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ISTHMIA Corinthia, Greece.

In ancient literature, the name refers to the Isthmian Festival, held every two years in the Sanctuary of Poseidon on the Isthmus of Corinth. As a geographical designation “Isthmia,” with accent on the second syllable, is a modern form.

The Corinthians credited their king Sisyphos with the founding of the Isthmian Games at the funeral of the boy Melikertes-Palaimon, who was drowned in the Saronic Gulf and brought to the Isthmus on the back of a dolphin; the Athenians claimed that their hero Theseus was the founder. In the 49th Olympiad, 582-578 B.C., the games were reorganized as a Panhellenic festival and were thenceforth held biennially in the spring, in even years B.C. and in odd years A.D. The Corinthians had charge of the games except for a time after the destruction of Corinth in 146 B.C., when the Sikyonians assumed management and possibly transferred the games to Sikyon.

The cult of Poseidon was established as early as the 8th c. B.C. The first temple, built about 700 B.C., was a Doric building with 7 x 19 wooden columns. The walls were of stone, with painted panels on the exterior. East of the temple was a large sacrificial area, now strewn with ash, burned animal bones, and smooth pebbles, the latter probably brought by worshipers to be used for symbolic participation in the slaying of the victims. The archaic temple was destroyed by fire about 470 B.C. and a new temple, also Doric, with 6 x 13 columns, was erected before 450 B.C. Severely damaged by fire in 390 B.C., it was restored and remained standing until Early Christian times. A marble torso of a colossal female figure, found in the temple, is probably from a cult statue of Amphitrite, worshiped together with Poseidon. A later cult group, described by Pausanias, consisted of chryselephantine statues of Poseidon and Amphitrite standing in a four-horse chariot flanked by tritons. There was also a statue of Palaimon nearby. An altar, 40 m long, stood E of the temple. Pebbles like those from the sacrificial area of earlier times lie scattered along the front of the altar foundation.

A little to the SW of the temple but outside the precinct proper, is an immense well, ca. 5 in in diameter and nearly 20 in deep. Abandoned as a well about the middle of the 5th c. B.C., it was subsequently used as a refuse pit.

Little remains of the precinct wall from the Greek period except foundations of two propylons, one on the E, the other on the N. In the 1st c. A.D. a precinct of smaller size was built with a gateway at the E end and probably one at the W. A new altar of more modest dimensions was then constructed. Still later the temenos was enlarged as a quadrangle with stoas of the Ionic order on the S, E, and W, and a precinct wall on the N. No altar from that period has been discovered; it may have stood on the earlier altar foundation close to the temple. There was a monumental propylon in the SE corner and two smaller gateways, one at the E end, the other at the W.

Adjacent to the SE corner of the Precinct of Poseidon was the Palaimonion, an extensive cult area covering the NW end of the abandoned earlier stadium. All the buildings are of Roman date. The precinct contained three sacrificial pits and a circular temple, underneath which is a crypt in which oaths were administered. Terracotta lamps, found scattered in front of the temple, would have been used in the nocturnal rites of the mystery cult, at which black bullocks were sacrificed to the hero. In the temple was a statue of Melikertes-Palaimon lying on a dolphin.

The earlier stadium, which was close to the Temple of Poseidon, measured ca. 192 m in length. It had 16 lanes with unique starting gates (balbides) of wood erected on a stone sill. In its second period the racecourse was shortened to ca. 181 m. A new starting line was made of stone with a single groove and with wooden posts set in lead. In Hellenistic times this stadium was abandoned and a new stadium built in a natural hollow some 250 m from the Precinct of Poseidon.

The theater is located some fifty m to the NE of the Precinct of Poseidon. Its original construction, with rectilinear orchestra, goes back to about 400 B.C. It was twice rebuilt in Greek times and twice by the Romans, first probably for Nero's visit in A.D. 67 and again a century later. Both Roman reconstructions remained unfinished.

Above the theater is a cult cave divided into two compartments, each provided with dining couches. The chambers were entered through open courts in which meals were prepared to be served inside, probably to members of some sacred guild. The cave fell into disuse about 350 B.C. In the NE corner of the Poseidon precinct was a similar cave, also with two chambers, and close to it a raised area which probably held an altar. West of the Temple of Poseidon are the W waterworks, containing a small room with a water tank; this may have functioned as a baptisterion in some cult of Chthonic deities. There is a well-preserved underground reservoir a little NW of the temple. South of the sanctuary is a prominent ridge, on which are ruins of a textile establishment dating from Hellenistic times.

Some 400 m SW of the Poseidon precinct was the Sacred Glen, which contained shrines of Artemis, Dionysos, Demeter and Kore, and Eueteria. About 2 km W of the temple is a pi-shaped foundation which must have supported some unroofed structure, perhaps the cult place of some deity or hero worshiped in connection with the horse races. The hippodrome may have been close to the monument.

The movable finds from the excavations are to be exhibited in a museum, now being constructed close to the modern road S of the Precinct of Poseidon. It will house the antiquities from the Isthmian sanctuary as well as those from Kenchreai and from other nearby sites. Among the sculptures from Isthmia is a large marble bowl, perirrhanterion, carried on the heads of four female figures, each standing on a lion and holding its tail in one hand and a leash in the other. This sophisticated piece from about 650 B.C. stood at the entrance into the archaic temple and served worshipers and priests for the ritual washing of hands.


Paus. 1.1.3-2.2; Philostr. Imag. 2.16; P. Monceaux, Gazette Archéologique (1884) 273-85, 354-63; J. G. Frazer, Paus. Des. Gr. (1898) 70-72, III 4-16; J. H. Jenkins & H. Megaw in BSA 32 (1931-32) 68-69MI; H. N. Fowler, Corinth I: Topography (1932) 59-71MPI; O. Broneer in Hesperia 22 (1953) 182-95PI; 24 (1955) 110-41PI; 27 (1958) 1-37PI; 28 (1959) 298-343MPI; 31 (1962) 1-25PI; in Klio 39 (1961) 249-70PI; O. Broneer, Biblical Archaeologist Reader II 393-420PI; id., Χαριστήριον εἰς . Κ. Ὀρλάνδον Γ, 61-85PI; HThR 64 (1971) 169-87; Isthmia I, Temple of Poseidon (1971); Isthmia II, Topography and Architecture (1973) (other volumes are in preparation); E. R. Gebhard, The Theater at Isthmia (1973).


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