Skip to content
Skip to navigation menu


Gods and the Polis - 10 credits (HS3330)

Staff: Laurence Totelin

The religious festivals and rituals of each classical city-state reflected the general Greek religious system of practices and beliefs, while helping to define and reinforce the social and political identities of each state and of smaller social groups within it. The module concentrates on the analysis of the festivals, cults and beliefs of Athens, one of the most powerful and influential of the states, and the one for which there is the most evidence, literary, documentary and archaeological.

Optional for: all Ancient History degrees
Availability: autumn semester in alternate years
Teaching: 10 lectures and 2 seminars
Assessment: one essay (40%) and one 1-hour examination (60%)

Syllabus content

  • the system of animal sacrifice, the myth of Prometheus and Pandora, and the difference between gods, men and beasts.
  • Zeus and his festivals at Athens.
  • Athena, the Panathenaia, and the protection and glorification of the city.
  • Artemis, Apollo, initiation cults for girls and boys and their transformations.
  • Demeter, agricultural and female fertility and the stability of marriage: the Thesmophoria, Haloa and the Adonia.
  • Demeter, Panhellenism and the afterlife: the Eleusinian mysteries.
  • Dionysos: variety of his cults: wine, social cohesion, women's ecstatic cults; other mystery cults and the afterlife.
  • the sophists' criticism of religious beliefs and practices, and popular responses to them.


  • To study a polytheistic religious system, based on the festivals and cults, public and private, in a single Greek city-state.
  • Thus to see how such a system developed in the classical period, and sought to give Athenians sense of their identities, as humans, Greek, Athenians, etc., and offered them a complex structure of ideas for understanding and coping with the uncertainties of life.

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, the student will demonstrate:

  • a knowledge of the basic sites and ritual practices of Greek religions, and of the details of many of the festivals and rituals of classical Athens and the functions they performed for their understanding of the main differences between polytheistic and monotheistic religious systems, and of how a complex and changing polytheistic system can try to make sense of the world for its users.
  • an awareness of the main types of evidence — literary, archaeological, documentary and iconographical — and how they may be combined to produce an understanding of the festivals, rituals and beliefs.
  • an ability to discuss these issues in written work with coherent and logical arguments, clearly and correctly expressed.

Primary sources

The source material needed for the module will be supplied in a booklet at the start of teaching.

Preliminary reading

J. Bremmer, Greek Religion (Greece & Rome Surveys, 1994)
L. Bruit Zaidman & P. Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City (1989)
W. Burkert, Greek Religion (1985)
W. Burkert, Homo Necans: the Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual (1984)
R. Buxton (ed.), Oxford Readings in Greek Religion (2000)
M. Dillon, Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion (2002)
K. Dowden, The Uses of Greek Mythology (1992)
P. A. Easterling & J. Muir, Greek Religion and Society (1985)
R. Garland, Religion and the Greeks (1992)
J. D. Mikalson, Ancient Greek Religion (second edition, 2010)
D. Ogden (ed.), A Companion to Greek Religion (2007)
H. W. Parke, Festivals of the Athenians (1977)
R. Parker, Athenian Religion: A History (1996)
R. Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens (2005)
C. Sourvinou-Inwood, Athenian Myths and Festivals (2011)

Related modules

Prerequisite modules: HS2102 Archaeology of the Greek and Roman World or HS3101 Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Other modules to consider taking in conjunction with this one:

HS2389 Art and Archaeology of Classical Greece

HS3331 Roman Religion

HS3372 Greek and Roman Medicine

HS3373 Science and Technology in the Graeco-Roman World