The earliest Greek literature, the “Iliad” and “Odyssey,”〖See Harvard Classics, xxii, 9ff.〗 shows a circle of gods bound together in a social organization similar to that of the Homeric state. At the head is Zeus, father of gods and of men, possessing a power on Olympus like that of Agamemnon among the Greeks before Troy. With Zeus, Apollo and Athena hold the first rank; Hera, although the wife of Zeus, is in the second rank with Poseidon; Ares and Aphrodite represent little more than the passions of rage for slaughter and love; the god of fire, Hephaestus, Artemis, the sister of Apollo, Hermes, the higher servant of the greater gods and the companion of men, and others are of still lower rank; while Demeter and Dionysus, although known, have no place on Olympus. All these divine beings are represented as larger, stronger, wiser than mortals, but they are no whit less subject to the passions of body and mind; their superiority over men lies chiefly in the possession of immortality. Now no such system of gods was ever worshiped anywhere in the Greek world. It was created by a process of selection and elimination from local cults, and adapted to please the Ionic courts at which the epics were intended to be recited. These epic gods did not drive out local divinities; but the Homeric poems acquired such universal influence in Greece that wherever possible the local divinity was assimilated to the Homeric type, so that Athena, for example, the patroness of Athens, was endowed with the characteristics given her in the epics. There was a constant tendency in literature and art to represent the greater gods in the Homeric way.

Hesiod (about 700 B. C.) also had a great influence on later times through his “Theogony,” which was the first attempt to criticize myths and to bring the various accounts into a consistent and harmonious whole. Moreover, the Hesiodic poetry displays certain religious elements which have little or no place in the Homeric epics. Of these the most significant is the worship of the dead and of heroes. On the side of ethics also we find higher concepts of justice and of the moral order; and in general there is much more reflection on man’s relation to the gods and to society than we see in Homer.

In spite of the influence of Homer and Hesiod, no single god or system of gods ever became wholly universal, but each divinity was connected with some locality. The simple Greek conceived of his local god as individual, largely distinct from any other god of the same name, very much as the Greek peasant to-day thinks of his local saint. Yet with the growth of cities, when it became inconvenient to resort often to the ancient localities which might be remote, new shrines, offshoots of the old, were established in towns, so that there was, for example, at Athens, a certain concentration of cults. Furthermore, the chief divinity of a city acquired a position as patroness of a considerable area, as Athena of all Attica, but without completely overshadowing or expelling other gods. Likewise certain religious centers developed which served more than one state, such as the shrine of Apollo at Delos, which became a center for all Ionians, or that of Zeus at Olympia, where representatives of all the Greek world assembled every four years.

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