The different ways to know the gods in Ancient Greece

The idea that ‘real religion’ in ancient Greece is to be found only in the so-called ‘mystery’ cults, that is, cults involving initiatory rituals, dies hard.

A depiction of a Greco-Roman religious sacrifice
A depiction of a Greco-Roman religious sacrifice. Credit: Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo

This essay originally appeared in ‘Religion : in the past, the present day and the future- Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2014′ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.

What exactly is religion? Definitions of an abstract form are easy enough – ‘the cultivation of supernatural powers’ provides a minimalist start, or those who like the authority of dictionaries might prefer The Collins Concise English Dictionary (third edition, 1992) which offers: ‘1. belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny’. But for many contemporary religions, the question of whether particular practices of cultivating the supernatural count as ‘real religion’ is a fraught theological issue. This is not simply a matter of the object being cultivated – your god is my idol – but of whether all forms of cultivating even such supernatural powers whose godhead is recognised should be accepted as religious. Within Christianity, the formal liturgies of the Catholic and Orthodox churches are seen by evangelical Christians as not religious at all, since they give, it is claimed, no scope for personal interaction with God.

The study of Greek religion has been seriously affected by the disputes between Christians about what counts as religion. Faced with classical Athenians devoting much state funding to religious festivals and creating unprecedented temples and cult images, like the Parthenon and the gold and ivory statue of Athena that it contained, the great Swedish scholar of Greek religion, Martin Nilsson, writing in 1947 in his book Greek Piety, maintained that ‘the cult was secularised’ and that, from now on, ‘it was rather the minor deities and the heroes than the great gods of the state who were approached with pious reverence, for the former lay nearer to the heart of the people and there was more belief in their intervention in the life of the individual.’ In an earlier work, Greek Popular Religion, published in 1940, Nilsson spelt out what he saw as the psychology of this turn away from ‘state cult’: ‘The Greek civic cult was sober and well regulated […] But religion has its emotional side and, if this is repressed, it finally breaks out.’ In his view, it broke out into ‘mystic and orgiastic cults’, involving foreign gods. This view owed something to the work of Jane Ellen Harrison, who had brought to Greek religion insights culled from French social theory and maintained that we should distinguish between Olympian and chthonic, or Olympian and mystery-god, writing in Themis (1912) that ‘the mystery-god and the Olympian express, respectively, the one durée life and the other the action of conscious intelligence, which reflects on and analyses life.’

The idea that ‘real religion’ in ancient Greece is to be found only in the so-called ‘mystery’ cults, that is, cults involving initiatory rituals, dies hard. Even the great contemporary scholar of Greek religion, Walter Burkert, who began his book on Ancient Mystery Cults (1987) by listing as one of the stereotypes that needed correction ‘that the mystery religions are spiritual, that they are indicative of a basic change in religious attitude, one that transcends the realistic and practical outlook of the pagan in search for higher spirituality’, nevertheless ended that book declaring that ancient mystery cults gave ‘a chance to break out of the enclosed and barren ways of predictable existence. Such hopes were attempts to create a context of sense in a banal, depressing and often absurd world, proving the experience of a great rhythm in which the resonances of the individual psyche could be integrated through an amazing event of sympatheia.’

We see the shadow of similar Christian theological concerns also in the discussion about what divides magic and religion and, again, particularly when it comes to mystery cults. Fritz Graf in his book on Magic in the Ancient World, published in 1997, suggests that there are three features in common: ‘magic and mysteries involve secrecy, they seek direct contact with the divine and they are reached by means of a complex ritual of initiation’. He then tries to distinguish them according to the aim of the rituals and the communal nature of mystery cults. In putting mystery cults alongside magic, Graf seems to suggest that there was something that separated mystery cults from the rest of religious cult activity, as if in the rest of cult activity contact with the divine was somehow indirect, or rituals of initiation somehow more effective than other rituals.

I do not here want to add my voice to the voices of those, like Simon Price in his great book on the Roman imperial cult, Rituals of Power, who complain about the way in which the study of Greek and Roman religion has become bound up with questions which derive their cogency or their importance from issues of Christian theology. As far as I am concerned this fact only reveals what a good instrument Greek religion is for thinking about religion more generally — and I want to encourage those interested in other religions to think more, not less, about Greek religion. But what I want to stress is that, if looking at Greek religion is to be productive for the scholar of religion more generally, then we should not in any way prejudge which of the various ways that supernatural powers were cultivated constitutes ‘real’ religion. We can find in the Greek world everything from strictly observed regular public rituals conducted for the whole population by officials who are publicly elected and held publicly responsible, through ceremonies whose nature is kept secret (and which are conducted by individuals who have undergone particular training for individuals who have undergone some sort of entrance test), to spur-of- the-moment individual appeals to the gods — like the prayer of Ladike: after her husband Amasis claims she has bewitched him since he was unable to have intercourse with her, ‘she prayed to Aphrodite in her mind, saying that, if Amasis had sex with her that night – for this was what her troubles were about – she would send her a statue to Cyrene’ (Herodotus, Histories, Book 2, chapter 181).

My insistence on looking at the whole range of ways in which the supernatural was cultivated in the Greek world does not attempt to deny that there is plenty of evidence for Greeks being themselves concerned about where the boundaries of religion lay and exactly what could count. The issues with Socrates ‘not believing in the gods that the city believes in’, but acting with reference to his own private daimonion, are one form of evidence for this; the ancient debates about the boundary between magic and religion are another, as in the famous medical text preserved in the Hippocratic corpus of writings, On the Sacred Disease. But in a polytheistic world, it was only when cities felt their religious integrity compromised in ways that might lead to divine anger that any policing happened – and the range of uncontested religious activity was wide.

The breadth of religious activity needs to be considered as a whole, because individuals in antiquity did not engage in just some sorts of religious activity, in the way that Christians in the modern world regularly join in with some sorts of Christian religious activity and not others (house groups but not High Mass, choral evensong but not prayer meetings), they engaged in many sorts of religious activity. And it was the range of activity as a whole that constituted religious experience, not just some parts of that activity. No doubt some individuals felt more in touch with supernatural powers in some contexts, others in other contexts, but we should not prejudge which contexts yielded what experiences to whom. The varied and abundant opportunities to encounter supernatural power worked cumulatively, not in competition. In the rest of this chapter, I want to illustrate this from one city, Lindos on Rhodes.

The acropolis at Lindos sported a famous temple of Athena, but the range of cult activity there was much wider. Various inscriptions prescribe particular sacrifices on particular days of the year: from the fourth century BC, the sacrifice of a boar to Zeus Amalos, from which women are forbidden; from the third century BC, the sacrifice of a full-grown sow to Poseidon Phytalmios, of a kid for Dionysos and of a white or tawny kid for Helios; from the second century, sacrifices of a pregnant sow to Demeter, a sheep to Athena, a ram to Zeus and a sheep for Athena (from both of which women are forbidden). Pleasing the god mattered and that meant sacrificing an appropriate animal; but it also meant an appropriate body of worshippers and that meant, on occasion, excluding one or other gender (prohibition of men is found in certain sacrifices to the goddess Demeter, for instance). Details like this were checked by consulting appropriate oracles.

The sacrifices ordered in these inscriptions are compatible with greater or less formal organisation, but it is clear from a fifth-century BC decree, taxing those who go out to fight as soldiers from Lindos, whether publicly or privately, and deploying this tax for sacrifices to the war god Enyalios of a boar, dog and kid, that some sacrifices, at least, were formally run by the city. It was civic, as well as individual, enterprises that required the blessing of the gods and this demanded that the civic community as a whole contributed and could be seen to have contributed. How far was the motivation for such sacrifices religious and how far political? Separation is vain.

Inscriptions from around 200 BC and from the end of the first century BC point in rather different directions. The earlier records that Seleukos built a temple to Psithyros and was ordered by Psithyros both to make sacrifices and to ensure the payment of a tax to the temple of Athena. The later sorts out the finances of the cult of Athena by ensuring it income from a variety of sources — including the voluntary donation of their salaries by priests and officials responsible for sacrifices and the sale of the right to add a dedication to old statues. The first shows, at the very least, the continued active consultation of the gods through oracles, the latter reads rather like a business plan for the temple. Here we have, in the first case, the equivalent of an oracular endorsement for particular cult activities; but the direct intervention of the supernatural power here does not make the activity that follows any more religious than the activities for which a business plan has been developed within direct involvement of the supernatural.

These cults impinged on individual lives in all sorts of ways. One way was the financial cost; another the feast that followed sacrifice. But particular forms of behaviour might also be required, or indeed forbidden. From the third century BC, prescriptions survive, inscribed on the gateway of the sanctuary, requiring purity from cult officials: they must not carry arms, or wear goat skin, or have contact with women or animals that have miscarried, or involvement with the dead and so on. From the second century AD, we have similar regulations for an unknown cult, prescribing how many days abstinence from beans, goat, cheese, miscarriage, family death and sex are required before one can enter the sanctuary. One could not expect to worship the gods and have one’s life unaffected.

Most famous of all the documents from Lindos is an inscription from 99 BC that has become known as the Lindian Chronicle (most conveniently available in Carolyn Higbie’s 2003 book, The Lindian Chronicle and the Greek Creation of their Past). This is the result of a research project undertaken by the Lindians to search all literature for mention of past dedications made in the sanctuary of Athena ‘because of the epiphany of the goddess’, which have perished with time, and for mentions of epiphanies themselves. The report produced has a chronological list of dedications, starting with dedications by the eponym Lindos and other characters from myth, the Telchines, Kadmos, Minos, Herakles, and a great bunch of heroes, and going on into historic times with dedications by Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, Pyrrhos, Hieron and Philip V of Macedon. This list of dedications is followed by a list of three epiphanies, the first from the time of the Persian Wars, the last ‘when the city was besieged by Demetrius’.

This inscription wonderfully combines the sort of wishful thinking (at best) that encourages scholars to reckon sanctuaries to have been simply places where cities made vain claims to glory, with an account of visions of the goddess that provides some of the most vivid evidence we have for the living presence of the gods in the lives of Greeks. But it is the combination that is important. The Lindians were keen to produce this list because it showed that their goddess had repeatedly appeared in the past and intervened in the lives of the most powerful people. The point of the dedications was not to show that this sanctuary had been on the tourist trail — to note, as it were, that Byron and many other famous people had cut their names into the marble of the columns. The point of the dedications was to mark the goddess’s appearing to a whole range of important individuals and impressing herself upon their lives.

The range of different types of religious activity at Lindos and the interconnections between them happen to be rather well documented, but they are more or less typical of Greek sanctuaries everywhere. Greek cities took pains to ensure that the gods were kept happy, both by receiving regular sacrifice of the beasts they favoured and by ensuring that sanctuaries excluded individuals whom the gods might not like. But at the same time they expected and acknowledged that the gods intervened in the lives of individuals and communities and took positive care of them — as both the dedications and the epiphanies show.

The dedications made by, and the epiphanic experiences told of, people who were living, acknowledged divine support during life, but the stories and dedications in no way suggest that that support ends with death. We happen to have no relevant evidence from Lindos, but there is no reason to believe that the people of Lindos were different from Greeks elsewhere, who had themselves buried with reminders about what to do in the underworld. One such text reads: ‘There is a spring at the right side and, standing by it, a white cypress. Descending to it, the souls of the dead refresh themselves. Do not even go near the spring!’ Written on a piece of gold and deposited in a burial (the whole set of such texts is collected and translated in Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston’s Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic gold tablets (second edition, 2013), this quotation is the first five lines of No. 1, from Hipponion in Italy, but paralleled by texts from Sicily and Thessaly. Nor should we expect that those buried with such texts, following standard local burial practices, had not during their lifetime commemorated benign divine interventions with dedications and sacrifices of the sort variously prescribed and documented at Lindos.

The texts on pieces of gold discovered in burials across the Greek world have shed a bright light on beliefs about the afterlife. But that such beliefs were poorly documented in mainstream classical literary texts does not mean that they were particularly exotic or rare in antiquity. What these texts indicate is that the individuals involved had been through some ritual of purification, but such rituals, which are common to initiatory (i.e. ‘mystery’) cults simply extend the logic of purification before entering into the sanctuary to purification before entering into death. We have no reason to believe that the experience of purification involved in these initiatory rituals effected any closer bond with supernatural powers than the other purificatory rituals attested across the Greek world. All such purifications drew attention to the differences between human and supernatural worlds, while also promising that those differences could be effaced and the gap between the worlds bridged by the carrying out of simple abstentions or actions.

Faced with the impossibility of knowing what the nature and limits of supernatural power are, or what pleases supernatural powers, it is not surprising that humans adopt a wide range of cult practices. All Greek cult practices assume that the gods like gifts, that they expect humans to remind themselves of the goodness of the gods, both before and after it is displayed, and that they are more likely to favour those whose behaviour meets the highest human standards, or avoids actions and situations which signal what is peculiarly human or mortal. Such assumptions generated sacrifices and festivals, temples and cult statues, dedications and regulations. All the practices of relating to the gods gave opportunities for human actors to collaborate and compete, whether individually or in groups. On different occasions, different Greeks — whether acting together as a city, or in smaller groups, or as individuals — put the emphasis differently. But separating off cults which had particular initiatory rites or cults, involving particular deities or rituals and treating them as somehow more ‘really’ religious makes no sense. The polytheistic cult practices of the Greeks allowed the gods to be encountered in many different ways.


Robin Osborne