Greek Religion: Challenge of Worshipping Multiple Gods


By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

There was a strong observance of religious rituals in ancient Greek, held in a household by the head of the family. Greek religion like many others, was built around a fear of gods. Was that a reason for them to worship a god and his counterpart simultaneously?

Image of a terracotta stone by Gela Painter which has family members in a Greek household wailing around a dead body.
There were several rituals performed in a Greek household on a daily basis for prosperity. These also included rituals of washing a dead corpse to lament it. (Image: Walters Art Museum/Public domain)

Household Rituals

Being religious in Ancient Greece also meant participating in religious observances at home. The Greek household head of the oikos, or oikia, performed the functions of a priest, conducting rituals on a daily basis, to the several deities who safeguarded the prosperity and security of their home. These included Zeus Ktesios, the protector of their property; Zeus Herkeios, the protector of the sacred boundary that surrounded their home; and Apollo Agyieus, the protector of the entrance to their house.

The head also conducted rituals on behalf of Hestia, goddess of the hearth. These rituals included the initiation ceremony for a newborn child, new bride, or a slave. The home was where most Greeks died, apart from those on the battlefield. The rituals of washing the corpse, laying it out, and lamenting, all that took place inside the home.

No priest attended any of those ceremonies. In fact, being a priest was very straightforward; they didn’t have to undergo any special training, had no pastoral duties. A priest served on a strictly part-time basis and only wore the priestly robe while performing priestly activities, such as conducting a sacrifice. Their main charge was to oversee the correct observance of the rituals within a sanctuary they were in charge of.

Beliefs in Greek Religion

The Greek religious system had fear built into it. There were so many gods that identifying one to worship or placate at any moment was a real challenge. The gods were also extremely jealous of one another. For example, thinking of sacrificing to Aphrodite for her help with a love relationship, then sacrificing at the same time to Artemis, her exact counterpart was important. Solon, a man celebrated for his wisdom, is said to have told Croesus, the king of Lydia, that no man could be called happy until he was dead, because one couldn’t predict what evil the gods might have in store for him.

Greeks also were careful not to commit an act of impiety: this covered a multitude of offences against the gods, parents, country, and their dead relatives. The most famous impiety trial involved the philosopher Socrates, who was charged in 399 B.C. for not recognizing the gods whom the state did and for introducing new daimonic powers.

Impiety also included acts of sacrilege, such as stealing from a sanctuary or destroying property within a sanctuary. It was a capital offence to cut down the sacred olive tree on the Acropolis, because the tree belonged to Athena. Betraying the state was also an act of impiety because the gods were involved in the welfare of the state.

Learn more about the huge influence of Greek mythology on Western art.

Avoiding Hubris

The Greeks were wary not to exhibit hubris, an overweening pride or presumptuousness, because hubris engendered nemesis or retribution, that bought downfall. They believed that good fortune invited trouble, because it made the gods extremely jealous. Herodotus told a wonderful story to prove that point. A tyrant called Polycrates had everything going his way, and knew he was in danger, so he consulted his friend, Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt, about what to do. Amasis advised him to throw away his most prized possession.

Image of a painting by Salvator Rosa, which depicts the people gathered around the tree where Polycrates is being crucified. Being too proud was supposed to bring downfall of a person in ancient Greece.
The display of hubris was said to result in the destruction of a person’s life in Greece. Being lucky was also believed to invite trouble. (Image: Salvator Rosa/Public domain)

Polycrates got on a boat, removed the ring that he valued so much, and tossed it into the sea. A few days later, a fisherman caught a huge fish which he presented to Polycrates who had it cut open and there, in its stomach, was the ring. Amasis broke off all contact with Polycrates, knowing that a man so fortunate was bound to come to a sticky end, which of course he did in short order.

Another danger to watch out for, was the ancient equivalent of a virus that only religious observance could contain. The Greek word for this was miasma, a word translated as ‘pollution.’ If it wasn’t controlled, it could wreak havoc on livestock, crops, their family, and friends. Miasma was released in a variety of ways, all in some way connected with bodily functions. It was most lethal when released as a result of a voluntary or involuntary homicide. Contact with the dead was also polluting, as was giving birth. The principal disinfectants were salt water, sulphur and, most of all, the blood of a pig.

Contractual Arrangement of Greeks with Gods

Greek religion didn’t have to wrestle with their conscience, the gods weren’t urging them to be good, given the fact that they themselves had committed every crime in the book. It was sometimes alleged that Greek religion represented a purely contractual arrangement between gods and humans, and that spirituality was absent from the lives of the Greeks.

Learn more about the great philosophical tradition within ancient Greece.

Famous Shrine of Delphi

Greeks had an extraordinary sense of the sacred, as is evidenced by the intimate relationship that existed between landscape and religion. It was impossible to visit the Acropolis in Athens without sensing the presence of the divine. But Delphi was the most famous of the oracular shrines, where you could seek advice from the god Apollo.

To understand what Apollo said, one needed to keep their wits about them. The vestibule of the temple was inscribed with maxims, of which the most celebrated were, ‘Know yourself’ and ‘Nothing in excess.’

Image of an illustration by Albert Tournaire which is a full view of ancient shrine of Delphi which was considered the sacred place to seek advice from the God Apollo.
It is believed that the oracle of god Apollo in Delphi shrine was operated by the priests who were corrupt, always exploiting the people visiting. (Image: Albert Tournaire/Public domain)

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Greek Religion in Perspective

Greek religion offered little cheer, less comfort, and no consolation; it takes courage to inhabit that kind of universe. The Greeks were religious because their gods were powerful and it was extremely dangerous to get on the wrong side of them. The gods differed from us in that they were blissfully ignorant of the ageing process. Apollo was forever a young man on the verge of manhood, Aphrodite was forever a woman in the fullness of her prime, and Zeus was forever a man in athletic middle age.

Common Questions about the Greek Religion

Q: What were household religious rituals of Ancient Greece?

The household head of the oikos or oikia, performed the functions of a priest in relation to the home, conducting rituals on a daily basis, to the several deities who safeguarded the prosperity and security of their home including Zeus Ktesios, the protector of their property; to Zeus Herkeios, the protector of the sacred boundary that surrounded their home; and to Apollo Agyieus, the protector of the entrance to their house.

Q: What did the Ancient Greeks sacrifice?

Apart from fruits, cakes, milk and honey, the Ancient Greeks sacrificed animals to get the favor of the gods.

Q: Whom did the Ancient Greeks worship?

The Ancient Greeks worshiped multiple gods, and identifying one to worship or placate at any moment was a real challenge. Besides that, they also worshipped half deities.

Q: What is miasma in Greek mythology?

In ancient Greek, there was an ancient equivalent of a virus that only religious observance could contain. The Greek word for this virus was miasma, a word for ‘pollution’ or ‘blood guilt.’ If not controlled, it could create havoc on livestock, crops, family, and friends of Greeks. Miasma was released in a variety of ways, all connected with bodily functions.

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