19 September 2015
#History of World Civilization, Day Nineteen
Briefly describe Greek religion. What role did the Greek religious cults play in Greek society, and what were the leading cults?
Like almost all ancient cultures, the Greeks had a pantheon of dozens of deities. Primitive cultures simply deified the forces of nature because they did not understand them. The Greeks believed the earth formed spontaneously out of a primordial chaos. The earth then formed the sky and other forces of nature. The gods were created by these forces of nature and then procreated amongst themselves, producing lesser deities along family lines, much as humans do. Their highest god (though he was not an omnipotent, supreme god such as would be found in monotheism) was Zeus, the grandson of the union of the earth and sky, and the ultimate victor of a period of great warfare amongst the original gods. In addition to nature gods, they ascribed ideas to the gods, such as Apollo, the god of wisdom and justice.
Man has an innate desire for order, and like most ancient religions, their pantheon was an attempt to make sense of the world around them. Each polis had a patron god to which its citizens were devoted, developing their own rites and practices that bound the citizens together with a common tradition. Early observances were hyperactive, sometimes frenetic affairs, working worshippers into a highly emotional state, not unlike modern ecstasy religions. About the fifth century BC, the Greeks developed a new, calmer, more rational type of religious expression: the morality play. Through two primary plot devices -tragedy and comedy- playwrights sought to promote thoughtful reflection upon complex human emotions and interaction. The morality play is a time-tested art form, even in modern times. Twentieth century television shows such as “Star Trek” and “M*A*S*H” have been described as modern interpretations of classical morality plays. One episode of “Star Trek” even had the crew of the Starship Enterprise encounter the Greek god Apollo, finding him to be a member of a race of highly advanced alien beings that once visited earth at the time of the rise of Ancient Greece, whose citizens mistook them for gods.
The strengthening of the Hellenistic empires diminished polis-centered worship in favor of cultural and philosophical distinctions to address their devotees’ felt needs. These groups reflected the Greeks’ increasing reliance on human reasoning to explain life and nature. Three main schools of thought dominated Greek religious expression at this time. Epicureans sought to escape worldly pressures and find peace in pleasure, the satisfaction of having one’s needs met and being content with what they had. The Skeptics did not believe it was possible to have sufficient knowledge to draw hard and fast distinctions in politics, social issues, or morality, and thus held themselves aloof from the fray. The leading thinkers in Hellenistic philosophy and religion, however, were the Stoics. Rather than shrinking from the complex issues of a cosmopolitan society, they taught that the highest course of man was to assist his fellow man, and maintain an honorable and virtuous lifestyle in accordance with human reasoning and the natural world.