By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
The Greek religious system was one where people could laugh at their gods, as Athenians watching Aristophanes’ Frogs would have done. They laughed at the dreaded God Dionysus because of his stage character’s funny situation. Let us take a look at the unique religious life of the ancient Greeks.
Few Demands in Greek Religion
Greek religion put few demands on people; they weren’t burdened with a sense of sinfulness or denied worldly pleasures. They didn’t live in accordance with any rule of life. The afterlife wasn’t as pleasant as that of the Egyptians, but in compensation, the Greeks didn’t have to fear eternal damnation, as the Egyptians did. They believed that, if initiated in the mysteries, they could lead a blessed life.
The Greeks didn’t subscribe to a particular set of beliefs or privately worship a particular set of gods. Greek religion was too chaotic, fluid, and disorderly to permit the emergence of orthodoxy found in Christianity. The word ‘orthodoxy,’ comes from two Greek words meaning ‘correct belief,’ with no ancient equivalent.
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Religious Dimension to Greek Life
The Greeks didn’t take the gods very seriously which was a big mistake. Every aspect of their life had a religious dimension to it, and virtually all Greeks were religious with a few of them being atheists like the philosophers. The word atheos — where we get words like atheist and atheism — meant someone who was disrespectful toward the gods.
Religion wasn’t cordoned off from other aspects of life, as in modern world. The secular and the profane constantly intersected with one another. Attending the assembly, looking after family, giving birth, having a drink, fighting a battle, planting crops — all those activities had a religious dimension to them. That is why there is no word for ‘religion’ in Greek. Being religious was in effect, being Greek; permeating their whole being.
The gods were everywhere and in everything, like in their body, head, weather, crops, seasons, on the battlefield, home, city, village, and in what they ate and drank. Practicing Greek religion was being aware of that fact and act accordingly. The only human experience the gods steered clear of was death, and that’s because the dead were a source of pollution.
Interpretation of Greek Gods
Understanding what ordinary people thought about their gods is very difficult as the Greeks had no holy book. There is just a collection of unrepresentative writings whose perspective on religion was somewhat eclectic. They included the poems of Homer and Hesiod, the histories of Herodotus, the plays of the tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and of the comic dramatist Aristophanes, the speeches of orators, and the dialogues of Plato.
Some funerary inscriptions, artifacts have been found in tombs, as well as votive offerings, vase paintings, and the archaeological remains of sanctuaries, but with a lack of personal statements of belief about what people believed.
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Who Were the Greek Gods?
The gods were jealous, vengeful, unpredictable, selfish, and immoral. They were constantly at war with one another, their interests frequently colliding, and were only marginally concerned with the welfare of mankind. As Apollo said to Poseidon in the Iliad during the Trojan War, “Earthshaker, I would be out of my mind if I were to fight with you for the sake of wretched mortals. … So let us give up this quarrel and let mortals fight their own battles.” That says it all.
The principal deities were the 12 Olympians, so named because they were thought to live on Mount Olympus in northern Greece. The Olympians were immortal, but were not thought of as existing from the beginning of time; They just happened to be in power right then, and could be ousted any moment.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Real Character of Greek Gods
Zeus, ‘the father of gods and men,’ ousted his father Kronos. Kronos tried to swallow Zeus alive immediately after his birth because of a prophecy that his son would overthrow him. Fortunately for Zeus, his mother Rhea deceived Kronos by wrapping up a stone in swaddling bands which he swallowed, trusting that was his newborn baby. Kronos himself had ousted his father Uranus as King of Gods.
What mattered primarily to the gods were the gifts people gave to them. All that may make the Greek gods sound despicable, but it was an explication of divine motivation that made complete sense in a world that was much more unpredictable; where natural forces were seen to be in competition with one another, and humans acted most of the time both irrationally and cruelly. The gods, were ‘acting out’ the disorder in the universe. In fact, the Greeks never came up with the idea of a god whose love of humanity was unqualified.
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Common Questions about the Greek Religion
Dionysus was the god of wine and theater, among other things. The god’s troubles were laughed at by Athenians, when depicted in Aristophanes’ Frogs in 405 B.C.
The Greek religion was based around their Pantheon, but there were Pan-Hellenic beliefs which were common to all the Greeks. They included Delphi, the seat of the Delphic Oracle; Olympia, the home of the Olympic Games; and Epidaurus, sacred to the healing god Asclepius.
The Greek gods were jealous, vengeful, unpredictable, selfish, and immoral. They were constantly at war with one another; their interests frequently collided with one another, and were only marginally concerned with the welfare of mankind.
Zeus, who lived on Mount Olympus, was known as the king of both gods and men, and was the chief god in Greek religious belief.