How was Greek Religion Different from Today's Religions?

As you know, the ancient Greeks worshipped many gods. Today Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship only one god (Hindus of course have many gods, and Buddhists have none). This is the most obvious difference between ancient and modern religions. But there are many other differences - and some similarities too. On this page we look at these differences and similarities.

  Christianity and Judaism

  Greek religion

Zeus on his throne

Gods One god, although Catholics believe in the holy trinity - God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost Many gods, although Zeus is the most powerful by far.
God is all-powerful and controls everything The gods are very powerful but each has a different area of power (Zeus is god of the sky, storms, lightning and so on)
God made the universe, man, and everything else The gods did not create everything. Zeus was the son of Titans, and the Titans were sons of Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (the sky)
God is good - morally pure The gods are very human in their personalities. They did bad as often as good, feeling jealousy, rage, pride and so on, as much as love and kindness.
Gods loves human beings and wishes them well The gods looked after certain heroes and those who had done the right sacrifices and prayers. But often they despised men and punished them.  


Zeus in the form of an eagle

God wants to be loved back, worshipped for his love and his greatness The gods also wanted to be worshipped, but recognised more for their powers then their love.
God will answer prayers The gods would usually, but not always listen to prayers, especially if the person made sacrifices. The better the sacrifice the more likely the god would help. (a hecatomb - an offering of 100 oxen - was the best sacrifice)
God is everywhere The main gods lived on Mount Olympus. Others lived in sacred areas, in woods, trees, rivers, seas and so on. They moved about with magic speed and power.
God is invisible (although Jesus took the form of a man, and God was depicted as an old man) The gods were often invisible too, but usually took human form (as we see in many statues and paintings). Gods could take many other forms.  Zeus appeared as a swan to Leto and an eagle to Ganymede; Athena took the form of Mentor, Odysseus' friend.
God was used to explain natural forces which could help or harm people - like the sun's light and warmth, the fertility of the crops, storms, earthquakes The gods were used to explain all these things too. Poseidon was the god who caused earthquakes; Helios or Apollo was the sun; Demeter controlled whether the harvest was good or bad; Apollo again caused diseases or cures.  



Questioning Gods Nowadays many people find it hard to believe in a god who loves everyone yet causes disasters (like the tidal wave on 26 December 2004). Many believe that the right explanations for natural events like earthquakes and the sun are scientific ones. In Greek times, there were a few people who questioned the divine explanations for everything. These people, called philosophers, looked for rational explanations - that is, reasons that were logical and based on observation of the world, not religious belief. It was these philosophers who began science as we know it.
Moral Codes The Bible contains a code for how everyone should behave - the Ten Commandments, and the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The Greeks had no such moral code that was written down in one place as law. They had some moral beliefs though - men should worship the gods, they should look after visitors and strangers, and they should not murder. Philosophers like Socrates however spent a lot of time thinking about how one should live - what it meant to be a good person.
Myths The myths and history of Christians and Jews is contained in the Bible, which is believed to be the word of God. The Greeks had no scripture like the Bible - no absolute authority in one book. They had many myths and many versions of the same myths. The myths were useful in telling them about how the world was controlled by the gods and how people should behave towards the gods and each other. The closest to a 'Bible' is the works of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, regarded as the most important source of knowledge.

Aias carries the body of Achilles

Temples and Churches A Christian church or Jewish synagogue is a place for normal people to enter to worship God. Temples were the house of the god (which churches also are) but rituals went on outside on an altar. People did not gather to pray in the same way Christians and Jews do.

Temple of Zeus in Athens

Priests A Christian priest or vicar interprets god's will and leads people to god. He can be a counsellor too, and people can confess their sins to him. Most are men.

Priests do not look at 'signs' to interpret the will of God but use the Bible and their own conscience.

Priests could be men or women. Their job was just to carry out the religious rites properly. Greeks went to a seer (mantis) to find out the will of the gods - a seer would look at signs such as the entrails of an animal or the flight of birds and interpret them as a message from a god.

Oracles like the one at Delphi gave advice based on similar signs from the gods.

Afterlife After death Christians believe the soul goes to heaven, if the person has led a good life, or if they asked for forgiveness from a priest before dying. Sinners would go to hell. The Greeks also believed souls went to an afterlife, an underworld called Tartarus, which was underground, and ruled over by Hades. In the Odyssey Odysseus visits the entrance to the underworld and speaks with the ghosts of those he has known, such as Agamemnon, Achilles, and his mother. There was a part of Tartarus reserved for wicked men and a part (Elysium) for the good. As in Christianity, souls were judged to decide on which part of the afterlife they would go to.

Hades and Cerberus

Festivals There are several holy days during the year, when people come together for worship, such as Christmas and Easter for Christians. In medieval times these resembled Greeks festivals more than they do now. Festivals were a very important part of Greek religion. These were public events with various activities, including singing, music, dancing, plays at the Festival of Dionysos, processions (to the Parthenon in the Panathenaic Festival), and sacrifices.  

Horsemen in the procession of the Panathenaic festival

Sacrifices God does not require sacrifices as such, but prayer, devotion, and good behaviour The main way to worship a god (and get the god to help you) was to make a sacrifice. These could be the fruits of a harvest, such as barley grain, a libation - that is pouring a liquid such as wine, milk, or olive oil on the ground - or an animal. The best offering was an ox. Usually the thigh bones, wrapped in fat, were burned on an altar. This was food for the gods. Below is a quote from Homer describing an offering.

Description of a Hecatomb (sacrifice of 100 oxen) from The Iliad (Book 1)

'They washed their hands and took up the barley... And when all had made prayer and flung down the scattered barley, first they drew back the victims' heads and slaughtered them and skinned them, and cut away the meat from the thighs and wrapped them in fat, making a double fold, and laid shred of flesh upon them.

The old man burned these on a cleft stick and poured the gleaming wine over, while the young men with forks in their hands stood about him. But when they had burned the thigh pieces and tasted the vitals (organs), they cut all the remainder into pieces and spitted them and roasted all carefully and took off the pieces.

Then after they had finished the work and got the feast ready they feasted, nor was any man's hunger denied a fair portion.'