In the ancient world, religion played a great role in the lives of people. The concept of divine intervention had changed. This is evident in ancient literature and culture. Using the Greek epic, The Odyssey by Homer, it is possible to draw conclusions on how religion and divinity were viewed during the Greek archaic period. Using other works of literature such as Histories by Herodotus and Inferno by Dante it is possible to make connections between religion and the Greek classical period and the medieval period. Using these works of literature, we can see how religion impacted society during each period. Doing so will allow us to see how religion has changed over many centuries.
In the epic, The Odyssey by Homer, religion and divine intervention is a key component of the story. Greek religion known as Hellenism was a polytheistic religion. The relationship between the Greek gods and the Greek people is shown throughout the epic. In The Odyssey, Odysseus has had multiple relationships with multiple gods. The Greek gods shared similar qualities that are considered human characteristics. In the article called “Divine Epiphanies in Homer” by B. C. Dietrich, he states “Homer’s gods were human but more beautiful, and indeed larger than life” (Dietrich 68). The gods can be jealous, get angry or love another however they were still considered bring above human. In The Odyssey, Poseidon shows animosity towards Odysseus because Odysseus killed the Cyclopes who was Poseidon’s son.
He Odysseus kept from going home as punishment. This anger shows Greek people during the archaic period didn’t see the gods as infallible. The gods could make mistakes. The Greeks believed every action caused by nature was related to the work of a god. Poseidon would control the sea, Zeus controlled the skies, and Athena would be the god of war. The Greeks would go to great lengths to appease the gods. They would build temples to offer sacrifices. In exchange, the Greeks believed the gods would grant protection and not punish them.
Death was closely related to religion during the Greek archaic period. The Greeks believed in life after death. Their depiction of death and the underworld was different when compared to the medieval period. In Greek culture, burial was important in the process of moving on. In The Return of Ulysses Edith Hall writes regarding Elpenor who was a part of Odysseus’ crew, “He wants cremation with all his weapons, and a stone raised to signify his fame, the tomb itself to be surmounted by the oar which he wielded in life” (Hall 204). A proper burial allowed the person to transition to the underworld. The underworld in the Greek world is depicted as an underground cavern where all spirits lived in. They held the same appearance, they had when the soul was living. In The Odyssey, the dead spirits seem to have knowledge of future events. This is shown in the epic when Odysseus travels to the underworld and asks the spirit of Tiresias. Tiresias tells Odysseus of the future and warns Odysseus of events that would occur to him later.
Religion was different in the medieval period when compared to the archaic period. During the medieval period, Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. Christianity was a monotheistic religion, unlike Greek religion. The relation between God and the people of Europe has changed since the medieval period. The way people viewed God had changed since the archaic period. In the medieval period, God is perfect, and no one could have questioned his rule. Similarly, to the archaic Greeks is that God controlled every aspect of life. From the power of natural occurrences to the supernatural. Ulysses who was known as Odysseus in the Greek epic, is no longer a hero during the medieval period. In Dante’s story, Ulysses was found in the eighth circle of hell. All the traits that made him favorable to the Greek gods during the Greek archaic period made him a sinful man.
The views of Death and the afterlife had changed during the medieval period. Dante’s divine comedy shows the religious depiction of the afterlife. Similarly, to the Greeks Europeans during the medieval period believed in the afterlife. After someone dies in the medieval period they are judged by God. As suggested in the article “Burial of the Christian Dead in the Later Middle Ages” by Deirdre Sullivan states, people from the medieval period believed that those who lived good lives would go to heaven. Those that did not follow the word of god would be punished and sent to hell, a place meant punish sinners for eternity. Most expected to be sent to purgatory. In Inferno, Dante explores the underworld through the eyes of a Christian during the medieval period. In Dante’s depiction, the underworld is divided into individual sections each section corresponding to a different sin with a corresponding punishment.
During the Greek classical period, religion was in a transitional period. Although the Greeks still believed in the Greek gods, the people believed man was in charge of their own destiny. In the article called “Divine Epiphanies in Homer” by B. C. Dietrich, he states, “Almost everyone since Herodotus knows that the Olympian family of gods was primarily an epic creation” (Dietrich 54). This meant that the Greek people no longer believed the Greek gods came down from the heavens to help Odysseus in his journey. This shows the change in thought of the archaic Greeks to the classical Greeks. Herodotus who was a writer during this period wrote about the world around him.
He would come to be known as the father of history and of journalism because he would document the events of the world around him. Herodotus wrote less about fantasies and the supernatural and focused on the facts of the world. The article “Herodotus on Oracles, Dreams, & Gods” by Michael Millerman writes about how Herodotus expresses religion in Histories. According to Millerman Herodotus seems to believe the Greeks have simple-minded beliefs in terms of believing the Greek gods appear human or believing a person as a god or goddess without question. He further provides evidence in Histories where Herodotus portrays this idea. Herodotus appears to question religion in some capacity. In the article “Herodotus as an Ancient Journalist” by Joe Saltzman had written “Divine powers usually provide the “why” things happened, and Herodotus quotes the gods through an oracle or as seen in a dream or predicted by an omen or a divine sign” (Saltzman 164). This shows that despite the skeptical nature people had gained during this time, they still relied on religion to explain what they could not understand.
Religion has changed over history. These changes are clear in the various works of literature written over the different periods of time. Heroes from the archaic period such as Odysseus who was blessed by the Greek gods has been punished in the medieval period under the Christian religion. The switch of perspective with religion during the classical period as shown in Histories by Herodotus. The change from polytheism to monotheism and the different depictions of death and the underworld during the different time periods.
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