Ancient Greek Culture, Religion, and Customs
In ancient times, the Greeks had absolute and undeniable respect for their gods. They demonstrated their admiration by putting in place many rituals and celebrations to reverence the gods that they loved and feared in order to ensure harmony with them. Ancient Greek culture was melded by their religion and the customs performed to appease the Gods. Examples of how religion affected their way of include the way they prayed, the sacrifices they gave to the gods, and the festivals and games they had to honor the Gods.
These aspects of their culture made a significant contribution to their quality of life.
The ancient Greeks practiced a religion that was in effect, a building block to many ensuing pagan religions. This religion revolved around their reverence to the gods, and occasionally their fear of them. Essentially, the Greeks worshiped numerous gods, making their religion polytheistic. They believed that exercising the opportunity to choose between a wide array of gods to worship offered them a great sense of freedom that they treasured.
After all, the Greeks were known for their intellectual distinction of which their means of worship played a huge part. Each city-state, or polis, had an affiliated god who protected and guided its residents. Within a given polis, the belief in common gods unified the people. Ultimately, the Greeks yearned for this unity and order in the universe, which is a characteristic that is not unlike that of people today. It might seem contradictory that they believed in many gods and sought organization at the same time, for larger numbers are inherently unstable. But, to the god-fearing Greeks, each god represented a different part of life that together upheld an organized universe if each of these gods was properly appeased. To satisfy these gods, the Greeks participated in activities such as prayer and sacrifice and erected divine temples and centers for oracles in honor of specific gods. There is evidence of this institutionalization early on in the reign of the Olympian gods, thus forming the Olympian religion.
The Olympian religion lacked the presence of true sentimentality, and the gods were not seen as forgiving or “flawless” as the Christian God is often
portrayed. The Greek gods were portrayed as humans, which meant that they were not perfect. That is, the gods made mistakes, felt pain (e.g. Aphrodite in love with the mortal Adonis), and succumbed to anger and their tempers (e.g. Hera seeking vengeance on Zeus’ mistresses). Moreover, the religion was ritual based and had flexible beliefs that had no regular clergies, no hierarchical system (except with Zeus as king of all gods), and no sacred text or moral code. Many scholars believe that the religion and culture consisted of tales told and survived through oral tradition, which are the myths that we know today.
In the myths that have survived through the ages, the Greeks used the gods as a means to justify anything that they could not understand or scientifically explain. For example, when thunder and lightning fell from the sky accompanied by rain, it was believed that Zeus, the god of the sky, was responsible for it. And, it was potentially a sign that he was irate with the humans for some wrongdoing or inadequate worship. In that respect, the Greeks believed that Zeus and his Olympian gods, also known as the Pantheon, were of the greatest importance. There were constant reminders such as temples and shrines everywhere to represent the unseen, but ever-present powers of the gods. The Olympians were in fact the most powerful gods according to their religion. They overthrew the Titans who overthrew the first generation, and were themselves never overthrown. Nevertheless, the Greeks also worshiped the lesser divinities, oracles, demigods, and heroes as well.
The major form of worship occurred through prayer and sacrifice at temples, at the oracles or in the homes of the Greeks. In that respect, religion was both a public and private function. Most praying occurred in the home with the family, but sacrifices and offerings were done at the temple or oracle of the god they were seeking to please. When prayers were said, an offering, usually of wine, was made. An example of a prayer said to Zeus is: “Lead me, O Zeus, and lead me, Destiny, Whether ordained is by your decree. I’ll follow, doubting not, or if with will Recreant I falter – I shall follow still.” (Hadas, p.203)
During the course of their normal daily routine, the Greeks would also think about the gods as they went on with their business. However, if they had a specific request, the worshiper would take an offering directly to a god’s temple.
The Greeks went to these places of worship to make offerings or present sacrifices to maintain protection from the gods and keep order, or to ask for the will of the gods. According to the Greeks, the gods had total control over natural and social forces, and therefore, they needed to call upon the gods to be bestowed with favorable outcomes. They believed that if they pleased the gods, good fortune would surely ensue, be it in the harvest, politics, or family affairs. After all, the Greeks concluded that the divine played an indispensable role in all areas of life such as society, agriculture, civic duties, domestic issues, gender relations and war.
Each God had their own temple, and within these temples the priests or priestesses made sure that the rules of offering were being observed. They were there to make sure that the temples, which were designed after palaces, were seen as the gods’ second home on Earth. The temples were built with a high regard for nature, as the Greeks’ was an earth-based culture, and never drastically changed the environment in which they were constructed. They were a sign of the Greeks’ pride in their gods and they took a great deal of time to build, re-build, beautify and preserve the temples. The door of the temple generally faced east and the divine image, a large, central statue of the god to whom the temple was dedicated, stood at the west end of the temple. In addition, there were many other smaller statues and idols of the god all around that were previously offered as gifts.
Usually, at the temple entrance stood an altar, which may have been a brick or stone table, a pillar, a heap of stones, a stack of sod cut for the particular occasion, or simply a pile of the remnants of previous sacrifices. It may have been from a few inches to several feet high and it possibly had steps if it was very high. The altar was required to have a place (usually metal) for the sacred fire, and once it had been used, the altar was not to be moved. This is where the worshipers would bring offerings such as wheat, wine, honey, water, first fruits of the harvest, stone statues, or gold vessels. Offerings were presents made to a deity, in order to secure some favor for the future, to avert anger for a past offense, or to express gratitude for a favor received from the deity. As mentioned before, the gods had human qualities, and were easily angered. Plato said “the sole concern of every rite of sacrifice and divination – that is to say, the means of communion between Gods and mortals – is either the preservation or the repair of Love.” (Plato’s Symposium 188b5-c2) A common offering that was given to the god Dionysus would be wine, as he was the god of wine and revelry. Also, it was the custom of women after childbirth to dedicate garments to Artemis, who was the goddess of the moon and the hunt but more importantly, protector of women in childbirth and of children.
As for sacrifice, it was most often an animal such as a sheep, cow, goat, pig or bull, but on occasion, a human being would also be taken to the priest or priestess to be sacrificed. It was especially appropriate to return a token of what the God had given them. In any case, the sacrifice should be perfect and have no blemishes. The sacrifice was a communal event through which the Greeks believed that they were bound together with the gods. Washing and dressing in clean garments was crucial, typically in a white or purple tunic or a white one with purple borders. For this sacrifice, the Greeks had an elaborate ritual. The sacrifice would be taken along in a procession led by a maiden, preferably, or a basket-carrier, with a knife concealed by barley in the basket and a jug of holy water held at the side. The sacrifice was crowned and adorned, then purified by water and sprinkled with barley. It was then placed on the altar or in a marked sacred circle, where the priest or priestess would sacrifice it. Sacrifice was such a meaningful event that oftentimes temples were built solely for the purpose of sacrifice.
The Greeks also went to the oracles because communication through a deity was possible there to seek advice or guidance. At the oracle, a special priest or priestess who could interpret the messages, which were often cryptic, would pass on the message of the god in answer to a question. From time to time, the gods would also communicate their messages to the Greeks by means of signs. In such cases, there were gifted ones who were also blessed with the power to foretell the will of the gods and the future. The most famous of the oracles was Apollo’s temple at Delphi. It was a very influential oracle who made predictions and announcements there. The Priestess of Apollo was named Pythia. After a goat was sacrificed, she would sit and breathe in intoxicating smoke while awaiting divine inspiration. When she entered a trance the priests would interpret the oracles from Pythia and then relay the answers to the seeker. The main Oracle of Zeus was at Dondana where a sacred Oak tree rustled in the wind to pass on the words of Zeus.
Another aspect of life that included reverence to the gods was marriage. A Greek wedding ceremony was not held in a church or temple as weddings are today. Rather, it was performed in a succession of places. The ceremony can be divided into these four parts such as the preparation of the bride; the removal of the bride from the house of her father to that of her husband; the reception at that house; and finally the presents given on the day following the marriage.
In preparation, the bride often sacrificed her childhood toys to Artemis, the virgin goddess, on the day before the wedding. This would signify her transition into being a woman and not a child any further. In addition, the wedding process was most likely a terrifying experience for the bride because she seldom knew her husband before the wedding night, as marriages were frequently business arrangements between families. The marital journey from one house to the other happened at night by torchlight. When the bride and groom entered the groom’s house, the place of the bride’s future domestic life. They were then showered with nuts and sweetmeats, which were tokens of expectant prosperity, and were received in a special ceremony that placed them under the protection of the household gods. These prayers and rituals were a converging force for the Greeks that united them in a common goal and gave their life meaning. These rituals, prayers, offerings and sacrifices, as well as the prospect of a better afterlife provided the Greeks with hope and stability. The belief in a greater afterlife allowed them to live a fuller life without the fear of death.
The Greeks also esteemed numerous festivals, athletic games and the arts that were a part of daily life. The festivals and athletic games were held in honor of the gods and the honorary god’s statue was often brought out and carried among the worshipers. The purpose was to please the gods so that they would act favorably on up-coming undertakings, such as the next harvest. The main four athletic games that comprised the Panhellenic Games were: the Olympic games which occurred every four years; the Pythian games held at Delphi in honor of Apollo which also occurred every four years; the Nemean games at Nemea in honor of Zeus every two years; and the Isthmian games at the sanctuary of Poseidon on the Isthmus of Corinth also held every two years. The festivals were organized so that at least one of them fell each year, constituting a circuit of games. The oldest and most prominent of these were the Olympic games held in honor of Zeus at his temple in Olympia. Olympia was one of the oldest religious centers in the ancient Greek world. Since athletic contests were one way that the ancient Greeks honored their gods, it was logical to hold a recurring athletic competition at the site of a major temple. Messengers were sent out to announce the dates of a given festival so that everyone could partake. Even wars often came to a cease during these glorious festivals.
The first Olympic games are said to have started in 776 BC, and included only one competition, the foot race. One myth says that the guardians of the infant god Zeus held the first footrace, or that Zeus himself started the Games to celebrate his victory over his father Cronus for control of the world. The footrace, that was 600 feet long, was the sole event for the first 13 Olympiads. Over time, however, the Greeks added longer footraces, and then additional events, such as the pentathlon (5 contests: discus, javelin, long jump, wrestling, and foot race), boxing, wrestling and equestrian contests. The ancient Olympic Games were played within the context of a religious festival. The Games, held in honor of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, included a sacrifice of 100 oxen that was made to him on the middle day of the festival. Athletes who participated prayed to the gods for victory, and made gifts of animals, produce, or small cakes, in thanks for their successes. The Olympic games were played every four years and continued for nearly twelve centuries after their commencement.
Over time, the Olympic Games flourished, and Olympia became a principal site for the worship of Zeus. Individuals and communities donated buildings, statues, altars and other dedications to the god. The most amazing sight at Olympia was the divine gold and ivory statue of Zeus enthroned, which was made by the sculptor Pheidias and placed inside the temple. Standing over 42 feet high, the statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A spiral staircase took visitors to an upper floor of the temple, for a better view of the statue.
Competition in the Olympic Games was restricted to Greeks only; people who were not Greek could not compete in the Games. Greek athletes traveled hundreds of miles, from colonies of the Greek city-states to come to Olympia. These colonies were as far away as modern-day Spain, Italy, Libya, Egypt, the Ukraine, and Turkey would be. Ancient athletes competed as individuals, not on national teams, as in today’s Olympic Games. The emphasis on individual athletic accomplishment through public competition was connected to the Greek ideal of excellence. Aristocratic men who attained this ideal, through their outstanding words or deeds, won everlasting glory and fame. Those who failed to uphold this code were assessed with public shame and disgrace.
Not all athletes lived up to the code of excellence. Those who were discovered cheating were fined, and the money was used to make bronze statues of Zeus, which were constructed on the road to the stadium. The statues were inscribed with accounts of the offenses, warning others not to cheat, reminding athletes that victory was won by skill and not by money, and emphasizing the Olympic spirit of devotion towards the gods and fair competition. The earliest recorded cheater was Eupolus of Thessaly, who bribed boxers in the 98th Olympiad.
The Olympic festivals were so revered that before and during each one, a truce was announced to allow visitors and athletes to travel safely to Olympia. An engraving describing the truce was written on a bronze discus, which was displayed at Olympia. During the truce, wars were suspended, armies were prohibited from entering Elis or threatening the Games, and legal disputes and the carrying out of death penalties were forbidden. For the most part, the truce was conscientiously observed, even in the most inharmonious political times, but there were some who did not comply. In such cases, a fine was imposed and the people in question would be banned from the games.
There were also several non-athletic festivals throughout the year associated with different gods. Spring was the beginning of the Greek year, and one of the first festivals for the gods was called Anthesteria. Participants wore garlands, and perfume and competed in contests, and consequently thanked Dionysus by pouring a libation for him of the last of the wine. Mounukhia was a festival that occurred mid-spring and honored Artemis as Moon Goddess and Lady of the Beasts. There was a procession in which the people carried round cakes with little torches stuck in them, and eventually offered them to the goddess. It is believed that April is under the protection of Aphrodite and that the month’s name was derived from hers. Also, the name month of May, under the protection of Apollo, most likely emerged from Maia, mother of Apollo and Artemis. There were separate hymn-singing contests for men’s and boy’s choirs in the spring. The winners received a tripod, which they then dedicated to the god.
In the summer solstice, there was a festival called Plunteria around the month of June. This was the festival for washing the ancient statue of Athena. Bathing sacred images was a common custom in Greece. Women had cleaned the temple a few days earlier for the festival, in a rite called the Kallunteria, which means, “to beautify by sweeping.” At this time, the priestess also refilled and re-lit Athena’s eternal flame in the temple. Skiraphoria, a festival also in June, occurred at the time of the cutting and threshing of the grain. The Priestess of Athena, the Priest of Poseidon and the Priest of Helios went to the Skiron. The Skiron was where, according to tradition, the first sowing took place. A large, white canopy was carried over the priests’ and priestess’ heads during the procession, which mainly women celebrated. To bring fertility, they abstained from intercourse on this day, and to this end they ate garlic to keep the men away. They also threw offerings into the sacred caves of Demeter. Panathenaia was the celebration of Athena’s birthday, for according to tradition this was the day she burst from Zeus’s head.
Though it was her day, all the Olympians attended the festivities as well, for they were also all present at her birth. This was a sacred feast at which gods and mortals celebrated Athena’s birthday together. Every fourth year, the Greater Panathenaia was held, for which a new robe was woven for the goddess, whose middle stripe of panels displayed the Gigantomachy (the battle of the Giants and the Olympians) which symbolized the triumph of civilization over savagery. In the Greater Panathenaia, the three or four days following the procession were occupied by contests of sport and art. Traditionally, the prize for athletes was a “Panathenaic amphora”, or large vase, containing olive oil from the Goddess’s sacred grove, and the prize for artists was a gilded crown of wild olives and sometimes money. Next, Aphrodisia was the bathing festival of Aphrodite and Peitho (Persuasion), her helper, who had been considered powerful goddesses since the archaic period. They are goddesses of war and statecraft as well as love.
During autumn, there was a minor thanksgiving festival for Apollo called Boedromia, celebrated in gratitude to him as a rescuer in war. Later in autumn, was Puanepsia, a festival of fruit gathering that sought divine blessings for the autumn sowing. This very ancient festival was primarily in honor of Apollo as sun god, but also for Helios and the Horai (Hours). At the end of autumn, Thesmophoria was a celebration of the autumn sowing dedicated to Demeter and restricted to women. This was unusual in the Greek world for festivals were usually open to both men and women.
Finally, in the wintertime, came a time of rest and celebration after the last sowing, and agricultural deities were especially honored. December (mid-Dec.-mid-Jan.) was under the protection of Poseidon. Generally speaking, festivals of this season were more concerned with raising human spirits and reviving the crops than with the return of the sun.
Many of the festivals and religious activities included some form of artistic entertainment as well to further impress the gods. Oftentimes, music and hymns, which were closely related to poetry, as well as theatrical tragedies and comedies, were performed. Religious festivals and rituals were frequently accompanied by hymns to the specific god, often with a musical accompaniment, and seasonal festivals included singing and dancing. From the dance, evolved Greek tragedy, which honored the wine god Dionysos. Comedy ensued, with a similar development process as tragedy.
Throughout the ages, there is extensive evidence of the many ways the Greeks reverenced their gods. They sought to ensure that the gods were always content in order to keep a harmonious relationship with them. They knew the gods were continuously present and could give guidance, hope and comfort if properly approached. To the Greeks, interaction and worship of the gods was not just a part of life, it was a way of life. This is is how they developed into such a rich and beautiful culture with such interesting customs.
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