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The Classical Association Lecture - The religious lives of the ancient Greeks
Alex Brown / 10 January 2020 / Categories: News, Sixth Form

The Classical Association Lecture - The religious lives of the ancient Greeks

Prof Scott’s Presidential lecture on the 9th January took place at the Classical Association to a packed hall.

Following a wonderful piano recital by Meghna (Year 11), Prof Scott commenced his opening address by congratulating the audience for being part of the largest association in the country (now numbering 500) and for their ability to draw the best classicists in the UK. 

He then turned to his subject for the evening, the religious lives of the ancient Greeks. He started by explaining that the belief in the gods wasn’t taken seriously by early historians, as they didn’t acknowledge their beliefs as constituting a real religion, given that there were none of the ideas that we associate with our present understanding of religion, such as a central text (like the Bible).  

However, it was theous nomisdein (‘to worship and believe’ and ‘to accept as normal’) - central to society, as well as being polytheistic (‘full of gods’). In fact, gods were in such proliferation that they had different epithets to cover every eventuality. An epithet (adjective) would be added to a god’s name to encompass a specific association or character, such as a stream. Despite this ever-increasing number of gods, there were the core set of Twelve Olympians, who were acknowledged as the main gods – yet there lacked consistency in who constituted this set. The Greeks would even add new gods when they needed help, such as starting to worship a god of healing shortly after a plague had broken out and when they began to worship Pan after the battle of Marathon, as he was said to have caused panic amongst the Persians. Yet even when they adopted new deities from other communities, they frequently changed their attributes and focus. 

We also heard how the Greeks also consulted the gods before pursuing any plans, for example, by visiting the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi, or if they could not travel personally, then they had all manner of signs which they would take as the gods communicating with them which were as spurious as the flight path of birds, listening to how leaves rustle on a particular oak tree. The types of questions they asked included ‘should I marry an old woman?’. Prof Scott summed this up by saying that ancient Greek religion was characterised by “variety and flexibility”.  

He then moved on to explaining how the Greeks believed in divination by signs – such as Zeus being incarnated by an eagle. The Greeks saw all animals were good except for fish, with Prof Scott humorously summarising their mantra as, “never trust a fish”. We then heard that one of their greatest fears was to be lost at sea and that their bodies would be eaten by fish. 

The gods were also seen has having an ability to heal people. The process was to: (1) tell priests your ailments (2) give a sacrifice to the gods (3) spend the night in the Abaton (sanctuary); (4) a vision will then appear in the night about how you will be cured. If you weren’t cured, then you mustn’t have left a big enough sacrifice, or the gods simply didn’t want to save you! If however, they were miraculously healed, a terracotta carving of the part of their body which had been cured was left in tribute to them. 

Prof Scott subsequently moved on to describing religious rituals relating to crisis moments in their lives, where they drew upon the notion of ‘pollution’ to establish rules relating to such events as new motherhood and a death in the family – for example, if a close relative had died, you may be ‘polluted’ for twenty days, but only five days in the case of a distant relative. The rules were “highly specific and complicated”, but clearly had some practical value in giving society a code of practice to follow during particularly sensitive times.  

The desire to show off wealth and status permeated the way the Greeks mourned their dead, however, as democracy became an increasingly important notion in Greek society, there were more rules to limit the extravagance and size of vases containing expensive perfumed olive oil. In recent times, x-rays of the vases have revealed a deception – unknown until modern day. Many of the large jars contained a secret inner container, reducing the amount of liquid required for them to be ‘full’. There’s of course the irony which highlights their complicated relationship with the gods, in that they must have realised the gods would know about this deception – but what mattered to them more was keeping up appearances to impress their neighbours! 

Other ways in which the religion conveniently supported day-to-day needs was regarding animal sacrifices. Conveniently, the gods were deemed to want the parts of the animal that humans don’t eat, comically described by Prof Scott as “bones wrapped in fat”. This led one commentator to suggest, “the biggest after effect of the sacrifice was indigestion”. One’s social status again permeated sacrificial ‘barbeques’, as it influenced what cut of meat you would receive and also provided the opportunity for the wealthy to show off my sponsoring a sacrifice. The rearing of sacrificial animals also spawned its own economy, as sacrifices could be as large as one hundred cows – enough to feed the entire population of men in one community. The average Athenian would attend forty-five sacrifices a year, each one, again conveniently resulting in a day off work! 

Prof Scott concluded his talk by explaining “how to curse someone in the style of the Ancient Greeks”. He explained that the curse was written on a tablet, using the words “I bind [person’s name] to [a negative fate]”. Curses usually related to love or the law of the land. The curse was then put with a voodoo doll (as pictured) and buried in a grave (the fresher the body the better!). 

The talk brought to life how religion played a central role in Greek society, used to police their communities; guide behavioural expectations during sensitive times; to signal wealth and status; and to get back at those who had wronged them. In sum, Prof Scott described ancient Greek religion as a “weird and wonderful package”, quoting another scholar who explained “it’s like socks spilling out of a drawer – no one is obliged to tidy them, but at one point, they were all essential to leaving the house”. 

Many thanks to Prof Scott for this insightful and engaging lecture and to the Lytham St Annes Classical Association for arranging for such high-profile speakers. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of attending an event, we highly recommend that you try it. The speakers convey their expert knowledge in very accessible stories – engaging and easy to follow for non-Classicists and to broaden the minds of our students.  

Lectures are one hour long (7-8pm, followed by Q&A). Doors open at 6.15pm, then there’s a book stall, containing the books of many eminent academics and those of the speakers; raffles and the infamous ‘classics cakes’ to enjoy. Arriving early is advised, as seats go quickly! If you’re not yet a member, you can sign up on the night and the first 20 students who arrive in AKS uniform are entitled to free entry. You can find out more on the ‘Community’ section of our website, or through the LSA Classical Association’s dedicated page: www.lsaclassics.com.  

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