How Ancient Greeks Chose Temple Locations

Why Ancient Greeks are Always Nude

To honor their gods and goddesses, ancient Greeks often poured blood or wine on the ground as offerings. Now a new study suggests that the soil itself might have had a prominent role in Greek worship, strongly influencing which deities were venerated where.

In a survey of eighty-four Greek temples of the Classical period (480 to 338 B.C.), Gregory J. Retallack of the University of Oregon in Eugene studied the local geology, topography, soil, and vegetation — as well as historical accounts by the likes of Herodotus, Homer, and Plato — in an attempt to answer a seemingly simple question: why are the temples where they are?

No clear pattern emerged until he turned to the gods and goddesses. It was then that he discovered a robust link between the soil on which a temple stood and the deity worshiped there.

For example, Demeter, the goddess of grain and fertility, and Dionysos, the god of wine, both were venerated on fertile, well-structured soils called Xerolls, which are ideal for grain cultivation.

Artemis, the virgin huntress, and her brother Apollo, the god of light and the Sun, were worshiped in rocky Orthent and Xerept soils suitable only for nomadic herding.

And maritime deities, such as Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Poseidon, the sea god, were revered on Calcid soils on coastal terraces too dry for agriculture.

The pattern suggests that the deities' cults were based on livelihood as much as on religion. And, says Retallack, temple builders may have chosen sites to make the deities feel at home.

The findings were detailed in the journal Antiquity.