Religion in ancient Greece
Learn more about Religion in ancient Greece
|Topics in Greek mythology|
Greek religion encompasses the collection of beliefs and rituals practiced in Ancient Greece in form of cult practices, thus the practical counterpart of Greek mythology. Within the Greek world, religious practice varied enough so that one might speak of Greek religions. The cult practices of the Hellenes 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 Massilia (Marseille). Greek examples tempered Etruscan cult and belief to inform much of the Roman religion.
There is a scholarly belief that early Greek religion came from, or was strongly influenced by, shamanistic practices from the steppes of Central Asia to the Greek colony of Olbia in Scythia, on the northern shore of the Black Sea, then all the way down to Greece.1
It is perhaps misleading to speak of "Greek religion." In the first place, the Greeks did not have a term for "religion" in the sense of a dimension of existence distinct from all others, and grounded in the belief that the gods exercise authority over the fortunes of human beings and demand recognition as a condition for salvation. The Greeks spoke of their religious doings as "ta theia" (literally, "things having to do with the gods"), but this loose usage did not imply the existence of any authoritative set of "beliefs." Indeed, the Greeks did not have a word for "belief" in either of the two senses familiar to us. Since the existence of the gods was a given, it would have made no sense to ask whether someone "believed" that the gods existed. On the other hand, individuals could certainly show themselves to be more or less mindful of the gods, but the common term for that possibility was "nomizein", a word related to "nomos" ("custom," "customary distribution," "law"); to nomizein the gods was to acknowledge their rightful place in the scheme of things, and to act accordingly by giving them their due. Some bold individuals could nomizein the gods, but deny that they were due some of the customary observances. But these customary observances were so highly unsystematic that it is not easy to describe the ways in which they were normative for anyone.
First, there was no single truth about the gods. Although the different Greek peoples all recognized the 12 major gods (Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Ares, Hephaestus, Athena, Hermes, Estia , and Demeter), in different locations these gods had such different histories with the local peoples as often to make them rather distinct gods or goddesses. Different cities worshipped different deities, sometimes with epithets that specified their local nature; Athens had Athena; Sparta, Artemis; Corinth was a center for the worship of Aphrodite; Delphi and Delos had Apollo; Olympia had Zeus, and so on down to the smaller cities and towns. Identity of names was not even 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 because their followers were at war on earth, these conflicts 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.
Second, there was no single true way to live in dealing with the gods. "The things that have to do with the gods" had no fixed center, and responsibilities for these things had a variety of forms. Each individual city was responsible for its own temples and sacrifices, but it fell to the wealthy to sponsor the "leitourgeiai" (literally, "works for the people," from which our word "liturgy" comes)--the festivals, processions, choruses, dramas, and games held in honor of the gods. "Phratries" (members of a large hereditary group) oversaw observances that involved the entire group, but fathers were responsible for sacrifices in their own households, and women often had autonomous religious rites.
Third, individuals had a great deal of autonomy in dealing with the gods. After some particularly striking experience, they could bestow a new title upon a god, or declare some particular site as sacred (cf. Gen. 16:13-14, where Hagar does both). No authority accrued to the individual who did such a thing, and no obligation fell upon anyone else--only a new opportunity or possibility was added to the already vast and ill-defined repertoire for nomizeining the gods.
Finally, the lines between divinity and humanity were in some ways clearly defined, in other ways ambiguous. Setting aside the complicated genealogies in which gods sired children upon human women and goddesses bore the children of human lovers, after death historical individuals could receive cultic honors for their deeds during life--in other words, a hero cult. Indeed, even during life, victors at the Olympics, for instance, were considered to have acquired extraordinary power, and on the strength of their glory (kudos), would be chosen as generals in time of war. Itinerant healers and leaders of initiatory rites would sometimes be called into a city to deliver it from disasters, without such a measure implying any disbelief in the gods or exaltation of such "saviors." To put it differently, "sôteria" ("deliverance," "salvation") could come from divine or human hands and, in any event, the Greeks offered cultic honors to abstractions like Chance, Necessity, and Luck, divinities who stood in ambiguous relation to the personalized gods of the tradition. All in all, there was no "dogma" or "theology" in the Greek tradition, no heresy, hypocrisy, possibility of schism, or any other social phenomenon articulated according to the background orientation to a codified order of religious understanding. Such variety in Greek religion reflects the long, complicated history of the Greek-speaking peoples.
Greek religion spans a period from Minoan and Mycenean periods to the days of Hellenistic Greece and its ultimate conquest by the Roman Empire. Religious ideas continued to develop over this time; by the time of the earliest major monument of Greek literature, the Iliad attributed to Homer, a consensus had already developed about who the major Olympian gods were. Still, changes to the canon remained possible; the Iliad seems to have been unaware of Dionysus, a god whose worship apparently spread after it was written, and who became important enough to be named one of the twelve chief Olympian deities, ousting the ancient goddess of the hearth, Hestia. It has been written by scholars that Dionysus was a "foreign" deity, brought into Greece from outside local cults, external to Greece proper. 2 3
Quoting Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, article on Zeus, "According to the Homeric account Zeus, like the other Olympian gods, dwelt on Mount Olympus in Thessaly, which was believed to penetrate with its lofty summit into heaven itself (77. i. 221, &c., 354, 609, xxi. 438). He is called the father of gods and men (i. 514, v. 33 ; comp. Aeschyl. Sept. 512), the most high and powerful among the immortals, whom all others obey (II. xix. 258, viii. 10, &c.)." 4
In addition to the local cults of major gods, various places like crossroads and sacred groves had their own tutelary spirits. There were often altars erected outside the precincts of the temples. Shrines like hermai were erected outside the temples as well. Heroes, in the original sense, were demigods or deified humans who were part of local legendary history; they too had local hero-cults, and often served as oracles for purposes of divination. What religion was, first and foremost, was traditional; the idea of novelty or innovation in worship was out of the question, almost by definition. Religion was the collection of local practices to honour the local gods.
The scholar, Andrea Purvis, has written on the private cults in ancient Greece as a traceable point for many practices and worship of deities.
A major function of religion was the validation of the identity and culture of individual communities. The myths were regarded by many as history rather than allegory, and their embedded genealogies were used by groups to proclaim their divine right to the land they occupied, and by individual families to validate their exalted position in the social order.
 Archaic and Classical period
The most widespread public act of worship in ancient Greece was sacrifice, whether of grain or the blood sacrifice of animals. In general, the Greeks distinguished open-air sacrifices of burnt offerings given to the Olympian gods from those given to chthonic (from chthôn "earth") or earth-bound gods (like Hades, Hekate, and so on). The Olympian sacrifices were categorized as therapeia, the "service" due to the Olympian gods. "This therapeia" Socrates urges, "must be of the nature of service or administration." (Plato, Euthyphron, 15), a proposition which he reduces, to the discomfort of his interlocutor, to a business transaction, do ut des ("I give that you may give") a kindly transaction quite free from fear. Here, as Jane Ellen Harrison observed (Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion pp 3ff) "there is no question of sin, repentence, sacrificial atonement, purification, no fear of judgement to come, no longing after a future complete beatitude." The other, darker, nocturnal, fearful and primitive aspect of Greek cult practice was informed by deisidaimonia, the "fear of spirits", or of the supernatural and weird, in its true sense. By the fourth century the deisidaimon had been reduced to the role of the "superstitious man" who is even later described by Plutarch (De Superstitio); but in the archaic period, and even in the fifth century, the more vital and immediate reality of Greek religion was in its apotropaic magic that turned away or averted (as in "averting the Evil Eye") the chthonic spirits, among whom were the heroes who must be propitiated.
Isocrates makes the distinction plain:
- "Those of the gods who are the source to us of good things have the title of Olympians, those whose department is that of calamities and punishments have harsher titles; to the first class both private persons and states erect altars and temples; the second is not worshipped either with prayers or burnt-sacrifices, but in their case we perform ceremonies of riddance" (Oration v.117, quoted in Harrison, Prolegomena p 8)
The ceremonies of riddance were known to the Greeks as apopompai, "sendings away", with a meaning akin to exorcism.
Sacrifices served multiple functions: one sacrificed before important undertakings, to introduce a new-born child to the phratry or district, to introduce a young man on the verge of manhood into the society of those engaged in politics. The temples of the Greek religion generally were not public gathering places where people gathered socially for collective indoor prayer; most temples held little more than a cult image of the deity and the accumulated votive gifts, which might amount to a treasury. A few venerable archaic wooden aniconic idols survived even to the time of Pausanias. When we are told in mythology that "horses are sacred to Poseidon" or roosters to Hermes, what this meant first and foremost was that these animals were customarily offered as sacrifices to those gods. Most sacrificial victims were food animals; for these, the usual practice was to offer the god the blood, bones, and hide of the victim, while the worshippers kept and ate the rest.
Altars were not inside the temples but generally in front of them in the temenos or sacred fane. The altars often preceded the temple building and were set up upon the ashes of innumerable previous sacrifices since time immemorial. One of the difficulties in establishing a Greek colony was identifying the new place that would be grateful to the deity brought, as with live coals from the communal hearth, from home.
Glimpsed through the practice of animal sacrifice are the traces of an older practice, abandoned by the increasingly civilized Greeks - that of human sacrifice. Indications for this remain in the myths of heroes such as Tantalus and Pelops or Agamemnon and Iphigenia, and in comments that forbade such practices, ascribed to the teachings of Orpheus, himself a victim of the maenads (or bacchantes), ecstatic women followers of Dionysus, who tore their ritual victims limb from limb.
Votive gifts were offered to the gods by their worshippers. They were often given for benefits already conferred or in anticipation of future divine favors. Or they could be offered to propitiate the gods for crimes involving blood-guilt, impiety, or the breach of religious customs. They could be given either voluntarily or in response to demands by the cult's priesthood that the donor fulfill a religious vow or honor some religious custom.
Votive gifts were kept on display in the god's sanctuary for a set period of time and then were usually ritually discarded. Bronze tripods, prize cauldrons and figurines, terracotta tablets and figurines, lamps, and vases are typical examples. Armor, weapons, jewelry and other more personalized items were dedicated in large numbers, along with marble statuettes and reliefs. Some of the healing sanctuaries housed replicas of body parts donated in thanks for or in hope of cures. Large sculptural monuments in bronze, marble and other costly materials were routinely dedicated by either private donors or individual city-states in the great Panhellenic sanctuaries like Olympia and Delphi.
The Roman formula expressed the attitude of worshippers to their gods in the formula do ut des; "I give that you may give". Public worship was aimed at pleasing the gods so that the gods would send rain, good harvest, military victories, and other public blessings. Private sacrifice was offered for personal goals. Prayer was highly formulaic and ritualized. Most places did not have professional or full-time clergy; priests were local officials whose priesthoods were not full time jobs. Major religious sites such as the oracles of pilgrimage brought in enough spiritual tourism to need a full time clerical staff.
In the context of the Greek traditions, there was no theology in the sense of a rationalized exposition of the normative understanding of the gods. If one takes the term to refer to any explicit account of the gods in general, or of particular gods, then the Greek tradition abounded in theologies. In the Homeric epics, the dramatic action is often interrupted to tell the history of some god, or some story that accounts for some of the gods honors. The Homeric Hymns are poems devoted to one particular god, but the stories they relate do not pretend to be comprehensive or authoritative.
In the works of the poet Hesiod, whose Theogony provides a creation myth focusing on deified abstractions like Night and Time, one can find an attempt to establish a more or less comprehensive account of how the gods originated, how they acquired their honors--but the long digression in honor of the goddess Hecate, who was by no means a major figure in the Greek religious imagination, shows that the poem could not have been meant to be authoritative in our sense. The decision as to which deities were considered major enough to number among the Twelve Olympians who were the chief gods of the pantheon was no doubt a political decision, at least in part. Because most of the gods were originally local, and inconsistent stories were told of them from one locality to another, the tradition of the ancient Greeks resisted systematization, at least at first. Socrates and other philosophers were accused of atheism by the populists of Athens when they pointed out the difficulties in accepting the received ideas about the gods as a whole. Yet Socrates' view of the gods was ultimately to triumph; as time went on, the traditional piety of the sacrificial rites tended to be dismissed as a sort of folklore, while those who were philosophically minded tended to believe in abstract, remote, and genteel gods who vaguely acted to uphold social norms and public virtues.
The virtues fostered by Greek religion were chiefly respect for the gods, who were majestic (sebastos, σεβαστος) and sublime (semnos, σεμνος) Given the variety of rituals and traditions in the Greek religious state, the devotees of the gods in any one city had to exercise caution when they visited other cities. As mentioned above, foreigners could not freely participate in sacrifices, and indeed one myth relates what happens when a foreigner sacrifices a bull in violation of the tradition, putting the Athenians in great danger until the outsider is made a citizen, at which point he receivers the name Sopater (literally, "Saving Father"). In general, the main religious duties for the ordinary adult male was to conduct his life in a fashion that was dikaiôs and hosiôs--just and pure. But for all, it was important to avoid doing anything that would introduce miasma or pollution into one's personal life and into the household. For example, Orestes was pursued by the Furies for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra to avenge her murder of his father Agamemnon, even though Orestes slew him in what he considered to be his duty. Still, the sacred boundaries and laws must be upheld, and Orestes was unable to win free from the Furies until he was absolved by Athena and performed a quest imposed by Apollo. The dangers of pollution were quite impersonal. In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates encounters a young man who is prosecuting his father for what we would call manslaughter--after one of the household slaves, in a drunken rage, had murdered another slave, the father bound the murderer up and threw him into a ditch, where he died of exposure while the family awaited word from the exegetes (interpreters of religious law) on how to proceed. Euthyphro's family thought it outrageous that he should prosecute his father, and Socrates is himself surprised, but Euthyphro rather reasonably argued, in effect, that pollution is pollution, no matter who kills and who dies. In this he is simply following Greek tradition, although there were certainly other ways for him to purify the family--the pollution of a single individual endangers everyone in contact with that person--than to prosecute his father.
During the archaic and classical periods, Greek peoples had rather strict procedures for introducing new gods into the traditions of worship, but after the death of Alexander the Great, who had spread the Greek language, and Greek social and political forms throughout the Mediterranean world, the breakdown in the autonomy of Greek cities, and the dissociation of all indigenous cults from local political realities, made it possible for syncretism, the "mixture" of traditions, to flourish. In the Hellenistic world, aspects of Persian, Anatolian, Egyptian (and eventually Etruscan-Roman) religious traditions gained different types of recognition beyond the confines of the peoples with whom they had originated, with Isis being particularly popular, as is indicated by the fact that a name like Isidore ("gift of Isis") established itself even in the Christian world.
Very late in the history of classical religion, the Neo-Platonists, including the Roman emperor Julian, attempted to organize classical paganism into a systematic belief system, to which they gave the name of Hellênismos: the belief system of the Greeks. Julian also attempted to organize Greek and Hellenistic cults into a hierarchy resembling that which Christianity already possessed. Neither of these efforts succeeded in the limited time available; Greek religion had always been local, variable, and inconsistent.
Julian's vision of a synthesis of Platonism and Hellenism was taken up in the 14th century by George Gemistos Plethon, a forerunner of the Renaissance.
 Mystery religions
Those whose spiritual leanings were not satisfied by the public cult of the gods could turn to various mystery religions. Here, they could find religious consolations that the traditional cultus 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 like those of Osiris and Mithras became widespread.
In the late 4th century, the Imperial courts were predominantly Christian; Christianity tolerated relatively few internal quarrels; and a deep conviction that right belief, orthodoxy, was what mattered to God. The Christian emperors closed pagan oracles, temples and end the pagan games by degrees, in a series of increasingly stringent decrees. Finally, the public practice of the Greek religion was made illegal by the Emperor Theodosius I and this was enforced by his successors. The Greek religion, stigmatized as "paganism", the religion of country-folk (pagani) - other scholars suggest the force of paganus was "(mere) civilian" - survived only in rural areas and in forms that were submerged in Christianized rite and ritual, as Europe entered into the Dark Ages.
The European Renaissance scarcely touched Greece. Renaissance humanism in Italy and western Europe included the rediscovery and reintroduction of the culture and learning of ancient Greek thought and philosophy, which included a renewed appreciation of the ancient religion and myth, reinterpreted from a humanist point-of-view.
 Polytheistic revivals
"Hellenismos", as the religion was named by the Emperor Julian the Philosopher, has experienced a number of revivals, in the arts, humanities and spirituality of the Renaissance as well as contempary Neopagan Hellenic polytheism.
Many neo-pagan religious paths, such as Wicca, use aspects of ancient Greek religions in their practice; Hellenic polytheism focuses exclusively thereon, as far as the fragmentary nature of the surviving source material allows. It reflects neo-Platonic speculation (which is represented in Porphyry, Libanius, and Julian), as well as Classical cult practice.
The overwhelming majority of modern Greeks are Greek Orthodox, although there is a growing minority of people following the ancient Greek religion, especially among the educated classes. According to church estimates, there are around 40,000 followers out of a total Greek population of 10 million. This makes them a much larger group than Greek Jews, who currently number around 5,000.
Cf. E.R. Dodds The Greeks and the Irrational
M.L. West, ibid., p.17. "In another place Herodotus tells us of a cult of Dionysos Baccheios, Dionysos of the Bacchoi, at Borysthenes (Olbia), one of the noteworthy of all Greek colonies".
Xavier Riu, Dionysism and Comedy, p. 104, "Dionysus comes from the Outside-- the other world".
Smith, William, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870, article on Zeus, 
- Albertus Bernabé (ed.), Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testimonia et fragmenta. Poetae Epici Graeci. Pars II. Fasc. 1. Bibliotheca Teubneriana, München/Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2004. ISBN 3-598-71707-5. review of this book
- Walter Burkert, Greek Religion. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1987. ISBN 0-674-36281-0. Widely regarded as the standard modern account.
- Walter Burkert, Homo necans, 1972.
- Cook, Arthur Bernard, Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion, (3 volume set), (1914-1925). New York, Bibilo & Tannen: 1964. ASIN B0006BMDNA
- Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1951.
- Lewis Richard Farnell, Cults of the Greek States 5 vols. Oxford; Clarendon 1896-1909. Still the standard reference.
- Lewis Richard Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality, 1921.
- George Grote, A History of Greece: From the earliest period to the close of the generation contemporary with Alexander the Great, 1846.
- Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 1903. An early classic, against which many modern accounts have reacted.
- Jane Ellen Harrison, Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, 1912. 
- Jane Ellen Harrison, Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 1921.
- Karl Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks
- Karl Kerényi, Dionysus: Archetypical Image of Indestructible Life
- Karl Kerényi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. The central modern accounting of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
- Karl Meuli, Scythica, 1935.
- Jon D. Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. ISBN 0-8078-4194-3.
- William Mitford, The History of Greece, 1784. Cf. v.1, Chapter II, Religion of the Early Greeks
- Clifford H. Moore, The Religious Thought of the Greeks, 1916.
- Martin P. Nilsson, Greek Popular Religion, 1940. 
- Martin P. Nilsson, History of Greek Religion, 1949.
- Robert Parker, Athenian Religion: A History Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. ISBN 0-19-815240-X.
- Andrea Purvis, Singular Dedications: Founders and Innovators of Private Cults in Classical Greece, 2003.
- William Ridgeway, The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of non-European Races in special Reference to the Origin of Greek Tragedy, with an Appendix on the Origin of Greek Comedy, 1915.
- William Ridgeway, Origin of Tragedy with Special Reference to the Greek Tragedians, 1910.
- Xavier Riu, Dionysism and Comedy, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0-8476-9442-9.
- Erwin Rohde, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Greeks, 1925.
- William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870, 
- William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1870. 
- Martin Litchfield West, The Orphic Poems, 1983.
- Martin Litchfield West, Early Greek philosophy and the Orient, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971.
- Martin Litchfield West, The East Face of Helicon: west Asiatic elements in Greek poetry and myth, Oxford [England] ; New York: Clarendon Press, 1997.
 See also
- Greek mythology
- Major world religions
- Mythology of same-sex love
- Roman religion
- Roman mythology
- Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes