Cults of Lycia and Important Deities

There were several religious cults and important deities throughout Lycia, perhaps more, but much remains to be revealed about Lycia. The following are some of the known important cults and deities of Lycia.

Early Worship

This curious piece is found in the Fethiye Museum.  The museum's description reads "This statue from the archaic period (7th century BC ) was left half-finished....the grooves on the statue may be due to natural causes (i.e. rain, etc.). Discovered in the vicinity of Fethiye."  However, we know from several sources that this piece was in fact discovered at Letoon (Lycia's most important religious center), laying on a thorn hedge near the theatre.  George Bean, the late Lycian archeaologist and author of books about Lycia, discovered the statue himself and described it as "unfinished, and perhaps a student's exercise."

Professor Dr. Fahri Işık, a lecturer at Akdeniz University in Antalya and head of excavations at Patara, believes that the statue is an "idol" of an ancient mother goddess (Eni Mahanahi in Lycia) cult.  It is comparable to other such anthropomorphic Anatolian "idol" statues of the same time period (two of which can be seen in museums in Istanbul and Gordion).  Most likely, the goddess Leto (from the Phrygien ancient mother goddess Kybele) came to be worshiped beside this earlier goddess at Letoon and later superseded her.

The statue probably came from an artificially graded area, an open-air cult place, directly east of Letoon's Apollo temple.  Similar cult terraces are seen at Limyra.

Professor Işik believes that the unfinished look of the form is not due to the backwardness of some sculptors, but a conscious holding on to traditional forms.  He dates the sculpture from the third quarter of the 6th century BC and if this dating is correct, it represents the earliest plastic work found in Lycia. If the interpretation is correct of statue depicting the mother goddess Eni Mahanahi, then a clear bridge can be seen by scholars between the Lukka people and the Lycians.

An article written by Professor Işik regarding the statue (in German)


Another Anatolian belief that became a Lycian tradition, was of using the strength of the rocks around them to represent the strength of the gods.  At some places in Lycia, such as Patara, rock altars and niches cut into the living rock are apparent.  Dr. Işık believes that this suggests an Anatolian form of worship seen among the Urartians, probably transferred to the Lycian by the Phrygirans.  At Patara one can also see bowls cut into the rock, believed to have been used to make liquid offerings during religious and funeral ceremonies.  This is also a part of that Anatolian tradition which also seems to have influenced early burials - in early years Lycians at Patara would be buried in rock formations on the Tepecik Acropolis, very much like the Hittites.


Leto, Apollo and Artemis

In Lycia, Leto, Apollo and Artemis were worshiped above all other deities and by far the most important religious sanctuary in Lycia was dedicated to Leto, called Letoon, in the Xanthos valley. It was the sacred cultic center of Lycia and Leto was the prime deity worshiped there, but in later dates her two twin children Apollo and Artemis were given equal importance. Letoon is undoubtedly of great antiquity and may go back to the 7th century B.C. Three temples stand here dedicated to Leto and her two children - the national deities of Lycia, as well as a nympahaeum, theatre, and a more recent Byzantine church. As the national sanctuary of Lycia, national festivals were held here and the sanctuary’s priests were the highest priests of the Lycian Union.  Other Lycian shrines to Leto exist in Calinda and Psychus (northwest Lycia) but neither of them were as famous or important as that of Letoon which was well-known in the ancient world.

It is believed that Leto was one manifestation of the wide-spread mother-goddess religion which originated in Anatolia and spread throughout the ancient world.  Most likely, the worship of Leto began alongside that of an older mother goddess (Eni Mahanahi in Lycia, see above) at Letoon and later superseded the older goddess.

The Cult of Leto was mostly concentrated along the western regions of Anatolia’s southern shore.  In Lycia she was worshiped as a national and family deity, as well as the guardian of the tomb.

According to legend, Leto was loved by Zeus and persecuted by the jealous Hera. Fleeing from the goddess’s wrath, Leto fled to Patara where she gave birth to her twins. In one story Leto is harrassed by some Lycian shepherds at a spring as they try to drive her away from the water.  She punishes them by turning them into frogs.  In another story, the persecuted Leto is aided by wolves who guide her to the river Xanthos where she quenches her thirst and washes her children. In memory of this occasion she changes the name of the country from Termilis to Lycia, "lykos" being the Greek world for "wolf".  This legend of Leto and the wolves existed for a long time in western Anatolia - still under the Roman Empire coins were minted depicting the fleeing Leto with her children. Some believe that the cult of Leto existed in Lycia prior to the Greek period and that Leto's name may be related to "lada" which is Lycian for "woman" or "wife".  Leto cults also existed in Halicarnaussus, Cnidus, Phrygia, Caria and Cilicia.

Though Apollo's birthplace is attributed to several places in myth, it is believed that Apollo is an Anatolian god and was adopted by the Greeks.  In both myth and ritual, he is often summoned to return to Greece.

In the Iliad, Homer mentions Apollo as "Phoibos", which means 'illuminated', and 'the famous Lycian archer, Apollo.' Apollo along with his Anatolian sister, Artemis, aided the Trojans.  Artemis is considered to be a continuation of mother-goddess religion, under a new name. The name 'Lycia' may have meant 'illuminated nation' in ancient times, as its god Apollo was perceived to have light in his lineage.

The importance of Leto and her children in Lycia can also be seen at the capitol city of Xanthos where the northern door to the city bears the inscription "The Great King Antiochus dedicates the city to Leto, Apollo and Artemis".

Telmessos, an important Lycian city (present day Fethiye), was famous for its soothsayers who were dedicated to Apollo and were said to have a great impact on the course of history.

The existance of an Apollon temple at the Lycian site of Patara is indicated by the discovery of a large bust of Apollo.  Many temples have been found at Patara, but the whereabouts of the Apollon temple is unknown.  Excavators have found the remains of a temple under a harbor basilica and hope that this is not the temple of Apollo, since it has been largely destroyed and is underwater.

Patara’s oracle at this renowned but
undiscovered temple of Apollo was said to rival that at Delphi and the temple equaled the reputation of the famous temple on the island of Delos. 

Another Apollon temple exists at the small Lycian settlement of Sura, a dependency of Myra.  The temple's location is known, erected directly on the harbor of Sura but today stands upon marshy ground.  It was known for its curious fish oracle ceremonies.  Carved on the inside of the temple are a number of inscriptions recording devotions paid by suppliants not to Apollo Surius, but to Sozon the Anatolian horse-man god and Zeus Atabyrius the Rhodian deity.  At the southwest corner of Sura's acropolis is a row of rock-cut stelae with lists of clergy attached to the cult of Apollo Surius.

According to Pliny:

"At Myra in Lycia at the fountain of Apollo whom they call Surius, the fish, summoned three times on a pipe, come to give their augury.  If they tear the pieces of meat thrown to them, this is good for the client, if they wave it away with their tails, it is bad."

Atheanaios reports on the ceremony:

"I don't want to ignore the people of Lycia who know the art of the fish oracle.  Of them, Polycharmus writes in the second book of his Lycian history. '...when they come to the sea, where is the grove of Apollo by the shore, on which is the whirlpool in the sand, the clients present themselves holding two wooden spits, on each of which are ten pieces of roast meat.  The priest takes his seat in silence by the grove, while the client throws the spits into the whirlpool and watches what happens.  After the spits are thrown, the pool fills with seawater, and a multitude of fish appear as if by magic, and of a size to cause alarm. The prophet announces the species of the fish and the client accordingly receives his answer from the priest.  Among the fish there appear sea bass and bluefish and sometimes whales and sawfish and many strange and unknown kinds."

Plutarch and Artemidorus also offer similar accounts of the fish oracle ceremonies at the Apollo Surius temple.

Apollo's sister Artemis had a cult center in the important Lycian city of Myra.  Myra's main cult was dedicated to Artemis Eleuthera, a distinctive form of Cybele, the ancient mother-goddess of Anatolia. She had a magnificent temple in Myra, but it was heavily damaged in the earthquake of 141 AD.  An inscription on the heroum of the Lycian leader Opramoas indicates that he contributed the necessary funds for reconstruction of the temple that was famous as Lycia's  largest and most spendid building.  It occupied large grounds with beautiful gardens and had an inner court defined by columns, an altar and a statue of the goddess.

Unfortunately, St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, was zealous in his duties as bishop and took strong measures against paganism. The temple of Artemis was among many other temples in the region that he destroyed.  It is said that the very foundations were uprooted from the ground, so complete was its destruction, "and the evil spirits fled howling before him."

Artemis was also worshipped (among other places) at Arycanda, in the forms of Artemis Kombike, Lagbene, Tharsenike and Eleuthera.



Called Malija in the Lycian language, she was also an important deity in Lycia. She is found in many inscriptions, especially at Tlos, Xanthos, Letoon, Tyberissos, and Arneai. Malija seems to be a deity of much antiquity and has been found in ancient Hittite texts. On Lycia coinage she is featured in the Greek form as Athena. Malija/Athena may have had a cult center at Xanthos and she was the goddess responsible for punishing the violators of tombs.





One of the twelve main deities of Lycia. Inscriptions reveal that Zeus was the principal deity of Limyra, one of the most prominent of Lycian cities.  Athletic festivals were organized in Limyra in his honor and Zeus' famous thunderbolt appears on all coins struck in Limyra.





Another god worshiped in part of Lycia (the city of Olympos) was Hephaistos, god of fire and forging, known in Rome as Vulcan. He was a native of Anatolia, of the Lycian-Carian region.  The unloved son of Zeus, protector of his mother Hera, and married to Aphrodite; his cult was celebrated in such places where natural fire sprang from the earth.  He is primarily associated with creative fire and only later with destructive fire.

In Olympos, the sacred precinct of Hephaistos has an eternal flame (also related to the Bellerphone myth) which still exists today, located about an hour's walk northwest of the city on a slope about 250 meters high.  Today it still burns in a cave, barely one meter in diameter.  Compared to 19th century travellers' accounts, the flame has diminished considerably. 



Not a true Lycian deity, but worshipped in Olympos by pirates.

Plutarch, the Roman historian, tells us in The Life of Pompey that the Romans became aquainted with Mithraism from the Cilician pirates along the southwest coast of Anatolia.  In this passage he speaks of their activities at the pirate-overrun Lycian city of Olympos: 'They themselves offered strange sacrifices upon Mount Olympus, and performed certain secret rites or religious mysteries, among which those of Mithras have been preserved to our own time having received their previous institution from them.More about the pirates and Mithraism.


Other gods and goddesses known to have been worshipped in Lycia include: Ares, Dionysus, Kakasbos (an Anatolian horseman-deity often seen on Lycian 'Stelae of Promise'), Hera, Helios, Tyche, Asklepios, Hygeia, Hercules, Hermes, Aphrodite, Somondeus (a mountain god), and Nemesis.