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Panhellenic and Personal: Religion Across the Greek World

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 and canonical scholarship you need to be acquainted with to get started.


In this post, discover how Greek religion was Panhellenic and personal!

Greek religion was reflected in the polis (city-state), the deme (district), and the oikos (household): a hearth was set up to the goddess Hestia in the oikos as well as a polis hearth in the prytaneion (state dining room) in the Athenian agora.


Zeus was a protector of local Athenian phratry (smaller clan to which all Athenians belonged) but was also worshipped on a panhellenic level at Olympia. Apollo Agyeios was a household deity, but Pythian Apollo was worshipped at Delphi. Athena was the patron goddess of Athens, but there were sanctuaries to her across Greece.


The Oracles at Delphi and Dodona


Famous throughout the Greek world was Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi. Its adyton (innermost sanctuary) stood on the centre of the world as determined by the eagles of Zeus.


There was a living laurel tree, Apollo’s symbol, in the adyton. The site was staffed by the laurel-crowned Pythia, a chaste, Delphic woman who served for life; the prophētai (interpreters); the hosioi (holy men) and the priests of Apollo. Tradition has it that there was also a chasm emitting vapours.


After payment of a pelanos (consultation tax), a preliminary sacrifice was offered. If accepted, the enquirer entered the temple and offered a second sacrifice.


The Pythia burnt laurel leaves and barley meal on the altar, sat on the tripod and became possessed by the god. They gave their prophesies while shaking a laurel.


Thew oracle was consulted by individuals, but also played an important guiding role in the Greek city-state. Croesus, King of Lydia, consulted the oracle about whether he should wage war against the Persians and Athens consulted the oracle about what to do when Xerxes invaded Greece in 480.


The Oracle at Dodona (on Mt. Tomaros in north-west Greece) was a sanctuary to Zeus Naïos (Dweller) and Dione Naïa. These were reincarnations of the earlier sky/storm god and fertility goddess, and appeared on coins of Dodona. It was founded when one of two black doves flew from Thebes in Egypt to Zeus’ sacred oak tree at Dodona.

By the oak tree were bronze tripod cauldrons which created a protective circle of sound. The rustling leaves or doves in the tree provided the oracular response (by the mid-5th century B.C.E. the oracle was operated by three priestesses who were later called ‘the Doves’).


The theatre there was once one of the largest in Greece, joining the House of the Priests. There was also the bouleuterion, where the council met, and the prytaneion, where officials dined and a sacred fire was kept alight.


Though sometimes consulted officially by states, this oracle generally offered advice on private problems. Odysseus consults this oracle about whether to return to Ithaca in disguise.


The Healing Cult of Asclepius


Asclepius was the god of Healing. In one story, Asclepius is the son of Apollo, saved by Hermes from a funeral Pyre and educated by Chiron the Centaur. Other narratives hold that Asclepius was killed by Zeus and made a star in the Ophiuchus Constellation.


Asclepius is associated with snakes, a symbol of rejuvenation, which are involved in his rituals. The symbol of the staff of Asclepius entwined with a snake is associated with medicine today.


Asclepius had many sanctuaries erected in his honour, one of which is located by a spring in a secluded valley in Epidaurus. Here, there were temples of Asclepius and Artemis, goddess of childbirth. The Asklepeion (health centre) offered treatment for the unwell.


People who sought to be healed would be purified in the holy waters from the sanctuary’s sacred fountains and there was a period of incubation, and sleep. A priests would interpret advice given by the god, and the god may visit pilgrims in their dreams.


This was primarily a place where individuals sought healing, but there were also the asklepieia, quadrennial games similar to other Panhellenic games.




Famous for the Olympian Games, Olympia is a Panhellenic sanctuary of Zeus in the northwest Peloponnese near the city of Elis. The games were held in honour of Zeus, founded by Zeus’ son Heracles and commemorating the chariot-race victory of Zeus’ grandson Pelops.

The Games were held once every four years in a five-day festival and incorporated the sacrifice of a hecatomb (a hundred oxen) on the altar of Zeus. Originally, the main contest was the stadion, a sprinting race, but a pentathlon, horse-races, pankration (boxing and wrestling competition) and armour-clad races were added.


In the centre of the altis (sanctuary) was the Temple of Zeus. Its metopes (carved rectangles) portray the labours of Heracles; the east pediment (triangular gable wall) depicts Pelops’s chariot race.


There was a political dimension to the site. The Sacred Truce was made by all Greek City States during the Olympic games and the Persian Wars were commemorated at Olympia (although Delphi was the primary site for this).


The games were also an arena where political disagreement played out. Sparta turned the games of 428 B.C.E. into an anti-Athenian meeting and Sparta itself was excluded in 420 B.C.E.


The Eleusinian Mysteries


The Eleusinian Mysteries were secret rituals held twice a year in the Athenian deme of Eleusis, fourteen miles northwest of Athens.


The mysteries celebrate the story of Demeter (the goddess of nature) and her daughter Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades. Persephone returns to the earth for half of each year, bringing fruitfulness. When she returns to the underworld, Demeter leaves the plants to wither and die.


The rites were a way of overcoming the fear of death, reflecting on the fact that life is cyclical. Initiates into the mysteries walked to Eleusis along the Sacred Way, the road from Athens. As they went, the initiates called for Kore (Persephone’s name before her kidnapping) and re-enacted Demeter’s search for her.


Once at Eleusis, initiates would rest by the well, fast, then drink kykeon (a barley and mint beverage) before entering the telesterion (underground theatre). The ritual was secret, but it likely involved a re-enactment of the death and rebirth of Persephone. 


This was personal, but also linked to deme religion. There was a city Eleusinion on the slopes of the Acropolis and this was incorporated into the procession.


As Plato wrote, the hidden meaning of the mysteries is that “he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods.


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