Religion in Ancient Greece
“THE Greeks look for wisdom,” the apostle Paul tells us. (1 Cor. 1:22, NW) But it is one thing to look for wisdom and quite another thing to come into possession of it. Did those ancient Greeks, who rejected the Word of God, ever gain true wisdom? Worldly-wise men think so. For instance, the highly esteemed English poet, Shelley, once enthusiastically exclaimed: “We all are Greeks! Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have roots in Greece. But for Greece,” he goes on to say, “we might still have been savages and idolaters.” (Ency. Amer.) But what are the facts? For our answer let us take a look at their religion; for religion, more than anything else, manifests just how wise a people really are.
The ancient Greeks, even centuries before the time Paul preached to the Athenians, were “more given to the fear of the deities than others” were. (Acts 17:22, NW) According to one of their writers, Hesiod, of the eighth century B.C., they had upward of 30,000 deities. The historian Herodotus tells us that their gods were of Phoenician and Egyptian origin.
THE OLYMPIAN GODS
Lord, in volume 1 of his Beacon Lights of History, gives considerable detail regarding Greek mythology. He tells of the twelve great gods residing on Mount Olympus, six of whom were male and six female. These gods, while vastly superior to humans in size, knowledge, power and beauty, as well as not being subject to death, had the same weaknesses and shortcomings that mankind has. Thus the “father of the gods”, Zeus (Roman Jupiter), was a usurper, a thief, an adulterer, and took part in the quarrels, jealousies and enmities of his associate gods even though he was creator and stronger than all the rest of the gods put together.
Poseidon (Roman Neptune), a brother of Zeus, was the god of the ocean, a rough, boisterous and vindictive deity with the same moral traits as his brother. Apollo, the sun god, as well as the god of wisdom, poetry and music, was more respectable than his father Zeus. Having grace, vigor and ideal physical form, he was the most popular of all the deities, temples being erected to his honor in every part of Greece. He was the actual ruler of the gods, serving as “premier” for King Zeus.
Hephaestus (Roman Vulcan), the god of fire, was a blacksmith who forged the thunderbolts for Zeus. He was the opposite physically of Apollo, being both awkward and lame. Ares (Roman Mars), the god of war, was cruel, lawless, bloodthirsty and greedy. Hermes (Roman Mercury) was the god of business, full of tricks, untruthful and dishonest. He was also the god of eloquence.
The queen of Olympus was Hera (Roman Juno), a sister and one of the wives of Zeus who had power equal to that of her husband. Having a poor opinion of women, the Greeks showed her as proud, vindictive, jealous, unscrupulous and cruel. She scolded her husband so incessantly that he would bitterly complain about it in the assembly of the gods; rather incompatible with his supposed dignity as the chief of all gods!
Athena (Roman Minerva), the goddess of Athens, ranked with Apollo in wisdom. She had a flawless personality but possessed very few attractive feminine qualities. Artemis (Roman Diana), the sister of Apollo, was the goddess of hunting, of which sport the Greeks were very fond. She was the goddess whose silversmiths in Ephesus created such an uproar because the preaching of the apostle Paul interfered with their business of making miniature temples.—Acts 19:23-41, NW.
Aphrodite (Roman Venus) was the goddess of sensual pleasure and mere physical beauty. From her name we get the term “aphrodisaic”, a description of drugs or foods that excite sensual desire. Hestia (Roman Vesta), who was goddess of domestic virtues, presiding over firesides and homesteads, had a rather vague personality.
Demeter represented Mother Earth, being the goddess of agriculture, prosperity and wealth. Since agriculture was the oldest as well as the most important occupation, she is pictured as presiding over civilization and law-giving. The term “cereal” for grain comes from her Roman name, Ceres, with whom the “horn of plenty” is associated. She is also represented as the goddess of the Eleusinian mysteries, which promised a happy hereafter to all those initiated in them.
In addition to the twelve great gods and goddesses just described there were lesser gods, who, while not attaining the Olympian status, nevertheless occupied prominent places in the religion of the ancient Greeks. Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus, was one of these, who, as the god of wine and drunkenness, presided over the vineyards. Pluto or Hades, who, together with his brothers Zeus and Poseidon, had deposed their father Cronus, received as the result of the casting of lots dominion over the lower, infernal regions, the abode of the dead, where he ruled with his wife Persephone, a queen pictured as severely pure, awful and terrible. No temples were erected to her, the Greeks not taking seriously the future life, even though they all believed in the continued existence of the soul after death.
There were also innumerable minor deities whom the Greeks identified with every separate thing that occupied their thoughts, such as the mountains, rivers, towns, fountains, rocks, animals, sleep and death, night and day, old age and pain. All the qualities of the human mind and disposition; everything they saw, felt or talked about they impersonated, and these impersonations were supposed to preside over the things they represented and were worshiped to a greater or less degree.
The ancient Greeks, while not a very moral people, were a very religious one. They continually called on their gods, on every occasion: the symposium, that intellectual feast which invariably followed their feasts of material food, began and ended with prayer; the political assemblies began with worship; orators prayed before they began to speak; the farmer before he began to plow; the youths before they entered the athletic contests, went hunting or ventured forth to war; the particular god being appealed to depending upon the occupation and sex of the one praying.
The Bible tells us that God made man in his own image, by which is meant that he made man with the attributes of wisdom, justice, love and power. (Gen. 1:26) From the foregoing it is apparent that in ancient Greece man made gods for himself in his own fallen mental, moral and physical image; foremost among such “godmakers” being Homer and Hesiod, who by their choice literary style helped to fasten these gods upon the people. They were aided in this by the efforts of the sculptors, who represented these gods by statues, which are the finest the world has seen in beauty, grace, loveliness and majesty. Ancient Greece abounded in statues, foremost of all being that of Zeus at his temple in Olympia, a human representation sixty feet high, made of ivory, gold and gems by the greatest sculptors.
DIVINATION, SEERS AND ORACLES
The ancient Greeks sought to ascertain the will of the gods by means of divination, seers and oracles. Thunder, lightning, rain, eclipses, the flight of the birds, were all significant. Prometheus, it was claimed, taught men the art of divination: “The animosities, the consortings and attachments of birds; and the smooth surface of the viscera, and what hue the gall must have for the god’s pleasure and the mottled symmetry of the liver lobe; and the thigh bones in fat enwrapped, and the long chine I burned and initiated mortals into the mysteries of an occult art.” (Ency. Amer., Vol. 13, page 413) Which calls to mind the time that the king of Babylon, when endeavoring to ascertain what course to take, among other forms of divination “looked in the liver”.—Ezek. 21:21.
The seer, whose chief task was to interpret signs, dreams and omens, was second only to the general in the armies of ancient Greece. He was held to be inspired by the gods and his gift was supposed to run in families. In later times his office gained added importance because his presence implied sanction by the gods of the war being waged.
In addition to the arts of divination and the interpretations by seers, the Greeks consulted oracles; the term coming from a Latin word meaning “to speak, utter, pray”. The oracle was the “medium by which a god reveals hidden knowledge or makes known the divine purpose”, and represented the most lucrative feature of the ancient Greek religion. The oldest oracular center was that of their chief god Zeus, situated at Dodona, where messages from Zeus were received from the rustling of the leaves of the sacred oak.
The most famous and profitable of all oracular centers was that of Apollo (the Greek god of foreknowledge and wisdom), situated at Delphi, and which was consulted not only by Greeks from every part of the land but also by foreigners; kings and other rulers being among its foremost patrons. At Delphi ‘the oracles were given forth by a priestess, the Pythia, who seated herself on a golden tripod above a chasm whence issued foul and poisonous vapors. Inspired by these, she, while in a state of religious frenzy, uttered words which were then arranged by prophets especially educated for the purpose, and given to the enquirers’.
Many of the answers received were vague and sometimes susceptible to opposite interpretations. Those consulting the oracles paid handsomely for the vague, equivocal and even absolutely wrong information they received, thereby not only filling the temple of Apollo with treasures but necessitating the erection of additional buildings to house the treasures. Delphi, the seat of the oracle of Apollo, has been termed “the Vatican of antiquity”.
A RELIGION WITHOUT CONSCIENCE
In earliest times the Greeks built altars on which they sacrificed in the open fields, in groves and on hills and mountaintops. Later temples were built, either in honor of some deity or in memorial to a dead friend or relative. Usually at the entrance of their temples there was a ‘sprinkling pot’, a container made of stone or copper full of “sanctified water”, serving much the same purpose as does “holy water” in the Roman Catholic churches of today.
On the altars animals were sacrificed, part of which were eaten by those offering them. It is said that at times even humans were sacrificed. There were also the bloodless sacrifices of incense and the offerings of precious metals, vessels, cloths and money, which valuables eventually found their way into the homes of the priests or the eminent ones of the city.
There were no sabbaths, but some fifty festivals were celebrated throughout the year. Some were in honor of the gods, some in honor of the seasons of the year, others to celebrate great national victories, etc., all of which brought great pleasure to the Greeks. Many of these were celebrated with great pomp and show and splendor, and with processions much like those of medieval times and which are still seen in some Roman Catholic lands.
The state directed and controlled religion, encouraged it and paid for sacrifices, rites, processions and scenic dances, as it all served to keep the common people contented with their miserable lot. The preaching of atheism or of new deities or otherwise interfering with established religion was therefore not tolerated.
Since the gods themselves were an immoral lot, it is not surprising that many of the feasts in their honor involved “deeds of loose conduct, lusts, excesses with wine, revelries, drinking matches, and idolatries that are without legal restraint”. That this description by the apostle Peter indeed fits the Greek feasts is borne out by secular historians who tell us that the feasts in honor of Dionysus (Bacchus) were “attended with disgraceful orgies—with wild dances, noisy revels, exciting music, and frenzied demonstrations”. Sensuality ran riot at the ceremonies in honor of Aphrodite; while phallicism, sex worship, marked those to the goddess of agriculture, Demeter.—1 Pet. 4:3, 4, NW.
To what extent the ancient Greeks were steeped in the “low sink of debauchery” can be seen from the fact that “Greek society was disfigured by an attitude to homosexual impulse that often resulted in words and actions at once loose and grotesque”. (Ency. Amer.) Womanhood was so degraded that men looked upon marriage as a distasteful burden to be assumed only so as to have someone to bury them and as a duty to the state, and so was not entered upon until after the age of thirty, at which time they chose very young women.
The priests taught neither moral nor spiritual truths, there being no sacred books teaching their religion. They were merely officials appointed by the state or by lot who took charge of rites and ceremonies and consulted the oracles. There were many distinctions among them, their offices often being sold to the highest bidder.
Yes, the idea of conscience was entirely absent from ancient Greek religion and there was no sense of personal sin. Its purpose was not to acquaint man with his God, nor with what was right and what was wrong, but merely to serve the selfish purposes of a pleasure-seeking and art-loving people who lived in the present and only for themselves. If selfishness complicated matters there was always suicide to end it all.—1 Cor. 15:32.
In view of all the foregoing, can it be said that those ancient Greeks were truly wise, and does mankind owe them a debt of gratitude? Hardly!
[Picture on page 237]
Zeus (Roman Jupiter)