A Brief sketch of the religion of the Greeks, considered apart from their system of
mythology, will be appropriate before the traditions and civil history of the race are
presented. When we consider the moral elevation of the Olympian hierarchy there is not
much to admire. The gods who dwelt on that sublime height were of the same sort with the
men who dwelt at its base. "Like men like gods," might well apply to the Greek family,
whether terrestrial or celestial. There is not much wonder, therefore, that the former
should not greatly respect the latter, since they saw them as beings of like passions with
Consulting the literature of the Greeks from Homer to Aristophanes one might well conclude
that the Hellenes were a people devoid not only of the genuine religious instinct but even
of a decent respect for their deities. Such, however, would be far from a true conclusion.
Perhaps in many instances the fantastic legends of tradition were brushed aside by the
lucid intelligence and skeptical disposition of the Greeks, but behind the fiction the
substance of the thing remained in the imagination of the people: and the substance was
adored with a sincere veneration.
The beings, then, whom the Greeks worshipped were regarded as the guardians of mankind and
the avengers of evil. To them belonged the reward of virtue and the punishment of crime.
They hastened not in their work but their work was sure. They observed the minds and
hearts of men, honored the upright, regarded the faithful, heard the voice of
supplication. This was the ground faith of the Greek, whether philosopher or peasant. Nor
does it appear that the most skeptical spirit ever wholly shook it off. Socrates himself
was in the habit of prayer, and disdained not to consult an oracle.
There was thus in the ofttimes frivolous nature of the Greek a sincere vein of piety. His
earliest efforts in art were permeated with devotion. Homer's heroes believe most
implicitly in the gods-pray to them, fear them. The Grecian states, taking up the theme,
denounce impiety. He whose teachings seem dangerous, or whose life is sacrilegious, is
banished or put to death. The memory of the impious is execrated. All this shows a deep-
seated, though often misdirected, vein of religious sentiment in the people.
All the principal acts in the drama of Greek life were introduced with religious ceremony.
The man of the house was the priest. He needed no other. He said his own prayers. He made
his own offerings for himself and his family. When he prayed to the gods of the air he
stood with upturned face and held his hands aloft. If he supplicated the deities of the
deep, his hands were stretched to the sea. The birth of the child, the betrothal, the
marriage, the funeral-all the chief events in the life of the household- were sanctioned
with some religious rite.
As early as the days of Homer the Greeks raised the altar of sacrifice. Upon this the
worshiper offered his gifts and victims. Of things without life those most brought to the
sacrificial fire were fruit and cakes, oil and wine, milk and honey. In offering living
victims the best of the flock or herd was selected, and sometimes, as in the case of the
hecatomb, as many as a hundred animals were slain at once. Not all of the creature
offered, but only certain parts were burned in the fire; the remainder was eaten by the
worshippers and the priests. Even in the shedding of blood the aesthetic taste of the
Greek appeared, for the beast to be offered was wreathed as to his head and horns with a
garland of flowers. The neck of the animal was sprinkled with salt and consecrated barley,
and then the knife let out the creature's life. As already said, every free Greek, and