Greek & Roman Religious Practices

The temple of Athena in the Parthenon.
... Jupiterimages/ Images

The pagan religions of ancient Greece and Rome were overwhelmed by Christianity and, unlike other widespread religious systems, simply disappeared. The evidence for them exists in mythological texts, archaeological finds and the continued resonance of the names of their gods. Greeks and Romans were polytheistic -- they worshiped many gods. Beliefs were deeply interwoven in the cultures and there was a lot of borrowing -- mostly by the Romans from the pantheon of Greek divinities.

1 Greek Gods and Goddesses

The Greeks had no sacred text to define their religion but the evidence of its importance is obvious today in the magnificent ruins of temples and the marble sculptures of gods and goddesses. People expected the gods to deliver gifts and blessings and made votive offerings in return as thanks. The gods were believed to interact freely with humans and much of Greek mythology describes the triumphs and tragedies that resulted. Greek religion had twelve main gods and goddesses, from Zeus, Poseidon and Hades who ruled the earth and sky, sea and underworld, respectively, to Athena, Artemis and Aphrodite, goddesses of wisdom and protection, hunting and love respectively. Four Panhellenic festivals drew Greeks from all over the islands for animal sacrifices, athletic competitions and celebratory processions. Greeks honored their deities with sanctuaries situated on islands and panoramic promontories or near natural springs, places considered to mirror divine attributes.

2 Religion in Rome

Religion in Rome was political and pragmatic -- religious leaders were political appointees who determined the calendar of religious festivals and advised secular rulers. Gods were a mix of Greek deities and older Mediterranean divinities. Many Roman gods are nearly identical in all but name to their Greek counterparts. Jupiter was the Roman Zeus, Neptune the Roman Poseidon, Diana the goddess of hunting, Venus the goddess of love. Religious ritual consisted of very specific prayer and sacrifice -- different animals were designated for different gods and honoring the gods was a contractual affair. If Romans kept their gods and goddesses happy, they bestowed bountiful crops and averted disasters. Inattention risked the wrath of the gods and dire consequences. Each family kept a perpetual sacred fire burning in the hearth, which they believed conferred good health and good fortune.

3 The Apollo Temples

Apollo was an appealing enough god to play a role in both Greek and Roman religion, worshiped as an avatar of the sun and of music and prophecy. Apollo was first a Greek deity with a sanctuary at Delphi that housed the Oracle. His Roman incarnation had several temples and was the patron of the Emperor Augustus. Both Apollos were oracular but in different ways. Their temples housed women who were consulted on matters of state and domestic dilemmas for guidance or who performed rituals to safeguard civilization. The entranced Greek oracle of Delphi posed questions to Apollo and relayed the answers in the form of riddles to a priest who interpreted them for petitioners. Rome's Apollo temple housed the Vestal Virgins, six consecrated virgin priestesses who kept the sacred fire of Vesta alight as the symbolic life force of the Roman Empire.

4 The Afterlife and the Underworld

Greeks believed that the psyche, or soul, left the body at death to journey to the underworld, called Hades after its presiding god. Hades was a shadowy realm, largely a ghostly Asphodel Plains where souls were trapped. A few lucky ones made it to the meadow-like Elysium Fields; evil souls landed in darkest, tormenting Tartarus. Families buried their dead and ensured their immortality with continuous offerings and observance of death anniversaries. Romans switched from cremation to inhumation -- burial of the corpse -- during the second century of the Christian Era. Roman sarcophagi are painted with mythological scenes portraying gods favoring the deceased with immortality and a joyful afterlife. The afterlife for pagan Rome was identical to the Greek concept. Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, presided over a glum and featureless domain.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .