Ancient Greek Religion

A Companion to the Classical Greek World

Cartwright, Mark. Ancient Greek Religion.Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified March 13, 2018.

Athletic Games and competitions in music (especially playing thekitharaandlyre) and theatre (both tragedy and comedy) were held during festivals such as the City Dionysia of Athens and the Panhellenic games at the most important sacred sites of Olympia, Delphi,Nemea, andIsthmiato honour a particular god. These events were attended by visitors from all over Greece and the experience was perhaps more akin to a pilgrimage rather than that of a mere sports fan. Illustrating their sacred status,warfarewas prohibited during these events and pilgrims were guaranteed free-passage across Greece. However, there were also much smaller festivals, sometimes only attended by a very select number of individuals, for example, the Arrhephoria in Athens, where only priestesses and a maximum of four young girls participated.

FirsttempletoDemeter& Persephone built atEleusis.

(Oxford University Press, USA, 2012).

Priests then, orchestrated the religious ceremonies and delivered prayers. The position was generally open to all and once assuming the role, particularly when wearing the sacred headband, the body of the priest became inviolate. Priests served a specific god but they were not necessarily religious experts. For theological questions, a citizen could consult anexegetes, a state official, who was knowledgeable in religious affairs. Women could also be priests, which is perhaps surprising given their lack of any other public role in Greek society. Often, but not always, the priest was the same sex as the god they represented. Priestesses did have the added restriction that they were most often selected because they were virgins or beyond menopause. Worshippers, on the other hand, could be both sexes and those rituals with restrictions could exclude either men or women.

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The Hephaisteion,templetoAthenaHephaistos, built inAthens.

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TheorZeusstatue (of Cape Artemesium) is sculpted.

The site ofSounionfirst acquires a religious significance.

Theodosius I orders the closure of allGreekpagan sites.

The Oxford Handbook of Hellenic Studies

Sanctuary ofAphroditeconstructed atArgos.

The site ofDelphifirst acquires a religious significance.

Templededicated toAphroditeconstructed atEpidaurus.

Although the historical record reveals much about formal religious occasions and ceremony, we should remember that Greek religion was in fact practised anywhere, at any time, by private individuals in a very personal way. Not only temples but also the hearth in private homes was regarded as sacred, for example. Individuals could also visit a temple anytime they wanted to and it was customary to say a prayer even when just passing them in the street. People left offerings such as incense, flowers, and food, no doubt with a hopeful prayer or in gratitude for a past deed. Individuals could also organise their own private sacrifice if they had the means to do so, and these have been commemorated in thousands of stone relief markers found at sacred sites. In addition, temples were often visited in order to seek healing, especially at those sites associated withAsclepiusthe god of medicine, notably atEpidaurus.

The Colossus ofRhodes, a representation of Helios, is built in Rhodes town harbour, one ofthe Seven Wondersof the Ancient World.

Cartwright, M. (2018, March 13). Ancient Greek Religion.Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

In the Greek imagination, literature, and art, the gods were given human bodies and characters – both good and bad – and just as ordinary men and women, they married, had children (often through illicit affairs), fought, and in the stories ofGreek mythologythey directly intervened in human affairs. These traditions were first recounted only orally as there was no sacred text in Greek religion and later, attempts were made to put inwritingthis oral tradition, notably byHesiodin hisTheogonyand more indirectly in the works ofHomer.

The secondtempletoApollois constructed atDelphi, replacing the first temple destroyed by fire.

In addition to the formal and public religious ceremonies there were also many rites which were open to and known only by the initiated who performed them, the most famous example being the Mysteries ofEleusis. In these closed groups, members believed that certain activities gave spiritual benefits, amongst them a better after-life.

Heraion,templededicated toHerabuilt atOlympia.

The Eleusinian Mysteries become part of the official Athenian religious calendar.

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TempletoAsclepiusconstructed atEpidaurus.

The Homeric Gods: The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion

At first, sacred sites were merely a simple altar in a designated area, but over time massive temples came to be built in honour of a particular god and these usually housed a cult statue of the deity, most famously the huge statue of Athena in theParthenonofAthensor Zeus atOlympia. In time, a whole complex of temples to lesser gods could spring up around the main temple, creating a large sacred complex, often built on anacropolisdominating a city or surrounding area. This sacred area (temenos) was separated from the rest of the community by a symbolic gate orpropylon, and in fact, it was believed that this area belonged to the particular deity in question. Sacred sites also received financial donations and dedications of statues, fountains and even buildings from the faithful, often to celebrate a great military victory and give thanks to the gods, and larger sanctuaries also had permanent caretakers (neokoroi) who were responsible for the upkeep of the site.

The oracle ofZeusis established at Dodona.

TheErechtheionofis constructed with sixCaryatidsin the south porch.

The thirdtempletoApollois constructed atDelphi, replacing the earlier temple damaged by earthquake.

TempleofZeusis built atOlympiawith a statue ofApollodominating the west pediment and containing the cult statue of Zeus by Pheidias.

ThetempleofApollois built on the island ofDelos.

Emperor Theodosios II orders the destruction ofOlympia.

Mark is a history writer based in Italy. Surrounded by archaeological sites, his special interests include ancient ceramics, architecture, and mythology. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the Publishing Director at AHE.

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In the ancientGreekworld,religionwas personal, direct, and present in all areas of life. With formal rituals which included animal sacrifices and libations, myths to explain the origins of mankind and give the gods a human face, temples which dominated the urban landscape,cityfestivals and national sporting and artistic competitions, religion was never far from the mind of an ancient Greek. Whilst the individual may have made up their own mind on the degree of their religious belief and some may have been completely sceptical, certain fundamentals must have been sufficiently widespread in order forGreek governmentand society to function: the gods existed, they could influence human affairs, and they welcomed and responded to acts of piety and worship.

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PolytheisticGreek religionencompassed a myriad of gods, each representing a certain facet of the human condition, and even abstract ideas such as justice and wisdom could have their own personification. The most important gods, though, were the Olympian gods led byZeus:

ThetempleofApollois constructed atCorinth.

Roman EmperorTheodosius definitively ends all pagan Games inGreece.

The construction of theParthenoninAthensby the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates under the direction of Phidias.

People also looked for signs from the gods in everyday life and to interpret these signs as indicators of future events. Such signs could be birds in the sky or a spoken word between friends said at a particular moment or even a simple sneeze which might be interpreted as an auspicious or inauspicious omen.

Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion

Written byMark Cartwright, published on 13 March 2018 under the following license:Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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The firsttemplein honour ofApollois built atDelphi.

Athensremoves and prohibits furtherburialsonDelosto purify the sacred island.

Templesare built in honour ofApolloDemeterandDionysoson the island ofNaxos.

First athletic games atNemeain honour ofZeus.

The cult statue ofAthenaParthenos is dedicated in theParthenonofAthens.

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Persians destroy the sanctuary atSounion.

TheTemplededicated tois constructed on theacropolisofAthens.

Cartwright, Mark. Ancient Greek Religion.Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 13 Mar 2018. Web. 23 May 2018.

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The Dionysia becomes a major Athenian festival in honour ofDionysos.

Places could also acquire a divine connection; the great oracles such as that of Apollo atDelphiand Zeus atDodonamay well have begun as places considered particularly good to receive signs from the gods. Such places became hugely important centres with their priest oracles consulted by both individuals and city-states so that the rather vague and ambiguous proclamations might help guide their future conduct.

First athletic games in honour ofZeusare held atOlympiawith one event, the

These Olympian gods were believed to reside on Mt. Olympos and would have been recognised acrossGreece, albeit, with some local variations and perhaps particular attributes and associations.

Thetemple(naos- meaning dwelling place in reference to the belief that the god dwelt in that place, or at least temporarily visited during rituals) was the place where, on special occasions, religion took on a more formal tone. Gods were worshipped at sacred sites and temples in all major Greek communities in ceremonies carried out by priests and their attendants.

The temple itself, though, was not used during religious practices as these were carried out at a designated altar outside the temple. Ancient authors often show a reluctance to go into explicit details of religious ceremonies and rites as if these were too sacred to be publicised in the written word. What we do know is that the most common religious practices were sacrifice and the pouring of libations, all to the accompaniment of prayers in honour of the god. The animals sacrificed were usually pigs, sheep, goats or cows and always the same sex as the god which was being honoured. The meat was then either burnt completely or cooked, with part offered to the god and the rest eaten by some or all of the worshippers or taken away to be eaten later. The actual killing of the animal was carried out by a butcher or cook (megeiras) whilst a young girl sprinkled seeds onto the animals head, perhaps symbolic of life and regeneration at the moment of the animals death. Other such rituals included examining the entrails of sacrificed animals to ascertain signs which could help predict future events.

Oxford University Press (05 December 2017)

Gods became patrons ofcities, for example, Aphrodite forCorinthandHeliosforRhodes, and were called upon for help in particular situations, for example, Ares duringwarand Hera for weddings. Some gods were imported from abroad, for example,Adonis, and incorporated into the Greekpantheonwhilst rivers and springs could take on a very localised personified form such as the nymphs.

The cult statue ofZeusby Phidias is dedicated in theTempleof Zeus,Olympia. It is one ofthe Seven Wondersof the Ancient World.

Such beliefs and, indeed, certain aspects of religion such as the immorality of the gods as portrayed in the arts, were severely criticised by intellectuals, artists, and philosophers from the 5th century BCE, but these may or may not reflect the commonly held views of the wider populace, and it is difficult to believe from the wealth of archaeological and written records that religion was anything but a fundamental part of life for the ordinary inhabitants of the ancient Greek world.

Harvard University Press (26 July 1985)

Asclepiusbecomes principal god of worship atEpidaurus.

The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion

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