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Ancient Greek Religion

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Focus Question: What were the religious beliefs, customs and policies of Greek religion and how did the gods fit in?


Greek religion spans from the Minoan and Mycenaean periods to the days of Hellenistic (ending in 31 BE) Greece, when the Romans invaded and took over Greece.

The Greeks primary way of worship was through cult practices. However there were so many variations dependent

on the area in which a person comes from that it can be said that there were Greek religions. When talking about Greek religion though we must keep in mind that the Greek language did not have a term for Ð''religion' in the sense of what we know it to be today, rather the Greeks spoke of their religious happenings as Ð''ta theia', roughly translated Ð''having things to do with the gods'. Even though they didn't have a word for religion we cannot assume that they didn't have rules and principles that governed their practices. The Greeks did have a word for belief, so the Greeks definitely believed in the gods no matter what they called the practice.

There are hundreds of gods that the Greeks worshiped but there was primarily twelve: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Apollo, Aphrodite, Artemis, Ares, Hephaestus, Athena, Hermes, Dionysos, and Demeter. That being said there was no universal truth for each god. The stories of each God were different dependent

on the town and this story usually made the god or goddess distinct. Each town also had its own primary god, for example Athens had Athena, Corinth had Aphrodite, Delphi and Delos had Apollo and of course Olympus had Zeus. Though most places were sacred for one primary God, the larger cities had temples to various important gods.

There was no single true way to worship the gods. Each individual city was responsible for its own temples and sacrifices, but it was up to the wealthy to finance the festivals, games, and dramas held in honour of the gods. There was a main group of priests that were responsible for the spiritual well being of the city or town and the fathers were responsible for bringing up their household. Though it may seem that there were rules and regulations, the people had a great deal of autonomy or choice over what they believed and what they did.


The most widespread act of worship in Greece was sacrifice. There were many different forms of sacrifice. There was grain sacrificing, blood sacrificing, either with animals or humans. The Greeks acknowledged open-air sacrifices of burnt offerings as those to the gods of Olympus. Olympian sacrifices were categorized as therapeia, or the Ð''service' due to the Olympians. Sacrifices served many functions: before important events, after a child was born and to introduce a young boy to manhood just to name a few. Most of the time the sacrifice was that of animals. The usual practice was to offer to the god the blood, bones and the skin and those who worshipped kept the rest.

Alters were not placed inside the temple but usually outside or in a corridor. Votive gifts were bought by worshippers to the temple. They were offered to gods for crimes involving blood-guilt and disobeying religious customs.

The Olympian Gods and Goddesses

The Greeks believed in families of Gods. The gods and goddesses married, had children, loved fought and had adventures. The only difference between humans and gods was that gods could not die. As mentioned earlier the Greeks had 12 main gods that they worshipped. There was Zeus, the King of the gods and ruler of Mount Olympus and god of the sky and thunder. His wife was Hera although there are many accounts stating his many affairs with women. He was known by the Romans as Jupiter and the Etruscans as Tinia. Zeus is mentioned in many of Greek stories and gave birth to many heroes portrayed in these stories.

Posioden the god of the sea, horses and earthquakes was second in charge along with his brother Hades. He is usually depicted with a trident in his hand which caused earthquakes or could cause rivers to flow forth if he struck his trident on a rock. Hades as mentioned earlier was second in charge, he is also the god of the dead and is in charge of the underworld. He was known to the Romans as Pluto. "The deceased entered the underworld by crossing the river Acheron, also called the Styx, ferried across by Charon, who charged an obolus, a small coin for passage, placed under the tongue of the deceased by pious relatives. Paupers and the friendless gathered forever on the near shore. The far side of the river was guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog defeated by Heracles. Beyond Cerberus, the shades of the departed entered the land of the dead to be judged. "

Hera is the wife and sister of Zeus. She is the goddess of marriage, married women and the home. Her Roman name was Juno. Hera was also jealous of her husband's advances on other women. Apollo was the god of light and sun. He was also the god of medicine and plague and could bring death to anyone he wished. He was the son of Zeus and Leto and is often depicted s having a bow and a lire. Apollo represents harmony, order and reason

Athena is the goddess of wisdom, weaving, crafts and war. She wears a goatskin breastplate called Aegis, which was given to her by her father Zeus and is accompanied by Nike goddess of victory. She is often depicted as having a helmet and shied bearing Gorgon Medusa's head. She appears in Greek mythology as the helper of many heroes including Heracles, Jason and Odysseus. Unlike many of the other goddesses she never had a lover and was thus known as Athena Parthenos ("Athena the virgin"). As she is the protector of the cities she is also known as Athena Polias ("Athena of the city"). She was known to the Romans as Minerva.

Ares was the god of furious warfare and was the son of Zeus and Hera. He was always mistrusted, especially by his parents. Ares was not a very good warrior and when confronted by his half sister Athena, he was defeted. Another one of the twelve main gods was Hephaistos. He is the god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals and metallurgy, and fire. He was disliked by both his mother



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