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The forms of worship in the ancient greek religion

Greek religion as it is currently understood probably resulted from the mingling of religious beliefs and practices between the incoming Greek-speaking peoples who arrived from the north during the 2nd millennium bce and the indigenous inhabitants whom they called Pelasgi.

But there was also a Cretan sky god, whose birth and death were celebrated in rituals and myths quite different from those of the incomers. The incomers applied the name of Zeus to his Cretan counterpart.

In addition, there was a tendency, fostered but not necessarily originated by Homer and Hesiodfor major Greek deities to be given a home on Mount Olympus. Once established there in a conspicuous position, the Olympians came to be identified with local deities and to be assigned as consorts to the local god or goddess. Zeus hurling a thunderbolt, bronze statuette from Dodona, Greece, early 5th century bc; in the Collection of Classical Antiquities, National Museums in Berlin.

Antikenabteilung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin—Preussischer Kulturbesitz An unintended consequence since the Greeks were monogamous was that Zeus in particular became markedly polygamous.

Zeus already had a consort when he arrived in the Greek world and took Heraherself a major goddess in Argosas another. Hesiod used—or sometimes invented—the family links among the deities, traced out over several generations, to explain the origin and present condition of the universe.

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At some date, Zeus and other deities were identified the forms of worship in the ancient greek religion with heroes and heroines from the Homeric poems and called by such names as Zeus Agamemnon. The Pelasgian and the Greek strands of the religion of the Greeks can sometimes be disentangled, but the view held by some scholars that any belief related to fertility must be Pelasgian, on the grounds that the Pelasgi were agriculturalists while the Greeks were nomadic pastoralists and warriors, seems somewhat simplistic.

Pastoralists and warriors certainly require fertility in their herds—not to mention in their own number. While such behaviour continued in the wild, in the cities—in Athensat any rate—the cult of Dionysus was tamed before 500 bce. Tragedy developed from the choral song of Dionysus. Some tyrants, such as Peisistratus in Athens, were nobles and rose to power by offering the poor defense against the rest of the nobility.

Once established, Peisistratus built temples and founded or revived festivals. At that time too, the earliest references to the Eleusinian Mysteries appear. The Mysteries offered a more-personal, less-distant relationship with the divine than did most of the Olympians. There was no Eleusinian way of life. Ruins of the sanctuary at Eleusis, Greece. At the beginning of the 5th century, Heracleitus of Ephesus and Xenophanes of Colophon heaped scorn on cult and gods alike.

The Sophistswith their relentless probing of accepted values, continued the process. Little is known of the general success of those attacks in society as a whole.

Antiquity evoked awe; some of the most-revered objects in Greece were antique and aniconic figures that bore the name of an Olympian deity. The Varvakeion, a Roman marble copy c. Mainly agrarian in origin, they were seasonal in character, held often at full moon and on the 7th of the month in the case of Apollo and always with a sacrifice in view.

Many were older than the deity they honoured, like the Hyacinthia and Carneia in Laconia, which were transferred from local heroes to Apollo. The games were a special festivalsometimes part of other religious events.

Some festivals of Athens were performed on behalf of the polis and all its members. Many of those seem to have been originally the cults of individual noble families who came together at the synoikismos, the creation of the polis of Athens from its small towns and villages. The nobles continued to furnish the priests for those cults, but there was, and could be, no priestly class. Except for those public festivals, anyone might perform a sacrifice at any time.

A priesthood offered a reasonably secure living to its incumbent. Peasants worshipped the omnipresent deities of the countryside, such as the Arcadian goat-god Panwho prospered the flocks, and the nymphs who, like Eileithyia, aided women in childbirth who inhabited caves, springs Naiadstrees dryads and hamadryadsand the sea Nereids.

They also believed in nature spirits such as satyrs and sileni and equine Centaurs.

Women celebrated the Thesmophoria in honour of Demeter and commemorated the passing of Adonis with laments and miniature gardens, while images were swung from trees at the Aiora. Spells were inscribed on lead tablets. The Hellenistic period Greek religion, having no creed, did not proselytize. There was a tendency for Greeks to identify the gods of others with their own, often at a superficial level. So the virgin Artemis was identified with the chief goddess of Ephesus, a fertility deity.

After Alexander the Great had created a political world in which the poleis were engulfed by large kingdoms, those deities who were not too closely linked with a particular place became more prominent. Mystery cults, which offered a personal value to the individual in a large and indifferent world, also flourished.

The Cabeiri of Samothracedeities that had come in from Asia, were patronized by the forms of worship in the ancient greek religion the Greeks and the Romans, while the Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapisin a Hellenized form, spread widely. Those novel cults that seemed likely to pose a threat to public order, on the other hand, were suppressed by the Romans. The Senate destroyed the Bacchic cult in Italy in 186 bce, perhaps for the same reasons that the emperor Trajan gave to the writer and statesman Pliny the Younger for his treatment of the Christians: Beliefs, practices, and institutions The gods The early Greeks personalized every aspect of their world, natural and cultural, and their experiences in it.

When Achilles fights with the River in the Iliadthe River speaks to Achilles but uses against him only such weapons as are appropriate to a stream of water. In Hesiod what could be distinguished as anthropomorphic deities and personalizations of natural or cultural phenomena both beget and are begotten by each other. Hera is of the first type—goddess of marriage but not identified with marriage. Earth is evidently of the second type, as are, in a somewhat different sense, Eros and Aphrodite god and goddess of sexual desire and Ares god of war.

Some deities have epithets that express a particular aspect of their activities.

  • Delphic inscriptions include hymns to Apollo but, like the Epidaurian hymn by Isyllus to Asclepius , they are not concerned with liturgy;
  • Two of the most powerful empires in the ancient world were Greece and Rome;
  • The dead were permitted to choose lots for their next incarnation.

Zeus is known as Zeus Xenios in his role as guarantor of guests. It is possible that Xenios was originally an independent deity, absorbed by Zeus as a result of the Olympo-centric tendencies of Greek religion encouraged by the poems of Homer and Hesiod. In Homer the gods constitute essentially a super- aristocracy. Every success shows that the gods are well disposed, for the time being at least; every failure shows that some god is angry, usually as a result of a slight, intended or unintended, rather than from the just or unjust behaviour of one mortal to another.

The Greeks knew what angered their mortal aristocracy and extrapolated from there. Prayer and sacrifice, however abundant, could not guarantee that the gods would grant success. The gods might prefer peace on Olympus to helping their worshippers.

The Greeks who worship the ancient gods

These are not merely literary fictions; they reflect the beliefs of people who knew that though it might be necessary to offer prayer and sacrifice to the gods, it was not sufficient. Greeks and Trojans sacrificed to their gods to ensure divine support in war and at other times of crisis.

It was believed that Zeus, the strongest of the gods, had favoured the Trojans, while Hera had favoured the Greeks. Yet Troy fell, like many another city.

The Homeric poems here offer an explanation for something that the Greek audience might at any time experience themselves. Aphrodite and Eros, gilt bronze mirror with incised design, Greek, 4th century bce; in the Louvre, Paris. Homeric society is stratifiedfrom Zeus to the meanest beggar.

Then he may insist on displaying his excellence, as do Achilles and Agamemnonwhose values coincide with those of Zeus in such matters. The cults of these mighty men developed later around their tombs. Heroes were worshipped as the most powerful of the dead, who were able, if they wished, to help the inhabitants of the polis in which their bones were buried.

  • The robe was spread on the mast of a wheeled ship;
  • The purposes and rituals of the festivals varied a great deal, but all had in common the desire to maintain a good relationship with the gods;;;
  • You never know when you might stumble across a god;
  • Questions scratched on folded lead tablets have been found at Dodona , and detailed instructions to the dead, inscribed on gold leaf and possibly of Orphic inspiration, have been found in Greek graves in southern Italy.

Thus, the Spartans brought back the bones of Orestes from Tegea. Historical characters might be elevated to the status of heroes at their deaths. During the Peloponnesian Warthe inhabitants of Amphipolis heroized the Spartan general Brasidaswho had fought so well and bravely and died in their defense. It is power, not righteousness, that distinguishes the hero; it is the feeling of awe before the old, blind Oedipus that stimulates the Thebans and the Athenians to quarrel over his place of burial.

Since they are the mightiest of the dead, heroes receive offerings suitable for chthonic underworld deities. Achilles slaying PenthesileaAchilles slaying Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, Attic black-figure amphora signed by Exekias, c. Hesiod uses the relationships of the deities, by birth, marriage, or treaty, the forms of worship in the ancient greek religion explain why the world is as it is and why Zeus, the third supreme deity of the Greeks, has succeeded in maintaining his supremacy—thus far—where his predecessors failed.

Essentially, Zeus is a better politician and has the balance of powerpractical wisdom, and good counsel on his side. Whether Hesiod or some earlier thinker produced this complex nexus of relationships, with which Hesiod could account for virtually anything that had occurred or might occur in the future, the grandeur of this intellectual achievement should not be overlooked. Mortals In the period in Greece between Homer and about 450 bc the language of relationships between god and god, mortal and god, and lower-status mortal with higher-status mortal was the same.

The deities remained a super-aristocracy. There was a scale of power and excellence on which the position of every mortal and every deity could be plotted. Both god and mortal were likely to resent any attempt of an inferior to move higher on the scale. Electra and Orestes killing Aegisthus in the presence of their mother, Clytemnestra; detail of a Greek vase, 5th century bc.

The divine world of the Greeks was bisected by a horizontal line. Above that line were the Olympians, gods of life, daylight, and the bright sky; and below it were the chthonic gods of the dead and of the mysterious fertility of the earth.

The Olympians kept aloof from the underworld gods and from those who should be in their realm: Pollution was not a moral concept, and it further complicated relationships between the Greeks and their gods. Hippolytus in his quadriga, detail from a Greek vase; in the British Museum Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum Eschatology In Homer only the gods were by nature immortal, but Elysium was reserved for their favoured sons-in-law, whom they exempted from death.

Heracles alone gained a place on Olympus by his own efforts. The ordinary hero hated death, for the dead were regarded as strengthless doubles who had to be revived with drafts of blood, mead, wine, and water in order to enable them to speak.

They were conducted, it was believed, to the realm of Hades by Hermes ; but the way was barred, according to popular accounts, by the marshy river Styx. Across this, Charon ferried all who had received at least token burial, and coins were placed in the mouths of corpses to pay the fare. Originally, only great sinners like Ixion, Sisyphus, and Tityus, who had offended the gods personally, were punished in Tartarus.

But the doctrines of the Orphics influenced the lyric poet Pindarthe philosopher Empedoclesand, above all, Plato. According to the latter, the dead were judged in a meadow by AeacusMinosand Rhadamanthus and were consigned either to Tartarus or to the Isles of the Blest. Long periods of purgation were required before the wicked could regain their celestial state, while some were condemned forever.

Greek religion

The dead were permitted to choose lots for their next incarnation. Subsequently they drank from the stream of Lethethe river of oblivion, and forgot all of their previous experiences. See also Orpheus ; mystery religion: Sacred writings Greek religion was not based on a written creed or body of dogma.