Science and Religion in Ancient Greece

Angela Smith
Univ 112: Unit 2 final research paper

Religion and science are two subjects that have a very unique relationship with one another. In the era of ancient Greece, Greek mythology not only played the role of religion, but the role of science as well. This can be seen through the example of the god Poseidon as depicted in Robert K. Reitherman’s book Earthquakes and Engineers: An International History. Reitherman, who has been awarded with the ASCE’s civil engineering and history award for his authorship of the book Earthquakes and Engineers: An International History, addresses the ancient Greeks scientific interaction with mythology as science progressed.
Poseidon is known chiefly as the god of the sea, carrying a trident or fish spear, and because of the importance of the Mediterranean to the seafaring Greeks, this was a sign of his prominence. With that trident he strikes the ground, causing earthquakes, and in Greek myths Earthshaker is another name for Poseidon, although that aspect of the god is quite secondary to his association with the sea. (Reitherman 66)
To the people of Greece Poseidon was not only the religious figure head of the god of the sea, but also the scientific explanation for the cause of earthquakes. The Greeks dependence on mythology, rather than science, was not necessarily caused by the question of the cause of earthquakes but the primal question of beginnings.
Every individual, at some point in their life, was plagued with the curiosity and wonder of the circumstances of their own birth (Caldwell 126). This repressed curiosity is reflected in every story of the beginning, such as, the beginning of the world, of gods, and of men (126). It is in these stories of beginnings that mythological versions are often found answering the eluded question of an individuals beginning (126). The explanation of the psychoanalytical theory helps to explain why Greek myths were originated and even why they were eventually challenged by science. How the psychoanalytical theory applies to the origin of Greek mythology is described in the book The Origin of the Gods written by the author Richard Caldwell. Caldwell is a contributor to multiple published works as well as has written two books in addition to his book The Origin of the Gods. The explanation of the psychoanalytical theory helps to explain why Greek myths were originated and even why they were eventually challenged by science. The curiosity to find the beginnings and origins of what matters to individuals or their culture is what often drives the start of cosmogonist myths (Caldwell 128). It was this same curiosity that inspired the rise of Greek philosophers in the beginning of the sixth century (128). The same question that had once been asked and answered by the Greeks through mythology claiming the spontaneous emergence of Chaos, Gaia (Earth), Tartaros, and Eros (Desire) is what the ancient Greeks believed to be the true story of how the Earth begins (Caldwell 126) was being asked again by philosophers. The first Greek philosophers, in search of discovering the fundamental principle of the universe, looked for answers outside of the mythological ones (Caldwell 128). The philosopher Thales thought the source of the beginning came for water, Heraklitos opted for fire and Anaximenes believed it was air(128). Empedokles in agreeing with all three of Thales, Heraklitos, and Amaximenes believed it was water, fire, air as well as earth, a set of four primal substances(128). Anaximenes believed it was air, Pythagoras for number, and Parmenides for the One (128). As soon as science began to emerge within the Greek culture, the religious mythology was being challenged concerning its validity.
While mythology wasn’t immediately disregarded with the emergence of Greek natural philosophers, science only grew from that point on shadowing the truth of mythology with science. The article, “Genius of the Ancient Greeks” for the Courier Mail written by Troy Lennon, is a highly researched work that highlights multiple areas of Greek accomplishments including the achievement of Greek scientists and philosophers. Science in Greece began with the Greek scientist Thales who attempted to comprehend the elements without suggestion of gods or mystical creatures (Lennon). Not only that, Thales, through observations of the skies, theorized that heavenly objects followed the physical rules that could be determined by mathematics (Lennon). Thusly we inherited many of our basic geometrical, mathematical concepts, and principles and ideas of rational philosophy from the scientist Pythagoras who Thales had influenced (Lennon). As Greek philosophy continued to grow and turn to science for truth rather than mythology, this inspired more evidence to be discovered convicting mythology of being false. Scientific philosophers of ancient Greece were not the only skeptics of the validity of the Greek myths (Reitherman 68). Hecataeus, who specialized in geography and history, was doubtful of the truth behind mythology due to witnessing stone-inscribed that predated the dates of Greek history that were determined though Greek myths (68). The explosion of science in Greece was the main culprit of the disproval of Greek mythology explanation of things that once couldn’t be explained.
While scientist can agree that it was science itself that disproved the truth behind mythology, there is still some debate on whether mythology was completely lacking of any scientific truth or that some scientific knowledge became woven into its myths. Carl Power and John E.J Rasko, teamed up to write and publish the peer-reviewed article “Whither Prometheus’ Liver? Greek Myth and the Science of Regeneration” on Annals of Internal Medicine on the analysis of whether the Greek myth about Prometheus’ liver reflected the Greeks scientific knowledge of the regenerative ability of the liver. Both authors being PhDs, one from Centenary Institute and one from University of Sydney, as well as working at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, more than qualifies them to write this journal. Through the myth of the god Prometheus, Power and Rasko discuss whether this story is an example of the Greeks integrating their knowledge of liver regeneration into their myth or if it is just merely coincidence. The Greek myth of the god Prometheus tells the story of when Prometheus foolishly tried to steal fire from Zeus for mankind (Power and Rasko 421). Prometheus received a torturous punishment of being chained to the Caucasus Mountains where each day a eagle came and consumed his liver which then regenerated each night (421). If this myth does reflect scientific knowledge that means that science could have been adapted into myths allowing the myths to have slightly progressed with science rather than just a religion instantly murdered by the truth of science. Unfortunately it is impossible to know whether the Greeks myth of Prometheus reflected their scientific knowledge of liver regeneration without sound evidence that is currently lacking (Power and Rasko). With the information that is available to date, it is apparent that the effect science had on the religion of Greek mythology was that it ultimately disproved it since there was such a conversion of beliefs away from mythology and towards natural philosophy.


Caldwell, Richard. The Origin of the Gods: A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.
For the VCU book searches assignment I searched the words “psychology Greek mythology to find a book. [Angela Smith]

Lennon, Troy. “Genius of the Ancient Greeks.” Courier Mail 22 June 2004: 102. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.
Using LexisNexis, the words I used to search for a source were ancient Greek science. [Angela Smith]

Power, Carl, and John E. F. Rasko. “Whither Prometheus’ Liver? Greek Myth and the Science of Regeneration.” Annals of Internal Medicine 149 (2008): 421-426. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
I used VCU Libraries and found my source by searching the words Greek mythology. [Angie Smith]

Reitherman, Robert K. Earthquakes and Engineers: An International History. Reston: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2012. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
In the Science section of the discipline-specific database, I found my source by searching Greek mythology and ancient Greek science. [Angela Smith]

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