Greek Religion: Miasma in the Polis

While it is a well-known fact that the whole lifestyle of Ancient Greece was entirely imbued with theological elements, via the importance of the Greek pantheon, it is more rarely clarified that this spiritual life was a very unique type of religion. The understanding and practices revolving around the relations between humans and God was such that calling it a “religion” is in itself a controversy. The theological culture of the Greeks was very distinct from the type of spirituality one finds in the Semitic religions. In this essay, we shall try to present some of the major components of the spiritual life of the Ancient Greeks, insisting on the features that make of Greek spirituality a very special one.

In Ancient Greek, there was no word for “religion” or “faith.” The closest words for religion were Euseibia and Therepia, meaning “care.” Religion was nothing but a care of humans for gods. There was no particular fear of punishment. The relation to the gods was more like a contact between gods and humans. This care included feeding the gods, cleaning their representations, etc. It was a completely anthropomorphic approach to divinity: Greek religion was an anthropomorphic polytheism. The main care for the gods took place through the offerings. The most important offering was food, in the form of sacrifice. After giving gods food, humans would eat the leftover. Prometheus would famously disturb this balance.

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The religious organization of Ancient Greece was completely a bureaucratic order. There was only one requirement to be a priest: being a member of the polis, that is, being a citizen. There was no extra sanctimonious quality or expertise for one to be a priest. Greek religion could therefore be referred to as a sort of “secular form of religion.”

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Greeks never had a proper Godhead, or an elaborate original narrative. The various gods were very mundane, practical, present everywhere in the everyday life. The gods were a tangible reality. This very tangible religion became a principle of the day-to-day reality. It was part of human life. It structured the everyday life. Greek religion never had a dogmatic, theological or explanatory core. There was no priestly class either. How did this religion function without the priestly class? The body of the church was completely superimposed with the Greek polis: the city as a political category. Greek religion was a kind of its own: it was mostly a political function. The political order of the polis corresponded with the church. The ecclesiastical body was a completely political body. Being part of the church was not at all a personal belief. The church was not connected with religion alone: it was of social importance for major life ceremonies such as birth, marriage and burying. The political structure was very dominant in defining one’s position in the religious order. The religious order was a superimposition on the political order. Being a citizen meant being a part of the Greek religion. “Believing in the gods was ultimately the same thing as being a good Athenian citizen, just as it was in Sparta and every other Greek city” (Vegetti 1995, 281). One’s pollution or purity depended on one’s political representation in the polis. It was the political institutions that decided the religious functions as well. Every religious position was voted for a temporary period. There was no permanent or life-long position. The religious organization of Ancient Greece was completely a bureaucratic order. There was only one requirement to be a priest: being a member of the polis, that is, being a citizen. There was no extra sanctimonious quality or expertise for one to be a priest. Greek religion could therefore be referred to as a sort of “secular form of religion.”

God was present in a very human form. It was part of a day-to-day life. The gods were omnipotent, present everywhere. Herodotus gives the anecdote of the tyrant Peisistratus (510 bc). Ousted from Athens, Peisistratus tried to retrieve back his position. He managed to do it by getting a normal girl dressed like Athena. The city people took her for Athena. This famous story reveals two major aspects of Greek religion. First, Greek gods were conceived as having a very humane form. Second, faith was very simple, not sophisticated at all. Everybody could get a grasp of it directly. Therefore there was nothing exceptional or unbelievable in the entry of a god in a city (Vegetti 1995, 257).

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If the sacred was pure, its opposite was the pollution or corruption, miasma. It was not the logic of a “pollution of space” as, for instance, with the Indian caste system. The idea of pollution was more “ontological:” certain acts were polluting against the sacred: the spilling of human blood (even during war), sexual activities, violating the social order (patricide, incest, etc). Pharmakos was a cathartic ritual in which a specific individual of the group was expelled from the group. Any polluted order had to be purified: Katharsis.

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While there was no proper word for “religion,” one concept was of central importance: the sacred, hieros (power). This sacred power was manifested in certain human affects. It was expressed in mysterious places like caves, trees, etc., as well as during natural catastrophes and important human events like birth or marriage. The sacred was a part of the existential aspect of the life of humans. The sacred had an opposite: if the sacred was pure, its opposite was the pollution or corruption, miasma. It was not the logic of a “pollution of space” as, for instance, with the Indian caste system: in Greece, all could enter the sacred places. The Greek temples had no door. There was no human difference, no taboo caused by the presence of someone. The pollution or taboo was not religious, racist, or blood-based but political. The idea of pollution was more “ontological:” certain acts were polluting against the sacred. Instances of such activities were, among others, the spilling of human blood (even during war); sexual activities; violating the social order (patricide, incest, etc). This last case was contagious: the pollution of the doer was also contagiously extended to the victim. Pharmakos was a cathartic ritual in which a specific individual (often a cripple, or a twin, etc.) of the group was expelled from the group. Any polluted order had to be purified: Katharsis. Greek tragedy stemmed from this atmosphere of the sacred, of pollution and purification. The best example is certainly Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Oedipus in Colonus. Katharsis would become important in the arts, in philosophy, and in particular in Aristotle’s Poetics. Purification was not a coincidental but a permanent situation. Indeed, even the human birth was a polluted situation. There was already the idea of an uncomfortable mixture between soul and body. Life itself was a process of purification. As Mario Vegetti (1995) concludes, “the process of living itself was thus seen as a gradual purification from the body, so that the spiritual element, the soul, could finally be released from its earthly bonds” (261).

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