The Twelve Gods of Olympus were the central cult nucleus in classical Athens. Some scholars have seen a religious crisis at the end of the fifth century B.C. It was in the nature of polytheism to permit the incorporation of new cults. This, and the particular circumstances obtaining at Athens during the Classical period, assisted the introduction and assimilations of cults from other regions, Hellenic and non-Hellenic.

The regime of democracy, like the regime of the tyrannoi in the Archaic period, honoured the gods with monumental buildings. Moreover, public cults - under the control of aristocratic families up to the Classical period - were transferred to the city and run on public money. Nevertheless, we can see traces of the older regime in the fact that certain religious rituals were still put on by one particular family. At the Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, the overall running of the rite was undertaken by the city of Athens, but the leaders of the ritual were still drawn from the great clans of the Eumolpids and Kerykes. In fourth-century Athens, the orator Lycurgus was the leading personality in keeping the traditional cults going.

By the classical period, an 'official religion' had been firmly established in Athens. Its modes of expression were expensive and expressive festivals; processions; and sacrifices. These manifestations were frequently political in character, their organization having as its aim less to emphasize its religiousness than to provide public entertainment. Some scholars think that certain Athenian religious rites were also introduced in the towns within the Athenian alliance. For instance, on Samos, Cos and Aegina, Athena was worshipped as Polias. It is generally agreed that the cities under Athenian hegemony must have taken part in major Athenian festivals such as the Great Panathenaea.

Personal contact with a deity was effected by private acts of devotion, such as sacrifices and burnt-offerings, or dedications of objects in temples and at shrines. These acts were addressed to a god with whom the believer felt herself/himself to be in relatively close contact. Moreover, group worship, by for example a phratria or the whole demos, presupposed the active participation of all the families belonging to the group. The worship of Athena Polias was an event of the highest importance: it was a cult of the state itself, at which every citizen felt proud of taking part in it.

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