The Ethics of Ancient Greek Religion

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The Ethics of Ancient Greek Religion: The Story of Jason and the Argonauts

Ancient Greek religion is a polytheistic religion whose gods held a strong influence on the lives of worshippers during that time. Greeks depicted their gods in human form and through stories, the gods’ wrongful and unethical behavior taught you what not to do. Greek myths involved a great deal of moral dilemma between the characters and gods in their stories. It was a religion that was personal and directly impacted the lives of an everyday worshipper. From the famous Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, there are several examples that can explain the values and ethics that Greeks believed and was part of their lifestyle.

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Jason was the son of Aeson, King of Iolkos and the future heir to the throne before his uncle, Pelias seized power of the kingdom. In fear that Jason would be killed by Pelias, Jason’s mother takes him into the woods, where he is then taken and raised by a Centaur in the mountains. Eventually, Jason grows to be a young man and learns of his uncle’s wrong doing and wants to take back his kingdom. Jason sets out on a voyage to reclaim his kingdom and during his travels, Jason is about to cross a river when he is confronted by an old woman who asks if Jason would carry her across. Jason agrees, but doesn’t know that the old woman is disguised as the goddess, Hera.

This was a test from Hera to see if he would help her across the river, and because he helped her, Jason showed the Greek quality of charity. Ancient Greeks believed that it was important to be charitable to others and help those who needed assistance the most. If they were to lend a helping hand to someone who needed it, Greeks believed the gods’ would notice a noble deed had been done and blessed them with their favor. Due to Jason’s rightful act of carrying Hera cross the river, she blesses him by deciding to help Jason through his trials of reclaiming his kingdom.

If Jason had denied helping Hera disguised as an old woman, Hera wouldn’t have helped Jason with his trials, and she may have even prevented him from accomplishing his goal because he would’ve lacked a crucial value of ancient Greek religion. Hera not only wants to help Jason because of his charitable act, but she wants Jason to succeed because Pelias is excluding Hera from his worship. Pelias worships and prays to all the Olympian gods except for Hera and she hates him for it. Ancient Greeks did not insult the gods and pray to only certain gods. They believed the gods were in control of what happened in their lives and were to pray to all the gods and could not exclude any of them or there would be consequences. Those who failed to honour any one of the Twelve with due sacrifice and libation were duly punished. Helping Jason succeed in taking back his kingdom was Hera’s way of punishing Pelias for not worshipping her.

Another important value of ancient Greek religion was to be a firm believer in fate. An ancient Greek was supposed to accept their fate, whatever it may have been and be the person they were fated to be. When Jason crossed the river carrying Hera, he lost one of his sandals and couldn’t go back to get it, so he continued his travels with only one sandal. Before Pelias knew of Jason’s travels to Iolkos, an oracle told him that someday a man wearing only one sandal will come and take his kingdom from him. Eventually, Jason arrives to Pelias’ kingdom and demands his throne back from him. Pelias notices Jason is only wearing one sandal, and this makes him nervous because the prophecy had told him this would happen one day.

It was Pelias’ fate for Jason to come and take his kingdom and Jason’s fate to reclaim what was his. However, if Jason was to reclaim his kingdom, he would have to go through many more trials and make a lot of sacrifices to get what he wanted. Everyone goes through trials throughout their life and it requires a great deal of sacrifices to be made to get what is desired. Sacrifice is another ethical value that ancient Greeks lived by and was an important aspect in Jason’s conquest of taking back his kingdom.
If Jason was to reclaim his kingdom, Pelias requested that he went to Colchis, a dangerous land that was home to barbarians and sorcery. It was there that Jason was to recover the Golden Fleece for Pelias. This was considered by Pelias to be an impossible task for Jason to accomplish, due to the many obstacles he would have to go through to get to Colchis. Jason makes the sacrifice of doing what is necessary in getting his kingdom back and accepts Pelias’ offer.

Beginning his voyage to Colchis, Jason has an Argo built for him to sail across the sea, and he recruits a group of mighty heroes to accompany him in his travels. Even the gods intervened in building this ship, with Athena helping to fasten the process and Zeus providing timber from one of his finest oaks. Maintaining a good reputation was an important value in ancient Greek religion. Greeks wanted to be known as a reputable person, so others would be more inclined to assist them when they were in times of need. Although, reputation for Greeks was deeper than that. A worthy reputation meant someone cared about how others viewed them in society and how they wanted to be remembered.

Ancient Greeks wanted to be remembered for extraordinary things and have their ambitions lead them to be highly successful people. Jason gathered a team of heroes and had the Argo built for him, because he kept a good reputation, which made the gods and other humans want to help him during his travels. They knew his intentions were for a good cause and that he wouldn’t be able to succeed by himself. Jason and the Argonauts went on to face many obstacles during their travels, which required them to make difficult decisions. They made the decision to sail through treacherous waters that could’ve destroyed the Argo and killed everyone on it. Numerous Argonauts sacrificed their lives for Jason’s cause and died during the quest, including Hercules’ friend who drowned from a nymph and men who died in battle to defend Jason.

When Jason eventually makes it to Colchis, he is faced with an even greater challenge than the ones before him. King Aeetes tells him if he is to have the Golden Fleece he must yoke fire-breathing bulls, plough and sow a field with dragons’ teeth and then overcome the warriors who will rise from the furrows. Medea, the king’s daughter, is fond of Jason and decides to help him only if Jason will agree to marry her. Medea’s sorcery is what helps Jason claim the Golden Fleece and together, they flee Colchis.

The decisions Medea made to help Jason additionally resembles aspects of sacrifice in ancient Greek religion. Medea made the sacrifice to betray her father for Jason and flee from her home to go live with Jason in Iolkos. During their escape from Colchis, King Aeetes sends his army to capture and kill Jason and Medea, but during the attack, Medea’s brother is among one the troops in the army. She kills her brother with her sorceress powers, which allows them to escape Colchis. After they return to Iolkos, Medea uses her powers again to manipulate Pelias’ children into murdering their father. Medea makes countless sacrifices for Jason, committing horrible acts against her family and Jason’s uncle and enemy, Pelias.

The ethical value of humility is another aspect that Greeks were to live by based on Ancient Greek religion. For a Greek to have humility, they were to know and understand their place in the world. This meant to be humble and grateful for the things a person had and not have arrogant pride. Jason was humble throughout his entire quest of retrieving the Golden Fleece and was lucky to have the favor of the gods. After Jason returned home and obtained power of his kingdom, he was no longer humble and couldn’t preserve his humility.

After Medea murdered Pelias, Jason and Medea were exiled from Iolkos and went to live in Corinth. In Corinth, Jason loses interest in Medea and begins having relations with the princess of Corinth, eventually falling in love with her. When Medea found out of this deception, she killed the princess and her own three sons, the children she had with Jason. Jason’s pride lead him to betray his wife and have eyes for another woman. He had taken Medea for granted and uses her for her powers. Medea did horrible things and hurt and betrayed the ones closest to her, merely for Jason to sit on the throne as king. Jason’s heroic tale finishes with a tragic ending when years later he is standing under the Argo and a rotten beam breaks off, hitting him in the head and killing him.

Jason using Medea for her powers applies to the ethical value in ancient Greek religion that it’s better to avoid excess in passions. This story is a lesson to not let your passions become to excessive and take away from what really needs to be done. Jason was so focused on taking back his kingdom and did anything he could to get it back from Pelias. Jason took his passion for the throne too far and used Medea for his own success. There could’ve been other ways for Jason to accomplish his goal without being unethical. After all, the gods were on Jason’s side and wanted him to regain his father’s kingdom.

The story of Jason and the Argonauts, like many other Greek myths involves a great deal of moral dilemmas. Stories like Jason and the Argonauts made ancient Greeks be more reflective on themselves and aware of their actions as a person. Jason’s tale taught Greeks to be charitable to those who need it. To not run from fate, instead, embrace it and be the person that you’re destined to be. Make sacrifices, because no matter where a person’s life ends up, sacrifices will be made to get there. Maintain a good reputation by others. Always remain humble and thankful in life, and don’t let passions become an obsession and take you away from what matters the most. Greek religion provided Greeks with honor by the decisions made in their lives, encouraging them to have a life of happiness and hard work, then a life of sadness and regret.

Bibliography

  • PBS. Accessed November 26, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/mythsandheroes/myths_four_jason.html.
  • Atsma, Aaron. HERMES MYTHS 6 FAVOUR – Greek Mythology. Accessed November 26, 2018. https://www.theoi.com/Pantheon.html.
  • “Jason (Iason).” Hades, God of Death and the Dead, King of the Underworld – Greek Gods. Accessed November 26, 2018. https://www.greek-gods.org/greek-heroes/jason.php.
  • Apollonius, and E. V. Rieu. Apollonius of Rhodes: “The Voyage of Argo”-“The Argonautica”. Penguin UK, 2006.
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The Ethics of Ancient Greek Religion. (2020, Jan 20). Retrieved January 30, 2023 , from
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