Greek Religion

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The term is employed to designate all the religious practices and beliefs of the ancient Greeks throughout their hundreds of communities in the Mediterranean world and the adjacent areas. The study of ancient Greek religion embraces the long span of time from the Mycenaean period (16001100 b.c.) to the age of the Emperor Justinian (a.d. 527565).


At the outset it must be emphasized that the ancient Greeks and Romans were religious people and convinced believers, and that among the Greeks the Athenians especially should be so characterized. Let it suffice to cite the testimony of St. Paul in his Areopagus discourse, in which the Latin word religiosiores would be a better translation for the Greek δεισιδαιμονεστέρους than the Vulgate superstitiosiores (Acts 17.22; cf. Festugière, "Aspects de la religion populaire grecque," 28).

Religion of the Masses and of the Philosophers. The pagan Greek differed from the Christian (ibid. 2829) in two essential ways: he lacked a sense of sin as an offense against God [(cf. É. des Places, "Péché dans la Grèce antique," Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. L. Pirot, et al., 7:471480 (Paris 1928)], and he was a polytheist. On the latter point, a distinction must be made between the masses and the philosophers. Although even Plato remained a polytheist in many respects, from the period of the pre-Socratics, both Ionians and Eleatics, all Greek philosophy tended toward monotheism, while the popular religion continued to tend toward polytheism. Accordingly, the distinction made between "popular religion" and the "religion of the sages or philosophers" provides in the study of Greek religion a convenient division, which, in the long run, is quite justified.

Sources. The sources themselves actually fall into two categories, namely, archeological monuments, epitaphs, ex-voto inscriptions, and oracles; and literary works in the strict sense. The latter rarely furnish detailed information on current religious beliefs and practices, except when Plato, e.g., toward the end of his life, undertook to codify them in his Laws [cf. Festugière, "Aspects," 19; id., "Le fait religieux dans la Grèce ancienne," in Permanence de la Grèce (Paris 1948) 7787]. But the literary sources have a deeper significance. A. Harnack goes so far as to say: "Real, deep devoutness, such as controls the whole life, is certainly a power that is only to be found in a few. But it is on the basis of those few that the nature of an age's piety must be determined, just as we must determine the art of a period on the basis of the real artists. For in those devout men, as in those artists, lives the eternal, ever-moving spirit of religion and of art, and they compel the rest, even though slowly and gradually, to follow after them, and at least to acknowledge as form and authority that which they cannot receive as spirit. But many out of the throng do receive a ray of the spirit, and warm their cold life with it" (The Hibert Journal 10 70).

Homeric religion occupies a place between popular religion and philosophic religion; it is closer to the first, but the second is in part dependent upon it, just as all Greek literary genres are indebted to the epic [cf. É. des Places, "Style parlé et style oral chez les écrivains grecs," Mélanges Bidez (Brussels 1934) 267286].


Characteristic features of popular religion are (1) faith in the power and omniscience of the godsnothing can be achieved without them; they are consulted on all doubtful matters (e.g., Zeus at Dodona); (2) trust in the god who is served well; (3) gratitude for the gifts that he sends; (4) friendship φίλος is a favorite word of Euripides and Theocritus) and even intimacy with him; (5) an atmosphere of joy and festivity that surrounds worship, a "respite" in the hard routine of daily life (cf. Plato, Laws 2.653C-D, 654A; Festugière, "Aspects ," 2021, 2324, 2627).

The Olympian gods were honored in a spirit of gladness (cf. Plato, Epin. 980B), while the chthonian deities (the inferi of the Latins) inspired fear primarily and had their own special rites (cf. Plato, Laws 828C). Each category accordingly had its corresponding ritual, one of service and the other of aversion.

Homeric Religion. The gods of the Iliad, and their counterparts, more highly conceived characters, in the Odyssey, already comprise the pantheon of Olympus, which retains its worshippers until the end of paganism; and the principal forms of sacrifice and prayer are likewise established from Homer on. Homeric morality, which is less closely bound to religion than in other systems, juxtaposes elevated conceptshonor, hospitality, and the solidarity of the genos or clanand ideas and practices that are vestiges of barbarism.

Zeus. In Hellenic polytheism the supreme god is called Zeus. He is a combination of the Cretan Zeus, a god of fertility, and the Indo-European god of the sky and of lightning, thus reconciling Aegean religion, the suncult of the indigenous farmers, and the sky-cult of the aristocratic conquerors. He is the "father of gods and men." As father of the gods, he is like a patriarch among his own people, the sovereign divinity to whom all others show a profound respect. He is also the father of men, although the Iliad opposes the race of men to that of the gods (5.441442), and Pindar does the same at the beginning of Nemean Ode 6.

But at all times, the Greeks tended to bring themselves closer to their gods or to bring their gods closer to themselves. This dual movement produces either anthropomorphism or a tendency toward perfection. Between man and divinity, assimilation could operate in two directions, from above to below or from below to above. In the case of the Greeks of the Homeric Age, it operated from below to above; they fashioned gods in the image of man, debasing divinity by attributing to it the crimes of mankind and thereby justifying them. But the origin of anthropomorphism can be found also in the feeling of kinship with God: "Anthropomorphism involves theomorphism" (cf. Adam, Vitality of Platonism, 124). The solidarity of the family in Greece, strongly knit through the conception of the genos or clan, favored the idea of an intimacy with God that reached even the point of likeness. Since the ideal of parents was to have children like themselves (cf. Hesiod, Works 182 and 235), kinship with divinity would necessarily be expressed by a resemblance.

Other Gods. Besides Zeus, two goddesses have dominant positions, Hera in the Iliad and Athena in the Iliad and Odyssey. Hera never stops reminding Zeus that he agreed to let Troy be destroyed. Her affection for the Achaeans is not altered by their quarrels; she loves equally Agamemnon and Achilles (Iliad 1.196209). Hera, an Argive goddess, appears in the Feudal Age as the consort of the Father of the Gods and the protectress of marriage. Her sacred union (hierogamy) with Zeus, which a metope of one of the temples at Selinus (Sicily) represents under the aspect of her unveiling, consecrates the marriage of Sky and Earth. Athena helps Achilles to achieve self-control, and in describing her role in the Iliad, which is a little like that of grace in the Christian sense, one could construct a tableau of the highest stages of psychological life. It is especially in the Odyssey, however, that the solicitous assistance that she gives to Odysseus makes it possible for the poet to attribute to her the noblest sentiments, thoughts, and advice, which are far more elevated than the capricious interventions of the gods of the Iliad in favor of or against a specific human personage.

The other Homeric divinities of the ancient pantheon are: Poseidon, ruler of the sea; Hades, king of the Lower World; Demeter, also a chthonian divinity, the Earth-Mother; Artemis and her brother Apollo, "masters of beasts" (πότνιοι θηρ[symbol omitted]ν), great protectors of the Trojans; Hermes, the shepherd god who multiplies flocks, god of travelers, and guide of souls that he leads to Hades (ψυχοπομπός).

Apollo is also the brother of Dionysus. These two relatively recent foreign gods represent two aspects of Greek religion, the difference between which has often been exaggerated. Actually, the devotees of Apollo, beginning with the Pythia of Delphi, pass through states of trance or ecstasy that connect his worship with that of Dionysus and explain the ultimate reconciliation of the two brothers and their association at Delphi. It is not possible to oppose the Dionysian to the Apollonianto use the terminology of Nietzschein such a way that the Apollonian element does not contain germs of its opposite. The rational and the irrational have always coexisted. The religion of Apollo with its ritual observances and maxims may approach Jewish legalism, yet the mystic movement depends more on the cult of Dionysus, although the bacchants did not regard themselves as exalted or spiritually regenerated. The religious thought of the Greeks always wavered between a feeling for the human condition, beyond the limits of which it was not possible to rise, and assimilation with God, the goal of the philosophers and mystics. A wise man like Empedocles was a combination of both and, as E. R. Dodds (156) put it, the double "Orphic" faith in metempsychosis and in an original offense reconciles "the 'Apolline' sentiment of remoteness from the divine and the 'Dionysiac' sentiment of identity with it."

Destiny. In Homer, Zeus tends to merge with destiny, which is called μο[symbol omitted]ρα, μόρος, α[symbol omitted]σα literally "part, portion" [cf. K. von Fritz, Review of Religion 15 (195051) 5051]. Destiny and divinity, while often independent or juxtaposed, can come into conflict; sometimes the gods are subordinated to destiny, but much more frequently destiny expresses their will, Διòς α[symbol omitted]σα. A scene like the weighing of lots (or of souls, psychostasia ), which precedes the death of Hector, furnishes a good example of the interpenetration of the personal will of Zeus and the anonymous force that presides over the destinies of men (Iliad 22.209). The Homeric idea of destiny can be clearly comprehended in the long labor of synthesis that produced the Homeric religion in its totality. In the Homeric poems there is not merely a compromise between the concept of destiny and the concept of divine power, for the idea itself of destiny is an idea of compromise.

Prayer. The prayers found in "Homer are ordinarily formulary and traditional. Those of Chryses in bk. 1 of the Iliad contain the three essential parts of all liturgical prayer in Greece: (1) invocation of the god, "hear me" (κλ[symbol omitted]θί μευ, 1.37, 451); (2) the reasons for being heard: sacrifices offered, services rendered, favors already obtained; (3) conclusion: statement of the petition. Those of Diomedes to Athena, in bks. 5 and 10, begin in the same way: κλ[symbol omitted]θί μοι (5.115), κέκλυθι με[symbol omitted]ο (10.284). Odysseus, before Diomedes, had prayed in the same terms (10.278, 282), and Nestor and Achilles also address Zeus in like manner. Priam (24.108) employs numerous epithets ("Father," "Master of Ida," "most glorious," "very great"), in accordance with the style that was to become that of all hymns down to the Hymn to Zeus of the Stoic Cleanthes.

There are also less official prayers, outside all ritual and sacerdotal presence, and perhaps more intimate, such as those of Hector (Odyssey 5; Iliad 6). Hector takes his son Astyanax in his arms and asks Zeus and all the other gods to give him a valor even greater than that of his father (Iliad 6.474481). The shipwrecked Odysseus calls on the god of the river to give him access to the shore: "Hear me, O Lord, whose name I do not know [again κλ[symbol omitted]θί] receive in your pity, O Lord, the suppliant who calls out to you" (Odyssey 5.445450). On Homeric prayer and on Greek prayer in general, see K. von Fritz, "Greek Prayers," Review of Religion 10 (194546) 539.

Conclusion. A religious character cannot be denied to poems where the interpretation of the world and life is completely religious, and where the gods intervene in almost all experiences of physical and psychological life. While one may hardly speak of a religious morality in Homer, it must be acknowledged that the ancient bard never ceased emphasizing the divine, in spite of the obscurities or seamy elements in the mythology of which he sang.


While it is possible roughly to contrast the popular religion with that of the "sages," it does not necessarily follow that all philosophers professed the same religion. Their belief in a single principle, which tended toward monotheism, took various forms, and among most of them it did not exclude a residue of faith in the traditional gods. On the other hand, the term "philosopher" is used here in a very broad sense. Originally the term "sage" (σοφός) was applied to poets. These sometimes had a theologyif Hesiod or Pindar did not, probably at least Euripides and certainly Aeschylus did.

Aeschylus. Aeschylus developed to perfection the idea of a morality at the same time divine and human. The idea had been elaborated by Hesiod in his Works and Days and by Solon in his Elegies (cf. Solmsen), but neither Hesiod nor Solon transferred justice to Olympus. On the contrary, the transformation of a system of violence into a system of divine justice is the problem underlying the two trilogies, Prometheus and the Oresteia. In the Oresteia, particularly in the third play, the Eumenides, the coming of justice upon earth depends on the gods; the reconciliation of the chthonian goddesses with the gods of Olympus, as with the judges of the Areopagus, requires fairness in human decrees. The conflict of Prometheus Bound, which opposes an older god, a Titan, to the new master Zeus, shows a trend toward a compromise and gives, besides, the noble lesson that the gods, like men, learn through suffering.

Xenophanes and Parmenides. Xenophanes and especially Parmenides were poets, but poet-philosophers in the full sense of the word. To Xenophanes religious philosophy owes a lofty conception of the dignity of God, of "what is suitable to him" (θεοπρεπές); to Parmenides, the idea of an unconditioned existence of being on which the epithets, lavished as in a hymn, are those bestowed on the "Infinite" (πειρον) by Anaximander, "unbegotten," "deathless," "without beginning or end." The attitude of Parmenides regarding Being is truly a religious one. Even if this Being is not a personal God, it is divine, as later was the Platonic form of the Good.

Plato. Of an eminently religious mind, Plato professed at the same time: (1) the traditional religion, (2) a religious philosophy, and (3) an astral religion.

Adherence to Traditional Religion. Whatever the importance of an "Orphic" or "Pythagorean" element in the Platonic myths, which for the most part are eschatological, Plato, beginning with his Euthyphro, but particularly in his Republic and the Laws, revised traditional beliefs and mythology. In all his writings, without breaking with the heritage of his ancestors, "the inherited conglomerate" (G. Murray), he purified the legends, which were only too often immoral, in order to restore a religious meaning. Plato was scandalized by the denial of the existence of the gods, by the denial of Providence (the gods exist, but they are not interested in human affairs), and by attempts at corruption of the gods (they occupy themselves with men, but the latter can buy and seduce them by sacrifices and offerings). This is the triple impiety exposed by Adimantus in bk. 2 of the Republic (365DE), and refuted in the Laws, bks. 10 (888AD; cf. 885B) and 12 (948C), and in the Epinomis (980D). Plato resented less the gods of mythology than the fables that disfigured them, such as the mutilation of Uranus and other horrors (Euthyphro 5E6C; Rep. 2.377E378E). Cult itself was not condemned. On the contrary, Plato, like Socrates, seems to have accepted it in good faith along with the names of the gods. In this regard he said: "One must conform to the law" (Tim. 40E), and all the more so "because men are ignorant of the true name of the gods" (Crat. 400DE).

Among all the Olympian gods, Socrates and Plato revered Apollo most. His importance, which is so marked in Plato's ideal state, increased even more in the "Apollonian" city of the Laws. In both, the following order governs worship: (1) Olympians, (2) chthonian divinities,(3) demons (δαίμονες), (4) heroes (cf. Laws 4.717AB). The demons, who were above heroes, served as intermediaries between the gods and men, as is clear from corroborative narratives in the Banquet (202E) and in the Epinomis (984E985A).

Religious Philosophy. The religious philosophy of Plato is based on the relationship of the soul to the Formsa relationship that implies the soul's immortality. Metempsychosis and reminiscence, which flows from metempsychosis, postulate a former life where the soul contemplated the Forms. On earth, joined to a body, which Pythagoreanism represents as a prison, the soul retains a yearning for the other world where it lived as in its true family. Indeed, spiritual relationship, συγγένεια, is at once the foundation for worship of the gods and for the intuitive knowledge of the Forms. To indicate the stages of religious knowledge, four steps are differentiated in the Republic: opinion, faith, reasoned knowledge, and pure intelligence (bk. 6 end, bk. 7); and at the end of the dialectic process in Epistle 7, the superior degree of intelligence that apprehends the real object is likewise intuitive knowledge.

Eternal being, perpetually the same, is grasped through the intellect and reasoning, while becoming is the object of opinion combined with unreasoning sensation. Is this eternal being God? The Form of the Good is never identified with God by Plato, although it does have godlike attributes. This Form, "which gives to the objects of knowledge their essence and their being, while not itself essence, is still above essence in power and in dignity" (Rep. 6.509B), sometimes appearing even superior to God, who only contemplates it and imitates it in his operations. If one sticks to the letter of the texts, "the fact remains that Plato himself has never called the Good a god. The reason for it might be that he neverthought of it as of a god. And why, after all, should an Idea be considered as a god? An Idea is no person; it is not even a soul; at best it is an intelligible cause, much less a person than a thing" (Gilson, 26).

Astral Religion. Late in his life, perhaps under the influence of a Chaldean associate at the Academy, Plato seems to have been converted to the astral religion. Having once accepted, and as early as his Phaedrus, that motion is caused by a soul, nothing prevented him from identifying the Olympian gods with the souls of the sun, moon, planets, and other celestial bodies. This doctrine, which is found in the Timaeus and in the Laws, was expanded in the Epinomis (e.g., 982BE). As the Greeks know how to embellish and bring to perfection everything they receive from the barbarians, so the oracles of Delphi will teach them to honor these new gods with a care that will surpass that given them by their Eastern worshippers (987E988A).

Although a faithful adherent of the traditional religion right up to his conversion, Plato nevertheless introduces the astral religion into the whole framework of his ideal city, concerned only with establishing it in conformity with the Delphic oracles. The worship of the stars is thus to coexist with that of the Olympians, even if little by little it is to supplant the latter. To Eusebius (Dem. evangel. 4.9, 1011), worship of the stars was not far from monotheism and could soon lead to the pure and true origin of things. There remained, however, an essential difference between the attitude of the Jew, who saw in the heavenly body a creation of the one God, and that of Plato, who worshipped the star itself as a god. There was always an obstacle for the Greeks, namely, that they had so many gods that it was practically impossible for exclusive monotheism to take root among them. What must be remembered at least is that there was a very strong tendency toward monotheism, even though it did not reach a full development. It remained a polytheism oriented in some respects toward the one true God.

The Stoics. As compared with their predecessors, the Stoics emphasize at least the appearances of a monotheism. God is universal reason present everywhere. Men, each of whom possesses a particle of this divine reason, must consider each other as brothers. On the other hand, this God allows neither temples nor statues; his true sanctuary is the sky filled with stars. If Zeno thus rejected polytheism, it was scarcely out of a feeling of intimacy with God. This feeling is more evident in Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus (so well commented on by Adam in his Vitality of Platonism, 108189); Zeus is presented not merely as the master of nature, but as a father who saves men from fatal ignorance of true goods. In its religious feeling as in its poetic quality, the hymn of Cleanthes anticipates Epictetus, the nightingale and swan of God (Diatribes 1.16.2021). For Epictetus even more than for Plato, philosophic religion expresses itself in a filial piety, of which the principal elements are perhaps (1) submission to the will of God, (2) pride in one's condition as man, and (3) the feeling of one's divine affiliation. The wisdom of consent, which in the beginning sums up Stoicism, changes with Cleanthes into prayer, and with Epictetus it rises to the height of a mystical doctrine. What he lacks is an understanding of human weakness and sin, the meaning of human misery; Plato had a greater sense of our misery, at least in the Laws. No Greek philosopher, any more than the Greeks in general, had a clear conception of sin in the Judeo-Christian sense.

See Also: cretan-mycenaean religion; delphi, oracle of; greek philosophy (religious aspects); mystery religions, greco-oriental; sacrifice.

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[É. des places]

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