How the Greeks Changed the Idea of the Afterlife

June 10, 2016

The world of ancient Greece was filled with gods, led by the towering Olympians—Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Poseidon, Athena, and other giants of mythology. Alongside worship of these divine inhabitants of Olympus were hundreds of cults focused on local deities and heroes.

People prayed to these gods for the same reasons we pray today: for health and safety, for prosperity, for a good harvest, for safety at sea. Mostly they prayed as communities, and through offerings and sacrifice they sought to please the inscrutable deities who they believed controlled their lives.

But what happens after death? In this, the ancients looked to Hades, god of the underworld, brother of Zeus and Poseidon. But Hades gave no reassurance. Wrapped in misty darkness, cut by the dread River Styx, the realm of Hades (“the unseen”) was, the poet Homer tells us, a place of “moldering horror” where ordinary people—and even heroes—went after they died.

Sympathetic interest in the human condition eventually led the Greeks to adopt new forms of religion and new cults. No longer seen as a joyless fate, the afterlife became more of a personal quest. Mystery cults, shrouded in secrecy, promised guidance for what would come after death.

The mystery rites were intensely emotional and staged like elaborate theater. Those of the great gods on the Greek island of Samothrace took place at night, with flickering torch fire pointing the way for initiates. Guarded on pain of death, the rituals remain mysterious to this day.

The roots of religion in Greece date back thousands of years. Religious sites were devoted to civic cults or local gods, as well as to Greek traditions: festivals, oracles, pilgrimages, and ceremonies. The mystery-cult rituals at Samothrace, for instance, lasted from the sixth century B.C. through the dawn of Christianity. Sacred places also commemorated the legendary dwellings of the gods, such as Olympus.

By the fourth century B.C., cults had emerged that claimed to offer purification by cleansing initiates of the stain of humanity. The foundations for new religions were falling into place. And when Christianity swept the ancient world, it carried with it, along with guidance from a single deity, remnants of the old beliefs: the washing away of human corruption through mystic rites, the different fates awaiting the initiated and uninitiated, and the reverence for sacred texts.

Moods of the Gods

As described by Homer, the gods and goddesses who ruled from Olympus possessed human traits such as lust, petulance, jealousy, and dishonesty. They also had a superhuman advantage: immortality.

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