Whatever Happened to the Ancient Greek Religion?

The great hall in Eleusis, Telesterion, one of the primary centers of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Photo by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA]. Link to Wikipedia
While reading about the Hellenistic Period of ancient history, and the later Roman history, I have been curious about the gradual evolution and decline of the ancient Greek religion, centered around the Olympian gods.

As history shows, the Roman Empire gradually transitioned from a pagan Imperial religion to Christianity, becoming official with the reign of Emperor Constatine. Subsequent emperors such as Theodosius then purged the remains of Greco-Roman religion across the Empire, including Greece itself.

But I got to thinking, why?  What the heck happened?

The classic Greek religion, which people learn through school and mythology was best defined in the Homeric epics (the Iliad and the Odyssey) as well as Hesiod’s Theogony. These epics and poems captured the larger Greek religious culture at the time, but also gave it structure and formed a basis for later religion, which in turn was later synthesized with the ancient Roman religion and disseminated further.  This “Olympian” religion was never a particularly organized one. Instead, it was based on a loose network of “cults” centered around the local deity of a city-state with festivals and rituals unique to that locale. For example, Artemis was widely worshiped all over Greece, but each place had its own local legends and festivals. Athena was frequently a patron-deity of city-states such as Sparta, Athens, Argos, etc. Then there were certain cult centers, such as the Pythia (the Oracle of Delphi) that were famous across all Greece.

Magic “tablets” with inscriptions, courtesy of Wikipedia.

But the story didn’t end with the “Olympian gods”.  Magic and superstition were very common beliefs too, as manifested in a goddess named Tyche (Fortune). Fortune was, as the name implies, entirely unpredictable, and could change at any moment. Further, there was a palpable (and somewhat contradictory) sense at the time that one’s own fate was written in the stars and could not be avoided. While modern day views of ancient Greece centers around the Olympian gods, they were part of a larger religious outlook at the time.

During the Hellenistic Period, after Alexander the Great’s conquests spread Greek culture to a much wider geographic area, Greek society also came into much more direct contact with other religions as well.  This led to a much more syncretic culture (sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental), where Greeks were confronted with other deities and teachings to address their anxiety about the world around them.  The reason, as Michael Grant points out in From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World, was that the Hellenistic World was much more uncertain than the classic “city-state” culture (e.g. Sparta, Athens, Thebes, etc). The Greek world was suddenly thrust into a much larger one and while people became more affluent and educated, they also became increasingly concerned with personal salvation. Classic Greek beliefs viewed life as fleeting and uncertain, while the afterlife, reflected in the Odyssey and other sources, for the vast, vast majority would be to simply dwell in the Underworld as flitting spirits, memories of their former lives all but forgotten.

This concern with avoiding a dismal fate manifested in “mystery cults” starting with the worship of Demeter at Eleusis. As Michael Grant writes:

Magic might change your destiny, but initiation — musterion, so that these were called Mystery religions — raised you outside its clutches altogether; and the soul of the initiate was elevated beyond the reach of the hateful stars….This miracle was affected by personal union with a Savior God, who was often himself believed to have died and risen again in the past. (page 225)

These Eleusinian Mysteries involved re-enacting the legend of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, descending into the Underworld, marriage to Hades, and then reuniting with her mother. As they were a closely guarded secret, know one knows what exactly

Fresco of the mystery ritual, right, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Italy.  Courtesy of Wikipedia

happened, but many Roman and Greek villas have scenes painted of the various initiation ceremonies. Another, perhaps even more popular, mystery cult surrounded the “foreign god” Dionysus. Dionysus was particularly venerated by Alexander the Great’s army as they marched east, re-enacting his legendary conquests in the East before he laid down his sword and gave himself over to the gentler pursuits in life. Dionysus’s story of his death by the Titans and rebirth through his mother Semele became an important element in the cult, and followers believed that they too would be reborn just as Dionysus had. The fact that Dionysus was also associated with joy and the spring of life was not lost on followers either. As with the Eleusinian Mysteries, scenes of the Dionysian Mysteries could be found on wall-paintings such as those at the Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii.

Further, foreign cults gained much prominence. By far the most famous was the

Io (left, with horns) is welcomed in Egypt by Isis (sitting).
Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples) and courtesy of Wikipedia.

Egyptian goddess Isis, who was worshipped as something like a “supreme goddess”. By the time the Greeks encountered Isis, the Egyptian myths and rituals were already well-developed and the syncretic Hellenistic culture at the time quickly found common ground between the two. Isis’s consort, Osiris, was thought to be Dionysus, and Isis was loosely conflated with the Greek deity Aphrodite. However, in addition to a series of public rituals and festivals, the cult of Isis also had its contemplative side as well as promises of salvation which helped it spread rapidly in the Hellenistic world. Isis exemplified pity and compassion toward her followers as well as deep wisdom.

Indeed, as Michael Grant summarizes:

Pagan religion was not already dying and dead when Christianity overtook it; it had remained very lively indeed. But it had deviated, and continued to deviate throughout the Hellenistic age, from the traditional mainstream of the classical Olympian cults. They continued, it is true, to receive impressive ceremonial worship, but a person of this epoch no longer pinned his or her faith on those gods, but on a number of Divine Saviours. These Saviours were relied on, passionately, for two quite distinct miraculous gifts, of which their various cults held out hopes in varying proportions: the conferment of strength and holiness to endure the present life upon this earth, and the gift of immortality and happiness after death. (pg. 224)

This syncretism and need for answers was not limited to “popular religion” either.  Many of traditional Greek schools of philosophy, which had maintained a flippant and disdaining view of religion and superstition, absorbed monotheistic elements from Persian culture and gradually transformed themselves into “new”, more grandiose explanations of the world.  Platonic philosophy became (what we now call) Neoplatonism, Phythagoras’s belief in the unifying importance of mathematics took in increasingly deistic tones.  All of these trended toward a more monotheistic outlook on life, where the original Olympian gods played less and less of a significant role.

In short, it seems that in a larger, uncertain world such as the Hellenistic Era followed by the Roman Empire, that the traditional Olympian gods no longer fulfilled people’s needs, and that this greater awareness of mortality, fate and the afterlife led many to pursue other, more personal faiths, and with so many different cultures and ideas suddenly within reach, a great explosion of ideas and faiths spread across the Mediterranean until the Olympian gods (and their Roman counterparts) were relegated to public rituals only.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

One thought on “Whatever Happened to the Ancient Greek Religion?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: