Religion and beliefs of ancient Greeks


Since the earliest time people have been trying to find some sort of definition of who is actually a human. They’ve been looking for terms best describing human nature.

With the development of civilisation people started noticing various qualities, which are important and characteristic for being a human. There’s been many attempts to define a human being in relation to the world, other human beings and the world of ideas.

And so the great thinker and philosopher, a student of Plato’s Academy, Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) called a human “Zoon Politicon”, what means “a political animal”. However in this case the word “political” can be replaced with “social”.

Similar views had Cicero (106 - 43 BC), who said "Homo est animal sociale" what means “a human is a social animal”. A human who can live in a group and communicate with its other members is an community being. In this case a part of human nature is defined in a relation to other human beings.

If talking about tangible human nature, an anthropologist A. Bergson introduced a term “Homo Faber” meaning “Man the Maker”. A human can make tools and create artificial world. He uses gifts of the nature.

In addition we can come across “Homo Symbolicus” meaning “symbolising human”. This term refers to people’s ability to define themselves and their relations to the world by using symbols.

Another known term is “Homo Ludens” introduced by L. Huizinga. It refers to play as an element of culture and society.

Another great philosopher Mircea Eliade created a term necessary to define and understand who is a human being. He described human as “Homo Religiosus” referring to a human as a member of religious community.

A human lives in the universe, is aware of this and tries to learn and understand the world. He notices that everything has its place and its reason. To live in this world he must find out how and where the sacred manifests itself in his surroundings.

The sacred is in an opposition to the profane (ordinary, everyday things). Homo Religiosus can only live in the world organised this way. So he looks for hierophany. This word come from a Greek word “hieros” meaning sacred and refers to places which are a manifestation of the sacred. In addition a religious human is a keeper of collective religious memory. He must know a myth and a ritual.

All the various mythologies contained answers to the most important questions, enabled associating with the sacred and entering into holy time. Two of the most popular mythologies of the world, Greek and Roman, are the perfect example of the above.

It’s important to notice that mythology is not the same as religion, but something primary. Rituals and ceremonies, the necessary ingredients of religious life, are based on myths and mythologies. Mythology shouldn’t be perceived only as a collection of tales and fantasies. Mircea Eliade wrote that in primary cultures myth was a paradigmatic story, the fundamental truth and a sacred narration.

Myths had also a crucial role in social life. They specified ethical norms, created group’s worldview and organised a space where people and other creatures lived. At the same time a myth wasn’t something universal. In the divided Greek world, each country and each village had their own myths and their own gods. Some of them might have been completely unknown outside the area of origin.

Before the Greeks created their mythology, in other words a huge collection of organised beliefs, they had gone through the following stages of cognition.

Looking at the stages of religion development, we come across fetishism. This term means worshiping things which are believed to be a home of a spirit, a good or an evil one. Fetishism is natural for a human being who sees lots of things which he doesn’t understand.

Primary representation of deities were for the Greeks stones, parts of trees, whole trees, poles and cones. In a later period these were ornamented in various ways, what indicates beginnings of a later cult.

Fetishes were some unusual things. They could be stones or trees on crossroads. Border territories had always been seen as areas of inhomogeneous powers and there was located the sacred. Fetishes were also meteorites, as they were unique stones coming from the unknown world. They had some special properties. For example a mad person who sat on such a stone would have got their mind back. Also old, special trees were perceived as sacred. A holy tree in many cultures, including Greek one, was oak.

The next embodiment of the sacred were animals. They were seen as holy and people worshiped them. In the old Greece they could also be perceived as ancestors of tribes. In this case we call it totemism. This term comes from a word totem from a native American language, Ojibwe, where it referred to an animal, a plant or a thing.

A certain group of people believed that they were connected to their totem by blood ties. Their totem was worshiped. It was forbidden to kill it or profane it in any way.

A totem was a sign recognised by a group and worshiped between its members. For example on the island Samos worshiped was a sheep, in Thebes the sacred animal was a weasel and in Delphi a wolf.

Gradually deities started looking more like humans. From their animal images there were only some details left. For example a satyr wasn’t anymore a goat, but he looked like a human with goat’s ears, tail and so on.

The world of Greeks became full of gods. Each activity had its patron and each phenomenon was caused by someone else. This multiplicity of deities lowered with appearance of Homer and creation of the Olympian gods.

A bit earlier people started realising that a human soul could also influence the world. In Greece a soul was imagined as a small doll living in a human body. It could be seen through a pupil of an eye. It could do good and evil.

After a human’s death, his soul would go to the underworld. There it could have posses some psychic powers, send prophetic dreams but also illness or madness. Like in most cultures, as particularly dangerous were seen souls of people who died prematurely, out of a tragic death. The Greek world was full of demons, evil powers, from whom people had to protect themselves by singing or noise.

The Greek world was also full of spirits. The belief in spirits is called animism. This term comes from a Latin word “anima” which means spirit, soul and also revive, animate. Animism doubled the human world. There was a dichotomy, in other words a division between an object and its essence. The latter is invisible but necessary. And so the reality obtains two dimensions: visible and invisible.

In ancient Greece very common was ancestor worship. The Greeks believed that a dead person was powerful and could have come back any moment. His return would have bring misfortune. Rites of passage were necessary to close the way back to this world. To appease spirits of the dead, people would cry and sacrifice animals. They also celebrated wakes and All Souls’ Day, when they prepared a table for the souls.

From the cult of spirits developed the cult of heroes, in other words people who were worshiped after their death.

An important stage in the development of Greek religion and mythology was appearance of Homer and Hesiod. They created the most common characters of gods. Herodotus writes: “Hesiod and Homer created for the Greeks the whole system of gods, gave nicknames to the gods and for each of them designated a domain of power and finally they fixed each character”.

These two poets introduced order and established clear connections. This was a real turn. The world full of spirits and demons started becoming organised.

The place of a great number of various deities took the Olympian gods. These gods were imagined as similar to the Greeks. They looked like Greeks and had similar problems. They had also people’s characters, including positive and negative features.

Gods ruling the world became closer. Each of them had their clear and well-known story. There’s no longer “deus otiosus” or “idle god” whose story we don’t know. Their place take gods with human faces, but immortal.

There was a split in the Greek religion: the official one with Homer gods and the hidden one. People still believed in sinister power of spirits. Also any attempts towards uniformity of religion didn’t work out. There were many differences between deities worshiped in various communities. People venerated varied gods and there was no cult of the highest of gods. For each community, or even for each man the most important could be a totally different god.

Greek mythology derived also from other other parts of the ancient world. For example the cult of Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris and the one of Cybele from Asia Minor were popular in Greece.

The characteristic feature of the Greek religion was polytheism, in other words belief in many gods and goddesses who rule the world. Only gods had power to change the world. Polytheism is considered as a religion. Mythology created people’s world and described human experiences. Greek mythology was for the Greek the necessary source to experience their own identity.

Mythology and polytheism were a necessary stage to monotheism. Its first attempts were undertaken by Xenophanes of Colophon. He criticised anthropomorphic polytheism and proclaimed a belief in one god.

Mythology was bringing the Greeks hope and was treated by them seriously. It was their way of understanding the world.

Translated from our Polish website by Maria Czekaj.

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