Ancient Greek Religion: Mycenaean to Classical Period Ancient Greece has been a religion- centered culture since the earliest period of habitation in Greece. The source from where we get to know about the Greek religion is primarily based on the Greek mythology. The writings, the monuments that gives us information about the Greek history, its religious practices, rituals and significance connected with the worship of deity.
Greece was not a politically unified region, there were different independent poleis (city state). Despite the fact that Greece was not politically unified, people from different polis use to share same culture and beliefs of which religion was one of the prominent ones. The Greeks inherited the universal religious belief of Eastern Mediterranean. The earliest reference we get for the Greek religion can be traced through the epics of Homer (the great author) Iliad and Odyssey. These Epic gives us a vivid description of the Greek mythology during the Dark age (1200-800 BCE). But the Greek religion outlined in these epics was elitist in nature showing that Homer was mainly concerned with religious practices of aristocratic class. But the impact of these epics were so great that the religion propagated in them retained its popularity throughout the Archaic and Classical period. Since the Homeric period there was a prevalence of pantheistic nature as several deities were worshipped by the Greeks.
The earliest Greek god was known as The Olympian gods and worshipped in what is known as the Olympian Pantheon which emerged out of the belief that these gods lived in the Mount Olympus (Thessaly). There were 12 major gods, prominent one being Zeus was the lord of Olympus and ruler of the divine world, Athena, and Apollo. The Greek deities were worshipped with human characteristics and emotions but what distinguished them from the humans was their immortality. Few of the gods and goddesses were the patrons deities of some city like the Athena of Athens but their appeal and popularity was not confined to that city alone which was a major feature of the Greek culture and religion.
The cult of Dionysus, Dionysus was the deity who was very popular among the masses and thus was not included by Homer in the Olympian Pantheon. Dionysus was popular as a fertility god, god of vine (drunkness and orgies) that follows after drinking wine. This cult was of the primitive origin that first developed in the city state of Greece called Thrace but later spread to several part of Greece at a popular level. Gradually towards the end of the Archaic period and the beginning of the classical period Dionysus found a place among the Olympian deities (the prominent ones). After its incorporation in the Olympian Pantheon Dionysus as the city deity presided over sober festivals representing the twin personality of the human beings one which can be termed as ‘beastly’ and the other ‘sober’ and more human.
Rituals were another important aspect of Greek religion which was given utmost importance by the Greeks in both private and public life. In domestic spheres, there were specified rituals for every stage of human life. For example rituals in Athens for the transition from adolescence to adulthood was marked by young man offering their hair to goddess Artemis and young women devoting their life for a year in service of Artemis Sanctuary. Civic rituals were organized by the city authorities under strict supervision. Religious festivals use to happen where the Greek drama benefitted from these festivals as the drama use to take place during such occasions.
Athletic games (most prominent being Olympic games) and musical competitions were also organized during these religious festivals. The year of beginning of these games, which were held every four years, has been found to be 776 BCE. The Greeks constructed sanctuaries for their deities but it was more to house the gods and goddesses than for prayer. The priests had the freedom to enter the main sanctuary and devotees were not allowed to proceed beyond a sacred point known as Temenos where sacrificial altar was also kept.
Places like that of Delphi, Delos, Olympia and Athens had prominent temples which later added to the Greek architectural technique. Parthenon (dedicated to the Olympian deities) at Athens was the most magnificent temple of the classical age, built during the reign of Pericles.
The Greeks also attached great importance to seeking prophecy about both domestic and public life from the oracles (priests). The oracle at Delphi shrine was famous for its prophecy that was handled by the specialists. The specialists were believed to possess the expertise to interpret the divine prophecies. Mysticism was another aspect of Greek religion, which was represented by the cult of Dionysus.
Greek religion was also influenced by other religious practices such as that of the Near East, particularly Anatolia. As the Olympian gods started losing their importance after the Peloponnesian wars, foreign deities gained popularity in the Greek pantheon.
According to Claude Mosse (1996) there were other factors too that led to the popularity of these foreign cults in Greece. According to Mosse, unlike civic religion, worship of these deities was open to everyone, including not only citizens and foreigners but also to women and slaves. Women played a major role in popularizing foreign religions. Another reason of popularity of these religions in Greece was that while Greek religious thoughts offered salvation to elite alone, these religions offered the promise of salvation to all its followers, thus providing comfort from their wretched earthly life.