The ancient Greeks with their brilliant and imaginative spirit created a complete order of things that functioned harmoniously in the infinite world that contained them. Although its exact origins are lost in time, Greek religion is thought to date from about the 2d millenium B. C. , when the culture of Aryan invaders fused with those of the Aegean and Minoan peoples who had inhabited the region of Greece from Neolithic times . The beginning and the genesis of this world occupied the ancient Greeks in much the same way it did the early people of every civilization.
Greek religion was at the beginning a blend of Minoan, Egyptian, Asian, and other elements, but it subsequently evolved along with Greek thought. The early Greeks interpreted natural forces and unexplained phenomena in what they considered a reasonable way, true to a system of laws which arose from a respect for the superior beings who defined and ruled the universe. The stimuli from the environment and the incredible vastness they saw around them, made these early people deify abstract concepts, elements of nature and all the other amazing things they believed regulated their fortunes and their survival.
The divinity that was worshipped above all others during prehistoric times was Mother Earth. Mother Earth was frequently identified with the goddess of fertility and the cultivation of the earth was clearly connected to religious practices. These early divinities soon no longer satisfied the imagination of the Greeks or their yearnings of religion. People wanted more actively involved gods to keep them company in their daily lives and to take a position in regard to their problems.
The early gods evolved with Greek thought and the scepter of the lords of the world changed hands until the most powerful came to dominate . The battles of the Titans and the Giants gave rise to a new generation of gods who then gained control. The victors were the classical Greek pantheon, also called Homeric (for its portrayal in Homer’ Iliad) or Olympian (for Mt. Olympus, home of the gods). The Olympian gods grew large in the imagination of the Greeks and came to rule over religious worship.
So powerful and at the same time so vulnerable to human weaknesses, they regulated the fortunes and the lives of those they both loved and hated. Splendid, magnificent, each one with its own character, they became objects of worship for many centuries. The Olympian gods shared all of mankind’s virtues and faults. They were severe, punishing every unjust act, while protecting and assisting the just and the pious. They even had their own likes and dislikes which governed their behavior towards mortals.
This was made very clear during the Trojan War (as portrayed in Homer’s Iliad) when the gods got involved and assisted either Achaeans or Trojans, depending on whom each of them favored. The gods were vengeful but also excessively generous, while at the same time being propitiated by the material sacrifices they were offered by the faithful. The Greek deities had supernatural powers, particularly over human life, but were severely limited by the relentless force of fate (Moira).
There was no job or social need that was not connected to the worship of some god: from farming to education, from the fine arts to hunting, from military valor to love. Although all gods were to be equally respected and worshiped, each god had distinctive characteristics which justified their presence and participation in the daily activities of the mortals and especially in the adventures of the heroes. One finds certain gods more carefree and fun-loving, who gave life its necessary zest with their high spirits and merriment; this facet is to be found, for example, in the religious worship of Dionysus and Aphrodite.
The gods were most important in their role as guardians of the city-states and as those who could provide information, through divination rites, about one’s future on earth. The gods had distinct personalities in myth, but they also represented impersonal forces, and they served as focused points for civic life through the web of cult activities on which a city depended to maintain its social order. Individual worshipers might come under a god’s protection and individuals might even be granted a temporary share in attribute of the god.
But it is primarily the city as a social unit that faces the gods. Gods, for their part, make their appearances not to a few saints but in public, so as to assure a city of their power and remind all human beings of mortality. Often the favorable response or reward expected did not materialize, and the civil strife that followed the classical period (from c. 500 B. C. ) placed the old gods on trial . The popular religion of the Greek countryside rose, emphasizing the promise of afterlife and elaborate rites offered by such cults as the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries.
The Dionysian excesses of these mystery rites were offset by the virtues of moderation ascribed to Apollo. Later Greek philosophical inquiry sought a more logical connection between nature and mankind, leading to the rationalization of the early myths and the final destruction of the Homeric pantheon. The vacuum was eventually filled by Christianity. The polytheistic and anthropomorphic features of ancient Greek religion is characteristic of the ancient Greeks desire to describe the world around them and find answers about human behavior.
The polytheistic feature or multitude of gods is used to represent the different aspects of life. Each god is thought of being a protector of a human attribute or emotion, for example, Aphrodite the goddess of love and beauty. Gods were made in the image of humans; gods had names and bodies and they were sexual. Gods were more powerful and knowledgeable than humans and they were eternal. But, they were not all powerful and not all knowledgeable (unlike Christians’ God who is omnipotent and omniscient). Although there was no Devil, each god had his or her fallings.
Gods suffered pain and could not change or control the fate of humans. This anthropomorphic feature of Greek religion was comforting to humans because it gave them a way to explain their own behavior and fallings. Gods are not perfect so humans are not expected to be. This religious system was immoral. It was not based on a set of moral values that had to be followed (like the Ten Commandments). Different gods had different demands and expectations from humans. So how do humans distinguish what is right and what is wrong? By being responsible and choosing their actions wisely!
Although this opens the door to tragedy, it is a manifestation of the power of the human spirit and its freedom of choice . Although the Olympian religion emphasized the limits of humans, the religious and mysterious Eleusian and Orphic Mysteries offered the Greeks a sense of immortality (rebirth), a comfort to the fact that humans die. These mysteries were an aim to overcome the fear of death and achieve a spiritual purification (resurrection). And they seemed to be successful at that as the participants to these mysteries returned from their pilgrimage full of joy and happiness and with the fear of death diminished.