Ancient Greeks believed in a series of myths, which explained nature, set the moral code for the Greek people, and some were just entertaining stories. These myths turned the Greek world from a world of fear into a world of wondrous beauty. Many of these gods and goddesses were associated with a particular task or activity (Buxton). The Greek people believed that the gods were incorporated into every aspect of their lives. The Ancient Greeks, being a polytheistic culture, created many extravagant myths regarding 12 gods and goddesses that they believed to rule all aspects of their lives.
These myths were an early science. They were the result of the Greeks trying to explain the world around them. The Greek people created their gods in their own image, naturally making heaven an enjoyable and familiar place (Hamilton). In Greek mythology the Gods did not create the universe, but instead, the universe created the gods. The mythology of the people of Greece begins with Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is in these epic poems that Homer tells the stories of the many gods and hero’s of Greece. We now know who and what the Greek gods were, but how are they relevant to the Greek Religion?
It is important to know that the Greeks did not have a word for religion. Also they did not have any written text or scripture. When we talk about Greek religion we mean their ritual behaviors and their beliefs in sacred items, beings, and places (Cline). We also must remember that Greek mythology is not the same as Greek religion, though they are closely intertwined. The only requirement of the Greeks for their religion was to believe in the gods and perform sacrifices to them. These sacred acts, sacrifice and festivals, were the root of the Greek religion (Buxton).
This seems to be a rather relaxing way to carry on in life, but not so. The Greeks attributed anything good happening to the gods being happy with them, also when something bad happened, for example, an earthquake, famine, or the loss of a battle, it was attributed to the gods being displeased with the Greeks (“Ancient Greece”). The Ancient Greeks were an extremely religious people, who spent their lives trying to please the gods through their sacrifice, festivals, and unwavering belief in them. Sacrifice was one of the most important ways to please the gods; they were
thought to be gifts to the gods. The people of Greece would give a sacrifice not only of animals, but also bloodless sacrifices, such as food, grasses, grains, and incense (Christman). Each city had a temple erected to their patron god. In Athens they had built the Acropolis, with its main temple being the Parthenon, which was dedicated to Athena (which whom Athens was named after). Athena was Zeus’s daughter, and it is said in the myths that she was born from his head. Athena is known as the Goddess of war and the defender of the towns. She is usually shown in art dressed in full armor.
Also associated with her is Nike the symbol of victory (Hamilton). These temples were not for worship, but they were believed to house the gods for which the temple was built. The only people who were allowed inside were the priests and priestesses, and that was only to keep it clean and take care of the god’s statue (“Ancient Greece”). The focus of the temple was no only the god or goddess but the sacrificial alter. Each temple had an alter outside for the worshipers to place their offerings. The sacrifices the Greeks made to their gods were their way of ensuring that they would be allowed to lead a normal happy life.
The Greeks also took part in religious festivals and for further reassurance of their pleasing the gods went to oracles. We know that the Greek people participated in many religious festivals, but the details of these festivals are unknown. The main festival that the Greeks partook in was the Olympic games, in honor of Zeus. Zeus was the most powerful of all the gods, his power alone was greater than all of the other gods combined. He was the God of the Sky, bearing his thunderbolt, at which he would throw to earth striking anywhere he wished. His faults, however, entertain the idea that he is a man.
Zeus is portrayed as falling in love with many women and trying to hide his infidelity from his wife Hera (Hamilton). The Olympic game festival occurred every fourth summer. Throughout Greece a truce was proclaimed so that all Greek citizens could come and participate (“Greek Religion”). The exception to this was women, they not only could not participate, but they could not even watch (Buxton). The Olympic games were held at the Stadium of Olympia, and the main event was the pentathlon, where the participants competed in five different events. This arena was also the very first monument of Greek Classical art (Kleiner).
Another part of the Greek religion was the oracles. The most famous oracle was the Oracle of Delphi. The oracles were believed to be the messengers of the gods. But not any normal person could understand their messages, only the priests and priestesses could. The Greeks believed that the gods spoke in riddles, because the gods were more complex than the humans, and so the could not reply as the humans did (“Ancient Greece”). The festivals and the oracles were an important part of the Greek life. The Greek gods even found a place in the everyday life of a Greek citizen.
Hestia, Zeus’s sister. She plays no part in the myths but was very important to the Greeks. She was the Goddess of the Hearth. Every home in Greece had a hearth dedicated to her where the fire was not allowed out go out, along with each city (Hunt). When a new town was founded the people would light a torch from the mother town and carry its fire to the hearth in the new town. Sound familiar; this is the proposed beginning of the Olympic torch. Also, when a child was born the family had to walk the newborn baby around the hearth before it was to be accepted into the family (Hamilton).
Also, according to Hunt, boys were trained to have healthy strong bodies, not only to fight in the armies, but to be strong competitors in the Olympic games. Boys and girls were taught from very early ages about the gods and goddesses. They were taught how to respect and please them in their daily lives (“The Ancient Greeks”). Also most Greeks made some sort of sacrifice to the gods daily. This was to try and keep the gods happy and bring good fortune to themselves. There were many different ways that the people of Greece tried to keep the thought of their gods present in their daily lives.
Religion impinged on the warfare of the city-states in a number of ways. The commanders frequently saw themselves as walking in the footsteps of their gods and heroic predecessors (Buxton). No where in the Greek city-states did they go into battle without first sacrificing. To do this was unthinkable. The soldiers of Greece usually sacrificed to either Ares or Athena. Ares was the God of War, but isn’t mentioned much in the myths. He has no distinctive attributes and is difficult to identify in art. Hamilton says this is probably because the Greeks thought of him as “hateful”.
Again, Athena is known as the Goddess of war and the defender of the towns. But then on the opposite end was the honoring of Aphrodite, who was the Goddess of Love and Beauty, but also revered for pleasure and procreation. Women of the towns and city-states would honor and sacrifice to Aphrodite, to ensure the safe delivery of a baby, or to be pleasing to their future husbands (Atsma). I Greece all marriages were arranged to keep or raise a family’s social status, so many brides did not ever meet their husbands-to-be until the wedding day. Whatever men or women did in their daily activities was relevant to the influence of the gods.
The Greek mythology played an important role in the every day lives of the Greek people, and even more important one in the development of their religion. Greek mythology was a way for the people of Greece to explain the “why’s” and “how’s” of their world. Their religion and their mythology were very closely intertwined. This was shown through their various ways of honoring their gods through festivals, sacrifice, and using the oracles. Also through the passing of the beliefs from one generation to the next. The importance of the gods was shown in their magnificent temples also.
These Myths for the Greeks changed their world from the unknown to kind and beautiful. Works Cited “Ancient Greece. ” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2008. Sept. 14, 2008. . Atsma, Aaron J. “Theoi Greek Mythology: Exploring Mythology in Classical Literature and Art. ” The Theoi Project. 2008. Sept. 14, 2008. . Buxton, Richard. Ancient Greece. Ed. Paul Cartledge. United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Christman, Zachary and Alfred Hanssen. “Greek Religion: Religion and Death. ” 2002. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Sept. 14, 2008.
. Cline, Austin. “Ancient Greek Mythology, Religion, Art” Sept. 14, 2008. . “Greek Religion. ” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Sept. 21, 2008. . Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York. Back Bay Books, 1942. Hunt, Dr. Patricia. “Roles of Men, Women, and Children. ” Richmond University. Sept. 16, 2008. . Kleiner, Fred and Christian Mamiya. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 12th ed. volume 1. California. Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2005. “The Ancient Greeks. ” 2002. Sept. 16, 2008. . Wilkinson, Philip. Dictionary of Mythology. New York. DK Publishing, 1998.