Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 BCE-476 CE: Religion

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Religion of Minoan Crete During the Bronze Age

Early Evidence

The earliest Greek agriculturists are found in the north; at Nea Nikomedeia, north-west of Thessaloniki, there was a settlement of farmers as early as 6500 B.C.E. But it is further south, on Crete and on the Cyclades, the archipelago in the Aegean Sea grouped around the island of Delos, that one can find the first signs of civilization—a society complete with political structure, distinctive art forms, and religious rites. Islanders in the Cyclades were forging daggers and spear-heads of copper by 2750 B.C.E. The white island marble provided the raw material for a distinctive Cycladic sculpture that was geometric with flat planes, almost two-dimensional. One favorite subject was a harpist sitting on a chair and playing his instrument, perhaps for the dead in the afterlife. The most common subject is a nude woman with her arms folded over her stomach. She is probably a deity, very likely a goddess whose concern was pregnancy and childbirth.

The Prepalatial Period on Crete

Crete follows a different pattern, even though there was interaction with the Cyclades islands. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, appears in Crete about 2700 B.C.E. probably introduced by immigrants from Asia Minor, where tin was mined. The immigrants were not numerous and quickly intermarried with the native Cretans. By 2500 B.C.E. monumental tombs appear, first in the fertile Mesarà plain in the southern part of central Crete where five of them have been found, circular in shape with entrances facing east. How they were roofed is uncertain for none have been found intact, but it is clear that they were burial places for entire clans over several generations. Paved dancing floors laid out next to the tombs indicate that these were places where the community gathered for religious rites; dancing in burial grounds renewed the will to live, and affirmed family solidarity in the face of death.

Sacred Caves in the Prepalatial Period

There is another clue to contemporary religious belief: sacred caves which were places of worship. On the hill above Amnisos on the north coast of Crete is a cave sacred to Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, which received worshippers as early as the New Stone Age, and continued in use until the Roman period. The earliest dedications that the pilgrims left behind were idols with large hips and plump buttocks, handmade pottery, and stone or bone tools. Eileithyia is a goddess known in the classical period, when she is closely associated with the Olympian goddess Artemis, and the fact that her cult persisted here is a remarkable example of continuity. Two other cave sanctuaries on Crete were important enough to survive as cult sites long after the Minoan civilization came to an end. One, in the mountains south of Malia, was—according to one tradition—the cave of Dicte where Zeus was born. His father, the Titan Cronus, learned from an oracle that his son would overthrow the rule of the Titans, and so he swallowed the infants which his wife, Rhea, bore, until at last she managed to give birth to Zeus deep in the cave of Dicte. A roughly-built altar, set against the cave wall, was found in the upper part of the cave, and it was within a sacred precinct which is marked off by a barrier. The Minoan worshipers who climbed up to this cave left offerings behind to win divine favor, for bronze weapons were found embedded in the stalactites of the cave, and other votives were discovered in a pool which is at the lowest point of the cave. The other cave is situated on Mt. Ida, and it is also connected with the infant Zeus, who was supposedly brought there and suckled by the nymph Amalthea who took the form of a goat. Around his cradle danced young warriors called Kouretes, leaping high into the air and beating their shields to drive away the evil spirits who might betray the child-god’s presence. The cave was used from the end of the New Stone Age, but it seems to have reached the height of its importance as a cult center in the Early Palace period. The latest offerings were terracotta lamps left there in Roman times. Roman visitors—tourists, perhaps, motivated by a mixture of curiosity and piety—were still climbing up to this cave after Crete had become a province of the Roman Empire.

The Awakening of Civilization

Quite suddenly, about 1900 B.C.E., palaces were built at a number of sites on the island. The first to be discovered was at Knossos about three and a half miles south of Heraklion, the capital of present-day Crete, where the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began to excavate in 1899. Within three years he had uncovered a great sprawling building with a maze of rooms which he called the “Palace of Minos” after the legendary King Minos who lived at Knossos, according to Greek myth. He labeled the civilization that he had found “Minoan.” Since then, similar “palaces” have been unearthed at six other sites on Crete: Phaistos directly south of Knossos, Malia along the northern coast, Gournia overlooking the Bay of Pseira, Galatas near Khania to the west of the island, and to the east, Petras and Kato Zakros. All were built around central courts roughly twice as long as they are wide. At other sites archaeologists have found the remains of great mansions, but they lack the central courts which seem to be the characteristic mark of a palace. Palaces imply kings, perhaps priest-kings, and the legend of King Minos shows that the Greek storytellers of a later age believed that a king once ruled at Knossos, where there was the largest palace on Crete and the only one that continued to be inhabited after the others were deserted. Except in the last phase of the Knossos palace’s existence, however, there is no archaeological evidence that kings inhabited these palaces. They seem to have had two main functions. One was the storage of foodstuffs, the other was religious ritual.

Peak Sanctuaries

The sudden appearance of these palaces on Crete postdates—though only by a brief period—a new religious development. At the very end of the Prepalatial period, “peak sanctuaries” appear, built on mountain tops. One example that can be easily visited is on Mount Juktas above the modern town of Arkhanes, where remains of a sprawling Minoan mansion—though without a central court—have been found. Just below the summit of Mount Juktas, a stepped altar was built across a natural cleft in the rock. There were two construction phases, the first dating to the Old Palace period, and the second to the New Palace period. The offerings and the remains of sacrifices found there show that worshipers frequented this shrine from before the palaces were built until after 1100 B.C.E. The only physical evidence that shows what peak sanctuaries looked like is a rhyton, that is a vessel for pouring ritual libations, decorated with a low relief of a peak sanctuary. The facade was divided into three sections. There was a great central gateway adorned with multiple spirals, and on either side, smaller wings, their eaves embellished with “horns of consecration”—stylized bulls’ horns with some religious significance. The temple is shown built over a cleft in the rock, and—if allowances are made for the artist’s ignorance of perspective—it rises above two altars decorated with more “horns of consecration.” On the roof of the temple rest some agrimi, the Cretan wild goats which still survive on the island in limited numbers. They may be sacrificial victims, quietly awaiting their fate. The temple is situated on a rocky mountain top which the artist has indicated by a schematic sketch.

The Oriental Connection

Peak sanctuaries have a connection to the Near East. The Canaanite gods, like the gods of Mt. Olympus worshipped by the classical Greeks, lived on mountain peaks. Texts found at the Canaanite site of Ugarit, modern Ras Shamra near the Mediterranean coast of Syria, tell of the storm god Baal going up the “Northern Mountain” to attend the assembly of the gods. Canaanite hilltop altars were the “high places” mentioned in the Old Testament, where the Canaanites propitiated Baal, who sent the rain and ruled the thunder and lightning. This is not to say that the Minoans worshipped Canaanite gods, but the evidence for Canaanite influence is strong. For instance, a statuette of a woman, probably a priestess, handling snakes was found at Knossos, a reminder of the Canaanite goddess Asherah, the Lady of the Serpent and Mother of the gods and all creatures. Though mountaintop gods were worshipped in Canaan, no peak sanctuary like those found on Crete has been found in the Levant except at one site in northern Israel where a hilltop shrine with a stepped altar has been discovered. It dates to the nineteenth century B.C.E. that is, the early Old Palace period on Crete. Later research may turn up more evidence for parallels between Canaan and Crete but for the time being caution must be taken: the Minoans were not Canaanites.

The Role of the Palaces

Evidence for the religious rites that went on in the palaces is almost entirely dependent on archaeology. At Knossos, clay tablets with writing in “Linear B” have been unearthed, dating perhaps as early as 1450 B.C.E. though many scholars date them later. “Linear B” was deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952 and shown to be an early form of Greek. “Linear B” has been found at a number of Bronze Age sites in mainland Greece, but on Crete, it has been found only at Knossos. It was preceded on Crete by an earlier linear script that is labeled “Linear A,” and it has been found not only at Knossos but at other places on the island as well; a particularly large cache was discovered at the site known as Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity), so-called from a church nearby, for its ancient name is unknown. “Linear A” has not been deciphered, nor has the hieroglyphic script that was used on Crete before “Linear A” became common. Therefore, the clues these documents might provide as to what early Minoan religion was like are inaccessible. The study of pre-Greek words that have survived as place names or the names of gods, however, has provided a few tantalizing clues. For instance, a goddess with the pre-Greek name of Britomartis survived into the classical period; she is probably the same goddess as Aphaia, who had a temple on the island of Aigina, a short boat ride south from Piraeus, the port of Athens. Britomartis seems to have been a Minoan word meaning “sweet virgin.”

The Double-Ax

The archaeological evidence—wall-paintings, statuettes, votive offerings—raises as many questions as it answers. Double-axes have a religious significance of some sort, for scholars find them in connection with shrines that they seem to mark as holy places. They come in various sizes, made of bronze, bone, or ivory. Some are highly ornate. They seem to be symbols of power, but they are never associated with a male figure. It is always a woman—probably a goddess—who wields the ax, swinging it above her head with two raised arms. The axes can have had no practical purpose, for their blades are too thin and fragile to chop wood or even slit the throat of a sacrificial animal. In Asia Minor double-axes are found symbolizing thunder-bolts, but they are associated with a male god, and it would be hard to show a connection between them and the Minoan double-ax. Yet the double-ax has left behind one tantalizing folk-memory: there is a rarely-used word in classical Greek,labrys meaning a “battle-ax” or a “double-ax,” which seems to be connected with the word labyrinthos, a building with a maze of corridors from which it was almost impossible to extricate oneself. The myth of King Minos of Crete told that he built a labyrinthos to house a monster called the Minotaur, which was half-man, half-bull. Greek words ending in -inthos betray a non-Greek origin, and it is tempting to believe that the “labyrinth” of the Minos-myth was the sprawling palace at Knossos with its multitude of rooms and winding hallways, and that labyrinthos means something like the “House of the Double-Ax.”

The Long-Horned Bulls

The word “Minotaur” means simply the “bull of Minos,” and whatever the monster may have been, it is clear that long-horned bulls had a special place in Minoan religious rites. Terracotta figurines of bulls were left as votive offerings in holy places. Rhytons, which are vessels for pouring libations, were frequently made in the shape of bulls’ heads. Stylized bull horns, called “horns of consecration” are found in sacred contexts and have some unexplained religious significance. One fresco from Knossos depicts a bull charging with a flying gallop, both front and rear legs extended to show that the beast is traveling at speed, and toreadors, both male and female, are shown vaulting over his back. This kind of bull-fight, if that is what it was, is too risky to be mere sport. The toreadors are pitting their skill and athleticism against the power and speed of the bull, and those that lost the contest—as some must have done—would perish, impaled on the bull’s horns, sacrificing their lives for the good of the community. The toreadors represented the strength and courage of the youthful hero who faces death unflinching, for he knows that the passing years will soon slow his reflexes, and someday he will fail to leap clear of the bull’s deadly charge.


Two miniature frescos which depict religious ceremonies were found in fragments just west of the north entrance hallway of the Knossos palace, where they had probably fallen from an upper floor. One shows a scene set in the countryside, where a fence surrounds a precinct with a sacred tree and a small building, possibly a shrine. It is probably a holy space consecrated to a matriarchal goddess, for Minoan gold rings often have engravings of a goddess seated under a tree or in front of a shrine, receiving worshippers. The second fresco shows a scene in the central court of the palace. Against one wall there is the familiar Minoan shrine with tripartite facade, and double axes attached to it. A crowd has gathered there to watch a ceremony that included dancing. From this it is possible to infer that the central courts of the palaces were places where crowds gathered for religious ceremonies.

What the Myths Tell Us

Greek mythology connected Minoan Crete with the cycle of myths which centered around the Athenian hero, Theseus, a prince of Athens. Each year the king of Crete, Minos, required Athens to send him twelve adolescent boys and twelve young girls to be fed to the Minotaur who lived in the labyrinth at Knossos. Theseus volunteered as one of the youths destined for this sacrifice, but once he reached Knossos, he won the heart of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, who provided him with a sword to defend himself, and a spool of woolen thread to mark his path when he entered the labyrinth so that he could retrace his footsteps. Theseus slew the Minotaur, escaped from the labyrinth and fled Crete, taking with him Ariadne, whom he soon abandoned. The youths destined as food for the Minotaur sounds like an indistinct memory of a cannibalistic rite, and students of Greek religion often wonder if there is any evidence of cannibalism or human sacrifice on Crete. Sir Arthur Evans did, in fact, discover a cache of children’s bones in the palace of Minos at Knossos that showed what looked like knife marks, which might be evidence of cannibalism, and at a Minoan shrine discovered in 1979 at Anemóspilia near Phourni, an altar was found in one of the rooms with the bones of a young man still on it. Two other skeletons were found nearby. The shrine was destroyed by the great earthquake which brought the Old Palace Period on Crete to an end, and the excavators concluded that the youth on the altar had been sacrificed just before the earthquake, perhaps in an effort to avert it.

The Minotaur

The figure of the Minotaur also has possible connections to Minoan religion. He sounds like a therioanthropic god, that is, a god that is half-man, half-beast, and therioanthropic figures do appear on Minoan seals used to make impressions on clay. Another possibility is that the Minotaur was really the priest-king of Knossos, who wore a bull’s head mask as part of the sacrificial ritual. Masks made from real bull skulls have been unearthed in sanctuaries on Cyprus, and terracotta figurines wearing such masks have also been found. It seems likely that the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur reflects a dim recollection of human sacrifice to a god that was half-man, half-bull, since there is sound evidence that human sacrifices did take place. The evidence for cannibalism, on the other hand, is shaky.

The Evidence for Greek Gods

In the last phase of habitation in the palace at Knossos—but not elsewhere—clay tablets with “Linear B” writing were found, which indicates that there, at least, Greek-speaking invaders took over. “Linear B” has yielded the names of all the Olympian gods which are most familiar in classical Greek literature, except for Aphrodite, the goddess of love-making. One “Linear B” tablet from Knossos assigns an offering of honey to the Cave of Eilytheia at Amnisos, showing that the Greek-speaking immigrants adopted this ancient shrine. Another “Linear B” tablet from Knossos mentions the Potnia, that is, the Mistress, of the Labyrinth. But what does the tablet mean by the word “labyrinth”? Can it mean the same as the English word “labyrinth”? Or does it mean something like the “Holy House of the Double-Ax”?

The Singularity of Cretan Religion

Long after the Greek-speakers had taken over Crete, Cretan religion retained some unique features that marked it as different from the rest of Greece. The god Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, was immortal in the rest of Greece. But the Cretans believed not only that their Zeus was born in the Cave of Dicte, but also that he died and was reborn. The Cretan Zeus seems to have been the result of a merger of the Olympian Zeus of the Greeks with an earlier vegetation god, who died and was reborn with the changes of the seasons. The importance of bulls in Minoan religious life may also be reflected in the fact that the Zeus of the Greeks was also associated with the bull, as was his brother, Poseidon, the god of the sea. On Crete, the religion of the Olympian gods overlaid an earlier religion, which seems to have had Asian and perhaps also some Egyptian connections.

The Early Greeks on Mainland Greece

The Discovery of the Mycenaeans

On the mainland, our study of religion has more guideposts than in Minoan Crete, for classical Greece inherited a wealth of mythology which told of a Greek Bronze Age society where Mycenae was the dominant kingdom, and the other kings owed a sort of allegiance to the high king of Mycenae. This was Greece’s age of heroes, which continued to haunt the imaginations of the Greeks and inspire their poets. There is another reason, too, why the label “Mycenaean” is attached to this prehistoric civilization. Mycenae was the site that revealed it to the modern world in 1874, when the pioneer German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, fresh from his discovery of ancient Troy four years earlier, started excavating inside the main gate of the Mycenaean citadel, and uncovered a circle of graves with rich burials. Archaeologists have discovered many more Bronze Age sites in Greece since then, but the term “Mycenaean” is still applied to the whole civilization.

The Mycenaean Golden Age

The great age of Mycenaean civilization was between 1400 B.C.E. and 1200 B.C.E., after the Minoan civilization had fallen victim to some sort of disaster, and only the palace at Knossos continued to be inhabited. These last inhabitants of the Knossos palace wrote in the same “Linear B” script that the Mycenaeans used, which was deciphered in 1952 and shown to be an early form of Greek. Hence there is good reason to think that Greek-speaking Mycenaeans took over the Knossos palace in its final years. There is good archaeological evidence to show that the Mycenaean Greeks ranged far and wide. They carried on trade with Sicily, Italy, and even Sardinia in the west, and with the Levant in the east, until they fell victim to a general upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean that took place about 1200 B.C.E. and left evidence of folk migration and violent destruction throughout the region.

The Mycenaean Temple

It was once thought that the Mycenaeans built no temples and religious life was centered in their palaces, which Mycenaean barons built in imitation of the palaces on Crete. This was not the case, however. A temple has been recently discovered at Mycenae that is connected to the palace on the acropolis by a processional way leading down to a building that was clearly used for religious rites. In front of the entrance was an altar and a table for offerings—limestone blocks with dowel-holes for table-legs are all that survive, but the interpretation is likely. Near it was a circular enclosure filled with ash. This forecourt gives on to two rooms, one of which, the front room, has a great horseshoe-shaped altar made of clay, and beside it was a stone block, possibly intended for slaughtering sacrificial victims. A stairway from the forecourt leads down to a second courtyard where there is a round altar with the remains of many sacrifices, and next to it is a subterranean building that has been called the “House of Idols.” The idols, up to sixty centimeters—almost two feet—tall, are both male and female, and some have painted mask-like features that grimace horribly. They are hollowed underneath so that poles could be fitted to them for carrying in procession. Close to the “House of Idols” was another house, so-called the “House of the Frescoes” from the fresco in the main room showing two goddesses—or perhaps a god and a goddess—on either side of a column, and a woman, either a priestess or a goddess, holding ears of grain. This complex was clearly a place of worship, but it is unlike any classical Greek temple.

The Evidence of the “Linear B” Tablets

The “Linear B” tablets found at Mycenaean sites reveal that all the Olympian gods that the later Greeks worshipped were known in the Mycenaean world, except for Aphrodite who seems not yet to have reached Greece. At Pylos, where the largest cache of “Linear B” tablets was found, Poseidon, the god of the sea, seems to have been more important than Zeus. In addition there is a goddess whose name is the feminine form of “Poseidon”—a “Mrs. Poseidon.” Similarly for Zeus: there is a goddess named Diwija who is “Mrs. Zeus,” and these goddesses had their own places of worship. Men played a greater role in religious rites than they did in Minoan Crete, where priestesses dominated. But at Pylos, a ijereuis mentioned frequently; in classical Greek the word is hiereus and it designates a man who holds an official position as a priest.

The End of the Mycenaean Kings

Raiders destroyed Pylos about 1200 B.C.E. and the other Mycenaean palaces did not last much longer. The kings who ruled in these palaces disappeared with them. The word for “king” was wanax. In classical Greek, which loses the w-sound, the word becomes anax and it is used to address a god, not a mortal king whose title was basileus. That fact may suggest that there were god-kings in the Mycenaean world, but there is no good evidence to support that theory. The Mycenaean wanax prayed to the gods in a spirit of give-and-take: he made offerings to the gods and expected the gods to be grateful and show their gratitude by keeping the kingdom from harm. He was an intermediary between the gods and mortal men, and in that sense, he was semi-divine. In the end, this religious system failed to protect this culture. The little Mycenaean realms fell victim to raiders who came, plundered and burned, and then left—there is no evidence for new immigration immediately on the heels of raiders—and the shock to the religious mentality of the age must have been as great as the trauma that the political structure suffered.

The Dark Ages

The Beginnings of the Polis

In the Dark Ages that followed the end of the Mycenaean world, Greece sank back into illiteracy. “Linear B” writing had been only a tool for keeping records in the little bureaucracies in the Mycenaean palaces, and once the palaces were destroyed, and records were no longer kept, “Linear B” died out. Central authority collapsed, and once stability reappeared in the Greek world, some 700 little independent states called poleis (translated rather inadequately as “city-states”) are found—each a little urban center with a market, surrounded by its territory where the citizens had their farms and pastures. The urban center was the seat of government and the market was intended both for commerce and as a gathering-place for the citizens to discuss matters of common concern. Since life in the “Dark Ages” was insecure, the preferred site for an urban center was around an acropolis—the word means simply “high city,” or “city on a mount”—which was a defensible hill, able to provide a place of refuge. Of the hundreds of poleis, modern scholars are familiar with only a few of the largest, such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes, and these were not the most typical. They revered the same pantheon of gods; yet each had its own favorites, and sometimes even its own versions of the myths about their favorite gods. Moreover, within thepoleis, there were great families; Corinth, for instance, was dominated by one extended family called the Bacchiadae, who elected one of their members king. Elsewhere there were various family alliances called phratries, each of which might have its own patron god. What gave the religion of the “Dark Ages” whatever unity it had was the common memory of the Mycenaean world and the mythology that arose from it.

The Importance of Oral Tradition

The oral culture of the Greek world remained lively. Oral bards sang their poems at religious festivals or in the banqueting halls of the great aristocratic families, and they related stories of a time when gods walked the earth and fought beside their favored warriors on the battlefield. It was the poets who gave shape to the Greek ideas about their gods. They imagined deities in human form, though in the standard epithets that were applied to them there seems to be a folk memory of an early time when some of them were theriomorphic gods. Athena was called “owl-eyed” and her special bird was the owl, which may recall an early, primitive belief that the owl incorporated her spirit. An owl gliding to its perch on silent wings, for example, was Athena manifesting herself. Hera was called “ox-eyed,” perhaps for the same reason. The gods’ association with animal totems aside, the poets made their gods in the likeness of man, and they thought of them as a divine version of an aristocratic clan, whose members had all the human failings. There was this important difference: the gods were immortal. They were safe from the fear of death, and thus they could afford to be more irresponsible than mere humans.

The Importance of Homer

Two poets in particular can be singled out for their role in shaping religious concepts. The first is Homer, whom legend said was a blind poet who composed the two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the Homeric Hymnswhich were sung at religious festivals. Whether a poet named Homer ever existed or not is much debated, but it is the least consequential of the many questions which this body of literature raises. What is important is that the Greeks at a later time looked back on these poems as the literature that gave shape to their concept of the gods. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey take their subject matter from the most famous myth that Greece inherited from the Mycenaean world: the story of the siege of Troy. According to the myth, a Trojan prince, Paris, also known as Alexander, abducted Helen, the beautiful wife of the king of Sparta, Menelaus. A Greek coalition led by Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, sailed to Troy in pursuit of Helen and captured the city after a ten-year siege. Archaeology shows that a city on the site of Troy did stand siege and was destroyed at about the date that the Greeks assigned to the Trojan War, and so the Trojan War-myth must have a kernel of truth to it. But the oral bards who performed in the halls of warrior aristocrats in the “Dark Ages” developed a Trojan myth that mingled the human realm with the divine. Homer, who may have been the poet who first put the Iliad and the Odyssey into writing, belonged to this bardic tradition. His tales of the gods helped form the Greek conception of them as immortal beings that are powerful but not omnipotent, and capable of doing mortals good or evil according to their whims of the moment. They answered a human’s prayers if they were well disposed. They had their favorites, they carried grudges, and they loved to receive honors. When they appeared to humans in divine epiphanies, they were always tall, handsome, and sweet smelling. They were super-human, but they were also unreliable creatures and not to be trusted. They had both the vices and virtues of mortal men, but since they could not die, their lives were untouched by tragedy as were the lives of humans.

The Contribution of Hesiod

The other poet who helped shape the Greek religious beliefs was Hesiod, author of the Theogony which is a creation myth, and the Works and Days which describes a farmer’s life and sets it in a world where the relationship with the divine element was important. The fifth-century historian Herodotus—the first European author to write history that was more than a chronicle of facts—relates that it was Homer and Hesiod who described the gods for the Greeks and gave them all their appropriate titles, functions, and powers, and he suggested the poets lived sometime before 800 B.C.E. That date may not be far wrong, for some scholars think that by that time the Greeks had already learned to write again, having borrowed their alphabet from the Phoenicians. Once the texts of Homer and Hesiod were written down, they gave whatever standard form there was to Greek religion.

Other Writers

The gods of Homer were never canonical, and later writers were free to develop their own concepts that fitted the intellectual currents of the day. Greek story-tellers presented gods that were envious divine powers, and the tragic poets—the greatest of whom were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides—took up the theme: the standard subject matter of tragedy was a human who became too great or too lucky, and aroused the jealousy of the gods who struck him down. Greek philosophers freely criticized the conduct of the Homeric gods and even began to point out in the fifth century B.C.E. that there was no way of demonstrating the actual existence of the gods or, if they did exist, what they looked like. Yet worship of the gods was deeply embedded in Greek society. It was sustained by ancient custom, and the Greeks revered the way of life that their ancestors had bequeathed to them.

The Gods of Olympus

The Divine Beings of Greece

If a modern observer could tour the cities and villages of ancient Greece, he would be astonished at the multitude of gods and goddesses that the Greeks worshipped. They would include some gods whom he recognized, such as Zeus, the king of the gods, or Athena, whose ruined temple in Athens, the Parthenon, has appeared in countless tourist brochures. But many of them would be unfamiliar. There were woodland nymphs, female spirits of nature who might kidnap mortals whom they fancied. There were river gods who could cause floods if they were angered. A god called Pan, half man and half goat, lived in the woods, and could instill irrational terror in men or beasts, which was called ‘panic’ after him. To make matters more confusing, sometimes the Greeks referred to “Pan” in the plural, as if he was free of the mortal constraints of singular and plural. If the observer went to the little island of Aegina which is a short distance south from Athens, he might see a well-preserved temple built in the early fifth century B.C.E. that was dedicated to a goddess named Aphaea. She is possibly the Minoan goddess called Britomartis, surviving on Aegina with a changed name. Her temple was in the countryside, high on a hill in the center of the island, and there the islanders gathered for her festivals to pray, offer sacrifices, and enjoy the festivities of a “holy day.”

The Demigods

To add to the modern observer’s bewilderment, there were the demigods or “half-gods.” They were the heroes, and they played a role similar to Christian saints. They were mortals, many—but not all—of whom belonged to the Age of Heroes. What made them demigods was that they won great renown in their lifetimes, and hence received worship after death, for their power did not perish along with their mortal bodies. No temples were built for them, but they did have shrines where worshipers could venerate them with prayers and sacrifice. They did not dwell with the Olympian gods; instead they subsisted with the ghosts of the dead in the Underworld. If they were heroes of mythology, they might be the sons of gods, or more rarely, of goddesses. Great families boasted of pedigrees which went back to a demigod who might have divine ancestry, and the sacrifices they offered their semi-divine ancestor reinforced family solidarity. Our visitor might even have found some heroes that were nameless: if they ever had names, they were lost in the mists of time. One clan in Athens offered yearly sacrifice to a demigod known simply as the “hero beside the salt-pans.”

The Great Man as Hero

Some of these heroes were historical figures who lived within the time-frame of mortal men. They were men who had once wielded power and used it to perform memorable deeds. If a person founded a colony in Italy or the Ukraine, for example, the colony he founded would honor him after his death as a Heros Ktistes, that is, the “founder hero.” He would often be buried in the marketplace, where a shrine would be built for him, and sacrifices offered. Great gods were no longer born in historical times, but new heroes could always be created; all that was needed was a resolution passed by a city, clan, or religious group to give a deceased person heroic honors.

The Logic of Pagan Worship

Although the gods and heroes of the Greeks, and their cults may seem like a chaotic hodgepodge to the modern observer, there was an underlying logic to Greek worship. Gods and heroes were powerful supernatural beings whom men feared and supplicated to win their favor and avert evils, such as shipwreck, earthquake, or the drought that parched the crops. Gods had sacred places which they particularly liked, and if a worshipper wanted his prayer to be heard he would be wise to go to a place that was dear to the god whose favor he was seeking and there make his prayer or sacrifice. Gods did not always hear prayers, for they had their own lives to lead and had neither time nor inclination to listen to all the mortals beseeching their help. But if a suppliant went to a precinct sacred to a god, where there might be a temple housing his image, then the chances were good that the god would pay attention. Gods could not ignore their images, for the image captured a god’s likeness, and with it, a share of the divine potency.

Divine Politics

The worshipper also had to remember that gods and goddesses had special interests—like cabinet ministers who preside over government departments—and it was important to address the correct department. The goddess Hera took an interest in women in childbirth, Hephaestus was a patron of blacksmiths, and Poseidon controlled the sea and the terrifying earthquakes. Prayers and sacrifices were most effective when they were directed to the right god, for however much a god might favor a suppliant, he would hesitate to trespass upon another god’s department.

Greek Theology

The Greeks had no equivalent of the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran to give coherence to their religion. So far as they had any formal theology at all, they owed it to their poets, particularly the epic poets Homer and Hesiod, who produced the earliest surviving Greek literature. Almost everything that has been written about Homer is subject to controversy, including his very existence, but there can be no doubt that the Homeric poems shaped Greek conceptions of their gods and goddesses. In his Iliad, Homer presents them as a large extended family dwelling on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece, from which they viewed the world below like spectators at a football game. They were immortal: they could not die and did not grow old; they had no need to worry about disease, famine, or the other ills that beset mankind; they had ichor rather than blood in their veins; and their food was ambrosia. Beyond these distinctions, they lived lives similar to the lives of earth-bound humans. They had the same family disputes and felt the same passions. They were not, however, bound by the same social constraints as human beings; if a mortal man had dared to rape women with the same licentiousness as the gods, the brothers or male relatives of the victims would have hunted him down. Gods were powerful but not omnipotent; even Zeus, the most powerful of them all, could not change the decrees of Fate. Twelve members of the Olympian family were dominant. Homer knew of more than twelve gods on Mt. Olympus, but twelve great gods formed a sort of inner circle, and that number was never to increase. After Homer, twelve remained the canonical number. Later Greeks added Dionysus, the god of wine, and dropped Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, thus maintaining the number twelve.

Hesiod’s Generations of the Gods

Hesiod’s contribution was the myth of the creation of the world out of chaos, and the birth of the gods, which he described in his Theogony. The main components of the myth were borrowed from the Near East. As more and more clay tablets from the ancient Near East are deciphered, it has become increasingly clear that Greek religious ideas owe a great debt to the East. We know now that Hesiod’s Theogony adapts a story that is found first among the Hurrians, a people in northern Mesopotamia, who passed it on to the Greeks via the Hittites in Asia Minor, and the Phoenicians in what is now Lebanon. Hesiod’s tale relates that the great gods of Olympus were preceded by three earlier generations. First there was Chaos, and out of it, Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth) were formed. Ouranos, who was male, covered Gaia, and from their union came the generation of the Titans. The rule of the Titans ended when Cronus, the youngest of the children of Ouranos and Gaia, attacked his father, castrated him, and thrust him up into the sky. Ouranos has been separated from Gaia by the atmosphere of the world above ever since. Cronus, fearing that his offspring would overthrow him in turn, swallowed the infants whom his wife Rhea bore. His children were immortal, and so did not die, but as long as they were imprisoned in Cronus’ stomach, they could do their father no harm. Rhea grew angry at the fate of her children, however, and instead of giving Cronus her last child, Zeus, to devour, she handed him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, and Cronus swallowed it instead. Zeus was brought up secretly on Crete in a cave high on Mt. Ida. Once he was fully grown, he forced Cronus to regurgitate his brothers and sisters, and after terrible battles—first with the Titans and then with a race of Giants and other monsters—he established the rule of the Twelve Olympians. Yet just as the Titans were overthrown, the Twelve Olympians in their turn might suffer the same doom. The gods were always wary of rivals.

The Twelve Olympians

The circle of the twelve great gods of Mt. Olympus consisted of Zeus, the king of the gods, his siblings—Hera, Poseidon, Hestia, and Demeter—and his children—Pallas Athena, Apollo and Artemis, Aphrodite, Ares, Hephaestus, and Hermes. Dionysus was added to the Twelve later, and Hestia dropped. One member of Zeus’ family was not included: Hades, the dark lord of the Underworld. He was Zeus’ brother, but he lived in a sunless realm, ruling over the weightless ghosts of the dead.

Zeus, the Sky-God

Zeus, the king of the gods, was the god of the sky and the weather. He sent the rain that made the crops grow. Homer called him the “cloud-gatherer,” for when the clouds gathered in the sky and lightning flashed the Greeks imagined that they were seeing a manifestation of Zeus’ power. He was by far the strongest of the gods, stronger than all the others, who dared not revolt against his rule, much as they might grumble about it. His favorite creature was the eagle, the most lordly of birds, and his preferred weapon of war was the thunderbolt, which was his exclusive property. Other gods had their preferred weapons as well: Poseidon the trident, Apollo the bow and arrow, and Hephaestus fire, but none of these were as terrible as the thunderbolt. Zeus’ enemies, the Titans and the Giants, were utterly overwhelmed by it when he hurled it against them, and mere mortals were powerless in the face of it. The lightning that flashed across the sky was Zeus revealing himself, and wherever it struck the earth, a sanctuary would be set up to “Zeus Descending,” for there Zeus had touched the earth and left his mark.

The Promiscuous God

Zeus had a wife, Hera, but he was not a faithful husband. He was a god of extraordinary sexual prowess, for he was a fertility god. It was he who made the earth fruitful and saw to it that the seasons came and went in due order. Greek mythology had many tales about his scandalous escapades. He seduced an extraordinary number of both goddesses and mortal women, and his seductions rarely involved mutual consent. One myth related that he saw Leda, the mother of Helen of Troy, taking a bath in a pool and transformed himself into a swan in order to rape her. Another myth relayed Zeus’ seduction of Danaë, who had been imprisoned by her father in a bronze chamber after an oracle told him that a son born to his daughter would kill him. While the chamber had barred mortal men access to Danaë, Zeus worked around this barrier by transforming himself into a shower of gold that penetrated the bronze chamber, and thus he sired her son who did, eventually, kill her father, as the oracle foretold. Zeus was also the father of Heracles, the strongman of Greek legends, and the tale of how he impregnated Heracles’ mother Alcmene is an example both of craftiness and a lack of conventional morality. Zeus disguised himself as Amphitryon and slept with his wife, Alcmene, while Amphitryon was away at war. Then, shortly afterwards, the real Amphitryon returned and slept with his wife, who was surprised at his ardor, for she believed that they had slept together only a short while before. From the coupling of Zeus and Alcmene, Heracles was born, while his twin, Iphitus, was fathered by Amphitryon.

Zeus, the Sire of Gods

It is not surprising, therefore, that Zeus had a great many offspring, both mortal and immortal. He sired both Apollo and Artemis by the Titaness, Leto. He begot Hermes by Maia, one of the Pleiades, the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas, whom Zeus set as a constellation among the stars. He fathered Dionysus by a mortal woman, Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes. His sister Demeter bore him Persephone, the queen of the Underworld whom Hades took as his partner. Hera’s children by him were Ares, the god of war, and, according to some accounts, Hera and Zeus were father and mother of Hephaestus, the god of smiths and craftsmen. Zeus deserved his title as father of gods and men. Even those gods who were not sired by him addressed him as “Father,” and rose to their feet when he came into their presence.

The Justice of Zeus

Zeus was a god of impartial judgment. He was the guardian of conventional morality among mankind even if he did not set an example of it himself. As time went on, he became connected with the principle of justice. Justice, wrote Hesiod, was a daughter of Zeus who reported all deceit and perfidy to him. Yet powerful though Zeus was, he never tried to overturn the decrees of Fate, for he knew that to challenge Fate would be unwise. Every mortal person had his moira (portion of life), marked off by boundaries which even Zeus did not transgress, for respect for limits was the basis of ethical behavior. The most distressing of these limits was death, which no mortal could evade. A myth described how a mortal named Sisyphus tried to cheat death and overstep his moira, and the judgment of Zeus was severe. In the Underworld Sisyphus was condemned forever to roll a heavy stone to the top of a steep hill, only to be overcome by exhaustion as he neared the top so that the stone rolled back down the hill and he had to start again.

Zeus, the Panhellenic God

Zeus was a god whom all the Greeks revered. One of his epithets was Panhellenios, which means “god of all the Hellenes,” for the Greeks in their own language called themselves “Hellenes.” Zeus had no city that he favored above all others. His most famous festival was the Olympic Games that were held every four years at his greatest sanctuary, Olympia, situated in south-west Greece within boundaries of Elis, but in the countryside, away from the urban center of the state. It was a panhellenic festival. Athletes from all over the Greek world gathered there every four years to participate in the contests, and while the games were being held, there was a universal truce: states at war with each other ceased hostilities until the games were finished. All Greeks were welcome to compete, but non-Greeks were not eligible. A victor won only a wreath made of the wild olive for his prize, but the honor and glory that he received in his home city was enormous.

Hera the Mistress: Queen of the Gods

Zeus’ wife was Hera, whose name means “mistress.” She was the queen of the gods, and she had two city-states she especially loved. One was Argos, south of Corinth, where she had a sanctuary so venerable that one of her most common titles was “Argive Hera.” It was built, not in the urban center of Argos, but some distance away in the countryside. Her other favorite place was the island of Samos where a temple was built for her as early as 800 B.C.E. In fact, she seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, of the Greek deities to have temple buildings erected for her cult. At Olympia, for instance, before the great temple of Zeus was built, a temple was erected for her, and it was so ancient that the walls were made of mud brick and the columns were originally hewn out of wood with stone replacements as the wood columns rotted.

The Jealous Wife

Hera was a goddess of weddings and a patron of married women. She looked after the recurrent cycle of pregnancy and birth—and often infant death—which Greek women experienced. Hera’s own marriage with Zeus was no model of connubial bliss, for she saw through the deceptions and infidelities of her randy husband. She reacted with jealousy and anger, and since she could not curb Zeus, she pursued his paramours with unrelenting rage. When the Titaness, Leto, was in labor with Apollo and Artemis—both sired by Zeus—Hera prevented Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, from going to assist Leto, and consequently Leto’s labor lasted nine days. The other gods eventually took pity and offered Eileithyia a great bribe to attend the birth without Hera’s knowledge. Her enmity for Heracles, the son of Zeus, was implacable. While he was still an infant, she sent two great serpents to destroy him, but he grabbed them with his fists and strangled them. Once Heracles became a man, Hera deranged his mind, and in a blind rage he killed his wife, Megara, and his children. Another target of Hera’s jealousy was Io, a priestess at Hera’s sanctuary at Argos who attracted Zeus’ lustful eye. Hera persecuted her, first turning her into a heifer and then sending a gadfly that tormented her so much that she fled across the sea to Egypt. In Homer’s Iliad, Hera plays the role of a quarrelsome partner of Zeus, railing against his infidelity. But she is always careful not to rouse him to violence, for Zeus had no compunction about wife-beating.

Hera’s Children

Hera had children of her own. One was the god of war, Ares, sired by Zeus. The blacksmith god Hephaestus was also Hera’s son; one story related that, angered at Zeus’ constant infidelities, she bore him miraculously without male sperm. Hera also had two daughters who were not included among the twelve Olympians: Hebe and Eileithyia. Hebe, whose name means “youth and health,” was a goddess of healthful well-being. She served as cupbearer of the Olympian gods until Zeus fell in love with a handsome Trojan boy named Ganymede and snatched him up to Olympus where he usurped Hebe’s place as cupbearer. After Heracles was admitted into the company of the gods, Hebe became his wife. Eileithyia, the divine midwife, was an ancient goddess who was worshipped in Minoan Crete, and when she was brought into the Olympian regime, she became Hera’s daughter, which must have been a demotion. It demonstrates the disorganization of the Greek religion when Homer speaks of more than one daughter of Hera bearing the name Eileithyia, as if she was a sisterhood of midwives.

Poseidon, Ruler of the Sea

Poseidon, the god of the sea and earthquake, was the brother of Zeus. Homer refers to a myth that was derived ultimately from an ancient Akkadian epic from Mesopotamia, titled the Atrahasis, that after the Olympian gods overthrew the rule of the Titans, the three brothers—Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades—drew lots to decide which portion of the universe each would rule. Hades won the Underworld, Zeus the clouds and the high clear sky, while Poseidon got the sea. The earth, however, was to be common to all three, and whenever Zeus became too autocratic and tried to extend his dominion beyond his proper boundaries, Poseidon complained, though he knew better than to revolt. He ruled the tempests, and sailors and fishermen feared him. If his anger was roused against an unlucky mariner, he was relentless, as the hero Odysseus discovered as he made his voyage home from Troy. Poseidon lived in an underwater palace with his wife, Amphitrite, the daughter of Ocean, and their children were the Tritons, sea monsters with fishtails that could make venturing on the sea dangerous. At the same time, he was the Earth Shaker, the Lord of the Earthquake who could smash rocks with a single blow of his trident. When earthquakes struck, the Greeks would invoke Poseidon and sing his paean, which was a hymn giving thanks for deliverance from evil. He had no city which he could call his own—though he did contest Athens with Athena and lost narrowly—but he did have one famous sanctuary at the Isthmus of Corinth, where every two years the Isthmian Games were held in his honor.

Pallas Athena, Patron of Athens

Athena, or Pallas Athena, was the patron deity of Athens, so much so that when an Athenian referred simply to “the goddess,” it was Athena whom he meant. The derivation of her second name, “Pallas,” is uncertain, but mythology had at least two tales that explained it. One told that Pallas was a Giant, and in the battle between the gods and the Giants Athena killed and flayed him and covered her own body with his skin for protection. An alternative tale related that Pallas was a goddess who was Athena’s playmate when they were both young. They were both skilled warriors, and once when they were sparring, Pallas was about to strike Athena when Zeus intervened and thrust his shield in front of her. Startled, Pallas was thrown off her guard, and Athena’s next blow accidentally killed her. Athena mourned her death and took her name. This tale belongs to a common type of myth where one god slays another, sometimes by accident and then assumes his name, and these myths are generally interpreted to mean that the killer god has taken over his victim’s cult and co-opted his worshippers. If this interpretation of Pallas’ death is right, it may mean that Athena co-opted the cult of an earlier warrior goddess who did not belong to the charmed circle of the Olympians, and the name “Pallas Athena” reflects the merger.

A Goddess of Intelligence, Resourcefulness and Warfare

Athena was the daughter of Zeus and Metis. The word metis means simply “wisdom” or “cunning,” but in the myth of Athena’s birth Metis is a female divinity. While Metis was pregnant, Zeus learned that her son was destined by fate to overthrow his father. Hoping to eliminate this threat, he swallowed Metis with her unborn child. Thus Zeus literally incorporated wisdom in his own body. One day he had a splitting headache, and called on Hephaestus to help. Hephaestus cured the migraine by taking an ax and splitting Zeus’ head open. Out stepped the warrior goddess, Athena, in full armor. She was a goddess of battle, and Greek art always depicted her wearing a helmet. She delighted in the clamor of combat. When she favored a soldier, she stood beside him in the fight and gave him courage. In particular she loved a warrior who was not merely strong and brave, but intelligent and crafty as well. The hero Odysseus was a special favorite of hers, for on his long journey home after the destruction of Troy, he survived by his wits, whereas all his men perished. Her shield was called an aegis, and whenever she raised it in battle, it struck panic into her enemies. In art her aegis is shown sometimes as a shield, sometimes as a short cloak; whichever it was, it had in its center the head of a Gorgon, a fearsome monster-woman with snakes instead of hair fringing her head, and a face that was believed to turn those who looked on it into stone. The Gorgon’s head was an apotropaic device, that is, a symbol supposed to ward off the evil eye.

A Goddess of Domestic Crafts

Athena was a goddess of domestic crafts as well as warfare. She was a patron of the spinners and weavers of wool, and she was proud of her skill and jealous of rivals. There is a myth that tells how she punished a mortal woman named Arachne who boasted she could weave a better fabric than Athena. Athena challenged her to a contest, and when Arachne lost, Athena turned her into a spider and let her weave her webs to her heart’s content. She was also a patron of carpenters and skilled workmen, and it was she who gave Greece the olive tree: not the wild olive but the domesticated olive which yields olive oil, one of the staples of the Greek diet.

The Virgin Guardian of Athens

Athena was a virgin—in Greek, a parthenos—and in her city of Athens, her great temple which still overlooks the city is called the Parthenon, the Virgin’s Temple. Athens was a city she loved, and she won it after a contest with Poseidon, who coveted it for himself. A mark can still be seen on the rock of the Acropolis, the Athenian citadel, which Poseidon supposedly made when he struck it with his trident and created a salt-water well as a gift to Athens. When Athena planted an olive tree beside the well as her gift, Poseidon challenged her to a fight, but Zeus intervened and set up a court to arbitrate the quarrel. By a majority of one, the court decided that Athena had given Athens the better gift, and Athens became her city. The Athenians continued to reverence the mark on their Acropolis that Poseidon made, however, and never built over it. Instead they left it open to the sky. When the temple known as the Erechtheion was erected and its north porch stretched out over the mark, they left a hole in the pavement of the porch so that the mark was left uncovered, and in the porch roof directly above it a small area was left unroofed. In fact, the mark was probably caused by lightning striking the earth.

Erechtheus and Athena

Athena became the stepmother of the ancestral king of Athens, Erechtheus, who was one of the divinities worshipped in the Erechtheion. How Athena, a virgin goddess, became a stepmother was explained by an ancient myth. Hephaestus desired Athena and once tried to rape her. Athena easily fought him off, and all Hephaestus managed to do was to ejaculate semen on to her thigh. In disgust, Athena wiped it off with a piece of wool (Greek erion) and hurled it to the ground. When the semen fell on Mother Earth, she conceived and gave birth to Erechtheus. Athena pitied the infant and, taking him up, reared him in her temple. Homer refers to the story in his Iliad. Athens, he reports, was the realm of Erechtheus whom Athena settled in her temple, and there the Athenians worshipped him with sacrifices of bulls and goats.

Apollo, God of Pestilence

Apollo, the “Far-Darter” was the master of the bow and arrow, and hence his epithet, the “Far-Darter,” which means that the shafts from his bow travelled a great distance. Yet though he was an archer god, he was not a patron of hunters; his sister Artemis filled that role. Apollo’s arrows were not for killing wild beasts; instead they brought disease. The first book of the Iliad presents a vivid picture of him striding down from Mt. Olympus to the Greek camp outside Troy, with the arrows in his quiver rattling as he walked. When he reached the Greek ships, he knelt on one knee, drew back his bowstring and aimed his shafts into the Greek camp. First the dogs and the beasts of burden died of the pestilence; then men perished, and the smoke rose from their funeral pyres day and night.

Holy Places

Apollo’s chief sanctuaries were at Delos and at Delphi. Delos is a small, waterless Greek island in the center of the archipelago in the Aegean Sea known as the Cyclades. Greek myth related that Delos alone dared offer a haven to Apollo’s mother, Leto, who was driven from place to place by Hera’s anger, and she gave birth to Apollo and his sister Artemis as she stood clutching a palm tree for support. Thus Delos became a holy island, sacred to both Apollo and Artemis. Delphi in central Greece, however, was the greatest center of Apollo’s cult. Apollo’s oracle there had a reputation for truth which was perhaps undeserved, for when questions were put to it, the replies were famous for their ambiguity. Yet it was thought that if one was clever enough to interpret the real meaning of an oracle, it would prove to be a truthful prophecy. It was no fault of Apollo if his responses were misunderstood. As time went on and the Greeks became more skeptical, belief in oracles faded, but Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi remained a sacred place, and it was filled with rich dedications made over the years by his worshippers.

The Pythian Games

Delphi was also the site of the Pythian Games, which were held every four years, and were second only to the Olympian Games in prestige. They included music and poetry competitions as well as athletic contests, for Apollo was a patron of music and poetry as well as athletics. His favorite instrument was the lyre, a stringed instrument with a hollow shell or box to amplify the sound. First prize at the Pythian Games was a laurel wreath, and the laurel, for which the Greek word is daphne, had a close association with Apollo, which was explained by a myth. Daphne was the lovely young daughter of a river god, with whom Apollo fell in love. She fled from him, however, and just as he was about to catch her, she prayed for help and was turned into the tree that bears her name. Thus the laurel became a tree that Apollo particularly loved, for it was the maiden he desired and lost.

Apollo’s Combat with the Dragon Pytho

Apollo won Delphi for himself by fighting and killing the creature that occupied it before him. Before Apollo arrived, Delphi was a hallowed place belonging to a dragon known as Pytho. Apollo fought the dragon and slew it, leaving the carcass to rot (Greek python). Murder, however, was an evil deed that made the murderer unclean in the sight of gods and men. Spilling blood left Apollo polluted, and before he could return to the society of the gods, he had to be cleansed of the pollution. He was banished to northern Greece, to a valley near the foot of Mt. Olympus known as the Vale of Tempe, and there he had to undergo a ritual that purified him and allowed his return. To commemorate his combat with the dragon, there was a religious rite called the Strepteria that was held at Delphi every eight years. A youth was led to a hut called Pytho’s palace, which was built near Apollo’s temple. The hut was set on fire, and the youth departed, apparently for exile at Tempe, and then he made his return in a procession along a sacred pathway known as the Pythian Way. The youth impersonated Apollo, who was always shown in art as a well-proportioned, muscular young man wearing his hair unshorn, like a Greek youth who had not yet reached adulthood. As for the dragon Pytho, his sanctuary which Apollo made his own became the most important oracular shrine in Greece, and the title of the priestess who uttered the sacred oracles, the Pythia, recalled Pytho’s name.

Artemis, Patroness of Wild Beasts

Artemis, like her brother Apollo, was born on the island of Delos, and had a temple there which predated Apollo’s. Artemis’ temple was in the center of the sanctuary, whereas the Apollo temple was off to one side; the positioning of the temples has led students of religion to suspect that Artemis was an early, primitive deity on Delos whom Apollo joined only later, in spite of the myth which related that they were twins. Her cult seems to fit a primordial era, when people survived by killing the beasts of the forest, and were anxious not only that their hunts should be successful, but that the creatures they hunted should increase and multiply, and thus provide them with more prey. In Homer’s Iliad, Artemis is called the “Mistress of the Animals,” the overseer of wild beasts. She was a goddess of hunters and hunting who killed the animals and birds of the forests, mountainsides, and marshes—she was sometimes called “Artemis Limnatis” or “Artemis of the Marshes”—and at the same time, she was concerned for their welfare. The endless cycle whereby living creatures were born and killed, or killed in order to survive and reproduce, fell under her authority.

The Goddess of Girls before Marriage

Like Athena, Artemis was a virgin, but whereas Athena was asexual, Artemis’ virginity was connected with the purity of young girls before they are married. Her followers were the nymphs, and the word “nymph” could refer equally to a divinity of a stream or spring, or a young girl approaching marriage. Everywhere in Greece it was the custom for girls of marriageable age to dance and sing in choruses at festivals in honor of Artemis, and this was one place where young men could become acquainted with unmarried girls. There was a darker side to Artemis, however. Girls who failed to remain pure for whatever reason encountered her wrath. The nymph Kallisto, whom Artemis loved, was raped by Zeus and bore him a son, Arcas. Artemis in her anger turned Kallisto into a bear, and her own son Arcas hunted her down and killed her. In addition to overseeing the purity of unmarried girls, Artemis also presided over the birthing pangs of women. She could be a ruthless midwife, unlike Eileithyia who looked after the actual delivery of the infant from the mother’s womb. Eileithyia was a gentle nurse whereas Artemis’ interest was the reproduction of the species, and she made decisions involving the life and death of pregnant mothers. In the Iliad, Hera rounds on Artemis at one point and exclaims angrily, “Zeus made you a lion against women, and lets you destroy women in their labor.” It was Artemis who determined whether or not a woman would survive childbirth.

Aphrodite, Goddess of Sexual Desire

Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was worshipped all over Greece, but her most famous temples were at Corinth in Greece and on the island of Cyprus, at Paphos and at Amathus. In Homer’s Iliad, she was the daughter of Zeus and a deity named Dione, whose name means “the goddess Zeus,” or “Mrs. Zeus,” so to speak. At an ancient oracle of Zeus at Dodona in northwest Greece, Dione was still recognized as Zeus’ wife in classical times, long after Hera had replaced her elsewhere in the Greek imagination. The Theogony of Hesiod relates another tale, however. It tells that when Cronus cut off the genitals of his father Heaven, he tossed them into the sea and where they fell, the water foamed and frothed, until Aphrodite arose from the foam (Greek aphros), stark naked. She then floated on a scallop shell to Cythera, a favorite island of hers, though later she was thought to prefer Paphos on Cyprus. She was a late arrival among the gods of Greece, and her origins were Eastern. Her counterparts in Mesopotamia were the goddess Innana in ancient Sumer, and in Babylon, Ishtar. The Canaanite goddess Astarte who was worshipped in ancient Syria was Aphrodite in a different guise. Like these Eastern goddesses, Aphrodite presided over sexual desire, and prostitution was practiced at her temples. At Corinth in Greece she had a famous temple that housed prostitutes. While most myths about the couplings of gods and humans invariably involve male gods raping women, Aphrodite was one of the few to reverse the pattern. Aphrodite in disguise seduced a handsome young Trojan named Anchises, and became pregnant with Aeneas, whom the Romans would regard as their founder.

The Myth of Aphrodite and Adonis

Like her Eastern counterparts, Aphrodite was coupled in mythology with a handsome young lover, who died young and descended into the Underworld. The youthful lover in Aphrodite’s case was Adonis, and the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis is an adaptation of the tale of Astarte and Tammuz that was popular in ancient Syria. Both Tammuz and Adonis were young men who were loved by goddesses, and they died in the flower of their youth. Adonis, the story goes, was killed by a boar while he was hunting, and descended to the realm of the Dead. When Aphrodite tried to retrieve him, she found that Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, admired his beauty too much to release him. Zeus settled the dispute by decreeing that Adonis should spend half the year with Aphrodite, and half with Persephone. Thus he was a fertility god, whose death and resurrection marked the changing seasons of the agricultural year. In the fall, when Adonis descended into the Underworld, the seed was put into the ground and died, and then when the spring sun brought warmth to the earth, it quickened to new life and produced the harvest for the coming year.

Hermes the Deceiver

Hermes, the deceiver god, was the son of Zeus and Maia, the daughter of the Titan Atlas, and no sooner was he born than he showed his craftiness. On the first day of his life, he invented the lyre, stole cattle belonging to his brother Apollo, then lied when Apollo charged him with the theft, and it took the intervention of Zeus to reconcile the two. Hermes was not only a god of tricksters and thieves, but also the patron of merchants, for any purchaser of goods in Greece or Rome was wise to heed the caution, caveat emptor: “Let the buyer beware!”

The Divine Courier

Hermes’ chief function in the pantheon of Homeric gods was as the divine courier who carried the messages of Zeus, and he often appears in art dressed like a traveler, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and stout sandals sometimes equipped with wings, and in his hand he carries a herald’s staff. This staff was a rod of olivewood twined with two serpents, and it symbolized the sanctity of a herald, for it was a sacrilege to kill a herald. Hermes was also the god who guided the ghosts of the dead to the Underworld, and when this was his mission, he bore a magic wand that is not to be confused with the herald’s staff. With it he herded the insubstantial shades to the River Styx where Charon ferried them across. Thus one of his epithets was Psychopompos, marshal of the souls of the dead.

The God of Boundaries

Hermes was also a god of boundaries. In fact, guarding boundaries may have been his earliest function, for the wordherma means a heap of stones piled up to mark a boundary. The heap of stones developed into a square pillar, and about 520 B.C.E. these stone pillars were introduced into Athens to mark midway points between the Athenian agora, or marketplace, and the many villages of Attica. As time went on, they came into general usage to mark off neighborhoods. The herm was an oblong shaft about five feet high, with the image of a bearded head on top, projections at the shoulders like two-by-fours, and a phallus half-way down the shaft. Herms were sacred. Anyone who mutilated them committed a sacrilege, and could be tried for it in a court of law. Hermes had one son, Pan, the god of the woods who was half-man, half-goat. Both Hermes and Pan were connected with Arcadia, the wild mountainous area in the central Peloponnesos, and the identity of Pan’s mother was lost in the mists of time, if it was ever known.

Demeter, Goddess of the Ripe Grain

Demeter, the sister of Zeus, was the personification of the ripened grain that was reaped at harvest time. The ancient Greeks themselves interpreted her name to mean “Mother Earth,” but though the last two syllables of her name, meter, do mean “mother,” modern linguists point out that the first syllable cannot mean “earth.” Yet her connection with the grain harvest is clear. Mythology assigned her a son, Plutos, whose name means wealth, and the wealth of Plutos was the grain stored in the granaries.

Demeter and Kore

Demeter was intimately connected with a goddess who was known simply as Kore, which is the Greek word for “girl,” and the relationship between Demeter and “the girl” is so close that they were sometimes known simply as the “Two Goddesses.” Kore did have a proper name, however. She was Persephone, daughter of Demeter and Zeus, and the wife of Hades, the king of the Underworld. According to the myth, Persephone was playing one day with other young girls of her age in a meadow near Enna in Sicily; when she stooped to pluck a flower, the earth opened and Hades arose in his chariot, seized her, and carried her off to his realm of darkness. Demeter heard her daughter’s cry but did not see what had happened. She set out to look for her, traveling over land and sea, lighting her way with torches. When she reached Eleusis, which is nowadays a suburb of Athens, she paused to rest, and while she was sitting sadly outside the palace at Eleusis, the daughters of the king told her jokes and succeeded in making her laugh. To reward them, she founded the Eleusinian Mysteries at Eleusis that the Athenians celebrated every year. Still mourning the loss of her child, she would not allow the crops to grow until she found her daughter, and the whole race of men would have perished of hunger except that Zeus intervened. It was decided that Kore would spend half the year in the world of the Dead as queen of the Underworld, and half the year in the world above. While she was in the Underworld, the land lay barren, and when she returned to the land of the living, the crops grew and ripened. The death and rebirth of Kore, or Persephone, as she was known in her personification as queen of the Dead, marked the change of seasons from the barrenness of winter to the spring with its new growth.

The Cult’s Origins

It has been often noted that the death and rebirth of Kore does not quite fit the cycle of Greek agriculture, for Greek farmers planted their grain in the autumn; it sprouted and grew over the winter except for a brief period when the temperature fell to the freezing point, and the harvest ripened in late May or June. The barren season was therefore not winter but the hot, dry summer. The cult of Demeter and Kore seems to point to an early period of Greek prehistory, before the Greeks migrated into present-day Greece and were still living in a more northerly latitude. Central Europe has a cycle of seasons which fits the story of Kore better, for there the winter is the barren season, and the summer the time when the fields yield their harvests.

The God Dionysus: The Outsider

Dionysus stands apart from the other Olympian gods. He seems to be an outsider, and at one time, scholars believed that he was a non-Greek god who was a relatively recent immigrant to Greece. Evidence from the Linear B clay tablets of Mycenaean Greece does contain the name of Dionysus, however. The tablets on which his name appears come from Pylos, overlooking the Bay of Navarino in southwest Greece, and from Khania in western Crete, and they date from 1250-1200 B.C.E. They give no inkling as to what Dionysiac worship was like in the Bronze Age, except that the one from Khania mentions offerings of honey to Zeus and to Dionysus. There is no mention of wine, with which Dionysus was particularly associated in the historical period.

The God of Intoxication and Ecstasy

Dionysus was a god of wine and inebriation, but he had other associations which set him apart from other gods. His worship included ecstasy and ritual madness. That aspect of his cult in particular marked him as the opposite of Apollo, who appears as the god of self-control and self-knowledge. Apollo’s favorite musical instrument was the lyre or kithara, a stringed instrument which was the ancestor of the guitar. The instrument of choice for Dionysus was the aulos, which was a reed instrument, the ancestor of the oboe, and it had a dominant, vibrant timbre much like modern bagpipes that appealed to deep-seated human emotions. The skirl (a shrill sound) of the aulos accompanied the chorus in theatrical productions, which were within the province of Dionysus, and the masks which were worn by actors on the stage became symbols of the Dionysiac cult. In art, they became a standard Dionysiac motif. Yet he was primarily a god of wine, which was supposed to have been his invention. When Dionysus is depicted on Greek vases, wine is his constant companion. He is often shown holding a grapevine in one hand, and a cup or some other vessel for wine in the other. Art historians have noticed that while Dionysus is often shown receiving wine, or pouring a libation of sacrificial wine, he is never shown actually drinking the wine. That may be only artistic convention, however, since intoxication had a central role in the worship of Dionysus.

The Frenzy of Dionysiac Worship

Intoxication was a means to a state of rapture in which Dionysus’ votaries, or worshipers, surrendered themselves utterly to his power and merged their identity with his. His most common cult name was Bakchos, which is a Lydian word—the Lydians were neighbors of the Greeks in Asia Minor—and when his worship penetrated Italy, he was commonly known by his cult name. His female devotees were called Bakchai (in Latin, bacchantes) or alternatively, maenads or thyiades. The Romans identified Dionysus, whom they called Bacchus, with an Italian god of fertility and wine called Liber (the Liberated/Liberating One), who had a festival every March called the Liberalia. In Greek art Dionysus is often surrounded by a swarm of devotees who dance with utter abandon. What made his cult unique among the Olympians was the mass ecstasy and the frenzied exaltation that accompanied it. No other god threw aside the restraints of civilized society with such abandon.

Birth and Upbringing

Dionysus’ mother was Semele, daughter of the founder-king of Thebes, Cadmus. Zeus loved her, and then, when she was six months pregnant, he was tricked by Hera into destroying her. Resentful as ever at Zeus’ philandering, Hera visited Semele disguised as an old woman and persuaded the naive young girl to ask her lover to show himself to her in his heavenly regalia. So Semele prevailed upon Zeus to take an oath by the River Styx to grant her whatever she requested, and when he assented, she asked to see him garbed as the king of the gods. Zeus tried to dissuade her, but even gods dared not break oaths sworn by the Styx, and since Semele insisted, Zeus appeared before her carrying his thunderbolt. The lightning consumed her with its flame, but Zeus snatched the premature infant from Semele’s womb, and Dionysus completed his gestation sewn up in Zeus’ thigh until he was ready to be born again, which explains Dionysus’ epithet, “Twice-born.” Then Hermes carried him off to a faraway place called Nysa where maenads attended to him until he grew to manhood. Later mythographers elaborated this period of Dionysus’ youth, telling a story of how he wandered as far east as India, but eventually returned to Greece, accompanied by a retinue of maenads and satyrs.

Dionysiac Rites

Dionysus’ rites were called orgia: “orgies.” The term could be used for any secret rites or mysteries, but its most usual meaning is the rite of Dionysus. In a Dionysiac orgia, women abandoned their homes and roamed over the mountainsides, dancing, swinging about torches and thyrsoi, which were light sticks of reed with large pine cones fixed on top and wreathed in fresh ivy. In their madness they might seize an animal or even a child, tear it apart, and eat it. How much of this is myth and how much is based on actuality is hard to say. One of Dionysus’ epithets was omophagos, an adjective meaning “eating raw flesh,” and in vase paintings Dionysus and his maenads are shown tearing apart animals with their bare hands and eating them raw. The last play written by the tragic poet Euripides, the Bacchaedescribes a characteristic Dionysiac experience in the words of a herdsman, who witnessed it. He and other herdsmen were pasturing their cattle on the mountain slopes and saw three groups of maenads, who had been dancing together, now sleeping quietly on the ground. On hearing the herd of cattle, they awoke, let down their hair, and wreathed their head with ivy and oak leaves. Then they began a wild dance and fell upon the cattle, tearing them limb from limb, and having had their fill of that, they swooped downhill on two villages which they plundered, snatching children from their houses. The villagers resisted, but the maenads hurled their thyrsoi at them and resistance was useless. They then returned to where they had started their wild rampage, their passion spent.

The Orgia in Greece

The rites described in the Bacchae were based on reality, for every two years a number of Greek cities held orgia. Athens was an exception, but maenads from Athens went to Delphi to celebrate the orgies there. They took place in mid-winter when it was believed that Apollo left Delphi, and for three months the shrine belonged to Dionysus. Thebes, between Athens and Delphi, was the center of maenadism from which professional maenads were exported to other cities to organize the biennial orgies. Athens did not celebrate Dionysiac orgies, but she had five festivals that were dedicated chiefly to him. In two of these—the Lenaean festival in January and the City Dionysia in March—tragedies and comedies were presented. Another festival, the three-day long Anthesteria, was a time for merrymaking. The new wine was broached on the first day; the second was a day of competitive drinking, and on the third, the spirits of the dead were free to return above ground and wander among the living, for Dionysus was also connected to death and the afterlife. At the end of the day, the shades were dismissed with the ritual cry, “Get out, ghosts, the Anthesteria is over!”

Welcome and Resistance

The spread of Dionysus’ worship into Greece met resistance: Homer in the Iliad recalls that the herdsman Lycurgus drove the maenads pell-mell down the slope of Mt. Nysa with his ox goad, and as punishment, Zeus struck him blind. King Pentheus of Thebes, where Dionysus was born, tried to suppress his worship when Dionysus returned there, but could not prevent the Theban women from swarming off into the mountains and surrendering to mass ecstasy. There are various other myths of resistance to the coming of Dionysus as well, and this has led scholars to think that he was a late immigrant to Greece. Many ancient Greeks speculated that Dionysus came from Thrace in northern Greece, and it is true that Macedonian and Thracian women were particularly devoted to his orgia. The alternative view was that Dionysus came from Phrygia in Asia Minor. The two views are not necessarily incompatible, for the Thracians and the Phrygians were related. There was also the suspicion, even before Dionysus’ name appeared on Linear B tablets, that he might have a Cretan origin. His wife was Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, who fled from Crete with Theseus after she helped him escape the Minotaur, and then was abandoned by him on the island of Naxos, where Dionysus came and rescued her. It is generally thought that Ariadne was a Minoan goddess, and now that there is evidence that Dionysus was known on Bronze Age Crete, there may be some significance to the union of the two. By Ariadne Dionysus had a son, Oenopion, who is sometimes shown as his attendant, pouring wine for him.

The Romans Encounter Bacchus

In 186 B.C.E. news came to the Roman senate that the rites of Dionysus, the Bacchanalia (so called after Dionysus’ cult name), were being celebrated in Italy. It was reported that devotees of the rites met at night and took part in a ritual that included not only hard drinking but all kinds of sexual depravity. It was the social and political aspect of the Bacchanalia that disturbed the senate. They appeared to be a breeding ground for conspiracy. The senate issued a decree offering a reward for the arrest of any member of the Bacchus cult or even for the denunciation of anyone. It was reported that over 7,000 men and women were involved. Similar decrees went out to the Italian towns ordering the suppression of the cult. Bacchic sanctuaries were destroyed, and Bacchic ceremonies were outlawed in Rome and Italy. The Roman authorities were generally tolerant of foreign religions, but this is an instance of how fiercely they could react if they discerned a threat to the social order.

Hephaestus, the Blacksmith God

Hephaestus, the god of metal workers and craftsmen, was the son of Hera, but two stories provide two versions regarding the identity of his father. According to one, he was Zeus. According to the other, Hera, who was enraged at Zeus’ infidelities, gave birth to Hephaestus by herself, without being inseminated by a male. He had a non-Greek name, and his favorite island was Lemnos; both facts arouse scholarly curiosity, for on Lemnos there was a non-Greek people living as late as the sixth century B.C.E. He was deformed, with an immensely powerful torso and arms, and crippled legs, and it has been often pointed out that in early communities a lame man would turn to a specialized trade such as metal working, for his deformity barred him from the occupations of physically fit men, such as farming and fighting as a warrior. Hera wasted no motherly love on him, and a myth told how he took his revenge: he made her a splendid throne, which trapped her when she sat on it and held her until Dionysus reconciled him with his mother. A story that accounted for his deformity described how Zeus threw him out of Olympus when he tried to stop Zeus from beating his mother. He landed on the island of Lemnos and would have died, except that the Sintians who inhabited the island nursed him back to life. Another story related that Hera was so disgusted at his appearance that she threw him out of Olympus. Homer in the Iliad treats Hephaestus almost as a comic figure with his crippled legs and heavily-muscled torso, a powerful man hobbling about like a child learning to walk. The Greeks admired the well-proportioned masculine figure of the athlete or the warrior, and the ungainly physique assigned to Hephaestus by their mythology shows how little the Greeks esteemed their craftsmen. He did have a temple in Athens which he shared with Athena, and it still stands largely intact in the old blacksmiths’ quarter overlooking the marketplace of the ancient city. It was built in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E., and it is the best preserved of all the ancient temples in Greece. Athena, like Hephaestus, was a patron of craftsmen. Except in Athens, there is little evidence for his worship. Yet the products of his smithy were universally admired as marvelous examples of the metal worker’s craft. His inventions even included robots. He was also famously ugly, and there was more than a touch of mockery to the fact that his wife was Aphrodite. The goddess of love and beauty was paired with the only ugly Olympian.

Ares, the Hateful God of War

Ares, the son of Hera and Zeus, was the personification of battle. He was conceived as a warrior in full armor, and his attendants who harnessed his horses to his war chariot were named Phobos and Deimos, meaning “Fear” and “Terror.” He represented war as a destructive force that spreads fire and rapine. He was an unpopular god; in Homer’s Iliad, Zeus calls him the most hated of all the Olympians, and, for all his love of battle, he was not a markedly successful warrior. For instance, in the Trojan War where Ares championed the Trojans and Athena the Greeks, the two divinities once met in battle. Ares threw his spear at Athena who parried it, and then Athena hurled a stone at Ares and laid him low. That was a typical example of the prowess of Ares. He represented everything that was odious in war, but the glory of victory did not belong to him. Victory, for which the Greek word was niké was reserved for Athena. On the south-west bastion of the Athenian Acropolis there still stands a small, exquisite temple dedicated to Athena Niké: Athena who brings victory. Ares did have one admirer; Aphrodite much preferred him to her crippled husband, Hephaestus.

The Goddess of the Hearth

Hestia, who is found in early lists of the Twelve Olympians instead of Dionysus, was the goddess of the hearth. Every private house had a hearth, and so did the prytaneion, or town hall, of every city-state. The hearth was a sacred place, and any suppliant who sat there could claim the protection of his host. If the host rejected the suppliant on his hearth, he would offend Hestia’s brother, Zeus. The sacred fire of Hestia continually burned in the prytaneion of every city, representing the vital essence of the community. Whenever a band of colonists set out to found a new city, they took with them a firebrand from Hestia’s altar in their mother city, and with its flame, lit the fire of Hestia in the newly founded colony. She had no love affairs. She remained a virgin, and she was the mildest and most loved of all the Olympians.

Constituents of Panhellenism

The Olympian deities owed their preeminence to the Greek poets, and it was reinforced by the great panhellenic festivals, such as the Olympian Games which were open to all Greeks but not to foreigners. The Greeks had no political unity, but the worship of the Olympians gave them a common denominator. The Greek city-states fought innumerable wars; yet when the Olympic Games were held in honor of Zeus, there was a truce that all Greeks observed. Wars ceased until the Games were finished. Apollo’s oracle at Delphi served a similar function, particularly after 590 B.C.E., when Delphi became a small independent state with the care of Apollo’s cult its sole reason for existence. The oracle received visitors from all over the Greek world and answered their queries with cryptic utterances believed to be inspired by Apollo. Foreigners could consult Delphi as well, but it was as a holy place for all Greece that Delphi rose to preeminence.

Other Gods beyond the Twelve

Too Many To Count

In addition to the twelve most important gods, there were innumerable other gods in Greek mythology. Any list made of them would be very long and still be incomplete. Some were old deities whom the poets passed over as uninteresting, though they still attracted worshippers. Eileithyia, whose worship on Crete went back to the Stone Age, was still indispensible. Sea gods belonged to the periphery of Greek religion, though they also were very ancient. One of them, the Old Man of the Sea, is known under various names: Proteus, Phorkys, Nereus, or Glaukos, meaning “blue-green,” the color of the sea. Anyone wanting his cooperation had to overpower him, which was difficult, for he could change from one form to another at the blink of an eye. Only Heracles, the strongman of mythology, had the muscular strength to capture him and then hold on to him.

Thetis, Mother of Achilles

Thetis was a sea goddess, and her attendants were mermaids called Nereides, who were the daughters of the Old Man of the Sea. She had a sanctuary in Thessaly which the tragic poet Euripides made the setting of his drama Andromache. Myth relates that both Zeus and Poseidon desired Thetis, but when they learned from Prometheus that her son would be stronger than his father, they saw to it that she married a mortal, Peleus. She bore him a son, Achilles, whom she tried to make immortal by burning away his mortal element, but Peleus interrupted the ritual and she left him in a rage and returned to the sea. Another story relates that she tried to make Achilles invulnerable by lowering him into a magic well, but since she held him by one heel as she immersed him, the water could not cover that part of his body, and it remained unprotected. Achilles died from an arrow wound in his heel, and this story gave rise to the modern phrase “Achilles’ heel” to describe an area of vulnerability.

The God Pan

Pan was an ancient god of fertility who was not completely anthropomorphic. He was half-man, half-goat, and his homeland was Arcadia, a mountainous region in the central Peloponnesos. He was worshipped in sacred caves, one of which has been found in Athens under the Acropolis. The finds from this cave show that Pan was worshiped there in Mycenaean times and then, after a long period of neglect, worship began again after 490 B.C.E. In that year, the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, and they believed that Pan helped them. Thereafter, the Athenians held an annual sacrifice and a torch-race in his honor.

The Spirits of Rivers, Mountains, and Trees

Rivers were gods, and they could take part in human life. The river god Achelous was Heracles’ rival for Deianira, Heracles’ last wife, and Heracles had to wrestle with him to win her. In the countryside and sometimes even the cities there were the nymphs who associated with Pan, and were like the fairies of European folklore. They embodied the divine essences of the mountains, woods, trees, and waters where they lived. The nymphs of the woods were the Alseides, the Napaeae, and the Dryades. The Hamadryades were tree-nymphs—the life spirit of the trees—and when a tree died, its Hamadryas died with it. The water nymphs were Naiads, Potameids, Creneids, and Hydriads. Like Pan, they were often worshipped in caves. They were usually kindly sprites who patronized springs of sweet water and danced with Artemis on the mountainsides, but they could be dangerous. When the nymphs fell in love with Hylas, a handsome boy whom Heracles loved, they dragged him down into a spring as he fetched water there, and he drowned. It was dangerous to be loved by a nymph.

Castor and Polydeuces

The twin gods, Castor—the famous horseman—and his brother Polydeuces—equally famous as a boxer—were called the Dioscuri, or Dios kouroi in Greek, which means “the youths of Zeus,” and there is a “Homeric Hymn” which hails them as the “sons of Zeus.” Greek mythology had various versions of the Dioscuri-myth: the Iliad explains that they did not take part in the Trojan War because they were already dead, whereas the Odyssey explains that they are living and dead men on alternate days. This refers to a myth in which Polydeuces was the immortal son of Zeus who loved his mortal brother, Castor, so much that he agreed to share his immortality. Thus they spent alternate days alive and dead. Sparta was their homeland, where they were worshipped with a cult image consisting of two upright pieces of wood connected by two crossbeams. They represented the spirits of the young warriors who rode horses into battle, for though Castor was a more famous horseman than his brother, both were known as “riders on white steeds.” Under the name of “Castor and Pollux” or sometimes simply the “Castores,” their cult spread very early to Rome, where the Theoxenia festival was held every year on the Ides of July (15 July) in their honor, and the Roman cavalry performed a ceremonial parade. The parade supposedly commemorated the Battle of Lake Regillus in the early days of the Roman republic when it defeated an effort to restore the Etruscan kings, and Castor and Pollux aided the Romans. They had a temple in the Roman Forum near the spring of Juturna where the two gods were seen watering their horses after the battle.

The Mysterious “Mistress”

Near Lykosoura in Arcadia a goddess called simply “The Mistress” had a temple which she shared with Demeter. There is some indication that “The Mistress” was reared by one of the Titans, but little else is known about her. She is reminiscent of the title Potnia meaning “Mistress” found in the Mycenaean “Linear B” tablets, often in phrases such as the “Mistress of Horses” or the “Mistress of Wild Beasts.” A goddess named Potnia without any further qualification was an important deity in Mycenaean Pylos. The name of Zeus’ wife, Hera, is thought to mean “mistress”: a powerful female deity whom the poets transformed into Zeus’ shrewish wife, shoving aside Zeus’ first wife, the colorless Dione.


At Rhamnous outside Athens there was a temple to a puzzling deity called Nemesis. There was a myth that Zeus tried to rape her, and she turned herself into various non-human forms to escape him, particularly into various kinds of fish. The word nemesis means wrath aroused by any unjust deed, or righteous indignation. The goddess Nemesis presided over retribution, and her adversary was hubris, an act of arrogant violence. She preserved the social order by visiting retribution on those who would destroy it.

Asclepius, God of Healing

Asclepius, whose famous healing shrine at Epidaurus in the Peloponnesos attracted the sick from all over Greece, is a reminder of how blurred the distinction could become between a hero, who was mortal and descended to the Underworld when he died, and a god, who belonged to the world above. Homer in the Iliad referred to Asclepius as a “blameless physician” who was already dead at the time of the Trojan War, where his two sons served in the Greek camp as doctors. Yet at Epidaurus a temple was built for him which housed a cult statue made of gold and ivory, and to the south of the temple was his great altar where sacrifices were made to him as a god. His festival at Epidaurus, held every four years, required a theater that could hold 14,000 spectators. It is now the best-preserved ancient theater in Greece.

The Birth of Asclepius

Ancient authors had no doubt that Asclepius’ father was the god Apollo, but they differed on his mother. The most common version of the myth relates that Apollo impregnated Coronis, the daughter of Phlegyas in Thessaly. Thus Asclepius was of Thessalian origin, and the Asclepiads—Asclepius’ priests on the island of Cos whose most famous member was the doctor Hippocrates who is still known for the “Hippocratic Oath”—maintained that Asclepius was born in Trikka, in Thessaly. Epidaurus, however, also claimed to be his birthplace. That version of the myth maintained that Coronis was unfaithful and slept with another man while she was pregnant with Asclepius, and a crow brought the news to Apollo. Apollo wrathfully cursed the crow, turning its color from white to black, and then he slew Coronis. As she lay on the funeral pyre, he snatched the infant Asclepius from her womb and gave it to the centaur Chiron to rear, who taught him the arts of healing. He grew up to be so skilled a doctor that he restored a dead man to life, and for that Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt, for restoring the gift of life was a prerogative of the gods. In fact, only Zeus could do it, and he refrained from the deed. Thus Asclepius went down into the Underworld to live with the heroes. As his cult expanded, the myth was adjusted accordingly. Zeus, it was said, brought Asclepius into the circle of Olympus and made him a god. Thus he could receive sacrifice as a god and not merely the sort of offerings that were made to the chthonicdeities, or the earth-bound heroes as they were called, for the Greek word for earth was chthon.

Spread of the Healing Cult

The cult of Asclepius grew increasingly popular. In Pergamum, a Hellenistic kingdom in Asia Minor that was carved out of Alexander the Great’s conquests, there was an immense shrine to Asclepius a short distance out of the city, and it included a theater that could seat 3,500. The Romans, who called him Aesculapius, brought him from Epidaurus to Rome after a plague in 293 B.C.E. Instructed by an oracle in the Sibylline Books, they brought a sacred snake incarnating the god to Rome, and as the ship bearing the snake up the Tiber River to Rome reached the island known today as theIsola Tiberina, it slithered ashore. A temple for Aesculapius was built there and to this day there is a hospital on this island, named after the physician apostle, St. Bartholemew. Early Christians found Aesculapius a difficult pagan god to extirpate, and at the Isola Tiberina their solution was to Christianize his sanctuary by substituting St. Bartholomew for him.

The Underworld and Its Inhabitants

Gods of the Underworld

The Underworld was the House of Hades, the world of the dead, ruled by Zeus’ brother, Hades. The name “Hades” means the “Unseen One,” and one of Hades’ most prized possessions was his “Cap of Darkness” which made him invisible. The Greeks did not typically worship him; only at one place in Greece did he have a temple. In Elis there was a temple to Hades that was open only once a year, and only the priest was allowed to enter. In the land of the Thesprotians in northwest Greece, there was an oracle of the dead, sacred to Hades and Persephone, which is probably where Odysseus made his descent into the Underworld. By and large, the Greeks preferred not to talk about Hades.

Persephone and Hecate

Hades’ wife was Persephone, queen of the Underworld and the daughter of Demeter, and her close companion was Hecate, goddess of the witches. In the magical spells, sorcerer’s rituals, and hymns that have survived from the Greco-Roman world, Hecate is one of the deities most often invoked. Her most common epithet was phosphoros, that is, “Bringer of Light,” and she is sometimes shown bearing two torches. For the Romans, she was identical with Persephone, Selene the Moon Goddess, and Diana, and a witch might invoke any one of them with her magical formulas. The Romans called her by the epithet Trivia, for she preferred a place where three roads met for her place of worship. Before Hecate was demoted to an underworld goddess of the witches, she was an ancient, beneficent goddess whom Hesiod in his Theogony invokes with a hymn of praise. The Hecate of the Theogony was a Titaness, sister of Apollo’s mother Leto. She was a kindly goddess, favored by Zeus, and a patron of fishers and horsemen, and a friend of shepherds and herds-men. When Hesiod wrote, Hecate was still a deity who had many devotees, particularly in the region of Greece known as Boeotia, which was Hesiod’s homeland. Her development into a goddess of witches came later.

Geography of the Underworld

The Underworld was the abode of the souls of the dead, and it was a dismal place. Homer’s Odyssey relates that Odysseus encountered the shade of Achilles there, who told him that he would rather be alive and the slave of a landless man than king of all the dead in the Underworld. In Hesiod’s Theogony, the Underworld was Tartarus, the prison of the Titans who were overthrown by Zeus. Hades and Persephone had a palace there that was guarded by a fearsome watchdog that wagged its tail in welcome for all who entered, but would not let anyone exit. The river of the Underworld was the Styx, a stream dreaded even by the gods, for if a god swore an oath by the Styx, and then broke it, he would lie in a coma for a year and, once he recovered, would be shunned by the other gods for nine more years. Only in the tenth year could he rejoin their councils.

Plato’s “Myth of Er”

The geography of the Underworld developed further when Plato concluded his best-known dialogue, The Republic, with a parable called “The Myth of Er.” The story related the experience of a warrior named Er, who recovered from near-death and told a strange story of his experience. His soul left his body and journeyed to a place where there were two chasms into the earth and, above them, two chasms in the sky. Between them sat judges who commanded the souls of the just to take the right-hand chasm in the sky, and the unjust to take the left-hand chasm into the earth. Some, who had been evil beyond redemption in their lives, were too wicked for even the left-hand chasm, and they were hurled into Tartarus. Those that ascended the path through the right-hand chasm reached a meadow where they saw the Three Fates, the daughters of Necessity, whose names were Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos. There the souls of the dead chose lots for the new lives they would live. The soul of Agamemnon, who had commanded the Greek alliance that destroyed Troy, chose to be an eagle. Odysseus’ soul, however, chose to be an ordinary man who would live an uneventful life. These souls then made their way to the River Lethe, where they had to drink its water that brought forgetfulness. Those that drank too much forgot everything; those that drank no more than required continued to remember something of their pasts. Then, after they had drunk, a great earthquake swept up the souls to their rebirth.

The Underworld of Vergil

The Roman poet Vergil, who wrote the national epic of the Roman Empire known as the Aeneid in the first centuryB.C.E., put his stamp on the popular conception of the Underworld. Vergil combined ideas inherited from Greco-Roman tradition to present an idea of the Underworld that would haunt the imagination of the European literary tradition. The hero Aeneas was guided by the Cumaean Sybil whose cave can still be seen at Cumae near Naples in Italy. He passed Disease, Hunger, and Poverty, and other scourges of mankind at the entrance gate, and War, Perverted Pleasures, and the Furies on the threshold. From there the road led to the river Acheron where the ferryman who ferried the souls across—a fierce old boatman named Charon—would accept only those souls whose bodies had been buried. The souls of those whose bones had not been properly laid to rest had to wander for a hundred years before they were allowed to cross Acheron, which was an alternative name for the Styx in Vergil’s Aeneid. Aeneas was not dead, but he carried a talisman—a Golden Bough that he had broken off a magic tree—and Charon recognized it as a permit to cross, and ferried Aeneas and the Sibyl over the terrible river. As Aeneas disembarked on the opposite shore, the three-headed watchdog Cerberus lunged at him, but the Sibyl gave him a drugged honey-cake and he was soon asleep. Then he entered the region where the dead were judged by a court over which Minos presided, for Minos, the mythical king of Crete, had become a judge in the Underworld. There Aeneas saw the souls of children who had died young, and persons condemned on false charges, and the souls of those who had committed suicide. Finally he reached the place inhabited by dead warriors where he met the heroes who had perished at Troy. On his left was Tartarus with its triple wall, surrounded by a torrent of flame called the Phlegethon, and from it came fearful cries of anguish. The Sibyl explained that this was the abyss where the Titans lay imprisoned, and where great sinners were punished. Tartarus was Hell.

The Elysian Fields

Aeneas and the Sibyl pressed on until they came to a region of woodland and meadow where the souls of the righteous dwelled, enjoying athletic games or dancing to the music of the lyre played by the great musician, Orpheus himself. These were the Elysian Fields, reserved for those who lived just lives. There Aeneas met the ghost of his father Anchises, who was walking among the souls that were waiting to be re-born. Anchises greeted his son with joy. Aeneas expressed amazement at seeing souls buzzing about like bees in a meadow, and Anchises explained the phenomenon by saying that these were the souls that were owed a second body by Fate. They would drink the water of Lethe and be reborn. Then, with a splendid literary flourish, Vergil imagines Anchises pointing out the builders of the Roman Empire who were still to be born, until he reaches his own patron, the emperor Augustus.

The Titans: Prisoners in the Underworld

Hesiod’s Theogony relates that the Titans were the offspring of Ouranos and Gaia, that is, Heaven and Earth, whose rule was overthrown by Zeus. After a terrible battle, they were imprisoned in Tartarus. The usual explanation is that the Titans were pre-Olympian gods who ruled before the Greeks arrived in Greece, and the battle between the Titans and the Olympians reflects in some way a half-forgotten struggle between the early inhabitants of the north-eastern Mediterranean region and the Greek immigrants. The Titans might have a Near Eastern origin. It has often been noted that one of them was named Iapetos, which reminds us of the name of one of Noah’s sons, Japheth. But Iapetos had no connection with a flood, even though the Greeks—like the Hebrews—had a flood legend and perhaps both flood legends derived ultimately from the same source.

The Conquest of the Titans

Most of the Titans were consigned to Tartarus after their defeat by Zeus, where the laments of the damned could be heard day and night, as Vergil described them in his Aeneid. But legend related that some Titans fought with the Olympians rather than against them, and thus survived. Moreover, Cronus, the lord of the Titans, continued to receive worship. There was a festival called the “Kronia” held in his honor at various places in Greece. In Athens it was held in Hekatombaion, the first month of the Athenian calendar which began about mid-July. It was a harvest festival, a kind of harvest-home holiday when masters and slaves feasted together. The social norms of the class system were abandoned briefly, and everyone was equal. Among the Romans, Cronus was equated with Saturn, and his festival, the Saturnalia, was held during the Christian Christmas season. There was a Roman legend, reported in Vergil’s Aeneid, that when Zeus overthrew Cronus, the defeated god fled to Italy. There he brought civilization to the natives, and his rule was remembered as a Golden Age that was ended by the arrival of new immigrants known as the Ausonians and the Sicanians. The Romans recognized Saturn as a Greek import, for whenever a priest made a sacrifice to him, he left his head uncovered in the Greek manner, whereas priests sacrificing to Roman deities covered their heads. The Saturnalia was a merry festival. Slaves were given temporary freedom to do what they liked. Presents were exchanged, particularly wax candles, or dolls or images made of pottery. A mock king, or “Lord of Misrule,” might be chosen to preside over the merriment. For a brief period, the social order was overturned.

The Saturnalia as New Year’s Festival

Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many of the Saturnalia customs were transferred to the New Year’s Day festivities. The old Titan Cronus himself had a curious afterlife. Greek art depicted him with a pruning hook, for he was a god of the harvests. But the pronunciation of his name “Cronus” is very close to the Greek word for “time,” which is khronos. So the old Titan became Father Time, his pruning-hook became a scythe, and he reappears in the iconography of the Western New Year’s Day holiday as Father Time who is ushered out at midnight on the last day of December by the child who represents the New Year.

The Titan Prometheus

The Titan Iapetos sired four sons: Atlas whom Zeus sentenced to bear the weight of the sky on his shoulders; Menoitios whom Zeus consigned to the Underworld for his arrogance; and two Titans who complemented each other, Prometheus, who always planned in advance, and Epimetheus who was the exact opposite. Students of folklore recognize Prometheus as a familiar figure: a trickster who could outwit gods and men. A deception that Prometheus played on the gods explained the Greek custom of burning the inedible parts of their sacrificial animals on the altars, and feasting on the more appetizing cuts themselves. A question once arose between the gods and mortals about which portions of the sacrificial animals each should get as their due. Prometheus butchered the sacrificial ox and divided it into two portions. In one portion he put the steaks and prime ribs, but he hid them in the stomach of the ox so that they looked unappetizing. In the other he put the bones, but he camouflaged them so that they seemed the better portion. Then he asked Zeus to choose, and Zeus chose the bones. Hesiod, who tells the story, explained that Zeus allowed himself to be tricked, for it would not do for an omniscient Zeus to be deceived. Yet Zeus was angry. In revenge he denied humans fire. But Prometheus, taking pity on mankind, stole fire from Zeus’ altar on Olympus and soon Zeus was outraged to see smoke arising from human habitations. He chained Prometheus to a cliff-side, and sent an eagle every day to devour his liver. Because Prometheus’ liver was immortal like the rest of his body, it grew back every night, and Prometheus’ agony continued until Heracles released him from his chains.

The Creation of Human Beings

It was Prometheus who created humans. Using his skill as a master craftsman, he fashioned human beings out of clay, and the Latin poet Horace added that he used bits and pieces of other animals as well. The Greeks added other creation myths, including the myth of the “Five Ages of Man” which Hesiod relates in his Works and Days. In that myth, Zeus created five races of mankind, and the fifth race were humans of the present day. Another myth told that Mother Earth gave birth to men and women. After the flood killed the entire human race except for Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, Zeus granted them one wish. Deucalion asked that the human race might live again, and Zeus told them to throw stones over their heads. The stones Deucalion threw became men; those that Pyrrha threw became women.

The Orphics and Their Creation Myth

A sect known as the “Orphics” had another theogony, sharply different from Hesiod’s. The patron hero of the Orphics was the great musician Orpheus, whose wife Eurydice died of a snakebite. He descended into the Underworld to bring her back to life, charming his way past Cerberus, the watchdog of the Underworld, by playing music. Hades himself was so delighted that he allowed Eurydice to follow her husband to the world above, but on one condition: Orpheus was not to look back until they left the Underworld. But as he neared the exit of the Underworld, he could restrain himself no longer. He looked back and saw Eurydice, escorted by Hermes. She smiled at her husband and turned back to the Underworld, guided by Hermes. This death and near-resurrection myth attracted a cult following of converts who lived what they called the “Orphic life.” Their creation myth told that in the beginning, there was a primordial power, either Time or Night. Out of it came an egg, which gave birth to Phanes (the Shining One). Phanes gave birth to Ouranos(Heaven) and Gaia (Earth), who reproduced by the sexual union. Their coition created Cronus and Rhea who copulated and produced the generation of Zeus, and so on by a repetition of murder and sexual acts until the cycle of violence arrived at the race of men. Mortals who opted for the pure Orphic life should refrain from all killing, including animal sacrifice, and attain reconciliation with the gods by a pure life. Hesiod’s creation myth had described progress from chaos to the present-day Age of Iron which was unpleasant but relatively orderly. The Orphic myth described a process of human degeneration.

Heroes and Demigods

The Age of the Heroes

The myth of the “Five Ages of Man” in Hesiod’s The Works and Days was borrowed from the mythology of the Middle East. The Middle Eastern version, however, told of only four ages: a blessed Golden Age, followed by a lesser Silver Age which was in turn followed by a Bronze Age, and finally the age of the present day, the Age of Iron. The Greek adaptation inserted a fifth age between the Age of Bronze and the Age of Iron: the age of the heroes and of heroines. These were the men and women who peopled Greek mythology and lived within a mythological time frame. Some were warriors—such as Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus, who fought at Troy in the Trojan War—or movers-and-shakers of the mythic past, such as Helen of Troy. Theseus, who was the special hero of Athens, killed the Minotaur at Knossos on Crete, and then became king of Athens. He performed heroic deeds that rivalled the famous Twelve Labors of Heracles. Heracles, the superman of mythology, performed not only his Twelve Labors—incredible feats of strength done in penance for killing his family in a fit of insanity—but he was credited with various other deeds as well which only a man of incredible strength and virility could perform. The Dorian Greeks who settled in the Peloponnesos after the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms considered him their ancestor and called themselves Herakleidai or “offspring of Heracles.” The kings of the Spartans, who were Dorians par excellence, had pedigrees that went back to Heracles.


The heroes were not gods, though they might be called hemitheoi meaning “half-gods” or demigods. After death, they lived in the Underworld, not on Mt. Olympus, and as a general rule, no temples were built to heroes. Instead, the hero’s tomb became a heroon or “hero-shrine,” where the heroes were worshipped as if they were chthonian powers, that is, spirits of the earth, the nether world. Sacrificial animals with black hides were sacrificed to them after daylight had faded, at night or in the evening. The blood from the sacrificial victims was poured into a trench so that it would trickle down into the earth and feed the spirit, or shade, of the hero. A god would have a sacrifice made to him on a high altar (bomos), whereas a hero had an eskhara, which was a low, round altar though—as is frequently the case in Greco-Roman religious practices—there were exceptions to the rule. Heroes were generally tied to a specific locality, for most of them had only one tomb. They were usually barely known outside the region where they were worshipped. Only the great international heroes such as Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, Jason and Medea, and the heroes of the Trojan War were famous all across Greece, and that was because there were innumerable myths told about them. Every storyteller felt free to embellish the old tales about them, and more than one place might claim to possess their bones. Heracles in particular had myths connecting him with localities all over the Mediterranean world, but he was a super-hero. Most heroes were hometown men, and their cults have puzzled historians of religion. There have been efforts to explain them as half-forgotten gods—”faded gods” is the term used, with the implication that gods can grow dim with time, rather like a slow-motion “fadeout” in a movie—or old vegetation gods, or simply men or women of the past who were remarkable for their great deeds, rather like Christian saints. One common explanation was that when a great man died, offerings were made at his tomb which developed over the course of time into a heroon. Thus a heroon on the site of a Mycenaean tomb showed that the memory of the Mycenaean warrior buried there lasted into the classical period. Archaeological evidence refutes this idea, however. The hero-shrines date from the eighth century B.C.E. Between about 750 B.C.E. and 700 B.C.E., tombs from the Mycenaean era which were discovered—probably accidentally in most cases—were given new importance as the burial places of heroes, and offerings were made there. The Greeks of the eighth century B.C.E. probably had no idea who the original occupants of these tombs were any more than scholars of the twenty-first century do, but they did know that their local hero should have had a burial somewhere in the vicinity of the Mycenaean tomb. So to whom else could the tomb belong? The logic was irrefutable. Thus a prehistoric tomb belonging to persons unknown, but suitably ancient, could become the site of a hero cult.

Hero Cults and the Rise of the Polis

The eighth century B.C.E. was the period when the poleis or city-states of Greece were developing and marking out their territories, and the hero-cults which arose at the same time were connected with this development. A legitimate polis had a hero, or perhaps more than one. The bones of a hero served to preserve and sanction a polis in much the same way as the relics of a saint might preserve a community in the Christian Middle Ages. The Greek historian Herodotus, whose Histories was published about 425 B.C.E., told how Sparta, which had been fighting the polis of Tegea in Arcadia for many years without success, consulted the oracle at Delphi and was told to bring home the bones of Orestes, the son of King Agamemnon, who commanded the Greek coalition in the Trojan War. When the Spartans asked where the bones of Orestes lay, the reply was that they were where two winds were blowing and iron smote iron. The Spartans were baffled and may not have been able to solve the riddle except that one day, a Spartan, taking advantage of a lull in the hostilities, visited a smithy in Tegea. The blacksmith there told him that when he was digging a well in his courtyard, he came across a huge coffin with a corpse inside. The great size of the bones showed that they belonged to the Age of Heroes, so the smith reburied them. His Spartan visitor reasoned that these must be the mortal remains of Orestes, for the two winds were the smith’s bellows and the iron that smote iron was the smith’s hammer striking his anvil. The Spartans tricked the smith into selling his courtyard and found the bones, and once these presumed relics of Orestes were in Sparta, she thereafter always had the better of her enemies until finally she managed to dominate the Peloponnesos.

Theseus and Athenian Politics

The hero Theseus served Athens in a similar way. In his old age Theseus was banished from Athens, and went to the island of Skyros in the northern Aegean Sea. There the king of Skyros murdered him. About 475 B.C.E., the Athenian general Cimon, who was a shrewd politician as well as a good military officer, was campaigning in the area and on Skyros he unearthed huge bones. A cynic might suggest that they were dinosaur fossils and that Cimon did not find them entirely by accident. But their size seemed to prove that they belonged to the Age of Heroes, and it was easy to arrive at the conclusion that they had to belong to Theseus. Cimon carried them back to Athens, and his pious deed brought him more acclaim than any of the many victories he won. A heroon was built for Theseus in the marketplace of Athens. A festival was established for him, and the makers of myth—poets and dramatists—developed him into the founder-hero of the Athenian city-state and the patron of democracy.

The Hero in Historical Time

Not all heroes belonged to the Heroic Age. Some were historical figures. Beginning in the mid-eighth century B.C.E., and for the next two and a half centuries, the Greeks planted colonies in the western Mediterranean region, and in the north Aegean and Black Sea area. Careful planning usually went into the planting of colonies in new and often strange lands. An oikistes—the word has been anglicized as “oecist”—was appointed to head the colonial expedition. The oecist saw to it that a new home far away from the homeland of his colonists was established in an orderly fashion for them. When he died, a heroon would be built for him in the marketplace of the new city he had founded and sacrifices would be offered to his remains. Other great men might also be revered as heroes. At Olympia, where the Olympic Games were held, a heroon was built for King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. The cult of heroes made it easy for the Greeks to believe that kings possessed a kind of divinity, and thus it need not surprise us to find divine kings who received worship in the Greek world after Alexander the Great’s death. Within a couple generations of his death, the Hellenistic kings who had carved kingdoms for themselves out of Alexander’s conquests, declared, first, the founders of their realms divine, and then themselves, too. From these divine kingships of the East, the idea passed to Rome. The Roman senate decreed that Julius Caesar became divus (divine) after he was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., as was the first emperor, Imperator Caesar Augustus, to give him his official name. Although the worship of dead emperors was an accepted practice, the worship of a living emperor met resistance within Rome itself; neither Augustus nor his successor Tiberius liked the idea, for Roman customs had no place for deified kings, and both Augustus and Tiberius were conservative in matters of religion. Yet outside Rome, the acceptance of living emperors as gods encountered little resistance and soon the cult of the emperors, living and dead, became an important instrument for legitimizing imperial rule.

Nameless Divine Forces

The Greeks recognized another category of divine force as well which had the power to interfere in human affairs. These were the daimones—in singular form daimon—who were not worshipped with offerings as the heroes were. The English word “demon” comes from daimon, but while the Western concept of demons generally refers to unpleasant supernatural forces, the Greek daimones might be either malevolent or benign. They governed the impulses that moved men to action, or perhaps inaction. In the Hellenistic world after Alexander the Great, the daimones were often regarded as guardian spirits that looked after mortal men. They existed on the periphery of religious practices. They had no festivals or organized cults.

Deified Abstractions

Perhaps the logic which the Greeks applied to nameless forces called daimones also applied to personifications of abstract entities such as “Peace,” “Wealth,” or “Luck.” In the fourth century B.C.E., the sculptor Kephisodotos made a statue for Athens of Eirene (“Peace”) holding the infant “Wealth” in her arms. He treated Eirene as a goddess, the personification of the spirit of peace. The boundary between an abstract entity and a divinity was easy to cross. Thus it is clear that “Luck” or “Fortune”—in Greek, tyche—was treated as a goddess. In the Hellenistic world, when faith in the power of the Olympian deities grew more problematic, tyche became a popular goddess in whom cities might put their faith, and they erected statues showing her as a woman wearing a model of a city’s fortification walls as her crown. In a society where “Fortune” seemed to play an increasingly important role, it was important for a city to cherish its tyche. If “Fortune” was in a good mood, she might forget to be blind, and bestow good luck on her city.

Heracles, the Super-Hero

A Hero Who Became a God

Heroes belonged to the Underworld, and probably the earliest myths about Heracles consigned him there, too, after his death, for in most of Greece, the cult of Heracles was a hero-cult. But as the poets elaborated the Heracles-myth, it developed a happier ending. He was taken up to Mt. Olympus where he reconciled with his bitter enemy, Hera, and married her daughter, Hebe. In fact, the name “Heracles” means “The Glory of Hera,” or “Glory through Hera,” which seems to indicate that Hera was his patron. His name is at odds with the myth that portrayed him as a victim of Hera’s jealousy because he was a son of Zeus by a mortal woman, Alcmene. Yet only at one place in Greece was Heracles worshipped as a god: on the island of Thasos, where he had a sanctuary; he received sacrifices both as a god, on a high altar, and on a low altar as a hero.

Heracles’ Birth

Heracles’ mother, Alcmene, was the wife of Amphitryon, who traveled to Thebes with his wife after killing his father-in-law, Electryon, the ruler of Mycenae. During a time when Amphitryon’s military duties took him from Thebes, Zeus assumed Amphitryon’s likeness and slept with the lovely Alcmene. Later the same night, Amphitryon arrived home and slept with Alcmene, too, who was amazed at his ardor since she thought he had slept with her only a few hours earlier. Alcmene gave birth to twins: Iphicles, who was Amphitryon’s son, and Heracles, who was sired by Zeus.

Hera’s Jealousy

Hera was bitterly jealous. While Alcmene was in labor, Zeus prophesied that the next descendant of the hero Perseus to be born would rule Mycenae. Alcmene was the granddaughter of Perseus, the founder of the Perseid royal house of Mycenae. Hera heard the prophecy and delayed Heracles’ birth. Alcmene remained in labor so long that Perseus’ grandson, Eurystheus, was born first and consequently Heracles became Eurystheus’ subject. Hera continued her persecution by sending two great serpents to destroy Heracles in his cradle, but he throttled them. Even after he grew up and married Megara, daughter of Creon, king of Thebes, Hera visited him with a fit of madness, and he killed Megara and their three sons. When he recovered his sanity, he consulted the Delphic oracle to learn what he should do to expiate his crime. He was told to submit himself to Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, who would assign him twelve labors. The number “twelve” is the canonical number, but there are variant accounts which assign him ten and have a somewhat different list of exploits.

The First Six Labors

The first labor was to slay a lion that terrorized Nemea. No weapon could pierce its hide, so Heracles strangled it, flayed it, and henceforth wore the skin himself. He then slew the Hydra, a many-headed reptile that lived in the swampland at Lerna. Next he captured a wild boar at Erymanthus and brought it back on his shoulders to Eurystheus, who was terrified at the sight of it. He then captured the Hind of Keryneia, and next killed the fierce birds that infested Stymphalus. The sixth labor was the cleansing of the stables of Augeas, who owned many cattle but had never cleaned their stables. Heracles flushed out the manure by diverting a local river through them.

The Last Labors

Unlike the first group of labors which were all confined to the northern Peloponnesos, the next six took Heracles further afield. His seventh labor was to capture a wild bull from Crete. Heracles brought it back to Eurystheus and then let it go to continue its depredations. His eighth was to capture the man-eating horses of Diomedes, the king of the Thracian Bistones. Next he was assigned the task of bringing back the sash of Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons, because Eurystheus’ daughter wanted it. The Amazons were warrior women, and though Hippolyte was quite willing to give Heracles her sash when she learned what his errand was, Hera stirred up trouble and there was a bloody battle between Heracles and the Amazons before he got the sash. The last three labors are variants of the theme of a mortal conquering death. The tenth was to capture the red cattle of Geryon, a triple-bodied monster who had a watchdog with two heads and lived beyond the western reaches of the Mediterranean. It was while he was performing this task that he passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and set up pillars on both sides of it, called the “Pillars of Heracles.” There were various stories of how he made his way back to Greece with Geryon’s cattle. One related that he spent a night on the site of Rome, where a local monster named Cacus tried to steal the cattle. Another told that the cattle stampeded and led Heracles into what is now the Ukraine, where he slept with a monster-woman and sired the Scythian people. Still another related that he borrowed the vessel of Helios, the Sun God, that Helios used every night after he set in the west to voyage underground back to the east where he would rise next. The eleventh labor took Heracles to the Underworld where he captured Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of Hades. The final labor took him to the far west, to the world’s end, where there grew a tree with golden apples that was guarded by a dragon in a garden belonging to the daughters of Hesperus. Heracles got them and brought them back to Eurystheus.

More Crimes

The violence of Heracles is a recurrent theme. Having completed his labors, he committed another crime by murdering his half-brother Iphitus in another fit of madness. This crime was more than fratricide; it breached the laws of hospitality, for Iphitus was Heracles’ guest when Heracles hurled him down from the walls of Tiryns. The pollution that resulted from this double crime caused him to contract a terrible disease, and he went to Delphi to ask for a cure. When the Pythia refused to prophesy for him, Heracles, in a rage, seized the tripod on which she sat and would have run off with it except that Apollo himself pursued him and wrestled with him for the tripod. The contest between god and hero ended with Zeus separating them by a thunderbolt. The oracle did speak at this point, and told Heracles that he must work as a slave for three years if he wanted to be purified.

Further Exploits

Thus Heracles served as a slave of Queen Omphale of the Lydians for three years and performed various exploits for her. After his three-year stint was complete, Heracles, now cured of his disease, had a number of other adventures, including the capture of Troy and setting Priam, who was still a young man, on the Trojan throne. Heracles’ last wife was Deianira, and to win her he had to wrestle with the river-god Achelous. While he was traveling home with his new wife, he reached a river where Nessos, a centaur (half-horse and half-man), carried people across for a fee. Heracles himself crossed without help, but he allowed Nessos to carry Deianira. As Nessos emerged from the river, he tried to rape her, but her screams reached Heracles, who shot Nessos with an arrow. As the centaur lay dying, he whispered to Deianira that she could make a love-potion by taking the sperm he had ejaculated and mixing it with blood from his wound. Deianira followed his instructions. The potion would prove to be Heracles’ undoing.

Heracles’ Death

Heracles’ career of war and homicide ended not on the battlefield but as the result of his wife’s insecurity. The king of Oechalia, Eurytus, had offered his daughter, Iole, to whoever could defeat him and his sons at archery. Heracles won, but Eurytus refused to give him Iole because he remembered the fate of Heracles’s first wife, Megara, whom Heracles had killed in a fit of insanity. Heracles nursed a grudge against Eurytus because of the broken promise, and he attacked Oechalia, killed Eurytus and his sons, and took Iole by force. He then sent a herald home to bring him a brightly-colored tunic to wear as he offered sacrifice before wedding Iole. When Deianira learned about Iole, she feared that she was losing Heracles’ love, and so she smeared the love potion on the tunic. Heracles put it on, and as soon as it grew warm with the heat of his body, it burned into his flesh. He was brought home to Trachis in agony. When Deianira saw his suffering, she hanged herself. Heracles then instructed his elder son by Deianira, Hyllus, to marry Iole when he reached manhood, and he himself went to Mt. Oeta in Trachis where he had a funeral pyre built and climbed on it. Mt. Oeta is one of the earliest places in Greece where there is archaeological evidence of a cult of Heracles, and so if the story of Heracles’ death is a later addition to the myth, as some have argued, it is an early addition. Poets and storytellers would later add the detail that, as the pyre burned, there was a clap of thunder, and as a cloud enveloped Heracles he was snatched up to Mt. Olympos.

Heracles in Italy

The myth of Heracles came to Italy very early. He was popular among the Etruscans. In Rome, he received sacrifice at theAra Maxima (The Greatest Altar) near the Cattle Market in Rome, and significantly, the sacrifice was “according to Greek rite,” that is the priest left his head uncovered as he performed it. The Romans themselves found the rites of Heracles, whom they called Hercules, difficult to explain. Why was it a Greek rite? Why, too, were women barred from approaching Hercules’ altar? There was a legend that before Rome was founded, there was a settlement of Greek colonists on the site, led by a king named Evander, and the worship of Hercules went back to his time. Like many Roman religious rituals, the forms of the rite remained unchanged over the centuries, but the reasons for them were forgotten.

The Suffering Hero

One unexpected development of the Heracles-myth was its use as a paradigm of a great man who suffers for the good of mankind. The rationale was that he spent the best years of his life performing labors that rid Greece of monsters, or pushed back the boundaries of the known world. In the period after Alexander the Great when great Hellenistic kingdoms emerged in the lands Alexander had conquered, Heracles became a model king who labored during his life to make the world a better place and was rewarded with divine honors after his death. Under the Roman Empire, the myth continued to have its uses. In 285 C.E., the emperor Diocletian made much-needed reforms, among them taking a junior colleague as emperor. As director of the empire, he called himself “Iovius” after Jupiter, the Roman Zeus, and his junior colleague became “Herculius,” who used his power in the service of his subjects. The myth lives on in comic-book heroes such as Superman and Spiderman: men who use their enormous strength to rid society of evils and make the world a better place.

Discovering the Will of the Gods: Oracles and Divination

The Importance of Seers

It was vitally important not to offend the gods, but how could mortal men know what the gods wanted them to do, or learn what fate had in store for them? The gods might vouchsafe a sign that could be taken as an omen, good or bad. Reading divine signs and omens correctly required skill and learning, and there were seers in ancient Greece who specialized in the art. It was important to watch the phases of the moon, and the meaning of an eclipse could test the limits of a seer’s skill. There were seers that belonged to clans of hereditary soothsayers who could trace their ancestry back to some legendary vaticinator, or prophet, whose knowledge came from the gods, particularly Apollo who was the most important god of oracles. There was one such clan at Olympia, the Iamidae, or “Descendants of Iamus.” Iamus was a son of Apollo and became a prophet because Apollo directed him to do so. The Iamidae continued to live at Olympia until well into the third century C.E.

Communication by Dreams

A god might communciate by dreams. Dreams were a favorite method of Asclepius, the healing god. Patients who came to his sanctuary at Epidaurus slept in the hospice, and as they slept, the great harmless snakes that embodied the god’s spirit would slither around and over them, and a dream would visit them and tell them what treatments the god prescribed. Asclepius’ sanctuary was full of votive offerings by patients who left terracotta models of the parts of their body that had been healed, and the sick continued to seek Asclepius’ help well into the Christian era.

Taking the Auspices in Greece

When sacrifices were made, the entrails of the sacrificial victim were examined carefully, with special attention given to the liver. Any abnormalities were noted, and their meaning interpreted by a seer skilled in the craft of haruspicy, that is, the art of interpreting signs and omens in entrails. Ill omens were taken seriously, as is illustrated by a story from Greek history. In 479 B.C.E., the Greeks were about to fight a battle against the Persians at Plataea, a little city-state that neighbored Athens. The Persians were advancing against the Spartan contingent and inflicting severe casualties with their barrage of arrows. The Spartans made the customary sacrifices before battle, but the auspices were not favorable. The Spartans waited, even though the Persian arrows took a deadly toll. The priests continued to slaughter sacrificial victims, but as long as the omens remained unfavorable the Spartans waited. At last the Spartan commander, Pausanias, turned his eyes towards a temple of Hera by the battlefield and in a loud voice prayed to her to save the Greeks from defeat. At that moment, the sacrifices yielded a favorable omen, the Spartans advanced against the Persians and, after a hard struggle, they won a complete victory.

Auguries in Rome

Among the Romans, auguries and auspices—which were for practical purposes the same—were a fine art. The Roman augurs, who were Rome’s official diviners, formed a committee called a collegium which originally had three members but increased gradually to sixteen. Their duty was to observe signs, such as the flight of birds, and interpret them. They received reports of any unusual events, such the birth of a two-headed calf. On the Capitoline Hill the eating habits of a group of sacred chickens were open to interpretation by the augurs: if they refused to eat at all, that meant an illomened day. Roman armies on campaign took with them sacred chickens whose eating habits were carefully watched. It was a very good sign if they ate so as to drop a little food from their beaks. While it is not possible to know how seriously all the Romans took these signs, it is clear that they observed ritual meticulously. One story from their wars with Carthage seemed to prove that it was foolhardy to ignore auguries. In the First Carthaginian War, which cost Rome heavy casualties, a Roman fleet was about to engage a Carthaginian squadron when the sacred chickens aboard the Roman flagship would not eat. In disgust, the commander kicked them overboard, saying, “If you won’t eat, then drink!” and joined battle. The Romans lost. The moral was that it was wise to pay attention to auguries. Auspices—from the Latin auspicium meaning “omen”—had some importance in the public life of early Rome. Certain magistrates were given the “Right of Auspices,” and they played a role in elections or inauguration into office. The auspices would be taken for a governor who was going off to a province to administer it—that is, a magistrate with the “Right of Auspices” would examine the omens and interpret them. As the Roman Empire grew older, the practice fell by the wayside.

The Oracle of Zeus at Dodona

The word “oracle” is used in two senses: it can be the place or the shrine where a god made his will known, or it can be the god’s message itself. There were a number of famous oracles in the Greek world. The oldest was an oracle of Zeus and Dione at Dodona in northwest Greece. The cult center there was an oak tree growing in a sacred precinct or temenos-surrounded by a low wall. Only in the fourth century B.C.E. was a simple stone temple built, and although later embellishments were added to the site, including a fine stone theater, Dodona remained a small place. A person who wanted to consult the oracle wrote a question on a lead tablet and submitted it. The priests then evidently divined the will of Zeus by interpreting the rustle of the oak leaves belonging to the sacred tree. Some lead tablets with questions written on them have survived, and to judge from them, many who consulted Zeus presented queries of the sort that a “Personal Advice” columnist in a newspaper might receive today.

The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi

The oracular god par excellence was Apollo who had several renowned oracles, the most famous of which was at Delphi. There was a legend that a shepherd at Delphi noticed that if his flock approached a chasm in the rock, they began to leap about in a frenzy. He approached the chasm himself and found himself possessed by the spirit of prophecy. The Delphians, on learning of this phenomenon, chose a woman called the Pythia to prophesy for them all, and placed her on a tripod over the chasm. She fell into a trance-like state and uttered cryptic words. There was a real-life Pythia, a woman over fifty years old, who dressed as a young virgin to accentuate her purity. She gave her prophecies on only one day a month, except for the three winter months when it was believed that Apollo left Delphi and the god Dionysus took up residence instead. Originally, in fact, the Pythia gave oracles only one day each year, on Apollo’s birthday, but the demand was such that she had to become more accessible. When the Pythia was not giving oracles, a consulter could get a reply to his query by drawing lots, and the method worked well enough, particularly if the answer that was needed was simply “yes” or “no.” A mixture of black and white beans was placed in the bowl of Apollo’s tripod. The Pythia would pick a bean at random, and its color would give the answer. This was a cheap and easy way of consulting the oracle, and most private consultations seem to have been of this sort.

Oracles from the Pythia

On the appointed day when the Pythia herself was to give oracles, she washed herself at the Castalian spring which still flows at Delphi and purified herself in the smoke from laurel leaves and barley. She then went to the Temple of Apollo where the Delphian priests sacrificed a goat. The goat was expected to shiver before the sacrifice, thus indicating Apollo’s willingness to use the Pythia as his medium. If the goat failed to shiver, the priests would sprinkle it with cold water and if it still did not shiver, they would accept the unfavorable omen and cancel the proceedings. If the sacrifice was successful, the Pythia would enter the temple and take her seat on a tripod—the tripod, which was a kettle with three legs used for boiling stews, was a sacred ritual vessel, used in sacrifices. She went into a trance and the answers she gave to the queries put to her were in a strange, unintelligible language that the priests interpreted. Most of the oracles that have been reported in literature were in polished hexameters, the meter used by the epic poets. The oracles that are considered most genuine, however, are in prose.


The oracles were renowned for their ambiguity. Croesus, king of Lydia, whose memory survives in the saying “as rich as Croesus,” asked the Pythia if he should attack the empire of Persia that was a threat on Lydia’s eastern border. The oracle told him that if he attacked, a great empire would fall. Assuming that the oracle meant the Persian Empire, Croesus attacked, and discovered too late that the empire destined to be overthrown was his own. Yet the Delphic oracle could give fairly straightforward advice as well. Before a city-state sent out a colony, it consulted Delphi and often got good advice. The fact is that Delphi was a communications center, for it received visitors from all over the Greek world and beyond, and got reports from them. The priests at Delphi were well-informed, more so than most people in Greece in the days before modern methods of communication.

The Oracle of the “Wooden Wall”

The most famous Delphic oracle, and the longest to survive, is the response which the Pythia gave the Athenians when they consulted her on the eve of the Persian War. The Persian king, Xerxes, invaded Greece in 480 B.C.E. with an enormous army, and as the Athenians anxiously awaited the onslaught, they sent messengers to Delphi for an oracle. These envoys performed the preliminary rites, then entered the temple and squatted or sat before Pythia’s tripod. Immediately the Pythia uttered a prophecy, which the priests relayed in good dactylic hexameters—the meter used by the epic poets—and its meaning was clear. Resistance to Persia was hopeless. The Athenians were dismayed, but a Delphian—probably a priest—advised them to approach the Pythia again, this time as suppliants carrying an olive branch. Two consultations on the same day were generally not allowed; however the Athenian messengers entered the temple again and asked for a more comforting prophecy, saying that otherwise they would remain in the temple until they were dead. The second oracle was hardly more cheerful than the first, but it held out a ray of hope. It said that Zeus had yielded to Athena’s prayers to this extent: the Wooden Wall would save the Athenians, and it concluded by invoking the island of Salamis that would destroy the offspring of women either in the fall or the spring. When this second oracle was brought back to Athens, there was a great debate about its meaning. The khresmologoi—men skilled at expounding oracles—argued that it prophesied a defeat at Salamis. The politician Themistocles argued for a happier meaning by claiming that the Wooden Wall was the Athenian fleet, and the oracle’s reference to Salamis presaged a victory there, for it called the island “Divine Salamis.” As it turned out, the allied Greek navy did defeat the Persian fleet at Salamis, which proved Themistocles right. Both Themistocles and Delphi gained prestige. Modern students of the ancient world are more cynical about Delphi’s clairvoyance, suspecting that Delphi was really ready to collaborate with the Persians and made use of its prophetic reputation to weaken Greek resistance.


At Delphi, there was a rock that was always left in its natural state as if surrounded by a taboo, and it was known as the Rock of the Sibyl. While there was no Sibyl at Delphi in the historical period, a legend told that Delphi was the seat of an oracle prior to Apollo’s appropriation of the site for his own oracle. The earlier oracle was a Sibyl who sat on this rock and prophesied. The legend of the wandering of the Sibyl is a curious one. As time went on, the number of Sibyls multiplied. First there was only one, then two, then more until the legend knew ten Sibyls. They were all prophetesses, who uttered prophecies in states of ectasy. A famous sibyl lived at Cumae on the Italian coast near Naples, where the Greeks founded a colony about 750 B.C.E. The cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, cut into the living rock, is still to be seen there. Vergil, in hisAeneid, related that his hero Aeneas visited the Sibyl when he landed in Italy at Cumae. There was also a legend that the Cumaean Sibyl once sold a collection of her prophecies to an early king of Rome, Tarquin the Elder. Whatever the truth of the tale, Rome did have a collection of oracles called the Sibylline Books, written in Greek, which were consulted only on order of the Roman Senate. The books were lost when the Roman Capitol was burned in 83 B.C.E. during a period of civil war, but a new collection was put together to replace them and it still existed in the fourth century C.E. when they were consulted for the last time. Oracles lost their prestige as time went on and popular opinion became more cynical. Delphi was still consulted in the period of the Roman Empire, but no longer on questions of much importance. The last Delphic oracle that is recorded was given to an emissary of the last pagan emperor Julian (361-363 C.E.). It said,

Tell the king, the cunningly-built hall has fallen in the dust, Phoebus (Apollo) no longer has a hut, a prophetic laurel, or a speaking stream. Even the talkative water has ceased to exist.

Worshipping the Gods: Sacrifices and Temples


Gods were worshipped at holy places, precincts that were cut off from the surrounding region by a clear, well-defined boundary that was marked by boundary-stones. The Greek word for such a precinct was temenos, which is connected with the word that means “to cut.” The most important structure in the temenos was the altar where sacrifice was made. Then in the eighth century B.C.E., the Greeks began to build houses for their gods and goddesses, and the familiar Greek temple made its appearance. The basic temple was a single rectangular room with a porch in front. It was a megaron, which was the name for the main room of an early Greek house with a hearth in its center, a hole in the roof to allow the smoke to escape, and in front of it a porch with a roof supported by a couple pillars. Later the Greeks elaborated the design by surrounding the megaron with a row of columns. Yet the temple remained a simple dwelling-place that housed the image of the god or goddess. The indispensable component for a sanctuary was not the temple, but the altar. Inside the sanctuary was the cult statue or statues, if the temple sheltered more than one god. Sheltering the god and protecting the property dedicated to him was the temple’s prime purpose, for worshippers left votive offerings in the temples which ranged from painted wooden panels which were within the price range of a humble worshipper to offerings of gold or ivory. Few of these have survived: the wooden dedications have decayed and the dedications of gold and ivory were stolen long ago. Many terracotta votives have survived, however, for crockery is not subject to decay. At any healing shrine, archaeologists find models of legs, arms, women’s breasts, or male testicles that were dedicated to the god, probably as thank offerings for healing a particular part of the human anatomy. The interior of a temple must sometimes have resembled an old curiosity shop. The votives might overflow the temple and be stored in separate buildings in the temple precinct called “treasuries,” for the Greek word for treasury—thesauros—also meant “storehouse” or sometimes “granary.” Sometimes the priests might houseclean by removing old dedications and giving them decent burial. When the stadium at Olympia was excavated, the excavators found many votive offerings of helmets, shields, and other pieces of armor that had been carefully buried in the embankments on either side of the track. The temple, evidently, had run out of space for them.

Cult Statues

Some cult statues were magnificent. The statue made of gold and ivory which the sculptor Phidias made for the temple of Zeus at Olympia was a masterpiece, and after he completed it, he made an equally famous gold-and-ivory statue of Athena Parthenos for the Parthenon in Athens. Yet the most sacred image of Athena was not the gold-and-ivory image in the Parthenon, but an ancient olivewood statue of Athena Polias housed in the Erechtheion beside the Parthenon. Every four years, at the Great Panathenaea festival, the women of Athens gave this image a new saffron-dyed dress that they had woven. Wooden statues of this sort, known as xoana, were thought to have a divine origin. They were primitive images, roughly carved; in some cases a xoanon was not much more than a wooden post.

Temple Sites

The temple sites were often determined by the preference of the god for a particular location. The preferred sites for temples sacred to Athena and Zeus were in the urban area: Athena on the acropolis and Zeus in the marketplace. Apollo had temples in the marketplace, too, but also sometimes by the seaside. Demeter’s sanctuaries are often on a hillside near the city. Hera, Poseidon, and Dionysus preferred the countryside, and Artemis liked woods and marshy areas. Wherever sanctuaries were sited, they were sacred places where violent acts were not permitted. Temples offered asylum to fugitives, and anyone who dragged a suppliant from a hallowed temenos would bring pollution upon himself and arouse the wrath of the gods.


The year was marked by religious festivals in honor of the various gods. They were holy days, important for both the cultural and the religious life of the community. Dancing, musical contests, athletic games, prayers, hymns, and processions all had a place in them. Greek worshippers did not kneel to pray or utter silent prayers. Instead, they stood and, raising their hands, invoked the god in a loud voice. A hymn was a form of prayer that was chanted: the worshipper addressed the god under his various names, recited his great deeds, and ended with a petition. Processions were parades that often took up the first day of the festivals. Religious custom dictated what the festival procession would be like and what route it would take. If the sanctuary of the god whose festival was being celebrated was outside the city, the worshippers would parade along the country road to the site. In one of Hera’s favorite cities, the polis of Argos where the Hera sanctuary was several miles outside the city center, the priestess was carried there by ox-cart which apparently led a parade of worshippers.


The most important part of the festival was the sacrifice. Cattle were the most valued sacrificial victims, but the most common ones were sheep and goats, which were more within the price range of a middle-income Greek. Pigs were sacrificed to Demeter and Dionysus, dogs to Ares and Hekate, birds to Aphrodite, and cocks to Asclepius. A sacrifice to a god or goddess was made on an elevated altar called a bomos in front of the temple, and a sacrifice to a hero was made on a low, round altar called an eschara, but rules in Greek religion were rarely left unbroken. Sometimes a hero might have a high altar, but the blood from a victim sacrificed to a hero should still trickle down into the earth where it would nourish the bloodless ghost of the dead. Gods on Mt. Olympus needed no such nourishment. A priest or priestess officiated at the sacrifice. Generally, male deities had priests and female deities had priestesses, but one cannot count on consistency. Generally the inedible parts of the sacrificial animal were burned as offerings to the god, and the rest was eaten, or even sometimes sold in the market. The exception was the “holocaust,” a sacrifice where the victim was totally consumed by sacrificial flames. The roster of festivals in Athens shows that only one month passed without massive slaughtering of beasts for sacrifice. There must have been many days when the city smelled like an abattoir, and resounded with the noises of the community drinking wine, eating meat, and making merry. For low-income Greeks, festival days might be the only times they ate meat.

The Wealth of Temples

Temples had an economic function which should not be overlooked. Sacrifices honored the gods, but they were also occasions for the distribution of food. Temples might also have to shelter asylum-seekers, sometimes in great numbers, whom it had to support. Archaeological excavations reveal that many temples had subsidiary buildings used for accommodation and cooking. Temples also served as depositories. Athens kept its state treasury in the back room of the Parthenon, and when she organized her archives, they were kept in the temple of the Mother of the Gods in the marketplace. Excavations of a temple at Selinunte in Sicily have yielded many clay seals used to seal documents written on papyrus. The papyrus has decayed, but the clay seals remain as mute evidence of the records that were once stored there. In Rome, a citizen might deposit his last will and testament in the Temple of Vesta where it was in the care of the Vestal Virgins. The god whose image was housed in the temple extended his protection over whatever was within his shrine. Some temples were wealthy and possessed large estates which they rented to leaseholders. They had other sources of income as well. An army that was victorious in battle would give the gods a small portion of the booty called “first fruits.”

During the brief period in the fifth century B.C.E. when Athens ruled an empire, she consecrated one-sixtieth of the tribute that she received from the member states of her empire as “first fruits” to the goddess Athena. Temples made loans and functioned as a kind of reserve bank. Religious faith changed as time went on in the Greco-Roman world, but religious festivals continued to draw crowds. Mute evidence of their numbers is to be found in the theaters that were built at popular shrines for visitors to witness the drama of the ancient rituals. At Delphi, the theater overlooks the great temple of Apollo. Even at the lonely oracle of Zeus at Dodona there was a theater built, and it is the largest structure on the site. Faith in the Olympian gods was declining when these theaters were built but they still drew visitors and pilgrims. Religion also served to redistribute wealth. There was no income tax in the ancient world, and, in fact, the well-to-do resented paying any taxes at all. But while wealthy citizens did not like taxes, they were quite willing to make donations to the community. Rich citizens paid the bills for the great religious festivals, and the honor they received repaid their generosity. Thus Greco-Roman religion served an important economic function that cannot be overlooked.

The Religion of Early Rome


The Romans honored the religion of their ancestors, whom they referred to as “the greater ones”—in Latin, the maiores. While the Greeks and all peoples in the ancient world also honored their ancestors’ religions, the Romans were excessively conservative. They believed in superhuman divine beings as far back as surviving Roman history records exist, but at the same time, the Italian countryside that the Romans knew always remained the home of a multitude of little deities without human form. A grove of trees would be home to a god, as would a river or a stream or a spring. There was a host of small gods in charge of sowing the crops: the deus Occitor who looked after the harrowing, deus Sterculinius who looked after spreading manure on the fields, Sarritor who looked after hoeing, and Messor who looked after reaping, to name only a few of them. The priest of Ceres, the goddess of production, would invoke them all when he made sacrifice. Some of these unseen spirits were malevolent. Every 25 April, the Robigalia was held at a grove outside Rome to appease Robigo, who was the god—or goddess, for the Romans were not sure of Robigo’s gender—of grain rust, the fungus which plagued the farmers’ crops. The guts of a dog were burned on Robigo’s altar and he was invited to stay away.

Keeping the Good Will of a Spirit

Suppose a landowner had a wooded area on his farm and wanted to thin the trees. Cato the Elder, the earliest Latin writer to produce a treatise on agriculture, instructs his readers first to sacrifice a pig, and then to repeat this prayer:

Whether you who hold this grove sacred are a god or goddess, as it is proper to make you the sacrifice of a pig as a propitiative offering for disturbing this hallowed place, and hence, for these reasons whether I or someone designated by me carried out the sacrifice, provided that it be performed correctly, for this reason in sacrificing this pig, I pray in good faith that you be kindly and benevolent to me, my home, my family, and my children. For these reasons, accept the honor of the sacrifice of this pig as a propitiative offering.

It was not a sin to cut down trees. Roman religion was not greatly concerned with sin. Instead, the Romans regarded gods and goddesses as beings with rights and prerogatives, and one of them was the right not to be disturbed. If they were disturbed, they had to be propitiated. The prayer that Cato prescribed to appease the god of a grove that was about to be violated by a woodman’s ax sounds like a legal proposition, and in a way, it was. Roman prayer always offered the god a bargain. If the god granted a petition, then the petitioner would do the god a service in return.

Gods of the Household

Every Roman house had its guardian gods. The Penates were gods of the pantry, but they came to symbolize the household. The outer door of the house, the ianua, was in the care of the god Janus. Little guardian gods called Lareswere responsible for the security and well-being of the household. A house would have a little shrine to its Lar—or its Lares, if there was more than one, as there often were—called the lararium. Once the Romans began to think of their gods in human forms, the Lares would be depicted as dancing figures wearing short tunics and carrying vessels for libations and saucers for offerings of salted meal. There were also Lares that protected a neighborhood, called the Lares Compitales and Laresthat protected the whole city of Rome called the Lares Publici or the Lares Praestites, for the city was, in a sense, an extended family. There was a religious festival called the Laralia, held for the Lares on the first of May each year.


Religion that recognizes formless supernatural spirits living in trees and rocks and streams is known as animism. The word derives from the Latin anima, meaning “soul,” and animism assigns every stream or tree a soul or divine spirit, endowed with a right not to be disturbed without its consent. The Romans called this divine spirit a numen, a word with the basic meaning of nodding assent, and then by association it came to mean the divinity that nods assent or sometimes refuses it. At one time, scholars thought that at first Roman religion was purely animist, only later becoming more sophisticated as they came into contact with their neighbors—particularly the Greeks—and learned to make images of their gods in human forms. In fact, the Romans made images as far back as their earliest images exist. Nonetheless, in primitive Italy there was a good deal of animistic belief. Animism explains, for instance, one ritual in early Rome that took place whenever the Romans embarked on a war. Before a general led his army out of the city, he first went to the Regia, which housed shields and spears sacred to Mars. He shook a sacred spear with the cry, “Mars, awake!” The numen of Mars, the spirit of war, was clearly somehow within the spear, and a good shaking roused it from its slumber. If a spear was seen to tremble of its own accord, that was a bad sign. It meant that the numen was apprehensive.


The god of doors and gateways was Janus, and since to enter a house or a city, one must pass through a gate or door, Janus became a god of beginnings. Whenever a prayer was addressed to a list of gods, his name was mentioned first. There was a freestanding gateway in the Roman Forum, the “twin gate of Janus,” which was opened to release the magic forces of battle whenever the Romans were at war, which they frequently were. The gateway represented Janus, but once the Romans began to portray their gods in human form, the symbol of Janus became a man with a double-faced head: one face looking forward and the other backwards. The first month of the year was named after him, and his festival was on New Year’s Day.

The Religion of the Roman Republic

The Early Beginnings

Early Roman history and Roman mythology are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate the two. Legend described how Rome’s first king, a son of Mars named Romulus, founded Rome in 753 B.C.E. He first asked the gods for divine approval, then laid out the sacred boundary—the so-called pomerium of his city—and built Rome’s first temple to Jupiter Feretrius, that is, Jupiter the Striker, who smote Rome’s enemies. Romulus’ settlement was on one of Rome’s Seven Hills, the Palatine, and archaeologists have found early cuttings in the bedrock there that were left by a prehistoric settlement. Romulus himself may be fictitious, but the habitation on the Palatine Hill was not. The Romans evolved a legend long after Rome was established that told how it was founded. Its mother city was Alba Longa, a Latin town which was founded generations earlier by the son of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who escaped from the destruction of Troy and came to Italy. Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, had a wicked great-uncle who had usurped the rule of Alba Longa from their grandfather, and, recognizing the two infants as a threat, he set them adrift on the Tiber River when it was in flood, fully expecting never to see them again. Their cradle floated ashore at the future site of Rome, however, and a she-wolf that had lost her whelps suckled them. A herdsman named Faustulus, who was the woodland god Faunus under a thin disguise, also cared for them until they developed into two husky young men. Upon reaching adulthood, they first disposed of their wicked great-uncle and restored their grandfather to the throne; they then journeyed to the Seven Hills of Rome to found a city. Remus was soon eliminated. He was killed either by Romulus himself or by one of his followers. Then Romulus attracted new settlers by offering asylum to men who were fleeing their native lands for some reason. He remedied the dearth of women by stealing them from a Sabine settlement on the Quirinal, another of Rome’s Seven Hills. The Sabines, an Italic people on the fringes of Latium whose relations with the early Latins were more often hostile than not, were incensed by the abductions, but instead of fighting to the death, they united with the Romans to form a single community. Thus Rome from the beginning was a multicultural community, and archaeology lends credence to this theory, for the earliest burials found in the Roman Forum were both inhumation and cremation instead of either one type or the other, which one would expect if the population were homogeneous. Moreover, the union between the Romans and the Sabines may not have been a coalition of equals, for Romulus’ successor was a Sabine, Numa Pompilius. Romulus himself vanished—snatched into Heaven, according to one legend, murdered according to another—and he was assimilated to the god Quirinus, a Sabine god who seems to have been the Sabine counterpart of Mars.


Quirinus is a colorless god. There were no myths told about him. He did have a festival that was held every 17 February, and Quirites, meaning the “Quirinus’ people,” was sometimes used as a synonym for “the Roman people.” He was a member of Rome’s ancient triad of gods that consisted of Diespiter (Jupiter), meaning “the father god”; Mars, Jupiter’s son; and Quirinus, who was the son of Mars, since Rome’s founding myth told that Romulus’ father was Mars. Rome’s first emperor, Imperator Caesar Augustus (27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.), thought of taking the name “Romulus” as appropriate for his new status, and he rebuilt the temple of Quirinus in Rome. Romulus’ fratricide was not forgotten, however, and Quirinus, the deified Romulus, was left in obscurity.

Numa’s Calendar

Roman legend claimed King Numa as the founder figure of Roman religion. He gave Rome its twelve-month calendar to replace the ten-month calendar that began with March, the month of Mars, which Romulus’ city had borrowed from Alba Longa. Numa’s calendar fixed the dates for the religious festivals. Numa’s successors are shadowy figures, but then Rome fell under Etruscan domination. The last three kings to rule Rome—Tarquin the Elder, Servius Tullius, and Tarquin the Proud—were Etruscans, and very likely historical figures.

The Etruscans

Roman legend veiled the uncomfortable fact that the Etruscan takeover was a conquest with a story that the first Tarquin left Tarquinii where he suffered discrimination because he was the son of a Greek, and came to Rome where he became a respected citizen and was chosen king by a popular vote. Tradition also told that Tarquin’s name in Tarquinii was Lucumo, and in Etruscan cities, the lucumo was the chief magistrate. Tarquin, whose name was the Latinized form of a common Etruscan name, tarcna, probably came to Rome as a conqueror. With the Etruscans came their triad of gods—Tinia (the “Sky-Father”), Uni, and Menrva—who became Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The Romans already had a divine triad of gods—Mars, Jupiter, and Quirinus—who were by no means forgotten. The new triad, however, took pride of place, and on the Capitoline Hill there arose a great temple with a grand portico to house them. This was the greatest temple in the whole Etruscan world, and it remained the largest temple in Rome until the fall of the Roman Republic. It had three rooms for its three divinities, but in the middle shrine, clothed in an embroidered tunic and a toga, sat a terracotta statue made by the Etruscan sculptor, Vulca of Veii. It portrayed Jupiter Optimus Maximus, that is, “Jupiter, the best and greatest god” who now absorbed the attributes of Tinia, the “Sky-Father.” In fact, the Romans sometimes invoked him simply as caelum, meaning “sky.” The traditional date for its dedication was 509 B.C.E. A year before, the last Etruscan king had been expelled from Rome.

Etruscan Legacies

The Romans owed two other rites to the Etruscans. One was the art of augury: how to divine the future by observing the flight of birds or examining the viscera of sacrificial animals. The Etruscans were experts at reading omens from the size, shape, color, and markings of the vital organs, particularly the liver and the gallbladder. One tool of the augur’s craft has been found at Piacenza in Italy. It is a model liver made of bronze that is divided into forty sections labeled with the names of gods. There were Etruscan textbooks: Books on Lightning, Books on Ritual, Books on Fate, Books of the Haruspices (Soothsayers) on interpreting signs and portents, and Books on Animal Gods. Lightning was a significant foretoken. In which of the sixteen divisions of the heavens was it seen? The Etruscan Books on Lightning would have an answer. Tinia threw three kinds of thunderbolt, and eight other gods threw one kind each. If the omens were bad, what sort of expiation would avert disaster? Consulting the Books of Haruspices would be in order. The Romans were apt pupils, though they never took the occult sciences of the Etruscans quite as seriously as the Etruscans did themselves. The other Etruscan legacy was the Roman triumph. How much of the ritual was Etruscan is not known, but as time went on, the triumph developed into a parade where a victorious general entered Rome in a chariot and proceeded through the Roman Forum to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Before him were paraded his prisoners and the spoils of his campaign. He wore the regalia of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and his face was painted red. Behind him in his chariot stood a servant who repeated, “Remember that you are a man!” The triumph was an honor that generals in the Roman republic sought eagerly, and after the fall of the republic, it was reserved for emperors.

The Influence of the Greeks

Greek influence arrived early to Rome. A legend related that before Romulus founded his city, there was a Greek colony on the site of Rome. There were flourishing Greek cities in Sicily and southern Italy, and Rome was soon in contact. The result was that Rome’s gods became identified with Greek gods. Mars and the Greek Ares were both war gods so they were equated even though they had little else in common. Aphrodite was identified with the Roman Venus, Artemis with Diana, Athena with Minerva, Hera with Juno, and Zeus with Jupiter. Hestia was Vesta and the Titan Kronos became Saturn. Apollo remained Apollo, and stayed on the sidelines until the emperor Augustus endorsed his cult and built a great temple for Apollo on the Palatine Hill. Dionysus was known by his alternative Greek name, Bacchus, which does not appear in Greek usage before the fifth century B.C.E., and his festivities were called the Bacchanalia. Heracles became Hercules, and his worship was an early import from Greece. Sacrifices made to him at the Ara Maxima (the Greatest Altar) in Rome were according to the Greek rite: that is, the priest officiated with head uncovered, and not with head covered as was the Roman custom. These Greek immigrant gods brought their myths with them. Latin literature began when an ex-slave, Livius Andronicus, who was probably a Greek, produced Latin tragedies and comedies in Rome, based on Greek models and using Greek myths for subject matter. He also translated Homer’s Odyssey into rough-and-ready Latin verse. Hera became Juno, Zeus Jupiter, and Athena Minerva, and the Romans were told titillating stories about their gods that were revelations. The Romans learned from Homer that Venus was married to Vulcan and had an affair with Mars. The discovery must have come as a shock to many of them.

The Preeminence of Greece

By the end of the third century B.C.E. there was a circle of Roman nobles who were so influenced by Greek culture that they preferred to speak Greek at home rather than Latin. Greek art was prized, and when Rome’s empire expanded into the Greek world, the Romans found plenty of it to plunder. They also wanted copies of Greek sculpture for their houses and gardens, and Greece developed an export trade in replicas to meet the demand. Most of the masterpieces of Greek sculpture are known to us now through Roman copies, which were actually copies made by Greek craftsmen for the Roman trade. In the religious imagination of Rome, Roman gods began to look like their Greek counterparts. Modern cultural historians might consider this a degeneration of Roman culture, but it is unlikely that the Romans saw it that way. Roman culture changed constantly as a result of borrowing from a circle of contacts which expanded as Rome’s imperial dominion grew, and many Romans thought the process strengthened rather than weakened Latin traditions. Not all Romans were so accepting of Greek culture, however. There was a reaction, and one figure associated with the reaction was the first Roman author to produce a work in Latin prose, Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.E.). He authored the first history of Rome in the Latin language. It has not survived, but his treatise On Agriculture has, and it pays special attention to the traditional rites of the farmers who tilled the Italian countryside. Greek culture might capture the imaginations of upper-class Romans, but ritual remained intensely conservative.

The Worship of the Roman Gods

The Priesthoods

One remarkable feature of Roman religion was that the priests—who were all males except for the Vestal Virgins—were organized into a number of collegia and other small priestly groups, each with a special function to perform. There were four major collegia, a word usually inaccurately translated as “colleges,” for they were actually clubs or associations. First there were the fifteen pontiffs, headed by the chief priest or pontifex maximus who was chosen by his colleagues in the early Roman republic. From the third century B.C.E., however, a pontiff would be elected by the Roman people and held office for life. The emperor Augustus became a pontiff early in his career, and as soon as the incumbent pontifex maximus died in 12 B.C.E., he took over the post. The college of pontiffs also included the flamines (priests), the rex sacrorum (the king of sacred rites), and the six Vestal Virgins. There were twelve minor flamines and three important ones: the Flamen Dialis, the Flamen Martialis, and the Quirinalis, that is, the priests of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, the ancient divine triad of Rome. The flamineswere surrounded by various taboos; the Flamen Dialis, for instance, could not be away from his own bed for more than two consecutive nights. Anyone hoping for military renown avoided the office, for no Flamen Dialis could lead an army on campaign. For a long period in the first century B.C.E., the office was vacant. The rex sacrorum took over the sacralduties of Rome’s ancient kings—that is, their functions as priests of the state. Presumably, before the last king, Tarquin the Proud, was driven from Rome in 510 B.C.E., he headed the college of priests, and a “king of sacred rites” took over his sacerdotal functions. The presidency of the college, however, went to the pontifex maximus, and as a republican gesture the “king of sacred rites” was barred from all political offices. The second major college was the fifteen augurs who supervised all rituals concerned with the auspices. The third college had the mouth-filling name quindecemviri sacris faciundis, meaning “the fifteen-man committee for doing sacred things.” Whenever the Roman senate felt that Rome’s collection of oracles known as the Sibylline Books should be consulted, it was this group of priests who carried out the consultation. Finally there was a college that looked after one of the most characteristic institutions of later Rome, theludi or the Games which were days filled with competitions and amusements for the public. They began with processions when the images of the gods were paraded through the streets; then there would be the shows: horse racing, to which there was later added animal fights and theater productions held in the presence of the gods, whose images would be seated among the spectators. These priests, called epulones, were not the business managers of the ludi; those were usually politicians on their way up the political ladder. Despite the political nature of the Games, the religious aspects of the Games were very important, and in 196 B.C.E. a three-man college of epulones was established to look after

them. In the first century B.C.E. their number was raised to seven. The epulones also looked after an odd ritual called a lectisternium, which the Roman senate decreed when menacing portents indicated that the gods should be appeased. The images of the gods were placed on the streets lying on pillows, and food of all kinds was set before them. Once fed, and presumably happy, the gods were returned to their sanctuaries. Actually, the epulones ate the food. Not for nothing did the word epulones mean “guests at a banquet.” There were other priestly groups, too. The fetial priests looked after foreign relations. They determined that Rome’s wars were “just wars,” and a fetial priest would perform a ritual before the Roman army crossed into the enemy’s territory to make sure that the gods recognized that justice was on the Roman side. The haruspices specialized in the Etruscan lore of interpreting prodigies. Two ancient groups were connected with festivals: the Salii, priests of Mars who put on archaic armor with conical caps and shields shaped like the figure eight, and danced at various places in the city during the festivals of Mars in March and October; and the “Luperci,” the runners in the Lupercalia festival. Finally there were the Arval Brethren, an ancient but obscure college during the Roman republic that cared for the cult of an equally obscure goddess known as the Dea Dia. The emperor Augustus joined the Arval Brethren and adapted the college to the purposes of the imperial cult. The revived college inscribed its records on stone, and fragments of these inscriptions have survived, running from 21 B.C.E. to 304 C.E., with the result that historians are better informed about the Arval Brethren than any other college.


The dates of the great festivals were set out in the ritual calendar, which was first drawn up by the legendary King Numa, the successor of Romulus. Copies, inscribed on stone, survive, but almost all date from the reign of Emperor Augustus, and if Numa’s calendar ever existed, it had undergone changes over time. Every month except September had festivals. Some lost their original meaning and acquired a new one. The shepherds’ festival in April for the protection of their flocks known as the Parilia became a birthday festival for Rome. There were festivals for the dead—the Parentalia every February and the Lemuria in May—which were essentially family festivals. The Saturnalia in December was also a family festival, though it started with sacrifices at the temple of Saturn; the feasting when masters and slaves exchanged roles, and presents were given, all took place inside the household.

Emperor Worship

Once Rome acquired divine emperors, the worship of the emperor was grafted on to the traditional religion. Temples to the emperors, living and dead, soon became the most prominent temples in Rome and in other great cities of the empire as well. The emperors not only became the high priests of Rome, but, as gods, they received sacrifices. In most of the provinces of the empire, a provincial assembly for the celebration of the imperial cult would meet every year in the chief city. It would hold a festival in honor of the emperor and it would discuss provincial business. If a governor was corrupt, for instance, it could arrange for him to be prosecuted in Rome. The cult of the emperors was not standardized, but it did provide a focus for provincial loyalty as well as a channel for complaints from the provinces to reach Rome.

Jewish Resistance

The Jews resisted the idea of making sacrifices to the emperors, and the civil authorities made an exception, though the emperor Caligula (37-41 B.C.E.) nearly provoked an uprising in Judaea by insisting that his image be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem. Caligula’s assassination averted the crisis. The Jews were willing to offer prayers in their synagogues on the emperor’s behalf, though they would not offer prayers to him. The Christians, however, were stubborn in their refusal to either pray to the emperor or for him.

Immigrant Religions: The Arrival of New Cults from the East

Multicultural Rome

By the first century C.E., Rome had a population of nearly a million people. It was huge by the standards even of the early modern world: in seventeenth-century Europe, only London, Paris, and Constantinople had populations above 400,000. It was also a magnet for immigrants from the empire, which by the mid-century stretched from Britain to the Middle East. Many came as slaves, who were then freed and as freedmen became Roman citizens. They brought their religious beliefs with them.


Along with the new cults there was an up-surge of interest in magic and astrology. The attraction of magic was that it purported to give mortals some control over life and death and the powers of the Underworld. The magician, with his handbooks of magic spells, gave the impression that he could make things work in a world where nothing seemed to work the way it once did. The authorities found it frightening. A defixio—an enchantment against an enemy, often only a thin leaflet of lead with a curse scratched on it, then folded, pierced with a nail and buried at a strategic location—could harness supernatural forces to do damage. What is striking about the enchantments that have survived is the range of divinities. All the Olympian gods appear, but as capricious, demonic powers. Apollo, the Olympian most often invoked, became a sun god. Babylonia, Egypt, and Judaea also contributed deities. Osiris and Isis from Egypt rubbed shoulders in the Underworld with Hermes and Aphrodite as did a god called Iao, who is the Jewish Yahweh. In the surviving enchantments, Iao is the god most often invoked. Part of magic’s attraction was a wish to control destiny in a changing world, and to understand the life after death. While the worshippers of these gods were often immigrants who remained loyal to their ancestral religions, these new cults also made converts. Some Romans converted to several of them since, except for Judaism and Christianity, they were not exclusive.

Cult of Isis

The goddess Isis was an import from Egypt. In Egyptian myth she was the sister-wife of Osiris, who was slain by the evil god Seth and cut into many pieces so that he could not be mummified and enter the afterlife. Isis searched for the pieces and found them all but one. The secret of where it was hidden was revealed only when Isis’ son, Horus, whom the Greeks called Harpocrates, forced Seth to reveal it. Then, at last, Osiris could be resurrected. In the afterlife, as Osorapis, he became the head of the panel of judges who judged the dead. When the Greeks came to Egypt, they identified Osiris as their god, Dionysus. The best-preserved temple of Isis in Italy is in Pompeii, which had just been rebuilt after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 62 C.E. and had not been in use long before all Pompeii was overwhelmed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. The temple at Pompeii had cells for her priests and a cistern for the Nile water; Isis was attended by Egyptian priests who shaved their heads and wore white linen garments, and her rituals used sacred water from the Nile river. The processions that marked her festivals were elaborate productions, with dances, penitent worshippers, and music. When the navigation season opened each spring, and the grain transports began to bring their cargoes from Egypt to Italy, Isis gave the ships her blessing in a festival called the Ploiaphesia.

Cult of Serapis

The god Serapis was often coupled with Isis. His cult seems to have developed out of the cult of Osorapis, but it was encouraged by the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt who may have thought he would bridge the gulf between the religions of the Greeks and their Egyptian subjects. The great temple of Serapis at Alexandria was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Isis in Egyptian mythology was the mother of Horus, the hawk-headed god, but among the Greeks and Romans, Horus became Harpocrates, who is shown as a chubby infant with his hand in his mouth, and Serapis became his father. He is often shown being suckled by Isis and when Egypt was Christianized in the fourth century C.E., the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus took over the iconography of Isis and Harpocrates.


Mithraism was an offshoot of Zororastrianism, the national religion of Persia. Mithras was one of the angels in the forces of Ahura-Mazda, the god of light, in his battle with Ahriman, the god of evil. No evidence of Mithraism has been found in ancient Iran, and possibly it was within the Roman Empire that Mithraism developed as a separate cult. Its ritual was secret and confined to men, and modern historians are ill informed about it, except that candidates for initiation underwent a series of ordeals. Initiates met in small oblong chapels with benches along the side-walls and, at the end, a painting or sculpture showing Mithras slaying a bull, for one duty that Mithras undertook was to capture and kill a mysterious bull. Mithraism was a militant religion with a special appeal for Roman soldiers. Sol Invictus was a natural associate of Mithras, for Sol Invictus was the “Invincible Sun,” and Mithras was a god of light. In the third century Sol Invictus almost became Rome’s national religion, for the emperor Aurelian (270-275 B.C.E.) was a devotee and built a great temple in Rome to Sol Invictus, which was dedicated on 25 December, the Sun’s supposed birthday.

Other Cults

There were other new cults as well. One that arrived early was the cult of Attis and the “Great Mother,” Cybele. The Roman senate imported the cult towards the end of the third century B.C.E. and established a religious festival for it called the Megalensia. The rites of the Great Mother celebrated the death and resurrection of Attis, and they involved ecstatic rituals performed by priests called galli who had castrated themselves. The cult was kept under strict control in Rome for more than 200 years, but once it was allowed freedom, it began to win converts. One of the rites attached to it was the taurobolium which appeared in Rome in the mid-second century C.E. and from there spread through the Western Empire, becoming particularly popular in Gaul. The recipient would climb down into a ditch and be bathed by the blood of a bull—or alternatively a ram—that was slaughtered above him.


Among the immigrant religions was Judaism. There was already a Jewish community in Rome in the early first century B.C.E. and their numbers increased after the Roman general Pompey extended Rome’s dominion into the eastern Mediterranean and returned home in 63 B.C.E. with a vast quantity of booty and slaves, among them Jews. Julius Caesar gave the Jews certain privileges, such as the right not be to summoned to court on Shabbat, and Judaism became a religio licita, that is, a “licensed religion,” a cult that could claim protection under Roman law. There were soon synagogues in the major cities of the empire, and they attracted Gentile (non-Jew) attention. Persons called “God-fearers” were Gentiles with a sympathetic interest in Judaism who might come to synagogues to hear a good speaker and were made welcome. Some became converts, but that involved circumcison, which could be a dangerous procedure for an adult male before modern hygiene. The general Roman attitude to Judaism was ambivalent: Jews were considered clever in the art of healing the sick and also in magic, but their denial of all other gods except their own seemed unduly exclusive. Still, Judaism was one of the new religions which took an important place in Rome in the imperial period.


All these cults had one thing in common: they accepted individuals as initiates and made them part of a special group. Most of them imparted some transcendental knowledge to their converts as part of their initiation, and for that reason they are commonly called “mystery religions.” They did not all promise resurrection after death, but they did borrow from each other, and as time went on, they all developed an eschatology—that is, doctrines about the afterlife—of one sort or another. The greatest attraction seems to have been that, in a world that was increasingly chaotic—particularly in the third century B.C.E. when order broke down and the Roman Empire seemed unable to cope with new invaders that crossed its borders—these cults imparted a sense of belonging to a circle of like-minded persons.

The Rise of Christianity

Christianity as a Jewish Sect

Christianity began with a group of Jews who followed the teachings of Jesus, a Jewish carpenter who attracted many followers during his three-year ministry which began in 30 C.E. Jesus’ teachings regarding the Jewish law and his claim to be the “messiah” (the savior of the people) long-awaited by the Jews threatened the Jewish religious leaders, who managed to have him crucified by the Roman authorities in 33 C.E. on charges of heresy. Although the religion initially faltered after Jesus’ death, reports that Jesus had risen from the dead bolstered the fledgling church in spite of its continued persecution by the Jewish religious leaders. The years following Jesus’ crucifixion saw an increase in the number of “Christians”—so-called because they followed Jesus “the Christ.” The religion was not without its growing pains, however. According to the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul, there soon arose a division of opinion among the followers of Jesus. On the one hand, there was a conservative group centered in Jerusalem, led by James, the brother of Jesus. They clung to the Jewish law of Moses and insisted that all Gentile converts should be circumcised. The other group centered on Paul, a Jew of the diaspora, that is, the Jewish communities living outside Judaea. He had not known Jesus personally, but he had been converted to the new religion that he believed that Jesus had preached, and he was full of zeal. He wanted to reach out to the Gentiles, and he considered the dietary restrictions of Mosaic law and circumcision unimportant. Probably Paul and his followers would have lost the quarrel, except that a Jewish revolt intervened. A sect of Jewish nationalists in Judaea called the Zealots rose in rebellion in the final years of the emperor Nero’s reign. The suppression of the revolt was delayed by Nero’s dethronement and a year of civil war before Vespasian took over as emperor in 69 C.E.; the next year, Jerusalem was taken by an army led by Vespasian’s son, Titus. The Temple was destroyed and its treasures taken to Rome as booty. The Jewish priesthood that had presided over the sacrifices at the Temple no longer had a center for their rituals. The future of Judaism lay with the synagogues and their rabbis, and a rabbinical school that was established at Yavna—later moved to Tiberias—in Judaea was actually encouraged by the Roman authorities. Judaism developed into a religion of the Talmud, which was the collection of writings that constituted Jewish civil and religious law. The Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem that had opposed Paul had not supported the revolt, but still it was a casualty. It was dispersed, and many of its leaders were probably killed. Others fled, particularly to Alexandria.


The future of Christianity lay with the followers of Paul’s teachings. They had not supported the Jewish revolt, and their lack of support was not forgotten. Christianity had spread rapidly, partly because Christian preachers were welcome in the synagogues of the Diaspora. That welcome began to grow thin, however, and by the reign of Nero (54-68 C.E.), the Roman authorities began to recognize the Christians as a sect separate from the Jews, and an unpopular one at that. In 64 C.E. more than two-thirds of Rome was destroyed in a great fire. Nero needed a scapegoat, and the Christians were unpopular; in some quarters they were blamed for setting the fire. In fact, many Christians at this point in history expected an imminent Second Coming of the risen Christ and may have imagined that the fire that consumed Rome was the opening scene in the destruction of an evil empire. The Christians suffered their first state persecution at this time, but there were more to follow. The persecutions were sporadic until the middle of the third century C.E. when the empire made a systematic attempt to wipe out Christianity. The emperor Decius (249-252 C.E.) faced a Gothic invasion, the first of many that the empire would suffer. The gods seemed to be angry with Rome, and Decius insisted that everyone sacrifice to them and present certificates to that effect. Had Decius lived longer, he would have done Christianity serious damage, but he was killed in battle, and the persecution slowed. At the beginning of the fourth century C.E. there was another determined persecution, but by then Christianity was too powerful to be wiped out.

The Roman Attitude toward the Christians

In 111 C.E., a Roman named Pliny was governor of the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor, and encountered a cell of Christians. He wrote to the emperor Trajan to report how he had handled the case, and his letter has survived. As far as Pliny could ascertain, all the Christians did was to meet before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses antiphonally in honor of Christ “as if to a god” and to bind themselves by an oath, in Latin, a sacramentum. Then they would disperse and meet later to eat. Despite these innocuous proceedings, Pliny demanded that all of them make a little sacrifice before the emperor’s image, and those that refused be put to death. Pliny sought of Trajan the legal basis for punishing the Christians, asking if Christianity was a crime per se, or whether it was the actions of Christians that were recognized as crimes by Roman law. Trajan’s answer was brief. He approved of Pliny’s actions. As for Pliny’s question, the reply was simple. Christianity was a crime per se. This decision to outlaw Christianity as a religion made it markedly different from Judaism, which suffered from Roman disdain but was always a legal religion. Christianity was considered dangerous for several reasons. For one thing, the Roman authorities saw Christianity as a secret society, and secret societies made them nervous. The empire was always afraid of subversion. For another, it is clear from early Christian writings that the Christians regarded the empire as evil. They looked forward to its final destruction and the Last Judgement. Then, too, there was misunderstanding at fault. There were rumors of horrific Christian rituals including cannibalism, and the liturgy of the Eucharist that professes to offer the body and blood of Christ to Christian worshippers must have nourished this misconception. Finally, unlike the ancient religion of Judaism, Christianity was a new sect, and it was founded by a man who had been crucified by the Romans on a charge of high treason. The Romans had reason to be apprehensive.

The Retreat of Paganism

Rome’s change of attitude towards Christianity began with the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 C.E. In 313 C.E. he persuaded his co-ruler Licinius, who ruled the eastern portion of the empire, that freedom of religion should be extended to all. Licinius was not a Christian, but he wanted to maintain good relations with Constantine. The proportion of the empire that was Christian at the time of his conversion is a matter of conjecture, but it is generally agreed that it was a minority and perhaps a small minority at that. As Constantine began to favor the Christian church, however, new converts flocked to it. Constantine allowed pagans freedom of religion, but he banned sacrifices and thereby inflicted great damage on the pagan cults, for sacrifices were vitally important for them. He also helped himself to the wealth of the pagan temples. Constantine’s new gold and silver coinage that helped stabilize the runaway inflation of earlier reigns used bullion from the pagan temples. The laws recorded in the Roman law codes mark paganism’s retreat. Rome’s machinery for enforcing its laws was always weak. There was no public prosecutor, and thus when a law appears in the law code, it should not be assumed that it was universally obeyed. If the law is repeated a number of times over a period of years, it can be assumed that there was widespread evasion. The ban on pagan sacrifice is a case in point. It was repeated again and again.

Changeover to Christianity

The changeover from a pagan to a Christian empire took up most of the fourth century C.E. On the coins that Constantine minted, three-quarters of the symbols shown belong not to Christianity but to Sol Invictus, the “Unconquerable Sun.” Constantine, like his predecessors since the emperor Augustus, was pontifex maximus, that is high priest of Rome, and his successors continued to hold the post until Gratian (367-383 C.E.). The imperial cult did not die a sudden death. When Constantine received a request from a town in Italy to erect a temple to him, he gave permission, provided that they did not offer him sacrifices. In 356 Constantine’s son, Constantius II, ordered all temples closed, but in 371 the emperor Valentinian ruled that everyone should be free to worship as he wished. The exceptions were astrologers, magicians, and Manichaeans—the last a sect on the fringes of Christianity which actually had its roots in Zoroastrianism, the national religion of Persia before the rise of Islam, the doctrines of which envisaged an ongoing struggle in this world between the forces of Good and the dark forces of Evil. In 381, sacrifices were forbidden again, and again in 391 and 392, and in one of those years an event took place that dismayed the pagans who still clung to the old religion: the great temple of Serapis in Alexandria was destroyed by a Christian mob. The pagans expected the god to show his anger by refusing to let the Nile flood and water the fertile fields of Egypt, but the Nile flooded as usual. The pagans were disheartened at the impotence of their god. This was an example of a Christian tactic against paganism which had dramatic effect—demonstrating that the old gods could be flouted without fear of divine punishment.