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Introducing Ancient Greek Religion

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 Greek Religion, from its pre-historic origins to its central place in Classical Greek political life!



Ancient Greek religion was polytheistic, anthropomorphic and political – and very different from many of the religions you may commonly encounter today. Whereas the great Abrahamic religions maintain that God created the world, this was not the case for the Ancient Greeks.

 

We think of the Greeks as worshiping those gods who dwelt on Mount Olympus under the rule of Zeus. But Greek mythology tells us that, before, Zeus there was his father Kronos; before him was his father Uranus.

 

How the Gods Came to Rule

 

For the Greeks, the only thing to exist in the beginning was Chaos, an empty void. In Ancient Greek poet Hesiod’s version of the story, after Chaos came Gaea (the earth), who bore Uranus (the starry sky), who then became Gaea’s mate. Together they produced the twelve Titans, one of whom was Kronos. Kronos mutilated and banished his father.

 

Because both Gaea and Uranus had prophesied that Kronos would be supplanted by a son, Kronos began eating the children he had produced with his sister Rhea. Rhea bore Zeus in secret and gave Kronos a stone wrapped in swaddling bands instead of the baby. As a grown-up, Zeus tricked Kronos into vomiting up his brothers and sisters. Once the Titans were defeated, the rule of the Olympians was established.

 

Zeus himself was not even responsible for the condition of humans in some versions of the story. Prometheus, a Titan belonging to the earlier divine generation, created humans in the gods’ image and Athena breathed life into them. Prometheus stole fire from Hephaestus, God of Blacksmithing and Fire, and gave it to humans along with Athena’s wisdom in the arts. This allowed us to forge great civilisations.

 

Prometheus was punished by being chained to a cliff and having his liver pecked out every day by a vulture, only for the liver to regrow, and for Prometheus to be attacked again in the morning. In fact, apart from Athena, the Olympian gods had very little to do with the creation of humans and nothing at all to do with the creation of the universe.

 

Yet it is the Olympians – the gods who lived on Mount Olympus - that we associate with Greek religion in the Classical Age: Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Hermes, Demeter, Aphrodite, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Ares, Hephaestus, Hestia and Dionysus. Why?

 

How the Greeks Came to Believe

 

Historians and anthropologists have their own ideas about the origins of Greek religion. Hugh Lloyd-Jones speculates that fear of ghosts in pre-historic times led to the fear of powerful spirits in need of placation by offerings and sacrifice. Before agriculture, this involved the goddess known as the Mistress of Animals; some of whose functions were later taken over by the hunting goddess Artemis.



In return for the ability to hunt her animals, this goddess would demand some of the parts of the animals be returned to her as offerings. This, Lloyd-Jones speculates, is the origin of sacrifices in Greek religion.

 

It is thought that different Greek communities had their own special deities: Hera at Argos, Samos and Olympia; Apollo and Artemis at Delphi and Delos, and Athena at Athens (rivalled by the sea-god Poseidon). Gradually, some gods were adopted in places other than those in which their cults had first developed. Cults of minor gods were appropriated by more prominent gods and cities embraced a multitude of different gods for different purposes.

 

Religion and the Polis

 

This reciprocal element was maintained in the Classical period of Greek history, particularly in the way that politics and religion were intertwined.

 

In many Western countries today, religion is often a matter of personal faith, rather than a public matter. In Ancient Greece, however, there was no such distinction.

 

Religion was part of political life. Many political decisions involved religious consultations and peace treaties involved oaths to the gods.

 

There was a public hearth set up to the goddess Hestia in the Prytaneion (state dining room) in the Athenian agora which mirrored the hearth set up in many households and the state sponsored many religious festivals. 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.

 


In Athens, archõns (political magistrates) also held religious roles. The archon basileus (king ruler) was the main religious official, responsible for ancestral cult sacrifices and taking part in scapegoat rituals. The eponymous archon (after whom the year was named) was responsible for civic festivals such as the Dionysia. The war archon was in charge of cults related to military affairs, such as the Artemis Agrotera (sacrifices on the battlefield) or Enyalios (public funeral associated with Ares) and a festival commemorating the victory at Marathon.

 

Religious ritual also had a strong civic element. As Paul Cartledge puts it, “Greek polis religion…was essentially, of its nature, a public matter, expressed primarily by collective ritual action undertaken under communal civic direction.”

 

In fact, the Greek city-state or polis had a reciprocal relationship with the gods: they would protect it, as long as the city fulfilled its duties to them.

 

Because Greek religion had no institutionalised church to establish official doctrine, religious knowledge was transmitted by poets such as Homer and Hesiod. Rather than being invested with divine authority to tell people what to think, priests were caretakers of temples and administrators of cults. Oracles and seers interpreted, rather than imparted, divine messages.

 

All this had the effect of unifying the Greek world, rather than causing doctrinal disputes. Julia Kindt acknowledges that cults and festivals mapped onto polis institutions, but points out that this was also panhellenic. Tales of the gods from Homer and Hesiod spread throughout the Greek world and Herodotus claimed that  temples of the gods and the sacrifices formed part of a shared feeling of “Greekness.”

 



As Kindt argues, “Greek religion differed from its modern counterparts in that it had no dogma, no official creed, no Bible, no priesthood in the form of a specially trained and entitled group of people. In the absence of a church, religion was organised alongside the socio-political structures of the polis.”

 

Of course, there are plenty of Ancient Greek religious practices that do not have an obvious link to the polis. Some of connections with the gods were very personal. In our next post, discover the relationship between gods and mortals!

 

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