Gods and Philosophical Superstars of Ancient Greece
Greek civilization, without much contest, is the key influence of not just modern Europe, but the entire Western Civilization. We see the traces of its soul in the buildings that we go into, the clothes we wear, the books we read, the way our government works—and yes, we can thank the Greek academics for paving the way for the scientific, mathematical, and philosophical developments that broaden our intellect of the universe and make students’ lives all the more stressful horrifying difficult sleepless fruitful, and also to open their minds to understanding and questioning the world.
How did Greece end up being the building block of so many cultures? Let’s dive into a time and place loaded with politics, warfare, Greek gods, goddesses, physics and math (hold that whine), art, and poetry.
Modern Greece in the 21st century.
Ancient Greece includes the Archaic Period, which describes the period between 800 and 500 BCE, and boy it was a busy time.
Up until this period (commonly referred to as the “Greek Dark Ages”), the population was scattered all over the country, dabbling in agriculture. These farming villages eventually grew, expanded, and the people began to form a community, with their own territorial boundaries, agoras (marketplaces), venues for group gatherings, and developing their housing.
Where there’s community, there’s a need for order and harmony. Therefore, the communities came up with their own internal laws and rules, starting with tax collection, and building armies to protect them from outsiders and invaders.
Voila. The city-states, or polis, are born.
Politics in city-states started out just like any other kingdom, ruled by hereditary royalties and leaders (the basileus) in dynasty fashion, but were eventually replaced by a small group of aristocrats who owned the largest chunks of farmland and had the most slaves in their household. They decided on city-state matters and did not allow common people to participate in important communal meetings.
It became apparent soon, however, that the communal assembly was the more popular choice (because obviously there are more poor people than rich families), and soon, the polis formed democracy (from the Greek word demos, meaning “common people”).
The male adult citizens gathered to discuss any matter that needed a collective decision—which wasn’t that big a production if the polis has only a few thousand in its population. Since then, the city-states’ politics became people-driven (Interesting nugget: it’s noteworthy that the term ‘politics’ came from polis).
Fascinated with mythological gods and goddesses of the ancient times? We’ve got Greece to thank for Zeus and his crazy-powerful (and sometimes, just crazy) family of supernatural deities.
The Greeks liked variety, that’s for sure—they have a whole slew of omnipotent beings, for different city-states that they watch over, and some who represent the different parts of the world of the living, and of course, the dark, dark underworld.
Unlike most religions, the Greek gods and goddesses were never depicted as perfect—far from it. If anything, most of them are certifiable brats, getting intoxicated on a regular basis, starting wars over nothing, lying, cheating, manipulating, and sometimes, playing cruel games on mortals. They are mostly revered by the people out of fear, not love, and were often regarded as a source of, well, resources, instead of holy entities.
So how did the Greeks communicate to the gods and goddesses? Oracles. Priests and Priestesses were often consulted when divine intervention was needed. In trance, they spoke out the messages from Mt. Olympus (the penthouse of the gods and goddesses), and gave out warnings, premonitions, instructions, and advice on pretty much everything—war, famine, tax reform, etc.
Greek Mythology’s gods and goddesses include the main deities (the ‘big bosses’ in Olympus), their sons and daughters, and other demi-gods and humans with godlike abilities (borne from gods taking a fancy on a mortal being).
These are the big twelve Olympian gods and goddesses (the Dodekatheon):
- Zeus – King of the Gods, sky, thunder, lightning, law, justice
- Hera – Zeus’ wife; goddess of marriage
- Poseidon – god of the sea
- Athena – goddess of wisdom and war
- Apollo – god light, medicine, and the arts
- Demeter – goddess of agriculture and fertility
- Artemis – goddess of the hunt
- Ares – god of war
- Aphrodite – goddess of love and beauty
- Hermes – messenger of the gods; god of commerce
- Hephaestus – god of fire
- Hestia – goddess of the hearth and domesticity
The Greeks loved to build for them, that’s for sure. Impressive temples made of marble were painstakingly constructed and painted to house huge images of their gods. One shining example is the Parthenon in Athens (devoted to the goddess Athena), consisting of a whopping 30,000 tons of white marble painted in blue, gold, and red. It was home to a staggering 40-foot statue of the goddess of wisdom, and is now one of the most famous Greek tourist sites in the world.
Illustration of Poseidon, God of the Sea
Fan of the Olympic Games?
You’ve got the gods and goddesses to thank for that—but no, they didn’t hold a meeting up in Olympus and write down the rules and events of the competitions. The Greeks were not known for being the most spiritual folks, but they sure dedicated a lot of their activities to please the divine.
The Olympics started in 776 BCE, as a sports festival honoring Zeus. The event occurred every four years, much like the modern-day tradition that athletes all over the world participate in. The difference was fewer types of games, which included song and poetry competitions (Those olive crowns were the Grammys of their time, too).
As with other cultures, Greek education was mainly focused on training the males. With the exception of the city-state Sparta, there are no publicly-funded institutions—making this more of a privilege for aristocratic and wealthy boys.
A slave is partnered with a boy throughout his education, and accompanied his charge to every lesson—arithmetic, writing, reading, songs, literature. The curriculum for boys 12 years and up focused on sports and military training, where the students engaged in running, discus throwing, javelin throwing, and wrestling. They also attended military camps to prepare them for war or invasions.
So what did the little girls do while the boys got their education? If the family permitted it, the girls were given domestic training—how to run the household, basic accounting for their future families, weaving and sewing.
The Greeks are famous for their simple, fuss-free style and grace in their buildings, temples, and houses. The Parthenon (mentioned earlier as the temple built as homage to Athena) is one of the last standing ancient buildings that show off Greece’ Doric-architecture (simplistic designs with plain columns), but was severely damaged during the Venetian attacks in 1687.
The ruins of Parthenon were restored and are now open to the public as one of the most photographed and visited landmarks in Greece—after they made sure no one will be smashed under an avalanche of ancient marble slabs, of course.
Ahead of the Times: Socrates
We can also thank the ancient Greek civilization for producing the most groundbreaking pioneers in the field of philosophical studies. Socrates (born in 469 BCE), proved to be one of the greatest—and strangest (warning: this ends badly).
Hailed now as the founding father of Western philosophy, Socrates lived as an esteemed soldier in Athens, but this guy wasn’t all about obeying orders. His habit of questioning pretty much everything—including the power of the gods and goddesses—put him in hot water for the most part of his adult life.
What we know about Socrates does not come from any of his written work—because he didn’t have any. Most accounts about him where derived from the writings of his students and constituents, like Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. He fully opposed the belief of omnipotence of the deities, and supported the idea of putting intellectuals to power.
Ever head of the Socratic Method? It was (obviously) named after him and his ways of asking questions and pushing the members of a debate or argument to keep at it with critical thinking and understanding, until a resolution is achieved. That, combined with the fact that he was no big fan of the folks up in Olympus, put him on trial for non-belief and corruption of the minds of the young’uns—a crime punishable by death in Athens.
So what was a radical-thinking man to do? He accepted his fate, had a good time with his friends, and drank a poisonous hemlock courtesy of the executioner in 399 BCE. He was around 70 years old at the time.
He was, sadly, years and years and years ahead of his time, and he got put down because of it (and never got any recognition until way after his death).
The First Scientist of the West: Aristotle
One of the most famous academics of ancient Greece, Aristotle (born in 384 BCE) is often hailed as the First True Western Scientist, The Teacher, and The Philosopher.
Having a lot of titles came with a lot of hard studying. He was educated and trained to be a teacher under the tutelage of Plato (One of Socrates’ top students) for twenty years, then spent half a decade in Assos and Lesbos studying marine biology.
And you know you’ve done your, well, homework, when you get appointed as the teacher of the Macedonian King Philip II’s son. But no big deal, it’s ‘just’ the young Alexander the Great. You know, the future conqueror of multiple kingdoms.
After his tutoring gig, he went back to Athens and settled in a rented home in Lyceum, which used to be a school for wrestlers. His works and teachings attracted students and intellectuals—those and the biggest library of manuscripts during that time. During his stint in Lyceum, Aristotle wrote some 200 of those golden manuscripts, only 31 of which survived long enough for us to document and study. His works were somewhat more of lecture notes than structured literature, and overwhelmingly overloaded with information—which lead researchers to believe they were for personal use and not really for us to see.
His surviving manuscripts are divided into four categories:
- The Organon – which consists of guidelines for logical thinking (whether you dabble in philosophical studies or the sciences)
- Theoreticals – the treasure trove filled with his pioneering work on physics, metaphysics, animals, and cosmology
- The Nichomachean Ethics and Politics – his studies regarding the individual, familial, and societal development of humans
- The Rhetorics and Poetics – the recipe book for interpersonal communication, including how one can dish out the best arguments, and how to destroy your debate opponent’s confidence and inspire fear.
Aristotle died in 322 BCE (stomach problems, of all things), but his work luckily survived much longer than he did. Aristotle’s works were stored and almost forgotten for years and years, until they made their way to the hands of Andronicus of Rhodes in 30 BCE (yes, almost three hundred years later).
Editions after editions of his works were passed on, from Islamic thinkers (like Avicenna), to Western scholars such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas—it may be hard to see the connection between ancient Greece and Christianity, but Aristotle’s teachings became the foundation of modern-day theology and philosophy.
Socrates and Aristotle are just two of Greece’ many, many pioneering giants—they opened doors for so many fields of study, made everyone uncomfortable with their questioning and inquisitive way of life (and one ended up getting executed for it. Ouch!), and left gifts of wisdom and information for the generations that would come long after their deaths.
Want to delve deeper and dive into the minds of these philosophical superstars? Check out our reading resources on the life and works of Socrates and Aristotle for further studies!
Ancient Greece: The Legacy of Socrates
The Introspective Man The philosophy of Socrates glitters until today and will continue doing so in the future. Socrates is not the actual founder of philosophy, as is sometimes claimed. Preceding him, and as the name suggests, there were the pre-Socratic philosophers. Some of them are Pythagoras, Thales, Empedocles, Parmenides and Heraclitus of Ephesus. However, […]
Ancient Greece: The Legacy of Aristotle (Volume 3)
Immortalized by intellectual activity. We have all heard of Aristotle. A pillar of the classical world of ancient Greece, he was one of the first and greatest philosophers to ever exist. Without him, our world and the Western intellectual tradition would be simply unrecognizable. Aristotle studied, and wrote and lectured on, every academic discipline you […]
Want notifications of new articles?
Subscribe to our Newsletter.