30 Greek Religion

In the ancient Greek world, religion was personal, direct, and present in all areas of life. With formal rituals which included animal sacrifices and libations, myths to explain the origins of mankind and give the gods a human face, temples which dominated the urban landscape, city festivals and national sporting and artistic competitions, religion was never far from the mind of an ancient Greek. Whilst the individual may have made up their own mind on the degree of their religious belief and some may have been completely skeptical, certain fundamentals must have been sufficiently widespread in order for Greek government and society to function: the gods existed, they could influence human affairs, and they welcomed and responded to acts of piety and worship.(9)

The Greek Gods

Polytheistic Greek religion encompassed a myriad of gods, each representing a certain facet of the human condition, and even abstract ideas such as justice and wisdom could have their own personification. The most important gods, though, were the Olympian gods led by Zeus. These were Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Hera, Aphrodite, Demeter, Ares, Artemis, Hades, Hephaistos, and Dionysos. These gods were believed to reside on Mt. Olympos and would have been recognized across Greece, albeit, with some local variations and perhaps particular attributes and associations.

In the Greek imagination, literature, and art, the gods were given human bodies and characters—both good and bad—and just as ordinary men and women, they married, had children (often through illicit affairs), fought, and in the stories of Greek mythology they directly intervened in human affairs. These traditions were first recounted only orally as there was no sacred text in Greek religion and later, attempts were made to put in writing this oral tradition, notably by Hesiod in his Theogony and more indirectly in the works of Homer.

Gods became patrons of cities, for example, Aphrodite for Corinth and Helios for Rhodes, and were called upon for help in particular situations, for example, Ares during war and Hera for weddings. Some gods were imported from abroad, for example, Adonis, and incorporated into the Greek pantheon whilst rivers and springs could take on a very localized personified form such as the nymphs.(9)


Classical Greek Sculpture

In the Classical period, Greek sculptors would break off the shackles of convention from the Archaic era and achieve what no-one else had ever before attempted. They created life-size and life-like sculpture which glorified the human and especially nude male form. Greater attention is paid to the facial countenance, though a stoic expression still typifies the sculpture from this era. Clothes too become more subtle in their rendering and cling to the contours of the body in what has been described as “wind-blown’ or the “wet-look’. Quite simply, the sculptures no longer seemed to be sculptures but were figures instilled with life and verve. The material of choice for early Greek sculpture was marble with the other favored material being bronze. Unfortunately, because bronze was always in demand for re-use in later periods, marble sculpture has better survived for posterity. (47)

Discobolus Lancellotti

The most famous example of the Discobolus Lancellotti that we have today, for example, is actually a marble replica of a Greek bronze produced by Myron c. 450 BCE. One of the most copied statues from antiquity and it suggests powerful muscular motion caught for a split second, as in a photo. The piece is also interesting because it is carved in such a way (in a single plain) as to be seen from one viewpoint (like a relief carving with its background removed). (47)

Image of the Discus Thrower. A marble replica of the original, the statue depicts a stoic-faced athlete in mid-rotation as he prepares to hurl the discus aloft.
Figure 4-14: Discus Thrower by Mark Cartwright is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Poseidon of Artemesium

In bronze, the Poseidon of Artemesium is a transitional piece between Archaic and Classical art as the figure is extremely life-like, but in fact the proportions are not exact (e.g. the limbs are extended). However, as Boardman eloquently describes, “(it) manages to be both vigorously threatening and static in its perfect balance”; the onlooker is left in no doubt at all that this is a great god. (47)

Bronze statue of the bearded and nude Poseidon stepping forward as if to throw a long spear or javelin.
Figure 4-15: NAMA Poséidon by Marsyas is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Close of the Classical Age

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) was fought between Athens and its empire, known as the Delian League, and the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. During this conflict, Greek warfare evolved from an originally limited and formalized form of conflict, to all-out struggles between city-states, complete with large-scale atrocities. The Peloponnesian War provided a dramatic end to the 5 th century BCE, shattering religious and cultural taboos, devastating vast swathes of countryside, and destroying whole cities.

In the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta rose as a hegemonic power in classical Greece. Sparta’s dominance was challenged by many Greek city-states who had traditionally been independent during the Corinthian War of 395-387 BCE. Sparta prevailed in the conflict, but only because Persia intervened on their behalf, demonstrating the fragility with which Sparta held its power over the other Greek city-states. Following the decline of the Greek city-states, the Greek kingdom of Macedon rose to power under Philip II. Alexander III, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was born to Philip II in Pella in 356 BCE, and succeeded his father to the throne at the age of 20. (54)(55)(56)


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