The religion of ancient Greece is often viewed by the general populace to be the worship of the gods of Greek mythology – Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Poseidon, Hermes, and the rest. The familiar architecture of the Parthenon and other Greek temples – sunlit and open to the sky, Greek sculpture, and a host of popular stores of the gods have all fixed in our minds a very clear picture of what we believe the religion of the ancient Greeks to have been. For centuries these radiant figures and images have astonished our eyes, we were unable to see the gloomy regions behind them, the dark primeval tangle of desires and fears and dreams from which these ancient deities drew, and continue to draw their vitality.
Ancient Greek religion is polytheistic1 and as such it is composed of complex and many-sided notions and ideas that, to the modern mind, may seem to be more of a jumble of different religions all combined together under one heading. In the Greece of historic times, as well as today, the most common division in the mind of the religious worshiper rests between what are known as the Olympian and the Chthonic religions. Those who profess the Olympian way of worship embrace the characteristics of reason, cheerfulness, and truthfulness and perform their religious rituals, as much as possible, in the open-air, absorbing the beauty of nature and the light of day to the fullest extent. The Chthonic2 worshipers embrace a profoundly different way of worship, which is marked by a darkness and impressiveness and guided by a mystical desire to unify oneself with the powers of the gods. The rituals of these worshipers is often conducted during the dark of night or within sacred caves by torchlight. Once this division is noted, we can begin to dissect the ideas upon which Greek or Hellenic religion is founded. From this dissection of ideas we can draw both religious and mystic distinctions of ever increasing complexity and intricacy, to which no limit is set save by the diligence and insightfulness of the worshiper himself.
The observation of these two distinct forms of worship is a necessity for anyone who wishes to understand the Greek religion. However, it can, if not approached cautiously, lead a seeker into error. The Greek religion presents us with a wide variety of different beliefs and experiences and the term ‘religion’ can be correctly applied to each one separately. For example, we can speak quite naturally of the Olympian religion, the Chthonic religion, the Dionysian religion, and so forth. However, the use of the word ‘religion’, as it is expressed in this book can cause the seeker to lose sight of a fact worth remembering, which is that to the Hellenist, all forms of religious experience are merely portions of the greater whole. Perhaps it would be easier to understand this by giving an example. To an outside observer of Christian religion and Moslem religion, there is seen a distinct difference between the two faiths. The people who are followers of these faiths are equally conscious that they belong to different religious worlds. This consciousness is an important part of their religion itself, and they are ready to kill and be killed in the admission of it. Both may claim Judaism as a common ancestor and the Mohammedan may grant Jesus a place among the prophets. Yet, they remain mutually exclusive, in the sense that it is impossible to imagine a Christian calling himself at the same time a Mohammedan, or a Mohammedan a Christian. However, to make this distinction of exclusiveness between the religious experiences and practices of the varying Hellenic ‘religions’ would be incorrect and unjustified. Hence my appeal for caution. The term ‘religions’ I retain, for it is a useful one, and inoffensive once we have made up our minds what we mean by it.
To an outsider, the differences between the worship of Olympian Zeus and the mysteries of Demeter may seem as great as those between Christians and Moslems. Yet not only have they never lead to wars or persecutions, but it is perfectly acceptable for the same individual to be a devout participant in both. More than this, Demeter’s daughter, Persephone – in whose honor as well as Her mother’s the mysteries are held, has Zeus for Her father, and Zeus Himself can be addressed as both Chthonios and as Olympios. Fortunately there is no need to go into such difficult discussions just now. The point that I am trying to illustrate here is that when speaking of this or that ‘religion’ of ancient Greece we cannot draw the sharp distinctions which we might draw between this or that religion of the modern world. It is not a question of tolerance. Even in countries or societies where tolerance prevails, there is still a definite line which can be drawn between Jew, Christian, Moslem, and Hindu. It is merely a matter of unconsciousness in the mind of the worshiper that allows differences to exist within a certain system of belief, which, to an outsider, seem obvious and often contradictory. A parallel can easily be seen within the Christian world itself. Its varying denominations and sects bear witness to this modern fact. The idea that there are Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Presbyterians and Protestants, to name but a few, who all consider themselves followers of Christ, yet who all have very varying degrees of spirituality, mental powers and education according to which they believe in their god. Some believe that god is a kindly father figure, another in a righteous, judgmental Jehovah, another in a being whose nature is infinitely forgiving and just. Almost all of these varying shades of belief can be found in Hellenism as well as in any other religion and it is not uncommon to find one Hellenist who believes in the external existence of the gods as definite entities or powers and another who believes that those powers exist also within ourselves and that we can unify our souls with those powers and become immortal. The profound difference between the Montheistic view and the Polytheistic view is quite simply that every Monotheistic sect proclaims itself to be the ‘one, true path to god’. Polytheism, on the contrary, accepts that religion as a whole, regardless of doctrine or dogma, is, in the end a personal connection with divine power and as such, all religion is personal and individual. No two people have the exact same religion. Those of similar temperament will prefer to group themselves together, and in classical Greece there were many kinds of religion to reflect this tendency. Some of them were devoted to particular gods, making it easy to assume, at first glance, that each god or set of gods stood for a different type of religion, here the Olympians, there Dionysus, and there Demeter and Persephone. In fact, however, we find that representatives of opposing types of religion all invoked the same god in an entirely different spirit, and also that gods whom we had thought of as inspiring opposing beliefs and aspirations are sometimes peacefully united in the same group. Any attempt to discover or create an order and reason to this unconscious incompatibility will only lead the seeker into confusion. The gods are mysterious and their energies encompass more than we can imagine, thus we must learn of them through the acts of worship and ritual and come to know them as we would know our good friends. To be a Hellenist is to embrace the powers that influence our lives and to understand our proper place in the Universe. It is to rejoice in this life that we have been given and to work towards the betterment of ourselves and ultimately towards the betterment of all humanity.
1 Polytheistic – a belief in many gods, deities or divine beings, as opposed to monotheistic, which believes in only one divine being.
2 Chthonic – a Greek term used to signify the darkness of Earth and the underworld. Thus Chthonic worshipers celebrate the fertility and agrarian rites. This includes also, the cult of the dead.