Was Greek ‘religious’ thought linked with morality?

In this article, I aim to offer an overview of whether so-called Greek ‘religious’ thought – the ancient Greeks had no devotional texts or set doctrine – was linked to our modern concepts of morality.

Due to there being so many significant links between religious and civic obligations in the context of Ancient Greece, it can appear as though religious thought would have been a major source of moral guidance. It is certainly the case that modern religions place seek to appoint figures of moral superiority at their head, who emphasis doing the ‘right thing’ for the sake of the greater good at the centre of their teachings. The Ancient World, however, was far more complicated – Gods were often presented as acting immorally and semi-divine epic heroes, such as Homer’s Odysseus, were also depicted as displaying problematic characteristics which would not live up to modern expectations of morality. Despite this, Greek religious thought was highly concerned with justice, as it was believed that people’s fortunes could be changed if they appeased the Gods.

The Erechtheum – Athens’ ancient temple on the North side of the Acropolis. Paul Cartledge presents the idea that if the Parthenon was a sort of equivalent to London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, then the Erechtheum would be the equivalent to Westminster Abbey.

The Greeks viewed the twelve Gods of Olympus as being active participants in the lives of mortals, with the power to deliver both punishment and aid to those who were deemed worthy of either. This personal and reciprocal relationship between humans and the Gods was integral to Greek religious thought – the Greeks would show honour and respect for their Gods through the making of appropriate offerings and, in return, the Gods would bestow good fortune and reward, within their spheres of influence, upon people in recognition of their sustained piety. For instance, people whose livelihoods depended on the production of successful harvests may direct their sacrifices chiefly to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture.

The Greeks were fearful of upsetting the Gods as it was thought that they could easily take offense. In Euripides’ Bacchae, for example, the God Dionysus expresses his disapproval at not being esteemed often enough in libations (a liquid offering made to the Gods). Due to these attitudes, religion relied upon people practicing their beliefs actively and showing gratitude for what they had, which in many ways can be linked to morality. Political decisions relating to peacetime were also made more meaningful through the inclusion of religion. Truces taken by city-states for important events and festivals, such as the Olympic games, were sealed by the taking of oaths to Zeus which promised to end any conflict for their duration. On a smaller scale, household religious participation was also strongly linked to moral behaviour. Members of an oikos (the accumulative ancient Greek term for family and household) were expected to attend to household cults and honour their ancestors by maintaining family tombs not just for the sake of outward appearances, but also due to their upkeep being deemed necessary elements of moral citizenship and the running of a respectable home. Honouring one’s ancestors and taking pride in heritage emerges as central to family life; most Greek surnames are patronymics in origin, conveying a strong sense of self-worth rooted in those who came before them.

The ‘Discobolus’ is a copy of a Greek statue c. 5th century BC. It represents an ancient Olympic discus thrower

There was a significant overlap between religion and the law in the ancient world. Socrates was tried for charges of Impiety – showing irreverence towards the Gods of the Polis – at the Athenian law courts, which implies that religion and moral behaviour were closely linked. The event also reveals the extent to which questioning and moving away from traditional religious thought was forbade due to the belief that it was an issue affecting the moral order of society, in a comparable way that committing an immoral crime could. One of several older Sophists, Thrasymachus is sighted in the first book of Plato’s Republic on how he thinks of justice as being the same concept amongst gods as it is among humans. His view of what this justice is – acting in the interest of the many – is disputed by Plato. Nevertheless, the claim that justice operates at both the divine and human levels is largely accepted, which suggests that concepts of morality were rooted within Greek religious thought and concepts of the divine.

Woman pouring a libation on an altar

Modern definitions of moral behaviour likely differ remarkably from that of the Ancient Greeks, therefore could affect the extent to which we view religious thought as having been linked to morality in Ancient Greece. It is notable that slaves, women and ‘barbarians’, for example, were not given a part in Athenian democracy, which a modern audience would view as remarkably discriminative. For all their extraordinary powers, the ancient Greek Gods were anthropomorphic not just physically, but also mentally. The Greeks recognised that the Gods were as flawed and led by their emotions as much as, if not more than, humans: they experienced jealousy, love, hate and sorrow. The founding myth of the Eleusinian Mysteries illustrates this: Demeter’s sorrow at the loss of her daughter to Hades meant that she abandoned her responsibilities over crops and fertility, causing harvest failures and widespread panic. J.M. Roberts highlights how the Gods of Homer compete with one another and battle for dominance: In the Odyssey, Poseidon harries Odysseus, whist Athene is his constant advocate. So intense are their desires and grudges, those later critics saw the gods of Homer amplifying everything that is disgraceful and abhorrent in human nature. It can be argued that, unlike in Christian religion, the Gods of Ancient Greece were not required to be perfect and the tales of their mistakes were instead acting as lessons for humans, in order that they can strive to do better. The liberties taken by the Gods led James Redfield to remark that the Gods are ‘a chief source of comedy’ in the Iliad.

In spite of this, Greek religion was not entirely centred around doing the ‘right thing’ in a greater moral sense nor on the inner attitudes of a person, but often placed more emphasis on securing personal fortune and avoiding unnecessary hardship through pleasing the appropriate gods – such a self-focused approach which a modern audience would not necessarily see as being directly linked to morality. Greek epic Heroes did not necessarily receive divine support because of their innate morality, but more because of their fated destinies. Odysseus employs various means of deception and shocking brutality in the closing chapters of Homer’s epic. Modern readers of the epics may be shocked at how idealised these heroes were when set against our modern concepts of ‘heroes’, but, for all their flaws, in their eyes, divine favour was enough to render them the best among men.

It was assumed that victory in war was proof that the victorious nation held the favour of the Gods. Furthermore, an infallible fountain of truth, the Delphi oracle, was used by leaders – famously the King of Lydia, Croesus – to obtain guidance on military strategy as well as on other personal problems unrelated to morality, which could imply that morality and religious thought were detached. The personal fortune which they sought from the Gods, however, may have been more easily secured had they satisfied the moral responsibilities expected of them. 

The Pythia, or priestess of Apollo is consulted as the Oracle of Delphi

Greek religious thought, in general, was linked to morality in certain areas. Religious expectations required people to partake in acts of respect, admiration and gratitude on a daily basis which supports the idea that Greek religious thought was centred around at least some belief in moral conduct, even if it differs from modern views. That the ancient Greeks clearly recognised flawed morals within their Gods and heroes implies that they had ideal standards of morality and accepted that, unlike a Christian God, their deities were imperfect, but that did not mean that they could not strive to do better.

Published by katiechronicles1

Young historian and Classical Soprano Twitter: @katiehalf1533 @katiemarshall__

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