The Ancient Greeks and Their Gods

 ‘To the Greeks the gods were distant, aloof, and uninterested in human affairs’.  Discuss

In this dissertation I will debate that some seemingly unbridgeable gulfs existed between the blessed gods and puny mortals.  Yet, to the Greeks, the gods were not distant, aloof, and uninterested in human affairs’, but were present, and through the Greek’s day to day observing religious conciliatory rituals, they competed to win the god’s favor.

A thousand year cultural phenomenon, Greek religion evolved over the first millennium.  It consisted of a potpourri of sacred practices, beliefs, and obligations, ‘a system of explanation and response’ with ‘uncanny coincidences’ the sign of divine activity. [1].  The two clusters of gods, theoi, the Greeks ‘acknowledged’, theous nomizein, occupied two different spheres.  The Olympians were known as sky gods, the cathonic deities dwelled underground.

Two great gulfs separated the mortals from their gods.  Demarcating the sphere of the religious, the sacred, hieros, was bridged by creating ‘sacred space’ hieron, and surrounding it with prohibitions, separating it from the profane, bebelos.  ‘For the Greeks any location might serve as a place of cult’. [2]

The other great gulf was the nature of the gods themselves, considered by the Greeks to be divine.  This was overcome by ritual: prayer and blood sacrifice in particular.  ‘Bloody animal sacrifice of alimentary type’ offered by priests acting as ‘mediators between the city and its gods’. [3] gave recognition of a ‘sacrificial community’; of ‘expression to the bonds that tied the citizens one to another and served as a privileged means of communication with the divine world’. [4].

Meeting with the gods meant responsibility on the part of mortals, and ‘ritual transgression meant that the many could suffer from the mistakes of the few’ [5].  Therefore the Greeks sought ways to ‘find the good pleasure of the gods’ to make them cheerful, for the anger of the gods is dangerous.  The gods had the power to inflict eternal punishment.  They were not to be offended by stupidity, neglect or ‘acts of impiety’: disrespect for the gods. [6].  A polytheistic religion, it offered them ‘a framework of explanation and a system of responses to all that was wayward’. [7].

To counteract excesses, there was an unwritten code of honour and shame.  Hybris kept the Greeks in check of Nemesis or Envy: do not be negligent, ‘do not seek to become a god’, and ‘honour the gods’, gera, and honour one’s parents.  It was ‘a real danger when a man tries to place himself above the gods, even though only in words’. [8].

Unlike other religions, theirs recognised no prophet or lawgiver, no special class of priesthood in the traditional sense.  However, priests and priestesses ‘as vicars mediating between the city and the gods’ were respected personages, and recognised as such. [9].  There were also ‘sacred laws’. They were ‘inscribed on stone or bronze pillars and displayed at the entrance of temples and in other public places’. [10].

The Greeks were united in their religion, ‘and we have the temples of our gods in common and our sacrifices’. [11].  Originally spirits that inhabited the entire cosmos, the Olympian family, made up of twelve members, originally came about by two authors.  One of them, Hesiod, in his Theogany, tells of the origin of the universe and the descent of the gods, “borrowing heavily on the myths of western Asia and Mesopotamia. [12].  However, it was Homer, who wrote in the 8thcentury BC, of his ‘naif folktale anthropomorphism’.  He attributed the Olympian gods with having fully human characteristics, ‘Thieving and adultery and deceiving one another’.[13].

Finally, fifth century tragedy, ‘freely moving in the sphere of myth’, developed them further into ‘ a complex image of dark and light, of human and alien, of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ in the notion of divine power’, of ‘inhuman powers that defy description’. [14].  By this time, Homer’s aristocratic Olympian gods, ‘immortal and all powerful’, related directly to different city states, being associated with virtually all aspects of Greek society, and in particular, its politics.

Bestowed upon with virtues and vices, the Olympian family lived their lives independent and isolated like the Greeks themselves.  The Greeks believed the gods were on the side of good: thus they sought their goodwill, and according to Arthur Nock, ‘the gods were larger Greeks’. [15].  John Gould expands upon this, ‘the essence of divinity lies in the paradoxical coexistence of incompatible truths about human experience’. [16].

The cathonic deities that dwelled underground, were called the ‘new’ mystery religions, emerging in the 6th century.  However, they were not new at all, but, rather, were not mentioned in Homer.  These grew in popularity in the sixth century.  Most mysteries that admit to a fellowship included a sacramental meal; ‘so much we learn from a Hellenistic inscription, in which a priest declares that he ‘broke the Bread and poured the Cup for the Mystai’. [17]. However, John Gould disagrees, along with Burkett and Meuli, pointing out that sacrifice of animals may only mean ‘ritualised slaughter’. [18]Walter Burkett clarifies this thought by suggesting it was to overcome the ‘antinomy inherent in all sanguinary sacrifice: killing for food becomes a ritual to honour a god’. [19].

The ‘wild dancers’, originally peasants coming in from the country to the city, who participated in the mystery religion’s midnight revelries, signified an escape from the aristocratic royal Olympian city-state religion.  Thus, in the springtime, at the return of the Maiden Persophone, they could be heard, on their fifteen mile march to the sea, having about them a “mystical air”, and singing the song of ‘the mystic Iakchos’ [20].  At midnight, they celebrated, calling ‘Son of Semele, Iakchos, giver of riches’, ‘dance amongst your pious mystai’, ‘striking with bold / Foot the unbridled sportive rite’. [21].

Those who dared to, peered into those unspeakable ‘Dread Mysteries, which one may not in any way transgress or learn of or utter; for great reverence for the gods checks the voice’. [22].  Athenian Olympian religion, was ‘focused almost exclusively on the life in this world, not in the next’. [23] whereas, these ‘pious mystai’ were seekers of fertility, communion with the dead and the afterlife. [24].

The Mystery religions attracted sincere, respectful, but not humble, reverential awe and admiration amongst its followers. They offered to the Two Goddesses, The Great Mother, Demeter, and her daughter, the Maiden, Persephone, cakes, pelanos, and preparatory offerings after ritual bathing, prior to the offering of the sacrifice.  The hieropoioi collected grain and encouraged the worshippers at Euleusis to offer first-fruits (aparkhai) to consecrate the sacrifice ta hierothuta, which had already been festively prepared, and the pouring of the ‘lustral water’ of libation (sponde) as a gesture of propitiation.[25]

In the midst of their celebrating, the Mystai went into retreat.  It was at this juncture that those who were seeking health, Hygieia celebrated the two-day Epidauria, the festival of the Healer, Asklepios, Apollo’s son.  There, incubation in his sanctuary took place, and ‘each of us set our mattresses in order’ [26] preceded by a three day purity, including abstinence from sexual intercourse, and certain foods, and by offering a sacrifice, in this case, a piglet.[27].

Various state festivals followed Greek traditional custom, the nomos, ‘serving as markers in the flux of time’ [28].  Notwithstanding, so complex were their festival calendars that each individual polis and tribe, ‘exhibit an extreme particularism’.  Indeed, ‘the living religious practice of the Greeks is concentrated on the festivals’. [29].

By the middle of the sixth century two ‘Great Festivals’ surpassed all others; the Panathenaea at the beginning of the civil year in summer, celebrated in iconography by the frieze encircling the cella of the Parthenon; and the ‘Great Dionysia’ in the spring, with the Eleusinian Mysteries gaining equal prominence.  Festivals were a time of processions, dances, vows and prayers, animal sacrifice with feasting, contests of various kinds, ensuring in all of this that none of the gods had been forgotten.  During a time of war, those participating in the festivals were offered safety as they made their journeyed to the sacred place.

Religion pervaded the lives of the Greeks and none but the impious were excluded.  Boys and girls together with their parents and household slaves, the genos, gathered in the courtyard bowing at their home altar.  Women and girls carried their own sense of self worth; through birth, puberty, marriage, childbirth, and death.  Little girls, called arktoi, got to act as ‘she-bears’, performing dances for Artemis [30].  Young unmarried women attendants, parthenoi, especially chosen, helped annually to weave a beautiful cover for the great goddess, the formidable Athena.  Married women attended the three day festival, Thesmophoria.

Dedications to Artemis was carried out by the young women at vantage points of neutral territory on polis borders, thereby a focus of conflict.  By attending festivals and processions there, they contributed to the safety of the polis itself. [31].  Her priestess, like the parthenos, represented all the young women of the community.  Each citizen had their ‘place of cult’, their family graves, which could not be removed from one place to another.  Dead hero’s places of burial were celebrated.  Even slaves in Athens were granted a festival day, Kronia, running riot through the city and in Sparta, Hyacynthia, enjoying a sumptuous banquet waited on by their masters.

One of the means of knowing the will of the gods, mantike, was by divination.  These could take the form of ‘reading’ the internal organs of the victims sacrificed, until one got favorable omens.  Alternatively, the flight and the screaming of birds overhead or of portents, (events deemed to be out of the normal order), visions, dreams and other signs, and warnings, based on the god’s having foreknowledge, were sought.

Spartans, especially, ‘loved oracles, more perhaps than did the citizens of any other Greek state’. [32].  Delphi, the most famous sacred place of all for oracles and omens, seers and divination, was visited by citizen and politician alike, all seeking direction, and until ‘they had learnt all the details from the seers’ would not make a decision. [33].

To recapitulate, the gods of the Greeks were not ‘distant, aloof, and uninterested in human affairs’.  However, there were obstacles to overcome.  These were bridged by providing ‘sacred space’ and by ritual.  So long as each person carried out their duty, in such matters as were required of them to ensure the god’s favor, then the gods were expected to reciprocate in like manner.  The consequence was that having performed their obligations, the Greeks believed that they won the god’s favour, and thereby set about to enjoy their religion in very many varied and marvelous ways.

‘We believe in the existence of immortal gods and on account of the honours which they receive, and of the good things they bestow upon us’.  (Plut. Per. 8, 9).  

[1]J. Gould, ‘on making sense of Greek religion’, p.14, in Easterling, P.E. & Muir, J.V. Greek Religion and Society, Cambridge, 1985.

[2] L.B. Zaidman, & P.S. Pantel, ‘rituals’, in Religion in the Ancient Greek City, Cambridge, 1992, p. 55.

[3] R.S.J. Garland, ‘priests and power in classical Athens’, p. 81, in M. Beard & J. North (eds.) Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World, London 1990.

[4] Zaidman, & Pantel, op.cit., p. 29.

[5] S.G. Cole, ‘domesticating Artemis’, in Blundell, S. & Williamson, M. The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece London, 1998.p. 29.

[6] J. Mikalson, ‘piety & impiety’ p. 92 Athenian Popular Religion, Chapel Hill, 1983.

[7]Gould, op. cit., p.5.

[8] W. Burkett, ‘Greek Religion’, Oxford, 1985, p. 274.  

[9] L.B. Zaidman, & P.S. Pantel, ‘religious personnel’, in Religion in the Ancient Greek City, Cambridge, 1992, p. 51.

[10] Zaidman, & Pantel, op. Cit., p. 28.

[11] M. Dillon & L. Garland, Ancient Greece, London. 12.43, p 382.

[12] W. E. Dunstan Ancient Greece, Harcourt, 2000, p. 118

[13] Dillon & Garland, op. cit.,12.12, p 364

[14] Gould, op. cit., pp.27-8.

[15] A. S Nock, Religious Attitudes of the Ancient Greeks, 1942, American Philosophical Society 85, p. 477.

[16] Gould, op. cit., p.32.

[17] A.R. Burn The Lyric Age of Greece. London, 1960, p. 349.

[18] Gould, op. cit., pp.18-9.

[19] W. Burkett, ‘Athenian cults and festivals’, p. 251, in D.M. Lewis, J.K. Davies, M. Ostwald (eds.), The Fifth Century BC, Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5, ed. 2, Cambridge, 1992.

[20] A.R. Burn, The Lyric Age of Greece’, p. 353.

[21] Dillon & Garland op. cit.,12.2. ll. 330/1/2, p 357.

[22] Dillon & Garland op. cit.,12.1 ll. 478-79, p. 356-57

[23] J. Mikalson, ‘the afterlife’ p. 75, Athenian Popular Religion, Chapel Hill, 1983.

[24] ANCH110 Study Resources, p.50

[25]Dillon & Garland, op. cit,. IG 13 78 (IG 12 76) 12.6, p 360.

[26]ibid, 12.9.  l. 663, p 362.

[27] W. Burkett, ‘Greek Religion’, Oxford, 1985, pp. 267-8.  

[28] W. Burkett, ‘Athenian cults and festivals’, p. 245.

[29] Burkett, op. cit., p. 225.  

[30] Dillon & Garland, op. cit,. 12.38, ll. 641-46.

[31] Cole, op. cit., pp. 27-8. 

[32] R. Parker, ‘Spartan religion’, p. 154, in A. Powell (ed.) Classical Sparta: Techniques behind Her Success , London, 1989.

[33]Dillon & Garland, op. cit,, 1.2, p. 3.