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Exploring ancient Greek religion
Exploring ancient Greek religion

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3 Keeping it personal

Unlike many religions today, the ancient Greeks lacked sacred books which told them what to believe and how to act in a pious manner. You might well be wondering, then, ‘how did people know how to worship Amphiaraos?’, ‘how did people know what to expect?’, or ‘how is it even possible recover their personal experiences?’. To seek answers to these questions, we need to look to a different kind of evidence.

As you learned in Activity 3, more than 500 inscriptions (that is, text-bearing objects, in this case usually made of stone) survive at the Amphiareion. These inscriptions could take several different forms, such as extended pieces of writing on thin slabs of stone (known as stelai, or stele in the singular: see Figure 5) or short texts accompanying artistic representations on objects of all different shapes and sizes (Figure 3).

A photograph of part of a marble stele.
Figure 5 Side A of a marble stele from the Amphiareion concerning the melting down of votive objects, c. late third century BCE; 77.47cm (height) x 38.10cm (width).

As objects which come down to us directly from the ancient world, inscriptions don’t always survive intact: their texts can have gaps in them (or lacunae as they are otherwise known) or break off in unexpected places; the stone itself may also be damaged and have pieces missing (see Figures 3 and 5). Despite their breakages, these inscriptions offer us glimpses into the religious life of the sanctuary as they were commissioned by the very people and communities who lived and experienced Amphiaraos’ cult worship in ancient times. As such, they permit consideration of the types of personal emotions and expectations people might have had when they visited Amphiaraos’ sanctuary. You will now examine some of these inscriptions for yourself.