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published: 1/20/05
updated: 12/16/13

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Glossary of Greek and Roman Religion






A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z

A

Aeneas
Hero of Greek mythology and literature. Son of Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite. In the Iliad, he is a Trojan leader who is very pious towards the gods.
Agamemnon
Hero of Greek mythology and literature. Son of Atreus, brother of Menelaus, husband of Clytemnestra. In Homer, commander of the Greek expedition against Troy and a man of personal valor but easily discouraged.
agones
1. Informal and competitive struggles and rivalries that permeated Greek life.
2. Gatherings of people, usually for formal contests in honor of a god or local hero.
agora
Large open space used for assembly of the citizens; thus the center of a Greek city.
Anthesteria
An Athenian festival in honor of the god Dionysus. Held annually for three days in the early spring to celebrate the end of winter and the maturing of the wine.
aparche (first-fruits)
Lit. "from the beginning." Gift to the gods, usually agricultural products. They may be either burnt, deposited at sacred places, or sunk in water.
Apaturia
An Ionian festival celebrated by the phatry throughout Attica. It took place in the autumn month of Pyanopsion for three days, and its main function was to enrol new phatry members.
Apellai
Dorian festival of Apollo celebrated at Sparta and elsewhere. Corresponded to the Ionian festival of Apaturia. At Sparta, the festival was celebrated monthly, on the seventh, when the Spartan assembly met.
Aphrodite
Goddess of sexuality and reproduction; also connected with vegetation and the earth in general. Patron goddess of prostitutes, seafaring, and civic harmony. According to Homer, the daughter of Zeus and Dione. According to Hesiod, born from the severed genitals of Uranus. Seen as both Greek and foreign.




Apollo
Important god of many functions, including healing and purification, prophecy, care for young citizens, poetry and music. Son of Zeus and Leto, brother of Artemis. For many, the most Greek of Greek gods. Portrayed as young, beardless, athletic, and of ideal beauty. His weapon is the bow, his instrument is the lyre, and his plant is the laurel.
apophrades
"Impure" days of the Athenian calendar. Associated with the Plynteria, homicide trials, moonless days, and other inauspicious events. Temples were closed and major undertakings were avoided.
Aristotle
(384-322 BCE) Greek philosopher who taught that knowledge of God is the primary form of knowledge, and the way to know God is through the intellect and rationality. Aristotle's thought (combined with Platonism) was influential in Judaism, Islam and Christianity in the Middle Ages.
Attica (Modern Greek Attiki)
Ancient coastal district of east central Greece. Contained the cities of Eleusis, Marathon, and Athens. The modern district stretches farther west and has Athens as its capital.

B

Bacchanalia (also Dionysia)
Any of several festivals of Dionysus, the wine god. Suppressed by the Roman senate in 186 BC. Bacchic cults included oaths of loyalty, organized funding, property and membership. In Greece, only women were admitted; in Rome, both were admitted and the festivities were held more often.
Bacchus
See Dionysus.

D

dadouchos
The torchbearer, and second most important priest, of the Eleusian Mysteries. He was chosen from the lineage of the Kerykes for life. He wore a headbadn with a myrtle wreath, a robe of purple, and carried torches. The appointment was considered a great honor and there was often considerable competition for the position.
Dionysus (also Bacchus)
God of fruitfulness, vegetation, wine and ecstasy. Son of Zeus and Semele.

E

eiresione
Olive branch carried by singing boys at various festivals, then deposited either at the temple of Apollo or house doors. The branches were hung with symbols of agricultural abundance: figs, fruits, etc. Householders were expected to give the boys a present in return.
Eleusinia
Important festival of games held at Eleusis (in Attica) on a grand scale every fourth year and on a lesser scale every two years. The prize was grain from the Rarian field in Eleusis, where grain was believed to have been first cultivated.
Eleusis
Most famous local community (deme) in Athens after Piraeus. On a landlocked bay with a rich plain; merege with Athens before 7th cent. BCE.
Elysium (also Elysian Fields)
Paradise inhabited by the distinguished or the good after their death. First named in Homer's Odyssey as the destiny of Menelaus.
exegetes
An interpreter or teacher of sacred lore. Athenian exegetai concerned themselves primarily with the unwritten sacred law, but also pronounced on secular and domestic questions.

F

fable
Short story in Greece and other ancient cultures. Fables appeared in literature as illustrative examples and later were compiled into collections.

H

hierodouloi
"Sacred slaves." The term can refer to slaves who are technically the property of a god and live on land owned by temples, slaves who are attached to the service of a god through a gift or civic decree, and slaves who were manumitted through a fictitious sale to a god. Occasionally it was also used by devotees of a cult to refer to themselves as "slaves of the god."
hieros gamos (holy marriage)
Specifically, a festival in Athens celebrating the marriage of Zeus and Hera and also known as Theogamia. More generally, the mythical or ritual presentation of a solemn sexual union involving at least one divine partner.
Homer
The real or legendary author of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were written in the 8th century BCE. See Homer.

I

Iris
Goddess of the rainbow and messenger of the gods, employed especially by Zeus and Hera.

K

kanephoroi
Young women who carried baskets or vessels (kana) of objects needed for the sacrificial ceremony in processions. They were required to be from a good family, unmarried, and chaste. They were dressed splendidly, their hair and garments were decked with gold and jewels, they were powdered with while barley-flour and wore a chain of figs.
Ker (also Cer)
An impersonal spirit of evil and destructiveness. Usually spoken of in the plural (Keres), and originally used in relation to destiny or in reference to the spirits of the dead. In post-Homeric usage, they pollute like the Harpies and are associated with disease, old age, death, and troubles in general.



M

makarismos
"Blessed." Used in Homer and possibly in rites of initations in mystery cults.
maschalismos
A practice mentioned in tragedies, which may or may not have been common in real life, of cutting off the extremities of a murder victim and placing them under the corpse's armpits (maschalai). The purpose was probably humiliation, but may have also served to avoid pollution or prevent the corpse from taking vengeance.

N

nenia
A dirge of lamentation and praise of a deceased person, sung to a flute accompaniment by a hired mourner. Named for Nenia, the goddess of funerary lamentation.
neokoros
"Temple warden." Originally, a temple official. From the late 1st cent. CE, a title for a city that held a provincial temple in the Roman Empire.

O

Olympian Games
Games hled at Olympia once every four years in August or September in honor of Zeus. The original contest was a 200-meter sprint; horse and chariot races were added around the 8th century BCE. The prizes were crowns of wild olive. The games were abolished in 393 CE by Emperor Theodosius I.
Olympian gods (also Olympians)
The twelve gods on the Parthenon frieze: Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Poseiden and Zeus.
Oschophoria
Attic festival celebrated early in the autumn month of Pyanopsion. Main rites were: a procession led by two young noblemen dressed as women and carrying oschoi, bunches of grapes on the branch; a race along the same course, also holding oschoi; a banquet with female "dinner-bearers" and libations accompanied by mixed cries of joy and grief.

P

Paean
A ritual exclamation and name for the song addressed to gods of healing (originally Paean, later Apollo and Asclepius). Paeans were sung at religious festivals, during illness or plague, before a military action, after libations, and on public occasions like the ratification of peace.
pannychis
An "all-night" festival for a deity. In comedies, they are sometime the occasion of illicit sexual encounters, and Pannychis was also a common name for an upper-class prostitute.
pharmakos
A human scapegoat, chosen from among the poor and ugly and chased out of the city-state to purify it in times of famine or plague. In myths, sometimes aristocrats, princesses or kings sacrifice themselves for the city.
Platonism
Philosophical system derived from Plato's writings. The basic teaching of Platonism is that ultimate reality cannot be found in everyday life but in the world of the "Forms." Knowledge of the Forms comes by moral and intellectual purification.
Plotinus
(c. 205-270 CE) Founder of Neoplatonism and mystic. His thought centered around attaining to the One (or the Good) through contemplation. Plotinus' works were published by his pupil Porphyry in six "Enneads" (groups of nine).
proagon
In Classical Athens, an official theatrical presentation taking place a few days before the Great Dionysia began.

T

tithe (dekate)
A thank-offering to a god that is a one-tenth part of a revenue.

Z

Zeus
Chief deity of the Olympian pantheon, god of the sky and weather, and sender of thunderbolts and lightning.
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