Ancient Greeks: Everyday Life, Beliefs and Myths


Ancient Greek pottery vase, known as a bell krater, used to mix water with wine for the table / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons


03.29.2011

Introduction to the Ancient Greeks

The Ancient Greeks lived over 2,800 years ago in mainland Greece and the Greek islands, but they also moved far further afield. Greeks could be found in Turkey, around the shores of the Mediterranean sea, in Italy, Sicily, North Africa and as far west as France. Ancient Greece had a warm, dry climate, just like Greece today.

An Ancient Greek plate / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Ancient Greeks lived in City States, which were run like separate countries with their own traditions and currencies. People worked in farming, fishing, or as traders, soldiers and scholars (scientists, artists and teachers). For many Greeks, life was hard, as they were often poor and resources like water, farmland and timber for building could be scarce. For this reason lots of Greeks sailed away to find new lands to settle.

A circular carved Ancient Greek altar showing ox-heads with fruit and corn / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Ancient Greek inventions we still use today:

Every day you will come into contact with many things originally created by the Ancient Greeks. Here are just a few of them:

  • The Olympic Games were founded by the Greeks around 776BC, at first as just one race.
  • Myths and legends: we still read the stories of the Greek Gods and they are part of our culture.
  • Language: some of the words we use today in English come from words created by the Greeks.
  • Theatre: the Greeks made the very first theatres and also came up with the ideas of comedy and tragedy.

Real – or replica?

Many artefacts, (things belonging to the Ancient Greeks which they used in their daily lives), are in museums today. Sometimes museums use objects which look like ancient artefacts but are in fact modern. These are called replicas. Museums use them to prevent real artefacts from becoming damaged or broken and also to show what an item looked like if the original is no longer available.

Replica Ancient Greek coins / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Handling coins, for example, can lead to them becoming discoloured or to the metal being corroded (worn away). Do you think the coins pictured above are real or replica?

Arts and Entertainment in Ancient Greece

Tragedy and Comedy: Greek Theatre

Ancient Greek actors wore masks similar to the one in this picture, which is called an antefix. This helped the audience distinguish between different characters / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Theatres were invented by the Greeks. They could hold up to 14,000 people and audiences would come from all over Greece. Early Greek theatres were usually built into hillsides and were circular, so that all members of the audience could hear what the actors were saying. There were never more than three actors on stage at one time and they were almost always men or boys.

The plays were either comedies or tragedies. The actors wore masks ( like the one pictured on the right) so that the audience members sitting far away could easily spot different characters. But the masks muffled the actors’ voices, so they had to speak very loudly to be heard by the audience.

To help the actors, in front of the stage was the chorus. They would chant songs or explain the background to the story being acted out.

2,700 years of the Olympic Games!

An Ancient Greek silver-coloured coin showing Zeus, in whose honour the Olympic Games were held / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

The Olympic Games began around 776 BC. They were held at Olympia every four years, in honour of Zeus, who was the father and most powerful of all the gods ( Zeus is shown on the coin pictured opposite).

Replica long jump weights from Ancient Greece. Weights like these would have been used in the Olympic games to increase the length of a jump / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Over 40,000 spectators would come to watch the events. The games started off with just one event: a sprint across the stadium. Gradually more events were added, including javelin, discus, chariot racing, boxing and the long jump.

People still compete in many of these events, but today they are usually very different and much safer. In the Ancient Greek long jump, instead of taking a running jump athletes took a short run up carrying a heavy weight in each hand, which they swung forward as they jumped from a standing position. The heavy weights pulled the athlete forward in order to give them a longer jump.

Some Terms:

  • Chorus – a group of people who sing together
  • Comedy – showing the funny side of a story
  • Compete – to try to win or do something better than another person
  • Spectators – people who watch an event, like a sport or a play
  • Tragedy – a serious story, or a lesson about right and wrong

Ancient Greek Pottery

An Ancient Greek drinking cup. Cups like this would have been mainly used for drinking watered down wine / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

The Ancient Greeks made pots from clay. Large pots were used for cooking or storing food and small bowls and cups were made for people to eat and drink from, like the drinking cup in the top picture here. Pots were also used for decoration, and when people died, they were cremated (burned) and their ashes were buried in pots.

Oenochoe – An early ceramic from Cyprus, an island country in the Mediterranean Sea, where Greek people once settled / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Just like today, fashions changed in Ancient Greece and so the size, shape and decorations used on pots developed over time. Decorations were quite simple at first, made up of lines and grooves  like the jug in the second picture here. This later included more intricate designs, like zigzag patterns and geometric shapes painted around the pot.

This is a replica of an Ancient Greek pot. It is decorated with orange and black designs which were typical of the Ancient Greek period / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Over time, people started painting pots with scenes of human figures, nature, sometimes stories from Greek mythology or pictures of battles. The pot pictured in the bottom image has a more complicated design, with a woman (perhaps a goddess) and a deer.

The Greeks used iron-rich clay, which turned red when heated in the kiln. Potters from Corinth and Athens used a special watery mixture of clay to paint their pots while the clay was still soft. After it was baked in the kiln, the sections of the pot they had painted with the clay would turn black, while the rest of the pot was red-brown. You can see this technique on the jug in the bottom picture. Sometimes they also did this the other way round, as in the jug in the third picture here.

An Ancient Greek jug also known as lekythoi. They were used to store oil which may have been used for annointing the dead / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Some Terms

  • Clay – a kind of fine soil or rock
  • Cremated – when a dead body is burned instead of being buried
  • Geometric -decorative shapes in straight lines or circles
  • Grooves -a track or ridge cut into something
  • Intricate – made up of many details and small parts
  • Kiln – a special, very hot oven where clay is baked

Education in Ancient Greece

Older Greek school boys would have used Papyrus to write on. It is made from the Egyptian papyrus plant / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Greek boys went to school, but girls did not. Girls in wealthier families might have been taught to read but, most stayed at home and learned how to do housework. This was not the same everywhere, though. In Sparta, for example, girls had more freedom and they were taught how to fight.

Boys started school at the age of seven. They were taught how to read, write and learned a lot of poetry by heart. In places such as Athens laws were carved into stone slabs, so citizens had to be able to read to make sure they didn’t break the law. (The second photograph here shows a Greek inscription in stone.)

An example of Ancient Greek inscription carved into stone recording the decision of a court sitting / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Writing:

The Greeks had their own 24-letter alphabet. Boys learned to write on pieces of clay and wax tablets, which they could use again and again by smoothing the surface over. The plant Cyperus papyrus was made into paper ( see the picture of Egyptian papyrus, top right) and used in books for children to read from, and for older children to write in.

Music:

Young boys also learned how to play a musical instrument, as music was an important part of festivals and celebrations. Greeks were thought to be well-educated if they could play an instrument called a lyre. This is an instrument made from a tortoise shell covered on the hollow side by ox skin. It was a popular instrument to play at evening parties to accompany singers and people reciting poetry.

Physical Education:

Sport was another key part of Greek life. Most schools had a palaistra, a training ground for physical education, near to the school. Fitness and skill were very important in Greek sports and at the Olympic games athletes enjoyed showing off these qualities. In the palaistra boys were taught different sports, in the hope that some of them would become athletes or soldiers.

Some Terms

  • Accompany (in music) – play at the same time, supporting
  • Athlete – skilled sportsman
  • Citizens – people who live in a city
  • Festivals – celebrations held at certain times every year
  • Qualities -features of something
  • Recite – say from memory

Greek Mythology and Gods

Some characters from Greek mythology were thought to become part of the constellation when they died. Here is an illustration of Perseus carrying Medusa’s severed head, showing their place in the stars / Library of Congress, Creative Commons

Myths are stories created to teach people about something important and meaningful. They were often used to teach people about events that they could not always understand, such as illness and death, or earthquakes and floods. Legends are like myths, but they are slightly different. While myths are completely made up, legends are based on events that really happened.

The Greeks believed in gods and goddesses who, they thought, had control over every part of people’s lives. The Ancient Greeks believed that they had to pray to the gods for help and protection, because if the gods were unhappy with someone, then they would punish them. They made special places in their homes and temples where they could pray to statues of the gods and leave presents for them.

The Greeks had a different god for almost everything. They imagined that the gods lived together, as a family, up on the top of Mount Olympus. They did not see them as perfect, but just like people. In the Greek myths the gods argue, fall in love, get jealous of each other and make mistakes.

Some of the most important Greek gods were: 

  • Zeus, the leader of the gods, in charge of rain and the sky
  • Hera, Zeus’s wife, was the goddess of marriage and childbirth
  • Poseidon, the god of the sea
  • Aphrodite, the goddess of love
  • Hades, the god of the Underworld, where the dead lived
  • Ares, god of war and battle

This sculpture shows the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Once a beautiful woman, she was punished by the Gods for being so vain and turned into a Gorgon. She had snakes for hair and a stare that instantly turned people to stone if they looked directly at her. You can download a version of the story of Perseus and the Gorgon (shortened for children) from the Downloads section / Leeds Museums and Galleries / Creative Commons

There are many famous Greek myths and legends. Some of them are reused in stories and films today!

  • In one, a woman called Pandora opens up a box full of all the bad things in the world, and lets them out.
  • Theseus and the Minotaur tells the story of a prince who chases a monster through a labyrinth to save the woman he loves.
  • In another tale, two inventors called Icarus and Daedalus try to build wings so they can fly away from prison.
  • Perhaps the most exciting is  Perseus and the Gorgon in which a man called Perseus has to kill a woman who can turn people to stone just by looking at them!

Death in Ancient Greece

An Ancient Greek gravestone of a man called Laedicus, made in white marble, showing Agron and his son bidding farewell to the deceased / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Ancient burials give us information about how people lived and what they believed would happen to them after they died.

Journey to the Underworld:

The Greeks believed that after death, a soul went on a journey to a place called the Underworld (which they called Hades). This is what they thought would happen:
  1. First, Thanatos, the God of Death, would reach down and cut a lock of hair from your head, as you died.
  2. Then, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, led you to the River Styx.
  3. If your body had been buried, then Charon, the ferryman, transported you across the river.
  4. On the bank of the river, you would encounter Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the Underworld. His job was to stop people from leaving and returning to the world of the living.
  5. After crossing the river, you would leave the ferry and walk on to a place called the Asphodel Fields, where people forget all memories of their former life.
  6. Then, at a fork in the road three judges would decide where to send souls: good people were allowed to go onwards to Elysium (a comfortable place where the sun always shone), but those who needed to be punished were sent to Tartarus. Sometimes, when the judges could not decide, souls would be sent back to the Asphodel Fields.
In Tartarus, people who had upset the Gods would receive terrible punishments. Tartarus was a dark place, imagined to be as far below the Earth as the Earth is from the sky. Greek mythology tells the stories of people who ended up in Tartarus, like:
– Sisyphus, who had to push a heavy rock up a hill again and again, only for it to roll back down on him every time.
– Hungry Tantalus, who stood near a table covered with delicious food but could never reach it.

Burial rituals in Ancient Greece:

When someone died in Ancient Greece, they would be washed. A coin would be placed in their mouth, to pay the ferrymen who took the dead across the rivers in the different parts of the Underworld. When the Greeks conquered Egypt, they adopted the Egyptian tradition of mummification. They used simple boxes for burying their dead or the deceased would be burned, and their ashes buried in a special pot.

Tombs and gravestones:

Marble portions of an entrance door leading to a Hellenistic Greek tomb / Leeds Museums and Galleries, Creative Commons

Entrances to tombs, where the dead were laid to rest, were made of marble. Heads of Gorgons were carved on to the tomb doors to ward off evil. The tombs were made to stop the dead being forgotten and sometimes they were carved with pictures, showing the deceased with people they knew in life.

Inside the tomb the family of the deceased person placed valuable objects with their body, like pottery, jewellery and coins. It was believed that they would be able to use these objects in the Underworld. Every year families visited the tombs of their dead relatives, making offerings and decorating the tomb.

Some Terms:

  • Adopt – to take on something that is not already yours
  • Conquer – take something by force
  • Deceased – someone who has died
  • Gorgon – a mythical Greek woman with snakes instead of hair
  • Offering – something given away
  • Soul – the part of someone that is not physical
  • Underworld – a place where the Ancient Greeks believed people went after they died
  • Ward off – frighten away, stop something bad from getting in

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