There was a special reason the Greeks had so many temples and statues. They worshipped a multitude of gods – they were polytheists – and every god had his or her own temples and festivals. Every family had its own gods, and so did many groups and professions. There was a goddess for the woods and for hunting, a god of fire, a god of the sea, a god of wine, a goddess of knowledge.
The myths of the godsLike us, the Greeks and other ancient peoples asked questions about the world of nature. How are thunder and lightning caused? Why does the wind blow now from this side, now from that? Why is it sometimes a breeze, sometimes a gale? Nowadays we have learned that there are scientific answers to these questions. We can find out the cause of different kinds of weather – even if there is a lot which we still don't know about it. The Greeks took the first steps toward the study of science. But they knew very little about the natural causes of things, especially in their early days; and so, like many other peoples, they made up stories to answer their own questions. The thunder and lightning were controlled by a god of thunder called Zeus or Jupiter. When he was angry there was a thunderstorm.
Many peoples used to believe that storm, wind, springs, and streams were controlled by spirits. Fear of such spirits and respect for them played a big part in early religion. Men felt they must give presents to the spirits who could help them, and also to the spirits who could harm them, so that they should not get angry. This is why they built so many temples and held so many festivals.
There came to be an immense number of stories told about the gods, and the more stories were told about them, the more like human beings they became.
The family of Olympus
The Greeks believed that the most important gods formed a single family, which lived on the summit of Mount Olympus. Their leader was Zeus, the god of thunder. The Greeks thought that their gods were much stronger and more powerful than men. But, oddly enough, they did not think they were better than men. Unlike ordinary men, Zeus had several wives, and most of the gods were his children. His chief wife was Hera; and their children included Ares, the god of war, and Hephaestus, the god of fire. Poseidon (god of the ocean) was the brother of Zeus. Other gods were Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, Hermes, the messenger, Dionysus, god of wine, and Athena, who was supposed to have stepped, full grown, from Zeus's head.
The Greeks believed that the gods controlled the events of their lives. It was tremendously important to know what was the will of the gods, and if need be, how it might be altered. But how could one find this out?
The answer was to consult an oracle. The most famous of the oracles was at Delphi, at the foot of Mount Parnassus in central Greece. It was in a sanctuary dedicated to the god Apollo. Anyone who wanted to consult the oracle went to the sanctuary and put his questions to the priests. The god was supposed to give his answer through a priestess, called the Pythia. In the floor of the sanctuary was a hole, through which gases looking like smoke rose round the Pythia; and as she sat there she was supposed to go into a trance and give her answer in the god's own words. In fact the answers were commonly dictated to her by the priests, who then had to try and explain what they meant. They were often very obscure, and so our word "oracular" means "obscure, difficult to understand." But at their best the priests of Delphi took great care to give good and moral answers to questions to which a direct answer could be given.
SacrificesTo honor the gods, the Greeks built temples for them. The temple was thought of as the home of the god to whom it was dedicated.
Services were held in the temples. They took the form of processions, songs (like our hymns), prayers, and especially sacrifices. This meant offering animals, flowers, and fruit to the god. The sacrifice was the most important part of the services.
The priests stood by the altar at the front of the temple and worshippers brought them a victim to be sacrificed. It might be a lamb, a pig, a goat, or an ox, and would have a garland of flowers round its neck.
The victim was killed by the priests. Part of it was then burnt on the altar. It was thought that this was eaten by the god, who enjoyed taking part in the feast. The rest of the victim was eaten by the priests and worshippers, who in this way joined the god in his meal. On very special occasions large numbers of cattle were sacrificed at one service. This was called a hecatomb (literally, "a hundred oxen").
Many Greeks, like the philosopher Plato, realized that sacrifices were useless and a waste. However, it was a long time before the practice died out.
MysteriesThe sacrifices were public services; and the oracles were open to anyone who consulted them. There were also special services or rituals – secret ceremonies open only to the few who had gone through a special preparation for them. The rites which the initiated went through were known as mysteries, and they were never allowed to reveal what the mysteries were. But it is known that the mysteries were thought to give the worshipper a vision of what life would be like after death.
The good lifeThe gods of Olympus were strong, but not particularly good. They were a quarrelsome family, and many stories were told of their pranks and evil deeds. But as time went on the Greeks did come to think that their gods were guardians of the good life. They rewarded the good and punished the wicked. Apollo and Athena in particular were thought to encourage good living: Apollo by moral advice through
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