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Ancient Greek culture spans over a thousand years, from the earliest civilizations to the cultures that became the Ancient Greeks.
By the end of this module you will be able to:
Illustrate a timeline of ancient Greece from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period
Describe the ways in which Greek life and art was influenced by the gods
Ancient Greek Culture
Ancient Greek culture covers over a thousand years of history, from the earliest civilizations in the area to the cultures that became the Ancient Greeks. Following a Greek Dark Age, Greece once more flourished and developed into the ancient culture that we recognize today.
Greek culture is based on a series of shared values that connected independent city-states throughout the region and expanded as far north as Mount Olympus. Greek society was insular, and loyalties were focused around one’s polis (city-state). Greeks considered themselves civilized and considered outsiders to be barbaric. While Greek daily life and loyalty were centred on one’s polis, the Greeks did create leagues, which vied for control of the peninsula, and were able to unite together against a common threat (such as the Persians). Greek culture is focused on its government, art, architecture, philosophy, and sport. Athens was intensely proud of its creation of democracy, and citizens from all poleis (city-states) took part in civic duties. Cities commissioned artists and architects to honour their gods and beautify their cities. Greek philosophers, mathematicians, and thinkers are still honoured in society today. As a religious people, the Greeks worshipped a number of gods through sacrifices, rituals, and festivals.
The Dark Age
From around 1200 BCE, the palace centers and outlying settlements of the Mycenaeans’ culture began to be abandoned or destroyed. By 1050 BCE, the recognizable features of Mycenaean culture had disappeared. Many explanations attribute the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and the collapse of the Bronze Age to climatic or environmental catastrophe, combined with an invasion by the Dorians or by the Sea Peoples, or to the widespread availability of edged weapons of iron, but no single explanation fits the available archaeological evidence. This two-to three-century span of history is also known as the Homeric Age. It is believed that the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey were first recited around this time.
Greek Art can be divided into the following Periods:
Geometric Period (c. 900–700 BCE)
Orientalizing Period (c. 700–600 BCE)
Archaic Period (600-480 BCE)
Early Classical Period (c.480-450 BCE)
High Classical Period (c. 450-400 BCE)
Late Classical Period (c. 400-323 BCE)
Hellenistic Period (323-146 BCE)
The Ancient Greek Gods and Their Temples
Greek religion played a central and daily role in the life of ancient Greeks, and group worship was centred on the temple and cult sites. Greek religious traditions encompassed a large pantheon of gods, complex mythologies, rituals, and cult practices. Greece was a society and looked to its gods and mythology to explain natural mysteries as well as current events. Religious festivals and ceremonies were held throughout the year, and animal sacrifice and offerings were popular ways to appease and worship the gods. Religious life, rituals, and practices were one of the unifying aspects of Greece across regions and poleis (cities, or city-states, such as Athens and Sparta).
Greek gods were immortal beings who possessed human-like qualities and were represented as completely human in visual art. They were moral and immoral, petty and just, and often vain. The gods were invoked to intervene and assist in matters large, small, private and public.
City-states claimed individual gods and goddesses as their patrons. Temples and sanctuaries to the gods were built in every city. Many cities became cult sites due to their connection with a god or goddess and specific myths. For instance, the city of Delphi was known for its oracle and sanctuary of Apollo, because Apollo was believed to have killed a dragon that inhabited Delphi.
The history of the Greek pantheon begins with the primordial deities Gaia (Mother Earth) and Uranus (Father Sky), who were the parents of the first of twelve giants known as Titans. Among these Titans were six males and six females.
The males were named Oceanus, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, Iapetus, and Kronos.
The females were named Themis, Mnemosyne, Tethys, Theia, Phoebe, and Rhea.
Kronos eventually overthrew Uranus and ruled during a mythological Golden Age. Over time, he and Rhea had twelve children who would become the Olympian gods. However, Kronos heard a prophecy that his son would overthrow him, as he did to Uranus. In an effort to avert fate, he ordered Rhea to allow him to devour each of the children upon their birth.
The Olympian Gods
Best known among the pantheon are the twelve Olympian gods and goddesses who resided on Mt. Olympus in northern Greece. Zeus, the youngest son of Rhea and Kronos, was hidden from his father, instead of being swallowed. Once he became a man, he challenged his father’s rule, forcing Kronos to regurgitate the rest of his swallowed children. These children were Zeus’s siblings, and together they overthrew Kronos, making Zeus the father of gods and men.
Violence and power struggles were common in Greek mythology, and the Greeks used their mythologies to explain their lives around them, from the change in seasons to why the Persians were able to sack Athens.
The traditional pantheon of Greek gods include:
Zeus, the king of gods and the ruler of the sky.
Zeus’ two brothers, Poseidon (who ruled over the sea) and Hades (who ruled the underworld).
Zeus’s sister and wife, Hera, the goddess of marriage, is frequently jealous and vindictive of Zeus’s other lovers.
Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, and Demeter, the goddess of grain and culture.
Athena (goddess of warfare and wisdom).
Hermes (a messenger god and god of commerce).
the twins, Apollo (god of the sun, music, and prophecy) and Artemis (goddess of the hunt and of wild animals).
Dionysos (god of wine and theatre).
Aphrodite (goddess of beauty and love), who was married to Hephaestus (deformed god of the forge).
Ares (god of war and lover of Aphrodite) are also part of the traditional pantheon.
Hephaestus was in some mythologies the son of Zeus while in others the fatherless son of Hera.
Heroes, who were often demigods, were also important characters in Greek mythology. The two most important heroes are Perseus and Hercules.
Perseus is known for defeating the Gorgon, Medusa. He slew her with help from the gods: Athena gave him armour and a reflective shield, and Hermes provided Perseus with winged sandals so he could fly.
Hercules was a strong but unkind man, a drunkard who conducted huge misdeeds and social faux pas. Hercules was sent on twelve labours to atone for his sins as punishment for his misdeeds. These deeds, and several other stories, were often depicted in art, on ceramic pots, or on temple metopes. The most famous of his deeds include slaying both the Nemean Lion and the Hydra, capturing Cerberus (the dog of the underworld), and obtaining the apples of the Hesperides.
A third hero, Theseus, was an Athenian hero known for slaying King Minos’s Minotaur. Other major heroes in Greek mythology include the warriors and participants of the Trojan War, such as Achilles, Ajax, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Paris, Hector, and Helen.
Hero cults were another popular form of Greek worship that involved the honouring of the dead, specifically the dead heroes of the Trojan War. The sites of hero-worship were usually old Bronze Age sites or tombs that the ancient Greeks recognized as important or sacred, which they then connected to their own legends and stories.
Greek worship was centred on the temple. The temple was considered the home of the god, and a cult statue of the god would be erected in the central room or the naos. Temples generally followed the same basic rectangular plan, although a round temple, known as a tholos, was used at some sites starting in the Classical period.
Temples were oriented east to face the rising sun. Patrons would leave offerings for the gods, such as small votives, large statues, libations or costly goods. Due to the wealth dedicated to the gods, the temples often became treasuries that held and preserved the wealth of the city. Greek temples would be extensively decorated, and their construction was a long and costly endeavour.
Rituals and animal sacrifices in honour of the god or goddess would take place outside, in front of the temple. Rituals often included a large number of people, and sacrifice was a messy business that was best done outdoors. The development and decoration of temples is a primary focus in the study of Greek art and culture.
Ancient Greek culture is noted for its government, art, architecture, philosophy, and sports, all of which became foundations for modern western society.
Greek culture began to develop during the Geometric, Orientalizing, and Archaic periods, which lasted from 900 to 480 BCE. During this time the population of city-states began to grow, Panhellenic traditions were established, and art and architecture began to reflect Greek values.
The Early, High, and Late Classical periods in Greece occurred from 480 to 323 BCE. During these periods, Greece flourished and the polis of Athens saw its Golden Age under the leadership of Pericles. However, city-state rivalries lead to wars, and Greece was never truly stable until conquered.
The Hellenistic period in Greece is the last period before Greek culture becomes a subset of Roman hegemony. This period occurs from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, to the Greek defeat at the Battle of Actium in 30 BCE. It marks the spread of Greek culture across the Mediterranean.
The history of the Greek pantheon begins with the primordial deities Gaia and Uranus and their children, the Titans. The pantheon of Greek gods consisted of twelve Olympian gods plus a variety of additional gods and goddesses. The gods had human characteristics and personalities, and their lives were detailed by the mythologies told about them.
The gods played a central role in Greek daily life. They were consulted, blamed, and honored for a variety of reasons, including natural occurrences (from earthquakes to rain), as well as for the public and private affairs of the polis and its people.
The mythologies and cult worship of heroes also played an important role in Greek religion and ritual. Heroes—especially Perseus, Hercules, Theseus, and those involved in the Trojan War—were often depicted in art, and the location of their feats became cult sites.
The temple was considered the home of the god and was often an expensive and lavishly decorated building. The temple included a naos, the main room that held the cult statue. Offerings and dedications were left for the gods, and sacrifices took place outdoors.
Adapted from “Boundless Art History” https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/introduction-to-ancient-greece/ License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
A religious system whose members worship many deities.
An object left in temples or other religious locations for a variety of spiritual purposes.