Religion in Ancient Greece

Religion was personal, direct, and present in all aspects of life in ancient Greece. Religion was never far from the mind of an ancient Greek. 

They had formal rituals such as animal sacrifices and libations, myths to explain the origins of humanity and give the gods a human face. 

The temples dominated the urban landscape and they held municipal festivals, and national sporting and artistic competitions.

While each person may have made up their mind about their religious beliefs, certain fundamentals were widely accepted for Greek government and society to function: the gods existed, and people believed they were involved in every aspect of human life—work, theater, justice, politics, marriage, and battle.

The separation of church and state did not exist. These ancient Greek pantheon’s gods were quite human.

They committed mistakes and had visible flaws (such as jealousy or vanity) that their followers could identify with.

Ancient Greek religion refers to a collection of beliefs, rites, and myths that originated in ancient Greece and were practiced as religion and cults.

In the modern sense, the ancient Greeks did not have a word for ‘religion.’

Though the two are closely related, Greek religion is distinct from Greek mythology, concerned with traditional legends.

Interestingly, for a religious nation, the Greeks had no name for religion; the closest terms were eusebeia (“piety”) and threskeia (“cult”).

Although its roots can be tracked back to ancient times, Greek religion in its evolved form lasted over a thousand years, from Homer’s time (possibly the 9th or 8th century BCE) through the reign of Emperor Julian (4th century BCE).

Its influence reached as far west as Spain, east as the Indus River, and across the Mediterranean.

The belief in a plurality of anthropomorphic deities under one supreme God was the most remarkable feature of Greek religion.

Priests were only responsible for cults; they were not clergy, and there was no sacred literature.

The Greeks’ only needs were to believe in the gods and to undertake rituals and sacrifices for the gods to receive their due.

It was dangerous to reject the presence of a deity for fear of retaliation from the deity or other mortals.

The twelve major Olympian gods and goddesses were recognized by most ancient Greeks—Zeus, Hera, Ares, Aphrodite Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Hestia.

These deities and several others were worshiped across Greece, albeit they were known by various epithets that distinguished different features of the God and often reflected the absorption of other local deities into the pan-Hellenic scheme.

Early Italian faiths, such as the Etruscan religion, were affected by Greek religion, which inspired much of ancient Roman religion.

What is a characteristic of ancient Greek and Roman religion?

Greek and Roman religions are comparable because they are polytheistic religions- the belief in or worship of several gods or divinities.

Furthermore, despite the changes in names, the gods of the Greeks and Romans were nearly identical.

What is ancient Greek religion called?

Religion was unknown to the ancient Greeks. The terms eusebeia (piety) and threskeia were the most similar (cult). Religious customs and beliefs were, however, intermingled with daily life.

The natural world was spiritual and divine, and they blamed the gods for almost everything.

Theology: Nature of Gods in ancient Greek and their religious beliefs

First century statue of Zeus
First-century statue of Zeus

Theology in ancient Greece was polytheistic, based on the belief that there were numerous gods and goddesses and various minor supernatural beings.

There existed a hierarchy of gods, with Zeus, the king of the gods, wielding power over them, albeit he was not all-powerful.

Certain portions of nature were under the control of some deities. For example, Zeus was the sky god responsible for thunder and lightning, while Poseidon was in charge of the sea and earthquakes.

All prominent deities were depicted as “human” in appearance, despite their ability to turn into animals or natural occurrences.

Hades wielded great authority in the realms of death and the Underworld, while Helios ruled over the sun. Other gods presided over abstract concepts, such as Aphrodite, in charge of love.

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The gods were neither all-good nor all-powerful, despite their immortality. In Greek mythology, they had to obey fate, called the Moirai, which overrode any of their divine powers or wills.

The gods had human vices and acted like humans.

In mythology, for example, it was Odysseus’ destiny to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and the gods could only make his journey longer and more difficult for him, but they couldn’t stop him.

They interacted with humans and, in some cases, spawned children with them. Occasionally, certain gods would be at odds with one another and endeavor to outdo one another.

Aphrodite, Ares, and Apollo assist the Trojans in the Trojan War in the Iliad, while Hera, Athena, and Poseidon back the Greeks.

 Some gods were explicitly linked to a particular city. Apollo was linked with Delphi and Delos, Zeus with Olympia, and Aphrodite with Corinth.

Athena was associated with the city of Athens, Apollo with Delphi and Delos, Zeus with Olympia, and Aphrodite with Corinth.

 Other gods, though, were also revered in these places. Other gods were linked to nations outside of Greece, such as Poseidon, who was linked to Ethiopia and Troy, and Ares, who was linked to Thrace.

 Though prominent gods’ devotion moved from place to place, and most bigger towns had temples dedicated to many major gods, the identification of different gods with different regions persisted to the end.     

Afterlife: Ancient Greek beliefs of Life after death 

Oil painting of Hades abducting Persephone, 18th Century
Oil painting of Hades abducting Persephone, 18th Century

The Greeks believed that after death, the spirits of the dead journeyed to an underworld. Hades, a brother of Zeus, reigned over one of the most populous parts of the underworld, also called Hades (originally called ‘the place of Hades’).

Tartarus, a land of punishment for the damned, and Elysium, a place of joys for the righteous, are two more well-known places.

All the deceased went to Hades in the early Mycenaean religion, but the growth of mystery cults in the Archaic period led to destinations like Tartarus and Elysium.

 Achilles, Alcmene, Ino, Melicertes, Menelaus, Peleus, and others who participated in the Trojan and Theban wars were thought to have been physically immortalized and brought to live forever in either Elysium, the Blessed Islands, heaven, the ocean, or beneath the ground. 

Even during the Christian era, this notion persisted. Most people, however, had little hope of anything other than continuing to exist as a disembodied soul when they died.

Reincarnation was also supported by some Greeks, such as the philosophers Pythagoras and Plato, albeit a handful only acknowledged it.

Epicurus taught that the soul was made up of atoms that dissolved when one died and ceased to exist when they died.

Mythology: Ancient Greek Shared beliefs and myths

The Fall of the Titans by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem
The Fall of the Titans by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem

The mythology of Greek religion was enormous. It was mostly made up of gods and their interactions with humanity.

Heracles and his twelve laborers, Odysseus, Jason, the chase for the Golden Fleece, and Theseus and the Minotaur are all examples of heroes and their activities in myths.

In Greek mythology, there were numerous species. The gods and humanity were the most prominent, while the Titans (who predated the Olympian gods) also figured frequently in Greek mythology. 

The half-man, half-horse centaurs, nature-based nymphs (tree nymphs were dryads, sea nymphs were Nereids), and half-man, half-goat satyrs were among the lesser species.

Cyclopes- the one-eyed giant, the sea beast Scylla, Gorgons, and the half-man, half-bull Minotaur were all terrible creatures in Greek mythology. 

There was no one-size-fits-all Greek cosmogony or origin story. Distinct religious groups held different beliefs about how the world was formed.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, one Greek creation story is told.

According to the story, there was just one primordial deity named Chaos at first, followed by numerous other primordial gods, including Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros, who subsequently gave birth to more gods, the Titans, who then gave birth to the first Olympians.

The mythology was mainly preserved and expanded upon to become later Roman mythology. The Greeks and Romans were literate civilizations.

They wrote mythology down in epic poems such as the Iliad and Odyssey and plays such as Euripides.

Ceremonies and Festivals in ancient Greece

The lighting of the flame at Lykaia
The lighting of the flame at Lykaia

Because there was never a single priestly class, there was never a unified form of religious writings or activities. 

There was no standardization of customs, just as there was no unified, shared sacred book for the Greek belief system.

Priests were usually judges for the city or hamlet or gained authority from one of the many shrines and organized religious rites on a regional basis.

Some priestly tasks, such as caring for a specific local festival, may be assigned to a specific family through custom.

Religious practices acquired their authority from tradition to a significant extent in the absence of “scriptural” sacred writings, and “any omission or deviation arouses deep worry and draws up punishments.”

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The majority of Greek ceremonies and rituals took place at altars. These were usually dedicated to a single or a few gods and housed a statue of that deity.

Food, drinks, and valuable items would be left there. They sometimes performed animal sacrifices here.

People ate most of the flesh, while they offered their refuse as a sacrifice to the gods. 

Not only at shrines but also in ordinary life, such as during a symposium, libations, they would often offer wine to the god.

Pharmakos was one of the ceremonies involving expelling a symbolic scapegoat, such as an enslaved person or an animal, from a city or hamlet during a period of adversity. 

They anticipated the removal of suffering by removing the ritual scapegoat.

Similarly, Ancient Greece had several religious festivals. Many were exclusive to a single deity or city-state. The festival of Lykaia, for example, was held in Arcadia, Greece, and was devoted to the pastoral God Pan.

The ancient Olympic Games held at Zeus’ shrine in Olympia were a religious celebration.

More traditional holidays comprised a parade, enormous sacrifices, and a feast to eat the offerings and entertainments and rituals, including visiting friends, dressing up, and odd conduct in the streets, which could be dangerous for witnesses in numerous ways.

There were 140 religious festivals in Athens during the year, ranging in importance from minor to major.

Sacrifice: to the Gods and why it was done

A scene depicting men sacrificing a pig on Ricci Hydria
A scene depicting men sacrificing a pig on Ricci Hydria

In Greek worship, household animals were sacrificed at the altar, along with hymns and prayers. 

The altar was not located within a temple and may not have been affiliated with one. 

The animal, which was supposed to be the best of its type, was garlanded and paraded to the altar, led by a girl carrying a basket on her head containing the hidden knife.

They murdered the animals on the altar following numerous ceremonies. Blood was taken from it and poured over the altar.

The deity’s half of the offering was killed on the spot, with various internal organs, bones, and other inedible portions burned.

The meat was removed and prepared for the attendees to eat; the leading characters tasted it on the site. The skin was usually maintained by the temple and sold to tanners.

Bulls or oxen, cows, sheep (the most common sacrifice), goats, pigs (with piglets being the cheapest mammal), and fowl were the animals of choice (but rarely other birds or fish). 

Horses and asses appear on several Geometric vases, but they are rarely addressed in literature; they were later imported to Greece.

The Greeks preferred to think that the animal was happy to be sacrificed, and they saw numerous acts as evidence of this.

A grain of incense may be tossed on the sacred fire for a smaller and simpler offering, while farmers outside the cities gave simple sacrificial gifts of plant products as they collected the “first fruits.” 

The libation, a ritual pouring of fluid, was commonplace, and libations with prayer were frequently conducted at home anytime wine was consumed, with only a portion of the cup’s contents being consumed.

Other fluids, such as olive oil and honey, may make more formal ones for temple altars. 

Although the primary form of sacrifice known as the hecatomb (meaning 100 bulls) may only entail a dozen or so cattle in practice, at large festivals, the number of cattle slain could number in the hundreds, with thousands feasting on them.

The sacrifice occasions in Homer’s epic poems may shed light on the gods’ role as members of society rather than external beings, demonstrating social relations. 

Sacrifice rituals played a significant role in the development of human-divine relationships.

Temples

The Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens
The Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens

The leading Greek temple building was enclosed on a broader precinct or temenos, frequently encircled by a peribolos fence or wall; the entire area was referred to as a “sanctuary.”

The most famous example is the Acropolis in Athens, supposedly fortified as a citadel before a temple was ever built.

A typical early sanctuary appears to have consisted of a Tenemos, often centered around a sacred grove, cave, rock, or spring, and possibly just delineated by marker stones at intervals, with an altar for offerings.

The sacrifices and rites committed to the particular deity took place outside the temple interiors, at altars inside the sanctuary’s more significant precinct, which might be enormous.

As the decades passed, both the inside and outside of prominent temples acquired sculptures and minor shrines or other buildings as gifts, as well as military trophies, paintings, and precious metals goods, practically converting them into a museum.

Some shrines had oracles, who were said to have heavenly insight in answering pilgrims’ queries.

The temple’s deity resided in the cult image in the cella or main room, generally facing the one door.

The cult image was usually a statue of the deity, which was usually life-size, but in other circumstances, was much larger.

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In the beginning, these were made of wood, marble, or terracotta, or in the particularly distinguished form of a chryselephantine statue, which was made of ivory plaques for the visible parts of the body and gold for the clothing, and was encased in a wooden framework.

They once considered that only priests had access to a Greek temple’s cella, which ordinary guests only visited on rare occasions, such as at big festivals or other special occasions.

Role of Women from the religious aspect

The Pythia, the most known type of Hiereiai, red figure kylix
The Pythia, the most known type of Hiereiai, red figure kylix

Priestesses: hiereiai, meaning “holy ladies,” or amphipolis, a name for lesser attendants, were the only public roles available to Greek women.

They acquired social status and access to greater luxuries as priestesses than other Greek women who worked or stayed home.

They were mainly from local aristocratic families; some posts needed virgins, who would typically only serve for a year or two before marrying, while married women filled others.

Women who willingly opted to become priestesses gained increased social and legal prestige in the eyes of the people, as well as a public burial location after death.

The idea was that those serving the gods had to be as high-quality as their offerings; therefore, Greek priestesses had to be healthy and of sound mind. Male Greek priests were no exception.

In Ancient Greece, there were different religious holidays for men and women; Thesmophoria, Plerosia, Kalamaia, Adonia, and Skira were women-only festivals.

The Thesmophoria event, like many others, was dedicated to agricultural fertility, which the ancient Greeks associated with women.

It offered women a religious identity and purpose in Greek religion, reinforcing conventional lifestyles by allowing women to worship goddesses Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

Decline of Greek religion and their belief in gods

Dionysus sitting on a throne, with Helios, Aphrodite and other gods
Dionysus sitting on a throne, with Helios, Aphrodite and other gods

The syncretic aspect of Greco-Roman polytheism, which assimilated ideas and practices from a range of foreign religious traditions as the Roman Empire expanded, contributed to its initial downfall.

Mystery religions like Christianity and Mithraism grew popular as Greco-Roman philosophical schools combined parts of Judaism and Early Christianity.

Constantine I was the very first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity.

Newly converted Christians did not just continue worshiping in converted temples, contrary to some earlier studies; instead, new Christian communities arose when previous pagan communities deteriorated and were finally persecuted and liquidated.

Julian pursued a strategy of marginalization but not destruction towards the Church, tolerating and offering governmental support to other prominent faiths (especially Judaism) when he considered doing so would undermine Christianity.

Julian’s successor Constantinus revoked parts of Julian’s reforms, while Jovian, Valentinian I, and Valens carried on Julian’s policy of religious tolerance inside the Empire, earning praise from pagan writers.

Theodosius vigorously implemented anti-pagan laws, disbanded priesthoods, demolished temples, and actively participated in Christian efforts against pagan holy sites.

He passed laws prohibiting pagan deity worship not just in public but also in private households.

Despite the Roman government’s official repression, worship of the Greco-Roman gods lingered throughout the early Middle Ages in some rural and distant areas.

At Monte Cassino, a supposed temple to Apollo with a community of worshipers and a holy grove persisted until 529 AD, when Saint Benedict of Nursia forcibly turned it to a Christian church, destroying the altar and cutting down the forest.

More lately, a renaissance of contemporary Hellenism, as it is also known, has begun. Hellenic Ethnic Religion is the word used in Greece.

Modern Hellenism reflects Neoplatonic and Platonic thought and classical cult practice (as depicted by Porphyry, Libanius, Proclus, and Julian).

However, compared to Greek Orthodox Christianity, it has a far smaller following.

Conclusion

Many gods were worshiped by the ancient Greeks, each having his personality and territory. Greek mythology explained the gods’ origins and unique relationships with humankind.

Many mythical incidents are shown in Archaic and Classical Greek art, including an established iconography of traits that distinguish each god.

Ancient Greek religious practice was founded on time-honored observances, which dated back to the Bronze Age (3000–1050 B.C.) or even earlier.

The concept of exchange: gods and goddesses were expected to deliver gifts built the human-divine interaction.

Individual worshippers’ physical expressions of thankfulness were votive offerings, which the thousands have discovered from sanctuaries.

The Greeks worshiped in sanctuaries that were either within the city or in the countryside, depending on the nature of the deity.

A sanctuary was a well-defined sacred location separated from the rest of the world by a wall.

Animal sacrifice, particularly oxen, goats, and sheep, was a central religious rite in ancient Greece.

Sacrifices were performed within the sanctuary, usually on an altar in front of the temple, with the assembled participants eating the victim’s guts and meat. 

Liquid offerings, often known as libations, were also prevalent. Religious festivals, or feast days, were held throughout the year.

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