What was so appealing about the myths of the Greeks that allowed for these stories to take the cultural significance they did and fulfill the religious need of the Greek people? This religion and the stories that composed it lasted for thousands of years. There was no real consistency to the religion. Homer told stories of a bleak and dismal afterlife while Plato believed there would be a final judgment that would lead the good to a good place and the evil to a place of evil. And one of the primary and attractive features to the religion is that it was incredibly accepting. It allowed people to incorporate their local gods as long as they were still willing to participate and honor the higher gods and the traditions that accompanied them. Another aspect that helped the religion to be accepting was that there were numerous gods that represented almost every aspect of life and allowed people to worship whoever they chose. If fact, what made the religion so appealing was the fact that the religion itself encompassed every area of the Greek society and the life of every member was organized and built around the religion and it’s gods.
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The origins of the Greek myths/gods have been lost in time, but we do know the Greek people were Indo-Europeans and “the names of their gods go back to Indo-European prototypes (Price 16). We also know that many of the gods were shared between other cultures just with different names. For example the Greek god Zeus was the Roman god Jupiter and the Indian god Dyaus (Price 16). The fact that many of these gods were shared between different cultures and were merged between them could be a big reason the number of gods people believed to exist was so high.
Although there were many gods, 365 according to R.M. Grant, author of Proclaimed by Orpheus, there were 12 main gods referred to as the 12 Olympians: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hermes, Hephaistos, Ares, Demeter, and Dionysus. Zeus, also known as, the “father of gods and men,” was at the head (Guthrie 38). Hera was Zeus’ sister/wife and the other gods were his children or brothers and sisters. Other important gods included, Hades, god of the underworld, viewed like hell, and his wife Persephone.
The gods were different than men in power and immortality. As in many cultures, each god was thought to be in control of a certain area of the world. From Hera’s oversight of marriage to Poseidon’s control of the sea, the god’s hands were believed to be in everything (Guthrie 66,94). Homer’s character Odysseus, could not escape the gods during his travels. In fact much of his journey was comprised of him running from one god to another or trying to escape the fierce grip of the gods that wanted to control him.
From the stories mothers read to their children, to dinner time conversation, to the myths aristocratic men discussed over drinks at their nightly meetings, as a member of the Greek society, one could not escape Zeus and this enormous and controlling family and their dominion on one’s life. These myths were not just mere stories. Instead they permeated almost every facet of the Greek society. They were present in worship, in festivals, in buildings, in art, and more.
The stories of the gods were so great that time honored literature was established from their tales. Stories that were successful at the time when the gods were real to everyday people have lived to become timeless and classic. Homer and Hesiod are the best examples of these storytellers.
Homer was most famous for his stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey while Hesiod’s story told of the battles of the Titans and Zeus in Theogony (Otto). Neither Homer nor Hesiod actually said their stories were divinely revealed or inspired, but they both said that Zeus’s daughters, the muses, fulfilling their appropriate, omniscient rolls, guided them and influenced the stories they told and the relationships they detailed (Price, Homer, Hesiod).
Festivals were an integral part of the Greek practices of worship and often included arguably the most important part of the worship process, the sacrifice. Different gods and goddesses demanded different sacrifices and put different restrictions on the sacrificial offerings. Sacrifices took all shapes and forms from simple animals to actual human babies, bulls for Zeus, Cows for Demeter (Kirk 239). The rules varied as much as the sacrifice itself. A sacrifice for the Olympians was “killed with throat upward” and for chthonians “ downward . . . so that blood may most easily soak into the earth” (Guthrie 221). Altars were also styled in this fashion, low altars for the chthonians and high altars for the Olympians, so as to make the sacrifice easy to access. If paying sacrifice to the Olympians a Greek would perform the ceremony in the morning sunshine. If paying sacrifice to those of the underworld of Hades etc. the ceremony would be in the dark of night.
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