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Exploring ancient Greek religion
Exploring ancient Greek religion

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1 Religion in the ancient Greek world

The sanctuary of Amphiaraos, which lay about 55 kilometres (35 miles) northeast of the centre of ancient Athens, was just one of an enormous number of shrines and temples built by Greek-speaking communities across the ancient Mediterranean. Such buildings formed a focus for religious activities in the ancient world and provided ways for the inhabitants of ancient Greece to connect with their deities, that is to say the gods and heroes that they worshipped.

A photograph of the Parthenon. It is located on the Athenian Acropolis, in the heart of the ancient city. This temple was built between 447 and 432 BCE in honour of Athens’ patron deity Athena, who was worshipped here as ‘Parthenos’ (or ‘maiden’).
Figure 1 The Parthenon on the Acropolis, in Athens, Greece.

But what does ‘religion’ in the world of ancient Greece signify, and who were the gods that they worshipped? To kick off your studies on this course, you’ll begin with two introductory activities. First, you’ll think about what religion means to you, and then you’ll consider what, if anything, you may already know about Greek deities. You don’t need any prior knowledge, though, so don’t worry if you don’t yet know anything about ancient Greece, or Greek religion!

Activity 1

Timing: Allow around 5 minutes for this activity

Take a few minutes to think about what the word ‘religion’ means to you. Then jot down four or five key words or phrases which spring to mind.

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There is no right or wrong answer to this activity. Your four or five words/phrases will depend a lot on your own personal experiences and interests. You may have thought about a particular faith with which you are familiar, for example, or a set of rituals, places and objects associated with certain religious activities. You may have even thought about religion in terms of a particular recipient of worship or in relation to the types of peoples who commit their lives to serving a religious order.

Study note: a note on dates

You will notice that this course uses the abbreviations ‘BCE’ and ‘CE’ when dating events, texts and objects. These abbreviations stand for ‘Before the Common Era’ and ‘Common Era’. You may be familiar with an alternative method of referring to dates as ‘BC’ (‘Before Christ’) and ‘AD’ (Anno Domini, Latin for ‘in the year of our Lord’), and you may find that the authors of other things you read on the topics discussed here use instead BC and AD instead of BCE and CE. Remember that BCE years count backwards – therefore the eighth century BCE is earlier than the seventh century BCE.