Ancient Greek Religion
The religion practiced by the ancient Greeks, as was most of all ancient religions, was polytheistic in nature; the pantheon of gods and goddesses that the ancient Greeks worshiped was quite an impressive one. The deities ranged from the great, the Olympians, who were supposed to live on the heights of Mount Olympus, right on through to the most insignificant nymph who inhabited the smallest and most remote of village streams. The myths which the ancient Greeks wove around their deities have thrilled and captivated succeeding generations ever since; but apart from the myths, the ancient Greek religion exhibited some very interesting features which clearly marked it apart from most other religions, ancient or modern, monotheistic or polytheistic.
Perhaps the first point that we should note about ancient Greek religion is that it was essentially communal rather than individual in the nature. Of course, most religions display elements of communalism to a greater or lesser degree; but most such religions often require a corresponding direct individual participation in the process of worship. Amongst the ancient Greeks, such private individual observance or participation was of very little importance; what was of importance was that members of the community participated in, along with the rest of the congregation, however defined, in the observances as required by the congregation; family, clan, tribe, city state, or even a group of city states. Once the individual’s beliefs as expressed by words and deeds conformed to the expected positions, his actual beliefs were of little concern to the authorities. As long as his expressed beliefs did not fly flagrantly in the face of communal orthodoxy, then such individual was free to hold on to any belief that suited his or her purpose.
Given this approach, it will not come as a surprise to learn that Greek religion did not possess a code of ethics such as is common amongst most of the religions that we are familiar with in the present time. This is not to imply that ancient Greek religion was immoral or even amoral; on the contrary, for certain actions or behaviors were considered praiseworthy while others were considered condemnable on grounds that were, at least, partly moral. All that this simply means is that unlike Christianity or Islam, for instance, which sets out the ethical considerations which ought to govern the lives of adherents, the ethical considerations which governed the lives of the ancient Greeks were grounded in philosophy rather than religion. It was Greek philosophical thinking, as articulated by Greek philosophers, that provided the ethical underpinnings which were considered necessary to be a compleat Greek.
Another striking point about the ancient Greek religion was that in spite of the wonderful, not to say fantastic, storehouse of myths that have come down to us, there was little, if anything, of the transcendental that is the common feature of most modern religious beliefs in the practice of Greek religion. In its original form, ancient Greek religion had an almost total absence of the supernatural or mystical when it came to religious observance.
Ancient Greek religious practice was concerned with the practical episodes of private and public life. The gods and demigods received appeals for good crops, children, health, etc., either as a daily household procedure or as a more elaborate affair on appointed clan or tribal feast days. In the public arena, religious observance was concerned with the public weal, to wit: the enduring welfare of the state and its citizens, success in war, deliverance from famine, and the like. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t those individuals or groups who harbored deeper ideas concerning man’s lot as a moral agent in the larger scheme of things; almost certainly, such folk must have abounded. The point is that such ideas, no matter how lofty or otherwise they might have been, were set squarely in the realm of private speculation; they had absolutely no part to play in the official, corporate conception of religion and how it was gone about.
This approach to religion had two effects. First the ancient Greeks, in their religious observances never developed a powerful priestly class as is common in what other societies which had a somewhat different approach to religion have developed; thus, even the clergy at the most important Greek shrines, such as Apollo’s priests at the famous oracle at Delphi, ought properly to be classified as advisers; important advisers perhaps, but advisers nonetheless.
The second effect was that the gods increasingly came to be viewed as merely some kind of superior citizens, rather more powerful than the normal run of citizen it is true, but just citizens. The awe that is an absolute requirement in the relations between man and deity was lost, if it ever really did exist in ancient Greek religion, and, as the city states, whom had been the greatest force for the continuation of the old observances, lost more and more of their power, more and more Greeks shifted their allegiance from the national religion and embraced one of the extra national religions such as the worship of Isis or Mithra, which continued to grow in influence, while other folk just drifted into plain irreligion.
One final point which is striking is that ancient Greek religion never developed a creed in the manner in which we have come to understand religious creeds, although, given the foregoing this is not particularly surprising. Although most of the English words that we use when agreeing upon or dissenting on matters concerning religious belief derive from the Greek, words such as dogma, theology, orthodoxy, heresy and the like, the words themselves, like the ethical code of the ancient Greeks, come not from religion, but from philosophy.