“Homer and Hesiod created the generations of the gods for the Greeks; they gave the divinities their names, assigned to them their prerogatives and functions, and made their forms known.” So Herodotus describes the service of these poets to the centuries which followed them. But the modern historian of Greek religion cannot accept the statement of the father of history as wholly satisfactory; he knows that the excavations of the last forty years have revealed to us civilizations of the third and second millenia before Christ, the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, of which the historical Greeks were hardly conscious, but which nevertheless made large contributions to religion in the period after Homer. Yet at the most the Mycenaean and Minoan Ages were for the Greek of the sixth and fifth centuries only a kind of dim background for the remote history of his race. The Homeric poems represented for him the earliest stage of Hellenic social life and religion. We are justified, then, in taking the Iliad and Odyssey as starting points in our present considerations. These matchless epics cast an ineffable spell over the imaginations of the Greeks themselves and influenced religion hardly less than literature.
It is obvious that in this course of lectures we cannot consider together all the multitudinous phases of Greek religion: it will be impossible to discuss those large primitive elements in the practices and beliefs of the ancient Greek folk which are so attractive to many students of religion today, for these things were, by and large, only survivals from a ruder past and did not contribute to the religious progress from age to age; nor can we rehearse the details of worship, or review all the varieties of religious belief which we find in different places and in successive centuries; still less can we concern ourselves with mythology. Alluring as these things are they do not concern our present purpose. I shall invite you rather to trace with me the development of Greek religious thought through something over a thousand years, from the period of the Homeric poems to the triumph of Christianity. In such a survey we must be occupied for the most part with the larger movements and the higher ranges of Greek thought, with the advance which was made from century to century; and we shall try to see how each stage of religious development came to fruition in the next period. To accomplish this purpose we must take into due account the social, economic, and political changes in the Greek world which influenced the course of Hellenic thinking. Ultimately, if our study is successful, we shall have discovered in some measure, I trust, what permanent contributions the Greeks made to our own religious ideas. With these things in mind, therefore, let us return to the Homeric Poems.