Cults in Ancient Macedonia


Nowadays historians generally agree that the Macedonians form part of the Greek ethnos; hence they also shared in the common religious and cultural features of the Hellenic world.

Consequently most of the gods worshipped in Greece can also be found in Macedonia. However regional characteristics have to be noted. Especially in the areas bordering on Thrace and among the Paeonians in the north – though these had early contacts with the Macedonians in the centre – local deviants in cult and religion have been attested.

The cult of Zeus was one of the most important cults in Macedonia. Its places of worship on Olympus, at the foot of the mountain at Dion, and at Aegae (Vergina) were extremely popular. As father of Makedon he was the Macedonians’ eponymous ancestor.

The cult of Artemis was widely practised. Although most of the evidence dates to Roman times one may assume the existence of older religious practices. In the areas in contact with Thrace it is determined by the Thracian cult of Artemis and the worship of Bendis, probably themselves types of a deity of fertility and vegetation. Herodotus (4.33) says that women in Thrace and Paeonia always brought wheat-straw in their offerings to Artemis Basileia. In central Macedonia Enodia is attested, on horseback and holding a torch. She has frequently been associated with Artemis.

By comparison the cult of Apollo is not as widespread. Here too local deviants can be found. In Thessalonica, where Pythian Games were held in honour of Apollo Pythius, the cult of Apollo is even connected with the Cabiri.

The cult of Dionysus, whom the Paeonians called Dyalus, was especially popular. However, the sites are unevenly distributed. On the basis of the borders of the later Macedonian provinces there are fewer monuments for Dionysus in the south-west, while one of the cult centres was in the area of the Pangaeus – a region admittedly also settled in by the Thracians.

Zeus, Apollo, Heracles, Dionysus, Athena, and other such gods appear on coins of the 5th and 4th cents. BC. This evidence, however, ought not to be overestimated since these gods were depicted in order to demonstrate the close links with the Greek world. Especially important was Heracles not only as the ancestor of the Macedonian royal family, but also fulfilling manifold other functions, e.g. as the patron of hunting.

Other cults of not inconsiderable importance were those of Helios, among the Paeonians worshipped as a disc, Selene, the Dioscuri, healing deities -represented by Asclepius and Hygeia- river-gods, nymphs, the Pierian Muses, and a strange snake.

Alongside the cult of Dionysus and the Samothracian mysteries, Orphism too was not unknown (Derveni papyrus c.330 BC.)

The so-called Thracian Rider is attested on votive tablets in north and east Macedonia. However, in contrast to Thrace the ‘Heros Equitans’ is frequently depicted on Macedonian tomb-stones. The numerous deifications of the dead as e.g. Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Eros, Hermes, and Heracles belong in this context. These monuments, as well as most river-statues and the votive reliefs depicting various deities, generally date to the second half of the 2nd and the first half of the 3rd cent. AD.


Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996), p.905