Greek Culture & Religion: Overview & Influences on Art

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  • 0:00 Greek Civilization
  • 0:24 Uniqueness of Greek…
  • 2:16 Culture and Religion…
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

In this lesson we will see the characteristics that differentiate Greek culture from others of its time. In addition, we will see how these characteristics, as well as religion, influenced Greek art.

Greek Civilization

Greece is a nation composed of a peninsula and a large number of islands located in the Mediterranean. The Ancient Greeks were in contact with other peoples and other cultures, such as the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Persians and, later, the Romans. Logically, they share with them some characteristics, but let's see what was unique to the Greeks.

Uniqueness of Greek Civilization

Most of the peoples of antiquity were organized in kingdoms or in great empires. However, the Greeks developed an original political structure: the polis, or city-state. Each polis was independent of the others, although they shared the language, the religion, and the culture. This organization in smaller units allowed the Greeks to develop democracy and promote the importance of the individual.

In other contemporary civilizations, the social group was more important than the individual, but for the Greeks, individuality was very important. This is seen in their art, which represents human figures with characteristic features; in their religion, where the gods have human virtues and defects; and, above all, in their philosophy and politics, where the individual is central.

The fundamental characteristic of Greek religion, which differentiates it from other religions of the time, is its humanism. The Greek gods are anthropomorphic, meaning they have very human characteristics, with vices and virtues typical of men. The Greek religion, polytheistic and full of myths that explain creation, nature, life, and death, strongly influenced the daily life of the Greeks and all their artistic manifestations.

The Greeks had unique death rituals. After death, bodies were buried or burned. In the first case, the grave was marked; in the second, the ashes were guarded in decorated ceramic containers. In some cases, the entire skeleton was preserved in the pottery. From the fifth century B.C. onward, Greeks had the custom of placing a coin in the dead person's mouth so that he could pay Charon. According to Greek mythology, Charon was the boatman who carried the souls to Hades, the kingdom of the dead. Perhaps the most characteristic feature of Greek culture is that funeral rituals did not end with the burial. After burial or incineration, sports games or shows were held in honor of the dead.

Culture and Religion Influence Art

These uniquely Greek religious and cultural characteristics influence diverse artistic manifestations in a number of ways.

Pottery achieved great perfection in Greek civilization. The most common ceramic objects were containers intended to contain oil, wine, olives, and spices. In the early times, the decoration of these objects was very simple, composed of geometric motifs. However, in the golden age of Greek civilization, pottery vessels were decorated with scenes depicting myths.

The Amphora of Eleusis, from the seventh century B.C.E., was decorated with scenes depicting the Odyssey. Also, a child skeleton was laid to rest inside. One commonly produced type of Greek pottery was the kylix. These are wine vessels decorated with festive scenes of drinking and dancing. Another keystone piece is the Francois Vase, a large vessel with curved handles, likely used to serve wine. This vase is decorated with a total of 270 human and animal figures, including paintings depicting myths, such as the funeral games of Patroklos, the Caledonian boar hunt, and Theseus and the Minotaur.

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