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Religion, Ritual and Worship

Religion and rituals were the centre of life in Ancient Greece. Sports, politics, entertainment and war all included religious rituals. Every important event in the lives of individuals, as well as whole cities, included rituals.

The Greeks in antiquity believed in many gods, each of whom had control over different aspects of the world and of human behaviour. Some gods, like Zeus and Poseidon, had control over elements of nature like storms and the sea. Other gods, such as Ares and Artemis, had control over areas of human activity like war and hunting. The Greeks also sometimes worshipped heroes like Theseus – mythical humans who were believed to have become powerful after they died (but not as powerful as the gods).

By having lots of different gods, the Greeks could explain problems in life. It is important to remember what life in ancient Greece was like when Greek religion took its form. Greece was not one nation with one king, but lots of little nations, many of which were not run by kings but by councils of princes. The Greeks saw the gods and their powers in a similar way – rather than just one god with all of the powers, they split the powers up amongst a number of different gods. Certainly they made Zeus the king of the gods and the most powerful – but he did not rule alone and he needed help from the others.

Stories About the Gods

The myths of the Greeks are very "human-focused", and the gods often took on human forms in these stories. The gods had special powers and they lived forever – but they looked just like people and they behaved just like people. Sometimes they were petty and jealous, and at other times they were kind and helpful. The gods were not particularly interested in good and bad, and didn't always act justly or fairly. They had favourite humans whom they liked to help, and others whom they decided to bully. While the Greek gods were a community, they rarely acted in a unified way. The myth of the Trojan war, for instance, as told by Homer in the Iliad, describes the the gods always disagreeing over whom to support, Greeks or Trojans.

Honouring the Gods

If you wanted a god to look after you in Ancient Greece it was important to honour him or her properly. People honoured their gods in many different ways. They believed that in order to get something, first you had to give something – just like in everyday life. So, if you gave the gods things that they liked, they would be happy and return the favour by helping you. Sometimes people would just give a god something small, like a cake or some incense, but sometimes they would give larger gifts like statues or personal items.

An important kind of gift was an animal sacrifice. A number of people would gather together and kill an animal (usually a sheep, goat, pig or cow) near an altar to a god. They would then cook and eat the meat together at a feast. The bones and fat were burnt for the god as his or her share. Religious feasting like this bonded people together, and bonded people with the gods. Usually the Greeks honoured their gods one at a time and created plenty of opportunities to celebrate and honour the gods.

Whole cities would also give gifts to the gods, like temples and giant statues of them. Temples were mostly used to store valuable gifts that people had given to the gods. People did not meet inside them to worship – instead, they gathered around the altar, which was usually located in front of the temple. The altar was the most important part of a Greek sanctuary, not the temple. Some sanctuaries didn't even have temples.

Another way that the Ancient Greeks would honour the gods was through competitions. The Olympic games, for example, were held in Zeus' honour. In Athens, people competed to write and perform the best plays in honour of Dionysus. Processions were also an important part of Greek religion. People would walk long distances through cities or the countryside carrying gifts to the gods and sacred objects. Both competitions and processions were important events for the Greeks. They were entertaining and they bonded the community together.

Discovering the Future: Oracles

Greek religion could also assist in revealing the future. Individuals or whole communities could seek out special advice about what was going to occur. One way was to consult seers, who worked out the gods' advice through signs such as the way birds flew, comets or the shapes and colours of the livers from sacrificed animals. Another way to find out about the gods' plans was to ask an oracle. The most accurate oracle was believed to be the Delphic oracle, where Apollo would answer your questions through a woman called the Pythia.
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Miasma

Another important function of Greek religion was that of purifying people from miasma. The Ancient Greeks believed that if you did certain things that were really wrong, you could get miasma, which was like a never-ending streak of bad luck. That meant that terrible things would happen to you (especially sickness), to people around you, and to your descendants. But, luckily, there were people who could purify you by performing certain rituals.

Philosophy: Ancient Greek Thinkers
The Olympic Games
Fashion and Food
Religion, Ritual and Worship
Athenian Politics and Government
Greek Architecture: then and now
Greek Art: Vase painting and sculpture
Education in Ancient Times
A Trip to the Theatre

 


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