Ancient Greek Religion

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Image: Hiroshi Higuchi, Getty Images

Religion was important to the ancient Greeks and found expression in their arts, myths, rituals, practices, and traditions.

Greek religious belief was influenced by a population referred to as the Pelasgi, a people occupying Greece prior to 1100 BC. Pelasgi beliefs likely mixed with the beliefs of newer Greek speaking people during the 2nd millennium BC and influenced much of later religion. For example, a sky-god believed in by the Pelasgi was adapted by the Greeks and renamed Zeus. Religion was at its peak in ancient Greece roughly from the time of the legendary poet Homer of the 9th or 8th century BC until the 4th century AD. Largely due to expansion by Alexander the Great, Greek beliefs spread throughout the Mediterranean world to new locations such as Spain, Sicily, southern Italy, Asia Minor, and Marseille. These beliefs found new homes within poleis (city states) founded by the Greek colonists. Mystery cults flourished in this context while synchronization of religious belief was common. There were fusions of Roman and Greek beliefs, with the former taking on the deities of the latter.

Religious Texts

Unlike other religions and religious traditions developing at the time, the ancient Greeks, with the exception of some cults, had no collection of texts known as sacred scriptures. They were primarily an oral culture which meant that religious traditions were passed on or down by word of mouth. This is reflected in Homer’s two epics which were not composed in writing but instead made use of similes, metaphors, and repetitive elements similar to the likes of a chorus. As an epic poet Homer probably spoke and recited his work with a lyre in hand demonstrating the method through which the ancient Greeks communicated their religious beliefs and traditions.

Sacrifice and Festivals

Ritual and sacrificial performances and ceremonies continued on historical traditions of honouring the gods. Rituals, led by authorities such as priests (whose major responsibly was to keep the temple clean), were performed during ceremonies and on days of public festivals. The sacrifice of an animal functioned as an offering, and was performed on an altar next to a statue devoted to a god or gods. Once killed, the blood of the animal was collected and poured over the altar while its organs and bones were burnt in the fire as an offering. The ceremony was accompanied by hymns and prayers, and the flesh of the sacrificed animal would be consumed while animal skins often sold. Devotees also left valuable objects such as vases, cauldrons, figurines, and lamps on the altars in honour to the particular deity or for making amends for transgressions. The festival Panathenaea was evidence of this devotion. It included sacrificial rituals and competitive events (athletic and equestrian events, as well as music, poetry etc.) held quadrennially from the 6th century BC until the 3rd century AD. Athenians journeyed along a road (known as the Sacred Way) to the Acropolis where a large number of cattle would be slaughtered on the alter of Athena (the goddess of wisdom, knowledge, and reason, and protector deity of Greek cities, particularly Athens). There were many other important festivals such as the Thesmophoria (in honour of Demeter) Anthesteria and the Bacchanalia (in honour of Dionysus), and the Thargelia and the Pyanopsia (in honour of Apollo).

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Panathenaea.

Polytheism and the gods

Ancient Greek religion was polytheistic because they believed in the existence of many gods and goddesses together referred to as the Greek pantheon. They also believed in other supernatural spirit beings such as nymphs, naiads, and dryads, as well as mythical entities including the cyclops, hecatonchires, and more. Belief in the gods would also change over time, for example, the primeval deity Eros (the god of chaos) was appropriated by later tradition into the son of the goddess Aphrodite.

If an individual denied the existence of the gods it could result in negative reactions from fellow Greeks who believed that such disbelief angered the deities. Thus, ancient Greeks who did not believe in the gods were uncommon. This did not mean that the gods were beyond critique, however, as a number of Greek thinkers critiqued them on moral and ethical grounds.

In the context of Greek polytheistic belief, the most important deities were the 12 Olympian gods and goddesses living on Mount Olympus. Only the 12 major deities lived on the mountain, from where they could influence human affairs:

Zeus – the ruler of Mount Olympus, king of the gods, and god of law, justice, the sky, and thunder
Hera – the goddess and protector of women and family, and the wife and sister of Zeus
Ares – the god of war, and son of Zeus and Hera
Hephaestus
– the god of craftsmen and weaponry who was married to Aphrodite
Aphrodite
– the goddess of love, fertility, and lust, and punished by Zeus by being forced to marry the unattractive Hephaestus
Demeter
– the goddess of agriculture, seasons, and the fertility of the Earth, and the lover of Zeus and Poseidon
Athena
– the goddess of wisdom, knowledge, and reason, and the daughter of Zeus
Poseidon
– the god of the sea who causes storms, floods, earthquakes, and a brother of Zeus and Hades
Apollo
– the god of the sun, the son of Zeus and Leto, and the twin brother of Artemis
Artemis
– the goddess of the hunt, wilderness, protector of young animals, and daughter of Zeus and Leto
Hermes
– the god of commerce, wealth, travel, oratory, and the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia
Dionysus
– the god of wine, song, festivity, and ecstasy.

Although seen as powerful and in possession of impressive abilities, the gods, including the 12 major ones, were not considered all-powerful or morally perfect. They were like human beings in many ways: they had human bodies, married, had children, engaged in affairs, fought each other, and possessed unique identities and interests.

The gods were also associated with cities (Athena with Athens, Aphrodite with Corinth, Apollo with Delphi etc.) where elaborate temples were constructed in devotion to them. Athens was home to the famous Acropolis with its array of magnificent structures such as stoa, altars, sanctuaries, shrines, statues, and theaters.

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The Acropolis in Athens. Image: athensguide.com

The Oracles and Seers

Prophecy and wise counsel through consulting the gods was important. The oracles were a counsel almost exclusively of women who entered trancelike states in which the gods would communicate with them. Their messages would sometimes be interpreted by priests, and if offerings were made the gods provided a more satisfactory response. The oracles could be approached and consulted on many important aspects of life, both political and personal. In 332 BC Alexander the Great said to have visited the oracle of the Egyptian deity Amun after he conquered Egypt, and he had his rule sanctioned after the oracle acknowledged him as the “son of Amun.” However, there was limited access to the oracles, particularly because a substantial offering was often advisable, making it more exclusive to the rich and powerful.

Ancient Greece also had its share of seers/soothsayers. They were usually easier to access than the oracles, and they often lent their services to the military who believed that they could interpret signs from the gods through observing birds, analyzing dreams, and in animal sacrifices.

Life After Death

The ancient Greeks believed that the soul survived the death of the body. The souls of the dead went to an invisible realm (the underworld) ruled by the god Hades and his wife Persephone. There was also the undesirable prospect of Tartarus, which at one point referred to a prison in the deepest region of the world (located below the underworld). There the gods kept their enemies before Tartarus became synonymous with the underworld in general. The far more appealing Elysian Plain was a place of perfect happiness where souls favoured by the gods were sent. Mostly heroes and demigods were given access to the plain although some virtuous people also went there. Other realms the soul might go to after death include the mourning fields (a place in the underworld designated for the souls of people who wasted their lives on unreturned love) and the Asphodel Meadows (where the ordinary souls of mediocre people went). The Greeks described these places in fanciful ways. For example, numerous beasts, such as harpies, centaurs, and chimera, are said to guard the doors to the underworld, while the Elysian Plain is portrayed as a place of islands and land devoid of snow, storms, and rain, where cool breezes will blow, and where honey-sweet fruit, flowers of gold, and splendid trees will grow.

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3 responses to “Ancient Greek Religion

  1. Splendid article, very informative. The part about Greeks having no scriptures explains the diversity of stories. I was wondering about the effect of the Greek philosophers on the Greek religion, did the likes of Plato have any effect on the beliefs of the common man? I may be wrong, but apart from the gods, didn’t some at least believe in something like “the good”, or “the Great God” above the gods, or did was the concept synonymous with Zeus?

  2. Pingback: Thales of Miletus – Pre-Socratic Natural Philosopher | Bishop's Encyclopedia of Religion, Society and Philosophy·

  3. Pingback: The Italian and Athenian Philosophers [Pre-Socratics] | Bishop's Encyclopedia of Religion, Society and Philosophy·

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