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Religion, Myth, and Community

Religion provided the context for almost all communal activity throughout the history of ancient Greece. Sports, as in the Olympic Games held to honor Zeus, took place in the religious context of festivals honoring specific gods. War was conducted according to the signs of divine will that civil and military leaders identified in the sacrifice1 of animals and in omens derived from occurrences in nature such as unusual weather. Sacrifices themselves, the central event of Greek religious rituals, were performed before crowds in the open air on public occasions that involved communal feasting afterward on the sacrificed meat. The conceptual basis of Greek religion was found in myth ( mythos 2, a Greek word meaning “story” or “tale”) about the gods and their relationship to humans. In the eighth century B.C., the Greeks began to record their myths in writing, and the poetry of Hesiod3 preserved from this period (there was at this date not yet any Greek literature in prose) reveals how religious myth, as well as the economic changes and social values of the time, contributed to the feeling of community that underlay the creation of new political structures in Greece.

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