Religion: Parameters

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Religion: Parameters


The Divine . The greatest difficulty in discussing Greek religion is that there is no Greek word with a meaning similar to the English term religion. The Greeks had gods, considered many things divine or sacred, and performed various actions intended to influence the behavior of the gods, but there was no clear distinction between sacred and secular, clergy and laity, god and hero, or religion and philosophy. Perhaps the best general statement that can be made about Greek religion is that it consists of those things associated with the divine or sacred about which most modern readers disagree with extant ancient authors. Gods, heroes, nymphs, curses, prophecy, divination, astrology, and magic are generally regarded skeptically by modern Western culture, and thus they are categorized as existing within a realm of irrational belief (religion) rather than knowledge (science). For ancient Greeks, especially outside the highly literate and cosmopolitan cities of Asia Minor and Athens, Zeus, the Egyptian gods, or various nymphs were not necessarily part of some distinct realm of the supernatural. They were powerful figures that one worshipped (i.e. to whom one gave offerings) insofar as one needed their help or wanted to avoid their displeasure, in much the same way one paid tribute to the Persian king or heard stories about the kings of distant lands. What was at stake was not the abstract nature of the gods or understanding correct doctrines about them, but rather gaining their favor or avoiding their anger, which was done through some combination of gifts and correct action, such as sacrificing domestic animals to various gods and goddesses, or not violating the laws of hospitality enforced by Zeus. Similarly, the causes of disease, for example, were thought by some Greeks to include the enmity of the gods or pollution inherited from ancestors who had offended the gods and thought by other Greeks to be caused by imbalances in diet or humors. Cures could be obtained by potions (medical or magical), ritual purification, or making offerings to the offended divinities. A prudent person might try all of these different healing modalities.

Explanations . The realm of what is considered “the religious” was much broader in antiquity than it is in modern times. As well as including distinct gods, it also included a variety of nature spirits. Many of the phenomena now understood in terms of science were then explained in divine terms. Thunder, lightning, rain, drought, floods, disease, dreams, earthquakes, tidal waves, sunshine, eclipses, fertility, barrenness, victory or defeat in war, prosperity, or famine—all of these were explained by some Greeks as caused by various deities. Divine help was sought in farming, war, oratory, athletic contests, crafts, healing, childbirth, politics, decision making, and many other aspects of daily life, either by legitimated and officially sanctioned means (sacrifices and oracles) or by more questionable individualistic practices (magic, including curses and necromancy).

Categories . Religion can be divided into two categories, myth and ritual, or story and act. Myths are oral or written accounts of how the divine or supernatural worlds function. Rituals are the acts one performs, including verbal performances such as hymn or prayer, to influence the divine world. Magic is a form of ritual, often performed outside the confines of officially sanctioned practices, to benefit the individual (possibly by harming others) rather than to achieve ends agreed upon by, or useful to, the community. For the ancient Greeks, ritual tended to be more consistent and more primary than myth. In other words, most people performed various traditionally and communally sanctioned ritual acts and had a certain degree of agreement

about how, where, and when those acts should be performed, while the stories about the entities affected by ritual acts displayed a great degree of flexibility. Even in the works of a single author like Hesiod, there are mutually contradictory variants of the same story, as in the case of Pandora and the birth of Aphrodite. Greek religion has sometimes, therefore, been described as a religion of ritual rather than as a “scriptural” religion or a “religion of the book.” The difference is that scriptural religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam tend to have written scriptures containing fixed dogma and have developed rituals around their doctrines, whereas the ritually-oriented Greek religion tended to develop myths around ritual; there were, in fact, some rituals for which the associated stories and names of the gods changed over time, while the ritual remained constant. Within each of these categories of stories about the gods and actions directed towards the gods, there are several subdivisions. Stories, or accounts of the gods, can be divided into myths, hymns/sacred performance, epic/tragedy, legend and folktale, mythography, and theology.

Myths . Some stories about the gods were part of a traditional system of belief. These stories appeared in individual poems or art works which are best considered instantiations or representations of the myth. Just as photographs taken from various different angles reveal information about their subjects but are not identical to their subjects, so representations of a myth should not be confused with the underlying belief system. The degree to which Greeks believed their myths varied tremendously; most believed in the tradition as a whole but may have been skeptical concerning many individual stories.

Hymns/Sacred Performance . Poetry about the gods performed at religious festivals often mentioned the gods’ deeds. These hymns or sacred performances were often an integral part of ritual. In some cases, a hymn or choral ode could be considered an offering in the same way as a physical votive offering.

Epic/Tragedy . The gods appear in both Homeric epic and tragedy. These artistic portrayals of the divine realm, especially Homer, were certainly influential. The literary accounts often, but not always, agree with the portrayals in classical art. Often, however, the gods as they appear in literature or elite art (expensive pottery, statuary, and so forth) differ from those found in popular ritual. It is difficult to decide whether this variance means different groups had different beliefs, that there was tremendous individual variation in belief, that many Greeks were not concerned about self-contradictions in myth so long as the rituals were efficacious, that artistic license resulted in literary and artistic accounts which no one believed literally, or some combination of these.

Legend and Folktale . Many stories of local heroes or gods do not fit precisely within the tradition of myth, but rather, like the modern stories of Paul Bunyan or George Washington and the cherry tree, form an important corpus of popular stories. Although there is no precise demarcation between the two, generally legends and folktales exist outside both the realm of literature and the integrated system of myth/ritual of official celebrations; they tend to be local rather than Panhellenic, popular rather than elite, and oral rather than written. Often they possess elements of the “tall tale,” an exaggerated and humorous story about popular heroes.

Mythography . The tradition of collecting and systematizing myths began quite early in the Archaic Period (700-480 b.c.e.) with such writers as Hesiod and Pherecydes, but flourished most extensively in Alexandria with the later scholars Callimachus and Apollodorus. The collection and resolution of contradictions among myths can be seen as the beginning of the theological impulse.

Theology . The term theologia, meaning a rational, philosophical, or systematic approach to the divine, was invented by Plato, but theology, in the sense of attempts to provide complex and coherent accounts of the gods, can certainly be considered an offshoot of mythography, gradually growing more complex, abstract, and divorced from popular and literary tradition.

Ritual . Most Greeks were probably more concerned with ritual, the acts that needed to be done to gain the gods’ favor or avert their anger, than with myth, the stories about the gods. Actions related to the gods might include sacrifices, votive offerings, amulets, curse tablets, games and festivals, domestic rituals, and funerary rites.

Sacrifices . When a Greek gave the gods food, it was known as a sacrifice. In blood sacrifices, animals were slaughtered at the altar (or pit, for chthonic deities) and either part or all of the animals burned. Bloodless sacrifices (e.g. cakes, grain, honey, oil, or wine) were placed on altars or poured into the ground.

Offerings and Amulets . Many objects could be given to the gods as payment for favors anticipated or received. Common votives included small terra-cotta figurines, statues, and household items. Amulets were items of jewelry inscribed with apotropaic images or the names of various deities used to ward off evil.

Curse Tablets . One invoked the aid of gods (especially Hermes, Persephonê, and Demeter) in causing misfortune to one’s enemies by inscribing lead tablets with curses. The tablets had to be buried in wells, fresh graves, or at the location in which the curse was supposed to take effect. For instance, when cursing an athletic rival, one would leave a tablet at a stadium.

Games and Festivals . Various games and festivals were held throughout Greece in honor of various gods. They ranged from Panhellenic festivals such as the Olympic Games honoring Zeus to civic cults like the Greater Dionysia of Athens, where many of the extant Greek tragedies were first performed in honor of Dionysus. Simpler rural festivals might consist of brief choral performances (singing and dancing by groups of adults or children) and sacrifices to insure the fertility of the soil.

Domestic Rituals . Many Greek ritual observances took place in the household. The hearth, personified as the goddess Hestia, was divine and was a legal sanctuary in the same manner as a public altar or temple. Houses had small outdoor altars at which various rites were performed. Symposia, or drinking parties, began with libations to the gods.

Funerary Rites . Death provided the occasion for a complex series of rituals. Purification of the corpse was followed by elaborate mourning rites, a procession to the graveyard, and sacrifices at the burial. The next steps involved both a period of mourning during which various activities were taboo and regular visits with offerings were paid to the graves of one’s dead relatives.

Written Sources . Two major types of evidence exist for Greek religion—written sources and archeological—both of which have limitations. Literary evidence, by its nature, is the expression of the sophisticated ideas of a literate (often urban) elite. Small farmers in rural Arcadia, slaves in Thessaly, itinerant laborers in Boeotia, or Spartan Helots rarely knew how to write, probably. Of materials committed to writing, only a small number were recopied and transmitted so as to survive to the present. Those writings consist of two complete Homeric epics, two epics by Hesiod, thirty-three Homeric hymns, some lyric poetry (Pindar, in substantial quantity, and several other poets), tragedies by three Athenian playwrights, comedies by one early and one relatively late Athenian playwright, ten Attic orators, and limited amounts of historical, philosophical, medical, and miscellaneous writing. These texts are heavily weighted towards Athens and, to a lesser extent, Ionian cities, and many of them date from the fifth and fourth centuries. This list is far from a representative sample even of Greek writing, and many aspects of Greek religion (popular ritual, mystery religions, and folk beliefs) were never committed to writing at all.

Archaeology . Although it provides a much more representative selection of materials, archaeological evidence is frequently difficult to interpret. Terra-cotta figurines unearthed around small rural altars or cave shrines reveals that people in the countryside performed rituals involving altars and figurines. By parallels with literary evidence, one can infer that the figurines were votive (gifts to the gods). Sometimes, by details of the figurines or writing on them, classicists can identify the deity to which they were dedicated. By simply looking at a few figurines and fragments of an altar, however, one cannot learn the details of the rituals performed at the altars, how often or at what times they were performed, the specific purpose of the rituals, or, even more important, what people thought or believed about the deities or the purposes of the rituals. While combining archeological evidence with literary evidence can

yield far better reconstructions of Greek religion than either one alone, that is all they can yield—reconstructions. They will not allow modern readers to get inside the minds of people who died over two thousand years ago and let them observe their thoughts as they marched in the Panathenaic procession or celebrated the Eleusinian mysteries. However, present-day society has to help understand other people, no matter how distant from or close to the modern world they might be, rather than merely represent a radical rupture between a comprehensible present and a mysterious past.


Jan N. Bremmer, The Early Greek Concept of the Sou! (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).

Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, translated by Franklin Philip (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Geoffrey Stephen Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Martin P. Nilsson, Greek Folk Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1961).

Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? translated by Paula Wissing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

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Religion: Parameters

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Religion: Parameters