A Greek temple was not a place of worship but a place to house the statues of gods along with the gifts offered to them. There was also a ritual to appease the gods by praying and offering sacrifice. But what were these rituals and sacrifices that were made?
Temple: A House of Gods
The principal building inside a sanctuary — the temple — was not a place of worship but the house of a god or goddess like an Egyptian temple. It was built primarily to house the cult statue of the deity and the various gifts offered to him or her by worshipers. But there was an important difference from Egyptian religion; ordinary Greeks weren’t debarred from entering a temple.
Religious rituals were performed not behind closed doors but in the open air, and ordinary people were also expected to attend as part of their civic duty.
Appeasing the Gods
The Olympian Gods weren’t the only gods who needed to be placated. Greeks also needed to appease the chthonic deities. ‘Chthonic’ comes from the Greek word chthôn, meaning ‘earth.’ Chthonic deities comprised primarily the gods of the underworld, the vengeful and the heroized dead. The gods of the underworld included king Hades, and his wife, Persephone.
Chthonic deities received very little attention and weren’t worshiped in temples. Greeks also worshiped a multitude of unidentified and unidentifiable divine spirits or half-deities known as daimones, held responsible for much of the bad fortune people experienced.
Learn more about the underlying worldview of the Greeks’ polytheistic religious beliefs.
Communicating with the Gods
Greeks communicated with the gods by praying. Dawn was the time to pray to the Olympians, with arms upraised, and twilight was the time to pray to the chthonic deities, with arms downcast.
Prayers began with something like, “O Zeus who rules Olympus,” a distinct identifier to specify which Zeus they were speaking to. “If in the past you have looked favorably upon me when I’ve been in need,” indicating that Zeus remembered people because of prior-existing relationship with him and reminding him what it was he did for them, and concluded by saying, “Please come to my aid again now by …,” telling him what exactly they wanted him to do now.
Greeks also offered a votive offering, one that was ‘vowed’ or promised to a deity, either in expectation of assistance in the future or as a thanks offering for assistance already received. Greek religion, like Roman religion, was based on the principle of reciprocity. An early example of a votive offering was in the form of a bronze statuette of a naked youth dated 700–650 B.C., bearing the following inscription, “Mantiklos offers me as a gift to silver-bowed Apollo. Give me something nice in return, Phoebus Apollo.” When in due course, the god presumably responded, Mantiklos saw Apollo’s gift as just deserts.
Another way to get the favor of the gods was by way of a sacrifice that consisted of first fruits of the harvest, a basket of beans or grain, or a cake. What really impressed them, however, was meat; though Greeks couldn’t afford to make an animal sacrifice unless they were wealthy. They also made a libation, a drink offering, that consisted of wine, milk, and honey. All that was done privately.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Practice of Sacred Communion
Greeks were expected, even required, to turn up whenever the state held one of its annual festivals to its major gods. Festivals were one of the few occasions when the entire citizen body had an opportunity to eat meat, because all the meat from the sacrifice, apart from the thigh pieces, were distributed among all. A sacrifice wasn’t just an opportunity to have a nosh but a sacred communion, and the actual sacrifice itself was solemnly conducted.
The most important Athenian festival was the Panathenaea or All-Athenian festival in honor of Athena. An Athenian was chosen to participate in the great procession that preceded the sacrifice, either as a horseback rider, a marshal, a bearer of sacrificial offerings, or as an animal handler.
Both men and women participated, along with resident aliens; foreigners who had the right to reside permanently in Athens. There were a large number of resident aliens, since Athens was hospitable to foreigners, and the festival was one of the ways to shows its appreciation for their contribution.
Learn more about the nature and roles of mythology in Greek civilization.
The Panathenaea Procession and its Rituals
The procession started at the Dipylon or Double Gate on the western side of the city, passing through the agora, and ending up on the Acropolis. Everyone ascended to the Acropolis, to get a glimpse of the olivewood statue of Athena, dropping from the sky.
The climax to the whole festival was the removal of Athena’s dress and its replacement by a new embroidered woollen gown, known as a peplos. The disrobing took place in hushed silence and the animals were sacrificed afterwards. The dead animals were then skinned, their flesh roasted, and after the gods had their share, the meat was distributed to everybody in attendance.
Later, the games in honor of Athena were held which lasted for several days with athletic as well as musical competitions. The prize for each event consisted of a two-handled vase known as an amphora, depicting Athena on one side and the event for which the prize was won on the other. In addition to the great state-funded festivals like the Panathenaea, people also attended festivals funded by the deme or township to which they belonged. The religious calendar of the deme of Erchia, one among 140 or so such demes, indicated that sacrifices took place on 25 days of the year.
Common Questions about Greek Religion
Greek temples were not places of worship but the house of a god or goddess like an Egyptian temple. Those were built to house the cult statues of the deities and the various gifts offered to them by the worshipers. Ordinary Greeks weren’t debarred from entering a temple.
The statue of Athena was made of a wooden core with ivory to cover the face and limbs of the statues.
Votive offering meant the ‘vowed’ or promised to a deity, either in expectation of assistance in the future or as a thanks offering for assistance already received.
The Greeks sacrificed first fruits of the harvest, a basket of beans or grain, or a cake. They also made a libation, a drink offering, that consisted of wine, milk, and honey.