Greek Religion vs. Modern Religion
It is difficult to make generalizations about Greek religion. Like so much of Greek culture, Greek religion was a decentralized affair. Unlike monotheistic religions, Greek religion was not unified by a single god or holy text or bible. Though several Greek cults and priesthoods produced holy texts, in a polytheistic culture, it would be inaccurate to assume that the beliefs of one group held true for all of Greece.
The closest things the Greeks had to a Bible were the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet the Greeks did not enshrine these epics and other Homeric myths as divine revelation. Instead, they looked to these tales for inspiration as they created myths and rituals suited to the specific needs of their communities. These myths and rituals, when taken as a whole, paint a varied picture of Greek religion.
Some facets of Greek religion seem strange as when the boys of Sparta were brutally beaten with flails during a rite of passage in which they tried to steal honey cakes from the shrine of Artemis. Other facets seem quite familiar. The Eleusinian notion of the afterlife as a place of peace and happiness sounds a lot the Christian notion of heaven. Still other facets seem familiar, yet are quite different. The Athenian boule, what we would call a congress, was considered a religious institution as much as a political one.
Foundations of Greek Religion
Greek religion is marked by gods, heroes and men
Yet despite these differences, Greek religion was unified by a cast of characters - gods, heroes and men. All Greeks agree on the general outlines and stories of these characters, but the specific details vary from city to city and Greek to Greek. These divergences in details seem to serve two main purposes.
The first is to lay claim to a god or hero. For example, at least six islands claimed to be the birth place of Zeus and had their own unique myths and festivals to commemorate their special relationship to the god.
Another reason Greek religion might diverge would be to explain or legitimize customs. For example, the Athenians claimed to have received their custom of trial by jury from the Goddess Athena, who held the trial of the mythical hero Orestes in Athens, ending the cycle of vengeance and bloodshed which had destroyed the Mycenaean royal family. The Athenians believed this story. The Spartans, who had no such trial system, and who held the Athenians in contempt, probably did not.
Yet, beneath these differences, the core of Greek religion remains the same. While Spartans and Athenians might disagree on how Orestes' story ends, they all agree on how it began. While half a dozen islands might claim to be the birthplace of Zeus, they all agree Zeus was nursed on an island.
Our two main sources for this universal Greek mythology are Homer and Hesiod. Aside from the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Greeks attributed several hymns to the various deities to Homer. These hymns provide brief scenes from the lives of the gods, from the birth of Hermes to Aphrodite's stormy love affair with Anchises. Beyond these, there seem to have been other, older myths floating around Greece. Around 800 BCE, the poet Hesiod attempted to wrap all of these myths into a single coherent creation story. The result is Hesiod's 'Theogony'. Between the hymns and epics of Homer and Hesiod's 'Theogony', we can construct a general outline of Greek mythology.
Hesiod's 'Theogony': Creation of Earth
Let us start at the beginning.
The Greek gods are anthropomorphic, meaning that they take on the shapes and characteristics of men. As such, it is not surprising that Hesiod's account of the creation of the gods reads like a family tree with new gods being born just as humans are: from sex.
According to Hesiod, in the beginning there was chaos - a gaping nothingness. From this chaos was born the basic stuff of the universe, among which was sex. Through sex, the rest of the universe was created - the sea, the heavens and the earth. Then mountains and rivers, then hills and streams and so on. This is the first generation of gods - the stuff of the universe.
Thus, the world was created, yet nothing was happening. Ouranos, the heaven, lay upon Gaia, the earth, and would not remove his penis from her. This was a static world. It was as if the stage was set but the action had not yet begun. Pregnant with a dozen children, Gaia groaned in pain. Desperate for relief, Gaia gave her son, Cronos (whose name means time) a sickle. Cronos cut off Ouranos' penis and threw it into the sea. From the foam was born Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Freed from their mother's womb, the Titans burst forth and took dominion of the world. This is the second generation of gods. Like Ouranos and Gaia, The Titans aren't so much gods of things as the things themselves with a name. Where the last generation of gods were physical objects - the earth and the sky - the Titans were forces of motion and change within the natural world.
Cronos earned his name, Time, by getting the universe rolling. Hyperion was the god of light, and fathered Selene (the moon), Helios (the sun) and Eos (the dawn). Memnosune was the goddess of memory and gave birth to the nine muses who inspire poets. Perhaps the most famous of the Titans was Prometheus, literally foresight, who would prove to be a great help to mankind.
Yet, all was not well among the Titans. A prophecy told Cronos that a son of his would one day overthrow him. Cronos responded by eating his children as soon as they were born. His wife, Rhea, understandably distraught at this situation, cried to her mother, Gaia. Gaia and Rhea conspired to hide the infant Zeus from Cronos. When Zeus was born, Rhea fed Cronos a rock wrapped in a blanket and hid the infant Zeus on an island. Apparently, Corons is not that smart.
The Olympians were the third generation of gods and unlike previous gods were anthropomorphic
Once Zeus was fully grown, he attacked and defeated his father. Cronos spat out Zeus' brothers and sisters, and the third generation of gods was born - the Olympians, named after their holy seat on mount Olympus. Unlike the first two generations of gods, the Olympians are completely anthropomorphic. They are the gods of things, not the things themselves. It's the difference between worshipping the ocean and worshiping the master of the ocean.
The Titans objected to the rule of these upstart Olympians and attempted to overthrow them. Yet, they were betrayed by Prometheus, who told Zeus how to defeat his fellow Titans. The Titans were thrown down and chained deep below the netherworld in Tartarus. No longer free to do as it liked, nature had to bow to the will of the all too human Olympians.
After their victory over the Titans, the children of Chronos and Rhea divided the world amongst themselves. The three brothers took the main domains:
- Zeus was named lord of the sky and king of the gods. He was the god of storms, of kings, of laws and of Xenia.
- Poseidon was lord of the sea and because the Greeks thought the earth floated on the sea, also the god of earthquakes. He is also the god of horses, for some reason.
- The third brother, Hades, was given lordship of the underworld. He never really liked his brothers nor they he, and his jealousy of them makes him one of the most cruel and heartless of the gods. No one ever sacrifices to Hades, knowing he cannot be moved. Instead, Greeks concerned with the afterlife prayed to one of Hades' two wives. For good wishes for the afterlife, they sacrificed to Persephone, goddess of spring and lover of life. For evil wishes, Greeks sacrificed to Hekate, a 3-headed goddess of dark magic.
With the three brothers satisfied, their three sisters took lesser domains:
- There was Hera, goddess of wives and families.
- Hestia, goddess of the hearth.
- Demeter, goddess of fertility and the harvest.
Most accounts also list Aphrodite, goddess of love, among the Olympians although she is of an older generation. She is often seen accompanied by her son, Eros (or lust), whom we call cupid today.
The rest of the Olympians were children of Zeus. Zeus married his sister, Hera, who bore him Ares (the god of war) and Hephaistos (god of the forge).
Zeus also slept with Leto, who bore him two children, Apollo and Artemis. The domains of these two gods are slightly harder to pin down. Artemis was goddess of the hunt and of wild places, but also a goddess of virginity and of transitions (childbirth, weddings, rites of passage and the like.) Apollo is even trickier to define. He was god of the lyre, of art, of shepherds, of archery, of medicine and of disease. Apollo's most important role was as a god of prophesy, who delivered cryptic oracles from his shrine at Delphi.
Zeus' other daughter, Athena, was born of less conventional means. Zeus ate the Goddess Mentis (literally, a mind). This gave him a terrible headache. Desperate for relief, he asked Hephaistos to crack his head open with a hammer. From the head of Zeus, sprung Athena. Like her siblings, Athena wears many hats. First and foremost, she is the patron goddess of wisdom. She is also the goddess of crafts, of cities and the goddess of heroes.
Another son of Zeus was Hermes, who delights in mischief. Hermes was the god of trickery, of travelers, of crossroads, of thieves, of athletes and of inventors. Hermes was the messenger of the gods and also played the important role of escorting the souls of the dead from the Earth above to the underworld below.
Zeus' final son, Dionysus, is one of the strangest deities of the Greek pantheon. At his most basic, Dionysus is the god of wine, of the theatre and of dancing. In this sense, Dionysus is the god of having a good time. Yet there is more to Dionysus than just getting wasted and partying. Dionysus is the god of everything animal in man. Compare this to Apollo, who provides a counterpoint by representing everything civilized in man.
Some Greek gods like Dionysus might have resulted from combining elements of foreign gods
Dionysus was probably a borrowed god, taken from the Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks practiced syncretism, combining similar gods into one. When they met a foreign god, they combined him with the closest match in their own pantheon. They also practice syncretism with their own gods, so that Demeter, Rhea and Gaia are often interchangeable in Greek Myth.
Those are the main gods of the Greeks.
Yet, the Greeks did not limit their worship to gods. They also worshipped heroes, who were almost inevitably demigods - the children of a mortal and an immortal. Each Greek hero exemplifies a virtue, which the Greeks called arete. This arete allows them to overcome some trial, or pathos, and prove themselves. Most of these heroes come from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Others have myths all their own.
Noble Theseus volunteered to be a sacrifice to the Minotaur, only to kill the monster and free Athens from oppressive Minoan rule. Clever Perseus slew Medusa by showing her, her own reflection. Talented Orpheus traveled to the underworld to recover his lost love. Beautiful Jason retrieved the Golden Fleece by wooing the sorceress Medea to his cause.
Yet, perhaps the most famous of these heroes is mighty Heracles. His story bears closer inspection. As a demigod, Heracles hopes for immortality. Yet, as an illegitimate child of Zeus, he is hated by Zeus' wife, Hera. Hera makes Heracles go through a series of incredible trials to prove himself worthy to join the company of the gods. After passing through these tests, Heracles is rewarded. Instead of going to the underworld to suffer with everyone else, Heracles gets to go to a nice, wonderful place where his every desire will be met. Thus, historically speaking, Heracles is the first person to go to heaven. It was not until much later that mere mortals, without any divine pedigree, could hope to go anywhere but the bleak underworld.
Mortals and Their Gods
This attitude toward the average man is typical of Greek gods. The gods care about their children and can be incredibly touchy about their particular domains, but for the most part, the Gods couldn't care less about human beings. Compare this to the Christian god, who knows and loves every one of us. To an ancient Greek, the thought of a god taking personal interest in you is more terrifying than comforting. The Greek gods, especially the Olympians, can be very cruel to humans; raping them, killing them and turning them into animals. Dionysus even arranged for a man to be ripped to shreds by his own mother.
This hostile indifference characterizes most of Greek religion. Gods only help their own children out of love. The rest of us must bargain with the gods, offering gifts in exchange for their aid. This can best been seen in the final story of this lecture, that of Prometheus.
Under the rule of Chronos, humanity had enjoyed a golden age. Though they knew nothing of farming, they fed off the earth's bounty, which was freely given - much like in the Garden of Eden. With the rise of the Olympians, life became much harder for mortals. The earth no longer produced fruit without labor. Human beings were about to starve when Prometheus came to their rescue. Prometheus was a friend to mortals, and so he taught them to farm, to store food and all the other crafts of civilization. Men rejoiced in their mastery of the world.
The Olympians saw that man was getting too big for his britches and took fire away. Without fire, man was doomed. So, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it back to man. Enraged, the Olympians thought to wipe out humanity. Prometheus offered them an alternative. 'You let man use fire to cook his food, and man will give you a portion of the food he cooks.' The gods found this acceptable, but Prometheus cared more for men than for the Olympians, so he tricked them. He had the men wrap bones in fat and hide all the meat in the stomach of a bull. When the gods were asked to choose their portion, they choose the large fatty portion, thinking this the better cut and left man the stomach full of meat. Bound by their agreement, the Gods could no longer wipe man off the face of the earth and had to be satisfied with sacrifices of bone and fat.
This made the gods even angrier. To punish man, they created woman (the Greeks had a less than admirable view of women). To punish Prometheus, they bind him to a stone at the edge of the world and set an eagle to tear out his liver every day. Thus Prometheus is the first example of a Christ, a figure who dies for the sins of man. Yet Prometheus is also the first Lucifer. In fact, the name Lucifer means bringer of light. He defies the will of Zeus to give humanity a secret knowledge. For his transgression, he is doomed to eternal punishment.
Greek myth and philosophy played a major role in the formation of Christianity
Greek myth (and later Greek philosophy) would play a huge role in the formation of Christianity as early Christians attempted to appeal to a larger audience and to distinguish their religion from Judaism. Greek religious festivals became holy days, Greek heroes turned into Christian saints and Greek virtues found places of honor alongside their Christian counterparts. Even Christian rituals are distinctly Greek. The Greeks were drinking wine to commemorate Dionysus - the son of a god who died and returned from the grave - long before Jesus was ever born.
Thus, we have seen a rough outline of Greek myth and religion. Greek religion was decentralized and unique to specific locations, yet all based on a common pantheon of anthropomorphic gods. These gods were all too human and could be terribly cruel. The Greeks dealt with their gods by offering them gifts and trying not to do anything that might anger them.