Greek Language and Paganism

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The Greek 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.

Parthenon, as reconstructed

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 Saints).

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 Gods.

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

Primary Sources
• 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 Archive.
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 Apollodorus
• There are many other texts, many of them available on the internet at, 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.

Secondary Sources
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, 1985.
• 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.

General References
• 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, 1977.
• 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 but Yola was hacked in Nov. 2011, so it has been migrated here.

© 2009, last updated 8/7/2015,