National Geographic : 2016 Jul
104 national geographic • july 2016 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. 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. 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. By Caroline Alexander Photographs by Vincent J. Musi and David Coventry Continue your tour of ancient Greece with a new National Geographic book, The Greeks, an expedition, and a TV special premiering June 21 on PBS. An exhibition celebrating 5,000 years of Greek culture is open until October 10 at the Nation- al Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C . Details are at ngm.com/Jul2016.