Understanding Greek Religion
In order to understand Greek religion, it is necessary for us to make a leap of the imagination.
One of the barriers to us being able to understand Greek religion is the enormous influence which the monotheistic religions have had in formulating our thought.
For example, almost everyone in the modern world would agree with the statement “God is good”.
This kind of thinking is actually a product of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world-view. In our society, it is all-pervasive.
An Ancient Greek would not have agreed with this sort of statement.
It is true that in some of the dialogues of Plato, we do find ideas similar to it, but we must remember that Plato did most of his writing only in the fourth century BC, that is, long after the ‘golden’ age of Classical Athens. In any case, Plato’s views were not representative of those of the ordinary Athenian in the agora.
To the Ancient Greek, the gods were not necessarily either good or bad. They just existed, and behaved in a manner not entirely different from the way in which human beings did.
At one level, this kind of thinking was not entirely illogical. For example, one of the dilemmas of monotheistic theology is the question of evil. That is, if God is good, then why does he allow so much evil in the world.
This question would simply not have occured to the average Ancient Greek.
Another way in which Greek religion differed from our modern idea of ‘religion’ is that it had no definite set of central ideas. The Greeks had no sacred scriptures that can be compared to the Bible of the Quran. Most Greeks knew the poems of Homer, but these were widely regarded as having only been written by a mortal man and not regarded with the same kind of awe with which Christians regard the Bible, or Muslims do the Quran. The Homeric epics were never read out to the faithful in temples by priests. Nor were they ever used as the basis for religious disputes about the nature of the gods. This also meant that there could never be any ‘heretics’ in the Ancient Greek world.
Each individual city-state had its own set off rites and rituals, but no-one could accuse anyone else of not doing things the “right” way. For example, even after Socrates had been condemned to death in Athens for not having honoured the gods, his friends were still able to offer to help him escape to Thessaly where it was quite clear that he would have been able to carry on with a relatively normal life. This would have been unthinkable in, say, Medieval Christian Europe for someone who had been found guilty of witchcraft!!
In fact, in Ancient Greece, the very concept of ‘witchcraft’ as we know it today did not really exist. Anyone who claimed to have supernatural powers would probably have been considered to be a person that was somehow favoured by the gods!!
Traditional Greek religion consisted of the worship of the main Olympian deities.
It was a polytheistic religion (i.e. it had many gods, as opposed to monotheistic religions like Judaism or Islam which stress the worship of a single all-powerful God). It would therefore have been more like Hinduism or the Japanese Shinto religion.
Zeus was the king of the gods (and also the most powerful of them) in Greek religion. He was the son of an earlier king of the gods called Saturn whom he had overthrown and deposed.
It is interesting to note that although Zeus was the most powerful, it was not he who had created the universe. In this way, he was very different from the idea of God the Father that comes to us from Christianity.
Zeus was also not very moral in his behaviour. He was always having affairs with mortal women, and thereby begetting a whole lot of mortal offspring.
Zeus shared dominion over the entire universe with his brothers Poseidon and Hades.
Poseidon was the god of the sea. He is most well-known today for his role in the Odyssey. In ancient times, however, his worship was quite popular.
Hades was the god of the underworld. Modern representations of Hades often depict him as being evil (as for example in the popular Disney movie “Hercules”). This is highly misleading. The Ancient Greeks did not view Hades as being similar to our modern idea of the devil.
There were many other important deities in Greek religion.
Hera was the wife of Zeus and therefore also queen of the gods.
Athena was the patron goddess of the city of Athens. She was also regarded as the goddess of wisdom. She was supposed to have sprung fully clothed and fully armed directly from the head of Zeus, without any need for a female parent.
Hermes was the messenger of the gods. He was also the god of trade and enterprise, and sometimes regarded as the god of thieves.
Aphrodite is perhaps the most well-known of the ancient Greek deities. She was the goddess of love and beauty.
Ares was the god of war.
Apollo was one of the most popular deities. Also known as Phoebus, he was sometimes associated with the sun.
Dionysus, who was later associated with Greek Drama, was the god of wine and ecstasy.
Herodotus has preserved a tradition that all the names of the Greek gods came originally from Egypt. He equates Zeus with the Egyptian Amun, and Dionysus with Osiris.
It must be stressed that Herodotus is not entirely reliable, and he may just have been recording a tradition that was incorrect in the first place.
Most modern scholars have tried to emphasise the parallels between Greek and other Indo-European mythologies. Zeus, for example, is equated with the Vedic Indra, since they both use the thunderbolt as their weapon.
Oracles and Soothsayers
One aspect of Ancient Greek religion that most modern students find difficult to understand is the enormous emphasis placed on oracles.
In our society, we generally associate ‘oracles’ with fortune-tellers and newspaper horoscopes. Again, this is probably due to the influence of Judeo-Christian thought. (In the Bible, for example, there is a warning against the practice of consulting soothsayers)
The Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, placed a great deal of emphasis on predictions and oracles.
No Greek army was considered to be complete without its soothsayer (known in Greek as a ‘mantis’).
The predictions of the ‘mantis’ were taken into consideration even in the heat of battle.
At the battle of Plataea, for example, the Spartan army patiently endured a withering stream of missiles being hurled at it by the Persians until the correct rituals had been completed by its accompanying ‘mantis’.
The most famous of the oracles was the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi.
Delphi was a holy city in Central Greece. At the temple of Apollo in Delphi, there was a priestess known as the Pythia, who would go into a trance and make predictions about the future.
Although the predictions of these oracles were taken very seriously, it was generally accepted that these predictions were never made in straightforward terms.
For example, the Lydian king Croesus was said to have sent to the oracle at Delphi, asking if it would be advisable for him to go to war against the Persians.
In reply, the oracle gave him the prediction that if he crossed the river Halys, he would destroy a powerful kingdom. Croesus took this to mean that he would destroy the Persians and therefore went ahead with his invasion.
However, he himself was defeated by the Persians, and it was only then that he realised that the powerful kingdom referred to in the prediction was his own.
The story may or may not be true, but it beautifully illustrates the point that the sayings of these oracles were always oblique and had to be interpreted correctly.
The sophists were a group of wandering teachers who travelled all over the Greek world, attracting groups of students in each city that they visited.
At the beginning of the Classical Period, there was no real formal education of any sort in the Greek cities. Teaching was fairly limited in its range.
There were three kinds of teachers that one could go to at that time.
The ‘paidotribes’ were teachers who taught boys how to excel in the usual physical sports. The ‘kitharistes’ were music teachers who taught them how to play the lyre and to sing. The ‘grammatistes’ were teachers who taught them how to read and to write.
This left a big gap in the education of young men. The sophists were essentially a group of people who tried to fill this gap.
The sophists were essentially involved in teaching many different subjects.
The most important subject taught by the sophists (at least from the point of view of Athens) was the art of rhetoric.
This was primarily the art of persuasive speaking. To us it may seem rather silly to have to formally teach such a skill. But we must keep in mind that we are discussing a society that existed more than two thousand years ago. Many things that we take for granted in our society would have been considered novel in such a world.
Persuasive speaking was especially important in a democracy like Athens, in which success in political life was not primarily dependent on military ability but on the ability to get the ‘Ekklesia’ to support you in important political decisions.
The most famous Sophist that we know of is a man called Protagoras.
Although Protagoras himself wrote many works, with the exception of a few fragments, none of them have come down to us.
The only record we have of him is from the writings of Plato, who was highly critical of the sophists in general.
Although many people today think of Socrates as the Father of Greek Philosophy, this idea is totally wrong.
Greek Philosophy actually began years before Socrates was born. The first Greek ‘philosophers’ all came from Ionia, which refers to that part of the Greek world that lies to the east of the Aegean Sea.
Socrates himself was an Athenian citizen.
Unlike the sophists, like Protagoras, Socrates himself never wrote a word. His activity mainly consisted of having ‘conversations’ with other people, in which he questioned them about all the basic principles that they held.
This habit of his made him highly unpopular, especially as he also seems to have had the rather irritating habit of trying to prove to the person with whom he was having a conversation that all his life (and it was invariably a man that he was talking to!), he had lived according to principles that were demonstrably false, and sometimes even ridiculous.
It is hardly surprising, then, that after many years of this, the Athenians finally got tired of Socrates and decided to put him to death.
Socrates’ trial and execution were subsequently written up by two of his followers, Plato and Xenophon, who turned Socrates into something of a hero. So powerful has the legend of Socrates become that even today, people write long academic essays and books about him.
Whether or not the reality was quite as impressive as the legend is debatable. In his own lifetime, Socrates seems to have been something of a laughing stock. The comic playwright Aristophanes wrote a play called the ‘Clouds’, in which Socrates is portrayed as something of a mad professor.
It is possible that Socrates had become so unpopular that the Athenians just got together and decided to put an end to his nonsense.