(RELIGION, MYTH and the ANCIENT GREEKS – continued)

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Cults, Ritual Purifications and the Olympics

Across Greece, no priesthood organized the worship of the gods of Homer and Hesiod, but there were cults with their own priesthood. At the town of Eleusis in Attica (18 kilometers northwest of the center of Athens) was the cult that worshiped the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Cult members saw these gods as rewarding them in the afterlife. This cult had festivals, rites and ceremonies and beliefs induced by visions that members considered exclusive to their group. The cult had its secrets, which were described to new members during initiation. This was a kind of worship that today is called the "mystery religions." It was a common kind of grouping across the world, and this particular grouping is called the Eleusinian Mysteries, which scholars estimate began as early as the 1600s BCE.

Among the Greeks the killing of animals for meat was ritualized, and the Greeks continued to engage in human sacrifices. By the 700s this included purification rituals. In Athens, if some kind of calamity appeared such as drought, famine or plague, the community would choose individuals of low standing, perhaps slaves, as "scapegoats" to sacrifice. The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless persons at public expense, and when a calamity befell the city they sacrificed one person for the town's men and another for the town's women. The two were paraded through the city, led outside the city's wall and then killed, perhaps by being stoned to death. In some cities the purification ritual was practiced annually.

Not understanding disease, purity was valued among the Greeks as protection from the pollutions considered to be its causes. Greeks had the same idea as others that bathing in water offered supernatural purification. And they had a ritual similar to the one in Babylon in which the blood of a suckling pig was spattered on the bed of a person believed to be possessed by an evil spirit. In Greece, blood from a slaughtered piglet ritualistically applied was believed to purify people or houses.


Another image of God as a man with a white beard. Click for details. Zues as a man with a white beard

It was in the 700s that Greek aristocrats from various city-states began holding mid-summer religious festivals at Olympia, a sanctuary site for the Greek deities (far from Mount Olympus) on the Peninsula of Peloponnesus. There an annual foot race took place among young women competing for the position of priestess for the goddess Hera, the wife and older sister of Zeus, considered to be a goddess of women and marriage. Another race was run for the position of consort for the priestess. The festival at Olympia took place in a stadium that held around twenty thousand spectators. It opened with as many as a hundred oxen sacrificed to Zeus. The religious festival broadened to include aristocratic young men in shape for war. Participants prayed and were judged for their moral suitability. The festival exalted the warrior tradition of the aristocrats and their god-given right of supremacy over common folk.

Political upheavals across Greece in the 600s enhanced a longing for security among the Greeks, and some among the Greeks found relief in a mystery cult whose origins scholars have traced to the island of Crete. This was the Cult of Dionysus, the god of fertility and vegetation, also said to be a god of wine and an inspirer of ritual ecstasy. Like other cults, it promoted a sense of community. Cult members ate together. They believed they were acquiring everlasting life. They believed that they could touch the supernatural through their emotions. They hiked to hilltops at night, carrying torches, and there they danced themselves into self-abandon. The Dionysus cult held a special attraction for women, who broke away from domination by males and abandoned their families. Rumors spread, and men became opposed to women dancing together. Men imagined the dances culminating in sexual ecstasy similar to fertility rites.

Men and women members of the Dionysian movement traveled about Greece trying to gain new initiates. They proclaimed Dionysus to be a son of Zeus. Some of them made their living by making prophecy and performing what they believed were ritual purifications and spiritual healing. They told initiates of a paradise that could be theirs, that they should be aware of the divine origins of their soul and that through the ecstasy of the movement's rituals they could let their souls escape from the prison of their body. They claimed that their movement's rituals and purification rites would liberate their souls from prevailing evils. They preached that by following the movement's strict rules of conduct, including living ascetically and not eating animal meat, they could achieve eternal blessedness. They spoke of judgment after death according to their deeds during life, and they warned that they would either receive the reward of eternal bliss or they would suffer punishment in Hades.

Men of wealth, power and influence in Greece feared that the worship of Dionysus might become so widespread that it would disrupt the peace and order upon which they depended. But the spread of the worship of Dionysus proved to have limits. Many Greeks wished to hold onto the gods with whom they grew up, and many believed more in sobriety as opposed to an emotional journey to eternal bliss.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.