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CATTERED references in the Iliad and Odyssey make it clear that in the early period the Greeks

believed that the deities sent disease and death upon mankind in anger and revenge, for impiety, vows unperformed, sacrifices unoffered, and unjust deeds, or because of the wickedness of the human heart. To free themselves from their evil plight, men were advised to sacrifice, to pray, to make atonement, and to propitiate the gods, who in this relation had power to avert pestilence and cure disease. “It is by no means possible to avoid disease sent from Zeus; yet do thou at least pray

to thy father, even unto King Poseidon” (Odys., ix, 411412). The healing art of the early Greeks was, therefore, intimately connected with their religion and mythology.

The origin of the gods. The Greek world of spiritual beings was evolved from the prehistoric blendings of the religious faith and practices of immigrant races coming from the north-chiefly of the Achaian, Minyan, and Dorian migrations—with those of the peoples of ancient Mediterranean stock, of which the Aigaian civilizations were composed. The imagination of the people interpreted these potencies of the pantheon as divinities and daimons. These conceptions were personified, and the fancies of the poets, the speculations of the philosophers, and the skill of the artisans, guided by an æsthetic sense, combined to transform the primitive deities into a higher order of beings, superhuman, of superior strength, similar in appearance to man, yet idealized and glorified, and to invest them “with a sovereign grace and a serene majesty." The gods had arisen from many independent sources with the freedom and indefiniteness of traditional tales. Some had evolved from the myths which had grown up about the 'good daimon,' or ancestor of a family or tribe, who had acquired a superhuman status, certain functions, and a recognized worship. The Pelasgians of Arkadia and Boiotia declared that their deities were born, and Greek myths recount the circumstances surrounding the birth, and sometimes the death, of many of their gods and goddesses. Hesiod (Opera et Dies, 107) says: “And ponder it well in thy mind, that from the same origin sprang gods and mortal men.” Pindar (Nemea, vi, 1-7) expressed the same view:

Men and the Gods above one race compose :

Both from the general parent Earth

Derive their old mysterious birth:
But powers unlike their differing nature shows;

Man breathes his moment, and is nought
While, like their brazen heaven's eternal base,
Gods live forever: th' illumined face,

Th’ illustrious form, th' inspiring thought,
Proclaim him kindred of the skies.

The nature of the gods. As disclosed in the epics, Greek religion had already developed far beyond the elementary stages of evolution to the form of an advanced anthropomorphic polytheism. The gods were concrete, clearly defined personalities, of superhuman substance, living on nectar, and immortal. They were invisible, yet able to appear in various disguises; they passionately exercised human emotions and were loosely correlated in a divine family or state having one supreme ruler. They were of two classes : those of a celestial or uranic nature, who lived on the mystic heights of Olympos, and whose personalities were celebrated in verse; and those of chthonic character and functions, who belonged to the earth and Underworld, whose awe-inspiring personalities were not always pleasing to contemplate, and who were referred to vaguely in literature, usually under veiled expressions.

The gods and man. The Greek deities prompted no spiritual aspirations and were not looked upon as beings of moral excellence or wisdom. They were unmoral, yet ethical in preserving the respect and sanctity of the oath witnessed before the gods of either the upper or lower world. They were so nearly related to human kind that they sustained injuries and suffered from diseases similar to those of man. They held friendly communion with man. They were his invisible companions and took an active part in the intimate affairs of his daily life as helpers, advisers, and friends; or, as enemies, they opposed him and brought misfortune upon him. Things without visible cause were ascribed to the supernatural powers of the gods and to spiritual beings of lesser rank. Man looked to the divinities for his welfare and enjoyment in this life and depended upon their supernatural, divine powers for help and protection in times of need. The residence and rank of deity were so accessible that some of the heroes ascended and became members of the divine family.

The pantheon. Each settlement, village, tribe, community, and state had its own independent and favored tutelary deity and form of worship. The rituals and ceremonies of the several cults were conducted side by side; and the gods were frequently blended, or one gained supremacy, as Hera in Argolis, Athena in Athens, and Poseidon in Corinth. The family or tribal conceptions of deity developed the larger aspect of the father and protector of the state and of mankind. Some were regarded by local traditions as the divine ancestor of the community, as Hermes in Arkadia, and Apollo in Delos. The pantheon was also invaded frequently by deities of foreign tribes who brought to the land of their adoption their personal gods and forms of worship, and established their cults. Hellas was a free soil. Foreign deities were permitted a foothold and gained favor, influence, and prominence. Zeus, supposed to have been of Aryan origin, established himself at Dodona and finally became ruler over all. Dionysos and Orpheus were from Thrace, others were from Pelasgia and Phrygia (Herodotos, ii, 53); and in the late period, with loss of national independence, deities were introduced from Egypt, Syria, and Persia; while their cults definitely affected the character of the later Greek religions. Gods of one community were adopted by others, and the worship of many became general, but the rituals were adapted to local ideas and usage. These deities were plastic and developed consistently with the unfolding of the religious conceptions of the people. They had varied functions and readily acquired new phases and aspects, as of different personalities. Such variants tended to develop into separate and distinct deities, as Eileithyia, who is supposed to have emanated from Hera and to have represented her obstetric function; but others never evolved further than to receive an adjectival name. The religions of Greece were a composite of many cults, existing side by side yet differing in conception and in ritual.

The divine functions. The gods had general supernatural powers, and in addition many acquired special functions which frequently overlapped or were duplicated by others, no deity having a monopoly. Apollo was famous for prophecy, but his Delphic oracle, “the center of Greek inspiration,” had many rivals, as those of Dionysos at Amphikleia, Hades at Nysa, and Trophonios at Lebadeia. Herakles, as well as many other gods and heroes besides Asklepios, practiced healing. Deities had various aspects and attributes according to place and circumstance, and received qualifying appellatives, usually surnames. Athena as guardian of the city of Athens was Athena Polias; as protector of its health she was Athena Hygieia ; and as the guardian of eyesight she was Athena Ophthalmitis at Sparta. Pater remarks on the indefiniteness characteristic of Greek mythology, "a theology with no central authority, no link on historic time, liable from the first to an unobservable transformation.” “There were religious usages before there were distinct religious conceptions, and these antecedent religious usages shape and determine, at many points, the ultimate religious conception, as the details of the myth interpret or explain the religious custom.”2 There were priests but no theological priesthoods, no guiding authority, and each cult or center of worship was a law to itself. There were brotherhoods, as the selloi (or helloi) at Dodona and the later Orphic thiasoi, but they never gained social, political, or religious influence beyond their own cults. Therefore transformations were common, and the modes of worship were pliantly adaptable to changing conditions in social and political life.

1 Greek Studies, p. 101.


Ib., p.


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