Greek culture is the foundation of Western civilization, and truly distinguished itself from its Near Eastern counterparts. The Western view is commonly referred to as being the Greco-Roman tradition, the Greek contribution being noted first since the Romans heavily appropriated many aspects of the Greek culture because they wanted to emulate the artistry the Roman themselves felt they were lacking. The Greeks prided themselves on their self described high culture, and did not hesitate to classify themselves as civilized and those who could not speak Greek as not. In this essay, we will be discussing the key social aspects that shaped the Greek worldview, and how they still influence Western societies today. Among these that we will be examining religion and mythology, and how they contributed to the psyche of the average Greek.
Greek mythology had seared itself onto the interface of Western Civilization, and has continued its own spirit to this day, long since the last of heroes of the Homeric Age have retired to Elysium. This is evident in the proliferation of select parts of today’s media which are inspired by the ancient stories. For example, the release of Patty Jenkins’ 2017 film Wonder Woman, based on the comic book character developed in the 1940s of an Amazonian princess, opening with a retelling of the struggles between the Olympians and the Titans; the modern day Greek demigod Percy Jackson and subsequent Heroes of Olympus book series by Rick Riordan, etc. The stories we hear when we are young from our parents are the very beginnings of the development of our worldviews. They also maintain social cohesion for groups of people by providing a means for a widespread people to have some sort of substantial commonality, even if that small aspect is mostly fiction. By exploring the abstract and fictional narratives that binded many Greeks all over the city-states together, we can study how an influential society was able to develop from mere villages eventually into a confederacy that was able win a victory against the superpower of the day. One of the points to be discussed is the deviations of the myths themselves take, and how the retellings may reflect different city-states interpretations and the differences in underlying logic that may have contributed to these differences in myth. The mythology was so impregnated in the minds of the Greeks that they were frequently the subjects of statues, depictions on vases and other pottery, frescoes and the cause for large building projects in the form of temples.
This rise of the Greek polis after the Greek Dark Age saw a profound change in the way that religion is expressed. Throughout the eighth century, we see a substantial increase in burial goods (earthernware and bronze), where before there had been little evidence of burial goods. This indicates that there is a belief in society that the dead must be honored with useful and valuable items for their afterlife. This coupled with the development of sanctuaries indicates “A new generation of cult sites appear, archaeologically speaking, toward the end of the ninth century: Delphi, Delos, the acropolis of Athens, the Heraion of Argos, and possibly Perachora” (Polignac, 12). The increase in wealth as shown by a proliferation of goods, made up in significant part as dedication as offerings, and the newly designated spaces for religious function point to a new way of how the people in these societies were seeing and thinking of their communities. As the eighth century continues, more of material culture we first saw as burial offerings tombs began to shift toward collection in sanctuaries and the number of sites that can be counted as sanctuaries increase. For material culture, bronze ware makes up an ever growing material type percentage of the assemblage, which had become so universally valued as the go-to metal and namesake of its age. Many objects that previously could still serve a practical purpose as well as signify religious connotations became purely religiously oriented as they were more elaborately decorated and their size substantially increased to make practical use impossible (Polignac, 15). We also see an artform develop as motifs and themes proliferate many of these works, and even figurines are made of the handles and more intense care is brought to increasingly differentiated and developed.
These changes in religious behaviors communicates that the Greeks were increasingly mindful of the connection of material wealth and how its relation to the gods show reverence. This mindfulness translates into how the ancient Greeks perceive space and community differently. Originally, rituals were performed anywhere, as long as it was within a natural domain of the deity i.e. close to the sea for Poseidon, or in the marshes or woods (places of generally perceived elevated spirituality). We see a change in the number of sites in which public buildings are constructed with the purpose of serving as sacred places for the deities to officially reside and where the containments of the profane are not permitted. One of the first distinguished aspects of the sanctuary to proliferate the record is the altar. During the Dark Age, we see no indicators of animal sacrifice, like hearths with accompanying buildup of carbon from burnt offerings. As we enter the Geometric period, the altar is one of the first remnants of religious activity we see in the archaeological record, and it’s need to be situated in an open air loci gives weight as an early component of piety in the ancient Greek world as religion develops into a more central part of society (Polignac).
It’s notable that temples and sanctuaries don’t occupy only a single kind of space, but exist on a continuum of possible locations as the possible placements throughout the territory of a polis depends on the deity being honored and is in turned informed by the culture of the people of a specific polis. Athena, representing civic engagement and appreciation for craftsmanship, holds the title of an urban deity, her temples located at the acropolis of the city. This association of Athena’s temples residing in the acropolis may have less to do with her position in the Olympian hierarchy (although she is considering highly in the mythologies and in practice, as evidenced by being one of the four major deities in which sanctuaries were build for during this period (Polignac, 25)), and more to do with the strong association between her, wisdom, and the head, where logic resides, and is the top of the body, closest to the sky where the pantheon of olympians reside. Another goddess who dwelled in urban locales is Artemis, who is traditionally associated with forest, animals, and leader of the Hunt. In mythology, the Hunt was group of young women who were virgins that served and accompanied Artemis while traveling through the wilds of Greece and engaging in activities such as hunting, racing, and other outdoor activities typically associated with men. An explanation for Artemis’ close proximity to the urban zone could be due to how highly venerated she was by the towns that honored her (Sparta especially), and placed high value on the expression of piety in that particular society. Another explanation is simply the continued use of the sanctuary that had been established by the prior Mycenaean civilization for a more archaic manifestation of Artemis (Polignac, 26). Poseidon’s temples, not as ubiquitous as Athena, occupied locations on the edge of the agora, among the crossflows of civic life, private quarters, and burial grounds.
Zeus’ temples were typically located in sparsely populated locales and usually served as the center of worship for multiple towns in the vicinity, which defies the assumption that the king of the Olympians and occupier of the apex of the hierarchy among the gods and goddesses would occupy the acropolis of the polis. However, the presence of these large temples in rural areas means they were constructed with the purpose to serve the function of carrying out rituals and other religious activities. The people who participated in this worship did so with the kind of intention and thoughtfulness reserved for the highest of the pantheon members. This concept is further strengthened by the wealth of offerings left behind in “large collections of bronze and ivory objects and figurines” (Polignac, 24). It’s worth noting that while most of Zeus’ temples were located in rural areas that served regional populations like Olympia, Dodona, and Mount Ida (Polignac, 25), there are also many sanctuaries dedicated to him located on mountaintops.
So what of the temples and sanctuaries that occupy the middle of the spectrum? Apollo and Hera’s temples usually occupied the extra urban, the outer parts of the polis that overlap with the wilds of untamed nature and general rural areas. This may initially appear confusing since both these deities represent concepts that are highly civilization oriented. Apollo represented a well ordered society and a great many other institutions made possible by the development of the polis and a systematic civilization. Hera stood for the institution of marriage and was regarded highly as a figure of domesticity, both of which seem juxtaposed to the seemingly highly socially disordered view of nature the Greeks had. Since most sanctuaries occupied the outskirts of city life and proliferated the countryside, this can be seen as sanctuaries serving as reference points for where civilization extended and natural chaos continued. This reinforces the concept of boundaries inherent in the design of temples themselves, reminding the visitor of the temple that the sacred is separate from the ordinary, and that the power contained in the sacred being separate is very real.
The layout of the actual tempe building is perhaps just as important as it’s location and the deity being worshiped. It’s difficult to isolate the impact of a building from the place in occupies relative toward everything else in its environment, especially if it’s of the urban variety surrounded by other types of buildings with their own concerns, anxieties, and secular meanings. We can see that temples were designed in such a way to mitigate this as much as possible by following the same principle discussed earlier, that the temple is meant to be a boundary that serves to remind all those who encounter it that separation is explicit, and that the sacred must be kept away while simultaneously being of power it the environment it’s creating separation. The entrance of the temple, called the propylon, created a distinct atmosphere designed to elicit feelings that would bend an individual passing through toward piety. The use of darkness in the chamber to submerge the visitor into the world of the temple, further created division between the sacred place from the rest of the world. The following intermediate space after the entrance was bathed in light, to accentuate the stark difference between the realities of the mundane and of the gods (Holscher).
We are now seeing the beginnings of the construction of pillars of the Panhellenic world. As the cementation of a common mythology augmented the development of religion, as well as eventually giving rise to secular thought. As Humphreys notes while analyzing Gernet’s work in “Anthropology and the Greeks”, “mythical images belong to a ‘semantic field,’ and must originally have been related to precise patterns of behavior.” (91) The conclusions reached in many myths caution that humans must accept the fate we have been served, and to submit to the greater forces the gods may wreak (or bless) upon them. These initial views certainly are supportive of a people developing reliance on a religion that seeks to appeal to the gods and to accept their lot in the world, and parallels in the mortal power structure established by someone who can divine the gods will and allows for the submission of a people under a powerful ruler. When we look deeper in these myths, and tease out what they’re trying to convey to the listener on how to live a life, avoiding the contempt of the gods and maybe the respect of peers and the rest of the community. The myths frequently caution to not be boastful, especially in front of those who have the power to take away what they have or to wrought punishment. The myths warn to tread cautiously, while simultaneously remaining solid in knowledge of oneself and how the gods often mirror finicky human behaviors. In Greek mythology, the heroic figure, typically a demigod who inherits a dualistic nature between a god/goddess and mortal parents, takes on a distinctive form not seen anywhere else before this time, and has informed the basis of how the idealized and actual protagonists of literature has developed throughout Western civilization’s history. While our modern understanding of what typifies a hero necessitates a moral compass and someone who fights to the end of justice, truth, morality, etc., this is absent as a necessary component of the hero legend. The figure in question, as Gernet writes in “The Anthropology of Ancient Greeks”, simply has to represent “a ‘sign’ (such as a disappearance), revealing for the space of a moment a sudden break in the barrier that separates men from gods” (7). Figures who were initially the subjects of cult worship were based in the archaic period, and typically were founders of poleis, or, from Hesiod’s view, represented the warrior class. As Gernet surmises, the hero’s eventual role is defender of the polis. Throughout the Greek myths, we see heros, once they obey the call for the quest issued, leave home to commit great deeds, extraordinary and terrifying, and upon completion, retreat back into the fold of where the story began. The hero’s focus of home and their inability to reside in it until the quest is complete is most epicly portrayed with Odysseus on his 20 year journey away from home, the first half being spent fighting in the Trojan War, and the second half taking a whirlwind trip throughout the Mediterranean as Poseidon's promise to derail Odysseus as much as is possible after he and his crew inflicted pain and blindness onto Poseidon’s cyclops son Polyphemus. While Odysseus as a hero achieves his status through a combination of great skill honed over many years training his mind for wit and planning, and as a leader of Ithaca, we have heroes like Heracles, who are born with and rely heavily on divine powers. The most famous and mightiest of all heroes is one of the greatest perpetrators of crime when he falls into an uncontrollable rage and murders his own family. The greater the capability and the more unique a hero is, the greater burden they carry to keep a check on their vices. To put it as Peter Parker’s uncle Ben astutely observes, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” This maxim ties in well with the inscriptions at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which roughly translate to mean “know thyself” and “nothing in excess.” Taking these two meanings together, we can synthesize that the greatest wisdom the Greeks wanted to impart was to know your limits, or the gods would see that you do. When heroes and other mortals in mythology dared to reach beyond their capabilities and range into the gods’ realm of capability, or failed to attribute the right deity their due honor, the gods did not hold back punishments for these encroachments.
Another important aspect to consider alongside the cult of hero worship was the Greek respect for the oracle. Before a new war is declared, or the setting out of an expedition for the colonizing of a new polis, the oracle was always consulted. While the vagueness of the Oracle’s translated prophecy left it open to interpretation, if it ever said no to the request offered or to stop whatever activity advice had been asked for, the Greeks heeded.
The world of the Greeks was dynamic, complex, and still provides many avenues for exploration of the human condition. While the societies of the Ancient Greeks generated lots of material in a variety of fields to study, the focus of religion as a social aspect of the Greeks provides a substantial starting point for the overview of the Greek worldview, and shed light on how individuals in these societies made sense of, lived in, and changed their world. The sudden burst of religious activity on the on set of the Geometric period arising from the comparatively low activity Dark Ages suggests that a belief in otherworldly beings and realities during and after this time in life can stoke the fires of imagination and possibly encourage (or are a result of) the development of cities. These structures group people together in an concentrically dense way that creates a need for differentiated complexity and dependence on other groups that share close proximity. The differences in temple locations depending on the deity and how these buildings were constructed show us that the development of religion was far reaching in the Greek world. However, they did not happen at a constant rate through all zones of habitation, but took shape in different ways honoring different deities in ways we initially would not to organize them. The mythologies developed that had roots in the Mycenaean societies, and were continually shaped by the development of poleis in the Geometric period, enlighten us of the values the Greeks focused on the and the enlightenment needed to operate in the way their world changed once the polis became the centers of the Greek world. By examining the Greeks through aspects of religion and mythology, we see a people who appreciated and valued the systematic ordering the polis brought to life, and that these people flourished when they bounded together in these social groups to exemplify what they depicted in their religious views.
Gernet, Louis. The Anthropology of Ancient Greece. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.
Humphreys, S. C. Anthropology and the Greeks. International Library of Anthropology. London ; Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1978.
Hölscher, Tonio. Visual Power in Ancient Greece and Rome : Between Art and Social Reality. Joan Palevsky Imprint in Classical Literature. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2018.
Polignac, François De. Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City-state. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.