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Priestess of Delphi (1891) by "John Collier, showing the "Pythia sitting on a tripod with vapor rising from a crack in the earth beneath her

Ancient Greek religion encompasses the collection of beliefs, rituals, and "mythology originating in "ancient Greece in the form of both popular public religion and "cult practices. These groups varied enough for it to be possible to speak of Greek religions or "cults" in the plural, though most of them shared similarities.

Many ancient Greeks recognized the twelve major ("Olympian) gods and goddesses ("Zeus, "Poseidon, "Hera, "Demeter, "Athena, "Ares, "Aphrodite, "Apollo, "Artemis, "Hephaestus, "Hermes, and either "Hestia or "Dionysus), although philosophies such as "Stoicism and some forms of "Platonism used language that seems to assume a single "transcendent deity. Different cities often worshiped the same deities, sometimes with "epithets that distinguished them and specified their local nature.

The religious practices of the Greeks extended beyond mainland Greece, to the islands and coasts of "Ionia in "Asia Minor, to "Magna Graecia (Sicily and southern Italy), and to scattered Greek colonies in the Western Mediterranean, such as "Massalia (Marseille). Greek religion was tempered by "Etruscan cult and belief to form much of the later "ancient Roman religion.



A bust of "Zeus, the king of the gods, and controller of thunder and the sky, in the "British Museum

While there were few concepts universal to all the Greek peoples, there were common beliefs shared by many.


Ancient Greek "theology was "polytheistic, based on the assumption that there were many gods and goddesses. There was a hierarchy of deities, with "Zeus, the king of the gods, having a level of control over all the others, although he was not almighty. Some deities had dominion over certain aspects of "nature. For instance, Zeus was the sky-god, sending thunder and lightning, "Poseidon ruled over the "sea and "earthquakes, "Hades projected his remarkable power throughout the realms of death and the "Underworld, and "Helios controlled the "sun. Other deities ruled over abstract concepts; for instance "Aphrodite controlled "love.

While being immortal, the gods were certainly not "all-good or even "all-powerful. They had to obey "fate, known to Greek mythology as the "Moirai,[1] which overrode any of their divine powers or wills. For instance, in mythology, it was "Odysseus' fate to return home to "Ithaca after the "Trojan War, and the gods could only lengthen his journey and make it harder for him, but they could not stop him.

Aphrodite riding a swan: Attic white-ground red-figured "kylix, ca. 460, found at Kameiros (Rhodes)

The gods acted like humans and had human "vices.[2] They would interact with humans, sometimes even spawning children with them. At times certain gods would be opposed to others, and they would try to outdo each other. In the "Iliad, "Aphrodite, "Ares and "Apollo support the Trojan side in the Trojan War, while "Hera, "Athena and Poseidon support the Greeks (see "theomachy).

Some gods were specifically associated with a certain city. Athena was associated with the city of "Athens, Apollo with "Delphi and "Delos, Zeus with "Olympia and Aphrodite with "Corinth. Other deities were associated with nations outside of Greece; Poseidon was associated with "Ethiopia and "Troy, and Ares with "Thrace.

Identity of names was not a guarantee of a similar "cultus; the Greeks themselves were well aware that the Artemis worshipped at "Sparta, the virgin huntress, was a very different deity from the Artemis who was a many-breasted "fertility goddess at "Ephesus. Though the worship of the major deities spread from one locality to another, and though most larger cities boasted temples to several major gods, the identification of different gods with different places remained strong to the end.

"Poseidon, the god of the sea, as depicted on a statue in "Copenhagen, "Denmark.


The Greeks believed in an "underworld where the spirits of the dead went after death. One of the most widespread areas of this underworld was ruled over by Hades, a brother of Zeus, and was known as "Hades (originally called 'the place of Hades'). Other well known realms are "Tartarus, a place of torment for the damned, and "Elysium, a place of pleasantries for the virtuous. In the early Mycenean religion all the dead went to Hades, but the rise of mystery cults in the "Archaic age led to the development of places such as Tartarus and Elysium.

A mosaic depicting the hero "Herakles with "Cerberus, a three-headed dog, who, according to mythology, guarded "Hades.

A few Greeks, like "Achilles, "Alcmene, "Amphiaraus "Ganymede, "Ino, "Melicertes, "Menelaus, "Peleus, and a great number of those who fought in the Trojan and Theban wars, were considered to have been physically immortalized and brought to live forever in either Elysium, the Islands of the Blessed, heaven, the ocean, or beneath the ground. Such beliefs are found in the most ancient of Greek sources, such as "Homer and "Hesiod. This belief remained strong even into the Christian era. For most people at the moment of death there was, however, no hope of anything but continued existence as a disembodied soul.[3]

Some Greeks, such as the philosophers "Pythagoras and "Plato, also embraced the idea of "reincarnation, though this was only accepted by a few. "Epicurus taught that the soul was simply atoms which dissolved at death, so there was no existence after death.


The Judgment of Paris by "Peter Paul Rubens, depicting the three goddesses, Hera, Aphrodite and Athena, in a competition that causes the Trojan War. This is a post-Renaissance painting illustrating the fascination that the nobility in Christian Europe had for the mythology of the ancient Polytheistic Greeks.

Greek religion had an extensive "mythology. It consisted largely of stories of the gods and how they interacted with humans. Myths often revolved around heroes and their actions, such as "Heracles and his "twelve labors, "Odysseus and his voyage home, "Jason and the quest for the "Golden Fleece and "Theseus and the "Minotaur.

Many species existed in Greek mythology. Chief among these were the gods and humans, though the "Titans (who predated the Olympian gods) also frequently appeared in Greek myths. Lesser species included the half-man-half-horse "centaurs, the nature based "nymphs (tree nymphs were "dryads, sea nymphs were "Nereids) and the half man, half goat "satyrs. Some creatures in Greek mythology were monstrous, such as the one-eyed giant "Cyclopes, the sea beast "Scylla, whirlpool "Charybdis, Gorgons, and the half-man, half-bull "Minotaur.

There was not a set Greek "cosmogony, or creation myth. Different religious groups believed that the world had been created in different ways. One Greek creation myth was told in Hesiod's "Theogony. It stated that at first there was only a primordial deity called "Chaos, who gave birth to various other primordial gods, such as Gaia, Tartarus and Eros, who then gave birth to more gods, the Titans, who then gave birth to the first Olympians.

The mythology largely survived and was added to in order to form the later "Roman mythology. The Greeks and Romans had been literate societies, and much mythology, although initially shared orally, was written down in the forms of "epic poetry (such as the Iliad, the Odyssey and the "Argonautica) and plays (such as "Euripides' "The Bacchae and "Aristophanes' "The Frogs). The mythology became popular in Christian post-"Renaissance Europe, where it was often used as a basis for the works of artists like "Botticelli, "Michelangelo and "Rubens.


Pottery vessel in the shape of "Aphrodite inside a shell; from "Attica, "Classical Greece, discovered in the "Phanagoria cemetery, "Taman Peninsula ("Bosporan Kingdom, "southern Russia), 1st quarter of 4th century BC, "Hermitage Museum, "Saint Petersburg.

Various religious festivals were held in ancient Greece. Many were specific only to a particular deity or city-state. For example, the festival of Lycaea was celebrated in "Arcadia in Greece, which was dedicated to the pastoral god "Pan. There were also the Games held each year in different locations, culminating in the "Olympic Games, which were held every 4 years. These celebrated Zeus.


One of the most important moral concepts to the Greeks was the fear of committing "hubris. Hubris constituted many things, from rape to desecration of a corpse,[4][5] and was a crime in the city-state of Athens. Although pride and vanity were not considered sins themselves, the Greeks emphasized moderation. Pride only became hubris when it went to extremes, like any other vice. The same was thought of eating and drinking. Anything done to excess was not considered proper. Ancient Greeks placed, for example, importance on athletics and intellect equally. In fact many of their competitions included both. Pride was not evil until it became all-consuming or hurtful to others.

Sacred texts[edit]

Hesiod's "Theogony and "Works and Days, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and "Pindar's "Odes are included as sacred texts[6] as are other works of classical antiquity, although there were no texts "canonized or universally declared as sacred by the ancient Greeks. These are the core texts that were considered inspired and usually include an invocation to the Muses for inspiration at the beginning of the work. Such texts, however, were not considered inspired in the sense that they had to be believed by everyone. Plato even wanted to exclude the myths from his ideal state described in the Republic because of their low moral tone.

While some traditions, such as Mystery cults, did uphold certain texts as canonic within their own cult praxis, such texts were respected but not necessarily accepted as canonic outside their circle. In this field, of particular importance are certain texts referring to "Orphic cults: multiple copies, ranging from 450 "BC to 250 "AD, have been found in various locations of the Greek world. Even the words of the oracles never turned into a sacred text. Other texts were specially composed for religious events, and some have survived within the lyric tradition; although they had a cult function, they were bound to performance and never developed into a common, standard prayer form comparable to the Christian "Pater Noster. An exception to this rule were the already named Orphic and Mystery rituals, which, in this, set themselves aside from the rest of the Greek religious system. Finally, some texts called hieroi logoi (sacred texts) by the ancient sources, originated from outside the Greek world, or were supposedly adopted in remote times, representing yet more different traditions within the Greek belief system.[6]



The lack of a unified priestly class meant that a unified, "canonic form of the religious texts or practices never existed; just as there was no unified, common sacred text for the Greek belief system, there was no standardization of practices. Instead, religious practices were organized on local levels, with priests normally being "magistrates for the city or village, or gaining authority from one of the many sanctuaries. Some priestly functions, like the care for a particular local festival, could be given by tradition to a certain family.

The ruins of a temple devoted to Zeus. While these have not been used for ancient Greek polytheistic worship for many centuries, in recent years "Greek neo-polytheists have begun to use them again. They are also popular sites for tourists.

Greek ceremonies and rituals were mainly performed at "altars. These were typically devoted to one or a few gods, and supported a statue of the particular deity. "Votive deposits would be left at the altar, such as food, drinks, as well as precious objects. Sometimes "animal sacrifices would be performed here, with most of the flesh eaten, and the "offal burnt as an offering to the gods. "Libations, often of wine, would be offered to the gods as well, not only at shrines, but also in everyday life, such as during a "symposium.

One ceremony was "pharmakos, a ritual involving expelling a symbolic "scapegoat such as a slave or an animal, from a city or village in a time of hardship. It was hoped that by casting out the ritual scapegoat, the hardship would go with it.


Worship in Greece typically consisted of sacrificing domestic animals at the altar with hymn and prayer. Parts of the animal were then burned for the gods; the worshippers would eat the rest. The evidence of the existence of such practices is clear in some ancient Greek literature, especially in Homer's epics. Throughout the poems, the use of the ritual is apparent at banquets where meat is served, in times of danger or before some important endeavor to gain the favor of the gods. For example, in Homer's the Odyssey "Eumaeus sacrifices a pig with prayer for his unrecognizable master Odysseus. In Homer's the Iliad, which may describe Greek civilization centuries earlier, every banquet of the princes begins with a sacrifice and prayer.

These sacrificial practices, described in these pre-Homeric eras, share commonalities to the 8th century forms of sacrificial rituals. Furthermore, throughout the poem, special banquets are held whenever gods indicated their presence by some sign or success in war. Before setting out for Troy, this type of animal sacrifice is offered. Odysseus offers Zeus a sacrificial ram in vain. The occasions of sacrifice in Homer's epic poems may shed some light onto the view of the gods as members of society, rather than as external entities, indicating social ties. Sacrificial rituals played a major role in forming the relationship between humans and the divine.[7]

Rites of passage[edit]

One "rite of passage was the "amphidromia, celebrated on the fifth or seventh day after the birth of a child. Childbirth was extremely significant to Athenians, especially if the baby was a boy.

Mystery religions[edit]

Those who were not satisfied by the public cult of the gods could turn to various "mystery religions which operated as "cults into which members had to be initiated in order to learn their secrets.

Here, they could find religious consolations that traditional religion could not provide: a chance at mystical awakening, a systematic religious doctrine, a map to the "afterlife, a communal worship, and a band of spiritual fellowship.

Some of these mysteries, like the mysteries of "Eleusis and "Samothrace, were ancient and local. Others were spread from place to place, like the mysteries of "Dionysus. During the "Hellenistic period and the "Roman Empire, exotic mystery religions became widespread, not only in Greece, but all across the empire. Some of these were new creations, such as "Mithras, while others had been practiced for hundreds of years before, like the Egyptian mysteries of "Osiris.



Mainstream Greek religion appears to have developed out of "Proto-Indo-European religion and most immediately to have "evolved from the earlier "Mycenaean religion of the "Mycenaean civilization of "Bronze Age Greece. The Mycenaeans, according to archaeological discoveries, seemed to treat Poseidon as their chief deity. Greek religious concepts may also have absorbed the beliefs and practices of earlier, nearby cultures, such as "Minoan religion. "Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, traced many Greek religious practices to "Egypt.

A Roman statue of the God "Apollo, initially a member of the Greek pantheon.

Classical antiquity[edit]

The mainstream religion of the Greeks did not go unchallenged within Greece. Several notable philosophers criticised a belief in the gods. The earliest of these was "Xenophanes, who chastised the human vices of the gods as well as their anthropomorphic depiction. Plato did not believe in many deities, but instead believed that there was one supreme god, whom he called the ""Form of the Good", and which he believed was the emanation of perfection in the universe. Plato's disciple, "Aristotle, also disagreed that polytheistic deities existed, because he could not find enough empirical evidence for it. He believed in a "Prime Mover, which had set creation going, but was not connected to or interested in the universe.

Roman Empire[edit]

When the "Roman Republic conquered Greece in 146 BC, it took much of Greek religion (along with many other aspects of "Greek culture such as literary and architectural styles) and incorporated it into its own. The Greek gods were equated with the ancient Roman deities; Zeus with "Jupiter, Hera with "Juno, Poseidon with "Neptune, Aphrodite with "Venus, Ares with "Mars, Artemis with "Diana, Athena with "Minerva, Hermes with "Mercury, Hephaestus with "Vulcan, Hestia with "Vesta, Demeter with "Ceres, Hades with "Pluto, Tyche with "Fortuna, and Pan with "Faunus. Some of the gods, such as Apollo and "Bacchus, had earlier been adopted by the Romans. There were also many deities that existed in the Roman religion before its interaction with Greece that were not associated with a Greek deity, including "Janus and "Quirinus.

Hellenism's revivals[edit]

Priest performing ritual.

Greek religion and "philosophy have experienced a number of revivals, most notably in the arts, humanities and spirituality of the "Renaissance. More recently, a revival has begun with the contemporary "Hellenism, as it is often called (a term first used by the last pagan Roman emperor "Julian). In Greece, the term used is Hellene ethnic religion (Greek: Ελληνική Εθνική Θρησκεία).

Modern Hellenism reflects "Neoplatonic/Platonic speculation (which is represented in "Porphyry, "Libanius, "Proclus, and "Julian), as well as classical cult practice. However, there are many fewer followers than "Greek Orthodox Christianity. According to estimates reported by the "U.S. State Department, there are perhaps as many as 2,000 followers of the ancient Greek religion out of a total Greek population of 11 million;[8] however, Hellenism's leaders place that figure at 100,000 followers.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Burkert, Walter (1985). Greek Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 129. 
  2. ^ Otto, W.F. (1954). The Homeric Gods: The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion. New York: Pantheon. p. 131. 
  3. ^ "Erwin Rohde Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Greeks. New York: Harper & Row 1925 [1921]
  4. ^ Omitowoju, P.36
  5. ^ Cartledge, Millet & Todd, P.126
  6. ^ a b Religions of the ancient world: a guide
  7. ^ Meuli 1946
  8. ^ Greece. Retrieved on 2013-07-28.
  9. ^ Hellenic Religion today: Polytheism in modern Greece. YouTube (2009-09-22). Retrieved on 2013-07-28.


Further reading[edit]

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