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Gods and Mortals

Updated: Jul 5

Get to grips with Greek Religion in five minutes in this blog series! If you’re an A Level Classics or Ancient History student, each of these blog posts are a five-minute summary of some of the main topics you will need for your exams. For university-level scholars or independent researchers, we’ve included clickable links to useful literature, primary sources and canonical scholarship you’ll need to know.


In this post, discover the relationship between gods and mortals in Ancient Greece!


The gods like to be worshiped. In Euripides’ tragic play, The Bacchae, Dionysus inflicts terrible suffering on the people of Thebes for neglecting to give him proper recognition. Clearly, the gods have great power over humans.


However, this does not mean that the gods can do what they like. In the Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound, we learn that Zeus’ policies are harsh because new power must always be so.




According to Hesiod, Zeus gave the gift of justice to mankind. In Plato’s dialogue  Protagoras, the great teacher says that Zeus gave us of a sense of right and wrong in order ensure the survival of human society.


Other accounts imply that this was a gift that Zeus did not give willingly. The titan Prometheus knew the name of a female deity who would bear a son stronger than his father. As Zeus wanted to avoid having a child by her at all costs, Prometheus used this to make Zeus maintain justice among humans by punishing their crimes.


Zeus’ punishment of injustice is fearsome. The great historian Herodotus points out that retribution from the gods for terrible wrongdoing is terrible itself. 


The gods are particularly offended by hubris (a display of pride that offends the gods). Tragic playwright Aeschylus agrees that Zeus, in truth, is a chastiser of overweening pride and corrects with heavy hand.


According to Herodotus, tyrannical Persian king Xerxes is a particularly notorious offender as he orders his men to lash the sea when a violent storm destroys their bridge and ignores omens. Athenians, on the other hand, are proud of honouring the gods and the heroes who have been disrespected by the Persians.




The relationship between gods and mortals was reciprocal: humans honoured the gods and the gods would return this with help in marriage, health and war among other things. Hesiod instructs the Greeks on how to honour and worship the gods.


One way of conducting this relationship was through libations: ritual pouring of water, wine, oil, milk, or honey in honour of gods, heroes, or the dead. Libations might precede meals, mark commencements and endings (such as mornings and evenings) and arrival in new places.


Votive offerings were public dedications of an object to the gods at a shrine, accompanied by euchē (a cry, prayer, and vow). These might include toys, locks of hair or girdles given at puberty, or tools given up by retiring craftsmen. Hesiod dedicated one of his prizes to the Muses at Helicon and victors in some festivals dedicated their prize to Apollo. In Homer’s Iliad, Hector swears to hang the arms of his enemies in the temple of Apollo.


Irad Malkin explains that these offerings took the form ‘if– then’ relations with the gods: “If my ship arrives safely, if I recover from illness, if my crop succeeds, etc....I shall dedicate a statue, a tithe, a temple...” Whole temples might be dedicated in exchange for victory in war: Themistocles and Gelon dedicated temples after victories over the Persians.


Whereas votive offerings were a kind of investment in return for future benefits, sacrifice involves destruction of an object in honour of a god.


There has been some scholarly debate about whether sacrifice was part of the Greeks’ reciprocal relationship with the gods. Whereas Walter Burkert argues that sacrifice was the foundation of community bonds, Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant argue that it was about feeding the city. F. S. Naiden argues that it was to maintain the relationship between gods and mortals.


My own view is that all of these explanations have their place, but an important aspect of sacrifice was communication with the gods. Although there is no single Greek word corresponding to the English word ‘sacrifice’, there were ritual gifts to the gods of vegetable products, savoury cakes and animals.


Ultimately, these debates show the intermingled nature of politics and religion in Ancient Greece. Perhaps Paul  Cartledge puts it best when he says, “Sacrifice, especially in the context of major public festivals, was simultaneously a political and a religious act in the ancient Greek city.”


Different Roles and Contexts


It would be an oversimplification to assign different areas of influence to each god. Often, the gods have multiple and overlapping areas of influence.


For example, Dionysus is the god of wine, theatre, masks, impersonation and ritual madness (mania). Albert Henrichs argues that these are all linked by Dionysus’ capacity to transcend existential boundaries.


Zeus is associated with kings, the marketplace, property, domestic wealth, the weather, strangers, beggars, supplication and laws. Among his epithets (describing characteristics) are: Zeus Agoraios (Zeus of the marketplace), Zeus Horkios (Zeus, god of Oaths), Zeus Phratrios (Zeus of brotherhood) and Zeus Herkeios (Zeus of the fence or courtyard, protector of families).


The gods were involved in both religious and political matters. People applying for magisterial posts were asked whether they were enrolled in the cult of Zeus Herkeios and an altar to him stood on the Athenian Acropolis.


Although the gods cared intensely about honour, they often had favourites. It was also not always clear which god to worship in each situation. Greeks regularly consulted an oracle about which god to worship.


For pregnant women, options were to worship Zeus Philios (Zeus of individual and household well-being, prosperity and purification) or Artemis, goddess of childbirth. Merchants had to choose between Zeus Agoraios and Hermes, the god of merchants, weights and measures.


Hero cults


Heroes were also worshipped for multiple functions. Gunnel Erkroth explains that the main distinction between gods and heroes is that heroes live and die. Heroes had achieved something unusual in their lifetimes and are worshipped on an official level after death.

For example, Asclepius was recognised as being a god of mortal descent. He was worshipped as a hero-doctor throughout the Greek world.


Heracles, son of Zeus and Alcmene, was worshipped as a household god, and stood outside homes to ward off evil. He was also worshiped at the Panhellenic sanctuary at Olympia, especially by athletes.


In our next post, find out what epic poet Homer said about the gods!


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