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Religion in Ancient Greece

One can demonstrate that both art and philosophy arose from the religion of the Greeks. Women had an important influence on the religion of the Greeks because it began to be formed at a time when women deities were dominant. But the early history of the Greek religion was not written down so women involved in the early formation have not been recognized. Judy Chicago has tried to overcome this limitation by recognising such names as: Eurynome, Gaea, Hera, Aphrodite, The Furies, Hecate, Ariadne, Artemis, Athene, Britomartis, Demeter, Europa, Kore, Pasiphae, Python, Rhea, Antigone, Atalanta, Cassandra, Circe, Clytemnestra, Daphne, Hecuba, Helen of Troy, Lysistrata, Pandora, Paxagora, and Pythia.

Religion of the time depended on stories developed in an an earlier
society where women acted more powerfuly and independently. Art depicted gods and godesses interacting in ways which were not likely in Greek society. The Greeks developed a sense of an ideal so the images of women depicted depended not on ordinary people, but the best available. Trade spread these images abroad where they were quite popular because of their fine quality and interest. The images thus spread, no doubt, influenced the aspirations of many people. Greek society benefited economically from the trade in art and the rest of the world benefited from a view of women which was less restricted that the Greeks themselves held.

Unfortunately mortal women do not fare so well at the hands of the gods. Each goddess attends to her realm in the manner of a mortal queen who maintains political power in her domain. Each goddess promulgates laws which apply to the enties in her domain. She holds court during which she listens to petitions (prayers). She attends banquets with the other gods. And she has servants that attend to her. Mortal women had no political power and were often the servants of men. The were separated from men and within their own domain were part of their own heiarchy so some women served other women. Though the goddesses were not immune from rape, most resisted it. Mortal women could not resist being raped by the gods. Zeus raped Europa to produce Minos and Rhadamanthus. This rape seems to serve more as a mechanism for producing offspring with the blood of Zeus. This sort of rape is a violent sexual act that is forced upon a woman against her will, but it is not an act of destruction, as rapes turn out to be in reality. They involve the fantasy that the women will submit to the power of the male, and will willingly raise up the child that is forced upon them by potent sexual intercourse with the god. For this reason these rapes are seen as symbolic of the religion of a patriachal society dominating the matriarchal religion of an older society. They may also mbe a reult of the ampthroporphic nature of theer belief. If a woman prayed for fertility it seems cosistent that fertility might enter them in the form of sexual intercouse by a deity. Though a rape of this sort might seem to be a humiliation yet such women who edured this were well-regarded by the ancient Greeks.

It is interesting to note that witchcraft is mainly a practice of women and that this practice involves many of the aspects of ancient pagan worship. It is possible that this fact demonstrates that women developed religion in prehistoric times to suit their own needs and they continued the same practices in historic times in spite of the fact that men had taken over the practice of religion.

In the Odyssey of Homer Helen is described as having such an involvement with witchcraft:

“Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, took other counsel. [220] Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill. Whoso should drink this down, when it is mingled in the bowl, would not in the course of that day let a tear fall down over his cheeks, [225] no, not though his mother and father should lie there dead, or though before his face men should slay with the sword his brother or dear son, and his own eyes beheld it. Such cunning drugs had the daughter of Zeus, drugs of healing, which Polydamna, the wife of Thon, had given her, a woman of Egypt, for there the earth, the giver of grain, bears greatest store [230] of drugs, many that are healing when mixed, and many that are baneful; there every man is a physician, wise above human kind; for they are of the race of Paeeon.”

The words that she uses: φάρμακον (pharmacon) for drug and ἰητρὸς (ietros)for healer are neither from the Indo-European backround of Greece. ‘φάρμακον’ is translated both as a charm and a drug. Helen seems to connect these things to Egypt. But the concept of magic is definitely Indo-European. It is interesting to note that the word ‘witch’ has Indo-European roots and is related to the word ‘weik-2’ which is related to concepts of magic. The word ‘magic’ is also Indo-European and comes from the word ‘magh-1’, ‘To be able, to have power’. What was associated with this power was not originally in the hands of a hero but more likely a priestess of Indo-European religion. The power that a priestess invokes is not a material power but a spiritual one. Our word ‘spell’ refers to an incantation while the Indo-European word ‘spel-3’ means just ‘To say aloud, recite’. Of course what the priestess says aloud are petitions to a deity whose action is desired. The model for Circe may be a priestess, but in fact she is a goddess. She has no need to petition as she is a goddess and should be able to act like one.

The concept of potion is more complex. The word ‘potion’ is also from Indo-European ‘poi-1’, ‘To drink’ and ‘ag-‘, ‘To drive’. The word ‘ag-‘ became the word ‘action’ and strictly ‘potion’ comes from ‘poi-1’ and ‘action’ with the ‘ac’ of action dropped. So a potion is a drink that does something. There is reality here because there are plenty of substances that can act by bring drunk. Poisons, drugs, and alcohol are all examples. Whether a spell or a potion is involved there are realistically expected actions and ones that are unrealistic. It is in the realm of unrealistic expectation that magic is involved. These are hoped for actions that would require divine intervention.

Religion was more integrated into the culture of Ancient
Greece than it is now. There was no issue of converting people to one religion. All people of one culture had the same religion and the religion was defined, they thought, by their experience with God, or deities. We sometimes refer to the Greek religion as pagan, but this word was meaningless to them. Other religions were to them babarian. The word ‘pagan’ suggests ignorance, particularly of Christianity, but the Greeks would have to be invincibly ignorant because Christianity was not well formed until well into the Roman period. The value of their religion cannot be doubted but became anything but ignorant. The wonderful art of the Greeks was a tribute to their religion, and from the Greek religion speculative philosophy grew. And lastly, much of Christianity was simply the adoption of the Greek religion with the names changed. Much of the work of the old gods of the Greek pantheon was taken over by the saints and angels of the new Christianity.

Herodotus states: “50. Moreover the naming[51] of almost all the gods has come to Hellas from Egypt: for that it has come from the Barbarians I find by inquiry is true, and I am of opinion that most probably it has come from Egypt, because, except in the case of Poseidon and the Dioscuroi (in accordance with that which I have said before), and also of Hera and Hestia and Themis and the Charites and Nere‹ds, the Egyptians have had the names of all the other gods in their country for all time. What I say here is that which the Egyptians think themselves: but as for the gods whose names they profess that they do not know, these I think received their naming from the Pelasgians, except Poseidon; but about this god the Hellenes learnt from the Libyans, for no people except the Libyans have had the name of Poseidon from the first and have paid
honour to this god always. Nor, it may be added, have the Egyptians
any custom of worshipping heroes.” ( History of Herodotus, V1)

In contrast to what Herodotus says the vast majority of Greek Dieties have names with Indo-European roots. But those that do not have not been connected to Egypt. Herodotus was not aware of the Minoan culture which was discovered on Crete by Arthur Evans. The question is how much the Minoans may have influenced the Greek Religion. But Herodotus does reference the Pelasgians. He references these as the first inhabitants and he says “The Pelasgians spoke a non-Greek language”. (1.57) He also describes the gods of the Pelasgians:

“In early times the Pelasgi, as I know by information which I got at Dodona, offered sacrifices of all kinds, and prayed to the gods, but had no distinct names or appellations for them, since they had never heard of any. They called them gods (Theoi, disposers), because they disposed and arranged all things in such a beautiful order. After a long lapse of time the names of the gods came to Greece from Egypt, and the Pelasgi learnt them, only as yet they knew nothing of Bacchus, of whom they first heard at a much later date. Not long after the arrival of the names they sent to consult the oracle at Dodona about them. This is the most ancient oracle in Greece, and at that time there was no other. To their question, “Whether they should adopt the names that had been imported from the foreigners?” the oracle replied by recommending their use. Thenceforth in their sacrifices the Pelasgi made use of the names of the gods, and from them the names passed afterwards to the Greeks.

Whence the gods severally sprang, whether or no they had all existed from eternity, what forms they bore- these are questions of which the Greeks knew nothing until the other day, so to speak. For Homer and Hesiod were the first to compose Theogonies, and give the gods their epithets, to allot them their several offices and occupations, and describe their forms; and they lived but four hundred years before my time, as I believe. As for the poets who are thought by some to be earlier than these, they are, in my judgment, decidedly later writers. In these matters I have the authority of the priestesses of Dodona for the former portion of my statements; what I have said of Homer and Hesiod is my own opinion.”

The idea of Herodotus that the Palasgians used no name for gods is interesting and could explain why so many of the deities have names that are Indo-European.

The practice of religion in ancient Greece involves both private and public aspects. Within the home religion focused on the hearth and the goddess Hestia. The maintaining of the home fire was an important ritual which served as a focus for worship. Other riturals involved prayers, meals, and storytelling. If one has ever dealt with a campfire one can easily realize how the lighting of the fire in the morning from the coals of the day before can assure that the whole family has a good start and a good day. One can also understand the notion of a libation which involves the pouring of liguids. Flammable liguids support the fire while inflammable ones quench it and so
liguids can be used to quench it. All the liguids become vapors which involve a spiritual aspect related to the breath.

The more public aspects of religion focus on processions which are directed to hearths and altars. At the altars sacrifices are made which are roasted on the public hearths. Typically the sacrifice involves the slaying of a domestic animal as a part of a feast. The animal is then butchered and roasted, and served up as cooked to be eaten. Prayers are offered as a part of the sacrifice and sometimes statuettes are offered that are symbolic of the prayer’s request. A model of an eye will be offered if one has an eye problem. Or the stature of a pregnant woman would be offered if one desires to be
pregnant. If the fat and the bones are burned in the fire and the libations of oil and wine are poured on the fire then these would serve to flavor the meat being roasted. The modern equivalent of an ancient Greek religious ceremony would be an outdoor barbecue or a rib burn-off.

In Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, Prometheus states that he gave arts to man. Some of these arts bear directly to religion. He says (line 483),

And I marked out many ways by which they might read the future, [485] and among dreams I first discerned which are destined to come true; and voices baffling interpretation I explained to them, and signs from chance meetings. The flight of crook-taloned birds I distinguished clearly— which by nature are auspicious, [490] which sinister—their various modes of life, their mutual feuds and loves, and their consortings; and the smoothness of their entrails, and what color the gall must have to please [495] the gods, also the speckled symmetry of the liver-lobe; and the thigh-bones, wrapped in fat, and the long chine I burned and initiated mankind into an occult art. Also I cleared their vision to discern signs from flames,which were obscure before this. [500]

These insights represent the ancient Greek obsession with prophesy, which is critiqued in the play Oedipus Tyrannus by Sophocles.

In the Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus the chorus invokes the gods to repel the invaders from Thebes. This is is an example of people turning to the gods for help in a time of need:

“Pallas, Zeus-born power delighting in battle, prove yourself the savior of the city! [130] And you, lord of steeds, ruler of the deep, Poseidon, with your fish-striking weapon grant us release from our fears, grant us release!

[135] You too, Ares—pity us!—guard the city named for Cadmus and make evident your closeness1 to us! [140] And Cypris, you who are the first mother of our race, defend us who are sprung from your blood. We come to you, crying out in prayers for your divine ears.

[145] And you, Apollo, lord of the Wolf,2 be a wolf to the enemy force and give them groan for groan!

You too, maiden child of Leto, ready your bow!

Ah! Ah! [150] I hear the rattle of chariots encircling the town. O lady Hera! The hubs are creaking beneath the axles’ load. Beloved Artemis! [155] The air rages at the shaking of spears! What is happening to our city? What will the future bring? And where does God finally lead us?”



  • Classical Greeks and Their Religious Past
  • Steven H. Lonsdale, “Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion”, Johns Hopkins University Press, 07/01/2001, ISBN: 0801867592
  • D.J. Conway, “Maiden, Mother, Crone : The Myth and Reality of the Triple Goddess, Llewellyn Publications, 1994, ISBN: 0875421717, explores the myth and reality of the triple goddess, going into history and function, and offering numerous ways to bring the triple goddess figure back into prominence in a
    person’s belief system. It’s a whole-hearted, enthusiastic look at the female side of things, and a joyful exploration of the feminine aspect of belief.
  • Elements of the Religious Beliefsof the Ancient Greeks
  • Priestesses in Ancient Greece
  • Calame, Claude/ Collins, Derek/ Orion, Janice, “Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece : Their Mythology, Religious Role, and Spiritual Function” (Greek Studies), Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Incorporated, 05/01/2001, ISBN: 0742515249.
  • Barry, Kieren, “The Greek Qabalah: Alphabetical Mysticism and Numerology in the Ancient World”, ISBN: 1578631106 / Paperback / 10/1/1999
  • Faraone, Christopher A.; Obbink, Dirk, “Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion” Edition: Reprint, ISBN: 0195111400 / Paperback / 9/1/1996.
  • Burkert, Walter, “Homo Necans : The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth”, University of California Press, February 1987, Paperback, ISBN: 0520058755.
  • The Greek Gods(2000) VHS,ASIN: B000006QYL, A & E Entertainment. Bryant, Joseph M., “Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece : A Sociology of Greek Ethics from Homer to the Epicureans and Stoics (Suny Series in the sociology”, ISBN: 0791430413.
  • Marinatos, Nanno, “Goddess and the Warrior : The Naked Goddess and Mistress of Animals in Early Greek Religion”, Routledge, April 2000, Dimensions: 9.51″ x 6.35″ x 0.66″, Hardcover, ISBN: 0415218292
  • Caldwell, Richard, The Origin of the Gods: A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth, ISBN: 0195072669 / Paperback / 4/1/1995

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