languages make up a group of dialects that have been recorded over a long period
of time. In case you are new here, Greek is a branch of the Indo-European language family.
History and Geography
Greek is associated with the
mainland and nearby islands of the modern nation of Greece, but at times it has
been the native language over a much wider area, including southern Italy, the
Middle East, eastern Anatolia (Turkey), and north of Greece into the Balkans.
The Greeks felt that they had come to Greece from more northern countries, such
as the Balkans, west of the Black Sea, but also possibly from Anatolia, and this
is supported by some lines of evidence. Upon arriving in Greece, they apparently
learned sailing, fishing and management of wine and olives from Phoenicians or
other Semitic people who already lived in Greece and Crete.
Greek has been recorded in writing from the 15th to the 12th centuries BCE on
Crete and the mainland of Greece in Mycenaean inscriptions written in Linear B
which consist of temple records that give the names of many Gods. This culture
was eclipsed for centuries by some uncertain social and economic turmoil that
affected most of the Mediterranean and Middle-east. The next time that writing
appears, it is in a Phoenician alphabet of the 8th century BCE. From that time,
Greek expanded to become the major language of civilization throughout the
classical world and early texts such as the works of Homer have been transmitted
from this time. The Phoenician and Greek alphabets were so easily learned that
they became the standard alphabets for many languages and contributed to the
spread of literacy through much of the Old World, replacing cuneiform and
hieroglyphs in many places. Since the Greeks used stone for building, many
inscriptions were produced in a permanent form and have remained in situ,
providing a valuable source of information about ancient times. Archaeological
research provides information about the temples, Gods, ritual practice and the
context for these religious activities. Some of the earliest archaeological work
ever attempted was done at Greek sites, and while the early scholarship was not
good, it has definitely improved. The Greek language was spread by conquest,
notably by Alexander the Great beginning in the 4th century BCE and continually
by cultural influence. Substantial Greek texts have been continuously copied for
two thousand years, first on papyrus and later on vellum and they are now widely
available in printed form. These texts include subtle and complex ideas about
religion and philosophy which are often absent from other Indo-European sources.
As the language of the Byzantine empire, Greek became the liturgical language
in a number of the eastern Christian churches, notably the Greek Orthodox Church
and later the Russian Orthodox Church. With the introduction of Christianity,
the Greek Pagan religion was christianized and continued in the Greek Orthodox
church while many elements of the Pagan religions of the speakers of other
languages were absorbed into the local versions of Christianity, notably in
Slavic-speaking areas (see Pagan Saints). Of course, Greek remains the spoken language in the modern
Greek nation and in a few areas of southern Italy.
Although classical Greek is considered one
language with a series of dialects, it is actually formed from several rather
disparate languages, most importantly the Dorian dialect of southern Greece, and
the Athenian dialect of northern Greece. The linguistics have been well studied
and in fact have provided one of the most important data sets for the
reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language. Greek shows a great many
shifts from Proto-Indo-European, but they follow a very clear though complex
pattern (see the Germanic Pagan Religion for a chart which shows the set
of consonant shifts known as Grimm’s Law). The best dictionaries for classical
Greek are the ones put together by Liddell and Scott, which give references to
uses of the names and words. Another important early source is the Suidas, a 10th century Byzantine compilation, which is
on line at google books.
Greek Pagan religion displays all the normal
aspects of the Proto-Indo-European religion and can be examined from
several different aspects. One way is to examine the variation in the pattern of
rituals as they relate to their place in society. The most elaborate and
expensive rituals are organized for city-wide festivals and these usually
consist of a procession by all the members of society to a cult site, with
offerings of all the good things that people are happy to have. That includes
food that has been harvested as well as the work of human hands, such as
spinning and weaving products (yarn and cloth). For large festivals like this,
usually an animal was killed for meat and the meat was either prepared on the
location and eaten as part of a feast or it was taken home by the participants
and eaten later. On a smaller scale, estates or groups of people (such as a
ship-load of sailors) would organize an offering either to protect them on the
journey or in thanks for their safety and success. Within the household, daily
offerings were made for the health and prosperity of the family. These rituals
all have similar elements, only the scale changes. The Greeks seem never to have
had any fixed priesthood nor elaborate ritual formulas, and anyone was
considered qualified to make offerings and to say the prayers which seem to have
been stated in the normal spoken form of the language. Elaborate performances of
the myths probably made up an important part of the rituals for major festivals,
while on a lesser scale the myths could simply be told as stories. They were
certainly widely known.
Religious rites can also be categorized according to their purpose. Annual
festivals were organized to give thanks mainly for agricultural success, while
special rituals were organized in times of crisis (war, plague) to avoid the
problem or to give thanks once the danger had passed. Within a family, certain
milestones were celebrated, mainly birth, graduation from school or special
training, marriage and death. The Indo-Europeans seem not to have had the sort
of cruel initiation rites that anthropologists describe from some cultures.
Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Greeks
The Greek pantheon is certainly well known and does not need to
be rehearsed here. What has confused many authors is the Renaissance penchant
for organizing things into rigid schemes. This has resulted in the observation
that the twelve most important Gods of the Greeks do not correspond exactly with
the twelve most important Gods of several other language groups. However, there
are more than just twelve deities in each of the Indo-European languages and the
importance of any particular deity may be greater or lesser in one or the other.
Religion is a social institution and it changes as society changes, resulting in
a shifting and realignment of the deities in different societies over time. The
“responsibilities” of the deities are also affected by the climate and
agricultural systems. Nevertheless the Greek Gods and Goddesses have cognate
deities in the other Indo-European languages, with exactly corresponding myths
and festivals, and even family relationships. An examination of the position of
women in the myths and rituals of the Greeks shows that they had very important
roles in society, contrary to the conclusions of many patriarchal and bigoted
Victorian authors, some of whose ideas continue to hold sway, despite the lack
of evidence to support them.
The festival calendar for Athens has been
reconstructed by authors including Killaly-Barr, and additional information has
been found which adds details. One early Greek festival is the Bouphonia Festival which commemorates the “murder” of the first ox and probably
reenacts the Myth of Yama. It falls on the 14th day of Skirophorion,
roughly the middle of July. Of course, it was absorbed into the Christian
liturgical calendar and many Greek Pagan Gods and Goddesses are still worshiped
as Christian saints on their traditional festivals/feast days (see also Pagan
Greek mythology is extremely rich and it has been largely
“cleaned up” to remove some of the harsher elements which still appear in the
mythology of some other languages, which makes it seem quite charming. The
Greeks seem to have felt the need to provide a “human” motivation for many of
the actions of divine beings despite the fact that most myths actual consist of
descriptions of the actions of natural forces. This makes the Greek deities seem
more human but also somewhat emotional. By comparison, no such motivation
appears in the hymns of the Rig Veda, which describe the same actions
as corresponding narratives. In addition, Greek myths include many myths which
are actually native to other language groups which can be determined by a
linguistic analysis of the names. This allows for the reconstruction of even
more Indo-European myths. In most myths which the Greeks tell about the Gods of
other people, they identify the actors as “heroes” or what we would regard as
legendary kings: they reserve the acceptance of divinity mostly to their own
Standard rituals include offering anything of
value, most often food, as thanks to the God(desse)s thought to be responsible;
offering poured offerings (usually wine) in memory of the dead; and “decorating”
the Goddess. This is a ritual in which a stone or anthropomorphic image of a
deity is washed, oiled and ornamented (given perfume and earrings, etc.), as one
would do for a beloved child. This type of ritual was general to Roman Pagan
religion, much of the Middle-east (Semitic religions) and it is still routinely
performed in India. There are some references to this type of offering in
Germanic Paganism. [fuggle26]
References for Greek Paganism
• Many excellent texts, often in dual
language editions are available at Internet Sacred-Texts Archive. The earliest of these texts were composed by
about 700 BCE.
• Homeric Hymns with a stately translation into English
by Hugh Evelyn-White, from the Loeb Library editions on Sacred-Texts Archive.
• Hesiod’s Theogony with a stately translation into
English by Hugh Evelyn-White, from the Loeb Library editions on Sacred-Texts
• Callimachus: Hymns, Epigrams, Select Fragments,
translated by Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayor, The Johns Hopkins University
Press, Baltimore, 1988.
• Pindar: Nemean Odes, Isthmian Odes,
Fragments, ed. & transl. by William H. Race, Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, Mass. 1997 (dual edition)
• The Biblioteca of
• There are many other texts, many of them available on the
internet at www.theoi.com, an excellent source. This site is well
indexed, so that you can search for references under the name of any Goddess.
• A few late classical hymns have musical notation which modern scholars
have attempted to interpret. There are hymns to Apollo and to the Muses, and
there may be more in the Oxyrhincus fragments which are still being catalogued.
Epics are not really religious but they include a number of
references to deities or retellings of myths and these texts also describe and
give the wording for some rituals.
• The Iliad of Homer, translated by Samuel Butler on
Sacred Texts Archive.
• The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Samuel Butler on
Sacred Texts Archive.
• Jason and the Argonauts or The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius, translated by C. Seaton.
Greek Pagan religion has been done to
death for two thousand years, but the older publications were not good. They
were often limited to attempts to show that Greek Pagan religion was really an
early form of Christianity (!), they show a poor understanding of linguistics,
and no knowledge of or interest in the actual context of Greek religion. It was
one of the particular disappointments of my early studies of Indo-European
Paganism that revealed how useless these early studies were. Generally, these
publications consist of myths of the sort told by Edith Hamilton in which the
stories are cute but make no sense, and there is no understanding of what the
myths represent, nor how they were used in a social context.
• A typical,
mostly Christian take on Greek religion would be Greek Religion by
Walter Burkert, translated by John Raffan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge,
• A much better standard of scholarship is seen Ancient Greek Cult
Practice from the Epigraphical Evidence, Proceedings of the Scandinavian
Conference at Athens, ed. by Robin Hagg, Stockholm, 1994, which combines
archaeological, linguistic and literary evidence.
• Gamkrelidze, Thomas V., and Ivanov,
Vjaceslav V., Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and
Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture (Trends in
Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), with Werner Winter, ed.,
and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i
indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995 (abbrev. G&I).
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q., Oxford Introduction to
Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Oxford University
Press, Oxford, 2006.
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q.,
Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997.
• Puhvel, Jaan, Analecta Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles),
publ. by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.
Müller, (Friedrich) Max, Comparative Mythology, Arno Press, NY, 1909,
• The Ancient Athenian Calendar written by D. H. Killaly-Barr, September 28, 1998, used to be a good site, but it now comes up sporadically as an atheist webring.
This article was originally published at pierce.yolasite.com/greek but Yola was hacked in Nov. 2011, so it has been migrated here.
© 2009, last updated 8/7/2015, piereligion.org/greek.html