The Spartan attitude toward the Gods

A scholar once called Sparta “the state swayed beyond all others by the fear of the gods.”  They consulted oracles for the god’s guidance about whether to go to war, which man to make king, and which laws to adopt.

Many Spartans exploited this fear of the gods in their countrymen – they realized, for example, that the priests who administer oracles can be bribed like anyone else.  (Priests at oracles tended to control access to a divine priestess figure, such as the Pythia, who, babbled unintelligible prophecies in a state of divine ecstasy; the priests then helped to interpret the output)

Lysander was famously cynical about these things.  He even took a turn at oracle-bribing once.

But he also knew how to counter against religious attacks.  Once was approaching the temple of the oracle on Samothrace, and a priest stood in his way asked Lysander to openly confess the most lawless deed that he had ever committed in his lifetime.

“If you want the gods’ advice, you must show them your heart.”

Lysander asked, “Is it you who commands this, or the gods?”

And when the priest said, “The gods, of course.”  Lysander replied, “Move out of the way then, and I’ll tell them if they ask.”

The priest at this point was trying to rein Lysander in, to impose some control on him.  A juicy confession could be used against him.  Whether the priest meant it for good or for ill, we don’t know.

Religious scruples (of some kind) are our most fundamental guide to right behavior.  We can’t function without them, and the divine rewards obedience, often in ways beyond our understanding.

But we inevitably encounter people who will try to manipulate us based on our convictions about the god(s).  They may be our co-religionists, they may come from rival creeds, they may be cynical nihilists.  They will twist good and genuine religious sentiments to their own ends, attempt to subordinate us to their schemes – perhaps even without realizing it.

We should be on guard.  But more importantly, we should never confuse the rhetoric of religious schemers for the will of God, nor lose faith in the second simply because we find the first all around.

Stay Ancient,