Notebook, 1993--


[From: Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]

Elements of the Religious
Beliefs of the Ancient

THE FOLLOWING ARE DISCUSSED IN THE TEXT: Pre-Homeric Religion - Minoan religion - Cretan-Mycenaean religion - The Birth of the Myth - Homeric Religion - Religious Faith in Pre-Classical and Classical Greece - Apollo and his worship - Eleusinian Mysteries - Orphism

The purpose of this article is not to present the story of Greek religion in all its depth, for this would be difficult if not impossible, and would become a very voluminous study in view of the magnitude of the subject and the fact that so many books have been written on the subject. The purpose, rather, is to give a brief picture of the evolution which took place throughout the centuries as the restless spirit of the Greeks sought to lead their deities beyond the mere dimensions of man and to place them on the supreme pedestal of morality and justice. Another purpose of the article is to give along general lines the mystical nature which simple worship began to assume when the Greek more and more preoccupied himself with the soul and the perishable and the immutability of matter, and the mystery of death which he strove to discern. In the pages that follow, the religious faith of the Greeks is divided, for the convenience of the reader, into three major periods, the Pre-Homeric which includes the Minoan and the Mycenaean religions, the Homeric as this is described in the two epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, and the more developed of which sections deal with the worship of Apollo, the Eleusinian Mysteries, Dionysian worship, and Orphism, which will be treated in greater detail. [ p. 107]

Pre-Homeric Religion
One could call this the Cretan-Mycenaean religion. It coincides with the Bronze Age of Greece, and fundamentally one can say that just as Cretan-Mycenaean art is original and independent so also is its faith, even in the case when it was inspired by another religion--mostly Egyptian, it possesses its own individual [p. 101] vitality which makes it substantially different from any other.

As in the case of nearly all primitive races, the oldest inhabitants of Crete lived in caves. When the caves were abandoned for better shelters, they continued to use the caves as burial places and sites for worship. Famous caves of these kinds in the island are found at Kamares and in the village of Patso.

But each religion had certain instruments or symbols which were an essential part of the sacred rites or ceremonies. The principal object of devotion in Minoan religion were the sacred horns, the double axe, and the votary tables of various shapes. The sacred horns are represented as horn-shaped protuberances, turning upwards and joined by a fluted base. Of its origins nothing is known. The only thing we do know is that they were the place of consecration for the sacred objects which were always set between the horns.

The double axe was the symbol of Minoan worship which is encountered everywhere, much in the way the cross is in Christianity.

There exists a Carian word 'labrys' signifying double axe, and Zeus Labraneus or the god with the double axe was worshipped at Labranda in Caria. The same deity may well have been worshipped in Crete since the Cretans had ties with the Carians. But such an explanation, under closer scrutiny, does not seem to apply, for nowhere to date has a masculine deity been found holding a double axe. The symbol is found in the hands of priests, in various depictions, and in the hands of priestesses.

What in fact could the double axe signify and what was its use, if it did not represent thunder, the symbol of Zeus? Could it have been an instrument used to slay the animals that were offered as sacrifices? As such, it could have assumed a more important role in Cretan worship. Such an interpretation is supported today by many scholars. But over and above the sacred horns and the double axe, the Minoan Cretans, as nearly all peoples of the dawn of their civilizations, worshipped nature and natural phenomena, for the changes were indeed strange to them. In the early stages, at least, they could not explain why and when the soil produced its fruit and when it was dry and unproductive, because they had not yet systematically studied the seasons, and were not sure the Spring would return and nature would again yield its fruits and crops if they did not supplicate her. Thus they began to worship nature and in their imaginations, nature assumed the form of the Great Mother whereas vegetation which was so essential to their livelihood was seen as a divine child, a young god who was born and died and resurrected each year.

The relationship between the two deities, the Mother and the divine child, was not clear. At times it resembled a love affair that was not always entirely consummated either because the youthful god had died a little before or a little after the wedding with the goddess, and other times the relationship was of a maternal nature. Similar faiths are encountered both in Egyptian and Anatolian religions. But next to the young deity in Minoan religion, there existed also a young goddess who would die and be resurrected each year. Ariadne, daughter of Minos, according to a widely accepted theory, was the goddess of the moon and the trees which also die every year. The young god assumed the name of Belchanus and Hyacinth, and sometimes appeared as a tamer of wild beasts and other times as a frail youth or flower.

The form of the goddess was not always the same. Some times she is seen at the top of a [p. 102] mountain peak between two lions as the mistress of beasts, 'the revered lady of the animals' [Potnia] Artemis, and other times she was depicted seated beneath a tufted tree, and again at times in a standing position holding snakes in her hands or with a serpent entwined round her. The snake in this instance represented the underworld and protected the home.

Some times on the other hand, especially in the seals and precious stones, the goddess appears with doves hovering about her or perching on her head or shoulders.

In contrast with other countries, in Minoan Crete there were no large temples or idols built to the gods. There existed however small palace or countryside chapels or sacred precincts with very small idols or statuettes. These miniature statues, beautiful and very stylized, were portable and could be conveniently placed anywhere even in the dwellings of the faithful, much in the way icons are today.

The Cretans believed that humans could also become incarnate with the goddess or god either permanently or temporarily. Thus we see that in the rites, kings, princesses or queens could play the part of the deities and receive libations and the worship of the faithful who saw in their persons the deities in the flesh and bone. They even believed that the gods could assume the shape of animals and to appear to the believers as beasts such as oxen or bulls, wild goats, birds, or even snakes. Specially sacred was the bull so handsome and powerful who could fertilize an entire herd. He was identified with the heavens and the sun whereas the cow was identified with the moon. Thus the wedding of the bull and the cow was a wedding of the sun and moon.

With the passing of the centuries the king and queen of Knossos began to play the role of the sacred marriage [bull-cow, sun-moon]. In fact, the name of the queen, Pasiphae [verdant], indicates her association with the sun, whereas the fruit of their marriage, the Minotaur, was known also as Asterion, symbolizing again the union of the sun and moon. From this sacred marriage of the king and queen of Knossos representing the religious cycle of Crete, there grew the legend of Pasiphae who had asked Daedalus to build a special [p. 103] wooden image of a cow by which she could be possessed by the bull-god. Even in the event that Minotaur died and the bull itself which was the special sacrificial beast died, this would not seem strange nor unprecedented, for in the East where in all likelihood lay the origins of the Cretan cult, the bull of the heavens also died as did the bull Apis of the Egyptians.

In addition to these deities who are for the most part unknown to us and about whom we can make only assumptions, and who no doubt contributed to the creation of the myths of the later gods, especially Athena, Aphrodite and Artemis, of great significance in Crete was the sacred tree which was none other than the olive. The ageless olive which yields its precious fruit from its ancient branches which also provided oil for the Cretans, the basic staple with grain, made a lasting impression on the primitive worshipper who soon looked upon the olive as divine. But the olive was not the only tree that was sacred, for some deciduous trees were also considered divine. These trees were regarded with sadness when the leaves were shed in the autumn, and on the other hand were looked upon with joy attended by wild spring celebrations to welcome the new blooming.

As pointed out above, certain instruments of worship were essential to Cretan religious practices such as the horns, the double axe, and the tables. In addition there was the large earthen dish [kernos] made with many wells or hollows with the largest hollow in the centre. This stone was used as a votive offering of all the agricultural products to the goddess whom they honoured with the sacrifice. The custom still survives in Crete today where the priest blesses the new crop. For liquid offerings they use the 'rhyton' or deep horn-shaped cup or a cup sometimes shaped like the head of a bull, a lion, or a triton, or even of a human being.

The dance was an important part of the ritual. Very common are depictions of women dancing bare-breasted beneath trees, raising their arms in supplication to the goddess to bring her back near them with the return of the Spring.

Bull vaulting [tavrokathapsia] was also part of the religious ritual which took place in the spring when nature returned to life. The vaulting was based on the sanctity of the bull which also was associated with fertility.

In the games, women also participated, thus the celebrations assumed a kind of erotic nature [bull-Pasiphae]. In the bull vaulting the beast was never slain. The athletes or worshippers were without weapons and performed their physical feats of prowess. Later, at the end of the bull vaulting, the beast was sacrificed to the goddess and the Spring festivities were continued with [see-sawing] acrobatics beneath the sacred trees and with parades with music and singing after the reaping of the corn.

But the religious faith of the Minoans was not limited to the worship of divinities alone. From most remote times, in the Neolithic Age, it appears that there grew a belief in a kind of life after death. Thus we find that the dead were buried in the hollows of rocks or in tholos-type tombs together with the items necessary for after life such as food, water, and weapons. At the same time, the Cretans who believed that the dead 'lived' at least as long as the body lasted, began slowly to evolve a worship of the dead, a primitive practice initially, that grew into a more complicated religious belief in time, until finally the Cretans began to identify the dead with the underground deities and to believe that with appropriate prayer and sacrificial offerings they could influence favourably the fertility of the earth. [p. 104]

Mycenaean religion was influenced by the Minoan but differed basically from it. The Greek-speaking tribes that settled in the area of Mycenae before or around about 1900 B.C. had brought with them their own gods, a number of whom later became known as the Olympian deities. We thus find in a tablet at Pylos dating in the 14th or 13th Century B.C., the names of Poseidon, Zeus, Hera, and Hermes, and elsewhere the names of Athena and Artemis. But the Mycenaeans had relationships with the Minoans and received from the latter their religious practices especially in its liturgical or ritual and formal aspects, adopting at the same time certain divinities who did not conflict with their own beliefs. In this way, they first adopted the Minoan goddess of vegetation and fertility, then the 'mistress of the beasts' who in each hand held an animal or bird. This goddess of wild nature not only protected animal life but also destroyed it.

Another deity of the Mycenaean Pantheon was the goddess of war. This deity was not anthropomorphic, rather, it was a palladium or statuette with chief characteristic a figure-eight shield with a head projecting from its top end. Why the Mycenaeans visualized the patron of war as a goddess rather than a god is still inexplicable. But that which can be said almost certainly is that this deity can be identified with the 'Potnia Athena' or 'Mistress Athena' of the tablets.

Representations of the deities Poseidon, Zeus, and Hermes have not yet been found, but in all probability the Mycenaeans did not depict them.

Of the other Minoan divinities, it appears that the Mycenaeans rejected the snake goddess who it would seem was completely alien to their religious beliefs. [p. 105]

As with the Minoans, the Mycenaeans did not build large temples for the worship of their gods. On the contrary, they built small sacred sanctuaries on mountainous or hilly sites which they decorated with sacred horns. They also had open-air precincts surrounded by a low wall containing trees of the sacred grove.

In the latter stages of Mycenaean history the archons built in their palaces a special chamber which was set aside for their religious needs.

Mycenaean worship was simple. Prayers and votive offerings of small statuettes or idols were the usual means of expressing their faith. But there also existed the wild orgiastic dances in which both men and women participated and in which the goddess was called upon to heed the prayers of the faithful for fertility and a good crop from the earth and the flocks.

Their sacred utensils were not unlike those of the Minoans, and in all probability Mycenae had imported both the ritual and the formal worship of the island of Crete. The only symbol which they did not adopt was the double-headed axe. In the early centuries of Mycenae this may have had some ritual significance, but ultimately however it was confined to its utilitarian uses, an instrument for slaughtering the sacrificial beast in the votive offering to the gods.

From all appearances, in contrast to the Minoan state, the Mycenaean ruler was not the chief priest nor did he ever represent the god. This is also the case with the queen. Priests and priestesses presided over the religious rites. The priestesses, as in Crete, were barebreasted.

In short, Mycenaean religion was less complicated and intricate then the Minoan and it appears that large and great festivals, other than dances in which all the faithful took part, were not the practice. It is almost certain that no bull vaulting or acrobatics were performed.

Parallel with the worship of the gods there existed at Mycenae the worship of the dead. This worship evolved from the Mycenaean through the Classical period. Finds in the tholos tomb of Menidi, the burial pits of Mycenae and the royal tombs of that city uncovered by Schliemann would indicate that occasionally [especially in the tomb of Clytemnestra and the covered burial vaults of Mycenae] before the burial of kings or the chieftains, these sites were used as sacred sanctuaries for the worship of earlier heroes before the practice of burying royalty in them.

The worship of both heroes and the dead was performed in the same manner, and therefore would indicate that the hero cult began initially as the worship of the dead, the only difference being that respect for the dead was a family practice whereas that of the heroes was popular practice.

The significance given by the Greeks to hero worship can be gauged from the fact that when the purification of Delos took place with the removal of the dead to Rheneia, two tombs dating back to Mycenaean times were not touched and worship at the sites continued. These graves were situated in the sacred precinct of Delos. It is said that the one located near the temple of Artemis was the tomb of the hyperborean maidens Ope and Arge, and the other of the hyperborean virgins Laodice and Hyperoche. All four maidens were closely associated with Artemis, Apollo, and the tree cult.


[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].