Agriculture and the raising of animals appeared in sunny Greece as early as 4000 BCE. Between 2300 and 2000 BCE more waves of Indo-Europeans arrived from central-eastern Europe. And, around 1500 BCE, Greeks established fortifications on a hilltop about 90 kilometers south of what is today Athens. They were to be known as the Mycenae Greeks, and they dominated much of southern and central Greece, making themselves an aristocracy over those who had migrated there many centuries before. The Mycenae Greeks came into contact with sea-going tradesmen: the Minoans of Crete, an island one hundred miles south of the Greek mainland. Minoan civilization was about as old as Egypt's civilization, and from the Minoans the Mycenae Greeks acquired an alphabet and learned to write, and they learned seafaring. Some of them joined that enterprise called piracy, and they traded in slaves and other goods.
Around 1200 BCE, more waves of Greeks migrated south from eastern Europe — to be known as the Dorian invasions. The Dorian Greeks bypassed some areas and overran much of the Mycenae civilization. They sent people fleeing, some eastward to Asia Minor, some southeast to nearby islands, and some to Cyprus. In Greece, populations and agricultural production diminished. Greek cities became villages. Writing declined or was lost. Trade between Greece and elsewhere disappeared as the Dorians had no desire for contact with foreign peoples, believing that beyond them lived only strange people and monsters.
But Greek civilization revived within a century or two, and it came with a growth in population and trade. By the 700s, Greek city-states dotted eastern the Aegean coast of what today is Turkey — Asia Minor. And on the Peloponnesian Peninsula (southern Greece) were the city-states of Argos, Olympia, Corinth, and Sparta — the latter created by conquering Dorians making slaves of what had been an agricultural people to be known as Helots.
The Greeks had various gods similar to other Indo-Europeans, including a father god of the sky called Zeus, whom they believed held power over the entire world (similar to various Hindu gods in India and Jehovah in the kingdom of Judah.)
Among the Greeks on the coast of Asia Minor was a poet named Homer. He is believed to have reworked oral histories into a long poem called the Iliad and another called the Odyssey. He praised warrior society and described the doings of warrior-heroes as really the acts of gods. Homer's Iliad describes conflicting intentions among the gods. Destiny is not the intentionality of one god as it would be among Jehovah worshipers. Destiny is instead the product of a chaos of wills. There is uncertainty, and uncertainty creates drama (unlike the preordained).
In the Iliad, the father god, Zeus, prefers love to war. While he is distracted by lovemaking, lesser gods create war. Foremost among these lesser gods is the troublesome goddess of love, Aphrodite, who creates a love affair between a Greek woman, Helen, and an aristocrat of Troy named Paris. Homer described mortals as following the dictates of the gods by acting on their emotions, and he described dreams as religious messages.
The Iliad would become scripture for the Greeks, but not in the sense of commandments or formulas for worship. The gods described in Homer's writing were humanlike: as imperfect, negligent and playful. (They were, after all, anthropomorphic creations.) Priests of Jehovah worship wanted people to be mindful of their sins, and they tended to dislike hedonism while looking toward a blissful, uneventful, heavenly perfection. Homeric religion, on the other hand, glorified the ups and downs of life.
But the Iliad does describe the traditional beliefs of godly punishment and human performances of sacrifice: the god Apollo punishes Greeks with a plague and a contingent of Greeks sacrifices one hundred head of cattle in order to appease Apollo. And the tradition of sacrifice among the Greeks is associated with another religious tradition described by Homer: purification. Homer's heroes wash or purify themselves before a sacrifice, a purification involving disposal of offensive pollutions.
Another writer was Hesiod, believed to have come after Homer, also in the 700s BCE. Hesiod is described as wanting to put the story of his ancestors into a credible whole, which meant drawing from and reworking stories that had been told orally. According to the British classics scholar M L West, Hesiod described himself as having become a poet through instruction from Greek goddesses while on Mount Helicon tending sheep. Like the writings of Homer, the Greeks would view Hesiod's writing as divinely inspired.
Hesiod described Eros as the god of passion and eroticism. He described Zeus as the son of Kronus and living in the highest of mansions on Mount Olympus — the Greeks like others seeing mountains as mysterious and divine places. Hesiod wrote of men having lived like gods, without toil, misery or aging. But then Zeus punished them for not having offered honor to the gods on Mount Olympus and for not having made sacrifices on the sacred altars.
Hesiod wrote of the god Prometheus, a god who stole fire from the heavens and gave it to mankind, which angered Zeus. And as punishment for accepting the fire stolen from the heavens, Zeus sent man a curse in the form of woman. Her name was Pandora. Zeus sent her with a magic storage jar, and he forbade her to open it. But after she had been on earth a while she grew curious and opened the jar, and out came the earthly plagues and misfortunes that forever after harmed humankind. Pandora hurriedly put the lid back on, but all that remained inside was hope. (This story of woman as trouble fit with the ancient Greeks being warrior societies and treating women as property.)
The Greeks had no single institutionalized high priesthood for the worship of the gods described by Homer and Hesiod, but there were cults with their own priesthood. At the town of Eleusis (18 kilometers northwest of the center of Athens) a cult that worshiped the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone had festivals, rites and ceremonies, and they had beliefs induced by visions that members considered exclusive to their group. The cult had its secrets, which were described to new members during initiation. This was a kind of worship that today is called the "mystery religions."
Greeks had the same idea as others that bathing in water offered supernatural purification. And they had a ritual similar to the one in Babylon in which the blood of a suckling pig was spattered on the bed of a person believed to be possessed by an evil spirit. Blood from a slaughtered piglet ritualistically applied was believed to purify people and their homes.
The Greeks engaged in human sacrifices, and in modern times a few scholars have associated ritual human sacrifice with powerful members of society trying to control and impress the lower ranks of society (Joseph Watts and Russell Gray at the University of Auckland in New Zealand). The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless persons at public expense, and when a calamity befell the city they sacrificed one person for the town's men and another for the town's women — to placate the gods perhaps as well as to put fear into people that they should behave. The two were paraded through the city, led outside the city's wall and then killed, perhaps by being stoned to death. In some cities the purification ritual was practiced annually.
It was in the 700s that Greek aristocrats from various city-states began holding mid-summer religious festivals at Olympia, on the Peloponnesian peninsula. There, an annual foot race took place among young women competing for the position of priestess for the goddess Hera, the goddess of women and marriage and the wife and older sister of Zeus. Another race was run for the position of consort for the priestess. The festival at Olympia took place in a stadium that held around twenty thousand spectators. It opened with as many as a hundred oxen sacrificed to Zeus. The religious festival broadened to include aristocratic young men in shape for war. Participants prayed and were judged for their moral suitability. The festival exalted the warrior aristocrats and their god-given right of supremacy over common folk.
CONTINUE READING: The Greeks become Philosophical
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.