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- History of ancient Greek religion
- Ancient Greek beliefs
- Sanctuaries and temples
- Role of women
- Personal Religion
Key Facts And Information
Let’s find out more about Ancient Greek Religion!
- Ancient Greek religion is a mixture of beliefs, mythology, rituals, and daily practices. The ancient Greeks worshipped a variety of gods. The most important deities were the twelve Olympians: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Hermes, and either Hestia or Dionysus. Each of these major gods and goddesses had their own stories, powers, roles, and contributions to Greek society. The ancient religion of Greece stretched far west to Spain, east to the Indus River, and across the Mediterranean world. It also had a palpable impact on the ancient Roman religion.
History of ancient Greek religion
- Ancient Greek religion lasted for more than a thousand years. It was formed by a mixture of beliefs, rituals, ancient stories, and a number of intellectual perceptions of life.
- This religion started with the arrival of the indigenous people to Greece.
- It was based on many other polytheistic religions, since Zeus, the sky god, had its deity equivalent in Rome as Jupiter, and in India as Dyaus. Mythologies have demonstrated Mount Olympus to be the home of the major Greek gods. The Greeks saw divinity in that mountain, and created beliefs related to it. The gods descended from Mount Olympus, creating the mysteries of life, and restoring order to the world.
- After a period of time, Greek heroes were identified with divine figures, regarding their achievements and contributions to society, wars, politics, art, and to the state.
- For instance, one famous hero was called by the name “Zeus Agamemnon”. The ancient Greek religion evolved through time, becoming more complex and fascinating. Gradually, it became more rooted in Greece from the archaic times through the Hellenistic period, and to the period of the Roman Empire.
- The origin of the ancient Greek religion is somewhat blurred. Some historians suggest that it goes back to the farmers of Neolithic Greece, prior to the Bronze Age or Helladic period.
- For instance, Poseidon was believed to be the god of the sea and earthquakes by the Mycenaeans, also known as the first Greeks. Many other gods did not exist at that time, like Apollo and Aphrodite. Less than half of the Mycenaeans’ temples survived and withstood the
dark ages of Greece.
- Some historians state that ancient Greek religion was partially derived from nearby civilizations, namely the Minoan religion and the ancient Egyptian religion.
- There is a theory named “the great goddess”. This theory presents a belief of a great goddess being the creator of all. However, the great goddess was replaced by the idea of the god father, in almost every ancient polytheistic religion. For example, Zeus was shown as the king of all gods, and the sky father, though he was not the first divine entity in the ancient Greek religion.
Archaic and Classical Periods
- In this period of time, Greek cities flourished.
- Artworks were encouraged, which developed creativity in the Greek sculptors. Although the ancient Greek religion seemed to be individualistic, it unified the Greeks with religious practices held at the center of the city (polis). Festivals, rituals, and common beliefs were shared by the Greeks, which made them more aware of the term nationalism.
- History records that the ancient Greek religion was often criticised by philosophers of the time.
- The Hellenistic period highlights the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 B.C.
- The elements of Greek religious practices slightly changed. Large sites were built for major gods not only in Greece, but also in Rome.
- Some new cults were fused with the ancient Grecian religion, such as Atargatis from Syria, and Isis from Egypt.
- This period witnessed many philosophical movements, developing social and religious examination. Animal sacrifices were questioned, and criticised as “unnecessary”, even though a minority were educated and a number of questionable facts about the ancient Greek religion were presented. The majority of the population continued celebrating festivals and religious rituals.
- When the Romans conquered Greece, it was enriched with many aspects of the Greeks’ social, political, and artistic life.
- The Romans adopted the belief of many Greek gods, as they also copied much of Greek literature and architecture.
- The Romans built their own imperial cult. Temples, sites, and statues were placed in important cities in Rome.
- Rome’s expansion in different empires, religions, and cultures marked the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism.
- The first emperor who converted to Christianity was Constantine I.
- At that time, religions like Christianity and Mithraism became increasingly famous. Christianity was tolerated as a belief system in Rome. However, historians argue that Greece remained divided between Christian and pagan communities. They were both separated; the polytheistic Greeks continued to practice their religious rites, while Christians started building their own complexes.
- Later in time, the Roman emperor Julian fought to cease any form of polytheism; however, it was not with the sword. The Roman Christians were spreading the message on a large scale. Pagans still coexisted with Christians at that time, under the policy of religious tolerance.
- Theodosius I was the first emperor who enforced strict laws, banning pagan religion and its practices.
- Temples were destroyed, and polytheism became prohibited even in personal religious practices at home. Then in 393 A.D., the last Olympic Games were held.
Ancient Greek beliefs
Variety of gods
- Ancient Greek religion was based on the worship of numerous deities. Their gods had a hierarchic order, with Zeus as the king of the gods.
- Since ancient stories recount that Zeus had saved all his brothers and sisters, the throne was his predicted destiny. He had the power to control every divine or earthly destiny. Zeus had control over everything, but every Greek god or goddess had its own power and responsibility. Zeus was the sky god, Poseidon had the sea and earthquakes, Helios was the sun god, and Hades ruled the underworld.
- In myths, Ancient Greek deities were depicted in human forms, and they were able to transform into animal figures,
or be attributed with natural phenomena.
- Ancient Greek gods acted as humans, in behaviour, and habits. Like humans, the gods had to accept their fate, which was out of their control. The Greeks developed a belief system demonstrating that not all gods were mighty and righteous, and all of them had to obey Moirai (fate). The Greek gods sometimes opposed each other. An ancient myth about the Trojan War argues that Aphrodite, Areas, and Apollo supported the Trojan, while Hera, Athena, and Poseidon stood with the Greeks.
- Some Greek gods were associated with Greek cities, and these cities hosted their festivals and worshiped cults.
Ancient Greek Mythology
- Greek Mythology revolves around stories that describe the relationship between gods and nature, gods and men, and also gods with respect to other gods.
- Two of the famous myths are the heroic story of Heracles and the fated voyage of Odysseus. The Greek mythology consisted of a variety of entities - the predominant ones being gods and humans. However, their stories depicted the existence of titans before the gods and humans. There were also giants, like the one-eyed giant Cyclops.
- Various fascinating stories were orally handed down from one generation to another. After a great period of time, the Grecian artists wrote them down in the form of poetry and plays. Nowadays, these pieces of writing are taken and analysed as literary works.
- Greeks did not demonstrate the creation of the world in their mythology.
- Religious texts were not considered relevant or necessary in ancient Greek society.
- Morality seemed to be of great importance to the Grecian society.
- One of the major immoral behaviours was committing hubris. Characterised by having foolish pride and arrogance, this human characteristic could lead to serious offences. Pride, itself, was not opposed by Greeks; they opposed the extremes of pride. In fact, anything done to excess was considered immoral.
- Hubris in Athens was considered a serious crime.
- The underworld was ruled by Hades. Within the underworld, another realm existed, where the damned were punished for their sins. Tartarus was the name of this realm, while another realm was created for the innocent souls, and this was known as Elysium.
- Ancient Greeks believed there was an afterlife when one dies. They thought the soul of the dead travelled to the underworld.
- These two places were believed to have existed since the archaic age. Ancient Greeks suggested war heroes could stay forever in Elysium.
Sanctuaries and temples
- Sanctuaries usually included temples built within them. An typical ancient sanctuary consisted of a temenos around a sacred statue and an altar for offerings. The interior of the temples served no purpose but to be the place of the god’s statue.
- Temenos means a piece of ground surrounding or adjacent to a temple.
- Altars were often large because rituals and sacrifices were carried out there. Later in time, temples provided services to people. Priests or priestesses were also believed to be wiser than men, for they mirrored the god’s divine knowledge.
- Temples usually had a statue of the god or goddesses, since these structures were regarded as houses of the deity. They were made of wood or terracotta,
sometimes of gold and ivory.
- The most famous statues are Phidias’ Athena Parthenos and the statue of Zeus.
- Temples restricted entry during casual days of the year to priests only. Citizens were not allowed to enter the temple of god, regardless of their gender or social class. However, restrictions did not include virgins. It was believed that temples should preserve their sacred aspect - the reason why young girls were allowed to enter the holy premises.
- There were no unified religious practices across Greece since there were no priestly classes.
- Religious practices were organised locally, and they differed from one city to another. Traditions of ancient Greeks paved the way for their religious practices and ceremonies.
- When celebrating a particular god, ancient Greek ceremonies took place on altars. The Greeks would bring many offerings and leave them at the altar.
- Sacrifices usually included animals, as they could be decapitated on the altar and burnt there to honour the gods.
- Ancient Greeks celebrated many festivals during the year.
- Each major god or goddess had at least one festival. Festivals were not held in the same city. They were celebrated in different regions. Ancient Grecian games were also part of the festivals, such as the Panhellenic Games and the ancient Olympic Games. These religious practices were held at the sanctuary of Zeus.
- When celebrating a god or goddess, the Greeks usually sang hymns and prayers, and offered sacrifices.
- The sacrifices were always of domestic animals. The chosen animal was usually decorated and guided by a girl who had a basket on her head, in which the knife was placed. The act of the sacrifice was carried out on the altar after various rituals. When the animal died, women cheered in high-pitched tones. After that, the blood of the animal was poured across the altar, and the meat was prepared for the participants to feast on.
- Ancient Greeks believed that animals were glad to be taken
as a sacrifice for the deity.
- Sacrifices also included simpler offerings such as throwing grains in the sacred fire. Sometimes, fluids like olive oil and honey were spilled on the altar.
Role of Women In Society
- Women could devote themselves as priestesses to the gods.
- With that public service, women enjoyed a luxurious life compared to other Greek women. They also gained social recognition. When a priestess died, she was given a public burial. The women who served as priestess needed to fit certain criteria. The priestess and the priest had to have a healthy and sound mind. There was no gender division when serving a god or a goddess.
- Some festivals were banned for men, and were concerned with agricultural fertility and the ancient Greeks saw that those festivals were more close to women - highlighting their role in the society.
- Although there were public practices of the ancient Greek religion, it was more sacred when personal.
- Ceremonies, festivals, and rituals to the dead only unified Greeks at particular times of the year. Most often, ancient Greek religion is depicted as more of a personal religion.
- In early times, temples were places for individual purposes. Anyone could seek the gods’ help with hymns and prayers at any time of the year. Offerings were left in the temples almost every day.
- Ancient Greeks naturally interpreted signs from nature or animals as an indicator from the gods about the future. It was believed that the Gods appreciated personal prayers and offerings.
- The ancient Greek religion was a personal polytheistic religion, shared by common sense, and handed down orally through generations. This religion unified the Greeks, and made them more productive in the arts, architecture, and politics. Indeed, the ancient Greeks are regarded as very intellectual, and their civilisation is one of the richest in the ancient world.