Religion in ancient Greece
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Greek religion encompasses the collection of beliefs and rituals practiced in ancient Greece in the form of both popular public religion and cult practices. These different groups varied enough so that one might speak of Greek religions or "cults", though most shared similarities such as a belief in polytheism.
Greek peoples all recognized the 13 major gods and goddesses: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Ares, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Athena, Hermes, Demeter, and Hestia, though various lesser gods were also worshipped. Different cities worshipped different deities, sometimes with epithets that specified their local nature.
The religious practices of the Greeks extended beyond mainland Greece, to the islands and coasts of Ionia in Asia Minor, to Magna Graecia (Sicily and southern Italy), and to scattered Greek colonies in the Western Mediterranean, such as Massalia (Marseille). Greek religion tempered Etruscan cult and belief to form much of the later Roman religion.
Whilst there were few concepts universal to all the Greek peoples, there were common beliefs shared by many.
Ancient Greek theology was based on polytheism; that is, the assumption that there were many gods and goddesses. There was a hierarchy of deities, with Zeus, the king of the gods, having a level of control over all the others, although he was not omnipotent. Some deities had dominion over certain aspects of nature, for instance, Zeus was the sky-god, sending thunder and lightning, Poseidon ruled over the sea and earthquakes, and Helios ruled over the sun. Other deities ruled over an abstract concept, for instance Aphrodite controlled love.
Whilst being immortal, the gods were not all powerful. They had to obey fate, which overrode all. For instance, in mythology, it was Odysseus' fate to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and the gods could only lengthen his journey and make it harder for him, but they could not stop him.
The gods acted like humans, and had human vices. They would interact with humans, sometimes even spawning children with them. At times certain gods would be opposed to another, and they would try to outdo each other. In the Iliad, for example, Zeus, Aphrodite, Ares and Apollo support the Trojan side in the Trojan War, while Hera, Athena and Poseidon support the Greeks (see theomachy).
Some gods were specifically associated with a certain city. For instance, Athena was associated with the city of Athens, Apollo with Delphi and Delos, Zeus with Olympia and Aphrodite with Corinth. Other deities were associated with nations outside of Greece, for instance, Poseidon was associated with Ethiopia and Troy, and Ares with Thrace.
Identity of names was not a guarantee of a similar cultus; the Greeks themselves were well aware that the Artemis worshipped at Sparta, the virgin huntress, was a very different deity from the Artemis who was a many-breasted fertility goddess at Ephesus. When literary works such as the Iliad related conflicts among the gods these conflicts were because their followers were at war on earth and were a celestial reflection of the earthly pattern of local deities. Though the worship of the major deities spread from one locality to another, and though most larger cities boasted temples to several major gods, the identification of different gods with different places remained strong to the end.
Lesser deities, who were in some way related to the Olympians, also existed. One of the most popular was Dionysus (who was commonly called Bacchus), a god of wine and spiritual ecstasy, who was a son of Zeus. Another was Pan, a horned god of shepherds and folk music, and Hekate, a goddess of witchcraft and crossroads.
It was possible for a mortal human to become an immortal god. An example of this was Heracles, who was the son of the god Zeus, but who had a mortal mother. By performing great heroic deeds, and through his semi-divine heritage, Heracles was eventually given the option of becoming one of the twelve Olympians himself however, he declined the generous offer but he did become an immortal. There were also household deities, akin to the Roman lares.
- See Greek Underworld
The Greeks believed in an underworld where the spirits of the dead went to after their death. If a funeral was never performed, it was commonly believed that that person's spirit would never reach the underworld and so would haunt the world as a ghost forever. There were various different views of the underworld, and the idea generally changed over time.
One of the most widespread areas of the underworld was known as Hades. This was ruled over by a god, a brother of Zeus, who was called Hades (his realm was originally called 'the place of Hades'). Another realm, called Tartarus, was the place where the damned were thought to go, a place of torment. A third realm, Elysium, was a pleasant place where the virtuous dead and initiates in the mystery cults were said to dwell. The underworld commonly featured in mythology and literature based thereupon.
A very few, like Achilles, Alcmene, Amphiaraus Ganymede, Ino, Melicertes, Menelaus, Peleus, and a great part of those who fought in the Trojan and Theban wars, were considered to have been physically immortalized and brought to live forever in either Elysium, the Islands of the Blessed, heaven, the ocean or literally right under the ground. This belief was of little relief to practically everybody, as the moment your body was living through either decay, fire or consumption, there was no hope of anything but the existence of a disembodied soul.
- See Greek mythology
Greek religion had a large mythology. It consisted largely of stories of the gods and of how they affected humans on Earth. Myths often revolved around heroes, and their actions, such as Heracles and his twelve labors, Odysseus and his voyage home, Jason and the quest for the Golden Fleece and Theseus and the Minotaur.
Many different species existed in Greek mythology. Chief among these were the gods and humans, though the Titans also heavily appeared in Greek myths. They predated the Olympian gods, and were hated by them. Lesser species included the half-man, half-horse centaurs, the nature based nymphs (tree nymphs were dryads, sea nymphs were Nereids) and the half man, half goat satyrs. Some creatures in Greek mythology were monstrous, such as the one-eyed giant Cyclopes, the sea beast Scylla, whirlpool Charybdis, Gorgons, and the half-man, half-bull Minotaur.
Many of the myths revolved around the Trojan war between Greece and Troy. For instance, the epic poem, The Iliad, by Homer, is based around the war. Many other tales are based around the aftermath of the war, such as the murder of King Agamemnon of Argos, and the adventures of Odysseus on his return to Ithaca.
There was no one set Greek cosmogony, or creation myth. Different religious groups believed that the world had been created in different ways. One Greek creation myth was told in Hesiod's Theogony. It stated that at first there was only a primordial deity called Chaos, who gave birth to various other primordial gods, such as Gaia, Tartarus and Eros, who then gave birth to more gods, the Titans, who then gave birth to the first Olympians.
The mythology largely survived and was added to in order to form the later Roman mythology. The Greeks and Romans had been literate societies, and much mythology was written down in the forms of epic poetry (such as The Iliad, The Odyssey and the Argonautica) and plays (such as Euripides' The Bacchae and Aristophanes' The Frogs). The mythology became popular in Christian post-Renaissance Europe, where it was often used as a basis for the works of artists like Botticelli, Michelangelo and Rubens.
Various religious festivals were held in ancient Greece. Many were specific only to a particular deity or city-state. For example, the festival of Lycaea was celebrated in Arcadia in Greece, which was dedicated to the pastoral god Pan. There was also the Games held each year in different locations, culminating in the Olympic Games, which were held every 4 years. These celebrated Zeus.
One of the most important moral concepts to the Greeks was a fear of committing hubris, which constituted many things, from rape to desecration of a corpse. It was a crime in the city-state of Athens. Although pride and vanity were not considered sins themselves, the Greeks emphasized moderation. Pride only became hubris when it went to extremes, like any other vice. The same was thought of eating and drink. Anything done to excess was not considered proper. Ancient Greeks placed, for example, importance on athletics and intellect equally. In fact many of their competitions included both. Pride was not evil until it became all-consuming or hurtful to others.
Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Pindar's Odes are included as sacred texts as are other works of classical antiquity. These are the core texts that were considered inspired and usually include an invocation to the Muses for inspiration at the beginning of the work.
Greek ceremonies and rituals were mainly performed at altars. These typically were devoted to one, or a few, gods, and contained a statue of the particular deity upon it. Votive deposits would be left at the altar, such as food, drinks, as well as precious objects. Sometimes animal sacrifices would be performed here, with most of the flesh eaten, and the offal burnt as an offering to the gods. Libations, often of wine, would be offered to the gods too, not only at shrines, but also in everyday life, such as during a symposium.
One ceremony was pharmakos, a ritual involving expelling a symbolic scapegoat such as a slave or an animal, from a city or village in a time of hardship. It was hoped that by casting out the ritual scapegoat, the hardship would go with it.
Worship in Greece typically consisted of sacrificing domestic animals at the altar with hymn and prayer. Parts of the animal were then burned for the gods; the worshippers would eat the rest. The evidence of the existence of such practices is clear in some ancient Greek literature, especially in Homer’s epics. Throughout the poems, the use of the ritual is apparent at banquets where meat is served, in times of danger or before some important endeavor to gain the favor of the gods. For example, in Homer’s The Odyssey (circa 725 B.C.) Eumaeus sacrifices a pig with prayer for his unrecognizable master Odysseus. In Homer’s The Iliad (circa 750 B.C.), which may describe Greek civilization centuries earlier, every banquet of the princes begins with a sacrifice and prayer. These sacrificial practices, described in these pre-Homeric eras, share commonalities to the 8th century forms of sacrificial rituals. Furthermore, throughout the poem, special banquets are held whenever gods indicated their presence by some sign or success in war. Before setting out for Troy, this type of animal sacrifice is offered. Odysseus offers Zeus a sacrificial ram in vain. The occasions of sacrifice in Homer’s epic poems may shed some light onto the view of the gods as members of society, rather than as external entities, indicating social ties. Sacrificial rituals played a major role in forming the relationship between humans and the divine.
Temples contained a central room known as a naos, which contained a grand altar and statue of a deity. Priests would be employed to constantly monitor and give offerings to the deity.
Rites of Passage
One rite of passage was the amphidromia, celebrated on the fifth or seventh day after the birth of a child. Child birth was extremely significant to athenians, especially if it was a boy.
Here, they could find religious consolations that traditional religion could not provide: a chance at mystical awakening, a systematic religious doctrine, a map to the afterlife, a communal worship, and a band of spiritual fellowship.
Some of these mysteries, like the mysteries of Eleusis and Samothrace, were ancient and local. Others were spread from place to place, like the mysteries of Dionysus. During the Hellenistic period and the Roman Empire, exotic mystery religions became widespread, not only in Greece, but all across the empire. Some of these were new creations, such as Mithras, while others had been practiced for hundreds of years before, like the Egyptian mysteries of Osiris.
Mainstream Greek religion appears to have evolved from the earlier Mycenaean religion from the Mycenaean civilization of Bronze Age Greece. The Mycenaeans, according to archaeological discoveries, seemed to treat Poseidon as the chief deity. It may also have absorbed the religions of earlier, nearby religious beliefs and practises, such as Minoan religion.
The pagan religion of the Greeks did not go unchallenged from persons within Greece. Several notable philosophers criticised a belief in the gods. The earliest of these was Xenophanes, who chastised the human vices of the gods as well as their anthropomorphic depiction. Plato did not believe in many polythiestic deities, but instead believed that there was one supreme God, whom he called the Form of the good, and which he believed was the emanation of perfection in the universe. Plato's disciple, Aristotle, also disagreed that polythiestic deities existed, because he could not find enough empirical evidence for it. He was a pandeist, believing in a deity called the Prime Mover, which had set creation going, but was not connected or interested in the universe.
When the Roman Republic conquered Greece in 146 BC, it took much of Greek religion (along with many other aspects of Greek culture such as literary and architectural styles) and incorporated it into its own. The Greek gods were equated with the ancient Roman deities; Zeus with Jupiter, Hera with Juno, Poseidon with Neptune, Aphrodite with Venus, Ares with Mars, Artemis with Diana, Athena with Minerva, Hermes with Mercury, Hephaestus with Vulcan, Hestia with Vesta, Demeter with Ceres, Hades with Pluto, Tyche with Fortuna, and Pan with Faunus. Some of the gods, such as Apollo and Bacchus, had earlier been adopted by the Romans. There were also many deities that existed in the Roman religion before its interaction with Greece that weren't associated with a Greek deity, including Janus and Quirinus.
Greek Polytheism revivals
Greek religion has experienced a number of revivals, in the arts, humanities and spirituality of the Renaissance as well as with the contemporary Hellenic Reconstructionism, or "Hellenismos" as it is sometimes called (a term first used by the last pagan Roman emperor Julian the Apostate).
Many neo-pagan religious paths, such as Wicca, use aspects of ancient Greek religions in their practice; Hellenic Reconstructionism focuses exclusively thereon, as far as the nature of the surviving source material allows. It reflects neo-Platonic/Platonic speculation (which is represented in Porphyry, Libanius, Proclus, and Julian), as well as Classical cult practice.
The overwhelming majority of modern Greeks are followers of Greek Orthodox Christianity. According to estimates, there are perhaps as many as 2,000 followers of the ancient Greek religion out of a total Greek population of 11 million.