Greek religion

Later Developments

The civil strife that followed the classical period (from c.500 B.C.) placed the old gods on trial. Often the gods did not answer with the visible and immediate rewards that were expected. Although the Homeric gods had distinctive personalities, their reality still had to be accepted intellectually. This form of religion suited the sophisticated city dwellers, among whom there was even a strong monotheistic tendency; however, it did not meet the needs of the people of the provinces, the farmers and shepherds, who retained primitive notions steeped in superstition (see animism).

Once the gods were placed on trial, the door was open for the popular religion of the Greek countryside. Since the gods could no longer be trusted to make life agreeable, an emphasis was placed on regeneration and on the afterlife. The mysteries gained importance after Homeric religion was established, but the origins in the seasonal festivals that underlie many of them go back as far as 1400 B.C. The Eleusinian Mysteries were perhaps the most widely practiced of the mysteries. Other popular rites were the mysteries of Dionysus and the Orphic Mysteries.

In reaction to Dionysian excesses, Apollo eventually appropriated many of the virtues of the older gods, such as justice, harmony, legalism, and moderation. The tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian strains was particularly illustrated in the work of the tragic poets of Greece, the dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who had begun to question the justice and integrity of the gods.

It was in the area of philosophical thought that a clear-cut monism developed to augment and also shift Greek religious thought to a new type of speculation. The Greek philosophers sought a more rational and scientific approach in humanity's relation to nature, espousing a logical and important connection between humanity and nature, not a mysterious and secret one between humans and god. It was Plato who made an absolute abstraction of the highest virtue, giving to that abstraction the quality of Absolute Good to which even the gods must be true. Philosophical inquiry led to the rationalization of myths and completed the destruction of the Homeric pantheon. The vacuum was eventually filled by Christianity.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Ancient Religion


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