Classical Greek Spirituality:
Today’s definition of the word “religion” reads, “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.” When I was researching Classical Greek spirituality however, I found that the ancient Greeks didn’t have a definition for the word “religion.” In fact, the word “religion” or any word synonymous to it were absent throughout the entire ancient Greek vocabulary due to their belief of religion and society being one in the same entity. As Robert Garland, author of Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks writes, “What we identify [today] as religion was not regarded by [the Greeks] as something distinct and separate from other departments of life… the secular and profane were constantly overlapping and intersecting with one another. The gods were everywhere and in all things” (131). Unlike in today’s society, belief in the multitude of Greek Gods shaped the values and beliefs of the ancient Greeks and controlled, quite literally, every aspect of their daily lives. Due in part to their culture, fear was instilled into the ancient Greeks who were taught at a young age to respect the power and authority of the gods or else suffer their wrath. Such actions could cause the infamous fury of the gods to rain down on the poor souls of Greece. You think Pompeii was just some naturally occurring phenomenon? If you’re relying on Greek mythology, eh. Probably not. It’s most likely that some Greek god was irate at the thought of someone forgetting to praise his holy name. Gods tended to get ticked off pretty easily about those sorts of things.
Now although there were an extreme number of gods in Greek culture, overall there were eleven main gods whom most Greeks recognized and worshipped, Zeus being the Head Honcho of the lot. As we read throughout The Odyssey, most of the gods went to Zeus to get permission to create obstacles to keep Odysseus from his home, a place that he truly wanted to be. As stated by Walter Burkert, “Zeus in his sovereignty takes the decisions which determine the course of the world” (129). Nonetheless, even though Zeus ran the show, most gods were considered independent in their own ways. Despite the fact that they often asked for Zeus’s permission to do certain things, they pretty much cared less what Zeus said they could and couldn’t do. They were kind of temperamental in that way. So while most of the gods turned their backs on Odysseus in his times of trouble, Athena chose instead to help him out, saving his life more than a few times. Overall though, most Greek gods were “arrogant, fickle, cruel and treacherous,” neither solely good nor solely evil in themselves, always a combination of the two (Garland. 134). Because of this, those within ancient Greek society were oftentimes left uneasy and unsure of which god they would be obeying and which god they would be disobeying when completing a certain act. They didn’t want Zeus, the Big Cheese, coming after them with lightning bolts in hand for having riled him up in some way. Yet at the same time the possibility of being cast into the fiery pits of Hell by Hades was a bit unsettling too. Those sorts of consequences generally made one not want to provoke the gods…
In order to keep the gods from subjecting them to the above said punishments, individuals oftentimes attempted to speak directly to the gods through the consul or intervention of an Oracle, which ideally allowed them to discover the will of the gods and to find out why they were angry with a particular individual. We’ve all most likely heard of the Oracle of Delphi, a priestess named Pythis who answered questions asked of her by inquirers. Most of the time the individuals who came to see oracles were searching for answers as to why their city was being plagued, why they were childless or why their crops had failed (Dillon and Garland. 354). Oracles would then interpret signs sent by the gods to answer these questions. A perfect example of this was seen in The Odyssey when everyone freaked out when the hawk flew overhead with a goose in it’s claws. Apparently this was a big deal and proved to be a sign. I just thought it was the hawk’s snack time, never mind that it too has to eat. You know…survival of the fittest and all. Yet throughout all of this, the more common religious big shots in ancient Greece were Priests and Priestesses. Although each of these officials held the same title as those within our church denominations today (most notably Priests in the Catholic church), the jobs they executed within those positions were different. The duties of Priests in ancient Greek society “were primarily of a liturgical and administrative nature” (Garland. 141). In layman’s terms, they sacrificed the animals and ran the place. While these roles were somewhat different from the roles of today’s religious officials, especially the whole “animal-sacrificing” part (I guess it’s just a little too messy for today’s ceremonies), so too was the role of temples and sanctuaries within the Classical Greek period. As read within Greek Religion, written by Jan Bremmer, “in fact, temples were usually closed to worshippers and only opened on fixed festive days: it was the altar [within the home,] not the temple which was the real centre of a sanctuary” (28). Greek spirituality was oftentimes more focused on the individual, not organized religion to grow and strengthen faith in the gods.
Overall, religion within Classical Greece was extremely important. Religion was a significant determinant of Greek identity and was therefore an important part in Greek heritage. While their religious practices differed from ours in some ways, the moral has remained constant through each: Do good instead of evil, count your blessings in life and always strive for happiness and hope.
*Greek gods on Mount Olympus.
1. Bremmer, Jan N. Greek Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. 28. Print.
2. Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. United States Of America: Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1985. 129. Print.
3. Dillon, Matthew, and Lynda Garland. Ancient Greece. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002. 354, 355. Print.
4. Garland, Robert. Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. 131, 134, 141. Print.