Modern religious assumptions, as Connelly knows well, are not only irrelevant to ancient Greek cult practices but can actively distort our understanding of them. We tend to assume a central core of defining belief, both doctrinal and prescriptive, expounded in sacred scriptures, and maintained by priestly theologians. Greek cults had none of these things. Priests and priestesses were there to carry out ritual, mostly to do with sacrifice of animals. Just what happened at the rituals—the words used and the actions taken—remains little known. The nearest thing to a sacred text was Homer. The gods were immortal and all-powerful, but wholly indifferent to human notions of virtue: Homer's deities, indeed, were castigated by philosophers for immorality. If properly placated in rituals in the temples dedicated to them, gods might help mortals; if not, their random (and often spiteful) acts of vengeance made good drama. The relationship between mortals and divinities was pragmatic, and based on the power of the gods and the possibility of petitioning them: it had no moral element whatsoever. Build a god a great shrine, sacrifice to him or her lavishly, and your prayers might be answered. Otherwise, watch out...
The mediation between mortals and gods was not, for Greeks, a monopoly of the priesthood: in addition to the usual prayers, thanks, and gifts, any private person could offer sacrifice without a priest's participation. There were also large numbers of religious officials other than priests in a cult hierarchy: acolytes, treasurers, scribes, musicians, temple guardians, and—dating back as far as the Minoan Linear B tablets—a wide range of domestic workers duplicated from the oikos: grain-grinders, bakers, weavers, sweepers, cooks, washers, decorators. The day-to-day function could be brought into the religious domain simply by the addition of the prefix hiero- (sacred) or the suffix -phoros (carrier), often reflecting the ritual action performed: hieronomos, a temple manager; kanephoros, a basket-bearer.
Such titles proliferated with ease, and testify to the multiplicity of local cults. In Attica alone the number approached two thousand, while Athens itself had no less than 170 feast days in its sacred calendar, a figure rather higher than the number of days a year on which the Assembly met in formal session. In this or any Greek polis, religion—a fact not always borne in mind today—was not only inextricably interwoven with politics and public affairs, but taken at least as seriously. We are confronted here with "a system in which myth, cult, ritual, and visual images were utterly interdependent and mutually supportive." The ritual requirements of archaic myth could be horrific—who can forget Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis to placate Artemis and get a favorable wind for Troy?—but the fact remains that in traditional belief he did sacrifice her, even if later ages, finding the act hard to stomach, put it about that a deer had been miraculously substituted on the altar.
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