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Temple of Apollo Ismenios, Thebes

Archaeological Development

It had been the site of cult activity since the geometric period, when the first temple had been built on the site. It underwent a further two developments. Firstly, in the 7th/6th century BC, it was at this period that the Cedar wood cult statue was placed in the temple, and was later seen by Pausanias, - "the Ismenian is of cedar-wood". [Pausanias 9.10.2].
• Secondly, in the early 4th century, building was haltered most likely due to the destruction of Thebes. Before building stopped the statutes of Athena and Hermes Pronaoi sculpted by Skopas and Pheidias respectively, were moved to the Temple. They too were still there at the time of Pausanias who saw that at "the entrance are Athena and Hermes, stone figures and named Pronai of the fore-temple). The Hermes is said to have been made by Pheidias, the Athena by Scopas." [Pausanias 9.10.2]
• Mackil notes that the pattern displayed by the archaeological evidence can be seen in other sanctuaries across the region of Boiotia. Sanctuaries appear to have been invested in in the 6th century BC due to the prosperity of Thebes and the Polis' influence over Boiotia, and again in the 370's and 360's due to the success that it had both militarily and politically. However, as the prosperity and influence dwindled so too did the investment in the temples and sanctuaries.
• Excavations in Thebes occurred in the early 20th century. The excavations of the temple were halted in 1917. During which the remains of the 4th century temple was unearthed by Keramopoullos. The dimensioins of the temple were as follows: 21,60X9,30 m and columns respectively 12X6. And was likely built after the battle of Leuktra [371BC]
Excavations resumed in the summer of 2011 and were led by Bucknell University. During these excavations, much work was carried out on the site including;
a) cleaning “the western temple remains in order to leave them as they were originally left after the 1917 excavations,
b) created a local and internally consistent digital surveying grid system onto which all future archaeological remains can be plotted,
c) digitally measured the exposed temple remains at every 10 centimetres and plotted each point into this grid to create a new temple plan,
d) excavated five 5×5 meter areas and two 10×10 meter areas on the temple hill and in the area adjacent to the hill,” [1]


  • Apollo Ismenus was seen as the “source of civic order at Thebes,” [Mackil 170] this was because of his supposed involvement in the conquest of the Boiotians, as he was a local variation of the god. The Boiotians were meant to have pushed the inhabitants back as far as the Orchomenos region, which was used to explain the rivalry between Thebes and Orchomenos.
  • It was an Apollonie oracle, due to its close proximity with the oracle at Delphi, there was much competition between the two. Pindar credits it as being the “treasure-house which Loxias honoured above all and named the Ismenion, true seat of prophecy” [Pindar Pythian 11-5]
  • Apollo was meant to have had two children by the nymph Melia, one was Tenerus who was given the gift of divination and the second was Ismenus after whom the river was named.

Ritual Activity

Sacrifices at the site were made through the process of empyromancy, which is where the offering is made at the great altar and the flames are then inspected by the prophet. Depending on the rise and fall of the flames would then be consulted. In Sophocles’ Antigone, the seer Teiresias consulted the flames before of advising Creon; “I tried burnt-sacrifice on a duly-kindled altar, but from my offerings Hephaestus did not blaze. Instead juice that had sweated from the thigh-flesh trickled out onto the embers and smoked and sputtered” [lines 1005-1010]


  • As it was an Apolline sanctuary therefore tripods were meant to have been dedicated there. Although there is no quantifiable evidence to suggest that there was an oracle that sat on a tripod like the oracle at Delphi however there are a high proportion of Tripods dedicated there in accordance with the Apolline tradition. In Pindar, Pythian Ode 11 he calls the Temple “the sanctuary of golden tripods” [Pindar Pythian Odes 11.4]
  • The pais amphithales was supposed to have dedicated a tripod at the time of his inauguration however Pausanias says “. I cannot say for certain whether all alike who have worn the laurel dedicate by custom a bronze tripod to the god; but I do not think that it is the rule for all, because I did not see many votive tripods there. But the wealthier of the boys do certainly dedicate them.” [Pausanias Description of Greece 9.10.4]


  • The cult of Apollo Ismenus was characterised by an oracle and the annual ritual of the Daphnephoria [the laying of the Laurel] and the practice of dedicating tripods. It is debated whether it occurred once every year or once every nine years. A young Theban boy that had been chosen from the elite would be confirmed as the new priest of Apollo Ismenus for the following year. The young boy who was known as the pais amphithales would carry laurel to the shrine of Apollo and would be followed by a chorus of young girls. “A boy of noble family, who is himself both handsome and strong, is chosen priest of Ismenian Apollo for a year. He is called Laurel-bearer, for the boys’ wear wreaths of laurel leaves.” [Pausanias Description of Greece 9.10.4]
  • Mackil suggest that “the Daphnephoria itself, and the choruses sung to accompany it, ritualized the prevalence of civic virtues like justice and moderation, negotiating a place for elite competition within an emergent Theban state power for Thebes in an emergent Boiotian state power” [Mackil (2013)168]
  • Proclos [412-485 AD] although a much later source, provides important information about the reason that the Daphnephoria was started. He suggests that it was starter to celebrate a truce between the Boiotoi who had invaded the territory of the Arne and the Pelasgians who had previously inhabited the land. Proclos gives the explanation that “because there was a festival to Apollo in common to both groups, they made truces”. [Proclos] The leader of the Boiotoi had a dream prior to the invasion in which he was visited by a young man who demonstrated what was to come and instructed him to institute the Daphnephoria ritual to commemorate their seizure of Thebes.
  • The procession started out at the pais amphithales house, he was then likely followed by his closest male relative who carries the kōpō. This was a log of olive wood that was elaborately decorated, with images of the cosmos and femininity which was wrapped in laurel. Following this was the daphnephoros who holds the laurel. This procession would go to the Temple of Apollo Ismenus, before heading to another unknown shrine. [Mackil (2013)169]
  • The laurel that was used in the procession was meant to have come from different parts of Boiotia which was meant to symbolise the unification of the area that was associated with the establishment of this cult. Some was meant to have been brought from Mount Helikon and the other from the nearby River Melas.


  • There is also evidence to suggest that there were celebrations of conviviality during which the performance of a paean od praise composed by Pindar. The paean included the story of the seduction of Melia by Apollo. Another paean evoked a banquet which was held in honour of Apollo. These would likely take place at the Isemenion to commemorate the end of the seasonal cycle. [Calame (2009) 102]

Who used the site, and where did they come from? 

It was a festival that was arguably to unite the different Boiotia communities. It was meant to have participation the entire population of Boiotia in a centrally located cult and festival in the Daphnephoria. It was meant to emphasise civic order and show that the region was united.

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The sanctuary is located just outside of the Gates of Electra, where in myth Cadmus is supposed to have buried the dragon’s teeth, from which the autochthonous inhabitants of the city sprang.

The river Ismenion flowed at the bottom of the hill on which the sanctuary was founded. The temple is situated on the site that Caanthus, the son of Ocean and the brother of the nymph Melia, was meant to have been shot and killed by the god Apollo. The temple lies on a low hill in the south-east of the Theban Kasmeia which is near the river Ismenus. The river, previously named Ladon, was re-named after the son of the god Apollo, Ismenus, who was born by the nymph Melia.

Site Plan

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