Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome
The Greeks worshipped their gods without any visible representations of them until the time of Cecrops. The most ancient of these representations consisted of square blocks of stone, upon which the name of the deity intended to be represented was engraved. The first attempts at sculpture were rude stocks, with a head at one end and a shapeless trunk at the other, tapering slightly down to the feet, which, however, were not divided, the limbs being in no way defined. But the artists of later times devoted all their genius to the successful production of the highest ideals of their gods, some of which are preserved to this day, and are regarded as examples of purest art.
On a pedestal in the centre of the edifice stood the statue of the divinity to whom the temple was dedicated, surrounded by images of other gods, all of which were fenced off by rails.
The altar in a Greek temple, which stood in the centre of the building and in front of the statue of the presiding deity, was generally of a circular form, and constructed of stone. It was customary to engrave upon it the name or distinguishing symbol of the divinity to whom it was dedicated; and it was held so sacred that if any malefactor fled to it his life was safe from his pursuers, and it was considered one of the greatest acts of sacrilege to force him from this asylum.
The most ancient altars were adorned with horns, which in former times were emblems of power and dignity, as wealth, and consequently importance, consisted among most primitive nations in flocks and herds.
In addition to those erected in places of public worship, altars were frequently raised in groves, on highways, or in the market-places of cities.
The gods of the lower world had no altars whatever, ditches or trenches being dug for the reception of the blood of the sacrifices offered to them.
In ancient times the priests were recognized as a special social caste, and were distinguished not only by their sacerdotal vestments, but also by their piety, wisdom, and blameless life. They were the chosen mediators between gods and men, and offered prayers and sacrifices in the name of the people, whom they also instructed as to what vows, gifts, and offerings would be most acceptable to the gods.
Every deity had a different order of priests consecrated to his worship, and in every place a high-priest was appointed, whose duty it was to superintend the rest of his order, and also to carry out the more sacred rites and religious observances.
Priests and priestesses were permitted to marry, but not a second time; some, however, voluntarily adopted a life of celibacy.
There is no doubt that a feeling of gratitude to the gods for their protecting care, and the abundance with which they were believed to bless mankind, has induced men of all nations and in all countries to feel a desire to sacrifice to their divinities some portion of the gifts so generously lavished upon them.