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The Hellenistic Period In Greek Religion

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Published: Mon, 15 May 2017

The Hellenistic period, (from 323 B.C. to 30 B.C) refers to the time between the passing away of Alexander the Great and the growth of the Roman Empire under Augustus. This term Hellenistic in many occasions was used to create a distinction from the classical Hellenic period that preceded it. At this time of the three hundred years, the Greek culture was highly dominant in both the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. The Hellenistic religion particularly consisted of a variety of spiritual belief and practices of the people who existed at the time of the ancient influence of the Greek culture and the Roman Empire.

Many years back, between 540 and 300BC during Alexander’s Era, Greece exhibited unique characteristics in their architecture deigns, culture and tradition as well (Lockard 171). In the same period, Hellenistic age, Greek empire experienced the end of Alexander’s era as Atigonus and Seleucustook over thus becoming the new rulers of the empire. However, these two leaders had their own specific territory to rule since Greece had been divided into several (three) parts (Martin 75). Greece, Macedonia and the near east constituted the three divided parts, which initially formed Greece previously ruled by the great Alexander. Antigonus controlled Greece and Macedonia, whereas, his counterpart, Seleucus, controlled the near east. These events had significant influence to Greek’s economy, culture among other various aspects. However, our discussion will majorly concentrate on the culture of Greece during the historical period, Hellenistic age.

During the period of Greek dominance, there existed a lifelong continuation of the Hellenistic religion. In essence, Greek gods and goddesses continued to be worshiped including the ancient rituals and practices that symbolized their spirituality. However, new religions from other nations and countries were adapted and brought change including the Egyptian gods such as Isis, the Syrian gods of Hadad and Atargatis provided a new dimension for those people in search of fulfillment in the present and afterlife. Despite the existence of these gods and goddesses, Hellenistic rulers were also commonly worshiped by people at this period. In Egypt for example, the ptolemies had taken up the worship of the pharaoh and established themselves everywhere as god kings. Some rulers even received the divine godly status in many parts of Greece (Mikalson 195).

The socio economic and political turns that were occasioned due to Alexander’s missions, the policies of his predecessors and wars brought massive changes to the religious cultures and traditions. The degree of these changes however, varied so much for Greeks living in the different cities and parts of the country. A good example was the Athenians who conventionally restored their old religious cults, festivals and a spiritual practice in the fifth century B.C.E. At the same period in Alexandria, there was a major contrast due to the clear heterogeneity of Greeks, Egyptians, the Jewish deities and the common religious practices in this multiethnic society (Mikalson 57). By design a the area had a mixed population of different cultures in the Greek world as all the residents and citizens of one city were never expected to worship in the same kind of sacrifices and festivals.

As a result of religion bringing together these several nationalities to create a homogeneous city that is does not restrict religious policies of its rulers became possible. The changes attributed to Hellenistic Greek religion largely came from this religious multiculturalism in other metropolitan areas and Alexandria eventually affecting all other parts in Greek world. During the Hellenistic period the Greek religion had turned out to be a highly developed polytheism of a comprehensively anthropomorphic kind. The Greek gods were just merely male and females with normal human passions and sins but more powerful indeed but not so righteous than the people who worshiped them. The Greeks believed there was nothing lifeless about their gods, whether it is being portrayed by the chisel of the sculptors; to them they were warm, living and breathing human figures. However, there was no doubt in the moral quality in worship as it was regarded as a propitiation of risky tyrants.

After the successful conquest of Alexander, the Greek culture spread like wild fire all over coming into closer contact with other civilizations in Egypt and the near East. Although the loss of independence of some Greek states to Macedonian rulers had a significant impact on their religion, the development of new philosophical systems never change their religion. There were instances of a decline in Hellenistic religion due to the discerning rise in atheism, skepticism and agnosticism and also an increase in superstitious beliefs, mysticism and astrology. The Greeks continued to worship the same gods giving similar sacrificial offerings, festivals and dedications as it was in the classical era. This period in the Hellenistic religion did not witness new religious practices as only minorities of Greeks were concerned with them (Fairbanks 121).

Another key aspect of religion in the Hellenistic period was the institutions of cults that were dedicated to renowned rulers in the various Hellenistic Kingdoms. The initial cults were established under Alexander’s rule whose power, stature and conquests had elevated him to a level the dictated special recognition. Many of his heirs extended his worship to the extent that in Egypt he was honored as god under Ptolemy Soter. Later on Ptolemy’s son declared his late father as god and went ahead to proclaiming himself as a living god and by doing so, made the Ptolemies adapted to earlier Egyptian concepts of worshiping Pharaoh. In some parts the practice varied since a ruler ended up receiving divine status and not full godly status. During 307 BCE in Athens, Demetrius and Monophthalmus were honored and respected as saviors for liberation of the city. As a result of these, alters were mounted and annual festival to mark the celebrations were founded including the introduction of the office the priest of the saviors. It was rare to find a temple being dedicated to rulers but in many occasions their statues were regularly erected in different temples and kings would end up being worshiped as sharing gods.

Interestingly during the Hellenistic period the use of magic was evidently practiced as part of the religion of the time. Sanctuaries for witchcraft and oracular shrines were very popular including the use of charms and also incidences of casting cursing spells on others. Various symbols would be seen placed many house doors as a belief in bringing good luck or even prevent misfortunes for the occupants of the household (Fairbanks 234 ). Charms were designed and cut from precious stones and believed to carry protective power and sometimes were used to cast evil spells. There were also astrological beliefs that heavenly bodies like stars and planets had the capacity to influence a person’s future, this arose commonly in Babylonia where it was specifically applied to a king or a nation. However, the Greeks in the Hellenistic age sophisticated this concept into an extremely complex system of Hellenistic astrology.

During the Hellenistic era, worship generally consisted of sacrificial offerings of a number of domestic animals in holy alters that were accompanied by prayer and hymns. The worshipers would eat part of the sacrifice leaving the rest to be burnt for the purposes of appeasing the gods. The Greek authority extended into the field of religion as during the early times the ancient roman gods in most occasions were recognized with Greek gods. In addition, there were alternatives to religion that were presented in the Hellenistic philosophy the most common system being stoicism. This religious philosophical concept taught the beliefs about life as to live in accordance with the rational order which was believed to rule the entire universe (De Gruyter 207). It further explains that people must accept their fate in accordance to the divine will. There was also an extensive mythology in the Hellenistic Greek religion that consisted of a lot of stories about gods and goddesses and how they affect the life of earthy beings especially humans. Even though many of the myths revolved around heroic actions most of them were recognized as part of religion in all times.


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