Maenad playing a tambourine, satyr blowing pipes, and the young god with his panther dance. From the Villa Quintiliana on the Appian Way, c.100 CE. / British Museum, London
When approaching the study of ancient Greek religion one must remember that it is fundamentally different from
the common perception of religion today. This is because all Greek religions accepted a polytheistic, meaning many gods, view. The dominant world religions today are monotheistic and exclusive. Before one can begin to
understand any ancient religion, this difference must be fully understood. The three most prominent religions in
that same area of the world today are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these religions are exclusive, meaning that to believe completely in any of them by necessity renders any other religion completely false. They all hold that their God is the only god; and all others are not just lesser, they are false. Greek religion is just the opposite. The Greeks excluded no gods, even when the gods seemed to overlap or contradict each other.
The Greeks had a vast pantheon of gods. Each of their gods ruled over a specific sphere, whether regional, natural, or event based. All gods taken together ruled all things, but no one god ruled everything. The Greek system was meant to be inclusive, meaning that it was a common practice for the gods of other people groups to be added into the Greek pantheon.
Another major difference must be noted. Greek religion, unlike the major religions prevalent today, had no messiah, no creed, and no revelation. This was a religion that relied heavily on tradition, not a faith-based religion that could be denied if one chose. This religion was pervasive in the Greek society, affecting every aspect of life from art and war to the “rules of communal life.” Religion related to everything in Greek society, and everything related back to religion.
A last major difference is that the Greek gods were both anthropomorphic and symbolic. In Greek myths the gods
appear to be superhuman playing human-like roles. An understanding of this characteristic of the gods is vital.
However, the pantheon of gods is also a system that must be studied in its own right as has been stressed by Jean-Pierre Vernant. It is his belief that the system is more important than the individual gods. Both views must be taken into consideration to reach a through understanding of the Greek pantheon.
Horns of Consecration at the Palace at Knossos, Crete / Wikimedia Commons
The religion of the Hellenic Greek period can be traced back, to a great extent, to the pre-Greek peoples of the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Because Greek religion was designed to be inclusive, other cultures were also added over the years to form a conglomeration of sorts. Evidence suggests that aspects of the religions from the people groups of Asia Minor and from Egypt were introduced and incorporated into the Greek system.
The system of ancient Greek religion was organized prior to the eighth century, and most probably took shape
along with the polis. The polis was the name for the Greek city-states; this civic and religious reorganization hints at one of the main function of the Greek religion. Jean-Pierre Vernant states,
The Greek religious system was profoundly reorganized during this time in response to the new forms of social life introduced by the polis. Within the context of a religion that from then on was essentially civic.
Each city-state had its own patron deity that gave unity to each individual city-state and its inhabitants.
The Greek Pantheon / By Iona Miller Subjects
There were hundreds of deities and otherwise divine beings present in the Greek religion, but the main body of
gods present throughout the city-states was the Olympians: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Apollon (or Apollo),
Artemis, Hermes, Athene (or Athena), Hephaistos (or Hephaestus), Aphrodite, Ares, and Dionysos (or Dionysus).
The twelve Olympians were the gods that had the most direct relationship and interest in the people. They represented both an aspect of daily life and a location. Two of the ten, Demeter and Dionysus, were the patron deities of the Mystery Cults and as such will be discussed in detail in a later section.
The Jupiter de Smyrne, discovered in Smyrna in 1680 / Louvre Museum, Paris
Zeus, the king of the gods, most likely came from a blending of the Achæan god Zeus, from which he took his
name and affinity for the sky, and the Minyan god Dān. While the Achæan and Minyan aspects were dominant, the relationship between Zeus and Hera also suggested Dorian influence. Form this blending came the great god who overthrew his father Cronos to assume leadership of the gods. The main cult of Zeus was located in Olympia. Zeus seemed to at once be the god of everything, worshiped in every city; yet not. Most of his attributes were also ascribed to another god or goddess who the people turn to more readily, as if Zeus was an overseer and the other gods were the gods of the people.
The Campana Hera, a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, 2nd century CE / Louvre Museum, Paris
Hera, the Queen of the gods and Zeus’ wife, had her main cults at Samos and Argos and is the goddess of marriage. There is debate as to whether Hera served as the goddess of any natural or political function or if she was only the goddess of marriage. Hera, meaning Lady, was the name given by the Hellenic Greeks to the Great Goddess, who was found in both the Minoan and the Hittite cultures. She, being the central female deity, naturally became the mate to the central male deity. The Great Goddess was free to take lovers at her whim, but this changed when a strong male deity entered the picture. Because of the societal implications present in the blending of Zeus’ and Hera’s cultures, that of a matriarchal and a patriarchal society, this blending likely took longer for one to establish dominion over the other than most of the other blending we will discuss. Indeed, the myth says that “Zeus wooed Hera for three hundred years” before their marriage. It is possible that the three hundred years here could be how long it took for the two societies to fully blend.
These two examples, as well as many of the others, represent societal themes and political implication as well as religious beliefs. Zeus became the head god, thus the society he represents became the prominent society. The
anthropomorphic nature of these gods was, in part, a self projection, an idyllic form of what humans could be. Zeus was said to have fathered many children, among whom are those who represent the four seasons and the calendar months as the Hellenes represented them showing their domination over the other cultures as well as over nature. The Great Goddess’ survival in the form of Hera was indicative of the inclusive nature of the Hellenistic religion.
[LEFT]: Poseidon from Milos, 2nd century BC / National Archaeological Museum of Athens
[RIGHT]: A marble statue of Demeter / National Roman Museum
Poseidon, god of the sea, and Demeter, goddess of corn, are also examples of the blending of Greek religion with those of other cultures. These deities descended from the same lines as Zeus and Hera at around the same time.
The Ionian’s and the Minyan’s patron deities were Dān and Dā, also called Lord or Potei Dān and Dā Mater or Mother, these became Poseidon and Demeter. Their main cults were located in Sunium and Poseidonia for Poseidon and Eleusis for Demeter. Poseidon, in addition to being the god of thesea, was also the god of fresh-water. This made him a water deity more so than just the god of the oceans. Any city near an ocean that experiences an earthquake also has an accompanying tidal wave. For this reason, Poseidon was also seen as the earth-shaker and given credit for earthquakes.
The goddess and god most closely associated with the people were Athena and Hermes. Athena was the patron deity of Athens, though it is debated whether she lent the city her name or derived her name from it. Athena was of Minoan origin. She was possibly an aspect of the Great Goddess but was definitely the Triple Goddess of maid, matron, and crone. She was blended with the Achæan and Mycenaean goddess from whom she likely takes her name. After her blending, Athena lost one third of her triumvirate. She retained the aspect of the virgin maiden and of the wise old crone, but the aspect of her as the matron was stripped and most likely added to the other female goddesses.
Ironically, though she retained the young and old persona and was stripped of the adult visage, it is in this manner
that she is most often depicted. Few other deities wielded as much power in the political realm as she did. This will be discussed in greater detail later.
[LEFT]: Mattei Athena. Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor / Louvre Museum, Paris
[RIGHT]: Hermes Ingenui. Roman copy of the 2nd century BC after a Greek original of the 5th century BC. Hermes wears: kerykeion, kithara, petasus (round hat), traveler’s cloak and winged temples. / Vatican Museums, Rome
Hermes was the messenger of the gods, but this was not his only description. His name is Greek meaning “He of the stone-heap,” which were used as aids to help travelers on their way, thus he is also the god of travel and the protector of travelers. His persona was not so much a blend of deities as of ideas. He was a protector of travelers, thus the Minoan god of animals was added to him, as he protected the traveler from wild animals, or the animals from travelers as the case may be. Hermes was originally a pastoral god depicted as an old man, but as more aspects were added to him his appearance changed to that of a fit youth. He was later considered the patron god of “liars and thieves and gamblers…of commerce, framer of treaties” and “god of luck and fertility.” Hermes, unlike most of the other Olympic deities, had no home city. He had a small shrine in most of the cities but no large temple. This is most likely because he was the god of travel and always on the move.
Hephaestus at the Forge by Guillaume Coustou the Younger / Louvre Museum, Paris
Another god with ties to Athena was Hephaestus. Hephaestus was a fire-god, but he was fire in an untamed sense, gas or lava. He and Athena shared temple space in Athens, giving rise to the notion that they were married. Hephaestus was the patron god of mechanics and smith work. He rose to prominence as the artisans who worshiped him gained prominence in society, and he fell from prominence with them also. Hephaestus, in the image of his acolytes, was seen as a lame god. Some accounts have him lame from birth, and others after having been thrown from Mt. Olympus to earth by Zeus. Due to his lameness he was
perceived as the ugliest of the gods. It is ironic that myth should have the ugliest of the gods as the husband to the most beautiful, Aphrodite.
Aphrodite Pudica (Roman copy of 2nd century AD) / National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex, is possibly the most well known of the Greek gods. She like most of the other goddesses is derived form the Great Goddess. Unlike many of the other goddesses, however, Aphrodite is never associated with virginity, in fact she is seen and even encouraged to be immoral. Aphrodite was seen as many things, but above all she was associated with love, both the healing and the destructive forces of love. Indeed, Aphrodite was as feared as she was loved. Among her epitaphs were, “Goddess of Death-in-Life…Eldest of the Fates… Melaenis (Black One)… Scotia (Dark One), Androphonos (Man-Slayer) and… Epitymbria (of the Tombs).” It is possible that the destructive power of love was what led to her association with Ares, the god of war. Ares is the simplest of the gods to understand. He served no function but that of war-god. He was of Thracian origin and was by far the most disliked deity among the Olympians.
Apollo Belvedere, ca. 120–140 CE / Louvre Museum, Paris
Apollo was second only to Zeus in the Greek pantheon. When discussing Apollo it must be noted that he is in many ways two different deities. There is the Apollo of Delphi and the Apollo of Delos. He is most likely derived from the Dorian Apellon and the Hittite god Apulunas. Apollo’s Dorian roots are evident at Delphi where his oracle was seen as a prophet and his priest were an intelligence agency of sorts. Apollo is a solar deity, but is also seen as the patron of “music, poetry, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine and science.” This multiple association with all the things the Greeks loved best is what made Apollo such a well- loved god. His Hittite roots are more visible at Delos where Apollo’s role was slightly more primitive, that of a husbandry and animal deity. While myth places both aspects in the role, it is this Apollo that is most often seen as the brother of Artemis, the moon goddess.
The Diana (Artemis) of Versailles, a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture by Leochares / Louvre Museum, Paris
Artemis had her main temple in Ephesus, but she was also worshiped in Delos, Marseilles, and Syracuse. She was more of a rural goddess, being a huntress known as the “Maiden of the Silver Bow” and revered as an animal goddess, more than the other Olympian goddesses. She was also a patron to women during ever stage of life, including playing a sort of angel of death to ease the transition to the underworld for those loyal to her. She is most often connected to the hunt, but she does hold some ties to the sea as well in some cases even sharing temples with Poseidon.
When looking at the Olympic pantheon as a whole, it is easy to see the many similarities amongst the gods and
goddess. There are some functions that all of them seem to serve and some of the deities seem superfluous as all of their functions were already served by another god. There are two likely reasons for this. The first is the tendency toward inclusion the Greeks had. Whenever they encountered a new deity, they either added that deity to the pantheon of their gods or added the attributes of the new god to an already known god. The second is the disunity among the city-states themselves, which despite the many leagues and confederations was by and large not united until long after the gods had been canonized. This disunity causes many of the myths about the gods to have several vastly different versions that change the gods in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways, changing the way and reason that god or goddess in worshipped.
Egyptian garment panel featuring Dionysiac themes, 5th century. The popularity of the cult of Dionysus, introduced to Egypt by the early Ptolemy rulers in the 3rd century BC, continued into early Byzantine times (4th-7th century) / Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
Greek cult practices were as diverse as the gods to which they were directed, from as common as supplications to as obscure as ritual castration. Most of the gods were prayed to; however, unlike the popular monotheistic
religions of today, those prayers had nothing to do with the confession of sins. They were instead petitions for
desires, both private and social. For example, seafarers would pray to Poseidon for a safe voyage, and women would pray to either Artemis or Hera for marriage and childbirth.
Sacrifice was another key element in the cult practices of the Greeks. While many of the Greek gods may possibly have demanded human sacrifices early on, Zeus, Artemis, Poseidon, Ares, and Dionysus among those; that is a practice that was mostly ended very early on. The most common type of sacrifice was animal, but plant sacrifices were occasionally used as well. The type of animal used depended on who and what the sacrifice was to and for. The most common animals used were cattle, sheep, and goats, with pigs, dogs, birds, and fishs also being used on occasion.
Festival and ritual were the other two common types of cult practices. Many of these were based on nature such as the solstices, equinoxes, and the sowing and harvesting of crops. Others had to do with the natural cycle of life, births, marriages, and deaths. Some rituals were political in nature. As a matter of fact, often times
“there was no division between the priesthood and the magistracy.” In a sense, these rituals were the language the political rulers used to relate to the citizenry.
One of the best examples of a ruler using religious ritual to relate to the people comes from Herodotus in what he calls “the silliest trick which history has to record.” Pisistristatus, the tyrant of Athens, in an effort to legitimize his power, dressed up a woman named Phye in the traditional garb of Athena and had her ride with him in to the city where the people received Pisistristatus warmly as their new ruler and worshiped the Athena doppelganger. Herodotus criticized the Athenian public for being taken in by this scheme, saying that “the
Greeks have never been simpletons” and the Athenians were the “most intelligent” of them all.
Herodotus is correct in his opinion of surprise that the Athenians could be taken in with such a seemingly obvious political machination. Because of this, many historians avoid discussing the event at all. W.R. Conner takes a different approach to this event calling it an “expression of popular consent” rather than an attempt to fool the citizens of Athens. He claims that Pisistristatus’ entrance was a shared drama in which Pisistristatus offers himself to rule as Athena proxy and that the people did not really believe that the woman with him was anything more than a representation of Athena.
Whether the people were really fooled or were just enjoying the festive atmosphere, there are many examples of
humans representing gods during festivals or to enforce a point. To the Greeks religion was not just something that could be done once a week or several times a year. It was something the permeated every part of their life and every part of their day. Their whole lives centered on the polis and the god that protected it.
This chapter is mainly a look at the deities and their cults individually. While it is important to understand the gods and goddesses of the pantheon individually, it is also important to recognize that almost all of the deities are derived from just two gods. The many goddesses of the Greek city-states are derivatives of the Great Goddess or Mother Earth and the many gods are derived from Lord God or Sky God. Almost all trace back to the same Dān and Dā worshiped by the cultures of the pre-Greek era.
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