Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC



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Festivals: Hyakinthia, Gymnopaedia, Karneia

See text: p.132 The festival of the Hyakinthia; p.140 The Festival of the Gymnopaidia; pp130-131 The festival of the Karneia

Past HSC question - 2007:
(c) With reference to Source 15 and other sources, describe the main features of Spartan religious festivals. (8 marks)
Source15: Statue of Apollo found in Laconia

Examiners' comment:
(c) Responses that were awarded full marks provided detailed and accurate information about the main features of several Spartan religious festivals. They incorporated the given source and other sources, primary and/or secondary, into their response. A number of candidates gave good descriptions of Spartan religious festivals, showing sound knowledge, but failed to refer to Source 15 or any other sources.

HYAKINTHIA: This festival got its name from the youth Hyakinthos, who according to legend was loved by Apollo. The myth tells of Apollo and Hyakinthos throwing the discuss and when, by accident, Hyakinthos was struck in the head by a bouncing discus thrown by Apollo. Apollo tried to save the man but could not stop the purple blood spilling on to the earth.
“The god cannot save Hyakinthos who is cut down in the ‘flower of youth’, but using his divine powers Apollo metamorphoses Hyakinthos into a purple flower the will return each spring, so that he will never fully die”.

The festival was held at Amyklaion, a hilltop sanctuary at Amyklai 5kms south of Sparta. “Hyakinthos may have been a pre-Dorian divinity whose cult was later blended in with that of Apollo”. Therefore this cult may have symbolically killed Hyakintha but also allowed him to live in a new mystic form.

See also p.133 The sorrowful and joyful stages of the festival, and p.135 Interpretations of the cult
  • Description of the Amyklaion: Pausanias 3.18.9-3.19.5.
  • Describe the Amyklaion.
  • Describe the stages of the festival.
  • What are possible interpretations of the festival?
  • What sources are available about the festival?


GYMNOPAEDIA: Each July Spartan boys gathered at the Choros, (dancing place in the market place of Sparta) and took part in Gymnopaedia, the festival of Unarmed Dancing. The festival began after the Battle of Hysiai 669BC, when Sparta lost to Argos and its aim was to develop “martial skills and spirit”.

The festival "served to commemorate those Spartans who died in Battle of Thyrea" fought and won against Argos in 550BC. The leaders wore "Thyreatic wreaths" on their heads suggesting a connection with the battle. The festival went for several days. These dances were "very athletic war dances".

KARNEIA: The origins of the festival date back to the arrival of the “sons of Herakles in Lakonia”, “It endorses living in the field, military life, athletic training and hunting”. During this festival a runner is decorated as a sacrificial animal (the ram) and is caught by the man in a “hunting ritual”. This sacrifice of Karnos (the ram) suggests a substitution of animal sacrifice for human sacrifice.

The “catch the runner” was designed to show the chances of Spartan success in war. At the time of the second Persian war (480BC), Sparta did not send young men to the north to stem the Persian invasion, because the Karneia was being celebrated and they were needed in Sparta to take part in the race.

See the legend of Karnos and the description of the festival, pp.130-1
  • Describe the main features of the Karneia.
  • What sources are available to add to our understanding of the festival?