The Greeks, Their Gods and Worship (VI Form Intro)

The development of an organised system of belief as opposed to simple, inchoate set of superstitions is one of the signs of a settled group and the cornerstones of a civilisation. It is the evolution of the basic beliefs which are the ways that the first groups had of explaining the world around them, the natural occurrences of the environment such as the storms and the floods, the droughts and the famines, the plagues and the dangers which surrounded them in every area of their lives. As society developed, those basic, disorganised belief systems were rationalised according to the contemporary understandings into a series of theological myths, rituals and representations of the numinous powers they perceived to surround them, influence them and indeed control them and their world. While on a globalised level, these what now must be regarded as official religions were one of the principle driving forces in a state (eg the divinity of the Pharaoh in Egypt, the Olympians for the Graeco-Roman belief systems inter alia) this never meant, nor indeed required, that the localised beliefs and divinities were, on a general level, abandoned or ignored. Outside of the monotheism of Judaism in the ancient Mediterranean, the various state gods would be associated with similar divinities in other states, and seen as being the various ways that the individual powers deigned to make themselves known to their worshippers in the different societal constructs and belief systems, such as the equating of Zeus/Jupiter/Amun or the Selene/Luna/Khonsu, the latter showing that gender was a divine choice, Selene/Luna being a goddess, but Khonsu a god.

For the Hellenes, their main divinities were, of course, the twelve Olympians. Our general impression of these is highly influenced in the way the gods have been represented on the silver screen – any who have watched “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) or the original “Clash of the Titans” (1981) is likely to picture Zeus with greying hair, bearded and wearing a long free flowing white robe, though younger viewers are perhaps more likely to picture him as Sean Bean or Liam Neeson in full armour as shown in the Percy Jackson films (2010, 2013) or the remakes of the Clash of the Titans  films (2010, 2012). Yet the gods were, in myth, able to appear in any form they wished to the humans with whom they chose to communicate – again, Zeus appearing as the bull to Europa, or as swans, showers of gold or sunlight – and there were zoomorphic divinities (e.g. Amalthea, the divine goat that suckled Zeus as a baby). Whether these representations as well as the major importance of the original cult statue of a divinity, the existence of both gods and goddesses, the forms of sacrifices amongst other ritualistic practices show a heavy influence from the Near East and Mesopotamia as many have suggested or whether the development of similar in non related belief systems simply shows a psychological development which is a standard part of the growth of human society remains a debated question: as Noegel defines it:

…scholars typically have approached the subject of ‘‘Greek religion and the ancient Near East’’ in one of three overlapping ways, each of which depends on the scholar’s definition of religion and view concerning the general comparability of religious traditions. The first approach examines the subject by remaining attentive to the particular times, places, and cultural contexts of each religion under investigation. It aims to identify cases in which specific religious practices and beliefs are adopted, adapted, and transformed when cultures come into contact (Brown 1995, 2000, 2001; Dotan 2003; Faraone 1993, 1995, 2002; Frankfurter 1998; Noegel 1998, 2004; Toorn 1985, 1997). The second approach adopts a more holistic and comparative vantage, and seeks to ascertain whether a comparative enterprise is justified by identifying trends, issues, and features that unite the various religions of the ‘‘Mediterranean world’’ (Graf 2004b; D.P. Wright 2004a). The third approach sees value in comparing the various religions of the world regardless of their historical and cultural contexts. It is interested less in identifying cases of influence and exchange than in removing the study of all religions from their relative academic isolation (Eliade 1959, 1969; Mondi 1990).” (Greek Religion and the Ancient Near East in Blackwell Comp. to Greek Religion, 2007, 23)

Herodotus, when addressing the questions of religious belief, is more inclined to place his emphasis on the commonality of shrines and cultic worship rather than what we would consider different religions – the idea that there were different ‘religions’ is not a point in what he writes, again linking with the idea of the divine power being accepted in whichever form it chose to present itself. Localised gods (Hdt IV 93-94) tend to be more associated with what were viewed as rituals of barbarism. Indeed, Herodotus goes so far as to state that the Greek pantheon originated in Egypt with the exception of Poseidon who was Libyan. However, as Harrison (2000, Ch 8) has pointed out, the acceptance and refusal to make mock of other forms of cultic worship in no way implies that an individual worshipper should not remain fully dedicated to his or her worship of the god or goddess in the form and rituals it chose to present itself to the worshipper’s original society.

That there are similarities in certain areas of the celebration of the gods, there are equally differences, such as in the methods of cultic worship required by the divinities in the varying countries, or indeed in Greece, in the varying poleis. Again, Harrison (2007):

“There were shrines, such as Delphi or Olympia, which were common to all Greek poleis…Clearly also there is a level at which Athena, say, is Athena regardless of her cult epithet… Nevertheless Greek particularism in this area is extraordinarily resilient; one often gets the impression that a “local manifestation” of a divinity is almost a distinct divinity.” (217)

The Greeks indeed had no word for religion – that there were powers (be they theoi or daimones) which demanded an individual’s or a polis’ particular attention, and their beneficence relied on nomizein tous theous – doing the customary things for the gods. In doing these ‘right by custom’ things, the gods would be appeased at least, maybe even pleased, hence guaranteeing the continued prosperity. At Athens, as Humphries (2009) states:

“…elite domination of religion was impracticable. Not only did the Athenian citizenry…play a key role via the assembly…in financing religious activities, but also it would have been difficult for the elite to exercise influence over the diffuse conglomeration of priesthoods and other religious personnel.” (306)

The gods and spirits of place “intermingled constantly with other aspects of daily life, rather than defining a discrete area of human activity” (Boedeker, 2007) and there was no priestly caste such as existed in Egypt, nor were the priesthoods a position of political power or familial fās et gloria such as the Ahenobarbi at Rome. Certain positions held influence, without a doubt, such as the High Priestess of Dionysus, whilst celebrating the festivals dedicated to their god or goddess, e.g. the Great Dionysia, the celebration of which was was laid down in immutable law, but the idea of the priest or priestess as a position of influence as in many other cultures did not have the same sway in Greece (possibly outside of the Great Sanctuaries such as Olympia and Delphi) as the worship was a state activity. Furthermore, the temples or centres of cultic worship (sometimes a cave, for example) were the houses of the cultic statue or a sacred object (eg the original olive tree planted by Athena’s hand or the salt water spring opened by Poseidon’s trident on the Acropolis and included in the Erecthion at Athens) – they were not buildings for congregational worship as would be expected in a synagogue, church or mosque today. Where a worshipper not of a priesthood went in, it would generally be to make a direct request of the god or goddess in the presence of the idol itself, believed to be inhabited by the spirit or power of the divinity. The celebration of the divine came in the calendar of festivals which each polis held each year, festivals where the worship of the patron deity or deities confirmed not only the city’s links with its own divinity, but also the citizen links with one another, emphasising the communal identity of the citizens under the protection of the god or goddess, often through communal feasting. Scullion(2007):

“A sacrifice and a banquet was normally the central event, and people would gather, often from afar, to attend. The two most common terms for ‘‘festival,’’ heortē, which seems to be related to the word eranos, ‘‘banquet,’’ and panēguris, ‘‘all-gathering,’’ emphasize respectively these two central features.” (190)

Of course, the concept of the festival was not Greek:

“Festivals appear to have played a major role in every human culture. They performed social and religious functions, were an important factor in structuring the year and offered multiple occasions for all participants to interact and feel part of a larger community”

(R. Rollinger and S. Fink, Sports in the Ancient Near East revisited: running gods and balaĝs, in: Thomas R. Kämmerer and Mait Kõiv (eds.), Cultures in Comparison. Religion and Politics in Ancient Mediterranean Regions (AOAT 390/3 = Acta Antiqua Mediterranea et Orientalia 3), Münster 2015, 7)

The quote here was referring to festivals in the Near East, but the reality is equally apposite to the festivals which took place throughout the year in the Hellenic poleis.

As the citizen patron, moreover, the divinity would be called upon to watch over the political actions and processes of the state. At Athens, again, any gathering of the ekklesia began with sacrifices and orations for the cleansing ritually of the Pnyx before the citizen body gathered (Hansen, 1987, 90-91). The state would also grant rewards in the name of the patron divinity, again tying tightly the gods and the political association with the state to the citizen body through such things as the dramatic and comedic festivals and the games in the honour of the gods; these were some on the level of the polis, but also were a way of giving a, however tenuous, feeling of belonging on a Pan Hellenic scale, such as the Olympic Games in honour of Zeus or the Pythian Games in honour of Apollo. Such local festivals would be held in honour of the semi-divine heroic characters from the ancestors and the even more complex question of the demigods – belief of another level of intermingling of the human and the divine, kept alive in the myths and legends which played an integral role in the concept of the citizen identity of the polis.


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