Ancient Greek Religion

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Artemis, at the Louve, Paris
Picture from Forum Romanum Picture Index

Methods of worship


Sacrifice was considered as giving the gods a gift.

Though calves were the most important victims, sheep and goats were the preferred victims for the major gods, whilst all the inedible or cheap animals were given to gods that were the least important or were connected with impurity.

Often the worshippers would eat the meat from the sacrifice, thus providing a link from the people to the divine.

The Spartan kings would first offer a sacrifice to Zeus whilst at home, and if the omens were favourable, they would proceed to the borders, carrying with them the fire from the sacrifice. Once there, further sacrifices were offered to Zeus and Athena, and only when the omens from both were on their side, would they continue.


Festivals either occurred at a state level, or as a panegyreis, where people from many states traveled to the festival, such as the festival at Olympia.

There are quite a number of events that occur during festivals, such as sacrifices, contests of both athletes and musicians, dances, prayers, hymns and processions (which displayed the value of the sacrificial victim to the crowd). Plutarch describes Alkibiades and his horses winning at the Olympics, a major festival.

Although events such as athletic contests do not seem to have much in common with religion and worship, the Greeks believed that the gods were anthropomorphic, and so enjoyed the same sort of entertainment that humans did. The athletic competitions were for the gods’ entertainment.


These served as a house for the deity, and no-one was permitted access to the inner areas except for priests, priestesses and attendants. This showed respect towards the deity, and their superiority over humans. The location of the sanctuaries also reflected the position of the particular deity that it was for. Temples to Zeus were often located at the Agora, while Athena’s was at the acropolis. Just outside the polis were sanctuaries to gods that were not quite as important to the Greeks, however still were powerful, such as Hera, Poseidon, Dionysus, and Artemis.

Sanctuaries had many regulations, to help display the Greeks’ respect for the gods. Certain dress often had to be worn, what food was eaten might be dictated, accommodation restricted to certain areas, and so on.

Reasons for worship


Protection in battles was one aspect of this. Homer demonstrates why this approval was needed, when Zeus turns victory towards the Trojans and away from the Greeks.

Protection of various parts of the house was considered to have been the duties of various deities and so the house contained an altar to Zeus Herkeois.

Approval was also sought for the polis, as festivals honoured the gods protecting the city so that the gods would continue to look after them.


Worship might also have been performed to receive favours and gifts from the gods. Basically, if you give them a gift, or did them a favour, then they should do likewise for you.

In the healing centres of Asklepios, after performing the appropriate rituals and prayers, the sick would sleep in the hope of having a visitation from the god, who would then heal them. In this case, the favour was for the person to be healed, and so the worship of the god encouraged this to take place.

Other favours might include a good harvest, or a better afterlife. This was one of the reasons that cults such as the Eleusinian Mysteries worshipped their gods and goddesses. The initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries worshipped Demeter and Persephone so that they would receive a happier afterlife , rather than the dreary existence of an afterlife in Hades.

Bremmer, J., Greek Religion, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994
Dillon, M., and Garland, L., Ancient Greece, second edition, Routledge, London, 2000
Dunstan, W., Ancient Greece, Harcourt College Publishers, USA, 2000
Guthrie, W., The Greeks and Their Gods, second edition, Methuen and Co. LTD, London, 1954.
Homer, The Illiad, Penguin Books, 1987
Martin, R., ‘Occasions for sacrifice and festivals’, The Perseus Project, 1994 (revised 19/1/00, accessed 27/3/01), :text:1999.04.0009:head%3D%23165
Osbourne, R., Archaic and Classical Greek Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998
Parker, R., ‘Spartan Religion’ in Classical Sparta: Techniques Behind Her Success, edited by Powell, A., Routledge, London, 1989

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