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Hellenistic Religion

Hellenistic religion is any of the various systems of beliefs and practices of the peoples who lived under the influence of ancient Greek culture during the Hellenistic period and the Roman Empire (c. 300 BCE to 300 CE). There was much continuity in Hellenistic religion: the Greek gods continued to be worshipped, and the same rites were practiced as before. Change came from the addition of new foreign cults, such as the Egyptian cults of Isis and of Serapis, and the Syrian cults of Atargatis and of Hadad, which provided a new outlet for people seeking fulfillment in both the present life and the afterlife. The worship of Hellenistic rulers was also a feature of this period, most notably in Egypt, where the Ptolemies adopted earlier pharaonic practice, and established themselves as god-kings. Elsewhere rulers might receive divine status without the full status of a god.

Superstition and magic were practiced widely, and these too, were a continuation from earlier times. Throughout the Hellenistic world, people would consult oracles, and use charms and figurines to deter misfortune or to cast spells. Also developed in this era was the complex system of astrology, which sought to determine a person's character and future in the movements of the sun, moon, and planets. The systems of Hellenistic philosophy, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, offered a more rational alternative to traditional religion, even if their impact was largely limited to the educated elite.

Classical Greek religion

Central to Greek religion in classical times were the twelve Olympian deities headed by Zeus. Each god was honoured with stone temples and statues, and sanctuaries (sacred enclosures) were founded, which, although dedicated to a specific deity, often contained statues commemorating other gods. The city-states would conduct various festivals and rituals throughout the year, with particular emphasis directed towards the patron god of the city, such as Athena at Athens, or Apollo at Corinth. Religious practice would also involve the worship of heroes, individuals who were regarded as semi-divine. Such heroes ranged from the mythical figures in the epics of Homer to historical persons such as the founder of a city. At the local level, the landscape was filled with sacred spots and monuments, such as cults of the Nymphs at springs, and the stylised figures of Hermes which could be found at street corners. Superstition and magic were a central part of Greek religion, and oracles would allow one to determine divine will in the rustle of leaves; the shape of flame and smoke on an altar; the flight of birds; the noises made by a spring; or in the entrails of a sacrificed animal. Also long established were the Eleusinian Mysteries, associated with Demeter and Persephone. The mystery cult was entered via an initiation ceremony that involved secrets to be kept from the uninitiated. Such cults had the goal of bettering the worshipper in both the present life and the afterlife.

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