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Religion in Ancient Greece


1. Greek Myths

2. Mythology Distinguished from Religion

3. Local Shrines

4. Epithets of the Gods

5. Nature of the Gods of Worship

6. Relation of Greek Gods to Nature

7. The Greater Gods of Greece

8. Nature Gods

9. Gods of Human Activities and Emotions


1. Omens

2. Divination by Sacrifice

3. Dreams

4. Oracles


1. Shrines

2. Temples

3. Priests

4. Seasons of Worship: Festivals

5. Elements of Worship

6. Prayer

7. Burnt Offering, or Sacrificial Meal

8. Meaning of Sacrifice

9. Propitiatory Sacrifice

10. Purification

11. The Great Religious Festivals

12. Mysteries at Eleusis

13. Absence of Magic and Mystery


1. Funeral Rites

2. Future Life in the Homeric Poems

3. Later Beliefs in Immortality


1. Greek Idea of Sin

2. Religious Ideals


1. Greek Philosophy and Christian Theology

2. Greek Influence on Christian Liturgy

3. Greek Influence on the Sacraments


I. The Greek Gods.

1. Greek Myths:

The gods of ancient Greece are well known to our western civilization through the myths which have found so large a place in our literature. In Greece itself, fancy had free play in dealing with these divine beings, and the myths were the main treasure-house from which the poet drew; the same myths and the same gods, under different names, reappear in Rome; and Rome passed them on, a splendid heritage of imagination, to the literatures of later Europe. It is characteristic of myths that they deal with persons, not so different from men in their nature, but with more than human powers. Gods, nymphs and satyrs, noble "heroes" or evil spirits have superhuman powers in varying degree, but they remain persons with a human interest because of their human type. And, further, as men are organized in families, cities and states, so there is a tendency to organize the beings of myth into social groups, and even to bring men, heroes and gods together into one large social organism, the universe of persons.

These Greek myths, the story of Athena’s birth full-armed from the brain of Zeus, of Circe’s magic potion, of Poseidon’s chariot on the waves, and of Apollo’s shafts are familiar to us from childhood. To regard them as expressing the content of Greek religion is as natural as it is false. Very few myths have any religious meaning at all, in spite of the large part the gods play in them. A little comparison with the facts of worship serves to show that here the gods are quite different from the gods of story.

2. Mythology Distinguished from Religion:

Some of the gods hardly appear in myths, and some of the beings of myth are not worshipped; in worship, each god is for the time being the only god thought of, not a member of the hierarchy established in myth; moreover in myth the gods are treated as universal, while the gods of worship are most closely attached, each to one shrine. Along with these external differences goes the one essential difference between a being of story and an object of worship. The failure to recognize the deep meaning of Greek religion results from the superficial assumption that myths constitute a peculiar kind of theology, when in reality they teach but little, and that, indirectly, about religion proper.

3. Local Shrines:

The essential fact about the gods of Greek religion is that each god was worshipped in a unique form at one or another particular shrine by a group of worshippers more or less definite. The group might include the state, the dwellers in one locality or simply the family; whatever its limits, it included those connected with the god by a social-religious tie, and the fundamental purpose of the worship was to strengthen this tie. In a city like Athens there were hundreds of such shrines, varying in importance, each the place where one particular phase of a god was worshipped at specified times. The particular form of the god was ordinarily indicated by an epithet attached to his name, Zeus Olympios, Dionysus Eleutherios, Athena Nike. This epithet might refer to the locality of the worship (Aphrodite of the Gardens), to the center from which the worship was brought (Artemis Brauronia), to some local spirit identified with the greater god (Poseidon Erechtheus), or to the nature of the god himself (Apollo Patroos).

4. Epithets of the Gods:

Each of the many shrines in Athens had thus its unique god, its group of worshippers connected with the god, its particular form of worship and times of worship, its own officials. While the state exercised general supervision over all the shrines, they were not organized in a hierarchy under any distinctly religious officials, but remained as independent units. Religious worship in a given city meant the aggregation of independent worships at the different local shrines.

5. Nature of the Gods of Worship:

The god of worship, then, was the god of a local shrine whose blessing and favor were sought at certain times by those who had the right to worship there. As in myth the gods were drawn after human types, that is, with human virtues and human frailties, and bodies almost human, except that they were not made to die; so in worship the gods were persons not unlike men in their nature. Worship proceeds on the assumption that gods are like human rulers, in that men honor the gods by games and processions, seek to please them by gifts, and ask them to share banquets made in their honor. Only the humanness of the gods in worship is something more subtle, more intimate than in myth. No stress is laid on human form or the vagaries of human character in the gods of worship; in form they remain spirits more or less vague, but spirits who care for men, who may be approached as a man approaches his ruler, spirits bound to man by close social ties which it is his duty and pleasure to strengthen. Zeus is father of gods and men, a father not untouched by the needs of his children; Athena cares for the city of Athens as her special pride; each family worships gods which are all but akin to the family; in the gymnasium, Apollo or Hermes is represented as the patron and ideal of the youths who exercise there; the drama is part of the service of Dionysus; in a word each form of human activity, be it work or pleasure, was a point of contact with the gods. The real forces at work in the world were first men, and secondly beings with a nature like man’s, but with powers superior to man’s; worship was the attempt to ally the gods more closely to man by social-religious ties, in order that as both worked together the ends of life might be successfully attained. This conception of the gods as higher members of society is the keynote of Greek religion. In some ethnic religions the gods seem to be evil beings whose desire for mischief man must overcome; in others they are beings to be avoided as much as possible; or again they are rulers who delight in man’s abject servitude; or again by cultivating the friendship of one god, man may hope to win blessing and avoid harm from the others. In Greece all the gods of worship were essentially friendly to man, because they were akin to him and a part of the society in which he lived.

6. Relation of Greek Gods to Nature:

The relation of the gods to Nature is not so simple as might at first appear. Within certain limits the forces of Nature were subject to the will of the gods. From the Greek point of view, however, the relation is much more intimate, in that the forces in the world, at least in so far as they affect man, are personal activities, activities that express the will of divine beings. We say that Poseidon personifies the sea, Gaia the earth, Helios the sun; and the origin of religion has been sought in man’s awe before the forces of Nature. The truer statement is that the Greek world, including the physical world, was made up of spiritual beings, not of physical forces. "The fire, as useful as it is treacherous, is the province of Hephaestus; all the dangers and changeableness of the sea are reflected in Poseidon and his followers; an Artemis is there to guide the hunter, a Demeter to make the grain sprout, a Hermes or Apollo to watch over the herds; Athena is the spirit of wisdom, Hermes of shrewdness, Ares of tumultuous war. .... In a word the Greek gods are in the world, not above the world, superior beings who embody in personal form all the forces that enter into human life." The contrast between such a personal point of view and the mechanical view of modern science is as marked as the contrast between it and the Hebrew conception of a universe brought into being and controlled by a God quite distinct from the physical world.

7. The Greater Gods of Greece:

Of the particular gods, little need be said. The five greater gods, Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo and Artemis, are not closely connected with any one phenomenon of Nature or human life, though Zeus has to do with the sky, and Apollo and Artemis acquire a connection with the sun and moon. The most important worship of Zeus was at Olympia, where the pan-Hellenic games were held in his honor. Elsewhere he was worshipped mainly in connection with the weather and the changing seasons. Apparently much of his preeminence in Greek thought was due to myth. Hera was worshipped with Zeus on mountain tops, but her special place in worship was as the goddess of marriage. Athena, the maiden goddess of war and of handicrafts, was worshipped especially in Northern Greece. War dances found a place in her worship, and she was rarely represented without aegis, spear and helmet. All the arts, agriculture, handicrafts, even the art of government, were under her care. Apollo was worshipped widely as the protector of the crops, and of the shepherd’s flocks. In this aspect his festivals included purifications and rites to ward off dangers. He was also the god of music and of prophecy. At Delphi his prophetic powers won great renown, but the Pythian games with their contests in music, in rhythmic dancing, and in athletic sports were hardly less important. Artemis, in myth the chaste sister of Apollo, was worshipped as the queen of wild creatures and the mother of life in plants as well as in animals. She was the patron and the ideal of young women, as was Apollo of young men.

8. Nature Gods:

The gods most closely associated with Nature were not so important for religion. Gain, mother earth, received sacrifices occasionally as the abode of the dead. Rhea in Crete, Cybele in Asia Minor, also in origin forms of the earth mother, received more real worship; this had to do primarily with the birth of vegetation in the spring, and again with its destruction by drought and heat. Rivers were honored in many places as gods of fertility, and springs as nymphs that blessed the land and those who cultivated it. Poseidon was worshipped that he might bless fishing and trade by sea; inland he was sometimes recognized as the "father of waters," and a god of fertility; and where horses were raised, it was under the patronage of Poseidon. The heavenly bodies marked the seasons of worship, but were rarely themselves worshipped. In general, the phenomena of Nature seem to have been too concrete to rouse sentiments of worship in Greece.

9. Gods of Human Activity and Emotions:

A third class of gods, gods of human activities and emotions, were far more important for religion. Demeter, once no doubt a form of the original earth-goddess, was the goddess of the grain, worshipped widely and at many seasons by an agricultural people. Dionysus, god of souls, of the inner life, and of inspiration by divine power, was worshipped by all who cultivated the vine or drank wine. The Attic drama was the most important development of his worship. Hermes was quite generally honored as the god of shepherds and the god of roads. As the herald, and the god of trade and gain, he found a place in the cities. Aphrodite was perhaps first the goddess of the returning life of the spring; in Greece proper she was rather the goddess of human love, of marriage and the family, the special patron of women. Ares, the Thracian god of war, was occasionally worshipped in Greece, but more commonly the god of each state was worshipped to give success in battle to his people. Hephaestus, pictured as himself a lame blacksmith working at the art which was under his protection, was worshipped now as the fire, now as the patron of cunning work in metal. Asclepius received men’s prayers for relief from disease.

II. Revelation: Inspiration.

For the Greeks revelation was a knowledge of the divine will in special circumstances, and inspiration was evinced by the power to foresee the divine purpose in a particular case. There is no such thing as the revelation of the divine nature, nor any question of universal truth coming to men through an inspired teacher; men knew a god through his acts, not through any seer or prophet. But some warning in danger or some clue to the right choice in perplexity might be expected from gods so close to human need as were the Greek gods. The Homeric poems depicted the gods as appearing to men to check them, to encourage them or to direct them. In Homer also men might be guided by signs; while in later times divine guidance came either from signs or from men who were so close to the gods as to foresee something of the divine purpose.

1. Omens:

The simplest class of signs were those that occurred in Nature. In the Iliad the thunderbolt marked the presence of Zeus to favor his friends or check those whose advance he chose to stop. The Athenian assembly adjourned when rain began to fall. Portents in Nature--meteors, comets, eclipses, etc.--claimed the attention of the superstitious; but there was no science of astrology, and superstition had no great hold on the Greeks. In the Homeric poems, birds frequently denoted the will of the gods, perhaps because their place was in the sky beyond any human control, perhaps because certain birds were associated with particular gods. The presence of an eagle on the right hand (toward the East) was favorable, especially when it came in answer to prayer. At times, the act of the bird is significant, as when the eagle of Zeus kills the geese eating grain in Odysseus’ hall--portent of the death of the suitors. In later Greek history there are but few references to signs from birds. The theory of these signs in Nature is very simple: all Nature but expresses the will of the gods, and when the gods wish to give men some vague hint of the future, it is necessary only to cause some event not easily explained to attract man’s attention.

2. Divination by Sacrifice:

From the 5th century on, divination by means of sacrificial victims took the place ordinarily of signs such as have just been described. In the presence of the enemy or before some important undertaking, animals were sacrificed to the gods. If they came willingly to the altar, if the inward parts, especially the liver, were sound and well shaped and of good color, if the sacrifice burned freely and without disturbing the arrangement on the altar, success might be expected. The theory was very simple: if the gods were pleased and accepted the sacrifice, their favor was assured; but if the sacrifice deviated in any way from the normal, it would not please the gods. Thus any sacrifice might have prophetic significance, while sacrifices offered before important undertakings had special meaning. The practice arose of repeating sacrifices before a battle until a favorable one was obtained, and at length, as religion began to lose its hold, the time came when a general might disregard them completely.

3. Dreams:

An important means of learning the will of the gods was through dreams, when the ordinary channels of perception were closed and the mind was free to receive impressions from the gods. The treacherousness of dreams was fully recognized, even in the Homeric poem; students of natural science came to recognize that dreams arose from natural causes; none the less they were generally regarded as a source of knowledge about the future, and gradually a science for interpreting dreams was evolved. For Pindar and for Plato the soul was more free when the body slept, and because the soul was the divine part of man’s nature it could exercise the power of divination in sleep. Many of the recorded dreams are signs which came to the mind in sleep, like the dreams of Joseph and of Pharaoh, signs that needed later interpretation.

See Divination; Dream.

Prophets and seers were not as important in Greece as among many peoples. The blind Teiresias belongs to the realm of myth, though there were great families of seers, like the Iamidae at Olympia, who were specially gifted to interpret dreams, or signs from sacrifices. Ordinarily it was the "chresmologist," the man with a collection of ancient sayings to be applied to present events, whose advice was sought in time of need; or else men turned to the great oracles of Greece.

4. Oracles:

The most important oracle was that of Apollo at Delphi. Hither came envoys of nations as well as individuals, and none went away without some answer to their questions. After preliminary sacrifices, the priestess purified herself and mounted the tripod in the temple; the question was propounded to her by a temple official, and it was his function also to put her wild ravings into hexameter verse for the person consulting the oracle. A considerable number of these answers remain to us, all, of course, somewhat vague, many of them containing shrewd advice on the question that was brought to the oracle. The honor paid to the oracle and its influence, on the whole an influence making for high ethical standards and wise statesmanship, must be recognized. The early Christian Fathers held that the Pythian priestess was inspired by an evil spirit; later critics have treated the whole institution as a clever device to deceive the people; but in view of the respect paid to the oracle through so many generations, it is hard to believe that its officials were not honest in their effort to discover and make known the will of the god they served.

III. Forms of Worship.

1. Shrines:

It has already been pointed out that Greek religion centered about local shrines. While in early times the shrine consisted of an altar with perhaps a sacred grove, and later it might be no more than a block of stone on which offerings were laid, the more important shrines consisted of a plot of land sacred to the god, a temple or home for the god, and an altar for sacrifices. The plot of land, especially in the case of shrines outside a city, might be very large, in which case it often was used as a source of income to the shrine, being cultivated by the priests or leased under restrictions to private persons.

2. Temples:

In this precinct stood the temple, facing toward the East, so that the morning sun would flood its interior when it was opened on a festival day. With one or two exceptions, the temple was not a place of assembly for worship, but a home for the god. It contained some symbol of his presence, after the 5th century BC ordinarily an image of the god; it served as the treasure-house for gifts brought to the god; worship might be offered in it by the priests, while the people gathered at the sacrifice outside. And as a home for the god, it was adorned with all the beauty and magnificence that could be commanded. The images of the gods, the noblest creation of sculpture in the 5th and 4th centuries, were not exactly "idols"; that is, the images were not themselves worshipped, even though they were thought to embody the god in some semblance to his true form. In Greece men worshipped the gods themselves, grateful as they were to artists who showed them in what beautiful form to think of their deities.

3. Priests:

Each of these shrines was directly in the hands of one or more officials, whose duty it was to care for the shrine and to keep up its worship in due form. Occasionally the priesthood was hereditary and the office was held for life; quite as often priests were chosen for a year or a term of years; but it was exceptional when the duties of the office prevented a man from engaging in other occupations. In distinction from the priests of many other forms of religion, the Greek priest was not a sacred man set apart for the service of the gods; the office may be called sacred, but the office was distinct from the man. The result was important, in that the priests in Greece could never form a caste by themselves, nor could they claim any other powers than were conferred on them by the ritual of the shrine. Thus Greek religion remained in the possession of the people, and developed no esoteric side either in dogma or in worship.

4. Seasons of Worship: Festivals:

The seasons of worship varied with each particular shrine. While the state observed no recurring sabbath, it recognized a certain number of religious festivals as public holidays; thus at Athens the number of religious holidays in the year was somewhat larger than our fifty-two Sundays. The tradition of each shrine determined whether worship should be offered daily or monthly or yearly, and also what were the more important seasons of worship. The principle of the sacred days was that at certain seasons the god was present in his temple expecting worship; just as it was the principle of sacred places that the temple should be located where the presence of the god had been felt and therefore might be expected again. Neither the location of the temple nor the seasons of worship were determined primarily by human convenience.

5. Elements of Worship:

The elements of worship in Greece were

(1) prayers, hymns, and votive offerings,

(2) the sacrificial meal,

(3) propitiatory sacrifice and purification, and

(4) the processions, musical contests and athletic games, which formed part of the larger festivals.

The heroes of Homer prayed to the gods at all times, now a word of prayer in danger, now more formal prayers in connection with a sacrifice; and such was doubtless the practice in later times.

6. Prayer:

In the more formal prayers, it was customary to invoke the god with various epithets, to state the petition, and to give the reason why a favorable answer might be expected--either former worship by the petitioner, or vows of future gifts, or former answers to prayer, or an appeal to the pity of the god. Sometimes a prayer reads as if it were an attempt to win divine favor by gifts; more commonly, if not always, the appeal is to a relationship between man and his god, in which man’s gifts play a very subordinate part. Thanksgiving finds small place in prayer or in sacrifice, but it was rather expressed in votive offerings. In every temple these abounded, as in certain Roman Catholic shrines today; and as is the case today they might be of value in themselves, they might have some special reference to the god, or they might refer to the human need in which the giver had found help. So far as the great public festivals are concerned, the prayer seems to have been merged with the hymn of praise in which the element of petition found a small place.

7. Burnt Offering or Sacrificial Meal:

The most common form of worship consisted of the sacrificial meal, like the meat offering or meal offering of the Hebrews. The sacrifice consisted of a domestic animal, selected in accordance with the ritual of the shrine where it was to be offered. First the animal was led to the altar, consecrated with special rites and killed by the offerer or the priest while hymns and cries of worship were uttered by the worshippers. Then some of the inward parts were roasted and eaten by priests and worshippers. Finally the remainder of the creature was prepared, the thigh bones wrapped in fat and meat to be burned for the god, the balance of the meat to be roasted for the Worshippers; and with libations of wine the whole was consumed. The religious meaning of the act is evidently found in the analogy of a meal prepared for an honored guest.

8. Meaning of the Sacrifice:

The animal, an object valuable in itself, is devoted to this religious service; the god and his worshippers share alike this common meal; and the god is attached to his worshippers by a closer social bond, because they show their desire to honor and commune with him, while he condescends to accept the gift and to share the meal they have prepared. (Possibly the animal was once thought to have been made divine by the act of consecration, or the god was believed to be present in his flesh, but there is no evidence that such a belief existed in the 5th century BC, or later.) The simple, rational character of this worship is characteristic of Greek religion.

9. Propitiatory Sacrifice:

When men felt that the gods were displeased or in circumstances where for any reason their favor was doubtful, a different form of sacrifice was performed. A black animal was selected, and brought to a low altar of earth; the sacrifice was offered toward evening or at night, and the whole animal was consumed by fire. While in general this type of sacrifice may be called propitiatory, its form, if not its meaning, varied greatly. It might be worship to spirits of the earth whose anger was to be feared; it might be offered when an army was going into battle, or when the crops were in danger of blight, or of drought; or again it was the normal form of worship in seasons of pestilence or other trouble. Sometimes the emphasis seems to be laid on the propitiation of anger by an animal wholly devoted to the god, while at other times there is the suggestion that some evil substance is removed by the rite.

10. Purification:

The later conception is clearer in rites of purification, where, by washing, by fire, or by the blood of an animal slain for the purpose, some form of defilement is removed. In the sacrifice of a pig to Demeter for this purpose, or of a dog to Hecate, some mystic element may exist, since these animals were sacred to the respective goddesses.

These various elements of worship were combined in varying degree in the great religious festivals. These lasted from a day to a fortnight. After purification of the worshippers, which might be simple or elaborate, and some preliminary sacrifice, there was often a splendid procession followed by a great public sacrifice.

11. The Great Religious Festivals:

In the greater festivals, this was followed by athletic games and horse races in honor of the god, and sometimes by contests in music and choral dancing, or, in the festivals of Dionysus at Athens, by the performance of tragedy and comedy in theater. In all this, the religious element seems to retreat into the background, though analogies may be found in the history of Christianity. The religious mystery plays were the origin of our own drama; and as for the horse races, one may still see them performed as a religious function, for example, at Siena. The horse races and the athletic games were performed for the gods as for some visiting potentate, a means of affording them pleasure and doing them honor. The theatrical performances apparently originated in ceremonies more essentially religious, in which men acted some divine drama depicting the experiences attributed to the gods themselves.

12. Mysteries at Eleusis:

This last feature is most evident in the mysteries at Eleusis, where the experiences of Demeter and Persephone were enacted by the people with the purpose of bringing the worshippers into some more intimate connection with these goddesses, such that their blessing was assured not only for this world, but for the life after death.

13. Absence of Magic and Mystery:

In all the forms of Greek worship perhaps the most striking feature was the absence of magic or superstition, almost the absence of mystery. Men approached the gods as they would approach superior men, bringing them petitions and gifts, making great banquets for their entertainment, and performing races and games for their pleasure, although this was by no means the whole of Greek religion, a phase of religion far more highly developed in the rational atmosphere of Greek thought than among other races. As the Greek gods were superior members of the social universe, so Greek worship was for the most part social, even human, in its character.

IV. The Future Life.

1. Funeral Rites:

Greek thought of the life after death was made up of three elements which developed successively, while the earlier ones never quite lost their hold on the people in the presence of the later. The oldest and most permanent thought of the future found its expression in the worship of ancestors. Whether the body of the dead was buried or burned, the spirit was believed to survive, an insubstantial shadowy being in the likeness of the living man. And rites were performed for these shades to lay them to rest and to prevent them from injuring their survivors, if not to secure their positive blessing. As at other points in Greek religion, the rites are fairly well known, while the belief must be inferred from the rites. The rites consisted first of an elaborate funeral, including sometimes animal sacrifices and even athletic games, and secondly of gifts recurring at stated intervals, gifts of water for bathing, of wine and food, and of wreaths and flowers. The human wants and satisfaction of the spirit are thus indicated. And the purpose is perhaps to keep the spirit alive, certainly to keep it in good humor so that it will not injure the survivors and bring on them defilement which would mean the wrath of the gods. At the same time, any contact with death demands purification before one can approach the gods in worship.

2. Future Life in the Homeric Poems:

The second element in Greek thought of the future life appears in the Homeric poems, and through the epic exerted a wide influence on later periods. Here the separateness of the souls of the dead from the human life is emphasized. Once the bodies of the dead are burned, the souls go to the realm of Hades, whence there is no return even in dreams, and where (according to one view) not even consciousness remains to them. It would seem that the highly rational view of the world in the epic, a point of view which laid stress on the greater Olympian gods, banished the belief in souls as akin to the belief in sinister and magic influences. We might almost say that the thought of the greater gods as personal rulers tended to drive out the thought of lesser and more mystic spiritual influences, and made a place for souls only as shades in the realm of Hades. Certainly the result for Greek religion was to render far less vivid any idea of a real life after death.

3. Later Beliefs in Immortality:

The third element was associated with the worship of the gods of the lower world, and in particular Demeter and Persephone. In this worship, particularly at Eleusis, the fact of life after death was assumed, a fact that the Greeks never had denied; but the reality of the future life, the persistence of human relationship after death, and the kindly rule of Persephone as Queen of Souls were vividly impressed on the worshippers. In part through the influence of the Orphic sect, the actual divinity of the soul was believed by many thinkers, a doctrine which was formulated by Plato in a manner which profoundly affected early Christian thought. If the epic emphasis on the greater gods made the souls mere shades in Hades, it was again a religious movement, namely the worship of gods like Persephone and Dionysus, which taught to some Greeks the divine reality of the soul and its hope for a blessed life in communion with the gods.

This development in Greece is the more interesting because there are indications of the same. thing in Hebrew history. In the Old Testament there are found traces of an old worship of souls, practiced by races akin to the Hebrews if not by the Hebrews themselves; this worship was brought to an end under the clarifying power of the worship of Yahweh; and finally the later prophets perceived the truth that while souls were not to be worshipped, the dead who died in the Lord did not become mere shades, but continued to live as the objects of His Divine love.

V. Sin, Expiation, and the Religious Life.

1. Greek Idea of Sin:

The ancient Hebrew religion made much of sin, and of the remedy for sin which God, in loving mercy to His people, had provided; in Greece the thought of sin found no such place in the religious life, though of course it was not absent altogether. If sin is defined as that which causes divine displeasure and wrath, it appears in Greek thought in three forms:

(1) as the transgression of moral law,

(2) as neglect of the gods and consequent presumption, and

(3) as pollution.

The cause of sin is traced to human folly, either some passion like envy or anger or desire for gain, or to undue self-reliance which develops into presumption; and once a man has started in the wrong direction, his sin so affects judgment and will that he is all but inevitably led on into further sin. According to the simple Greek theodicy, the transgression of moral law brings its penalty, nor can any sacrifice induce the gods to intervene on behalf of the transgressor. All that expiation can accomplish is to set right the spirit of the transgressor so that he will not be led into further sin. Neglect of the gods--the second type of sin--brings its penalty in the results of divine wrath, but in this case, prompt repentance and submission to the gods may appease the wrath and therefore change its results. Pollution, the third cause of divine displeasure, often cannot be called sin; the failure to remove pollution, however, especially before one approaches the gods, is a just cause of divine anger. In general the Greek thought of sin centers about the idea of undue self-reliance and presumption, (hubris), which is the opposite of the characteristic Greek virtue, (sophrosune), namely that temperate mode of life in which everything is viewed in right proportion. Inasmuch as the Greek gods are righteous rulers, the nature of sin lies in its opposition to divine justice, not in unholiness or in the rejection of divine love.

2. Religious Ideals:

The demands of the religious life in Greece were relatively simple. To avoid acts of impiety such as are mentioned above, to perform the ordinary acts of worship regularly and punctiliously, were all that was required, though the religious man might find many opportunities for worship beyond what was expected of everyone. Little is said of the spirit of worship which underlay the outward acts. Nor does the command, "Be ye therefore holy, even as I am holy," find an echo in Greece. At the same time the fact that the gods so definitely represented human ideals of life, must have meant that in a way men aimed to make their lives conform to divine ideals. The essential feature of the religious life was the true recognition of human dependence on the gods, a dependence which showed itself in obedience to the divine rule, in trustful confidence that the gods would bless their worshippers, in resignation when misfortune came, and particularly in the belief in the loving care and protection of the divine rulers. In Greece, the religious man looked to the gods not so much for salvation from evil, as for positive blessings.

VI. The Influence of Greek Religion on Christianity.

1. Greek Philosophy and Christian Theology:

This is not the place to speak of the decadence of Greek religion, of its ameliorating influence on the Alexandrian world, or of the control it exercised over the Roman state. Its most permanent effect is found rather in Christianity. And here its shaping influence is first noted in Christian theology beginning with Paul and the Apostle John. For although Greek religion was more free from dogma or anything that could be called theology than are most religions, it furnished the religious content to the greatest philosophical systems we know; and all through the centuries the leaders of Christian thought have been trained in the religious philosophy of Plato and of Aristotle. Our Christian conceptions of the nature of God and the soul, of the relation of God to the physical universe, and of God’s government of the world, have been worked out along the lines laid down by these Greek thinkers. And while the debt is primarily to Greek philosophy, it should never be forgotten that Greek philosophy formulated these conceptions out of the material which Greek religion furnished; indeed one may believe that it was the religious conceptions formulated by centuries of thoughtful worshippers which found final expression in the Greek philosophic systems.

2. Greek Influence on Christian Liturgy:

Again, the organization of the early Christian church and its form of government was quite as much Greek as it was Hebrew in origin. Here the influence of Greek religion as such was less marked; still it must be remembered that every form of Greek organization had its religious side, be it family, or school, or state; and further, that some phases of religion in Greece were quite thoroughly organized in a manner that was adapted without much difficulty to the conditions of the new religion. Moreover the thought of the Greek priest as not a sacred man, but a man appointed by the community to a sacred office, was naturally adopted by the nascent Christian communities. Even in the organization of worship, in the prayers and hymns and liturgy which gradually developed from the simplest beginnings, it is not difficult to trace the influence of what the Greek converts to Christianity had been brought up to regard as worship of the gods.

3. Greek Influence on the Sacraments:

The most striking case of the effect of the old religion on the new is found in the method of celebrating the Christian sacraments. In the 2nd century AD, the baptismal bath took place after a brief period of instruction, and at the common meal the bread and wine were blessed in commemoration of the Master. Three centuries passed and this simplicity had given way to splendid ceremony. Baptism ordinarily was performed only on the "mystic night," the night before Easter. Almost magic rites with fasting had exorcised evil from the candidate; ungirded, with loose hair and bare feet, he went down into the water, and later was anointed with oil to signify the gift of the Holy Spirit; then the candidates, dressed in white, wearing crowns, and carrying torches, proceeded to their first communion in which a mixture of honey and milk might take the place of wine. The whole ceremony had been assimilated to what Greek religion knew as an initiation, in which the baptized underwent some essential change of nature. They were said to have "put on the dress of immortality."

The Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper was carefully limited to those who had been through this initiation, and even among these, at length, degrees of privilege arose. The ceremony came to be known as a mystery, the table as an altar, the officiating priest as a "hierarch," and the result as a blessed "vision" of sacred things by which the resurrection life was imparted. In its formal character and the interpretation of its meaning, as well as in the terms used to describe it, the effect of the Greek mysteries may be seen.

Yet during these three centuries Christianity had been waging a life-and-death struggle with the old religion. It is indeed impossible to believe that converts to Christianity should intentionally copy the forms of a worship which they had often at much cost to themselves rejected as false. The process must have been slow and quite unconscious. As the language of heathen philosophy was used in forming a Christian theology, so the conceptions and practices which had developed in Greek religion found their way into the developing Christian ritual. Much of this ritual which had no essential place in Christianity was later rejected; some still remains, the contribution of the religious life of Greece to the forms of worship in our world religion.


O. Gruppe, "Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte" in I. von Muller’s Handbuch, 1897-1906; Preller-Robert, Griechische Mythologie, I, 1894; W. H. Roscher, Ausfuhrliches Lexikon der griechischen und romishen Mythologie, 1884-; L. R. Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States, 1896-1910; L. Campbell, Religion in Greek Literature, 1898; J. Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece, 1908; P. Stengel, "Die griechischen Kultusaltertumer," in I. von Muller’s Handbuch, 2nd edition, 1898; B.I. Wheeler, Dionysus and Immortality, 1899; E. Hatch, Greek Ideas and Usages, Their Influence upon the Christian Church, 1890; G. Anrich, Das antike Mysterienwesen in seinem Einfluss auf das Christentum, 1894; E. E. G., The Makers of Hellas: A Critical Inquiry into the Philosophy and Religion of Ancient Greece, 1903; E. Caird, Evolution of Theology in Greek Philosophers, 1904; E.A. Gardner, Religion and Art in Ancient Greece, 1910; A. Fairbanks, Handbook of Greek Religion, 1910.