The epics that are associated with Homer’s name, the Iliad and the Odyssey, emerge from a long tradition of oral song that extends back into the Late Bronze Age. The poems themselves, however, date from the late 8th or early 7th centuries bc. From the perspective of religious belief and religious practice, the society that is described in these epics, like the society of the 8th- and 7th-century Aegean world, is a polytheistic society: the heroes within the epics, like the audiences themselves of that epic tradition, worship not one but a number of gods. The gods of the epics, such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, and Aphrodite, are, however, remarkably vivid, in that they have not only been intensely personalized, being endowed with humanlike form and appearance, but also socialized. These gods are portrayed as a family that lives together on Mount Olympus, where they are embedded in a complex web of interpersonal relationships. And yet, despite their divine status, the gods of epic mingle with the race of heroes on earth; indeed, when they choose, they are key players in human affairs. On occasions the gods behave in ways that, to another culture, might appear undignified, ridiculous, or ungodly; but, for the most part, they presented as powerful figures and at times terrible. To turn from theology of belief, as represented in the Homeric epics, to the theology of religious practice, it will become clear from the discussion in this article that the Homeric account of religious practice is different in some respects from the religious practice of the archaic Greek world; what is observable is that the epic tradition has omitted from its account of religious practice a number of elements important to worshippers in the real world, such as divination through the consultation of entrails or rituals of fertility. And a certain poetic stylization of presentation has made some real-world practices less recognizable. More recently there have been fruitful attempts to identify elements of religious belief and practice that can be traced back in time to the wider Bronze Age world. At the same time, too, scholars have reflected on the gods’ role in the epic as participants in and observers of the action.
Ancient Greek religion was a polytheistic religion without a book, church, creed, or a professional priestly class. Due to the extraordinarily rich regional varieties in cult, fragmentary evidence and conjectural interpretations of it, conflicting mythological accounts, and the span of time treated, not a single absolute statement can be made about any aspect of Greek religion and exceptions exist for every general rule stated here. Since Ancient Greeks perceived all aspects of nature as either divine or divinely controlled, and all aspects of individual and social life were thought to be subject to supernatural influence, paying proper respect to the gods and heroes was understood to be a fundamental necessity of life. Since no aspect of individual or social life was separate from “religion,” scholars refer to Ancient Greek religion as “embedded.”1 The closest Ancient Greek comes to the English word “religion” are the noun thrēskeia (“acts of religious worship, ritual, service of gods”) and the verb thrēskeuō (“to perform religious observances”). Basic components of religious worship were the construction and upkeep of divine precincts, statues, altars, and temples, the observance of festivals, performance of sacrifices, bloodless offerings and libations, prayer, hymning, and observance of ritual abstinences and purifications. The closest Greek equivalents to “belief” were eusebeia (“reverent piety,” “respect”) and pistis (“trust in others” or “faith”).2 Both words could qualify a relationship between humans, as well as a relationship between humans and a supernatural entity. Since the Ancient Greeks did not have authoritative or divinely sent books of revelation, there was no script telling them what or whom to believe in and outlining the reasons why. The Greeks did not have professional priests who preserved, interpreted, and disseminated religious norms.3 However, Greek literature is brimming with gods, and the stories about the gods, which they (and we) call “myths,” were not only in all their texts, but everywhere around them: depicted on their pottery, painted on their walls, chiseled on the stones of their buildings.4 In the public space, there were countless divine statues, and the temples, altars, sacred groves, and divine precincts were everywhere around them. Ancient Greeks learned about the gods by hearing, watching, and doing: by seeing their parents perform a sacrifice, by observing them as they prayed, swore an oath, or performed libations, by participating in processions, singing and dancing in the chorus, eating the sacrificial meat in the sanctuaries, and by drinking wine, the gift of Dionysus. Ancient Greeks had no immediate need for theodicy, for the gods could be either benevolent, or angry, and their benevolence was perceived as a sign that the worship the community offered was appropriate, whereas natural catastrophes, crippling defeats in wars, or epidemics were interpreted as manifestations of divine anger, provoked by some human error or misstep.5 Ancestral gods and heroes and the traditional way of worshipping them formed the cornerstone of Greek religiosity.