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(Relligio. The etymology of the word is doubtful. Cicero derived it from relegere [ N. D. ii. 28, 72], which is supported by a passage in Gellius [iv. 9, 1]; but the probable base is that of the verb ligare [ Serv. ad Verg. Aen. viii. 349; Lactant. iv. 28; Augustin. Retract. i. 13]; and the notion of binding seems to have been in the mind of Lucretius in using such expressions as “religionum nodis animos exsolverei. 931 ; iv. 7. See Munro on Lucret. i. 109; Mayor on Cic. l. c.; Corssen, Aussprache, i. 444 foll.; and for the spelling, Brambach, 131). The gods of the Greeks were originally personifications of the powers of nature, limited in their activity to that province of nature from the phenomena of which they are derived. As these phenomena were regarded as acts or sufferings of the gods in question, a cycle of myths was thus developed. In the minds of the people, the special significance of these myths necessarily vanished in proportion as the original connection of the gods with the phenomena of nature receded to the background, while greater prominence was given to the conception of the gods as personal beings holding sway, primarily in their own province of nature, and then beyond those limits, and no longer exclusively in connection with the powers of nature. In the oldest records of the intellectual life of Greece—the Homeric poems—this transition has already been carried out. The Homeric deities are exclusively occupied with the governing of mortals, whose whole life is represented as being under their influence; while traces of the old connection with the phenomena of nature are rarely found, and the old myths had long since become unintelligible tales, in which the actions of the gods appeared unreasonable and immoral, since their meaning was no longer clear. In regard to religion, as in other matters, the Homeric poems are of the utmost importance; for if in historical times a certain uniformity prevails in the representation of the deities, this may be traced in no small degree to the influence of Homer and of other poets (especially Hesiod) who were under his influence, and who gave distinct form to the vague representations of an earlier time. Nevertheless this uniformity only existed in a general way; in detail there was the greatest confusion, for the Greeks never attained to a uniform religious system and to fixed religious dogma. They possessed only a contradictory and ambiguous mythology. The only thing which was comparatively established was the traditional worship; but in this there was great diversity of place and time.

The common belief was that the gods were superhuman, though they were like mortals in form and in the ordinary necessities of life (food, drink, sleep); that they had power over nature and human beings; that all good and evil came from them; that their favour could be obtained by behaviour which was pleasing to them, and lost by that which displeased them. Among the Greek gods there was no representative of evil, neither in popular belief was there one of absolute perfection and holiness; and the deities were represented as being subject to moral weakness and deviation from right—a belief which was fostered by the traditional mythology. The gods possessed immortality, but did not exist from the beginning of all things.

1. Greek

In the opinion of the Greeks, the ruling race of gods, the Olympians—so called from their abode, Olympus—were the third race of gods. The first ruler was Uranus (Heaven), who, by his mother Gaea (Earth), who bore him spontaneously, himself became the father of the Titans. He was expelled by his son Cronus, whose daughters, by his sister Rhea, were Hestia, Demeter, and Heré, and his sons, Hades (Pluto), Poseidon, and Zeus. He was himself expelled by his last-named son. When Zeus, by the aid of his brothers and sisters, had overcome the Titans, who rebelled against the new order of things, he divided the world with his brothers. The earth and Olympus remained common property; Hades obtained the nether world; Poseidon, the sea; Zeus, the heavens, and, as being the strongest and wisest, he also had authority over all the other gods, who worked his will, received from him their offices and spheres of action, and served him as helpers in the government of the universe. According to this division of province, the gods are divided into the divinities of heaven and earth and sea.

As in all religions founded on nature, so with the Greeks, the gods of heaven take the first place. They are specially called Olympians; and, in contrast to the gods of the earth and sea, are called the gods above, or the upper gods. The principal deities after Zeus are Heré, Athené, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodité, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes, and Hestia. Round them are grouped a number of minor deities, who either escort and serve the upper gods (as, for instance, Themis, and the Horae, the Graces, the Muses, Eros, Niké, Iris, Hebé, Ganymede), or else represent distinct phenomena of the heavens, as Helios (the sun), Selené (the moon), Eos (the dawn); or execute special services in the heaven-ordained government of the universe, as the goddess of birth, Eileithyia, the healing god Asclepius, and the goddesses of destiny (Moerae, Nemesis, Tyché). The gods of the sea, besides Poseidon and his spouse Amphitrité and his son Triton, are Oceanus and his offspring, Nereus and the Nereids, Protens, Ino (Leucothea), Melicertes (Palaemon), Glancus (Pontius). The gods of the earth are Gaea herself, Rhea (Cybelé), Dionysus, Priapus, Pan, the Nymphs and Satyrs, Demeter and her daughter Persephoné, with her spouse Hades (Pluto). The last two are the rulers of the nether world, to which Hecaté and the Erinyes also belong.

The number of beings regarded as deities was never clearly defined. From the earliest times in Greece we find deities worshipped in one place who were not known in another. But some of these, as Dionysus and Pau, became common property in course of time; and the more lasting and more extensive the intercourse became with other peoples, more especially in the colonies, the introduction of foreign deities became greater. Some of these were identified with the gods already worshipped, while others preserved their original attributes, subject, of course, to modifications to suit the spirit of the Greeks. This aptitude for naturalizing foreign religions declined more and more as Greece ceased to flourish. On the other hand, some original deities lost their independence, and were merged into others, such as Helios and Apollo, Selené and Artemis. In the popular belief of the post-Homeric time, another numerous class of superhuman beings sprang up, which were regarded as being between gods and men, the demons (δαίμονες) and Heroes. See Heros.

As to their nature and their number, there was less uniformity than in the case of the real gods. The Heroes had only local importance. Even in the case of the gods universally worshipped, it was by no means all (not even the most important) that had a place everywhere in the public worship. In the case of certain gods, their worship was only exceptional; and those gods who by order of the State were worshipped in any particular place did not necessarily enjoy forever the position to which they were entitled. Even Zeus, who was universally regarded as the highest of the gods, and figured in the cult of most of the different States, was not himself worshipped as supreme; but those gods who had always had the first place in the cult of the respective States took precedence over him, and these were not always divinities of preëminent importance. In Athens, Pallas Athené was worshipped as the principal deity, Heré in Argos; among the Dorians, especially at Delphi, Apollo; among the Iouians, Poscidon; at Rhodes, Helios; at Naxos, Dionysus; at Thespiae, Eros; at Orchomenus, the Charites (or Graces). Even in the case of the same deities, the local customs often differed considerably in respect of the names that were given to them, their attributes, and the form of worship. These differences were due partly to local causes and local opinions, partly to foreign influence, and were occasionally so considerable that doubts arose whether different deities were not really represented under the same name, as, for instance, Aphrodité.

The deities were supposed to be specially gratified by the careful observance of the traditional ritual. This continued to be carried on according to ancient custom, so that the details of these ancient cults were often curious, and their connection with the religious ideas on which they rested was often unintelligible. However, with the development of morality the view began to prevail that the observance of duties towards the State and fellow-men was also favoured by the gods as guardians of the providential order of the world; but, in the eyes of the multitude, the principal meaning of εὐδέβεια (piety) was the performance of the ordained worship of the gods. Again, the care of the State was confined to the outward forms of religion and to the maintenance of the traditional legal ritual. Alterations in this ritual and the introduction of new cults were only made by authority of the legislative power, usually after an oracle had been consulted to determine the divine will. Besides the worship of the deities recognized by the State, private objects of devotion were found everywhere. For instance, in the case of foreign deities at Athens, where there were many strangers either passing through or permanently resident, foreign religions were tolerated so long as they did not endanger the traditional worship or excite public disturbance by their outward ritual. Many such cults were naturalized in this way, and became, in course of time, part of the State religion. Conquest, again, contributed largely towards the introduction of novelties, for the acquisition of new territory involved that of the religions rites held therein. And, lastly, old religions, which had been looked upon as supremely holy, even if they were not absolutely superseded in the course of time, became less important in comparison with others of later origin.

Shrines, and the statues of the gods preserved in them, were the central points of the worship of the different deities. As long as the gods were not represented as having human form, stones, especially those fallen from heaven, or blocks of wood, were the objects of worship. By various stages of progress the gods were at length represented by actual images. At first they were made of wood, then of stone and metal. Clay, and even wax, were generally used for private objects of devotion. Though the real purpose of these symbols and images was to represent the divinity to the worshippers by means of a visible sign, nevertheless, in the popular belief, it was generally presumed that the divinity was actively present in them. Accordingly, the welfare of the State was often supposed to be bound up with the possession of certain symbols and images of the gods.

The decline of the Greek religion began with the decline of the State after the Peloponnesian War. Although the philosophers had already directed their assault against the belief of the people, which, with its authropomorphism and its inconsistency, exposed itself in many ways to the attacks of the critical spirit, yet the faith of the multitude in the old gods remained unshaken, for it had long attributed the deliverance from the perils of the Persian Wars to their mighty and merciful influence. But after the Peloponnesian War the notions of the philosophers gained ground among the people and undermined the old belief, without, however, supplying any alternative to the religious feeling, which could no longer be satisfied with the outward forms of worship which still survived. With unbelief superstition came in, which was fostered (especially after the Macedonian epoch) by the foreign and barbarous cults, and the degencrate forms of mysticism which were imported from Asia and Egypt.

2. Roman

The Italian tribes, from which the Roman people sprang, had a common origin with the Greeks and a common foundation of religious ideas; but on Italian soil these religious ideas received an essentially different direction. Like the Greeks, the Italians regarded the deities as persons separated as to sex and united in couples; but while the imaginative Greeks saw in their gods ideal forms full of individual life, the more sober mind of the Italian tribes, especially of the Romans, got no further than the abstract. Holding to the fundamental idea, they worshipped in the gods the abstract powers of nature, under whose influence man believed himself to be at every moment. The original Italian gods were grave and venerable, and, in a certain sense, more moral than those of the Greeks; but they lacked plastic form and poetic beauty. Accordingly, it is only with certain reservations that we can speak of a Roman mythology in a sense corresponding to that of the Greeks. The Romans lacked an Olympus and a Hades, and knew nothing of stories about the race and relationship and the love affairs of their deities. In this abstract nature of the Roman gods, it is intelligible that the Romans, during the first two hundred years from the foundation of Rome, possessed no images of their gods, but represented them by symbols—e. g. Iupiter by a flint-stone, Mars by a spear, Vesta by fire, which, even in later times, remained the symbol of the goddess. In the earliest Roman religion the deities of two Italian races, the Latins and the Sabines, were united, Rome having been originally peopled by the union of these tribes. The most important gods were the god of light and the god of all beginning, Ianus; the god of heaven, Iupiter, the greatest protector of the nation, with whom was joined the feminine element in Iuno, just as Iana (Diana) was connected with Ianus; Mars, originally the protector of agriculture, the ancestral god of the Latin race; Quirinus, originally the corresponding god of the Sabines; and Vesta, the goddess of the hearth of the State. Besides these principal deities, others were worshipped as patrons of the farmers and shepherds. Their activity extended over the earth, the fields, and the woods; they blessed the fruits of the field and garden, and gave prosperity to the cattle. Such were Tellus, Ceres, Saturnus and Ops, Liber and Libera, Faunus, Silvanus, Flora, Vertumnus, Pomona. The gods of the sea, however, who had such an important position in the Grecian mythology, had not nearly the same importance in Roman ideas as the gods of heaven and earth, for in the earliest times the sea was little regarded by the Romans. Another object of religious worship was the gods of the house and family, the Lares and Penates. But, besides these, there was an unlimited number of divine beings; for the Romans assumed that there were divine representatives of every inanimate or animate object, of every action and every event. Not only did every human being possess a special protector (genius, q. v.), but a number of deities watched over his development from conception to birth, and his further growth, mentally and bodily. See Indigitamenta.

Again, there were manifold protecting gods for the different events of life, as Tutanus and Tutilina, who were invoked in times of trouble; Orbona, invoked by childless couples; and Febris, the goddess of fever. There were also separate gods for separate employments, and for the places where they were carried on. In this way the different institutions and phases of agriculture possessed special deities such as Robigus and Robigo, protectors of the crops against blight. So, also, with the different branches of cattle-breeding (Bubona, goddess of the breeding of horned cattle; Epona, goddess of the breeding of horses; Pales, of the breeding of sheep). Similarly with the separate parts of a house: Forculus, god of the door; Cardea, goddess of the hinge; Limentinus and Limentina, deities of the threshold. To these divine beings fresh ones were continually added, as the inclination of the Romans to recognize and trace divine influence in every single event led to the establishment of new cults after every new revelation of divine power. In this way the introduction of bronze coinage led to a deus Aesculanus, and later that of silver coinage to a deus Argentinus. Historical events gave an impulse to the personification of intellectual and moral qualities, such as Concordia, Honos, Virtus, Mens, etc. The same principle which recognized that there were some gods unknown, or, at any rate, not worshipped at Rome, led to the tolerance of private performance of foreign cults. Hence, also, it came about that the gods of conquered countries found a place in the Roman state religion, and occasionally were even introduced into the actual worship of Rome. In the latter case, however, the home deities preserved their rights in so far as the shrines of the newly imported deities were outside the limits of what was called the Pomerium (q.v.).

The religion of the Romans was gradually but completely altered by the influence of that of the Greeks. This influence made itself felt as early as the time of the latest kings. Shrines of the gods were first introduced under the elder Tarquin, and under the last Tarquin three supreme gods of the State were established—Iupiter, the representative of supreme power; Iuno, of supreme womanhood; Minerva, of supreme wisdom. These three deities received, as a token of their inseparability, a common temple on the Capitol, and were therefore called the Capitoline gods. This Greek influence was firmly established at the end of the time of the kings by the Sibylline Books, which originated among the Greeks of Asia Minor. (See Sibyllae.) By means of these a number of Greek and Asiatic gods were in course of time introduced into the Roman cult, partly as new deities, such as Apollo, Cybelé (Magna Mater), Aesculapius; partly under the names of native gods, with whom they were often identified in a very superficial way, as Demeter with Ceres, Dionysus with Liber, Persephoné with Libera, Aphrodité with Venus; and with them were introduced many innovations in the old established worship of the gods, especially the Lectisternium (q. v.). When, after the Second Punic War, Greek ideas irresistibly made their way in Rome, it became more and more common to identify the gods of Rome with those of Greece; and thus the original significance of many Roman deities was either obscured or even entirely lost. Divinities highly venerated of old were put into the background, and those of less importance came to be regarded as supreme, owing to their supposed analogy to Greek gods. In this way the following twelve were established by analogy to the Greek form of religion: Iupiter (Zeus), Iuno (Heré), Neptunus (Poseidon), Minerva (Athené), Mars (Ares), Venus (Aphrodité), Apollo, Diana (Artemis), Vulcanus (Hephaestus), Vesta (Hestia), Mercurius (Hermes), and Ceres (Demeter).

The Roman religion was from the beginning an affair of State. Religious, as well as political, institutions emanated from the kings, who, as high priests, organized the worship by law and laid the foundation of a law of ritual. The second king, Numa, was regarded as the real founder of the Roman cult, and of the priesthood charged with the carrying out of the same. After the kings had been abolished, religion was still controlled by the State, and the priests continued to be State officials, who were empowered by the State, on the one hand, to superintend the performance of the different cults, and, on the other (and this was the more important office), to give judgment in all matters of religion. They thus exercised considerable influence. Under the Republic, the royal prerogative of formulating decrees in all matters of religion was transferred to the Senate. As the Roman State in early times was exclusively composed of patricians, the public religion was originally their exclusive property; the plebs were not allowed to participate in that religion, and were only allowed to worship the Roman gods in private. Therefore, in the long struggle in which the plebs, with their ever-increasing power, endeavoured to secure their rights (a struggle that ended in B.C. 300), it was a question of religion as well as of politics. As regards the worship of the gods, according to Roman ideas, a pure and moral life was pleasing to them and gained their favour. This was, however, conditional on the exact performance of the outward ritual which the system of religion ordained for their cult. It consisted in a very prolonged ceremonial, performed according to the strictest injunctions and with painful minuteness of detail. This ceremonial was performed in public and private life, so that no community lacked its special shrines and sacrifices (see Sacra), and nothing of any importance was undertaken without religious sanction, which involved in particular the discovery of the divine will by means of certain signs (see Augur). The forms of outward worship were retained long after the decay of belief in the gods had set in. This decay was caused by the preponderance of the Greek element, and the contemporary introduction of Greek enlightenment; and it soon spread to the forms of worship. During the greater part of the republican period, the priests allowed religion to take a secondary place to politics, and, either from indifference or ignorance, neglected their official duties. Under the Empire, when the deification of deceased emperors was introduced (see Apotheosis), an attempt was made to give an artificial life to the ancient forms of worship; but religious feeling could not be rekindled by forms which had long lost their meaning. When this feeling revived, it preferred, as in Greece, to find refuge in strange Oriental rites, especially those of Mithras and of Isis and Serapis, which, by means of their mysteries and their expiatory ceremonies, offered a certain degree of satisfaction, though, at the same time, they led the way to every conceivable kind of superstition.

The suppression of paganism began in the fourth century, from the time when Constantine decided in favour of Christianity, in A.D. 324. It commenced in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, while in the western half, and at Rome in particular, the Roman form of worship remained essentially undisturbed until the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395), the resolute exterminator of paganism. In A.D. 394 the Olympic Games were held for the last time; in Rome the endowment of all public forms of worship out of the funds of the State was withdrawn, the priests were driven from the temples, and the temples closed. Nevertheless certain heathen customs long survived, such as the auguries of the consuls and some few festivals that admitted of being celebrated without offering sacrifice or entering a temple. Thus the Lupercalia were not abolished until 494, when they were transformed into a Christian festival.


See Hartung, Religion und Mythologie der Griechen, 4 vols. (Leipzig, 1865-73); Darmesteter, Le Dieu Suprème des Indo-Européens (Paris, 1885); Limbourg-Bronner, Hist. de la Civilisation Morale et Religieuse des Grecs, 8 vols. (Groningen, 1833-47); De la Saussaye, Lehrbuch d. Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols. (Freiburg, 1887); Girard, Le Sentiment Religieux en Grèce d'Homère à Eschyle (Paris, 1879); Nägelsbach, Homerische Theologie (Nürnberg, 1861); id. Nachhomerische Theologie (Nürnberg, 1857); Peterson, Religion oder Mythologie, etc. (Leipzig, 1870); Ploix, La Nature des Dieux (Paris, 1888); Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, 2 vols. (London, 1887); Heffter, Götterlehre der Griechen und Römer (Hamburg, 1853); Hartung, Die Religion der Römer, 2 vols. (Erlangen, 1836); Jäkel, De Diis Domesticis Priscorum Italorum (Berlin, 1830); Jordan, Symbolae ad Historiam Religionum Italicarum (Königsberg, 1885); Boissier, La Religion Romaine d'Auguste aux Antonins (Paris, 1878); Granger, The Worship of the Romans (London, 1896); Babik, De Deisideimonia Veterum (Leipzig, 1891); Hild, Étude sur les Démons dans la Littérature et la Religion des Grecs (Paris, 1881); Cicero's treatise De Natura Deorum (best edition by J. B. Mayor, with introduction and English notes, Cambridge, 1884); and the works cited in the article Mythologia, with the article itself.

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  • Cross-references from this page (5):
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 8.349
    • Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 1.109
    • Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 1.931
    • Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 4.7
    • Cicero, de Natura Deorum, 2.28
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