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Ancient Greek Religion

The Epic Age: Homer

Homer lies at the foundation of the Greek tradition, and his prominence in the educational curriculum until the end of antiquity means that he is fundamental for Greek religious thought in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The "Iliad" and the "odyssey" originated in the traditional ballad literature of the heroic age recited for entertainment. The Iliad is the story of the Trojan war: between the Greeks (under Agememnon, king of Mycenae) and the city of troy; the Odyssey relates the adventures of one of the heroes on his return from the war. The Homeric poems are a deliberate attempt to reproduce conditions of about 1200 BC at the final stage of Mycenaen civilization just before the Dorian invasions brought the interruption of a "dark age" to Greek cultural development. Homer himself may be dated somewhere around 800 BC. He marks the new intellectual beginnings that led to classical Greece.

The Gods

The Greek gods were the most anthropomorphic of the gods of any people with the exception of those in Scandinavian mythology. The gods did have some important differences from human beings: they were ageless and deathless, unlimited by physical restrictions, could take any shape they pleased, could go anywhere quickly and invisibly, and they could do thing (morally speaking) that humans should not. Generally each of the deities has his or her own special function. The gods formed something of a divine society living around Zeus on Mount Olympus. Theirs was the highest layer of society, and their society was a reflection of the organization of society in the heroic age. The deities of Homer are the same as those encountered in later Greek history. (see Ferg p.115 for table of Greek gods and corresponding Roman names.) Deities whose abode was the earth or underworld are called chthonian (note 1 Corinthians 8:5 for a possible allusion to the Olympian deities, "gods in heaven", and to chthonian deities, "gods on earth".) The gods were active in Homer, but there was a power to which even they were subject -- fate (moira). The Homeric fate was not determinism, but that portion which comes to you, one's "lot" in life. One's fate included evil, but one could bring even more on himself. Life deals certain circumstances, but in the classical Greek understanding there were always alternatives.


The first Greek temples appeared in the archaic period. They were not large and were used on special occasions only. Although Greek deities were universal, their cult was attached to definite places. Shrines were located at places that were already "holy" and were not necessarily located for the convenience of the worshippers. Temples were set within a temenos, a sacred precinct set aside for a deity, frequently with a spring (for purification) and a grove of trees. The altar was placed in front of the temple; it was the one indispensable item at a shrine, since it was necessary for the sacrifice, the central act of worship. The Greeks attached no special sanctity to an altar. The Greek temple housed the deity's image and possessions; it was not a place of assembly for worshippers but the home of the deity (cf Eph 2:20-21; 1 Cor 6:19). One went to the temple for votive offerings (gifts made in fulfillment of a vow), not usually for private prayer. The cult images were life-size or larger. In the seventh century larger temples and cult images emerged. Many small shrines still existed but were seldom opened except for special occasions.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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