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Religion, Myth and the Ancient Greeks

The poet Homer, creator of worshipped literature | The poet Hesiod, Prometheus and Pandora | Cults, Ritual Purifications and the Olympics | Greek Gods, Resurrections and Favoritism in War

The Poet Homer – creator of worshipped literature

Homer was a Greek poet who lived on the coast of Asia Minor and is credited with having authored the Iliad and the Odyssey, epic poems that scholars speculate were drawn from stories that had been passed on orally. The Iliad was about war between the Mycenae Greeks and the city of Troy – the Trojan War – which has been dated around 1190 BCE. Homer is thought to have lived in the 800s BCE. Some have argued for the 600s.

The Iliad describes events as did the Sumerians and those in India who wrote the Ramayana and the Mahabharata: as governed by the gods. By putting the story into writing he gave it a greater permanence than stories merely spoken and subject to change with each storyteller. In coming centuries, Homer's fellow Greeks would view his writing as inspired by the gods, and they would view him as an instrument of one of the nine artistic daughters of the god Zeus, a Muse (pronounced myooz) – a word to pass into modern literature. For the Greeks, Homer's works would become a reference for religious thought. The Greeks would study Homer like Jews would study the Talmud.


Homer. His poetic Iliad became scripture
for the Greeks.

Homer's Iliad plays on conflicts of will between the gods. Destiny is not the will of one god as it would be among Jews, Christians and Muslims. None of Homer's gods lays out a general law of historical development. With Homer there is a chaos of wills, including among the gods. There is uncertainty and this makes drama. (There is no drama in the preordained.)

In the Iliad, the father god of the Greeks, Zeus, prefers love to war, but, while he is distracted with lovemaking, lesser gods create war. Foremost among these lesser gods is the troublesome goddess of love, Aphrodite, who creates a love affair between a Greek, Helen, and an aristocrat of Troy named Paris.

The story takes place during what is perceived to be an age of heroes – a time when aristocrats led armies and accepted raiding and plundering as normal activity. This was a story about men doing big things, and nothing was bigger than war. The Iliad extols soldierly honor and duty, the obligation of revenge, pride, class privilege, military prowess and glory. Despite the carnage, it describes life as precious, and it extols emotional control over surrender to rage. It describes mortals as committing acts they did not intend, as if emotion led men to follow the dictates of the gods. And the dreams of men are messages from the gods.


Clio, daughter of Zeus. She would become the Muse of History.

The story includes the god Apollo punishing Greeks with a plague and a contingent of Greeks sacrficing one hundred head of cattle in order to appease Apollo. The tradition of sacrifice among the Greeks is depicted with another tradition: purification. Homer's heroes must wash or purify themselves before a sacrifice, a purification involving disposal of offensive pollutions. And the Iliad describes religious rituals that include cremation – which allows a warrior's remains to be transported home for ceremonial entombment.

According to Homer, after the Greeks beseige Troy for ten years, and after the deaths of many heroes, both Greek and Trojan, the Greeks trick the Trojans with the gift of a large wooden horse, within which are Greek warriors who open Troy's gates to the Greek army. The Greeks slaughter the Trojans except for some women and children whom they keep or sell as slaves. And the soldiers desecrate temples, earning the wrath of gods.

The Odyssey is about the return home from the war by the Greeks. Few of them did. That is the way it was with war and the gods who created and directed it, gods in conflict with gods.


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