Religious practices were central to every aspect of life in ancient Greece. The Greeks consulted their gods and goddesses before almost every activity, whether public or private, and they gave their deities* thanks for every success. The importance of the gods in ancient Greece is illustrated by the case of Socrates, one of the greatest Greek philosophers*, who was sentenced to death because he was thought not to respect the traditional gods.
The Greeks believed that the gods were everywhere and that they oversaw all human activities—from planting crops to waging war. By showing their respect for the gods, the Greeks hoped to receive the gods’ support. Ritual*, the basic method of communicating with the gods, was the core of Greek religion.
The religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks were not based on religious texts but on myths. Myths informed the Greeks where their deities came from, how the gods and goddesses were related, and how they interacted.
* deity god or goddess
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious
Myths related the deeds of heroes*, many of whom were worshiped. Some myths revealed the existence of an afterlife and an underworld, where the souls of the dead lived.
The ancient Greeks believed that each of their many gods played a different role in human activities. For example, there was Ares, the god of war, as well as Demeter, the goddess of grain. Together, the gods and goddesses provided for human needs and protected human efforts. The Greeks believed that to receive benefits from the gods, they had to offer prayers, sacrifices*, and gifts. They also had to respect the sacred places where the gods lived.
Twelve gods were the most important. First was Zeus, the king of the gods, who was believed to live on Mt. Olympus. The Greeks held a huge festival every four years at the great temple of Zeus at Olympia. Hera, Zeus’s wife, was the guardian of marriage and childbirth. The remaining gods of the 12 were Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Athena, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Hestia. The Greeks worshiped many other gods as well, such as Dionysus, the god of wine, and the nymphs, who were lesser goddesses of nature.
The Greeks also revered their heroes. Heracles is probably the best known of these. Hero worship set the stage for the worship of rulers, although only those rulers who accomplished great things were worshiped as gods. The Spartan general Lysander, who won a great victory against Athens in the Peloponnesian War, was the first Greek to be worshiped as a god. After the reign of Alexander the Great, who was proclaimed a descendant of the gods, ruler worship became widespread throughout the Greek world.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
PRIVATE AND PUBLIC RELIGION
The ancient Greeks held both private and public religious ceremonies. At the private level, the head of the family performed rituals around the family hearth*, which was considered sacred, on behalf of the members of his household. Small images of household gods and family ancestors, which were kept in cupboards shaped like temples, were respected, cared for, and honored in ritual.
At the public level, each city had its own patron* god or goddess, who was believed to support and protect the city and its inhabitants. The patron deity was usually honored with a temple at the center of the city. Each city had temples and altars for many other gods and heroes. The year was organized around festivals in honor of these gods, and each city had its own calendar of festivals. In Athens, 150 days of the year were devoted to religious festivals. Common features of the festivals included processions, dancing, and hymn singing, as well as athletic and dramatic competitions. These activities provided recreation for the Greeks, and animal sacrifices that were part of the festivals provided meat for the participants. Religious festivals were an important part of the social life of ancient Greek cities.
The Greeks participated in many cults, which were groups bound together by the worship of a particular god or hero or by a shared belief. One of the most widespread was the cult of Asclepius, the god of healing. Sick people, or people who simply wanted to maintain their good health, worshiped the god at his temple and attended festivals in his honor.
* hearth fireplace in the center of a house
* patron special guardian, protector or supporter
RELIGIOUS PEOPLE AND PRACTICES
The Greek system of priesthoods and religious practices developed over a long period. Specific rituals were performed to ensure the well-being of the people and the state.
Priests. Greek priests ensured that religious rituals were performed perfectly and that they followed the customs of their ancestors exactly. A priest performed rituals for a particular god at a temple or other sacred place. A priest’s other duties included managing temple finances and preparing for festivals. Some priests also performed wedding and funeral rituals, purified homes after births and deaths, and administered oaths.
Although both men and women were priests, the Greeks believed that goddesses must be served by female priests, and gods by male priests. Regardless of their sex, priests had high social status. They were greatly respected and very powerful. For their services, priests were rewarded with housing, a salary, and parts of sacrificial animals. Other rewards included free meals for life and front-row seats at the theater.
Most priests inherited their position, but priests were also appointed, elected, and chosen by lottery. Some priests even purchased their positions. Nonetheless, a priest generally had to have come from a good family. Priests who inherited or purchased their positions remained priests for life, while others served as briefly as a year.
Divination and Oracles. The ancient Greeks used many different methods of divination, or the art of foretelling the future. One of the most important was the reading of omens, which were messages from the gods about the future. Almost any chance event might be considered an omen. A sneeze, for example, was regarded as tin omen of good luck. Because dreams were believed to contain messages from the gods, their interpretation was an important method of divination. Another method was staring into a basin of water, the ancient Greek equivalent of gazing into a crystal ball.
For important matters, such as whether to wage war, the Greeks consulted one of the oracles that were located throughout the Greek world. Oracles were places where specific gods were consulted regarding public or private matters. The person requesting guidance asked a question, and a special priest (also known as an oracle) gave an answer that was supposed to have come from the god. The most commonly consulted god was Apollo, and the most famous oracle was at Delphi. Its authority was rarely questioned.
Ritual. The purpose of all ritual was to communicate with the gods and gain their goodwill. Rituals were performed at all major life changes—birth, puberty, marriage, death—and at all important public events. Animal sacrifice was central to most rituals. The Greeks sacrificed animals for three reasons: to honor the gods, to thank them, and to ask them for favors. They made several other types of offerings to the gods, including libation, which was the pouring of a liquid (usually wine) on the ground. Before each meal, a small amount of food was offered to the gods. The Greeks offered gifts of flowers or objects made of precious metals as well. The gods received so many gifts that special buildings were constructed to store them.
RELIGION AND THE STATUS OF WOMEN
Men dominated ancient Greek society, and women were forbidden by law to act on their own behalf. Women had to be represented by a male guardian—usually their father before marriage and their husband afterward. The requirement that goddesses had to be served by female priests provided a few Greek women with an opportunity to improve their status. A female priest could rise to a high administrative position. Once she reached her high position, she was no longer required to have a male guardian act on her behalf.
Rituals were conducted in sacred places where the gods were believed to live. A sacred place could be a building, a grove of trees, a spring, or a cave. In many sacred places, the Greeks built temples dedicated to the deities who lived there. Because a temple was considered the dwelling place of a deity, it was not used as a place of worship. Instead, worshipers gathered outside the temple at a nearby altar. The main room of the temple, which was open to the public only during festivals, usually contained a statue of the god or goddess. In addition to temples, some sacred places had theaters and stadiums where dramatic and athletic competitions were held.
Prayers requesting favors or giving thanks always accompanied rituals. Hymns were prayers set to music and sung to the deities. Hymn singing by trained choruses was a regular feature of public worship. Greek armies also sang hymns as they marched into battle.
Secret rituals, called mysteries, were attended only by people who had been initiated into the cult. The mystery cults promised special rewards after death to those who participated in the rituals. This concern with death set mysteries apart from most other ancient Greek rituals, which generally focused on the concerns of life. The most famous mysteries were the Eleusinian Mysteries. People initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries believed that they were protected by the goddess Demeter in the afterlife. (See also Death and Burial; Divinities; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Furies; Heroes, Greek; Myths, Greek; Priesthood, Greek; Ritual and Sacrifice; Rulers, Worship of.)