The polytheistic religion of ancient Greece consisted of a vast array of gods and goddesses and divine beings, from omnipotent Olympians to woodland nymphs. Each deity, great or small, held its own particular sphere of influence. This includes Greek gods of the oceans and the Underworld, justice and discord, child-birth and marriage, poetry and music. In short, there was something for everyone. But, of these myriad divinities, how can we identify the gods that really mattered to people in the ancient Greek world?
At its essence, Greek religion centered on the fundamental belief that there was a line of communication between humans and gods. If someone needed help from a particular deity then they would have to communicate this through an act of worship. They would then wait to see if their particular god was agreeable to their need. These acts of worship took place at temples and sanctuaries across the Greek world, on both a public and individual level. Rituals were then carried out such as animal sacrifice, prayer and dedicating votive offerings.
In examining these acts and places of worship we can gain an insight into the deities who had the greatest impact on the everyday lives of people in ancient Greece.
Zeus – King of the Gods
It is not surprising that Zeus, father and king of the Olympian gods, should be one of the most important deities for the Greeks. Zeus was an ancient god who had the most far-reaching sphere of influence. The name ‘Zeus’ derives from the Indo-European word for day and sky. Ancient references to him can be traced back to the Mycenaean Linear B texts. These texts attest to sanctuaries and festival days created in his honor.
The Bronze Age Zeus was a weather god, one who held rain, thunder and lightning in his power. This association continued throughout the centuries. The weather clearly was of great importance to the Greeks, whose main economy was built on agriculture. But Zeus was also seen as being at the heart of all human affairs and was closely linked to justice and fate.
The worship of Zeus was widespread rather than confined to one particular city-state. He was believed to be the overall protector of mankind and so he was aligned with each city. For this reason, statues of Zeus and his temples were often found in the agora. The agora was the marketplace and beating heart of each community.
The extent of Zeus’ impact on ancient Greeks can be seen in the numerous variants of his name. Each variant, or epithet, relates to a particular aspect of his power. The following are just a few examples.
Zeus Herkeios was worshiped in Athenian homes and was believed to be the protector of the hearth. More widely, Zeus Ktesios was seen as a protector of all property. Small shrines to him were set up even in store cupboards. Away from the domestic world, Zeus Philios, was believed to be the protector of friendship. This covered individuals and communities, as well as political alliances. For times of crisis there was Zeus Soter. He was believed to protect individuals and cities from war and natural disasters, such as earthquakes.
Zeus therefore permeated every aspect of Greek lives, from the weather outside to the cupboard in a humble home. Zeus was worshiped far and wide across the Greek world, including at festivals such as the Olympic Games. His legacy as the greatest of gods also meant that he became the favored deity of great leaders in the ancient world. These leaders included Alexander the Great and the Emperor Hadrian.
Hera, like her husband and brother Zeus, has ancient origins and is attested on two Mycenaean Linear B tablets. The queen of the Olympian gods was most closely associated with marriage. But she also presided over the full arc of female lives, from childhood, through marriage and then into widowhood or separation. Hera was therefore a vital goddess for women in the Greek world.
Like Zeus, Hera’s name has many variants, although they are almost all associated with marriage. Among the most common was Hera Gamelia. She was celebrated during the month of February when sacred marriage ceremonies were held. Hera Argeia was worshiped at Argos, where a statue of the goddess was bathed in a sacred spring. This represented a symbolic restoration of her virginity in preparation for marriage.
Hera’s importance in ancient Greece was highlighted by the magnificence of the temples built in her honor. Her sanctuary on the island of Samos was her mythological birthplace. Herodotus says that this sanctuary was home to the largest temple known in the Greek world. It is also thought to be one of the oldest Greek temples, dating back to the 8th century BC. Equally important was her hilltop temple in Argos, which stood imposingly over the Argive plains.
The discovery of votive offerings at Hera’s sanctuaries and temples gives us an insight into how widespread her worship was. Objects have been found which originated from as far afield as Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Hera’s significance as a goddess of women and marriage, therefore, transcended the boundaries of Greece. This universality established her as one of the most important deities of the ancient world.
There is no evidence of the existence of the god Apollo from the Bronze Age. It is believed that he became more widely known as a deity from around 1000 BC onwards. Apollo had a very diverse sphere of influence and therefore he became an important god to people in ancient Greece. His associations ranged from healing and prophecy to young men and the arts.
One of Apollo’s main sanctuaries was on the island of Delos, his mythological birthplace. This sanctuary dates from the 6th century BC and was so large that it was more like a small city. Both Homer and Hesiod mention a large altar on Delos made from the horns of sacrificed goats. This altar became a center for the worship of Apollo particularly among young men on the cusp of adulthood.
Perhaps Apollo’s greatest impact on the ancient world was made through his oracle at Delphi. This became the most important Greek oracle and the complex there dates back to the 9th century BC. The oracle was consulted by cities and individuals from across the Greek world and beyond. Herodotus tells us that even Croesus of Lydia, the richest king ever to have lived, visited the oracle for advice.
During a consultation, Apollo’s prophecy would be interpreted by his priestess, the Pythia. The Pythia’s words were often a series of riddles, meaning that accurate interpretation was fraught with difficulty. People came to Delphi for divine guidance on an array of matters, from curing a disease to finding a wife. Officials from city-states would also consult him about political strategies and impending war. Apollo’s influence therefore stretched far and wide.
Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and the daughter of Leto. Many scholars believe that she originated from an animal goddess of the Minoan civilization. Her sphere of influence was varied and she was a significant goddess for both men and women in ancient Greece. As well as hunting and wild animals, she was a goddess associated with transitions. For women, she presided over the transition from virginity to childbirth and for men, that from boyhood to adulthood.
A large number of festivals were held in Artemis’ honour and a variety of cults were devoted to her worship. This highlights her great importance as a goddess. Among the most well-known were the festivals of Artemis Brauronia and Artemis Munichia. These festivals involved the supplication of both young girls and young men.
At Brauron, her sanctuary in Attica, girls aged 5–10 years old served the goddess as arktoi, or “bears.” This was part of a ritual to prepare them for marriage. At the festival of Munichia, ephebes, young men aged 18–20 undergoing military training, took part in sacred sea races. Similarly, Artemis Orthia was worshiped in Sparta by boys going through the agoge military education process.
Artemis was also closely connected to the animal kingdom and she is often depicted standing with hunting dogs and deer. The festival of Artemis Laphria was held annually at Patrae in the Peloponnese. A virgin priestess apparently rode through the city in a chariot drawn by deer. A mass sacrifice of deer and wild animals followed shortly after her arrival at the temple.
The festivals mentioned here represent just a fraction of her following. The sheer number of cults dedicated to Artemis in ancient Greece is arguably only comparable to that of Zeus. This level of devotion places her in the highest echelons of the Olympian hierarchy.
The goddess Demeter was most closely associated with corn and fertility. She therefore played a fundamental role in the main economy of ancient Greece – agriculture. Many of her festivals were held at key points in the farming year, such as the sowing and harvesting of crops.
Demeter was often depicted in religious imagery beside her daughter, Persephone, also known as Kore (girl). In Greek mythology, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the Underworld as his wife. In response, Demeter sent a plague to annihilate human civilization. Hades was forced to compromise and Persephone was allowed to return to the Upper world each spring. This return was thought to represent the emergence of new vegetation after the dormant period of winter. Demeter and Persephone were therefore inherently linked to the life cycle of plants and crops.
The island of Sicily was sacred to both Demeter and Persephone. In mythology, this was the place where Persephone entered and exited from the Underworld each year. Sicily was just one of the many places which celebrated Demeter’s festival of Thesmophoria. This celebration for the Greek god was held in autumn, at harvest time, and involved a secretive fertility ceremony exclusively for women.
The Mysteries of Eleusis were another secret ritual associated with Demeter, held in autumn and spring. The Mysteries involved ceremonies of initiation which offered celebrants prosperity in life and a better life after death. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter explains the origins behind the cult. It describes how, while searching for her kidnapped daughter, Demeter was treated kindly by the Eleusinians. In return, she taught them the secrets of the Mysteries. These secrets were believed to be the gift of agriculture, which the Eleusinians then spread throughout the rest of Greece.
Demeter was therefore seen as a fundamental deity in the development of civilization in ancient Greece. In providing and protecting agriculture, she had paved the way for economic prosperity, which lasted for many centuries.
Dionysus was the most intangible of all the Greek gods. He was a god of contrasts, simultaneously young and old, masculine and effeminate, robust and phantom-like. His sphere of influence covered two sources of great pleasure for ancient Greeks – wine and theatre. He therefore represented escapism and joy in equal measure.
Wine festivals dedicated to Dionysus were held all over Greece, with prominent gatherings on the islands of Chios and Naxos. A large wine festival, the Anthesteria, was also held in Athens. Interestingly, women were prohibited from drinking the wine at these celebrations.
However, women played a large part in the Bacchic rituals of Dionysus as his followers, the maenads. Every other year, the maenads would go up into the mountains and celebrate his rites. Ecstatic dancing and chanting would take place followed by the sacrifice and eating of wild animals. The play The Bacchae, by Euripides, recounts the mythological story of when the maenads’ ecstasy spilt over to violence. This episode resulted in the murder of King Pentheus of Thebes.
Perhaps the most famous festival to Dionysus was the City Dionysia, which was held in Athens every March. There was a large procession through the city followed by a series of competitive theatrical performances. Tragedies, comedies, satyr-plays and dithyrambic choruses were performed and judges declared the winners in each category. Successful playwrights included Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, each of whom are still famous to this day.
Dionysus also appears in art more than any other Greek deity. This is a reflection of his huge popularity across the Greek world. He appears in his many forms on every conceivable object, from painted amphora vases to oil lamps. He is often shown surrounded by felines, particularly panthers. Sometimes he is draped in ivy and grapevines holding the thyrsus, a staff topped with a pine cone. He even appears with disreputable characters, such as satyrs, dancing around in sexual mischief.
From the vast array of deities, it is difficult to identify which gods really mattered to the Greeks. However, each of the gods chosen here represents an incomparable impact on a particular and essential sphere of human life. It is these fundamental associations which place Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter and Dionysus above all others.