The ancient Greeks worshipped many gods, each with a distinct personality and domain.Myths explained divine nature and the gods’ relationship to mankind. Representations of myths were popular in the art of Archaic and Classical Greece where an iconography of attributes was established to identify each deity.
Twelves deities were of primary importance.
Foremost were Zeus, the sky god and father of the gods, to whom the ox and the oak tree were sacred; and his two brothers, who reigned over the underworld and the sea, respectively. “Cow-eyed” Hera, Zeus’ sister and wife, were queen of the gods; she is frequently depicted wearing a tall crown, or polos. Wise Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, who typically appears in full armor with snaky aegis (protective bib), helmet, and spear, was also the patroness of weaving and carpentry. Youthful Apollo, often represented with a kithara (lyre), or a bow, must have been one of the most important gods, judging from his many cult sites. His sanctuary at Delphi, where Greeks came to ask questions of the oracle, was considered the center of the universe. Apollo’s sister, Artemis, was the patroness of hunting. Hermes, with his winged sandals and elaborate herald’s staff, the caduceus, was the messenger of the gods.
Other important deities were Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Dionysos, the god of wine and the theater, Ares, the god of war, and Hephaistos, the crippled god of craftsmanship. Mount Olympos, the highest in mainland Greece, was believed to be the home of the gods.
Worship took place in sanctuaries located, according to the nature of the particular god, either within the city or in the countryside.
Sanctuaries were well-defined sacred spaces set apart usually by a temenos, or enclosure wall. Inside, they typically contained an altar in front of a temple, the house of the god, with a cult image. Ancient Greek religious practice, essentially conservative in nature, was based on time-honored traditions, often rooted in the Bronze Age (3000 – 1050 BC) and earlier.
No single guiding work of scripture like the Jewish Torah, Christian Bible, or Muslim Qur’an existed for the ancient Greeks. Nor did they have a strictly priestly caste.
The relationship between humans and gods was based on the concept of exchange. The gods were expected to answer prayers, and the humans to give gifts. Votive gifts, which have been excavated from sanctuaries in the thousands, were a physical expression of thanks on the part of the individual worshippers. The central ritual act in ancient Greek religion was animal sacrifice, especially of oxen, goats, and sheep. Sacrifices took place within the sanctuary, usually at the altar, before the temple. Religious festivals, literally feast days, filled the year.
The four most famous festivals, each with its own procession, athletic competitions, and sacrifices, were held every four years at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. These Panhellenic festivals were attended by people from all over the Greek-speaking world. Many other festivals were celebrated locally. There were also secret mystery cults in which only initiates could participate.
The Romans had many gods. Some were worshipped all over the Roman world, while others were regionally worshipped. Households also had their own gods.
People used charms and amulets as magical protection. Gods were worshipped in a variety of places, from huge temples with a complex of buildings, gardens and even shops to simple groves or small wayward shrines. Many families had their own lararium, a household shrine for private ceremonies such as the burning of incense or giving of offerings. Shrines were located in the house or garden and held figures of protective deities.
Romans commonly dedicated votive offerings at temples.
These could be small figures of the gods or associated items. People also presented inscriptions and altars announcing that their vows had been honored. They cursed their enemies on lead tablets nailed up at the temple or tossed down wells. At healing shrines, models of parts of the body were dedicated by people seeking a cure for an injury or ailment, or as thanks if they had been cured.