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From Greek and Roman Mythology & Heroic Legend, by Professor H. Steuding, Translated from the German and Edited by Lionel D. Barnett. The Temple Primers, London: J. M. Dent; 1901; pp. 5-8.


Beginnings of Greek Belief and Worship

I.  Worship.   § 7.  On the other hand, one such soul-like or dæmonic being in some spot might come as a result of peculiar circumstances (e. g. chance success of prayer and sacrifices, miracles, healings) to outdistance all others of his kind in apparent power, and hence in extent of worship. Then the natural seclusion that pathless mountains imposed on the districts of Greece made it possible for this being to grow into a deity of clearly defined individuality. It became a deity as soon as a human community of some size ascribed to it power to vouchsafe all that individuals desire and to protect them from everything that they fear.


A deity could have its seat (ἕδος) in any object at will, in any object at will, in trees as well as in stones fallen from heaven, in springs and rivers, without men forming a clear conception of its proper shape. Later, when they tried to picture it and give it a particularly acceptable seat in its own statue, they were compelled to frame it in the likeness of an actual living being, a man or even a beast; for it is only from actually observed beings compounded of soul and body that men can imagine creatures of pure spirit. All desirable properties possessed by the former were ascribed in a more intense degree to the latter, and they were thought free from all earthly limitations. Customary morality grew; as soon as it seemed worth striving for, the deities naturally became its guardians, assuming the part in which as a rule the gods figure already in Homer.

§ 8.  Man thus can conceive superhuman powers only in his own likeness, as monstrously strong persons; and so he strives to influence them in the way in which he is wont to deal with human potentates. He shews his respect for them by approaching them in a humble posture, with a cleansed body and in clean garments; he begs for their grace, and, when they are wroth, for mercy or forgiveness; he gives them the best of his own possessions to secure their favour, to express his gratitude for graces received, or to make good and atone for a fault committed against them.

§ 9.  Thus arise the three main forms of worship — purification, prayer, and sacrifice. To express humble veneration and submission men actually cast themselves down upon the earth (προσκυνεῖν, supplicare), or at least lifted the hand, with the palm turned upwards, towards the abode of the god and of his statue; and furthermore they fettered themselves with bands or swathes, so as to surrender themselves in utter powerlessness into his hands. It was for this reason that afterwards in practising any holy act men bound themselves, as well as the beasts of sacrifice and objects consecrated to gods, with fillets (ταινίαι); and the word religio properly indicates nothing but the relation of bondage in which men 7 stand to the deity, the tie or obligation which one feels in relation to it.

§ 10.  All purification (καθαρμός, lustratio, from luo) also referred originally to the body; and for this water was the chief requisite. It was particularly necessary in cases of bloodshed and on touching a corpse, in order thus to escape the power of the dreaded spirits of the dead, who by these deeds were drawn upon one’s head. The notion of liberation from a moral blemish was not associated till much later times with the old rite. Water from the sea or a spring was used because these cannot be made permanently foul.

Prayer similarly arose from the simple request, the effect of which men thought to strengthen by adding a promise (vow, εὐχαί, votum). Special set phrases were only employed because results seemingly proved them to be more capable than other words of moving the gods to gratify the request uttered.

§ 11.  As an offering (ἀνάθημα) everything was presented that was suitable for inspiring the deity with gratification. This consisted of objects which either were used in the ritual acts or in the adornment of the temple, or else possessed a special value for the dedicator himself. The gift oftenest presented to gods was the offering of food and drink; and this consisted of all things that man himself relishes, for in earliest times men certainly ascribed bodily enjoyment to the gods. Later men burned the sacrifice and sent up merely its agreeably scented smoke and savour into the sphere of the dwellers in heaven.

§ 12.  Lastly, as men express their will by signs or words, an attempt was made to learn the will of the deity from signs (τέρατα, ostenta) such as lightning, rainbows, eclipses of sun and moon, flight of birds, or from significant words and sounds (φῆμαι, κληδόνες, omina). From the former developed in Greece the sign-oracles of Zeus, in Italy the auspicia and the whole augural science, and from the latter the spoken oracles of Apollon. The latter, originally only expressed by signs and lots, were later strongly influenced by the ecstatic forms of Dionysiac prophecy. On the other hand, the study of 8 the liver and the rest of the entrails of slaughtered beast-sacrifices (ἱεροσκοπία, haruspicina) arose from the universal demand that a sacrificial animal should be healthy and free from blemish.

In the oldest times — so long as the gods themselves still dwelt in trees, springs, rude stones fallen (or reputed to have fallen) from heaven, and pointed columns (βαίτυλος), — sacred groves (τέμενος, templum) furnished with a fence (περίβολος) served as the place of divine worship; later the main building of the old dwelling-house of man (μέγαρον, aedes), consisting of a hall with a vestibule, was taken as a pattern for the abode of the deity, the temple (ναός, νεώς, cella).

Next :
Greek Religion from the Beginning of the Homeric Age :

Gods Determined and Classified.

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