Challenge to worship multiple gods

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

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

There were several rituals performed daily in a Greek house for prosperity. These also included rituals of washing a corpse to mourn it. (Image: Walters Art Museum / Public domain)

Household Rituals

Being a religious in ancient Greece also meant participating in religious observances in the home. The Greek head of the oikos, Where oikia, fulfilled the functions of a priest, carrying out daily rituals, with the various deities who protected the prosperity and security of their homes. These included Zeus Ktesios, the protector of their property; Zeus Herkeios, the protector of the sacred border which surrounded their house; and Apollo Agyieus, the protector of the entrance to their house.

The chief also performed rituals in the name of Hestia, goddess of the hearth. These rituals included the initiation ceremony of a newborn baby, a new wife or a slave. The house was where most of the Greeks died, except for those on the battlefield. The rituals of washing the corpse, spreading it out and lamenting, everything that happened inside the house.

No priest attended any of these ceremonies. In fact, being a priest was very simple; they did not have to follow any particular formation, did not have pastoral duties. A priest served strictly part-time and wore the priestly robe only when performing priestly activities, such as conducting a sacrifice. Their main task was to supervise the proper observance of rituals in a sanctuary for which they were in charge.

Beliefs in the Greek religion

The Greek religious system had fear built in. There were so many gods that identifying one to worship or appease at any time was a real challenge. The gods were also extremely jealous of each other. For example, thinking about sacrificing to Aphrodite for her help in a romantic relationship, and then sacrificing to Artemis at the same time, her exact counterpart was important. Solon, a man famous for his wisdom, is said to have told Croesus, the king of Lydia, that no man could be called happy until his death, for one could not predict what harm the gods might hold for him.

The Greeks also refrained from committing an act of godlessness: this covered a multitude of offenses against the gods, parents, the homeland and their deceased relatives. The most famous impiety trial involved the philosopher Socrates, who was accused in 399 BC.

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

Learn about the enormous influence of Greek mythology on Western art.

To avoid pride

The Greeks were wary of not exhibiting pride, excessive pride or presumption, because pride generates Nemesis or retribution, which bought the fall. They believed that luck invited trouble, for it made the gods extremely jealous. Herodotus told a wonderful story to prove this point. A tyrant called Polycrates had it all, and knew he was in danger, so he consulted his friend, Amasis, Pharaoh of Egypt, on what to do. Amasis advised him to throw away his most precious possession.

Image of a painting by Salvator Rosa, which shows the people gathered around the tree where Polycrates is being crucified.  To be too proud was believed to result in the downfall of a person in ancient Greece.
The display of pride would have resulted in the destruction of a person’s life in Greece. It was also believed that luck invites trouble. (Image: Salvator Rosa / Public domain)

Polycrates got on a boat, took off the ring he appreciated so much and threw it into the sea. A few days later, a fisherman caught a huge fish which he presented to Polycrates who made it open and there, in his stomach, was the ring. Amasis severed all contact with Polycrates, knowing that such a lucky man was doomed to a difficult end, which of course he did in no time.

Another danger to watch out for was the ancient equivalent of a virus that only religious observance could contain. The Greek word for it was miasma, a word translated as “pollution”. If left unchecked, it could wreak havoc on livestock, crops, their family and friends. Miasma was released in various ways, all related in one way or another to bodily functions. He was the deadliest when released following intentional or involuntary manslaughter. Contact with the dead was also polluting, as was childbirth. The main disinfectants were salt water, sulfur and especially pig’s blood.

Contractual arrangement of the Greeks with the gods

The Greek religion did not have to struggle with their conscience, the gods did not encourage them to be good, since they themselves had committed all the crimes of the book. It has sometimes been argued that the Greek religion represented a purely contractual arrangement between gods and humans, and that spirituality was absent from the life of the Greeks.

Learn more about the great philosophical tradition of ancient Greece.

Famous Delphi Sanctuary

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

To understand what Apollo said, you had to keep your mind about them. The hall of the temple was inscribed with maxims, the most famous of which were: “Know thyself” and “Nothing excessive”.

Image of an illustration by Albert Tournaire which is a complete view of the ancient sanctuary of Delphi which was considered the sacred place to seek advice from the god Apollo.
It is believed that the oracle of the god Apollo in the sanctuary of Delphi was ruled by corrupt priests, still exploiting visitors. (Image: Albert Tournaire / Public domain)

This is a transcript of the video series The other side of the story: everyday life in the ancient world. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Greek religion in perspective

Greek religion offered little joy, less comfort, and no consolation; it takes courage to inhabit this 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 aging process. Apollo was forever a young man on the verge of adulthood, Aphrodite was forever a woman in the fullness of her prime, and Zeus was forever an athletic middle-aged man.

Common questions about the Greek religion

Q: What were the domestic religious rituals of ancient Greece?

The head of household of oikos Where oikia, fulfilled the functions of a priest in relation to the house, carrying out daily rituals, to the various deities who have safeguarded the prosperity and security of their homes, including Zeus Ktesios, the protector of their property; to Zeus Herkeios, the protector of the sacred border which surrounded their house; and to Apollo Agyieus, the protector of the entrance to their house.

Q: What did the ancient Greeks sacrifice?

Besides fruits, cakes, milk and honey, Ancient greeks animals sacrificed to obtain the favor of the gods.

Q: Who did the ancient Greeks worship?

The old one The Greeks worshiped several gods, and identifying one to worship or appease at any time was a real challenge. In addition to that, they also worshiped demigods.

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 left unchecked, it could wreak havoc on Greeks’ livestock, crops, family and friends. Miasma was released in various ways, all related to bodily functions.

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A History of Modern Scholarship on Ancient Greek Religion

The 19th and early 20th centuries are a key period in the history of modern scholarship on ancient Greek religion. It was in 19th century Germany that the foundations for the modern academic study of Greek religion were laid and the theories formulated by German scholars as well as their British colleagues in the late 19th and early 19th centuries. 20th century exerted a profound influence on the field which would resonate until much later times.

Throughout this period, fierce debates were held on the interpretation of Greek religion: what were the origins of the Greek gods and what light did they shed on their conception in historical times? Was there a monotheistic current in Greek polytheism and if so, how to explain it? In terms of innate human tendency, or of diffusion from abroad? And if the latter, from where? How similar or different was the Greek religion to the religions of other Indo-European peoples, to the non-Indo-European religions of the ancient Near East, or to the modern polytheistic religions of Africa and Asia? In an era of increasing science and professionalization of the discipline, classical scholars in Germany and Great Britain drew inspiration from developments in philology, archeology, comparative mythology, anthropology and, later , sociology to offer surprisingly different answers to these questions.

Take, for example, the question of origins. According to a very influential tradition of comparative interpretation in the 19th century, the Greek gods, like the gods of other ancient religions, derive from the personification of natural elements and domains – Zeus of the sky, Poseidon of the sea, etc. Due to the variety of natural forces and phenomena, Ludwig Preller (1809-1861), one of the most prominent representatives of this approach, described polytheism as a weakness inherent in Greek religion.

During the second half of the 19th century, this view was strongly opposed by scholars such as Heinrich Dietrich Müller (1819-1893) and Ernst Curtius (1814-1896), who rejected the idea that the Greek religion was inherently polytheistic and whose cult of natural powers smacked of irrationality and mysticism. In their eyes, it was typical of Asian religions, but could not have provided the basis for the religion of the Greeks. Far from being personifications of different elements of the natural world, they suggested that Zeus, Poseidon, and the other Olympians were originally universal and omnipotent gods, like the God of Judaism and Christianity. Attributing a form of monotheism to the Greeks, they argued that initially each Greek community worshiped a single almighty god. Greek polytheism was the late result of historical contingencies as the separate gods of the different communities gradually came closer together and their once universal powers began to contract.

This theory was, in turn, contested in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by British anthropology and evolutionism. The concept of gods endowed with universal powers was now considered to belong to the later stages of religious development rather than to its beginnings. Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928), one of the first to apply sociological theory to the study of Greek religion, actually envisioned an early stage of totemism in ancient Greece where no gods had existed. According to her, what was essential in totemism was “the idea of ​​the unity of a group”. The gods were a “by-product” that gradually emerged from pre-existing rituals that expressed group cohesion.

These questions were far from being of simple antique interest. The interpretation of Greek religion in the 19th and early 20th centuries has been heavily influenced and closely involved in contemporary discussions of crucial questions regarding the origins and nature of religion, the roots of Western culture, and its relationship to the “East”, or the attitudes of mankind towards nature. Clashes between devout Christian scholars and supporters of “scientific atheism”, sectarian rivalries between Catholics and Protestants, and national rivalries between Germans and British were some of the factors that informed the study of religion. Greek and made it very relevant to current concerns.

Modern assumptions and agendas of past interpretations of Greek religion highlight the intersection of the history of the discipline with contemporary intellectual, cultural and religious history. They not only enlighten us on why the field evolved as it did, but also invite us to reflect on the interrelationships between current conceptions of Greek religion and their context.

Image credit: Hermes, Dionysus, Ariadne and Poseidon (Amphitrite is also pictured but cannot be seen here). Detail of the Belly of an Attic Red-Figure Hydria, c. 510 BC-500 BC. From Etruria. Photo by Jastrow. Louvre Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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