The protective function of ancient Greek sanctuaries

It is very tempting to look at the kind of protection sanctuaries granted to people and call it “asylum”. To some extent, it would be correct, but not quite. The ancient world had an institution called asylia, which literally translates as “prohibition against stealing” and guaranteed the safe conduct of the people who went outside of the jurisdiction of their local justice. To put it simply: asylia served as a common rule, effective between city-states, to compensate the fact that laws were different from a city to another. Sanctuaries themselves were protected by it.

In practice: someone, when entering a sanctuary, was entering the asylon hieron. That is, the inviolable precinct of the deity. Therefore, the sanctuary itself was protected by asylia, and the person entering it was as well, but only to a limited extent.

If this person was fleeing troubles there, the asylia alone was not enough. Additional regulations applied that made it so that anonymous stay on sacred land was not tolerated.

So, what type of protection could one get from a sanctuary?

Let’s continue with our hypothetical person: they flee in the sanctuary, knowing that they are, at least, physically safe there but that they won’t be able to stay unless they explicitly seek out help. They have to reach out to one of the priestly personnel there and explain their situation to then, ask for a particular ritual: the hiketeia.

This ritual gives our person a particular status, one of a suppliant (masc. hiketes; fem. hiketis). The ritual itself took the form of the person sitting at/on the altar or before the statue of the god while holding a particular symbol which identified them as a suppliant. This symbol would often be a fresh twig or a strand of wool. The act of sitting down in the sanctuary is arguably the most important code, to the point where the phrase “he sat down in the sanctuary” could be used to refer to someone seeking refuge, and is also an element found in artistic depictions.

Once this new status acquired, the priest officially became the suppliant’s legal advisor. There are various reasons why someone would seek help at a sanctuary. Of course, there are always the exceptional situations like wars and civil unrest, but sanctuary protection could be sought out for private matters as well: escaping a forced marriage, leaving a marriage, taking care of orphans, negotiating a reconciliation between family members are all cases attested. As for public life, sanctuary protection could be used for diplomatic missions to guarantee the safety of the people involved.

The limitations and failures of hiketeia

Hiketeia has two simple rules:

  • anyone can request to be a suppliant
  • refusing to grant protection is a sacrilege

and those two rules were exactly what made the job dangerous for the priests, depending on who requested protection. Politicians and criminals being the hardest to deal with. In the case of the latter, the priest’s role would often be to deescalate situations where the person could be violent or seeking revenge -all while knowing that temple protection didn’t immune the person to further legal proceedings- In those situations, the priests seemed to have acted as mediation between the criminal and the legal system.

In the case of politically motivated requests, this could put the priestly personnel in a dangerous position, stuck between possible retaliation from political opponents and sacrilege.

This pressure put on the priestly personnel was often too much for them to bear and eventually led to disfunctions. Unable to explicitly refuse, priests came up with ways to dodge the sacred law. A common method to get rid of an unwanted suppliant was to pretend to ask an oracle how to deal with them, to which the oracle would answer in the vaguest possible way, allowing the priests to interpret the “answer” to their favor. Athens chose another route and placed a police station at the entrance of the Acropolis to filter out unwanted suppliants.

In other circumstances, sacred immunity has been completely broken. This was mostly the case in times of war, where suppliants would be forcefully driven out of sanctuaries, besieged until starvation, burnt or massacred.

Examples of mistreatment of suppliants are plenty, which can indicate the difficulty of applying the sacred law, but they also serve to emphasize how morally wrong those examples are. This is supported by the punishments given for the sacrilege, though it is difficult to know if those events are legendary or if they actually happened. For example, Spartan king Kleomenes is said to have gone mad in his later years, which has been attributed by the Greeks as divine punishment for having ordered the death of thousands of suppliants in Argos. Sulla’s stomach illnesses were also attributed to crimes against suppliants. The same would be said of natural catastrophes or military defeats.

Whether or not those instances were in fact divine punishment matters little, what is important is the collective agreement within Greek society that mistreating suppliants was an act worthy of divine punishment.


This post is mostly a summary of

Sinn U. , “Greek sanctuaries as places of refuge”  in: Greek sanctuaries, new approaches (ed. Nanno Marinatos & Robin Hägg), 1993

However, for further reading about the concept of hiketeia:

Gould J., Hiketeia, in: The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1973

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