Ancient Greek faith in myths

Did the ancient Greeks actually believe in their own myths?

Josho Brouwers

When you teach a particular course long enough, there are some questions that pop up time and again. As I’ve noted earlier, I’m currently in the throes of giving my course on Greek mythology, and sure enough, I again get asked, in both groups, that one question that is always put forward: did the ancient Greeks really believe in all these myths?

One problem lies in the question. The phrase “the ancient Greeks” assumes that we can speak generally of the population at large. That doesn’t apply to modern societies and it certainly doesn’t apply to ancient ones either, even though the lens through which we view ancient societies leads to distortion and simplification.

Unpacking the question

The Greeks lived spread across the length and breadth of the ancient Mediterranean. While Greeks in Massilia (modern Marseille in France) were certainly comparable to those of, say, Ephesus (in modern Turkey), their stories and some rituals may well have been very different. Indeed, the stories that have survived were only a tiny fraction of what once existed. Even within the current corpus of myths, there are stories that seem to contradict each other, such as the different tales about the creation of the human race.

Furthermore, we cannot be sure that all strata of Greek society believed the same things. A wealthy aristocrat had a different outlook on life than a small farmer. They operated in different socio-political spheres and lead very different lives. To the nobleman, Ares and Athena might have been of particular importance, whereas the farmer prayed more often to Zeus for rain and to Demeter for a good harvest. The stories that circulated around the hearth in the nobleman’s house would have been different from those told within the farmer’s circle of family, friends, and acquaintances.

For the most part, though, it seems that belief in the gods was widespread, even if details may have varied. The Greeks built temples to the gods to house their cult statues, and offered worship at altars outside the temple, as well as at smaller shrines. Some gods were more important in certain places or in certain contexts than others.

How humans imagined the gods to be was a subject of discussion even in ancient times. Homer and Hesiod are widely thought to have popularized the notion of anthropomorphic gods. Xenophanes, a philosopher from Colophon who lived in the second half of the sixth century and early fifth century BC, famously declared that “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods everything which is shameful and hateful about human beings: stealing, committing adultery, and deceiving one another.”

From the later Classical period onwards, Greek and Roman thinkers also sought to rationalize their myths. They looked at the fantastic stories and concluded that they could not be true in a literal sense; they were distorted in some fashion. Thus, centaurs were imagined to have actually been men on horseback that were somehow obscured by fog or the sunlight that shone from behind them. For every fantastical element, a more down-to-earth explanation was offered.

A connected problem is exactly what we mean exactly when we talk about “Greek faith” or “Greek religion”. It presupposes that there was a single faith, comparable to, say, modern Roman Catholicism. Greek religion didn’t have a canonical text analogous to the bible. The very nature of their polytheistic faith meant that Greek religion was much more flexible than monotheistic religions (and hence the ancient world never suffered from any large-scale religious wars). There were a large number of different cults, such as Orphism (which subscribed to reincarnation) and the Eleusian Mysteries.

Priests and priestesses in ancient Greece enjoyed a high status, but did not interpret ancient texts or provided solace to the populace. They maintained the temples and temple grounds, took care of the cult statues of the gods, presided over rituals, and led processions in honour of the gods, helped interpret the babbling of oracles, and so on.

Mythology as history

Greek mythology itself has a clear chronology. In Hesiod’s Theogony, the universe was at first empty, but out of Chaos (essentially the Void) sprang forth the primordial gods, after which came the Titans, and finally the Olympian gods. Hesiod also offers, in his Works and Days, a sequence of different Ages of Man, including the Heroic Age, which is when all the heroes of myth and legend were active, such as Perseus and Heracles, with the events of the Trojan War forming the grand finale. The different stories of Greek heroes could be intertwined: for example, in at least one version of the story of the Argonauts, Heracles initially joined the crew.

After the Heroic Age followed, according to Hesiod, the Iron Age, which was his own time and characterized by hard work, suffering, and social decay. Hesiod may have added the Heroic Age to an original scheme; the later Roman poet Ovid lists only four ages, and merges Hesiod’s Heroic Age with the Bronze Age, which – like the archaeological ages! – immediately preceded the Iron Age (i.e. Hesiod and Ovid’s own time).

Ancient Greek and Roman historians could start their own surveys of history back in the age of heroes. Herodotus offers a good example. His Histories is a combination travel guide, ethnographic survey, and historical treatise of the Persian Empire and Greece, as well as the peoples that the Persians came into contact with or subjugated. He starts off by saying that his work will examine the “deeds displayed by Greeks and barbarians (…), and (…) for what cause they waged war upon each other.”

What follows is a quick survey of a large swathe of what we refer to as mythology that Herodotus feels are some of the earliest conflicts between East and West, such as the abduction of Io, the rape of Europa, and the kidnapping of the Greek Helen of Sparta by the “Asiatic” Paris of Troy. Herodotus notes that this is the story given by the Persians and the Phoenicians, before offering his own interpretation regarding the enmity between the Greeks and the Persians.

Closing remarks

In sum, then, it’s probably safe to say that the ancient Greeks probably did, by and large, accept the stories of gods and heroes as true, even if they will have differed as regards the particulars, there were loads of local variations, and some intellectuals argued against the veracity of certain aspects. In other words, the Greeks were flexible as far as their faith in myths was concerned, probably even more so than how modern religious texts and precepts can be subjects of discussion.