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Animism, Myth and Religion in Ancient Greece

Why do we have a need to explain the world we live in?

Man has been invaded by its fear of death and insatiable curiosity. From ancient times he has looked from explanations: about itself, the cosmos, death, and a long etcetera. In this article we are going to delve into two postures that the people from Ancient Greece adopted to explain the world.

Human beings, regardless of culture or period, have always had the need to explain and make sense of the world in which they live. Also, since the beginning of its existence.

Humanity has adopted different paradigms and ideas to try to explain reality and alleviate the anguish of death; however, this does not mean that, by imposing a new paradigm, the former is renegade to oblivion. Although certain beliefs and customs do not survive the passage of time, the thought from which they come will remain present. Sometimes notoriously, as for example in the mythical-religious paradigm, which, despite having lost strength in recent centuries, still maintains a large number of believers and fanatics around the world. Other times, it is presented as a reminiscence so common that it camouflages and slips silently among the other aspects of today's life, as with animism, by giving human qualities to an inanimate object.

We are going to delve into two paradigms used by the people of Ancient Greece to explain the world: animism and myths/religion.


In animism the idea that all existing objects have life takes precedence. One can interact with the spirits of nature and the spirits of the dead. Reality can be explained as the interaction of objects and nature endowed with vitality and supernatural powers. Animism maintains a close relationship with anthropomorphism, which gives human qualities to elements that lack these. The sun could get angry and cause droughts or stay calm and allow a good season.

This paradigm requires faith, since it cannot be objectively demonstrated, scientific methods do not apply. It is a primal state of human thought, which is still reminiscent in modern society.

Animism, through the appearance of a character that serves as a bridge, becomes more complex and leads to the mythical-religious paradigm. The character is the religious figure, who is also the bridge between the spiritual world and that of humans, say shaman, sorcerer, priest or monk. Since the religious figure is the only contact with the other world, it acquires power in society, to the point of being the one who commands it explicitly or implicitly.

Totems represent the beings of animism that are revered by people who are "protected" by them, later, these totems would become gods. Always with a strong influence of anthropomorphism

Since all nature has a soul, as it moves into religion, this translates into polytheism, a lot of gods.


Myth and Religion

Myths are fantastic explanations for facts or elements of reality. Some are recurrent in various cultures: the creation of the world, life, the creation of the human being, etc. These explanations, as in animism, require faith. They don't require deeper questions, the same story is enough to answer the questions. There is lack of curiosity to go beyond the given explanation, this paradigm is reinforced by circular reasoning: "To postulate or take the principle is to demonstrate for yourself what is not clear or is not known to itself, that is: not to demonstrate" (Aristotle, First Analytical) . For example:

1. Zeus created lightning.

2. Lightning exists.

3. Therefore, Zeus exists.

Religions take myths and make it their base. Then rituals and customs come out of them. The religious figure still retains the power he held in the animist state, yet his functions diversify. Now priests specialize in certain gods, these gods receive a specific cult.


Examples of religious practices

In the Athens of ancient Greece, the Parthenon was the temple erected in honor of the goddess Athena whom the Athenians considered their protector.

In the oracle of Delphi, a python, which communicated directly with Apollo, revealed to those who consulted there their future, the faith that the Greeks had in the oracle was absolute and beyond reproach.

When someone died in ancient Greece, his relatives or friends placed him an ebola (Greek coin) under his eyelids or tongue to pay Charon, who carried the soul of mortals crossing the Stygian River (the Aqueronte according to Dante in The Divine Comedy) in his boat. Beliefs were so rooted in this paradigm that they influenced and controlled the daily, political, and economic lives of their believers.

The anthropomorphism of animism also exercises dominion, the gods of religions have, to a greater or lesser extent, human qualities, and personalities. The gods can fall in love, take revenge, be unfaithful to their partners, fear, etc.

Two most popular religions

In ancient Greece there were two religions covering most of the population: the Olympic and the orphism.

In the Olympic religion, the gods cared truly little about the affairs of mortals. People believed in life after death, but it was said that the soul lost its personality and memories in it. In this religion, intelligence and rationality were highly appreciated, which is why it was adopted by those who shared this belief, the upper-class Greeks.

The other was the Dionysiac-orphic religion, which was based on the god of wine and feast, Dionysus. The upper-class Greeks had relatively poor and ignorant workers. This humble population, who feared an uncertain future, relied on this religion, which included the "transmigration of the soul", means that the soul had sinned and should be redeemed through a "circle of births" until it could transcend and return to the divine.


To conclude

Animism and mythical religious thinking, while sufficient to remedy man's natural doubts and fears, did not give answers that were sustained by their own weight. They heavily relied on faith and the supernatural.