The Asylum of Poseidon at Kalaureia

Avery Morrow

          The sanctuary of Poseidon at Kalaureia is ancient even by Greek standards; before any buildings were constructed there, archaeology indicates that it was used for less understood means, with graves on the island dating back to the Mycenaean period, structures of unknown purpose dating to 1000 BCE, and a recent survey suggesting that human activity began there in the early Bronze Age (Papadopoulos 75). From the Mycenaean period until the Christian era it was in constant use and a fairly busy place, considering that its location on the sparsely inhabited island of Poros kept it distanced from the neighboring polis of Troizen. Kalaureia was used in various overlapping periods as an asylum, a cult site, a seat of political power, and a place where young girls performed service before they were married (Schumacher 73-4). The written evidence we have for activity at Kalaureia is above average for a sanctuary so foreign to Athens; Strabo and Pausanias detail its history more scrupulously than the other temples of Poseidon in the area, and Callimachus, a Hellenistic-era poet, also mentions it in passing. Kalaureia’s archaeology is also beneficial. Schumacher’s essay on Kalaureia, written in 1993, makes note of the initial 1894 excavation by Swedish archaeologists Sam Wide and Lennart Kjellberg and disregards it as basically fruitless, but from 1997 to 2004, the Swedish Institute at Athens did a more detailed archaeological excavation and survey. The Carleton library does not contain the journals where their results were published (see note), so I rely on their own summary, published online (SIA 2004), and a letter written from the director of the survey to a resort on Poros (Wells 2005).

            Little is known about how Poseidon was worshipped at Kalaureia, but Schumacher gives strong evidence that the epithet of Poseidon at Kalaureia was Geraistios. Geraistos is a word from an unknown pre-Hellenic language (66), the name of a Cyclops and also connected to a race of nymphs who cared for the child Zeus. Indeed, the main connection between Geraistos and Kalaureia, one of two aetiologies of Kalaureia, relates to Zeus. A dictionary of place-names by Stephanus of Byzantium, written in the 6th century AD, gives the story of three brothers and sons of Zeus, Geraistos, Tainaros, and Kalauros, who sailed from an unspecified location and landed in different places on the Peloponnesus (63). Geraistos, Tainaros, and Kalaureia are all sanctuaries of Poseidon; in the towns of the latter two, one of the months of the year was named Geraistios (the only other poleis with this month name are Sparta, Kalymna, and Kos). Schumacher theorizes that the epithet Geraistios also applies to Kalaureia because all three sanctuaries function as asyla, a purpose which will be discussed later. Given the evidence he presents and the later collection of these three sanctuaries by Stephanus, I am inclined to agree.

            The second aetiology of Kalaureia, which is surprisingly accounted for by three different sources, explains that the island was bartered for by Poseidon himself. According to Pausanias (10.5.6), who references an old poem called “Eumolpia,” the island of Kalaureia was originally owned by Apollo, and Delphi was owned jointly by Poseidon and Gaia. Gaia gave her share of Delphi to Themis, who further gave it to Apollo. In exchange for full control of Delphi, Apollo gave Poseidon Kalaureia. This exchange is also attested by Callimachus (frag. 221) and another story of Pausanias (2.33.2) which references an oracle’s poem: “For thee it is the same thing to possess Delos or Kalaureia / most holy Pytho [Delphi] or windy Taenarum.” On the other hand, Strabo (Geo. 8.6.14) tells the same story, and quotes the same poem, which he says he found in Ephorus’ world history, but his version has Leto exchanging Kalaureia for Delos, while Apollo gives Poseidon Tainaros in exchange for Delphi. In any case, the major issue that these aetiologies have in common is that Kalaureia did not belong to Poseidon originally.

            The major events in the history of Kalaureia are well-documented, but recent archaeology has found evidence of several previously unknown periods. The excavations of the SIA (2004, Wells 2005) show that an initial sanctuary, a small building containing decorated Geometric vessels which were probably used in a sacrificial meal, was built circa 750 BCE. At the end of the 6th century BCE, a temple to Poseidon was built (marked Temple on the map below), but this building was used as a quarry in the 18th century CE, so nothing of it remains. Nearby, a building was dedicated to Asclepius (Building G). Other gods with cults on the island include Zeus Soter, Artemis, and Aphrodite. In the second half of the 4th century BCE, a much larger sanctuary was built, the foundations of which still remain. It was in this building where the main events attributed to Kalaureia took place.

            Pausanias (2.33.2) tells us that the sanctuary was host to a single priestess, a young girl who served Poseidon until she reached the age of marriage. However, Kalaureia’s more famous attribute was its property of asylum, which it shared with the other sanctuaries of Poseidon Geraistios. Kalaureia is famous as being the death place of Demosthenes; he entered the asylum under the pretense of praying to Poseidon before returning to Athens, secretly took poison there, and then stumbled out of the sanctuary to die in order not to pollute the sacred ground. The SIA’s excavations revealed dining rooms inside the sanctuary, presumably for visitors seeking asylum. According to Strabo, the worship of “this god”, perhaps Poseidon Geraistios, was once so prevalent among the Greeks that even the Macedonians were afraid to violate its status as a place of asylum.

            In the Archaic period, Kalaureia may have been host to its own Amphictyonic League (Harland 160). Strabo names seven cities which supported Kalaureia, five of which paid dues, for a league which may have had marital or religious implications. However, Jonathan Hall (584) doubts that an Archaic League ever existed, giving an alternative explanation that it was founded in the Hellenistic period, and that the Archaic predecessor implied by Strabo and a Hellenistic inscription was purely imaginary. If this is the case, the League may have had something to do with the enormous feast from the Hellenistic period discovered by the SIA excavation at Building D. The remains of this feast, including 20,000 fragments of pottery and 2,000 fragments of cow, goat, sheep, and pig bone, were buried immediately after the meal, suggesting it was a one-time event (Wells 2005).

            Why was Kalaureia chosen as a sanctuary of Poseidon? There is the obvious fact that it is on an island, but that doesn’t solve the question of why it is not located directly in the town of Poros. Schumacher (83) suggests that it has to do with Poseidon as the god of uncontrolled forces. While Poseidon is the god of horses, he notes, “Athena invented the bit;” and Poseidon may be the force behind the wild sea, but Athena controlled it by inventing the ship. Therefore, it would make sense that Poseidon’s sanctuary would be located away from town, on the hillside.


Hall, Jonathan M. “How Argive was the ‘Argive’ Heraion? The Political and Cultic Geography of the Argive Plain, 900-400 B.C.” American Journal of Archaeology 99. pp. 577-613. 1995.

Harland, J. Penrose. “The Calaurian Amphictyony.” American Journal of Archaeology 29:2. pp.160-171. Apr. 1925.

Papadopoulos N.G., Sarris A., Kokkinou E., et al. “Contribution of multiplexed electrical resistance and magnetic techniques to the archaeological investigations at Poros, Greece.” Archaeological Introspection 13 (2): pp.75-90. Apr-Jun 2006.

Swedish Institute at Athens. “Kalaureia Excavation Project.” 2004. 5 Nov. 2006 <>

Schumacher, Rob W.M. “Three Related Sanctuaries of Poseidon.” Greek Sanctuaries: New Approaches. Eds. Marinatos, Nanno and Hägg, Robert, Routledge: New York, 1993.

Wells, Berit. “The Kalaureia Excavation Project”. Saga Hotel Poros. 2005. 5 Nov. 2006


Note: I was unable to locate the following sources, which could be useful for further research.

Wells, Berit, Penttinen, Arto, and Billot, Marie-Françoise, “Investigations in the Sanctuary of Poseidon on Kalaureia, 1997-2001.” Opuscula Atheniensia 28. 2003. pp. 29-87.

Hägg, Robert. “Some reflections on the sanctuary of Poseidon at Kalaureia in the Bronze Age.” Ed. E. Konsolaki-Yannopoulou, ARGOSARONIKOS. 1st International conference on the history and archaeology of the Argo-Saronic Gulf, vol 1, Poros 2003. pp. 333-335.

Wells, Berit. “The sanctuary of Poseidon at Kalaureia. The investigations of 1997.” Ed. E. Konsolaki-Yannopoulou , ARGOSARONIKOS. 1st International conference on the history and archaeology of the Argo-Saronic Gulf , vol 1, Poros 2003. pp. 337-347.