Give me some of that old time religion

How hard would it be to practice the ancient Greek religion these days?

Yes, I'm aware there are people doing their own modern versions of the ancient worship, but I'm talking about worshiping the Gods and Goddesses as it was done back in the good old days; done so well that an ancient Greek transported 2,500 years into the future would recognise his own religion.

The answer is: very tough indeed.

To start with, if you're not sacrificing animals, then you're just not doing it right.

Sorry, but that's the way it is. Animal sacrifice is central to ancient religion but anathema to virtually anyone practicing modern paganism. I certainly wouldn't condone it; it would probably be illegal in most countries; but if you want to do religion the way the Greeks did then you don't have a choice. Every important ritual and festival required a sacrifice, and an important element was that the sacrifice "agree". It's fine to have a BBQ afterwards, but you'll need some butchering skills which aren't exactly common these days.

You need an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Homer.

The Greeks had no Bible. Their entire written experience of the Gods came from Homer, and from another ancient author called Hesiod, who amongst other things wrote Theogeny, which defined the relationships between the Gods and Goddesses.

At heart the Greeks expected the Gods to behave the way Homer wrote them. It's as if we took our Christian viewpoint from Shakespeare.

Learn a lot of hymns and odes.

Actually this is good news, because most of them are very good. There were a whole pile of standards and favourites, which when you get down to it is the same as having psalms. The difference is you need to memorize a few thousand lines, because normal people didn't have books with this stuff written in. Not to worry, you'll have plenty of time to memorize while the building work is underway.

You need a cult statue. And a temple.

The Greeks did almost everything in the open air. Except religion. For that they built very elegant, very expensive temples. Inside each temple is a cult statue. The Greeks believed -- and I mean believed -- that the God or Goddess would inhabit the cult statue from time to time. (If a statue transforming into a God seems strange, consider the premise behind the Christian mass. It's called transubstantiation.)

So you need to get together with some friends and buy some decent land. Put a Greek temple on it. The design is very well known but it's a non-standard form these days so the material and labor might be a trifle expensive.

When you've finished the temple hire the best sculptor you can afford for the cult stature. Something ten times larger than life in ivory, gold and silver would be just great, but if that's outside the budget, you may have to settle for a lifesize marble or a cast bronze.

Did I mention you have to do one of these statue/temple combos for each God?

You don't need every minor deity, but you definitely have to cover all the majors. That's Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Poseidon. Don't forget any of them; not if you know what's good for you, because these guys are known for the odd spot of jealousy, they're easily offended, and they can do serious damage. Ask any Trojan.


CKHB said...

Yup, yup, yup. The Christians think that Job had it bad, but you did NOT want to get on the wrong side of one of these Gods, especially since it usually meant a whole bunch of the other Gods were also going to get in on the action for purposes of revenge/spite/their own amusement...

Gary Corby said...

Good point Carrie. For a bad time, try having your liver eaten out every day for eternity.

Matthew Delman said...

The same issue would probably come up with a 1st Century man of Judea.

The Hebrews used to regularly practice animal sacrifice to appease God/Yahweh, and in fact there's specific passages in the Old Testament that talk about how to prepare the sacrifice (and what parts the priests could take for themselves, if memory serves).

Gary --

Or be forced to roll a stone up a hill every day only to have it roll back down again.

Mimzy said...

I always liked the story of Tantalus and how whenever he bent down to drink water or reached up to grab food, the object of his desire went out of reach. Although him trying to feed the gods people in the first place was a stupid idea.

Amalia T. said...

Haha! I should have read this before I commented on the last post. I was just saying that there actually ARE still people worshipping these old gods in the modern world! How rightly, I can't say, but I think they probably can't get away with animal sacrifice in most countries anymore since they don't have legal recognition of their faith to protect them from animal cruelty accusations. (Honestly, if it were done right, I'm not sure it would be any more cruel to animals than a slaughterhouse, but you know, that gets people upset too. Just not enough to stop eating meat.)

And now I don't feel so bad about my comparisons to Christianity, since you went all out with the transubstantiation. You're absolutely right. Communion is a merging with God--that's why they have to incorporate a mini act of contrition into the mass for all of the people who don't go to confession daily to be allowed to take part. However, that only applies to the Catholics and the Orthodox faiths, the protestants only believe in the symbolism, not that actual transformation.

I think the other problem that the modern believers face is that they want to use the temples of the ancient world, and the countries themselves refuse to allow them to do so for the preservation of them as national monuments and historic sites. As far as I know, they are NOT building new temples.

I'm loving these last posts. These are great discussion points and really fascinating areas of research.

However--Is it really fair to attribute all religious practice and understanding of the gods to Homer and Hesiod? Obviously Homer is evidence of a vibrant oral tradition that must have been passed down through the generations. I'm not sure we can say that it was extinguished or replaced solely by the written works that have survived into the modern world. I think that Homer points us to worlds of references to stories and myths that we no longer have access too, but that the people he(for simplicity) was writing for could and did recognize immediately, and appreciate. Of course, in the modern world, working backwards to piece it together or understand it would be virtually impossible, but we still have more than just Homer and Hesiod to describe to us the actions and behaviors of the gods. I would argue, as I move through all of this myth myself, that every telling and retelling of these stories is part of the myth. Every exploration should be considered as containing a kernel of that same truth. Humanity explores and the myths evolve into fiction, which will later evolve into the myth itself as we look backwards.

...okay, I might have to write a post about this myself now. haha.


Stephanie Thornton said...

I find it interesting how Westerners today look down on groups that still perform religious animal sacrifice, like the Hmong. And yet, the Greeks and their mythology are put on a pedestal.

I guess this is just one of those instances where people really need to know the whole chunk of history and not just the little pieces taught in textbooks.

Brian Jay Jones said...

I think I'm one for five. If you want to count TV theme songs as "hymns."

Gary Corby said...

Wow, such great comments!

Sisyphus, Tantalus, can really suck for some people. They just don't put in the same effort for cursed fates these days.

You're right Amalia, I totally understated the importance of oral tradition. It's tough because if it wasn't written down then we just don't know it. Fortunately the surviving hymns do give a different view from Homer.

I can't imagine any sane modern government allowing use of the ancient temples, but really it shouldn't be a problem, because peole back then were constantly updating or building new ones. That's why so many survived, even as ruins. Building your own new temples would be in line with ancient practice.

Yes Stephanie, people seem to think of Greeks and Romans as serene guys wandering about marble buildings and wearing pure white. But real life was a lot grottier than that, and far more vibrant.

A Writer said...

I was here too.

I really like the supplemental blogs you write running alongside your research into what you're working on.

I always found the idea of jealous gods hilarious, and the temples? Eesh. I can't even play CAESAR IV correctly. I always piss one god or another off in that game.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie. Every now and then I post something off the top of my head that's just for fun. I wondered if this might be a low-interest post. Shows what I know.

Anonymous said...

I took a year of ancient Greek toward my Latin major, so I suppose I have a head start.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Anything about mysteries, and orgies, and tearing living creatures limb from limb with the teeth?
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"