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Greek Religion Essay, Research Paper

7-9-99

Ancient Greek religion

In its simplest form Greek religion means the worship of the Mount Olympian deities (gods or goddess?) whose king Zeus resided among the peaks of Mount Olympus. Each deity had several different attributes. Thus Apollo was the god of light and music; Athena was the goddess of wisdom and war, and also patroness of Athens. The reality of Greek religion was, however, more complicated, since many other deities also existed, many of whom became identified with the Olympians. Greek religion for people of long ago was the worship of a god or gods. Religion in itself played a very important role in the lives of Greek people and had many different styles in which the worshipers could practice.

This was made possible by what is known as syncretism, which in it?s simplest definition means: a combination of different forms of belief or practice, or the ?fusion of cults? (Westerdale 14). The Greeks had no word for religion nor any vocational priesthood. Nevertheless Greek religion was pervasive, playing a part in almost every activity of, polis or city – state.

A principle form of Greek worship was sacrifice. This form of religious worship much of the time consisted of some gifts, often ?the haunch of a selected animal, was offered to the gods at the alter, which was placed outside the temple? (Moncrieff 83). The purpose of sacrifice was to ask the deity to grant some favor or, more often, because Greek gods were naturally jealous and angry, to help refrain them from doing harm to people. Sacrifice would work only if the ritual was performed with rigorous precision. This ?involved careful choice of an animal and of the method of sacrifice as well as the use of all the cult names of the gods? (84). In addition, sacrifice was an important preliminary right at the major oracles-the sacred places where a god would respond to questions asked by the worshipers.

Another aspect of the Greek religion was festivals, to allow celebration and show respect for the deities. The ceremonial aspects of Greek religion was no where more apparent than in the festivals, and the Greek year was full of them. The most important were the 4-Ppan-Hellenie (national) festivals, which attracted large numbers from a wide area. In Athens, festivals were unique in their lavishness. No fewer than ?120 days of the year were devoted to festivals?, and through these, and also through many ?fine temples built on the prominent ridge of the Aeropolis (high part of the city), the state and the gods became indissolubly united? (86).

There was also a more secretive side to religion- Private religion, which showed itself in ?mystery cults that required special initiation ceremonies? (Sewell 63). One was at Eleusis near Athens, in which Demeter, the earth mother , and other almighty beings were worshipped. The nature of the Eleusinian mysteries is unclear, but a central thread seems to be the story of the abduction of Demeter?s daughter, Persephone, by Hades, the god of the underworld. She remained with Hades for four months, spending the rest of the year with Demeter, and ?her return to the upperworld symbolizes the return of spring, as the joyful Demeter gives life to the plants the Debotees of the mysteries had insurance of a satisfying after-life? (59), significant because for most Greeks there was little prospect of this. Author Helen Sewell Wrote that, ?once souls were ferried across the river Styx, they would enter the twilight of a shadowy underworld, ruled by Hades? (60). Another mystery cult was that of Dionysus, the wine god. This cult offered to the female participants a release from tension, and they would be uplifted by the ?ecstatic moods?. It was even said that in their frenzy they tore living animals to pieces.

The darker side of Greek religion is reflected in beliefs in witchcraft and curses. Many cursed tablets, known as katadesmoi, have been discovered, each bearing a name and the hope that some disaster might befall the named person. There was also a belief in ghosts. Unburied souls were said to wander the earth in a kind of limbo, and according to Plato, ?people who were rich on earth might not die properly because of their attachment to their riches? (Moncrieff 88).

In this day and age one may find it a somewhat strange phenomenon to even comprehend the lengths that the ancient Greeks would go in the name of faith. Religion and the worshipping of gods was important to the Greeks of the ancient times because it was their belief that this practice would enrich their lives and help them in the after life following death. Although no evidence was ever found to support these beliefs, Religion at that time could be chalked up as a type of tool having been used in a sense as a guide for all to live and prosper. One can definitely appreciate the dedication and devotion that went into ancient Greek religion so it can be said that no matter where or how religion is practiced it is the opiate of people.

Moncrieff, Hope. Myths and Legends of Ancient

Greece. New York: Gramercy Books, 1996.

Sewell, Helen. A Book of Myths. New York: The

Macmillan Company, 1967.

Westerdale, John. World Religions. New York: D.K.

publishing company, 1998.


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