrifice. They were organized according to political status: young women carried a garment they had woven to the Acropolis to dedicate to Athena; citizen males, organized according to military age categories, including for example adolescents, mature men, and the superannuated elderly, accompanied them in a grand procession from the city’s gate in the Kerameikos to the Acropolis. Resident aliens, or metics, had their places in the proceedings, and a late source (Bekker, Anecdota Graeca 1.242.3) even claims that freedmen and barbarians participated. At the Great Dionysia Athenians and metics marched in the procession to the theatre that marked the beginning of the festival; members of the classical empire brought their tribute and colonies sent symbols of their subordination; some of the performances, notably the twenty tribal choruses of adults and young men, observed and reinforced administrative and age discriminations among the male political citizens; the audience was seated according to civic category.
At crucial moments of life, transition from one status to another was mediated by religious observance, initiation rites. By such observances individuals are assimilated to society and status-boundaries articulated. In the earliest initiation rites, for example, gender differentiation was not observed. At the Amphidromia fathers acknowledged their newborn babies, both male and female, by picking them up and carrying them around the family altar. Their status was witnessed when the father presented his child to his phrateres and offered the sacrifice called the meion. At about the age of 5 children were given their first taste of wine on one of the days of the spring festival of the Anthesteria: once more, both boys and girls participated in this festival, but future adult gender roles were evoked in the images painted on the little wine bottles used in this ceremony.
In subsequent initiation rites children were segregated by gender. For girls, an exemplary, if aristocratic, sequence of rituals is described in an often cited passage from the Lysistrata (641-7): ‘‘When I reached the age of 7 I straightaway became an arrephoros; then at 10 I became a grain grinder [aletris] for the goddess; after that, wearing a yellow shift, I was a bear at Brauron. And once as a lovely child I bore the basket [was kanephoros], wearing a chain of figs.’’ The rituals alluded to in this passage are concerned with fertility. For example, girls went to ‘‘play the bear’’ at Artemis’ sanctuary at Brauron, on the east coast of Attica, at about the time of the onset of menstruation, and later, after childbirth, they might dedicate birthing rags and swaddling wraps in her sanctuary on the Acropolis in Athens. If female initiation rituals centered on fertility, those of males emphasized warfare. In early adolescence boys were initiated into the phratries at the sacrifice of the koureion, or ‘‘shearing.’’ A year or two later, in ceremonies involving oaths and sacrifices, they became ephebes, soldiers in training, and at 18 they were admitted to the army and deme membership.
In religious activities women sometimes achieved an unusual freedom and autonomy. Certain religious festivals, such as the Thesmophoria and various Dionysiac observances, were restricted to women. Details are elusive: the Athenians regarded them as sacred mysteries and even authors like Aristophanes, who wrote a play called the Thesmophoriazusae (‘‘Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria’’), are careful to provide no particulars. Late sources typically suggest (and modern scholars plausibly guess) that such rites dealt with the related questions of human and agricultural fertility. In ancient Athens, women were ideally to be kept sequestered from public view. In the Funeral Oration, Thucydides has Pericles tell women that they paradoxically achieve the greatest renown when they are least talked about, for good or ill (2.45.2). Though female sequestration was a social ideal, it is debatable to what extent it was ever achieved. At religious festivals like the Thesmophoria women not only acted without male supervision, they organized the rituals themselves. Male anxieties about what went on at such celebrations - doubtless drinking and orgiastic sex - were commonplace; nowhere are they more fluently expressed than in Euripides’ Bacchae, a play about the disastrous attempts of a king (Pentheus) to subordinate female celebration of Dionysiac rites to political regulation. Certain religious cults, particularly those of goddesses, were in the charge of priestesses, who by virtue of their positions sometimes came to have an unusual prominence. In Aristophanes’ famous war-protest play, the Lysistrata, the title character supposedly leads Athenian women in a sex-strike to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War; ‘‘Lysistrata’’ may perhaps be a pseudonym for the famous contemporary priestess Lysimache, who was for over sixty years priestess of the chief goddess of the city, Athena Polias.
Resident non-citizens had a special importance at the annual festival of Heracles at the gymnasium at Kynosarges, not coincidentally the place where the Athenian Polemarch held court in cases regarding metics. Even more interesting are the rare instances in which the state allowed resident aliens the privilege of worshiping their gods in Athens: so merchants from Kition on Cyprus were allowed to establish a shrine of Aphrodite, as were Egyptians of Isis (IG ii2 337), and most famously Thracians were permitted to celebrate rituals of Bendis (e. g. Plato, Republic 327a). Such license amounted to a political ‘‘naturalization’’ of the cult groups: they were allowed to own land and build on Athenian soil, privileges normally restricted to citizens. And as we see notably at the beginning of Plato’s Republic, citizens subsequently might participate in these ‘‘alien’’ religious observances.
With a very few exceptions, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, slaves were not allowed to participate in civic ritual. The festival of Cronus (the Kronia), provides the notable exception: here ‘‘fathers of families fed on the already harvested grains and fruits here and there with their slaves; with them they endured the suffering ofwork in cultivating the fields’’ (Philochoros, FGrH 328 fr. 97). This inversion of political status is exceptional, yet it finds parallels in many other ancient cities, the most famous example being the Saturnalia at Rome. Current consensus holds that reversal of roles was not socially subversive; the Kronia was sanctioned by the civic social order and had the paradoxical function of supporting conventional social hierarchy.
Other criteria than political status figure in civic religious celebrations: the most important are economic class and birth status. In his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Karl Marx said that religion was ‘‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’’ He meant that people are divided along economic lines, and these ‘‘classes’’ are always necessarily in competition with one another. Religion he saw as a palliative, which works to disguise the reality of economic oppression: it teaches and persuades the poor to suffer by dangling before them the prospect of a reward in heaven. The Athenians of the classical period boasted - accurately in my view - that class and birth carried with them no legitimate political preferences; they did, however, guarantee certain religious privileges. Priests and other prominent participants in rites were frequently chosen by virtue of the fact that they were ‘‘well born’’: certain hereditary associations purporting to be families (gene) monopolized the priesthoods of various cults (see below). To take another notable case, each year four girls were chosen by the ‘‘king’’ archon on the basis of‘‘excellence of birth’’ as ‘‘bearers of the sacred secret objects’’ (these are the arrhephoroi). The garment paraded to Athena on the Acropolis during the Panathenaea was woven by two of these girls, along with a team of workers (ergastinai), also ‘‘well born’’; all these enjoyed a prominent position in the procession. To take another example, at the festival of the Oschophoria, a festival that among other things commemorated the deeds of Theseus on Crete, two young men, ‘‘chosen from those outstanding in birth and wealth’’ (Istros FGrH334 fr. 8), conveyed the oschoi (vine shoots with bunches of grapes) in a procession.