The National identity of the Ancient Greeks


As it is known, in the contemporary world, the humanity implements the motives of Greek religion, holidays, contents, fashion, political and social rulings, and other notions. Observing the Ancient Greeks' way of life, one should acknowledge that their national identity was deeply shaped by religious beliefs. To be more precise, the people of Ancient Greece did not profess religion in the contemporary meaning. Instead, they are considered to personify all animated and unanimated matters. For instance, the religion of the Ancient Greeks comprised a number of gods who were associated with the weather and natural phenomenon. In addition, the Ancient Greeks were known to develop a cult of the witchcraft believing that the entire world was filled with magic. More to say, an important aspect of their religion was the equation of human-heroes to deities and belief in half-deity half-human creatures as well as in other kinds of semi-deities. Given the role of supernatural in the popular culture of the Ancient Greeks, it is not surprising that all their holidays were dedicated to gods. Therefore, it is possible to claim that most holidays of Ancient Greece, many of which remain topical in the modern world, had a strong religious background. In particular, they were arranged to glorify and appease deities of Ancient Greeks. In these terms, it is appropriate to mention that religious beliefs and, respectively, holidays revealed the important characteristics of the natural identity of the Ancient Greeks. Simply put, the social life Ancient Greece was deeply imprinted in religion and leisure. To identify the main peculiarities of the Greeks' social life, this paper aims to observe the core aspects of Ancient Greek religion, linking people's national identity to the approaches to celebrating the national festivals. 

A Variety of Deities

To begin with, one should emphasize that religion of Ancient Greece presumed the existence of numerous gods who were assembled under the supreme deity. It means that the Ancient Greeks welcomed the strict social hierarchy as well as the division of territory and social niches. For instance, the country was divided into poleis, each of which was reigned by a representative of a rich and powerful social class, called aristoi (Cartwright, n. pag.). Each polis was under the protection of different gods (“Religion and Death: Greek Religion”). For instance, Athens was known to be under the protection of goddess Athena (“Religion and Death: Greek Religion”). As a result, "each Greek polis had a series of public festivals throughout the year that were intended to ensure the aid of all the gods who were thus honoured" (Adkins, n. pag.). It is necessary to explain that an endeavor to obtain the aid of deities was practically realized in several ways that were connected with the features of Greek social identity. 


The Greek Social Structure and Religion

To comprehend what social factors stipulated the development of Ancient Greek religion and how it became the fundament of Greek leisure and holidays, one should refer to the peculiarities of the Greeks' social life. First, as it was typical for those times, males were a predominant class. This particularity was manifested in Greek religion where Zeus, the supreme god, was a male. 

In addition, the social status of the Greek leading class was supposed to be confirmed with expensive military equipment. Specifically, the rich Greek aristoi were armed with weapons, harnesses, and means of transport, for example, horses (Cartwright, n. pag.). Thus, Zeus, as the main god, was pictured in the military uniform and in a chariot. More to say, it was typical of the Ancient Greeks to portray other powerful deities with different weapons. For instance, Poseidon was considered to have a trident, and Athena had a spear. In this way, the Ancient Greeks displayed their honor for weapons and stressed the fact that military equipment was meant to emphasize the social position of an individual. 

Furthermore, in Ancient Greece, the leaders of clans competed with one another that resulted in the formation of the corresponding religious belief that deities were not friendly and they did not live in peace with each other (Cartwright, n. pag.). Instead, they used to live in quarrels and, as a result, they formed numerous alliances, committed provocations, and started wars. Given this peculiarity, one can rightfully presume that the Ancient Greeks aimed to justify their military ambitions by empowering their deities with the similar qualities. What is more, they developed a belief that it was not people but gods who had encouraged humans to begin wars (Adkins, n. pag.). Consequently, the responsibility for murders was laid upon deities, which was implied in the Greek religious stories. 

Moreover, given the considerable role of the military ambitions and motives in the life of the Ancient Greeks, it is not surprising that this civilization is known for its recognition of physical power. This cultural attitude induced the development of the cult of physical health, beauty, and power (Cartwright, n. pag.). This notion was explicitly manifested in the Greek art where both deities and people were portrayed as physically beautiful, strong, and fit. In addition, linking the above-stated characteristics to the evolvement of religion-based holidays, one should acknowledge that the famous Olympic Games were founded as a means to glorify Zeus and, simultaneously, maintain the cult of physical power (Cartwright, n. pag.). It is necessary to point out that, apart from the Olympic Games, the citizens of Greece also enjoyed "Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean Games" (“Festivals in Ancient Greece” n. pag.). In a word, a great number of the diverse athletic contests that were characterized with the military context could testify that the Ancient Greeks cherished physical strength and beauty. 

What is more, the Greek social structure was known for an explicit social discrimination. Specifically, slavery was flourishing in Ancient Greece. The social relations between slaves and their masters found its manifestation in the idea that gods considered men to be inferior. Therefore, in Greek religion, deities did not praise humans' lives. At best, a concrete god/goddess might express the concerns regarding the well-being of his/her polis because it presumed the preservation of his/her servants, who lived to worship their deity. This attitude explicitly resembles the interaction between the Greek ruling class, or aristoi, and their slaves (Cartwright, n. pag.). Therefore, one can rightfully conclude that the Greek social structure underlay the deities' hierarchy, as it was highlighted in Greek religion. 

In addition, while observing social interaction and hierarchy of the Ancient Greeks, it is appropriate to discuss the role and position of women. It is known that women were subordinated to men, and they belonged to their male relatives (father, husband, brother, uncle). Despite the official monogamy, it was typical for the Greek men to maintain intimate relations aside their families. This aspect of the Greek popular culture was embodied in the deities' polygamy. One should consider the example that most deities had extramarital affairs and illegitimate children (Cartwright, n. pag.). At the same time, women were associated with femininity, fertility, and successful procreation. Therefore, female teenagers were instilled with the appropriate qualities that were necessary for becoming good mothers, house-keepers, and wives. The cult of fertility that is associated with a female had a great role in the lives of the Ancient Greeks. It is necessary to mention that fertility was especially important for the Greek peasants, which is not surprising given that an agricultural sphere was supposed to assure people's survival. In these circumstances, to obtain the aid of deities, peasants developed a great amount of festivals. Some of them were devoted to female deities and semi-deities, such as Demetra, the goddess of earth and fecundity, and the nymph Eileithyia, who was considered to bless women for impregnation and help them with successful birthing (Adkins, n. pag.). Simultaneously, fertility was associated with male deities. For instance, the Ancient Greek peasants arranged festivals in order to worship half-deity Pan who was the leader of the nymphs. In a word, the above-discussed examples testify that religion in Ancient Greece was an important part of cultural attitude. Magic, which laid in the basis of the Greek religion, was shaped by their social identity and transformed into a number of religious myths and beliefs that came to the modern days. The next section is aimed at detecting and discussing how the corresponding aspects were manifested in the Greek religious holidays. 

The Manifestation of the Greeks' National Identity in Religious Holidays

As was mentioned above, the conflicts between aristoi induced the necessity for growing military power, which presumed the development and maintenance of a good physical shape. Shorty, this endeavor became a part of a popular culture of Ancient Greece. Therefore, it was incorporated into religious beliefs and manifested in the religious holidays. Simply put, the cult of physical strength led to the development of contents that became an important part of various festivals. In this way, "a torch race, athletic contests, mock fights, and bardic recitations" predefined the occurrence of the Olympic Games (Adkins, n. pag.).  The famous sport contest was held every 4 years to honor the supreme god Zeus, and during the Olympic Games, all wars were supposed to be stopped (Adkins, n. pag.). Given its military context, one should comprehend that many athletic contests were aimed at conducting semi-military competition between the participants. Therefore, it is possible to deduce that, apart from honoring Zeus, the Olympic Games were aimed at displaying the level of sport training and military power of the plausible warriors. Moreover, it was meant to entertain people while actively promoting the benevolence of fit, strong, and physically attractive bodies. 

Another important peculiarity of the Greek religious holidays and festivals is the absence of human sacrifices. Probably, it is defined by the fact that the Ancient Greeks did not have the cult of church and priests. Thus, it allowed saving a considerable level of the individualism and self-worth of every believer. As a result, a human life was considered valuable enough not to be sacrificed in the name of gods. Instead, the Greeks actively resorted to animal and plant sacrifices. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that even these kinds of sacrifices were more for people than for gods. For instance, it was common to kill a young pig in order to glorify Demetra, but the said pig was roasted and eaten by people during a festival (Adkins, n. pag.). It means that, despite explicitly implemented motives of the supernatural, Greek society was concentrated more on people than on deities. This peculiarity of the Greek's cultural attitude can be connected with another important aspect, which is absence of the afterlife. 

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The Ancient Greeks considered death final and equal for all classes and individuals regardless of their life deeds. In this regard, it did not matter how good a certain person was, but it was important how much power (physical, social, emotional) he/she had possessed. It is appropriate to admit that all Greek heroes were evaluated from the above-stated perspective. Therefore, one can rightfully conclude that in Ancient Greece, the notion of virtue varied from its contemporary meaning. In addition, the concept of sin was absent in Greek religion. These important aspects of the Greek national identity were transformed in a peculiar way of interaction with deities and highlighted in the corresponding religious beliefs and holidays. Consequently, the absence of the concept of afterlife predefined glorifying deities only for getting help in the present life. This particularity opposes the role of the contemporary religious holidays and, respectively, the purpose and ways of their celebration. 

Furthermore, while observing the religious holidays of Ancient Greece, it is necessary to point out that their initial purpose, which was to worship gods, resulted in the creation and excessive use of altars and scenes. The Greeks used altars for sacrifices and scenes for performing various contests and plays (Cartwright, n. pag.). As it is known, the use of elevations became an important attribute of both religious and non-religious holidays. It remains topical in the modern world. 


Considering the above-mentioned, it is appropriate to stress that the social identity of the Ancient Greeks was clearly manifested in their religious beliefs. The Greeks' mentality is reflected in the numerous religious holidays and festivals, many of which remain topical in the contemporary world. In particular, the celebration of the Olympic Games testifies the Ancient Greeks' endeavor to remain physically strong and beautiful. In addition, it has a strong military approach, which emphasizes the corresponding ambitions of the Greek cities. Therefore, it was typical to use military equipment during contests. In addition, the absence of the concepts of afterlife and sin resulted in the weakened dependency on the gods' will and created religious stories about people's confrontations with deities. Moreover, religious beliefs of the Ancient Greeks reveal the well-organized social hierarchy with the strong notion of slavery and women's submissiveness. Apart from that, the peasants worshiping to the gods of fertility begot a number of festivals that were strongly connected with the nature circle and displayed the Ancient Greeks' dependency on the nature. 

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