Greek Mythology and Religion

Essential Question – What meanings did myths about gods, goddesses, and heroes have for the ancient Greeks? What meanings do the Greek myths have for us today?

After this unit, you will be able to:

  • Describe the basic plots of several Greek myths.
  • Discuss three types of themes in Greek myths: stories about heroes, stories about “how it came to be,” and stories about the consequences of unwise behavior.
  • Cite examples of contemporary use of terms from Greek mythology.

Greek Mytholoy and Religion background knowledge: The anceint Greeks never became unified into one state. They lived apart from one another in small city states and colonies. They did, however become united by their language, religion, and tradiional stories.  In this reading, you will learn about the significance of Greek REligion and stories about gods and history.

Greek Religious Beliefs: In some ways, Greek religious practices were similar to those found in other ancient culture.  The Greeks were polytheists who believed in many gods, or deities.  A deity is a being with supernatural powers. Like other agricultural people, the Greeks believed that gods and spirits were at work all around them. Unlike the gods of Egypt, however, the Greek deities looked like ordinary people.

The Gods of Mount Olympus: The Greeks believed that their major gods lived on Mount Olympus, a mountain in northern Greece. Zeus was the supreme ruler of the gods, as well as the lord of the sky and god of rain. He threw his main weapon, a thunderbolt, at those who displeased him. His wife, Hera, protected maried women and their households.
Zeus had two brothers.  The first, Poseidon, was the god of the sea.  A quarrelsome god, when he was angry, Poseidon could make the earth shake and the seas churn. Zeus’ second brother, Hades ruled the underworld.  Hades was a greedy god, always looking for more dead people to add to his domain.
Other major gods included Apollo, god of the arts, prophecy, and healing, and Ares, the god of war.  Artemis had charge of the woods and hunting.  Aphrodite was goddess of love and beauty, and Demeter oversaw farming and the harvest. Athena was a favorite deity of many Greeks.  According to one myth, she gave the Greeks a very useful gift-the olive tree.  She was the guardian of the city of Athens and a patron of crafts such as weaving and pottery.  The Greeks believed that Athena often appeared to help them in times of war.  She was fierce and brave in battle.  But she would fight only to protest the Greek city-states from outside enemies.
Minor gods were believed to live on Olympus as well.  One was Eros, god of love.  Others included Muses, a group of nine sisters.  The inspired poets, historians, scientists, and musicians.  Today, the word muse is often used to refer to the inspiration for a creative artist. The word museum originally meant “the place of the Muses.”

Greek Mythology:  The greeks created no Bible or Vedas to explain their religion.  Instead, they based most of their religious beliefs on their mythology.  Mythology is the collection of stories that people tell about their history and their gods.  The Greeks used mythology to answer questions about the world around them.  Some myths explained the changing of the seasons.  Others explained why so much trouble existed in the world.  Still others tried to explain human behavior.  Greek mythology also included stories about heroes.  One such story told of a hero named Hercules.  He was famous for his amazing strength and courage.  Like many characters in Greek myths, Hercules was only half human.  His mother was human, but his father was Zeus.  However, being Zeus’ son did not protect Hercules from suffering.  According to the myths, Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, cast a spell on Hercules that drove him mad and made him kill his beloved wife and sons.
In Greek mythology, gods and goddesses behaved very much like ordinary people.  They fell in love, got married, and had children.  They liked to celebrate and play tricks.  They also grew jealous and became angry.  As a result, these deities seemed very real to the Greeks.

Homer’s Epics:  Two great epic poems provided another source of Greek religious beliefs.  The iliad and the Odyssey told stories of ancient times.  They were the work of the poet Homer, who lived in the eighth century B.C, although the stories themselves were much older.  Homer’s stories may have been based on real events.  Mycenaean Greeks and Trojans may have gone to war over land or trade.  To later Greeks, however, what really happened was less important than what Homer imagined might have happened.
Earlier stories had staated that the Trojan War began with a quarrel among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite over who was the most beautiful.  In borth the Iliad and Odyssey, the gods often took part in human affairs.  During the war, some gods sided with the Greeks, others with the Trojans.  After the war, different gods often influenced the fate of Odysseus and his companions.  Homer’s epics reflected the Greeks’ belief that the gods controlled much of their lives, while also portaying human characters such as Odysseus as crafty and intelligent.  As Odysseus says in the Odyssey:
Of all creatures that breathe and walk on the earth there is nothing more helpless than a man.. For he thinks that he will never suffer misfortune in future days, while the gods grant him courage, and his knees have spring in them.  But when the blessed gods bring sad days upon him, against his will he must duffer it with enduring spirit. 

Religion in Everyday life: Greek myths and Homer’s epics shaped the Greeks’ indentity-their idea of what it meant to be Greek.  They saw little seperation between the gods’ lives and their own.  As a result, public and private religious shrines.  Public meeting began with prayers and animal sacrifices.  Although women did not participate in the government of the polis, their particicpation in its religious ceremonies was essential. Each city-state built temples to its favorite deities.  At specific times, citizens made sacrifices to those gods in front of their temples.  People offered gold, cakes and wine, or prized animals such as bulls.  They asked the gods for favors, such as good crops or good health.

Festivals and games:   Greeks also honored the gods publicly with festivals and games.  Poets and musicians competed to offer the best songs.  Later, as you will read in Section 2, writers presented their best plays.  Athletic contests were sometimes a feature or religious rituals.  Athletes dedicated their skill and strength to the gods.  They competed in boxing, wrestling, and running and in throwing the javelin and discus.  They also took part in chariot and horse races.  The leading competitions brought together athletes from many city-states.  City-States at war would stop fighting during the games.  The most famous competitions were the Olympic Games, which honored Zeus.  These games took place every four yesrs at Olympia.  A huge gold and ivory statue of Zeus stood in the temple at the Olympic site.  Archaeologists have found the ruins of the temple as well as a large stadium there.
Winners in the games were given a wreath of leaves.  Like modern athletes, winners became heroes to many ordinary citizens in Greece.  Often, wealthy aristocrats supported these athletes.  In addition, cities awarded valuable gifts to their winning athletes.  Athens and other cities even gave Olympic winners free meals for life.

Sacred Places:  Because many people believed that the gods lived in Greece, they considered many places in the landscape to be scared.  Groves of trees, springs, and other places were thought to be home to various gods and spirits.  The Muses, for example, had several favorite mountains.  A great temple to Apollo stood at Delphi, a religious center on Mount Parnassus.  The Greeks believed that a priestess known as the Delphic oracle lived there.  An oracle is a person who predicts what will happen in the future.  People traveled to Delphi from all over Greece to ask the priestess questions about the future.  The oracle was famous for answering with puzzling statements that could be interpreted in several ways.
The tourists who visit Delphi today no longer come looking for an oracle.  The Greek religion died out long ago, but the myths and epic inspired by those ancient beliefs are still read today.  Books and movies often borrow plots from Greek myths.  The reason is simple.  Religious ideas have changed since the days of ancient Greece, but good stories will always hold people’s interest.



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