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Greek Religion - Outline

'Religion' is a notoriously slippery term that cannot be straightforwardly translated into Greek; nor does a modern definition of what constitutes religion exist that satisfies everyone. Our own understanding and appreciation of Greek Religion depends upon our own beliefs and definitions of the subject, and the perceptions and biases of our own time only ever become visible in hindsight, as the history of past scholarship so clearly reveals.

As far as possible, our aim in studying Greek Religion is to glimpse – if only for a moment and necessarily obliquely – what the Greeks themselves believed. With no bible or set theological text, and with local variations in practices and belief paramount, no single point of view can ever reveal the whole picture: with the freedom to speculate on religious matters, no two Greeks may have believed or thought the same. Added to this the scarcity, incompleteness, and often contradictory nature of our evidence, and understanding what the Greeks themselves believed becomes close to impossible. As Robert Parker (On Greek Religion, 2011, ix) has so neatly put it, in studying Greek Religion we are mapping an archipelago of tiny disconnected islands, and only here and there do larger islands exist where perhaps a few paths can be glimpsed. But what we do share is a common psychology, and our collective humanity might at least afford a sure footing and a glimpse of the motives and means through which such religion developed and was practiced.

In this course we will look at the full variety of ways through which the Greeks – both as individuals and as groups - attempted to communicate with the supernatural. From formal public worship of the gods, through to more informal means of communicating with the divine, we will examine the varieties of Greek Religious practice and experience, and discover the central role played by religion in positioning the individual inside a meaningful system – a system which embraced their entire lived experience from birth to death and encompassed the home and family, the polis, and regional and Hellenic identity. We will look at the way religion helped navigate everyday life and society, and will study the wonderful varieties of ritual and religious behaviour the Greeks practiced.

This course looks at both 'theological' and practical questions: what did the Greeks believe they knew about the divine? In what ways and for what purposes did the Greeks attempt to communicate with and influence supernatural powers? To what extent did the capacity to communicate with, or be a channel of communication from, the divine vary from group to group or person to person? Were there limits to what could acceptably be done to obtain the support of supernatural powers? What behaviour did the gods expect from mortals in the course of their interactions and how did this affect the moral outlook of the Greeks, as well as ritual practice? How did belief in the gods sit alongside the Greeks often pessimistic thoughts about death and the afterlife? And what were the varieties of ritual and belief and what is our evidence for them? To answer these questions we will examine the material evidence, ancient texts, and the latest theories on the working of the brain to bring us closer to a conception of what on the earth the Greeks were thinking and believed.

Learning Outcomes:

By the end of the module students should be able to demonstrate:

  • a firm knowledge of the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Greek world
  • an understanding of the varieties of Greek religious thought and experience
  • an understanding of the history of thoughts on Greek Religion and our current methods of approach

They will also be able to show the following intellectual skills:

  • Critical awareness of the advantages and limitations of written and visual material in the study of the ancient world.
  • The ability to evaluate the merits of different methodological approaches to the material
  • The ability to select and present material clearly and with a coherent argument both verbally and in writing

In addition, finalists will develop

  • The ability to set their findings into a wider comparative context, drawing in other aspects of the study of the ancient world
  • The ability to seek out appropriate secondary literature and show discernment in the types of primary evidence addressed.