Paganism; Past & Present
Ancient Greek Religion
Greek religion was a predominant form of early Paganism and as a result their religion reflected many central ideas and concepts of earlier forms of Paganism, such as Druidism, both ancient and Modern and Witchcraft and Wicca. It was polytheistic, consisting of the worship of many Gods. The Greeks believed that the Gods would offer protection and guide their city-states. This belief was identical to other earlier forms of Paganism.
Divinities were the most important element of Greek religion and much emphasis was placed on pleasing the Gods in order to live a life free of oppression and hardship. Like all Pagans, the Greeks believed that they had to worship and please the Gods in order to have good fortune. The Greeks participated in a number of rituals, rites, ceremonies and sacrifices in order to impress and placate the Gods. Temples, shrines and statues were erected as a designated place to offer sacrifices to the Gods.
Religion was a very important aspect of Greek society and culture, with the sacrifices and regular worships of Gods surving to unify the people in a common goal to please the Gods. The Greeks also placed an immense faith in the idea that an afterlife awaited them after their death. They firmly believed that this life was not the only reality in which the soul lives, but after this lifetime, a whole new and different one awaited them.
The origins of Greek history has been lost in pre-history, the only knowledge that has remained is that the Greeks assimilated cults of pre-Greek inhabitants of the Peninsula. An example of this can be seen when the Greeks encountered the Flourishing society of the Minoan civilization whose central divinities influenced characteristics of later Greek Goddesses.
Greek religion was ritual based, practicing a flexible set of beliefs. It was unlike many modern religions, because it made no claims of universality, they did not proselytize, they did not participate in regular clergies, no hierarchical system, no sacred texts or moral code that is backed by religious beliefs. Scholars of the Renaissance believed that Greek religion simply consisted of an abundant treasury of legendary tales told by Greek authors. However Greek religion was not simply legendary tales and fictitious myths, it was a complex organization with each city-state containing its own divinities, which acted to cement the body of citizens into a true community. The Divine played an integral part in Greek religion and their society. The Divine entered all parts of Greek society, domestic affairs, civic organization, gender, agriculture and war. This belief is also reflected in many other earlier forms of Paganism. The Greeks attempted to please the Gods, fearing that they could upset them with insolence and impiety. The Greeks placed great importance on Twelve Pantheon Gods. They also worshipped other deities such as oracles, lesser divinities, demi Gods and Heroes.
The Greeks worshipped many Gods, creating a polytheistic society. The Gods were admired and feared, being distinguished from man by their immortality. The Greeks believed that the Gods controlled natural and social forces and resided on Mount Olympus. The Greeks were an earth based culture as were most early forms of Paganism, holding a high respect for nature and the earth. To reflect this love of nature, the Greeks placed different Gods in charge of different aspects of life.
They had Gods of the countryside; Nymphs, the Goat- God Pan, Naead ( dwelling in springs), dryads (dwelling in trees), Nereids ( dwelling in the sea) and Satyrs, showing their respect for nature. The twelve main Gods were: Hades; God of the underworld, Aphrodite; Goddess of love, Apollo; God of light, purity, guidance, healing and music, Zeus; King of Gods, thunder, lightning, gold and kings, Athere; Goddess of Athens, war, handicrafts and wisdom, Demeter; Goddess of harvest, Hera, Hermes, Hestia, Hephaistos, Poseidon, Artemis and Ares.
Although these twelve Gods were the most important, facets of their personalities were altered by sporadically adding new Gods. The Greeks believed that the Gods were pre-eminently social beings, upholding an organized universe. The Gods were often depicted as humans as the Romans and other early forms of Paganism did. The Gods also occasionally assumed animal guise. Another interesting factor was that each God assumed and represented a different aspect and function of Greek life. Sometimes Gods can be worshipped under different names, for example Zeus can be worshipped under the name Omrios. The Greeks used the Gods to explain the occurrence of things, which they could not understand through lack of scientific proof. For example they thought that the Gods controlled the rising and setting of the sun and created great myths about such events.
Although the Greeks heavily depended on their Gods to uphold their society, it is evident that they relied on other deities as well. This can be seen through the Greeks faith in a deity, which they called an Oracle. An oracles primary function was to offer guidance and advice. In archaic times, the Greeks sought out the Oracles advice in relation to religious and political aspects of life. They were also used as a mean to seek out the will of the Gods. Sanctuaries were dedicated to the Oracles to indicate their importance. Shrines were also erected for the Oracles and became places of international prestige. Oracles controlled many human decisions about health, sickness, peace, war, colonization, migration, crime and punishment.
In order to show their appreciation to the Gods and Oracles, the Greeks would perform a series of rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices and offerings as other forms of Paganism did. Sacrifices of animals; sheep, cows, goats, pigs and bulls were made, as well as the occasional human sacrifice as a present to the Gods. Chosen animals for sacrifice formed a procession, they were crowned, adorned, purified with water and sprinkled with barley. Many temples and shrines were also erected as a mark of respect and for a place to offer their sacrifices. It is obvious that the Greeks placed a lot of pride in their temples and shrines, for extensive time was taken to re-build, preserve and beautify them. Further evidence of the Greeks desire to please the Gods can be seen through their offerings. The Greeks offered such things as stone freezes, "gold vessels, wheat, wine and honey, milk, water and firstfruits." Prayers and hymns accompanied sacrifices and sometimes performances and other ritual acts followed such as dances or early forms of drama.
The function of these sacrifices aside from pleasing the Gods was to unite the people in a common and regular pattern and to intergrade them into the city. It is clear that many similarities can be drawn between other forms of Paganism and Greek religion, through their similar worshiping techniques, their desire to please the Gods and their polytheistic nature.
The after life was also very important to the Greeks, as they believed that their souls were carried on to another dimension and lived on after death. This ideology about death was a direct contrast to other forms of Paganism. Other Pagan religions believed that there was no Heaven or Hell, rather they believed in re-incarnation. They believed that the soul was passed on to another body at the time of death. This is one of the only aspects that distinguishes Greek religion from other forms of Paganism.
The Greeks held a strong belief that your body needed to be buried with the goods and wealth that you had accumulated in this lifetime in order to carry them through into the next life. Gravesites recovered have shown that people have been buried with food, cloths and jeweled ornaments. Kings were buried with bronze weapons, chariots and their horses. In some cases the wives and slaves were killed and buried beside the dead so that the person could take their family with them into the next lifetime. Their bodies are well preserved and embalmed so that they are not ruined for the next life.
It is obvious that the Greeks shared many common aspects with other forms of Paganism. Both held the Gods in high esteem, and attempted to placate them with rites, worships and sacrifices. Another common theme was the fact that both Greek religion and other forms of Paganism were earth based cultures, placing a high respect upon nature. Another link between Greek religion and other forms of Paganism can be seen by their polytheistic nature. The worship of many Gods is linked throughout all of the Pagan religions; Wicca, Druidism, Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism. The only contrast between Greek religion and other forms of Paganism can be seen through their differing beliefs about the after-life. Whilst most Pagan religions hold the belief that their spirit was passed on from one body to the other, Greek religion centered on the belief that the soul moved onto another life, such as Heaven or Hell.