Ancient Greek Religion
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Ancient Greek Religion

Learn About the Ancient Greek Religion- The Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece
4.3 (319 ratings)
Instead of using a simple lifetime average, Udemy calculates a course's star rating by considering a number of different factors such as the number of ratings, the age of ratings, and the likelihood of fraudulent ratings.
14,772 students enrolled
Created by Robert Garland
Published 1/2012
Price: Free
  • 5 hours on-demand video
  • 1 Article
  • 1 Supplemental Resource
  • Full lifetime access
  • Access on mobile and TV
  • Certificate of Completion

A Faculty Project Course - Best Professors Teaching the World

This course offers an introduction to all the main features of ancient Greek religion. It introduces students to its principal gods and heroes, and details how to contact them and gain their goodwill. It explains how to avoid offending the gods, how the gods intervene in human life, how to consult the gods about the future, how to enlist the services of the divine healer, and how to look after one's dead so that they will be able to enter Hades, what to expect in the afterlife, and much more besides. Start learning this exciting ancient Greek religion course.

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Curriculum For This Course
19 Lectures
Part I.
6 Lectures 01:29:15
Course Introduction

Ancient Greek Religion Introduction

Lecture points:

  • To understand what the Greeks believed we have to jettison our concept of religion
  • Greek religion was integrated in all aspects of daily life
  • The gods enjoyed the same activities as humans - eating, drinking, and having sex
  • The Olympian gods lived on Mount Olympus and were like an unruly human household, the chthonic gods lived underground and were associated with dark forces

For a basic introduction, see R. Garland, Religion and the Greeks. For a much more detailed account, see W. Burkert, Greek Religion.

Introducing the Greek Gods

Lecture points:

  • The basis of Greek religion was reciprocity: 'I give so that you (the god or goddess) may give in return'
  • When you prayed, it was important to give the gods a reason to bestow their favors upon you
  • Priests and priestesses did not officiate at birth, marriage, or death
  • The Greeks prayed to heroes and the ordinary dead, as well as to their gods

Jon D. Miakalson, Ancient Greek Religion and Athenian Popular Religion are both excellent on this and other topics.

How To Pray

Lecture points:

  • The gods depended on the meat from sacrifices for nourishment
  • The whole citizen body participated at big state sacrifices
  • Libations, drink offerings, were offered to the dead
  • The gods also accepted votive offerings, such as statues and statuettes
  • The strength of a hero could be revived by blood sacrifice

How to Please the Gods

Lecture points:

  • Hubris, pride, brought ruin upon humans, in part because the gods were jealous of human happiness
  • The Greeks believed that the deformed were sent into the world as punishment to parents for breaking an oath
  • Offenses against the gods were prosecuted by the state
  • The philosopher Socrates was executed for impiety in 399 BCE

Plato's Apology purports to be the speech that Socrates gave in his defense before the Athenian jury

How to Offend the Gods
Part II.
6 Lectures 01:47:40

Lecture points:

  • A shrine to the gods could be the equivalent of a wayside chapel or a vast complex of buildings 
  • What was essential for public worship was a demarcated sacred space
  • Sanctuaries were places where refugeecould seek asylum  
  • The temple was the house of the god or goddess but no religious ritual was performed within it
  • The buildings on the Acropolis in Athens were a symbol of civic pride, as well as religious devotion

Mary Emerson, Greek Sanctuaries and R.A. Tomlinson, Greek Sanctuaries are both invaluable on the topic.

Where and When to Pray to the Gods

Lecture points:

  • The gods intervened in all aspects of human life - they affected the weather, a successful (or unsuccessful) childbirth, or the outcome of a battle
  • The gods also got inside your head and influenced the way you thought or reacted
  • The Greeks continued to believe that the gods appeared to human beings in what is called an epiphany

A classic on this subject is E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational. But the place to start for an understanding of divine intervention is Homer's Iliad. Also chilling is Euripides' Bacchae, which explores the consequences of ignoring a god, in this case the god Dionysus, who causes his female devotees to go temporarily insane. 

How the Gods Intervene

Lecture points:

  • An ‘oracle’ means both a place where a god gives out prophecies and the prophecy itself
  • Every oracle was open to human interpretation
  • Other ways of consulting the gods about the future involved examining the entrails of birds, interpreting dreams, and engaging the services of a professional seer
  • Occasionally belief in prophecy brought about a catastrophe, as when the Athenian general Nicias delayed the withdrawal of his forces from Syracuse because of an eclipse of the moon

H.W. Parke, Greek Oracles, offers a good introduction. I also recommend Michael Flower, The Seer in Ancient Greece.

How to Consult the Gods about the Future

Lecture points:

  • Religion was one of the very few areas of life where women had a part to play and could not have functioned without the significant input of women
  • Midwives were particularly important because they had knowledge of the right religious procedures to employ during the birthing process 
  • Women also took the leading role in attending to the dead
  • Goddesses were attended by priestesses, some of whom served for life like the priestess of Athena Polias (Of the city) in Athens
  • There were also special cults and ceremonies performed by women and girls, from which men were rigorously excluded. such as the Thesmophoria, held in honor of Demeter

A very good book that touches on a number of the subjects that we've looked at so far is L. Bruit Zaidman and P. Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City.

How Women Serve the Gods

Lecture points:

  • Pollution, miasma in Greek, could be passed on by contact with a polluted person and was always threatening to infect the community unless kept in check by rites of purification
  • Murder was one of the principal causes of pollution
  • Sophocles' play Oedipus the King is founded on the premiss that an undetected murderer has the power to blight crops and cause cattle to die
  • Death from natural causepollution, which required the performing of ritual acts to contain it
  • Priests and priestesses were forbidden all contact with birth and death, fro fear of polluting the gods
  • Occasionally special religious officials, known as kathartai or ‘purifiers’, would perform the task
  • The origins of the belief in pollution are unclear but seem to have been connected with the belief that spilt blood and dead bodies present a health risk 

Robert Parker, Miasma, is the authoritative work on the subject. It's somewhat technical and in places requires knowledge of Greek but is certainly accessible to non-specialists.

How to Avoid Becoming Polluted

Lecture points:

  • There were three arenas where miracles were chiefly recorded in the Greek world(1) on the battlefield, (2) when a new deity was seeking to be admitted into the pantheon, and (3) in healing
  • The god who performed healing miracles was Asclepius, whose sanctuaries - some 250 in all - were the nearest equivalent to hospitals that the Greeks had
  • Sanctuaries of Ascelepius combined faith healing with rational medicine
  • Asclepius was one of the few gods who was compassionate to humans

For the topic of miracles in general (with an essay by myself on 'Miracles in the Greek and Roman world', see Graham H. Twelfree, The Cambridge Companion to Miracles. For Asclepius, see E. and L. Edelstein, Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, 2 volumes.

Praying For A Miracle
Part III.
6 Lectures 01:35:11

Lecture points:

  • Unless a Greek died in war, or at sea, or out in the street as the result of an accident, she or he died at home
  • The Greeks believed that the dead took pleasure in the laments that were performed on their behalf
  • They also believed that the living had to work to insure that the dead could enter the underworld, known as Hades
  • Both burial and cremation were performed, though cremation was more costly and so confined to the aristocracy
  • The dead were buried alongside major thoroughfares outside the city gates
  • Periodically relatives would bring food and drink to the tomb so that the dead wouldn’t starve in Hades
  • There was a belief that families would be re-united down in Hades

Jan Bremmer, The Early Greek Concept of the Soul, explores the entity that survives death. Robert Garland, The Greek Way of Death, investigates death as a rite of passage and focuses on the ceremonies performed on behalf of the dead and the beliefs that occasioned them.

What to Do with the Dead

Lecture points:

  • According to Homer, death for the overwhelming majority consisted of flitting around in Hades, uttering shrill, batlike noises
  • Only a handful of exceptional criminal were punished so there was no incentive to be good in terms of what to expect in Hades
  • An equally small number inhabited Elysium or the Isles of the Blest
  • In time a belief system evolved that was connected with the so-called mystery religions, the most famous being the Eleusinian Mysteries
  • The Eleusinian Mysteries represented a serious threat to Christianity in because they promised re-birth
  • Some philosophers, such as Plato, believed that the soul could return to life housed in a new body

What To Expect In The Afterlife

Lecture points:

  • The Greeks reveled in exposing the foibles of their gods
  • In Aristophanes’ Frogs Dionysus has an attack of diarrhea, whereas in Euripides’ Bacchae he is depicted as vindictive and cruel 
  • By 550 BCE intelligent people had come to realize that Greek mythology was a serious handicap to the religious system
  • Not all Greeks believed in the myths about the gods
  • There were a few alternative belief systems that were critical of mainstream Greek religion, including Pythagoreanism

D. G. Rice and J.E. Stambaugh, Sources for the Study of Greek Religion, contains translations of both literary and epigraphic sources, including some that are critical of Greek religion. See also Emily Kearns, Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook.

Criticizing Greek Religion

Lecture points:

  • Christianity officially killed off polytheism in the fourth century CE, though it survived several centuries after that 
  • Greek religion influenced and is embedded in Christianity in all kinds of ways, notably in the Christian view of the soul
  • The mystery religions were also influential, bot by their inclusiveness and by their teachings about a blessed life to come
  • Greek polytheism still has its supporters in the modern world
Are the Greek Gods Dead?

Lecture points:

  • Don’t expect the gods to act decently
  • Don’t expect the gods to take much interest in your welfare – unless you happen to be wealthy
  • Don’t expect the gods to provide you with any comfort in adversity
  • Don’t expect the gods to provide you with any answers
  • The gods are curiously dependent on humans for their welfare
  • They feel affection for at least some of us

Summing Up Greek Religion

Images of Greek Artifacts
16 pages
Concluding Note
1 Lecture 00:04
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Concluding Note
About the Instructor
Robert Garland
4.3 Average rating
319 Reviews
14,772 Students
1 Course
Professor of the Classics - Colgate University

Robert S.J. Garland is the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University, where he served 13 years as Chair of the Department of the Classics. He was also Director of the Division of the Humanities. He earned his B.A. in Classics from Manchester University, his M.A. in Classics from McMaster University, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from University College London.

A former Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the George Grote Ancient History Prize, he has educated students and audiences at a variety of levels. In addition to his 25 years teaching Classics at Colgate University, he has taught English and Drama to secondary school students and lectured at universities throughout Britain as well as at the British School of Archaeology in Athens.

He is the author of numerous articles in both academic and popular journals and eleven books capturing details of all aspects of ancient Greek and Roman life, including The Greek Way of Life: From Conception to Old Age; Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion; Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks, and Hannibal. His expertise has been featured in The History Channel's "The True Story of Troy," and he has repeatedly served as a consultant for educational film companies. He has also produced two courses for The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company), 'An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean' and 'The Other Side of History' (forthcoming 2012). He is currently writing a book entitled Greek Refugees: An Untold Story.