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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
IV. Greek Religion
By Professor Clifford Herschel Moore
GREEK religion includes all the varied religious beliefs and practices of the peoples living in Greek lands from the beginning of history to the end of paganism. In contrast to Christianity it had no body of revealed teachings, no common dogma or fixed ritual binding at all shrines and on every worshiper, but each locality might have its own distinctive myths and practices, and the individual might believe what he pleased so long as he did not openly do violence to tradition. No priestly orders attempted to interpose their decrees upon society; local habit alone determined both ritual and belief.  1
  The religion of the Greeks exhibited at every stage its composite character. As early as the second millennium B. C., so far as we can judge from the results of excavations in Greece proper and in Crete, the inhabitants of these lands had anthropomorphic ideas about some of their deities, that is, they thought of them and represented them in their art essentially as human beings; on the other hand, we find in the later centuries such primitive elements as the worship of sacred stones, trees, and symbols still existing. Yet it is a mistake to suppose that Greek religion had its origin in a worship of natural objects and forces; undoubtedly the worship of natural phenomena and of inanimate objects, of ancestors, and possibly of animals, all contributed to the religious sum total, but it is impossible to trace to-day all the factors which made up religion in historical times. We can only say that the Greeks worshiped a multitude of spiritual beings who filled all nature and were to be found in every field of activity. Man, therefore, was always in social relation to the gods. The ordinary Greek felt that the world was filled with divine beings of varying ranks whose favor he must seek or whose ill nature he must propitiate by offerings and prayer. Only the most enlightened ever attained to anything like monotheism.  2

  The earliest Greek literature, the “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” 1 shows a circle of gods bound together in a social organization similar to that of the Homeric state. At the head is Zeus, father of gods and of men, possessing a power on Olympus like that of Agamemnon among the Greeks before Troy. With Zeus, Apollo and Athena hold the first rank; Hera, although the wife of Zeus, is in the second rank with Poseidon; Ares and Aphrodite represent little more than the passions of rage for slaughter and love; the god of fire, Hephaestus, Artemis, the sister of Apollo, Hermes, the higher servant of the greater gods and the companion of men, and others are of still lower rank; while Demeter and Dionysus, although known, have no place on Olympus. All these divine beings are represented as larger, stronger, wiser than mortals, but they are no whit less subject to the passions of body and mind; their superiority over men lies chiefly in the possession of immortality. Now no such system of gods was ever worshiped anywhere in the Greek world. It was created by a process of selection and elimination from local cults, and adapted to please the Ionic courts at which the epics were intended to be recited. These epic gods did not drive out local divinities; but the Homeric poems acquired such universal influence in Greece that wherever possible the local divinity was assimilated to the Homeric type, so that Athena, for example, the patroness of Athens, was endowed with the characteristics given her in the epics. There was a constant tendency in literature and art to represent the greater gods in the Homeric way.
  Hesiod (about 700 B. C.) also had a great influence on later times through his “Theogony,” which was the first attempt to criticize myths and to bring the various accounts into a consistent and harmonious whole. Moreover, the Hesiodic poetry displays certain religious elements which have little or no place in the Homeric epics. Of these the most significant is the worship of the dead and of heroes. On the side of ethics also we find higher concepts of justice and of the moral order; and in general there is much more reflection on man’s relation to the gods and to society than we see in Homer.  4
  In spite of the influence of Homer and Hesiod, no single god or system of gods ever became wholly universal, but each divinity was connected with some locality. The simple Greek conceived of his local god as individual, largely distinct from any other god of the same name, very much as the Greek peasant to-day thinks of his local saint. Yet with the growth of cities, when it became inconvenient to resort often to the ancient localities which might be remote, new shrines, offshoots of the old, were established in towns, so that there was, for example, at Athens, a certain concentration of cults. Furthermore, the chief divinity of a city acquired a position as patroness of a considerable area, as Athena of all Attica, but without completely overshadowing or expelling other gods. Likewise certain religious centers developed which served more than one state, such as the shrine of Apollo at Delos, which became a center for all Ionians, or that of Zeus at Olympia, where representatives of all the Greek world assembled every four years.  5

  It will thus be seen that Greek religion was largely social and local. The members of the family, the clan, the tribe, and the state were bound together by worship in which the individual shared by virtue of his membership in the social body. These conditions gave solidarity to society and made religion the common and permanent concern of all citizens; yet this common worship tended to check all tendencies to personal religion. But from the eighth century B. C. on, many influences operated to bring the individual to self-consciousness. Men began to be dissatisfied with the sacred tradition of the state and to seek to establish such personal relations with the gods as should give them as individuals religious satisfaction. This desire found outlet from the sixth century B. C. in the Orphic Sect, whose members tried to secure satisfaction for religious emotion and to gain the warrant of a happy life hereafter through the mystic worship of Dionysus and a fixed method of life. At about the same time the Mysteries began to be prominent. Of these the most important were at Eleusis in Attica, where a festival in honor of Demeter and certain associated gods had existed from a remote period. This festival was originally agricultural, intended to secure fertility and prosperity for all admitted to it; but before 600 B. C. it had been transformed into an eschatological mystery, by initiation into which the individual was assured of a blessed future life. The movements thus started in Greek religion tended to break down men’s real dependence on social worship, although the old cults continued to the end of paganism. Yet, in Athens especially, political events during the fifth century checked the individualistic movements in religion temporarily. From the conflict with Persia (490–479 B. C.) Athens emerged as the chief state in Greece; during the fifty years which followed she enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity and an imperial position which bound all citizens closely together, in spite of the strife of political parties. Now in the preceding century Peisistratus had done much to exalt and establish the Olympian type of religion at Athens; and it was natural that in the time of the power of Athens the ideal of the state religion should predominate. All citizens united in dedicating to the gods their material wealth and their noblest art.

  In this same time lived the great tragedians Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who were also great religious teachers. Æschylus endeavored to interpret the higher truths of religion as he saw them, and to bring these truths into relation with morals. He dwelt on the nature of sin, the stain it brings to each succeeding generation, the punishment of wrongdoing which the divine justice must inflict, and on the disciplinary value of suffering. These characteristics of his tragedies are well illustrated by the “Prometheus” 2 and by the Trilogy. 3 Sophocles emphasized the divine source of the higher moral obligations which transcend all human laws. He further taught that pain may have its place even when the sufferer is innocent; and that purity of heart, faith in Zeus, and acquiescence in the divine will are fundamental principles of righteous life. These doctrines underlie the “Antigone” 4 and “dipus the King.” 5 Euripides belongs in temper to the rational age which followed him. He had no consistent message to his time. On the whole he contributed to the rejection of the old Olympic religion, but at the same time he constantly stirred men to ask fundamental questions about life. In his “Hippolytus” 6 he shows his chaste hero brought to death because he will not yield to the goddess of love, and thus the poet belittles the sacred tradition; in “The Bacchæ” 7 he exalts enthusiasm and inspiration above reason, not, however, without a certain cynicism at the end.
  From the close of the fifth century philosophy began to take the place of the traditional religion for thinking men; yet philosophy did not break with the religious sentiment of the time. Eventually the spirit of individualism and cosmopolitanism destroyed men’s faith in the state religions, and although the ancient rituals continued to the end of antiquity, they never regained the position which they had in the sixth and fifth centuries B. C.  8
Note 1. See Harvard Classics, xxii, 9ff. [back]
Note 2. H. C., viii, 166ff. [back]
Note 3. “Agamemnon,” “The Libation-Bearers,” and “The Furies,” H. C., viii, 7ff. [back]
Note 4. H. C., viii, 255ff. [back]
Note 5. H. C., viii, 197ff. [back]
Note 6. H. C., viii, 303ff. [back]
Note 7. H. C., viii, 368ff. [back]


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