Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Greek Religion

The Greek pantheon

Zeus, King of the gods,
identified by the Romans as their god, Jupiter
Athenian religion was polytheistic. In polytheism there are many gods, each with a defined sphere of influence.  The worshipper does not pick and choose between them but pays respect to all: failure to do this means the neglect of an area of human experience.  The Greek gods had human form, they were born and might have sexual contacts: but they did not eat human food and they would not age or die. They are frequently described as the 'blessed gods’, not subject to the infirmities of the human condition.

The Greek pantheon consisted of the twelve Olympians: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Dionysus, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes,  Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, and Hephaestus. They were members of Zeus’ sprawling family and lived in his palace on the heavenly mountain, Olympus. Alongside them were innumerable lesser figures, such as Pan and the Nymphs. 

Contrasted to them there was a less clearly defined group, the chthonians, gods of the earth and underworld, grouped around Hades, the god of death, and his captured spouse, Persephone.  Since crops sprang from the earth, the chthonians were not merely a negative counterpoise to the gods of heaven.

Hades carries Persephone down into
the underworld
Antikensammlung Berlin

The restricted cast of principal gods could be made to play an almost infinite number of roles by the addition of specifying epithets'kindly Zeus’,  'Zeus of the mountain tops’, Zeus of the Courtyard’ , 'Zeus of the agora' 'Athena  Polias (of the polis).

The heroes

Alongside men and gods there was a third estate, that of heroes: a hero was a figure less powerful than a god, to whom cult was paid. The typical site of such a cult was a tomb. In the case of Heracles (Roman, Hercules) the distinction between a hero and a god could be uncertain. Many of the poetic heroes (Achilles, Odysseus) received cult. The hero retained the limited and partisan interests of his mortal life. He would help those who lived in the vicinity of his tomb or who belonged to the tribe of which he was the founder.  Gods had to be shared with the world, but the hero was the property of a tribe of a village. Thus hero-cults were the best focus for particular loyalties (such the Eponymous Heroes, the heroes of the ten tribes of Attica, whose statues were located in the agora).

Priests and seers

In Greece power in religious matters lay not with an institution (as in Christianity) but with those who had secular power: in the household with the father, in early communities with the king, in a developed city-state with the magistrates or even with the citizen assembly.  Individual gods had their priests, but priesthood was a part-time activity that normally required no specific qualification or training.  Only the temple at Delphi was served by full-time priests. Men and women of religion were of two kinds:
  1. Those with ritual functions (hiereis, meaning primarily ‘sacrificers’), and custodians of religious law and tradition, such as the hierophants of the Eleusinian mysteries. 
  2. Men and women with god-given and peculiar closeness to divinity and a special power to communicate with the divine through seers (manteis) or oracles. 

The seers were important figures because omens were taken before many public activities such as dispatching a colony, beginning a military campaign or joining battle. In Greek literature, the seer is always right, but he cannot enforce his will (this is left to the generals and the politicians).


According to Greek mythology, Zeus once released two eagles at each end of the earth and ordered them to fly towards each other. They met at the omphalos (the navel of the world) at Delphi.

The omphalos in the museum
at Delphi

Originally Delphi was a holy zone for a female serpentine spirit, the Python. According to the myth, she was wrestled to the ground by Apollo. Her spirit fled underground, and he took possession of her cave. In classical times the shrine was dominated by his temple, built party with Athenian money, and the Pythia  was his priestess. She was an old woman though as a symbol of purity, she was obliged to wear a young girl’s dress.  She usually became inspired after drinking toxic fresh honey and chewing ‘daphne’. She gave her responses, which were often ambiguous or perplexing, in prose or verse. When the oracle in 480 BC advised the Athenians to put their trust in their wooden walls against the Persian, the professional interpreters understood this as a warning to remain within the city walls. However the politician Themistocles argued against this that the god was referring to the fleet - and his decision prevailed with the Assembly.

Acknowledging the gods

There was no religious institution that could spread moral teaching, develop doctrine or impose orthodoxy. There was no creed and therefore there were no heretics. The central Greek term theous nomizein means ‘acknowledge the gods' not believe in them. 

At first sight it can seem that Greek religion was amoral.  Piety meant observance rather than moral endeavour. The gods (Zeus in particular) frequently behaved in a scandalous way. However, certain standards were insisted on. The gods punished offences against parents, guests/hosts, suppliants, and the dead. They particularly abhorred oath-breakers. Zeus of the Oaths was also a guardian of social morality.  In general, it was believed that the gods rewarded the good and punished the bad.

Piety was expressed in behaviour - orthopraxy (right practice) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). Piety was a matter or respect rather than love - religion was never personal in the sense of a means for the individual to express his unique identity. Many classes of person had much of their religion done for them by others: the father sacrifices on behalf of the household, the magistrates and priests for ‘the people’. Greek religion discouraged individualism - it emphasised community and the due observance of social forms.


Acknowledging the gods was principally a matter of observing their cult. This focused mainly on the sanctuary, which was at the heart of Greek religion.  It consisted of a walled perimeter, a gated entry, and open-air altar, and a temple (naos) housing a statue of the deity. The best-known sanctuaries are the Athenian Acropolis, the rural sanctuaries of Olympia, which was sacred to Zeus, and Delphi, home of Apollo. The focal point was always the altar. 

Formal cult was essential. Its most important form was the sacrifice. The typical victim was a domestic animal (usually a sheep or an ox). But there were also 'bloodless’ or ‘pure’ sacrifices of corn, cakes, fruit and the like. If the occasion was grand enough, its horns would be gilded and it was groomed for the ritual. It must be seen to go willingly to its death.

In its commonest form, the (Olympian sacrifice) the animal's throat was raised to the sky to be cut, and the thigh-bones, gall bladder and tail, wrapped in fat, were burnt on a raised altar (the flames went up to heaven). The meat was cooked and eaten by human participants but before the lean meat was eaten, the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys were roasted and tasted by the participants. Thus the communal banquet was sanctified and became the means of approach to the gods (with the gods being given the inedible part of the animal!).

In chthonic sacrifice the animal was held close to the ground while the blood dripped down into the earth; this was cult offered to the gods of the underworld and also to heroes. No wine was drunk, and no flesh eaten.

Another form of communication with the gods was the libation, in which liquid was poured onto the altar for the Olympians and on the ground for chthonic deities.  Libations were offered to the gods at the beginning and end of most solemn ceremonies. 

Scene of sacrifice, with a libation poured from a jug
(Pothos Painter, Attic red-figure krater, 430–420 BC)

Rituals and festivals

The potential presence of the gods was keenly felt on festival days when their statues came out from the temples. In Athens slightly more than one third of the days in each year were marked by some festival, though not all of them were celebrated by everyone. There were private cults associated with the household (oikos) or wider kinship groups, and with the locality or trade association. The polis too had its public cults, the most important being that of Athena Polias.   She had won her pre-eminent place as a result of a competition with Poseidon. 

There were also gods of the agora and the ecclesia. The state cults were financed publicly and the regulation of cult activities was decided in the ecclesia.  Meetings of the ecclesia were preceded by religious rituals, usually sacrifice and prayer, and promissory oaths and curses were regarded as civic sanctions. In return for this attention, it was expected that the gods would be the guardians of the city.

The dominant theme of Greek religion was one of festivity and celebration. Processions were common, singing, dancing and athletics were part of worship.  At the festivals of the country gods such as Demeter and Dionysus obscene jokes, gestures and objects were part of the fun.

Ritual was accompanied by prayer. It was unusual to pray seriously without making an offering of some kind, a sacrifice, a dedication, or at least a libation. This put the gods under an obligation to the suppliant. For example, one Athenian inscription reads,

‘Mistress, Menandros dedicated this offering to you in gratitude, in fulfilment of a vow. Protect him, daughter of Zeus, in gratitude for this.’ 
Note (1) Athena is addressed with precision, and her titles are given, (2) the offerer has established a bond of obligation. The fundamental assumption is reciprocity; the gods are part of the pattern of social relationships and gift giving was perhaps the most important mechanism of these relationships.

Religion and society

Religion was not something set apart from the rest of society. The Greeks did not make our modern distinction between the sacred and the secular. Every formal social grouping (household, brotherhood, tribe, city state) was also a religious grouping. The Panhellenic sanctuaries, such as Delphi or Olympia gave a sense of unity. In Athens the growth of democracy involved a transformation of the forms of religious life. Cults that had been controlled by the aristocratic families were democratized and absorbed into the public calendar of the city.

The goals of religion were practical and this-worldly. There was little concern for the next world, which in Homer’s epics was depicted as a meaningless, shadowy existence. One important function was to provide rites of passage. Many public festivals prepared boys to be warriors and girls to be mothers. 

Eleusis: Another class of festivals, those of Demeter (corn) and Dionysus (wine) related to the events of the agricultural year. At the shrine of Eleusisdedicated to Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the great mystery of death and resurrection was celebrated in a ritual that predated the Olympian pantheon. At the climax of the ceremonies, the initiates entered the great pillared hall of the initiates, the Telesterion, where they were shown the sacred relics of Demeter, and the priestesses revealed their visions of the holy night (probably a fire that represented the possibility of life after death). This was the most secretive part of the Mysteries and those who had been initiated were forbidden to ever speak of the events that took place there.

Religion released women from domestic confinement. Most women’s festivals offered a temporary release from male authority, though their content was often austere, relating in some way to fertility. The Thesmophoriaheld in honour of Demeter and Persephone, commemorated the harsh summer months when Demeter abstained from her role as goddess of the harvest and mourned for her daughter in the Underworld. Married women left their homes to take part in rituals away from the men – who, however, had to pay for the festival.


Athena Parthenos was the virgin daughter of Zeus, born not of a woman but a man. While her mother was pregnant, Zeus swallowed her and in time at the stroke of the axe of Hephaestus, she was born out of the head of Zeus, fully armed and uttering her war cry. She was a powerful protector of palace and citadel, and also a patron of craftsmanship. Her cult was ancient and widespread.  The Romans identified her with their goddess, Minerva.

The prehistoric Athena was apparently a military deity and protected the Acropolis in her capacity as Pallas. Nevertheless, as far back as Homer’s epics, the war-like qualities of ‘grey-eyed Athena’ were combined with another aspect of her identity. She protected carpenters, metalworkers and potters. As Athene Nike, a military deity, she fought in battle guarded by her formidable aegis

The Panathenaia: Her main festival at Athens, the Panathenaia, was celebrated on her birthday, the 28th of Hecatombaion (July-August).  This was a very ancient festival, the oldest features of
Athena with her
aegis and peplos
which seem to have been a procession and a sacrifice. Around the middle of the 6th century equestrian and athletic competitions were added every fourth year, when the festival was known as the Great Panathenaia. The prizes consisted of olive oil from Athena's sacred olive trees, presented in large jars of a special shape, with a representation of the relevant sport on one side and of Athena herself on the other. Aristotle records that in the 4th century the festival was administered by the ten Athlothetai, who organised the concerts, supervised the collection and distribution of the olive oil and arranged for the making of the peplos, the woollen robe especially worn for the occasion and decorated with a representation of the battle of the gods and giants, in which Athena took part. The peplos was woven by the Arrephoroi, young girls who lived on the Acropolis, helped to set up the loom and took part in other rituals. At the Great Panathenaia the peplos was taken in procession through the Panathenaic Way through the Agora, then up to the Acropolis and presented to the goddess in the Erechtheion.


If we confine our study of Greek religion to the literary sources, it can appear gloomy and pessimistic: there is an unbridgeable gulf between the gods and doomed suffering man. However, in their daily lives, the Athenians did not doubt that the gods, Athena in particular, were on their side.

There was a great gulf between popular religion and the religion of the philosophers. The pre-Socratics recognized that the Greek gods were anthropomorphic. Plato saw the gods as representing the divine principle. Thus Greek religion was flexible and showed great powers of adaptation and survival.