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How the Greeks Changed the Idea of the Afterlife

Their secret cults help shape the way we think of what happens after death.

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Floodlights illuminate the temple of Poseidon, god of the sea, at Cape Sounion, Greece.
This story appears in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The world of ancient Greece was filled with gods, led by the towering Olympians—Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Poseidon, Athena, and other giants of mythology. Alongside worship of these divine inhabitants of Olympus were hundreds of cults focused on local deities and heroes.

People prayed to these gods for the same reasons we pray today: for health and safety, for prosperity, for a good harvest, for safety at sea. Mostly they prayed as communities, and through offerings and sacrifice they sought to please the inscrutable deities who they believed controlled their lives.

But what happens after death? In this, the ancients looked to Hades, god of the underworld, brother of Zeus and Poseidon. But Hades gave no reassurance. Wrapped in misty darkness, cut by the dread River Styx, the realm of Hades (“the unseen”) was, the poet Homer tells us, a place of “moldering horror” where ordinary people—and even heroes—went after they died.

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The Erechtheion, a temple to Athena, occupies the most sacred ground on Athens’s Acropolis. Ancient Greeks held festivals, sacrifices, games, and religious processions at the site; today it’s a magnet for tourists.

Sympathetic interest in the human condition eventually led the Greeks to adopt new forms of religion and new cults. No longer seen as a joyless fate, the afterlife became more of a personal quest. Mystery cults, shrouded in secrecy, promised guidance for what would come after death. The mystery rites were intensely emotional and staged like elaborate theater. Those of the great gods on the Greek island of Samothrace took place at night, with flickering torch fire pointing the way for initiates. Guarded on pain of death, the rituals remain mysterious to this day.

BULGARIA

MACED.

ALBAN.

Olympus

9,570 ft

2,917 m

Samothrace

GREECE

Acropolis

(Athens)

Olympia

Phylakopi

Cave of Zeus

(Mount Dikti)

Sanctuary or religious

site shown on the

time line below

ASIA

EUR.

AREA

ENLARGED

60 mi

AFRICA

60 km

PRESENT-DAY

BOUNDARIES SHOWN.

Active ritual use

Samothrace

Acropolis

(Athens)

Phylakopi

Olympia

Cave of Zeus (Mount Dikti)

2000

B.C.

A.D.

300

3000

JEROME N. COOKSON, NG Staff

Sources: sandra blakely, Emory University; Richard talbert, university of north carolina at Chapel Hill

1000

1

BULGARIA

TURKEY

MACEDONIA

Adriatic

Sea

THRACE

ASIA

EUROPE

ITALY

AREA

ENLARGED

ALBANIA

Samothrace

Metapontum

AFRICA

Olympus

9,570 ft

2,917 m

Troy

Lemnos

Corfu

Dodona

GREECE

Lesbos

ANATOLIA

TURKEY

Ionian

Sea

Karpenisi

Smyrna

Delphi

Euboea

Ithaca

Chios

Cephalonia

Eleusis

Ephesus

Acropolis (Athens)

Corinth

Samos

Zante

Mycenae

Miletus

Aegina

Olympia

Kea

PELOPONNESUS

Cape

Sounion

Atlas of Belief

The roots of religion in Greece date back thousands of years. Religious sites were devoted to civic cults or local gods, as well as to Greek traditions: festivals, oracles, pilgrimages, and ceremonies. The mystery-cult rituals at Samothrace, for instance, lasted from the sixth century B.C. through the dawn of Christianity. Sacred places also commemorated the legendary dwellings of the gods, such as Olympus.

Dilos

Halicarnassus

Sparta

Naxos

Phylakopi

Pylos

Kos

Milos

Rhodes

Cythera

Sea of Crete

Notable sanctuary

or religious site

Knossos

Crete

60 mi

Active ritual use

Samothrace

60 km

Cave of Zeus

(Mount Dikti)

Acropolis (Athens)

PRESENT-DAY BOUNDARIES SHOWN.

SITES IN BROWN ARE MARKED ON

THE TIME LINE.

Phylakopi

Olympia

Cave of Zeus (Mount Dikti)

Jerome N. Cookson, NG Staff

Sources: Sandra Blakely, Emory University;

Richard Talbert, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

3000

2000

1000

300

B.C.

1

A.D.

By the fourth century B.C., cults had emerged that claimed to offer purification by cleansing initiates of the stain of humanity. The foundations for new religions were falling into place. And when Christianity swept the ancient world, it carried with it, along with guidance from a single deity, remnants of the old beliefs: the washing away of human corruption through mystic rites, the different fates awaiting the initiated and uninitiated, and the reverence for sacred texts.


Moods of the Gods

As described by Homer, the gods and goddesses who ruled from Olympus possessed human traits such as lust, petulance, jealousy, and dishonesty. They also had a superhuman advantage: immortality.

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Olympus is a mountain with more than one peak. The jagged summit of Mytikas—here illuminated during a storm—is where ancient Greeks believed the greatest gods lived, including the primordial weather god Zeus, “the high-thunderer.”

Signs From Above

Greeks seeking guidance saw oracles as a direct line of communication with the divine. The gods’ answers to their questions came in different ways—obscure riddles, omens in the form of birds or lightning, even the rustle of leaves.


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Musicians, a lamb for slaughter, and a woman holding altar utensils appear in this painting of a sacrificial procession. Religious ceremonies were among the few public events where women had roles.

Public Worship

Shared religious rites united ancient Greek villages and regions. Worship intially was communal, but as people sought meaning in life and hope for an afterlife, they were drawn to cults that stressed a more individual relationship with the divine.

3-D Ancient Greece

Fly over the path of cult initiates to explore the sanctuary of the great gods on the island of Samothrace in this meticulous virtual re-creation of the sacred grounds.


Greece's Cave of Riches

Known as the mythical gateway to Hades, Alepotrypa Cave is teeming with history—and bodies. Scientists have found more than 150 and counting. The Greeks premieres on PBS June 21 at 9 p.m.

Power of the Dead

Believing that the dead could exert bad or good influence from the afterlife, ancient Greeks sought their ancestors’ favor with honors and offerings. Many also believed that their own fate after death was directly related to their initiation into the right cults.

Which is better, life or the afterlife? In Homer’s Odyssey, the slain hero Achilles answers from the underworld: “I would rather serve as laborer to a serf, to a landless man who has no great livelihood, than rule all the perished dead.”

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The remains of a sanctuary of the Egyptian goddess Isis stand at the cult site of Dion, Greece, in the foothills of Olympus. It’s just one example of foreign influence on the area’s religious practices. Dion was a place of worship for people through Roman times. 

Alepotrypa, Athens Acropolis, Delphi, Dion, Dodona, Sounion, and all artifacts photographed with permission of Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports.


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