Delphi: Treasury of the Athenians by Richard Sheppard
People tend to treat Greek temples as ancient houses of worship. Later generations didn’t hesitate to turn them into churches, then into mosques. Today, these battered ruins still evoke powerful spiritual impulses. But we should be mindful of what we project onto romantically dilapidated piles of marble.
Ancient Greek authors vividly described a society in which most holy places had no preacher or temple and needed none. The act of worship took place under the sky, around an altar, as prayers and sacrifices and ceremonial meals. Their stone temples, a huge collective effort that still dominates our image of the Classical past, left surprisingly few traces in surviving literary sources to explain why they were built.
Once built, we know what temples were used for. The offerings excavated around them fill our museums: drinking cups, figures of people and animals, but also a surprising amount of military hardware: spearheads, shields, helmets, chariot hubs, warships’ rams. Some objects are inscribed: “The Athenians [offered this helmet] to Zeus having taken it from the Medes.” And if you look up at the e …