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Greek Religion: Forging an Identity and Reshaping the Ancient World

Religion has always played an important role in human civilization. In its quest to answer life’s most difficult questions, it has both brought people together and torn them apart.

In the case of ancient Greece, religion was one of the few things upon which the Greeks actually agreed. Yes, there were differences in beliefs and practices, and these sometimes led to war. But, in general, common religious beliefs were an important aspect of Greek identity, which was really just beginning to emerge during the Classical Era of Ancient Greece (c. 600-c. 300 BC)

The Gods of Mt. Olympus

The ancient Greeks practiced polytheism, which is a type of religion in which there are many different gods. However, unlike other cultures that existed at the time, such as the Egyptians, most Greeks seemed to worship the same set of gods (in Egypt, which god you worshipped depended heavily on where you lived.)

The Greek gods that everyone seemed to believe in were known as “the Olympians.” They got this name not because they were really athletic but rather because the people believed they lived at the top of Mt. Olympus, the tallest mountain in all of Greece.

In total, there were thirteen major Olympian gods, though many lists only include twelve. These all-important gods were:

Based on this list, it’s easy to see the importance of religion in ancient Greece. According to them, the gods were somehow responsible for pretty much every natural phenomenon as well as human emotion. In this sense, the ancient Greeks used the gods as a way of understanding themselves as well as the world. 

In general, most Greeks recognized these gods, though regional variations might exist. For example, Athena was the primary god in Athens, but Apollo was preferred in Sparta. 

There are also many other Greek gods besides those on this list. Deities would often marry one another and have kids, and these children would also become gods. In total, there are hundreds of Greek gods, but the most significant were those who called Mt. Olympus home.

Main Beliefs in Greek Religion

Much of Greek religion comes from its mythology, aka the stories told about the gods to explain the world. From these stories, we can pick up on a few of the central tenets of Greek religion.

The Gods as Reflections of Humans

One of the most prominent components of ancient Greek religion is that the gods were not too unlike humans. Yes, they had special powers and could easily cause mass destruction if they were mad. But, in general, they were subjected to the same things humans were: fear, greed, insecurity, pain, desire, etc. 

In this sense, the gods were far from being entirely good. Instead, they were meant to be models for humans, showing them how they should act and what can happen to them if they over-indulge their emotions or vices.

In addition, the gods did not have unlimited power. Sure, they could do more than your average human, but they could not overcome “fate,” also known as moirai in ancient Greek. 

They were able to intervene and influence certain events in the human realm, but in the end they were powerless to the will of time and fate, just like humans are. 

The ancient Greeks didn’t try too hard to define moirai, but they understood it as some divine force that had control over both humans and the gods. 

Sometimes, when trying to figure out how the world works, it’s best to just leave things open-ended, otherwise your head will start to hurt too much.

The Creation of the Universe

Central to most religions is a “creation story.” This is an attempt to answer the question: where does life come from? Yet another chance for a headache.

Most ancient religions (as well as modern ones) have some sort of creation story, but the ancient Greeks were somewhat unique in that they did not. There are several different ones that people believed in, but there wasn’t one version upon which everyone agreed. 

The most common story revolves around the god Chaos, who was at first the only divine entity in existence. From Chaos came the first gods, such as Gaia (the Greek version of Mother Earth.) They gave birth to the Titans who in turn gave birth to the Olympians, who most Greeks believed to be the gods influencing their day-to-day lives.

However, many different versions of this story exist, which is to say, the Greek answer to the question, “Where does life come from?” was a resounding “We don’t know!”

Later on, many Greek philosophers would try to answer this question, which was one of the first times in human history people tried to explain creation without just giving all the credit to the gods.

Avoiding “Hubris”

One major belief in ancient Greek religion was that the worst thing you could do was commit “hubris.” Today, this word means arrogance, or an excessive belief in oneself. The word meant something different in ancient times, though it’s easy to see how it morphed into what it is today.

For the Greeks, hubris referred to any act that violated the natural order of things. This could be something violent or even sexual. Or, it could also mean that someone claimed to be better than the gods, which was, of course, impossible. 

Many Greek laws were focused on this concept of hubris, and being accused of it was a major deal. If you were found guilty, you could be executed or banished from your home city.

The Afterlife

Death is kind of a bummer of a subject. But it’s also a fact of life, which is why so many cultures have come up with different stories about what happens after life ends. 

For the Greeks, life did not end when your body died. Instead, your spirit would descend into the underworld. Most of the underworld was known as Hades, for it was ruled by Zeus’ brother, who was also named Hades.

Eventually, different versions of the underworld emerged in Greek religion. First there was Tartarus, which was where “bad” spirits would go, aka the ones who behaved poorly on Earth. The opposite was Elysium, a place full of pleasure and peace.

In early Greek history, all dead souls went to Hades. But over time, Greek religion began to change. People started to believe more in the idea that your actions and choices on Earth mattered in the afterlife. 

Alongside Greek philosophy, mythology preached ethics and virtue, and as these concepts became more important, more and more people started to believe in places such as Tartarus and Elysium.

Religion in Daily Life

Greece was different from other ancient cultures in that it didn’t really have a special priest class. In other civilizations, such as Persia or Egypt, members of the clergy had lots of status and power, but this wasn’t really the case in Greece. 

Part of this was because Greece never unified during the Classical Era. Therefore, the priests in one city would have only been significant in that one city, limiting their influence elsewhere. 

Another reason for this, though, was that religion played an important role in the daily life of Greek citizens. 

Most Greek homes had their own altar, which were considered sacred, and they would give frequent offerings to the gods at these altars. 

It was also common for people to travel to a temple on their own, either to pay respect to a particular god, or to speak to an oracle, a person who claimed to be able to speak to the gods and who could therefore offer information about the future.

Games and Festivals

It was important to pay respect to the gods on a daily basis, but the ancient Greeks also had their fair share of special ceremonies dedicated to the gods. 

The most basic were sacrificial ceremonies in which people would kill an animal for the gods. As far as we know, the Greeks did not perform human sacrifices. 

In addition to these, there were also special festivals thrown for the gods to make sure they were happy. The best known example of this are the Olympic games, which were held every four years in honor of Zeus. 

While no longer held for a god, this festival was the first example of the Olympic games still played today.

These festivals were extremely important to the Greeks. Daily life stopped, and war was forbidden. 

To give an idea as to how significant they were, consider that the Spartans, despite facing annihilation, sent only a small number of troops to fight the Persians at Thermopylae because the battle occurred during their yearly celebration for the god Apollo. 

It seems that not even the threat of complete destruction was enough to get them to disregard the gods.

The Use of Religion to Expand Greek Influence

Almost from the beginning of their history, the Greeks expanded outside of Greece. There were Greek settlements as far west as Sicily and Southern France, and as far east as Turkey and Syria. And through trade and war, the Greeks made contact with many other ancient cultures, such as Egypt and Persia. 

This brought Greek religion to many other parts of the world, where it often fused with local beliefs. One of the best examples of this is Zeus-Ammon, who was a combination of the most significant gods in both Greek and Egyptian religion.

When Alexander the Great went and conquered Egypt, he claimed himself to be the son of Zeus-Ammon, meaning he was not only a god but also the rightful ruler of both Greece and Egypt. 

This strategy seems to have worked, for the Egyptians welcomed Alexander as a liberator and accepted him as their rightful ruler. 

After Alexander’s death, his massive empire, which stretched from Greece to India, was split up into smaller pieces and doled out to some of Alexander’s more powerful generals. 

These rulers often invested heavily in religious buildings that were dedicated to gods that were part Greek, part local as a way of solidifying and justifying their rule. Such a tactic would have never worked if it hadn’t been for the prominence of the Greek gods and Greek religion in areas outside of mainland Greece.

Greek Religion and the Romans

Eventually, all the Greek kingdoms that emerged after Alexander’s empire fell became part of the Roman empire. And to help Rome secure its grip on power, it too used religion. One of the things the Romans did to accomplish this goal was connect a Roman god to a Greek one. 

For example, Zeus became Jupiter, who was the king of the Roman gods, and Ares, the Greek god of war, became Mars. 

By doing this, the Romans were able to bring more and more cultures under their control. But this would never have worked if it hadn’t been for the widespread influence of Greek religion in the ancient world.

In this sense, Greek religion not only had a profound impact on Greece and its people but also on its neighbors. From there, Greek religion has helped define both ancient history as well as that of the entire Western world.

Written by Matthew Jones