Greek and Eastern Man's Effect on Religion
by A. P.
The Greek Religion
After Alexander the Great's conquest Greek culture was changed in many ways( Cary ). Religion was one area that was changed. To truly understand Hellenistic religion, it is important to understand the two religions that combined to form this new one. A closer look at the Greek and Oriental religion's can help give a better understanding of Hellenistic religion. In Greek religion numerous gods and goddesses are found. However, there were not a large number of temples. Worship was usually carried out in domestic shrines, sacred places outside, or in various caves. Three famous temples were the temple of Zeus at Dodonal, and the temples of Apollo at Delphi and Pelas. The people would gather together to celebrate in ceremonies that put a stress on epiphany. Epiphany is the temporary appearance of a divinity in response to prayer, sacrifice, or ritual dancing. Many times, however, the happiness of the worshippers was centered upon instead of that of the gods. About 1200 B C there was a period known as the Dark Age. Not much about this period is known, because archaeological records and later traditions reveal little. However, records and traditions do reveal that after 1200 B C the Greeks grew socially, politically, and culturally. After the eighth century there is a significant change in religious practices. The Greeks began to cremate their dead, whereas in the Bronze Age the dead were buried. There were no longer the epiphanies, the ritual dances, and portrayals of the gods. Beginning in 650 B C it appears that the Greeks began to borrow myth and cult practices from the East.(Finley 42, 71-2, 83, 88, and 104) Throughout the Classical Greek period mystery religions, cults, and mythology were very popular among the Greek people. They used myths to explain why things were and how they came to be. (Godwin 48) There were myths behind everything from nature to new cities. Each city had its own patron god or goddess. ( Finley 130-1) Many cults sprung up from this, such as the cults of Dionysus, Orpheus, Hercules, Zeus, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Apollo. (Godwin 132, 144, 157-9)
The gods were honored by fellowship, singing, dancing, processions, games, and, most commonly, sacrifices. Religion was not separated from everyday life, it was incorporated into every aspect of life. Altars were very important and could be found everywhere. Sometimes a shrine was merely an alter surrounded by "sacred ground". Sacred ground was an area around the alter that was considered sacred . Temples did not become numerous until the end of the Dark Age. After this they were very lavishly decorated with statues, friezes, and pediments. Temples did not function as a place to worship but a place for the god to dwell and a place for its treasure. (Finely 132-5)
The Oriental Religion
Oriental religion is the second religion that makes up what is known as Hellenistic religion. Oriental cities and countries were well known for two things; their government and their religion. One such country is Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamians believed that the world was just a replica of the god's world. They had many gods like the Greeks, but unlike the Greeks their gods were not omnipotent - all knowing. Ultimate power was given to the gods. However, religion did not promote spiritual security because the gods were not always fair and just. This drove the Mesopotamians to search for the spiritual truths and guidance they wanted. Spieser believed that some found what they were looking for in the Hebrew way of life. ( 560 and 563)
Another religious idea that the Mesopotamians turned to were mystery cults. Two famous gods that were worshipped in these cults were Isis and Serapis. Isis was equivalent to the Greek goddess Hera. She was married to Osiris who was the fertility god of the Orient. Isis and Osiris were once human and suffered before they ascended to their own realm. One myth said that every year Osiris was cut into many pieces and scattered. Isis then sought, reassembled the pieces, and brought her lover back to life. The way Osiris was killed reflected how the dead were cared for. In pre -dynastic times the dead were not mummified but cut up, like in the myth of Osiris. (Hope) Serpis seems to be a combination of Zeus, Pluto, and Asklepios. Seripis rules with Isis but it is unclear exactly what his relationship is with her. No myths have been found telling of them together. (Godwin 120 - 2)
In the beginning of the Hellenistic period the religion seems exactly the same as early Greek. Although Greek religion spread quickly, throughout the East it did not catch on as quickly. This is because the Oriental religion was firmly established in the East. During the second century B C the two religions began to mix. The cults and mystery religions were still popular, but cults had changed a bit. They no longer required belief, and did not appeal to the emotions as much as they had before. The mystery religions filled this gap only slightly. New mystery religions were discovered and new cults were formed. Tyche was a new and feared goddess. She was the goddess of fate, and was a hard to please goddess. Tyche could save or destroy a man at her own will. The cults of Serapis and Isis were still popular but had changed slightly. Serpis no longer was the head god. He became the god of healing and protector of the seamen. Isis was very popular because it was believed that she could overpowered Tyche. Many people came to Isis in hopes that she would save them from Tyche. Many other Greek and Oriental gods also went through changes to become Hellenistic gods.
After the Dark Ages, Greek and Oriental religions also went through many changes. Different ideas, ways, and gods combined to form a whole new religion. Although the religion changed, it's purpose did not. The Hellenistic religion filled every aspect of the Greek and Oriental people's lives.
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This page was created by A.P. Last revised 3/30/00.