Greek Gods, Human Need for the Sacred and the Social Status of Religion

  June 07, 2021   Read time 3 min
Greek Gods, Human Need for the Sacred and the Social Status of Religion
The universal character of certain gods was inherent in them from the beginning, while others emerged from the crowd of nature spirits. On the other hand, there were the gods who were bound to a certain natural object, a certain place.

The needs of man created the gods, and the cult is an expression of his need. A god is a daimon which has acquired importance and a fixed form through the cult. From among the crowd of similar beings the cult chooses one as its object and this becomes a single god. But the belief in the numerous daimoncs lives on, and if both the single divinity and the group of daimones are present to the mind together, the latter acquire a leader. Thus we have Pan and the Panes, Silenus and the Sileni, but Silenus was reduced to a semi-comic figure when his retinue was absorbed in that of Dionysos. A great goddess who seems to have arisen in this way is Artemis. She is essentially nothing but the most prominent of the wood- and mountain nymphs. With these she hunts and dances in mountains and forests and amid green meadows. Like them she rules the animals in wild Nature and fosters their young. Like them she extends her sway to men, helps the mother in her hour of need, and protects the rising generation, but she may also deal sudden death with her arrows. This tendency to exalt one among a number of similar beings to a position of supremacy was so ingrained that it has left an example dating from the time of transition to the Christian faith. The Lycian "wild gods" are represented as twelve similar figures; to them a thirteenth was added as their ruler, and he was placed in the middle and was somewhat larger in size, but was in other respects just like the rest.

The above explains much but not the whole of the complicated and diversified process which led to the creation of the major gods of Greek polytheism. There is a distinction between the localized deities and the gods which rule over and express themselves in a certain phenomenon. A gael of the latter kind is a universal deity who is everywhere the same. We have seen how the cult selects and creates such a god from the collective group of nature spirits: but others mnst have been, or at least tended to be, universal gods from their very origin. The clearest example is the case of the sun-god and moon-goddess, for no one doubts that the same sun and the same moon shine over every place, but both these playa very unimportant part in the older Greek religion. Of far greater importance, on the other hand, is the god who rules over the atmospheric phenomena~storm, rain, and thunder. The rain is of more consequence than even rivers and springs; upon it depends the fruitfulness of the fields, and it is in Greece sparsely meted out, so that the inhabitants had a lively sense of its importance. Every traveller in Greece will have noticed how the clouds swiftly gather round the highest mountain-top in the neighbourhood. In a short time the sky is covered with clouds, the roar of the thunder is heard. and the rain pours down. Up there upon the mountain-top dwells the cloud-gatherer and the flinger of the thunderbolt, who sends rain and therefore also grants fertility. Every such hill,·top and every town has its Zeus, but notwithstanding this fact it is felt that it is the same Zeus who everywhere gathers the clouds, hurls the lightning, and sends the rain. The atmospheric pht:'nomena cannot be localized.