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Exploring ancient Greek religion
Exploring ancient Greek religion

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1.1 Sacred places and the Greek gods

Now that you’ve had time to consider what the term ‘religion’ means to you today, you may be wondering what it meant to the ancient Greeks. This question is a little tricky to answer because, as noted earlier, the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for ‘religion’. However, that doesn’t mean that they completely lacked thoughts or actions which fall under this category.

Like many religions today, the ancient Greeks had sacred places, objects, people and gods associated with religious beliefs and behaviour. For example, people often visited temples (such as that of the goddess Aphaia on the island of Aegina, depicted in Figure 2) to pray and make offerings to their divinities, and such visits would have consisted of a series of expected actions and performances deemed appropriate for the occasion. However, unlike many religions today, there was no central book or text guiding the ancient Greeks how to go about their daily worship. This absence means that there is no direct ancient source which outlines what the ancient Greeks believed in. As you will learn in this course, though, there are other pieces of ancient evidence which shine light on this complex matter.

A photograph of the temple of the goddess Aphaia, Aegina.
Figure 2 Temple of the goddess Aphaia at Aegina, c.500 BCE.

Activity 2

Timing: Allow around 5 minutes for this activity

What, if anything, do you know about ancient Greek gods? If the answer is ‘nothing at all’, don’t worry! Otherwise, make a note of four or five key words or phrases.

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Again, there is no right or wrong answer here. Depending on what knowledge you have already about ancient Greek gods, you may have noted down the names of some major divinities, such as Zeus, Poseidon and Athena – or, indeed, simply observed that the ancient Greeks had lots of gods and goddesses. You may even have seen some images of, or perhaps visited, a particular Greek temple or sanctuary, or have some memory of seeing a particular divinity in a modern context (such as a film, book, video game or part of a museum exhibit).

Something which you might find interesting about the nature of gods and goddesses in the ancient Greek world is that, although they were numerous, each divine figure commonly had their own special qualities (in other words, they could be thought of as ‘the god/goddess of X’). Quite often, though, the special quality that a deity possessed overlapped with those of other gods or goddesses. For example, if a particular divine figure was associated with bringing about a good harvest, that did not necessarily mean that only that divine figure had such a capability. Indeed, the ancient Greeks had a large number of divinities to whom they could turn in times of need.