Paganism and the Ancient Greeks

Zeus
Zeus

The Greeks clearly shared many aspects of other forms of Paganism. Both, worshipped many Gods, made sacrifices to them and held a high respect for nature. What differed between the Greeks and the Pagans was their beliefs with regards to the after-life. Whilst most Pagans believed in reincarnation, the Ancient Greeks believed that the soul moved on to either a heaven or a hell. They believed in an underworld, the most widespread of which was known as Hades, (and was also ruled over by a God called Hades) where the spirits of the dead went after a funeral. In addition to Hades, there was also Tarturus where the damned were thought to go, a place of torment, and Elysium, a pleasant place were the virtuous dead were said to dwell.

The Greeks also believed that the body needed to be embalmed and buried with the goods and wealth accumulated in this lifetime, (much like the ancient Egyptians), therefore graves have been discovered containing food, clothing, jewels, weapons, wives, horses, chariots and slaves.

Much like other forms of Paganism such as Druidism, Wicca and Witchcraft, the Greeks worshipped many Gods, looking to them for protection and guidance. This worship included sacrifices, ceremonies, rituals, rites etc.

What was different about the Greek religion to many other religions, is the fact they did not participate in regular clergies, had no ancient texts and no moral code backed by religious beliefs. Much of their religion was based on legends and myths, with each state having it's own divinities which brought together the people as a community.

The Greeks worshipped many immortal Gods, who they believed resided on Mount Olympus. They had Gods for the countryside, the trees, the springs, the sea and for nature. There were twelve main Gods and these were as follows:

1) Zeus was the King of the Gods and resided on Mount Olympus. He was married to Hera, and Father of Hestia, Ares, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon, to name but a few. Zeus controlled thunder, lightning and the heavens. He had many festivals and temples in his honour, and the Olympic Games were also held for this purpose.

Typically Zeus was depicted as having a young man's body, but with a white flowing beard and the facial features of a middle aged man.

2) Artemis the daughter of Zeus and Leto, as well as being the twin of Apollo, was the Goddess of wild animals, the hunt and fertility. Often pictured with a crescent moon above her forehead, she was an Olympian and a virgin Goddess. Her role entailed roaming forests with her nymphs in attendance and hunting for wild animals such as stags and lions. Ultimately she protected their safety and well-being. Artemis is usually depicted as being armed with a bow and arrows which were made by Hephaestus and Cyclopes.

3) Aphrodite is the Goddess of sex, love and beauty. According to Hesiod she was born when Uranus was castrated by his Son Cronus. Cronus threw the genitals into the ocean, which began to churn and foam. Aphrodite arose and the sea carried her to Cyprus or Cythera.

After her birth Zeus was worried that the Gods would fight over her hand in marriage, so he married her off to the Smith God Hephaestus. In spite of the delight of Hephaestus, Aphrodite went on to have many affairs with mortals, including most famously Adonis.

4) Apollo was the God of music, prophecy, colonisation, medicine, archery, (though not for hunting), poetry, dance, protector of flocks and God of light as well as plague and was worshipped as Smintheus and was known as a destroyer of rats and locusts. Fathered by Zeus and Leto, and the twin brother of Artemis, he was sometimes identified with Helios the Sun God. Sacred to Apollo are the swan, and he is often depicted flying on the back of one.

5) Ares was the Greek God of war, battle and the instigator of violence, the son of Zeus and Hera. Because of his aggressive, merciless, cowardly and cruel nature, all of the Gods despised him, even his own father. He did however find himself unable to resist the charms of Aphrodite, and ultimately became her consort.

6) Hera was the Wife and Sister of Zeus, and the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. She was mainly worshipped as a Goddess of marriage and birth. It is said that each year her virginity returned when she bathed in the well Canathus. The children Hera and Zeus produced were Hephaestus, Hebe and Ares, although there are sources that claim she produced these children without the input of a man, and simply by slapping her hand on the ground or by eating lettuce.

Hera was, according to legend, constantly jealous of Zeus's infidelity, and fought back with implacable fury, aimed either at the illegitimate resulting children or the rivals. Zeus would resort to either hiding his children, or changing them into animals, or chaining Hera by her ankles with anvils to Mount Olympus.

7) Hermes is the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia, daughter of Atlas and one of the Pleiades. He is the God of shepherds, land travel, weight and measures, athletics and thieves, (amongst other things). He is known for his cunning and he is the messenger of the Gods.

Born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia, as a result of Zeus having impregnated Maia in the dead of night while the other Gods slept. At dawn Hermes was born, squirmed free of his Mother and proceeded to run off to Thessaly where Apollo his Brother grazed his cattle. Having stolen a number of the herd and taken them back to Greece he hid them near to Pylos. Before returning to the cave he caught and killed a tortoise and removed it's entrails. Using the intestines from one of Apollo's cows he made the first lyre . He then hid back in the cave in his swaddling bands. Apollo quickly realised Hermes was behind the theft of his cattle and protested to Maia who disputed this fact because Hermes was still clothed in the swaddling bands. Zeus intervened and said Hermes should return the cattle to Apollo. As the row continued Hermes began to play his lyre, and the music so enchanted Apollo that he offered to allow Hermes to keep the cattle in return for the lyre. Apollo later mastered the instrument perfectly, and it also became one of his symbols. Later Hermes invented the pan-pipes made from reeds, and was also credited with inventing the flute. Apollo later exchanged the pipes with Hermes for his golden wand.

Known for his swiftness and athleticism Hermes was given credit for inventing boxing and foot-racing. At Olympia a statue of him stood at the entrance to the stadium as well as every gymnasium in Greece. Artists frequently depicted him with winged sandals and his heralds staff.

8) Poseidon is most famous as the God of the sea. One of six siblings who eventually divided the power of the world. Other divinities attributed to Poseidon include the gods of earthquakes and horses. Symbols associated with Poseidon include dolphins, tridents and three-pronged fish spears.

Poseidon was the God of sailors, who often drowned horses as a sacrifice to him. They believed he drove a chariot pulled by horses, and lived on the ocean floor surrounded by jewels and corals. In a good mood he would create new lands and sea, but in a bad mood he would use his trident to strike the ground and cause earthquakes, drownings and shipwrecks.

He is also attributed with having fathered Triton (half man, half fish), Pegasus, Theseus and Orion (amongst others).

9) Athena was the Goddess of wisdom, war, arts, industry, justice and skill. She was Zeus's favourite child and was born fully grown from his head. Her mother was Metis, Zeus's first wife. Athena is the Goddess of ferocious fight, she is only a warrior to defend the native land against outside enemies.

Above all she is the protectress of civilised life, artesian activities, agriculture, the true Goddess of the City. She invented the horse-bit allowing men to tame horses for the first time. The 'Bright Eyed' is the most used expression to describe her. She is the first of the three virgin Goddesses, also known as Maiden, Parthenos, and from this the name of the 'Parthenon' Temple dedicated to Athena was taken.

Athens is her city, as is the Olive Tree which she created. The owl, is the birth consecrated to her.

10) Hephaestus was the God of fire, particularly blacksmith's fire and was the patron of all craftsmen, especially those who worked with metals. He was the God of volcanoes, most notably Mount Etna. Hephaestus was born weak and crippled. Depending on which version of the legend you read, it was said either Hera threw him from Mount Olympus because she was displeased at having a crippled son, or another version states Zeus threw him from Mount Olympus after Hephaestus took Hera's side in an argument. Either way he ended up on the island of Lemnos, where he built his forges and palaces below a volcano.

Having later taken his revenge upon Hera by entrapping her in a magic throne he had fashioned, Hephaestus was tricked by Dionysus into getting intoxicated on wine, and then taken back to Olympus slumped over the back of a mule. Hephaestus only agreed to release Hera once given the lovely Aphrodite as his bride.

Although Hephaestus is known as being the Son of Zeus and Hera, Zeus had nothing to do with his conception as Hephaestus was parthenogenetic, meaning conceived without male fertilisation.

11) Hestia was the Goddess of Hearth fire and domestic life. She was the older Sister of Zeus, and daughter of Rhea and Cronus. When courted by Poseidon and Apollo she swore on the head of Zeus to remain a virgin. She had no throne, but tended the sacred fire in the hall of Olympus and every hearth on earth was an altar to her. She is considered the gentlest of all the twelve Olympians.

12) Demeter is the Greek Earth Goddess who brings forth fruits of the earth, especially grains. She taught man how to plough and sow the fields so he no longer needed to be nomadic. As a fertility Goddess she is sometimes identified with Rhea and Gaia. Besides being the Goddess of the harvest, Demeter also controlled the seasons and was therefore capable of destroying all life on earth. Her daughter Persephone (also Demeter's younger self), became the consort of Hades, and was abducted by him and taken to the underworld. Because of Demeter's power over the land Zeus finally sent Hermes to bring Perspehone back from the underworld. Before she left Hades tricked Persephone into eating six pomegranate seeds, which forced her to return to the underworld for six months each year. When Demeter and Persephone were together the earth flourished, but when Persephone returned to the underworld the earth remained a barren place for six months.

Although the Greeks depended heavily on their Gods to care for their society, they also held great faith in a deity they called an Oracle. This Oracle would be sought out to give advice on life problems, as well as a means of finding out what the Gods required from their worshippers. Much information the Oracles gave determined the decisions made with regard to wars, crimes, health and punishments.

As an expression of gratitude to both the Gods and the Oracles, rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices were performed. The chosen animals were marched through the streets, adorned, blessed with water and sprinkled with barley. Shrines and temples were built as a place to worship and to offer these sacrifices. Honey, milk and wine were also frequently offered to the Gods during ceremonies, followed by dancing and drama.

Greek Pagan Beliefs making a Comeback Today.

I found a very interesting article in the Guardian Newspaper about how in modern day Greece, (where the only legal religions are Christianity, Islam and Judaeism), worship of the ancient Greek Gods is now returning. I would like to quote a few relevant excerpts from this article, and will provide a link for those of you who may find the entire article interesting.

'So big, that like a thunderbolt from the deity himself, the one-hour ceremony has achieved the near-impossible task of unnerving Greece's powerful Orthodox church. Since Peppa's performance 10 days ago, hierarchs have redirected the venom they usually reserve for homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, masons and the "barbaric" Turks at the "miserable resuscitators" of the degenerate dead religion. In fire-and-brimstone sermons priests have slammed the "satanic" New Ageists and fulminated against their idols'.

' For years, Orthodox clerics believed that they had defeated Greeks wishing to embrace the customs and beliefs of the ancient past. But increasingly the church, a bastion of conservatism and traditionalism, has been confronted by the spectre of polytheists making a comeback in the land of the gods. Last year, Peppa's group, Ellinais, succeeded in gaining legal recognition as a cultural association in a country where all non-Christian religions, bar Islam and Judaism, are prohibited. As a result of the ruling, which devotees say paves the way for the Greek gods to be worshipped openly, the organisation hopes to win government approval for a temple in Athens where pagan baptisms, marriages and funerals could be performed. Taking the battle to archaeological sites deemed to be "sacred" is also part of an increasingly vociferous campaign.'

'Like pagans the world over, Rassias says he was drawn to polytheism by the religion's focus on humanity, ecology, cosmic connections and reverence for the past. But, like many in Greece, the 48-year-old banker adds that he was also attracted because of "the brainwashing" of the Orthodox church. "At school we were taught everything about the ancients except the way they worshipped. I found it very strange, and when I looked into it I began to see why," he says. "The Christians hated pagans so much that from the fourth century to the ninth century they destroyed their temples and libraries, killed their priests, closed their philosophical schools and, in one case, set up a death camp. It was genocide but priests don't want to talk about that today." Instead, he says, the Orthodox church insisted that Christianity had been spread, and accepted, peacefully.'

'Greece's pagans will need every ally they can get in their battle with the immensely powerful Orthodox establishment. Church and state are still inextricably intertwined, and priests and parishes are financed from government coffers. "Greece is not like other modern European democracies - it is semi-theocratic," says Vassilis Tsantilas, 42, a computer scientist who experimented with Buddhism, Taoism and Islam before embracing paganism. "Constitutionally, there is no law that even allows for the recognition of other minority religions, which is why the Christians can go on persecuting us." '

If you would like to read the full article here is the link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/feb/01/religion.uk

Naturally this is a huge topic, and one that multiple hubs would struggle to cover. There are many other Gods I have not mentioned here, and numerous legends, myths and tales surrounding them. With this in mind I have done my best to include as much key information as possible within the confines of a Hub topic. I hope you enjoyed it.

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Comments 17 comments

RGraf profile image

RGraf 7 years ago from Wisconsin

Good article. Had forgotten so many of their names from the school days.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands) Author

Thanks RGraf, pleased you enjoyed it :)


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

Mistyhorizon, I'm glad you are covering this and that you include the sacrifices. As for not having a holy "text", most religious texts, as well as other literary texts in the ancient world originated in oral literature, as the ancient religions pre-date writing. Just because something isn't written down doesn't mean it's not a text. If it's memorized word for word, that makes it a text.


Starscream14 profile image

Starscream14 7 years ago

Very good hub. I've read some books about Greeks Gods and I enjoyed them. I have to say that Uranus is my favorite Grrek God. Thanks again for the hub!


Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 7 years ago from California

Nice hub here again, Misty, you do really great work with this topic. I was totally unaware of the persecution of the pagans in Greece. How ironic, really, to think that there of all places this would happen. Almost a new, old holyland in the making. Monotheism certainly had it's chance to bring peace to the world (and failed miserably) I think it's great that the old more Earth-centric religions get their voices heard finally, especially after having been so mercilessly ground under by the bootheels of monotheistic army feet.

Fantastic job.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands) Author

Aya, thanks for making such a good point, the fact something is memorized prior to it being written down does make it valid as a 'text' providing it is memorized correctly.

Starscream, so glad you enjoyed this hub and have an interest in this subject.

Shades, Thank you so much for your complimentary comments on both of my Pagan-based hubs. This is a subject I really enjoy and I only hope it helps to educate people into what really went on, and sometimes still goes on, as well as the history behind the whole topic of Paganism!! :)


CJStone profile image

CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK

Great hub Misty. My favourite is Dionysus as the most mysterious and sensual of the gods. Fascinating to think that the worship of the old Greek gods is returning. Oh, btw, they did have their revered texts: what else would you call Homer's Iliad and Odyssey? All of the rules of ancient Greek society are laid out in those books.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands) Author

Thanks CJ, glad you enjoyed it, and cheers for the extra information :)


csherbak profile image

csherbak 6 years ago from Chicago, IL, USA

A very nice article and a well balanced description of the Gods and Goddesses and how Their stories varied from teller to teller. I do think your paragraph about the Oracle is a bit off however - oracles were dedicated to particular deity, and not thought of as deities themselves.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 6 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands) Author

Thanks for the feedback and the information csherbak. I shall look into it further :)


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 6 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands) Author

Hi again csherbak, I can see from further research perhaps why there is confusion on the Oracle point, for example:

Quote from http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/greeks/religio...

"The word oracle in Greek can mean several related things. It means a god who predicts the future, like Apollo."

or

Quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi#Oracle

"Apollo spoke through his oracle: the sibyl or priestess of the oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia; she had to be an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants of the area. She sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth. When Apollo slew Python, its body fell into this fissure, according to legend, and fumes arose from its decomposing body. Intoxicated by the vapors, the sibyl would fall into a trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit."

Yet in general what you have stated appears to generally accepted as the facts of what defines an oracle.

An oracle is often also defined as the words themselves, e.g.

"an utterance, often ambiguous or obscure, given by a priest or priestess at a shrine as the response of a god to an inquiry."

or

"oracles, the Scriptures."

or

"a divine communication or revelation."

or

"any utterance made or received as authoritative, extremely wise, or infallible."

Another interesting definition of an oracle I found was :

"Greek or Roman deity: an ancient Greek or Roman deity that a priest or priestess would consult for advice on behalf of troubled or uncertain people"

Confusing eh! I could go on, and there are just as many quotes if not more that back up exactly what you are saying, so it seems to be rather hit and miss overall.

Hope you found these of interest though :)


Michelle 6 years ago

Touching article. I, myself am a follower of the old gods. However i must point out that Zeus did not father Hestia,Demeter, Hera, Hades or Poseidon. Those would be his siblings. =)

And there were many oracles to several deities. Apollo, Rhea-Cybele, Gaia, Tyths, Dionysus and then-some! But Apollo was more widely excepted because of his "law and order" nature, whereas the deties Rhea, Gaia, Dionysus and Tyths were more connected with the "old order" of gods. For example: Out with the old and in with the new.

---And i could go on and on and on! =)


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 6 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands) Author

Great information Michelle, thanks for this. you are of course correct, as since I wrote this I too have learned much more about Zeus, his siblings, how they were vomited up again after Zeus poisoned their Father in order to get their help etc. It truly is a fascinating topic, and soon I shall revise the text here to correct the information that was wrong.


mikay 4 years ago

pretty


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 4 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands) Author

Thank you mikay, glad you liked this :)


cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 3 years ago from Western NC

Interesting summary of Greek gods and goddesses. I have a friend who is really into Demeter, so it's interesting to read about her, especially since she doesn't want kids and Demeter is associated with fertility - interesting! :) Thanks for sharing. Voted and tweeted.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 3 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands) Author

Thanks cclitgirl, really delighted you found this hub of use to you, and great that you commented :)

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