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One of the Greek temples in the Valley of Temples outside Agrigento, Sicily

New Study Shows Some Greek Temples Were Oriented to the Moon or Stars, Rather than the Sun

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The Ancient Greeks, who designed temples in honor of gods, goddesses and heroes, usually oriented them facing the rising sun or to the cardinal directions. But a new study shows that a few of the Greek temples near the ancient Sicilian city of Agrigento are aligned to the stars, the moon and the layout of the city. A research team is exploring why.

The temples in question are in the Valley of Temples outside Agrigento, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city was known as Akragas in ancient times. For many years scholars have speculated about the orientations of the temples. Ten temples remain standing in Akragas, including those of Herakles, Jupiter, Juno, Demeter and Persephone, Concordia, and Vulcan.

The research team of Robert Hannah of the University of Waikato in New Zealand, Giulio Magli of the School of Civil Architecture in Milan and archaeoastronomer Andrea Orlando published the results of their study in arXiv.org. They wrote in the abstract:

The issue of the orientation of Greek Temples has been the subject of several debates since the end of the 19 th century. In fact, although a general tendency to orientation within the arc of the rising sun is undeniable, specific patterns and true meaning remain obscure. … Our results include an important temple which was essentially yet unpublished, and most of all show that very different reasons influenced the orientation choices – some symbolical, but others by far more practical – besides the general rule of orienting “to the rising sun.”

Thirty-eight of the 41 temples that originally stood in Akragas were aligned with the rising of the sun, scholars believe.  But they wrote that they identified a temple oriented with the town’s grid, which was laid out on crossing lines of longitude and latitude. They also said two other temples with anomalous orientations, one aligned to a constellation and the other to the moon.

One of the three that apparently is not aligned with sunrise is the temple of Demeter and Persephone, later transformed into the church of San Biagio in the Middle Ages. It was built between 480 and 470 BC and is aligned with a lunar event called the azimuth.

‘The Return of Persephone’ by Frederick Leighton; the researchers are unsure why the temple of Demeter and Persephone, which they identified based on a statue, was oriented to the lunar azimuth.

‘The Return of Persephone’ by Frederick Leighton; the researchers are unsure why the temple of Demeter and Persephone, which they identified based on a statue, was oriented to the lunar azimuth. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of nature. Her brother Hades, god of the underworld and afterlife, raped and abducted Persephone and took her to his realm. Demeter grieved and withheld grain from the people of Earth. Zeus, having mercy on humanity, sent Hermes to retrieve Persephone, who then lived in the world for eight months of the year and in the underworld during winter. In celebration at having her daughter back, Demeter established the Eleusinian mysteries—the most famous mystery rites in the ancient Greek world.

“We know very little about the relationship between astronomy and those secret religious rites. A connection with the moon-orientated temple is possible and will be at the center of further research,” Magli told Discovery .

The other is the temple of Juno or Hera, which the authors call magnificent, and which they say is oriented to the constellation Delphinus (the Dolphin). It was built in the middle of the fifth century BC.  Hera was Zeus’ wife and the supreme goddess of the Olympians.

The temple of Juno on the hill in the background

The temple of Juno on the hill in the background (Photo by poudou99/ Wikimedia Commons )

The third is the temple of Zeus or Jupiter, the supreme god much loved by the ancient Greeks. “There is therefore little (if any) doubt that one of the largest temples of the Greek world, the Akragas temple of Jupiter – azimuth 78° 30' – was orientated topographically in accordance with the street grid,” they wrote. “Incredible as it may seem, we have been unable to find this simple explanation in the literature.”

The Greeks built their temples in natural places, and admission was reserved to priests and a select few others. The authors say the temple was the god’s home. The statue of the god looked out from the main axis in the direction of the sun in the east in most cases.

“The god's domestic welfare (hence, the beauty and decorum of the building, correct insertion in the landscape, regular giving of daily offerings) was fundamental to assure benevolence and protection to the community,” they wrote. “The cult image, located in the central place of the temple, was in many cases an out-and-out masterpiece, like the famous ivory-and-gold statues of Zeus at Olympia and of Athena in the Parthenon in Athens.”

Featured image: One of the Greek temples in the Valley of Temples outside Agrigento, Sicily (Photo by Jos Dielis/ Wikimedia Commons )

By: Mark Miller

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