Religion in Ancient Greece

Religion in Ancient Greece

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The ancient Greeks believed the gods were an ever-present influence on humanity, for both good and bad. The belief that these gods might be influenced in turn is evidenced in the widespread building of temples dedicated to them as well as the frequent ceremonies, festivals and sporting games held in their honour. In this collection of resources, we examine the general features of the Greeks' religion from its main gods and oracles to rituals, sacrifices and priesthoods. We look at some of the famous sacred sites that attracted pilgrims from across Greece such as Delphi and Delos, the use of curses and magic, and the mystery cults such as those at Eleusis.

Although the historical record reveals much about formal religious occasions and ceremony, we should remember that Greek religion was in fact practised anywhere, at any time, by private individuals in a very personal way. Not only temples but also the hearth in private homes was regarded as sacred, for example. Individuals could also visit a temple anytime they wanted to and it was customary to say a prayer even when just passing them in the street. People left offerings such as incense, flowers, and food, no doubt with a hopeful prayer or in gratitude for a past deed.

Ancient Greek Religion

Two of the most powerful empires in the ancient world were Greece and Rome. It's impossible to understand these empires without understanding the religions that were so important to them. Religion wasn't simply a part of the lives of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans religion was the lens through which they understood the universe and all the events within it. Although the religions of the ancient Greeks and Romans are virtually extinct in their original forms, they live on in the cultures, imaginations, and even the religions of the modern western world.

In the ancient world, "religion" and "philosophy" were not completely distinct entities. The beliefs of the average Greek or Roman might have been influenced both by traditional beliefs about the gods and ideas derived from the teachings of the philsophers. In addition, philosophers like Plato and Socrates addressed the subjects we often group under "religious" today, such as the meaning of life, the existence of an afterlife, the nature of the universe, and the nature of gods.


Zeus – the god of light and sky, the father of men and gods. Everywhere was worshiped, especially at Dodona and Olympia.

Hera – Zeus’ wife and queen of the gods. She was the goddess of women, marriage and family. Hera was well worshipped by the Ancient Greeks, and the oldest and most important temples of the region were built in honour of her. Her sacred animals were the cow, lion and peacock.

Athens – daughter of Zeus, goddess of wisdom and power, she was the most worshiped in Thessaly, Arcadia and Attica.

Poseidon from Milos, 2nd century BC (National Archaeological Museum of Athens)

Demeter – the sister of Zeus, the goddess of agriculture, vegetation and crop growth. She was also associated with the seasons. Her happiness and sorrow (Persephone) depended on the change of seasons.

Apollo – A son of Zeus, Apollo was the Greek god of music, arts, light and medicine. Primarily the god of light, the divine sun (in the hands had a bow and arrows that made the darkness). His main sanctuary was at Delphi. Although associated with health and healing, together with his twin sister Artemis, he could bring disease and plague to humans.

Artemis – the daughter of Zeus, Apollo’s sister, the goddess of animals, wildlife and hunting. Her symbol was a hind. In Sparta worshiped Artemis Orthia, protector of justice and morality. The most worshiped was in Ephesus, where the Artemision was built, one of the 7 Wonders of the ancient world.

Poseidon – brother of Zeus, the god of earth and sea. He lived in the depths of the sea. His weapon was a trident which was said to be so powerful it could shake the earth and shatter any object!

Hermes – A son of Zeus, Hermes was the messenger of the gods. He was also responsible for guiding the dead to the underworld. Hermes was said to be the fastest of the gods and wore winged sandals and a winged hat. He was also known for his intelligence and wit, and would help Zeus with his important decisions.

Ares – the son of Zeus and Hera, the god of war and anger. He was worshiped by the Thracians.

Aphrodite – the goddess of beauty and love.

Hephaestus – the son of Zeus and Hera, god of fire and blacksmith crafts.

Dionysus – the god of vegetation, especially vines.

Hades – brother of Zeus, lord of the underworld and ruler of the dead. Hades presented the realm of the dead. The Greeks believed that the deceased in the underworld water was led by Hermes, that in Hades Charon transported souls across the River Styx At the gates of Hades standed three-headed dog Cerberus. Had the land of darkness, silence and oblivion.

Snakes in religion and ancient Greek mythology

Beyond religions and ideologies, there is a primal fear of beings that are quite different and incomprehensible to us. The snake crawls, it is cold, it comes silently and suddenly. It is an instinctive fear.

Medusa head by Gianlorenzo Bernini in Musei capitolini

The religious reception ties into this, as does the Freudian interpretation that corresponds to the fear of the penis.

A physician examines a sick child while Asclepius is watching. (Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Understanding and reconciling with snakes and other animals, first by shamans and then by priests, gave them a sense of communication with the "beyond". Something similar is sought, perhaps unconsciously, by those who ostentatiously handle snakes or other animals.

The answer to the question is that they induce a primal fear.

The serpent and its relationship to the transmission of knowledge in the Old Testament have been commented on from many angles. But it is not what creates fear of snakes.

After all, there is not only fear. There are snakes in Greece that are respected and protected in many areas like spitofido, Konaki and Lafiatis in some areas.

Archive photo from 2008 - Kefalonia, the snakes of Virgin Mary, on the day of August 15 in the village of Arginia.

There is also the Agiofido(Saint snake), held by the faithful on August 15 in the church of Panagia in a village on Kefalonia.

So the attitudes towards snakes are many and varied.

Snakes in ancient Greece

Representations of snakes were used in vases in ancient times, as decoration, but also as a symbol of death. It was also the symbol of Asclepius, as we see in all the statues of the god of medicine. In other words, there were many different ways the ancients saw snakes.

In funerary vessels, we find representations of serpents along with representations of other types that are geometric in nature and mainly symbolize death. In others, they symbolize the evil forces of the world.

Some of the mythical creatures presented below have elements of snakes:

The Chimera had the body of a goat, the head of a lion, and its tail ended in a snake. In other conceptions, she has many heads: lion, goat and dragon.

Echidna. Sculpture by Pirro Ligorio 1555, Parco dei Mostri (Monster Park), Lazio, Italy.

Echidna, the mother of the Chimera and other monsters, had the face of a beautiful woman and the body of a reptile.

Zeus aiming his thunderbolt at a winged and snake-footed Typhon. Chalcidian black-figured hydria (c. 540–530 BC), Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 596).

Typhoon, Echidna's companion, had a hundred dragon heads on his shoulders. His body looked like a human up to his waist, but from the waist down it had the body of coiled snakes. Fire came out of his eyes and all sorts of screams and whistles came out of his head. Typhoon fought Zeus and was defeated.

The Lernaean Hydra

Gustave Moreau's 19th-century depiction of the Hydra, influenced by the Beast from the Book of Revelation

The Lernaean Hydra was the daughter of Typhoon and Echidna, a water monster with reptilian features and many heads - serpents. When Hercules cut off one, two others sprouted in its place.

Medusa, marble sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1630 in the Capitoline Museums, Rome.

The fearsome Medusa had snakes on her head instead of hair and turned anyone who looked at her to stone.

The heads of the Erinyes were wrapped in snakes, similar to the Medusa Gorgo, and their whole appearance was frightening and repulsive.

Heracles, wearing his characteristic lion-skin, club in right hand, leash in left, presenting a three-headed Cerberus, snakes coiling from his snouts, necks and front paws, to a frightened Eurystheus hiding in a giant pot. Caeretan hydria (c. 530 BC) from Caere (Louvre E701)

Cerberus was a dog with three heads and a serpent's tail. He guarded the entrance of Hades and would not let the souls go out or the living pass.

In the Gigantomachy from a 1st-century AD frieze in the agora of Aphrodisias, the Giants are depicted with scaly coils, like Typhon

The Giants had the form of a man, but they were terrible in appearance, huge in stature, and irresistible in strength. Their bodies were scaly and ended in a lizard's tail.

Python was a chthonic deity. It had the body of a serpent and guarded the Oracle of Delphi.

But there were also heroes - idols in the form of snakes:

Cecropas (Cecrops)

Representation of Cecrops I

Cecropas, the mythical founder of the first city of Athens, was a chthonic deity usually depicted from the center and above as a man and from the center and below as a dragon.


Birth of Erichthonius: Athena receives the baby Erichthonius from the hands of the earth mother Gaia, Attic red-figure stamnos, 470–460 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen

Erichthonius, the mythical king of Athens who founded Panathinaikos, was half man and half serpent. He was born as a serpent and Athena transformed him into a man.

There are also heroes who fight with snakes, such as Hercules, who killed two snakes in his cradle and later Lernaean Hydra.

Heracles as a boy strangling a snake (marble, Roman artwork, 2nd century AD). Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy

Two sea serpents sent by Poseidon kill Laoconda(Laocoön).

Serpents symbolized fertility, but besides Dionysus, they are also associated with austere deities such as Artemis, Athena and later Cybele. But also Zeus himself (as Zeus Filios, Zeus Meilichios, or as Agathos Daimon) is often depicted with a snake next to him.

Charon of Hades, who transported the souls of the dead, is also depicted with a snake beside him. Symbol of death.

But snakes were also protectors:

Sanctuary of Poleada Athena

The house serpent of the Acropolis lived in a temple of Poleada Athena, where are the tombs of the serpent Erechtheus and Erichthonius. This temple was destroyed by the Persians.

The symbols of the Dioscuri in Sparta were two serpents.

According to various myths, the seer Teiresias was associated with snakes, both positively and negatively. While walking at Mount Kyllini he observed two snakes mating. He struck them with his stick and killed the female. He then transformed into a woman and became a famous hetaira. Seven years later, in the same place, he again saw two snakes mating, and by killing the male this time, he became a man again. According to another legend, Teiresias was blinded by Athena because he happened to see her naked while bathing. But then Athena was moved by the entreaties of his mother Teiresias and ordered the serpent Erichthonius to clean Teiresias' ears with its tongue in order to understand the howling of the prophetic birds.

The god Hermes has as his symbol the caduceus, a thin staff of laurel or olive wood, around which are wound two serpents whose heads face each other. Hermes once used his staff to separate two snakes that were fighting with each other. The staff with the two serpents became a symbol of unity and the ending of discord (a story that contrasts with that of Tiresias). According to others, the caduceus is a symbol of fertility. But then it became a symbol of commerce.

Hermes carrying a winged caduceus upright in his left hand. A Roman copy after a Greek original of the 5th century BC.

Hygeia, the daughter of Asclepius, is depicted from the 5th century BC with a snake climbing on her shoulder. While Asclepius, the god of medicine, is always depicted with a snake around his staff. Which later became a symbol of medicine.


According to the history of Orthodoxy, Saint Paul was the first to come into Greece to preach Christianity, back in 49 AD. As of today, about 98% of the country’s population is Christian Orthodox. They are considered, however, to be more free and have less restrictions than other denominations of Christianity. For example, a priest in Greece can marry someone. Following a divorce, Greeks can remarry in church.

Another difference is that Greeks only attend church occasionally, not weekly. Their faith is still as deep and strong as any other Christian, but they also believe in the “Greek spirit”, which is represented by independence and freedom.

Religious Beliefs and ancient Greek Culture

The religious beliefs of the ancient Greek culture were well defined. They believed that they were watched over by Zeus and other gods. To be in favor of the gods, they had to make sacrifices.The Greeks believed in life after death with Hades in the underworld.

The ancient Greek values were unrealistic and they thought that people would get a happy ending after going through any sort of hardship or enduring anything. They thought that if one was brave, then the next life of that person would be very good.

More info on- list of ancient Greek values, beliefs, the Odyssey, cultural values

The Greek Mythological Practice

Despite their variety of beliefs and rituals, though, it is possible to identify a set of beliefs and practices that distinguish the Greeks from others, allowing us to talk at least a bit about a coherent and identifiable system. We can discuss, for example, what they did and did not regard as sacred then compare this against what is considered sacred by religions today. This, in turn, may help chart the development of religion and culture not just in the ancient world, but also the ways in which those ancient religious beliefs continue to be reflected in modern religions.

Classical Greek mythology and religion did not spring fully formed from the rocky Greek ground. They were, instead, amalgams of religious influences from Minoan Crete, Asia Minor, and native beliefs. Just as modern Christianity and Judaism have been significantly influenced by the ancient Greek religion, the Greeks themselves were heavily influenced by the cultures that came before. What this means is that aspects of contemporary religious beliefs are ultimately dependent upon ancient cultures that we no longer have any access to or knowledge of. This differs sharply from the popular idea that current religions were created by divine command and without any preceding basis in human culture.

The development of a recognizably Greek religion is characterized in large part by conflict and community. Greek mythological stories which everyone is familiar with are defined to a great extent by conflicting forces while Greek religion itself is defined by attempts to reinforce a common sense of purpose, civic cohesion, and community. We can find very similar concerns in modern religions and in the stories which Christians today tell each other - though in this case, this is likely due to how these are issues which are a community to humanity as a whole rather than through any direct cultural influence.

3 Answers 3

Certainly. In fact there was even a whole series of Sacred Wars.

More specifically, the First Sacred War was fought by the Amphictyonic League against the city of Cirrha over the latter's mistreatment of religious pilgrims to Delphi. Delphi derived religious significance from its Temple of Apollo, which housed the famous Pythia - the Oracle of Delphi.

The Amphictyonic League was an ancient religious organisation which formed to support the temples of Apollo and Demeter at Delphi and Anthele.

The Amphictyons (literally, “dwellers around”), or Amphictyonic League, oversaw the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and had the power to declare wars (called Sacred Wars) against those guilty of sacrilege.

- Phillips, David D. Athenian Political Oratory: 16 Key Speeches. Psychology Press, 2004.

Pilgrims from all over Greece came to Delphi to seek answers from the priestess, the most prestigious of her kind in the classical world. Many of them would disembark at Cirrha, the closest port to Delphi. The city took advantage of this to impose a toll on pilgrims, a sacrilegious act that ultimately provoked a war with the Amphictyonic League.

Delphi was situated at the foot of Mount Parnassus, and visitors to the shrine who came from any part of Greece by sea usually landed at Cirrha, a seaport town on the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth, which happened to be the nearest port to the oracles . The men of Cirrha were in the habit of extorting heavy dues from travellers on their way to Delphi, and as they would not abandon their exactions at the order of the Amphictyons, these representatives of the Greek states ordered war to be undertaken against them.

- Robinson, John. Ancient History: A Synopsis of the Rise, Progress, Decline and Fall of the States and Nations of Antiquity. London, 1821.

Not only did the war began with a distinctively religious cause, it also ended on a religious note as the lands of Cirrha were made sacred.

The First Sacred War was subsequently fought, resulting in the destruction of Cirrha. The plain around Cirrha was then dedicated to Delphi and cultivation of the land was forbidden.

- Ashley, James R. The Macedonian Empire: the Era of Warfare Under Philip II and Alexander the Great, 359-323 BC. McFarland, 2004.

This affair is actually somewhat similar to the later Crusades of Christendom:

The Amphictyonic league at length - under pressure, it is said, from Solon - proclaimed a kind of holy war against the Cirrhaeans, something like the crusade undertaken to free Christian pilgrims from the tax levied by the Saracens at the gates of Jerusalem.

- Shuckburgh, Evelyn S. A Short History of the Greeks: From the Earliest Times to BC 146. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

As @Matt pointed out in the comments, so-called religious wars in history were almost always also motivated by economical and political concerns. The First Sacred War is no exception here.

3 Ashurism

The national cult of the Assyrian people, Ashurism was nearly identical to the older Babylonian religion but with one major difference: Instead of worshiping Marduk as the supreme deity, the Assyrians chose to honor Ashur. A polytheistic religion with thousands of gods, Ashurism contained about 20 important deities, including Ishtar and Marduk. Since it is so similar to the Babylonian religion, Ashurism shares a number of common stories with Judaism and Christianity, namely the creation myth, the &ldquoGreat Flood,&rdquo and the Tower of Babel. They also shared the apocryphal tale of Lilith, the woman-demon hybrid who was said to be Adam&rsquos first wife.

The New Year&rsquos Festival, known as Akitu, was the most revered date in Ashurism, lasting 11 days, and Ashur was worshiped greatly during it. The religion was founded sometime in the 18th century B.C. and lasted until the fifth century B.C., when the country of Assyria was destroyed, though it may have continued in secret for a while.

Religion in Ancient Greece

In this lesson students learn about Ancient Greek religious beliefs, how religion was important in Ancient Greek society, and how Ancient Greek religion still affects our society today - a great introduction for any history or ELA class studying Ancient Greece.

The lesson is student-centered, engaging, and action-packed! My kids LOVE doing the "Which god should you call upon?" activity and finding the modern connections in the PowerPoint slideshow. Students also read the "Pluto and Persephone" myth and complete reading questions. Common Core aligned, and all teacher answer keys included!

- Lesson Plan
- PowerPoint presentation with brief student notes
- “Gods and Goddesses” info handout
- “Which god should be called upon?” scenario worksheet
- “Pluto and Persephone” reading handout and questions
- Teacher answer keys

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