Hesiod on the Birth of the Gods
The Greek poet Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) is most famous for his works Theogony and Works and Days. In this passage from Theogony, Hesiod relates the birth of the gods from cosmic Chaos and follows the lineage through the great Zeus, King of the Olympian gods, worshipped by Hesiod’s contemporaries:
(ll. 1-25) From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse's Spring or Olmeius,
make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet. Thence they arise and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis- holder and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals and the daughter of Zeus the aegis-holder bright-eyed Athene, and Phoebus Apollo,
and Artemis who delights in arrows, and Poseidon the earth-holder who shakes the earth, and reverend Themis and quick-glancing Aphrodite, and Hebe with the crown of gold, and fair Dione, Leto, Iapetus, and Cronos the crafty counsellor, Eos and great Helius and bright Selene, Earth too, and great Oceanus,
and dark Night, and the holy race of all the other deathless ones that are for ever. And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me -- the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis: (ll. 26-28) `Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.'
(ll. 29-35) So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing,
and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last. But why all this about oak or stone?
(ll. 36-52) Come thou, let us begin with the Muses who gladden the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were aforetime with consenting voice.
Unwearying flows the sweet sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus the loud-thunderer is glad at the lily-like voice of the goddesses as it spread abroad, and the peaks of snowy Olympus resound, and the homes of the immortals. And they uttering their immortal voice,
celebrate in song first of all the reverend race of the gods from the beginning, those whom Earth and wide Heaven begot, and the gods sprung of these, givers of good things. Then, next, the goddesses sing of Zeus, the father of gods and men, as they begin and end their strain,how much he is the most excellent among the gods and supreme in power. And again, they chant the race of men and strong giants, and gladden the heart of Zeus within Olympus, -- the Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder.
(ll. 53-74) Them in Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Cronos, a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow.
For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished, she bare nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus.
There are their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes, and beside them the Graces and Himerus (Desire) live in delight. And they, uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all and the goodly ways of the immortals, uttering their lovely voice. Then went they to Olympus,
delighting in their sweet voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about them as they chanted, and a lovely sound rose up beneath their feet as they went to their father.
And he was reigning in heaven, himself holding the lightning and glowing thunderbolt, when he had overcome by might his father Cronos; and he distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared their privileges
(ll. 75-103) These things, then, the Muses sang who dwell on Olympus, nine daughters begotten by great Zeus, Cleio and Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene and Terpsichore, and Erato and Polyhymnia and Urania and Calliope, who is the chiefest of them all, for she attends on worshipful princes:
whomsoever of heaven-nourished princes the daughters of great Zeus honour, and behold him at his birth, they pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and from his lips flow gracious words.
All the people look towards him while he settles causes with true judgements: and he, speaking surely, would soon make wise end even of a great quarrel; for therefore are there princes wise in heart, because when the people are being misguided in their assembly, they set right the matter again with ease, persuading them with gentle words.
And when he passes through a gathering, they greet him as a god with gentle reverence, and he is conspicuous amongst the assembled: such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.
For it is through the Muses and far-shooting Apollo that there are singers and harpers upon the earth; but princes are of Zeus, and happy is he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his mouth.
For though a man have sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and live in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a singer, the servant of the Muses,
chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; but the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.
(ll. 104-115) Hail, children of Zeus! Grant lovely song and celebrate the holy race of the deathless gods who are for ever, those that were born of Earth and starry Heaven and gloomy Night and them that briny Sea did rear.
Tell how at the first gods and earth came to be, and rivers, and the boundless sea with its raging swell, and the gleaming stars, and the wide heaven above,
and the gods who were born of them, givers of good things, and how they divided their wealth, and how they shared their honours amongst them, and also how at the first they took many-folded Olympus.
These things declare to me from the beginning, ye Muses who dwell in the house of Olympus, and tell me which of them first came to be.
ll. 116-138) Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth,
and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night;
but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side,
and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love.
But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys.
After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.
(ll. 139-146) And again, she bare the Cyclopes, overbearing in spirit, Brontes, and Steropes and stubborn-hearted Arges, who gave Zeus the thunder and made the thunderbolt: in all else they were like the gods,
but one eye only was set in the midst of their fore-heads. And they were surnamed Cyclopes (Orb-eyed) because one orbed eye was set in their foreheads. Strength and might and craft were in their works.
(ll. 147-163) And again, three other sons were born of Earth and Heaven, great and doughty beyond telling, Cottus and Briareos and Gyes, presumptuous children.
From their shoulders sprang an hundred arms, not to be approached, and each had fifty heads upon his shoulders on their strong limbs, and irresistible was the stubborn strength that was in their great forms. For of all the children that were born of Earth and Heaven, these were the most terrible, and they were hated by their own father from the first.
And he used to hide them all away in a secret place of Earth so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light: and Heaven rejoiced in his evil doing.
But vast Earth groaned within, being straitened, and she made the element of grey flint and shaped a great sickle, and told her plan to her dear sons. And she spoke, cheering them, while she was vexed in her dear heart:
(ll. 164-166) `My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.'
(ll. 167-169) So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:
(ll. 170-172) `Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.'
(ll. 173-175) So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.
(ll. 176-206) And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her.
Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father's members and cast them away to fall behind him.
And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth.
And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden.
First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet.
Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes because sprang from the members.
And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, -- the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness
(ll. 207-210) But these sons whom be begot himself great Heaven used to call Titans (Strainers) in reproach, for he said that they strained and did presumptuously a fearful deed, and that vengeance for it would come afterwards.
(ll. 211-225) And Night bare hateful Doom and black Fate and Death, and she bare Sleep and the tribe of Dreams. And again the goddess murky Night, though she lay with none, bare Blame and painful Woe, and the Hesperides who guard the rich, golden apples and the trees bearing fruit beyond glorious Ocean.
Also she bare the Destinies and ruthless avenging Fates, Clotho and Lachesis and Atropos, who give men at their birth both evil and good to have, and they pursue the transgressions of men and of gods: and these goddesses never cease from their dread anger until they punish the sinner with a sore penalty.
Also deadly Night bare Nemesis (Indignation) to afflict mortal men, and after her, Deceit and Friendship and hateful Age and hard-hearted Strife.
(ll. 226-232) But abhorred Strife bare painful Toil and Forgetfulness and Famine and tearful Sorrows, Fightings also, Battles, Murders, Manslaughters,
Quarrels, Lying Words, Disputes, Lawlessness and Ruin, all of one nature, and Oath who most troubles men upon earth when anyone wilfully swears a false oath.
(ll. 233-239) And Sea begat Nereus, the eldest of his children, who is true and lies not: and men call him the Old Man because he is trusty and gentle and does not forget the laws of righteousness,
but thinks just and kindly thoughts. And yet again he got great Thaumas and proud Phoreys, being mated with Earth, and fair-cheeked Ceto and Eurybia who has a heart of flint within her.
(ll. 240-264) And of Nereus and rich-haired Doris, daughter of Ocean the perfect river, were born children, passing lovely amongst goddesses, Ploto, Eucrante, Sao, and Amphitrite, and Eudora, and Thetis, Galene and Glauce, Cymothoe, Speo, Thoe and lovely Halie, and Pasithea, and Erato, and rosy-armed Eunice, and gracious Melite,
and Eulimene, and Agaue, Doto, Proto, Pherusa, and Dynamene, and Nisaea, and Actaea, and Protomedea, Doris, Panopea, and comely Galatea, and lovely Hippothoe, and rosy-armed Hipponoe, and Cymodoce who with Cymatolege and Amphitrite easily calms the waves upon the misty sea and the blasts of raging winds,
and Cymo, and Eione, and rich-crowned Alimede, and Glauconome, fond of laughter, and Pontoporea, Leagore, Euagore, and Laomedea, and Polynoe, and Autonoe, and Lysianassa, and Euarne, lovely of shape and without blemish of form, and Psamathe of charming figure and divine Menippe, Neso, Eupompe, Themisto,
Pronoe, and Nemertes who has the nature of her deathless father. These fifty daughters sprang from blameless Nereus, skilled in excellent crafts.
(ll. 265-269) And Thaumas wedded Electra the daughter of deep- flowing Ocean, and she bare him swift Iris and the long-haired Harpies, Aello (Storm-swift) and Ocypetes (Swift-flier) who on their swift wings keep pace with the blasts of the winds and the birds; for quick as time they dart along.
(ll 270-294) And again, Ceto bare to Phoreys the fair-cheeked Graiae, sisters grey from their birth: and both deathless gods and men who walk on earth call them Graiae, Pemphredo well-clad, and saffron-robed Enyo, and the Gorgons who dwell beyond glorious Ocean in the frontier land towards Night where are the clear- voiced Hesperides,
Sthenno, and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but the two were undying and grew not old. With her lay the Dark-haired One in a soft meadow amid spring flowers. And when Perseus cut off her head, there sprang forth great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus who is so called because he was born near the springs (pegae) of Ocean;
and that other, because he held a golden blade (aor) in his hands. Now Pegasus flew away and left the earth, the mother of flocks, and came to the deathless gods: and he dwells in the house of Zeus and brings to wise Zeus the thunder and lightning.
But Chrysaor was joined in love to Callirrhoe, the daughter of glorious Ocean, and begot three-headed Geryones. Him mighty Heracles slew in sea-girt Erythea by his shambling oxen on that day when he drove the wide-browed oxen to holy Tiryns, and had crossed the ford of Ocean and killed Orthus and Eurytion the herdsman in the dim stead out beyond glorious Ocean.
(ll. 295-305) And in a hollow cave she bare another monster, irresistible, in no wise like either to mortal men or to the undying gods, even the goddess fierce Echidna who is half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin, eating raw flesh beneath the secret parts of the holy earth.
And there she has a cave deep down under a hollow rock far from the deathless gods and mortal men. There, then, did the gods appoint her a glorious house to dwell in: and she keeps guard in Arima beneath the earth, grim Echidna, a nymph who dies not nor grows old all her days.
(ll. 306-332) Men say that Typhaon the terrible, outrageous and lawless, was joined in love to her, the maid with glancing eyes. So she conceived and brought forth fierce offspring; first she bare Orthus the hound of Geryones, and then again she bare a second, a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described,
Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong. And again she bore a third, the evil-minded Hydra of Lerna, whom the goddess, white-armed Hera nourished, being angry beyond measure with the mighty Heracles.
And her Heracles, the son of Zeus, of the house of Amphitryon, together with warlike Iolaus, destroyed with the unpitying sword through the plans of Athene the spoil-driver. She was the mother of Chimaera who breathed raging fire, a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon;
and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire. Her did Pegasus and noble Bellerophon slay; but Echidna was subject in love to Orthus and brought forth the deadly Sphinx which destroyed the Cadmeans, and the Nemean lion, which Hera, the good wife of Zeus, brought up and made to haunt the hills of Nemea, a plague to men.
There he preyed upon the tribes of her own people and had power over Tretus of Nemea and Apesas: yet the strength of stout Heracles overcame him.
(ll. 333-336) And Ceto was joined in love to Phorcys and bare her youngest, the awful snake who guards the apples all of gold in the secret places of the dark earth at its great bounds. This is the offspring of Ceto and Phoreys.
(ll. 334-345) And Tethys bare to Ocean eddying rivers, Nilus, and Alpheus, and deep-swirling Eridanus, Strymon, and Meander, and the fair stream of Ister,
and Phasis, and Rhesus, and the silver eddies of Achelous, Nessus, and Rhodius, Haliacmon, and Heptaporus, Granicus, and Aesepus, and holy Simois, and Peneus, and Hermus, and Caicus fair stream, and great Sangarius, Ladon, Parthenius, Euenus, Ardescus, and divine Scamander.
(ll. 346-370) Also she brought forth a holy company of daughters who with the lord Apollo and the Rivers have youths in their keeping -- to this charge Zeus appointed them -- Peitho, and Admete, and Ianthe, and Electra, and Doris, and Prymno, and Urania divine in form, Hippo, Clymene, Rhodea,
and Callirrhoe, Zeuxo and Clytie, and Idyia, and Pasithoe, Plexaura, and Galaxaura, and lovely Dione, Melobosis and Thoe and handsome Polydora, Cerceis lovely of form, and soft eyed Pluto, Perseis, Ianeira, Acaste, Xanthe, Petraea the fair,
Menestho, and Europa, Metis, and Eurynome, and Telesto saffron-clad, Chryseis and Asia and charming Calypso, Eudora, and Tyche, Amphirho, and Ocyrrhoe, and Styx who is the chiefest of them all.
These are the eldest daughters that sprang from Ocean and Tethys; but there are many besides. For there are three thousand neat-ankled daughters of Ocean who are dispersed far and wide, and in every place alike serve the earth and the deep waters, children who are glorious among goddesses.
And as many other rivers are there, babbling as they flow, sons of Ocean, whom queenly Tethys bare, but their names it is hard for a mortal man to tell, but people know those by which they severally dwell.
(ll. 371-374) And Theia was subject in love to Hyperion and bare great Helius (Sun) and clear Selene (Moon) and Eos (Dawn) who shines upon all that are on earth and upon the deathless Gods who live in the wide heaven.
(ll. 375-377) And Eurybia, bright goddess, was joined in love to Crius and bare great Astraeus, and Pallas, and Perses who also was eminent among all men in wisdom.
(ll. 378-382) And Eos bare to Astraeus the strong-hearted winds, brightening Zephyrus, and Boreas, headlong in his course, and Notus, -- a goddess mating in love with a god. And after these Erigenia bare the star Eosphorus (Dawn-bringer), and the gleaming stars with which heaven is crowned.
(ll. 383-403) And Styx the daughter of Ocean was joined to Pallas and bare Zelus (Emulation) and trim-ankled Nike (Victory) in the house. Also she brought forth Cratos (Strength) and Bia (Force), wonderful children.
These have no house apart from Zeus, nor any dwelling nor path except that wherein God leads them, but they dwell always with Zeus the loud-thunderer.
For so did Styx the deathless daughter of Ocean plan on that day when the Olympian Lightener called all the deathless gods to great Olympus, and said that whosoever of the gods would fight with him against the Titans,
he would not cast him out from his rights, but each should have the office which he had before amongst the deathless gods. And he declared that he who was without office and rights as is just. So deathless Styx came first to Olympus with her children through the wit of her dear father.
And Zeus honoured her, and gave her very great gifts, for her he appointed to be the great oath of the gods, and her children to live with him always. And as he promised, so he performed fully unto them all.
M I Ro
The 12 Olympian Gods
The 12 gods of Mount Olympus were the most important deities in ancient Greece and in this collection we examine each one in detail. With their all-too-human qualities, the Olympian gods were capable of displaying great kindness and dishing out terrible punishments.
They argued amongst themselves, had love affairs, and protected their favourite mortals down on earth but each had a more serious role to play in the Greek view of the world and so they represented important ideals and features of the human condition such as justice, loyalty, wisdom, beautiful music and the changing of the seasons.
The standard 12 Olympian gods are:Zeus Hera Athena Apollo Poseidon Ares Artemis Demeter Aphrodite Dionysos Hermes Hephaistos The Greeks did not always agree on the 12 and some lists include Hestia, Hercules or Leto, with Dionysos often the one replaced.
The Olympian gods led by Zeus twice defeated the sources of chaos represented by the Titans and the Giants. These gods then, rule humanity’s destiny and sometimes directly interfere - favourably or otherwise. Indeed, the view that events are not human’s to decide is further evidenced by the specific gods of Fate and Destiny.
Zeus was the king of the Olympian gods and the supreme deity in Greek religion. Often referred to as the Father, as the god of thunder and the ‘cloud-gatherer’, he controlled the weather, offered signs and omens and generally dispensed justice, guaranteeing order amongst both the gods and humanity from his seat high on Mt. Olympus.
Zeus’ Struggle for Power
Zeus’ father was Cronus and his mother Rhea. Cronus had usurped control of the heavens from his father Ouranos and he was constantly wary of not having the same thing happen to him from his own children.
To pre-empt any takeover he, therefore, swallowed all of his children: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. However, Rhea saved her youngest child Zeus by wrapping a stone in swaddling clothes and giving this to Cronus to swallow.
Zeus was spirited away to Mt. Dikte on the island of Crete where he was raised by the primeval goddess Gaia (Earth), or in some versions by the Nymphs. Amongst these was the Nymph Amaltheia (in some versions of the myth she was a goat) who suckled the young god.
On reaching adulthood Zeus made Cronus cough back up the children he had swallowed and Zeus then married his sister Hera. However, the lawless Titans, encouraged by Gaia, immediately tried to wrestle control of the world from the Olympian gods in a ten-year battle known as the Titanomachy.
The Titans were the brothers and sisters of Cronus and it was only through the help of the Cyclopes - who made Zeus his lightning bolts - and the hundred-handed giants or Hecatoncheires (Briareos, Cottus and Gyges) that Zeus was finally able to imprison the Titans in Tartarus, the deepest part of the Underworld. Making himself ruler of the skies, Zeus then gave dominion over the seas to Poseidon and of the Underworld to Hades.
The Olympians still could not reign peacefully, though, for Gaia then enlisted the help of the terrible and savage Giants to battle with Zeus in the Gigantomachy.
The Olympians were this time helped by the great hero Hercules and, after Zeus outwitted Gaia in her attempt to give the giants a magic herb, they once again won the battle for control of the world, not however, before the Giants had created great destruction by moving mountains, islands and rivers.
Zeus’s reign was only once more challenged when some of the gods, notably Hera, Athena and Poseidon, tried to takeover Zeus’ role as head of the Olympian gods and bound him to his bed. The Father was, however, freed by one of the Hecatoncheires and the status quo restored
Although first married (briefly it seems) to the Titan Metis and then married to Hera, Zeus was infamous for his adulterous affairs, during which he often transformed himself into various incarnations to bed his prey. He, therefore, had many offspring:
Hephaistos, Ares, Hebe, Eileithyia - with Hera.
Athena - with Metis but as Zeus swallowed his wife in fear a son would usurp his position, Athena was born from Zeus’ head and she became the god’s favourite child.
Apollo & Artemis - with Leto.
Hermes - with the Nymph Maia. Zeus, impressed by his trickery and silver tongue, gave him the role of messenger of the gods.
Dionysos - with Semele who, being tricked by a jealous Hera, asked to see Zeus in all his godly splendour and immediately expired as a consequence. Dionysos was born from Zeus’ thigh as a result of his mother’s premature deat
Hercules - with Alkmene and he was, therefore, forever the subject of a jealous Hera’s scheming but on his death Zeus brought him to Mt. Olympus and made him into a god.
Perseus - with Danae, who was won over to the charms of Zeus when he appeared to her as golden rain in order to enter her chamber where she was imprisoned by her father Acrisius.
Persephone & Iacchus- with Demeter.
The Fates, the Hours, Horae (Seasons), Eunomia (Lawfulness), Dike (Justice), Eirene (Peace) - with Themis.
Helen, the Dioskouroi & Polydeuces - with Leda, for whom he transformed himself into a swan.
Aglaea (Splendour), Euphrosyne (Joy) & Thalia (Good Cheer) - (the three Graces) with Eurynome.
Minos, Rhadamanthys & Sarpedon - with Europa after Zeus disguised himself as a magnificent white bull and whisked her off to Crete.
Epaphos - with Io.
Iasion - with Electra.
Arcas - with the Nymph Callisto - both son and mother were transformed into bears by a jealous Artemis but Zeus made them into constellations - Ursa Minor and Major.
The nine Muses - with Mnemosyne after the couple slept together for nine consecutive nights.
Zeus was also regarded as the founder of certain races, notably the Magnesians and the Macedonians. He also turned ants into the magnificent fighting Myrmidons for his son Aiakos, later to be led by Achilles in the Trojan War.
Zeus the Punisher
The god was also the great punisher. Those who did wrong or committed acts of impiety were severely punished, often for all time.
The Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus and after acts of impiety against Zeus, Apollo and Poseidon were made to build the magnificent walls of Troy which proved so useful in the Trojan War. An explanation for the war in mythology was that Zeus sought to curb the rising population of humanity.
Zeus also selected Paris as the judge in the famous beauty contest between Aphrodite, Hera and Athena, and when the young prince won Helen as his reward for choosing Aphrodite it was cited as another, more human cause for the Trojan War.
Other victims of Zeus’ vengeance included The Titan Prometheus who was condemned to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day after he stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind.
Atlas had to support the heavens for eternity because of his role in the Titanomachy. Sisyphus, punished for his trickery, was condemned to forever roll a huge stone up a hill in the Underworld.
Asclepius was killed by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts because the former’s medicine and his ability to raise the dead threatened the balance of power between men and gods. Pandora,
the first woman was sent into the world by Zeus as punishment for receiving the gift of fire and she was to be the source of all mankind’s misfortunes, carried with her in a box.
Phineus, who was tricked by Hera into blinding his two sons, was himself blinded by Zeus who also sent the Harpies to continuously harass him. Ixion rashly declared his love for Hera and so Zeus banished him to Hades to be forever bound to a rotating wheel. Lycaon gave human flesh to Zeus to test his divinity and the god punished his impudence by turning him into a wolf.
Salmoneus thought he was a god and pretended to be Zeus by throwing flaming torches for lightning bolts and riding his chariot to make a noise like thunder but Zeus swiftly put a stop to his antics by killing him instantly with a real lightning bolt. The list goes on but the message is clear, wrong-doing and lack of respect would be severely punished
Zeus the Peacemaker
Despite the terrible punishments Zeus could inflict he was also a peacemaker, famously reconciling Apollo and Hermes when they fought over the first lyre.
Similarly, Zeus resolved the conflict between Apollo and Hercules over the tripod from Delphi. He also persuaded Hades to part with Persephone for part of each year and so end the terrible drought her mother Demeter had caused for the human race in protest at being held captive in the Underworld.
For mere mortals, Zeus was at least fair-minded. At his feet Zeus had the jars of Fate - one full of bad things, another full of good things and he dispensed both with justice. Similarly, the time of a mortal’s death was carefully weighed in Zeus’ golden scales.
Sites Sacred to Zeus
Zeus had an oracle, the oldest in fact, at Dodona in Greece where ascetic priests served an oracle which interpreted the sounds from the wind in the branches of the sacred oak trees and the babbling of water from the holy spring.
Another great sanctuary dedicated to Zeus was at Olympia where every four years from 776 BCE the Olympic Games drew crowds from all parts of the Greek world to honour the father of the gods and where 100 oxen were sacrificed to Zeus at the end of each Games. Also at Olympia,
the massive 5th century BCE temple of Zeus housed the gigantic gold and ivory statue of the god by Pheidias which was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Other important sacred sites for the god were on Mt. Lycaios, in Athens, Nemea, Pergamon, Stratos, and in Libya.
There were surprisingly few festivals in honour of Zeus, one was the Diasia of Athens. Generally, though, Zeus, as head of the Greek pantheon, was omnipresent and so made no particular attachments to specific cities.
Zeus was, however, worshipped in most family homes where an altar was often dedicated to him in each courtyard, for as Zeus Herkeios, he protected the family hearth and property in general.
He was also Zeus Xenios, the god of hospitality, Zeus Polieus, protector of cities, Zeus Horkios guardian of oaths and Zeus Soter, the protector and general benefactor to all.
Representations in Art
In Greek art Zeus is almost always bearded and carries either a lightning bolt or sceptre. He was also strongly associated with bulls, oak trees and eagles, one of the latter sometimes appears at his side when he does not have his lightning bolt or sceptre.
Zeus is a central figure in the east pediment of the Parthenon but without doubt the most majestic representation of the god is the bronze statue from Artemesium (460 BCE) where he confidently stands, feet wide apart, about to launch a thunderbolt.
Some scholars believe the figure is Poseidon but the art historian J.Boardman presents the convincing argument that the stance is much more familiar to representations of Zeus in Greek art (see the Dodona statue) and if the figure held a trident (much longer than a thunderbolt) it would obscure the face, an undesirable aesthetic consequence for Greek sculpture.
Greek pottery is another rich source of the myths involving Zeus, in particular scenes representing his many metamorphoses and Zeus also appeared on many coins, notably those of Elis.......................
Hera (Roman name: Juno), wife of Zeus and queen of the ancient Greek gods, represented the ideal woman and was goddess of marriage and the family. However,
she was perhaps most famous for her jealous and vengeful nature, principally aimed against the lovers of her husband and their illegitimate offspring. Hera herself was notable as one of the very few deities that remained faithful to her partner and she therefore came to symbolise monogamy and fidelity.
In Greek mythology, Hera was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and mother of Ares (god of war), Hebe (goddess of youth), and Eileithyia (goddess of childbirth), all with Zeus. Hera also gave birth alone to Hephaistos (god of metallurgy) in retaliation for Zeus’ similarly single-handed birth of Athena.
However, Hera threw Hephaistos from Mount Olympus because of his ugliness, and crashing to earth, the god became lame. In other accounts, Hephaistos was thrown from the heavens by Zeus precisely because of his lameness. In any case,
Hephaistos held a grudge against his mother and even imprisoned her in a special throne. Hera was only released from the device by promising her son the hand of Aphrodite in marriage.
Hera constantly battled with her husband Zeus’ infidelity and she often took swift revenge.
Hera constantly battled with her husband’s infidelity and she often took swift revenge. Leto was so punished through Hera promising to curse any land that gave the pregnant goddess refuge.
Only after months of wanderings could Leto find a place (Delos) to give birth to her son, the god Apollo. Even then, Hera had her daughter Eileithyia prolong the labour to nine months.
In various versions, a very popular myth involved Hera, Zeus, and Io. In some accounts, the queen of the gods turned Io, who was one her own priestesses and a former princess of Argos, into a cow to deter Zeus’ advances, but in other versions,
it was Zeus who turned the girl into a white cow, either to secretly rendezvous with her or to persuade Hera that he was not really interested in Io. However,Hera discovered their courting, took custody of the cow. and set the one- hundred-eyed Argos to guard her.Zeus then employed Hermes to lull Argos to sleep and kill him. In memory, Hera then set his 100 eyes on the wings of a bird - the peacock. Finally, not to be outdone, Hera sent a gadfly to continually pester the unfortunate Io.
Other victims of Hera’s jealousy were Semele, who was tricked by Hera into asking Zeus to reveal himself in all his godly splendour and the sight immediately destroyed her. Callisto was another of Zeus’ lovers who caught the wrath of Hera as she was turned into a bear and hunted by Artemis. Zeus, in pity, later made her into a constellation, the Bear.
Hera went to great lengths to revenge herself for Zeus’ infidelity with Alkmene, principally focussing her wrath on their son Hercules. Hera delayed his birth so that his cousin Eurystheus could claim the throne of Tiryns,
sent two snakes to kill the infant while he slept, caused the hero to become mad and kill his own wife and children, and had Eurystheus set the hero his twelve labours, which being so dangerous, she hoped they would be fatal.
She also set the Hydra of Lerna against the inhabitants of Hercules’ home town and set the Amazons against the hero when he went in search of the girdle of Hippolyta.
Hera was also responsible for some of the fierce monsters Hercules had to fight - the lion which terrorized Nemea and the Ladon dragon which protected the goddess’ sacred apple trees, a wedding gift from Gaia.
Another pan-Hellenic hero though, who did receive Hera’s favour, was Jason, of the Golden Fleece fame. The hero had helped the goddess unknowingly when she was disguised as an old woman and wanted to cross a dangerous river, and she promised to be always at hand in any hour of need.
Finally, two more victims of the queen of gods were Ixion, who was tied to an ever-spinning wheel down in Hades as punishment for his attempted seduction of Hera, and Tityos, who was punished for the same indiscretion by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten daily by a vulture.
Hera was a major protagonist in the story of the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Iliad. The goddess supports the Achaeans and frequently schemes with other deities to bring the downfall of Troy, as she never forgave the Trojan prince Paris for choosing Aphrodite above her as the most beautiful goddess.
In the Iliad, Hera mentions three cities particularly dear to her - Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae (or Mykene). We are also told that as a child she was raised by Ocean and Tethys whilst Zeus battled with Cronos.
Homer most often describes Hera as ‘white-armed’, 'ox-eyed’, and ‘Hera of Argos’. Hesiod, in his Theogony, similarly describes Hera as: ‘of Argos’ and more frequently as ‘golden-sandaled’.
Hera was the patron of Argos, which possessed a sanctuary to the goddess from the mid-8th century BCE. She also had a temple dedicated to her at Olympia (650-600 BCE), and Tiryns was an important cult centre
The island of Samos, in some accounts the birthplace of the goddess, had been a centre for cult worship of the goddess as far back as the Mycenaean period in the mid-2nd millennium BCE,
and a major centre was created from the 8th century BCE which prospered right into the Roman period. Hera was greatly esteemed at Elis, where coins depicted the goddess in the 5th and 4th century BCE.
Across Greece, sporting competitions for women, the Heraia, were held in Hera’s honour, as were annual marriage festivals (hierogamy) when couples re-enacted the marriage of Zeus and Hera
As one of the most important deities, Hera was, naturally, a prominent figure in ancient Greek art, particularly on Attic red- and black-figure pottery.
However, without any specific attributes she is often hard to distinguish from other goddesses. She is most often seated on a throne and sometimes wears a crown (polos), holds a royal sceptre, and wears a bridal veil. On occasion she is also depicted holding a pomegranate, a traditional symbol of fertility.
Other associations include the peacock - symbol of pride - and the cuckoo, the form Zeus first took when he courted Hera - both of which the goddess reportedly kept as pets on Mount Olympus - and finally, with the lily flower.
In Roman culture the goddess lived on as Juno, although she principally represented the good family and faithful marriage attributes of Hera rather than the jealous avenger of infidelity. Juno was one of the most important Roman gods along with Jupiter and Minerva; indeed she was also the patron of Rome itself.
The annual Matronalia was a festival held in her honour in June, the month which carried her name and the period regarded as the most auspicious time to get married in Roman culture.
The Archetypal Married Couple: Hera and Zeus
As the guardian of marriage and the spouse of the King of Gods and Men, Hera didn’t have much choice but to be a faithful wife. Even though she was beautiful, not many men – and not one god – dared to lay hands on her.
Endymion tried once, but Zeus condemned him to eternal sleep. Ixion fared even worse: Zeus fooled him into making love with a cloud fashioned in Hera’s image, and then ordered Hermes to bind him to a perpetually turning wheel of fire.
By most accounts, Hera gave Zeus four children: Ares, the god of war, Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, Hebe, the goddess of eternal youth, and Hephaestus, the god of fire.
Hera, a Vengeful Wife
Zeus tricked Hera into marriage. Knowing full well that the goddess loved animals, he transformed himself into a distressed cuckoo and reverted to his original form only when Hera took the poor creature to her breast to warm it. Ashamed for being taken advantage of, Hera agreed to a marriage.
Hera Challenges Zeus
However, it didn’t turn out to be a happy one. Zeus was brutish and cruel to everybody. Incapable of bearing this, Hera plotted a revenge plan with Poseidon, Athena and possibly few other gods. She drugged Zeus, and they bound him on his bed, while stealing his thunderbolt.
Thetis, however, summoned Briareus and he managed to quickly untie Zeus, who was, subsequently, merciless to the main schemer: he hung Hera from the sky with golden chains.
To grant herself a release, Hera swore to never rebel again against her husband. So, she directed her anger toward Zeus’s lovers and their offspring, becoming a jealous and vindictive wife
Hera and Semele
For example, she tricked Semele into forcing her lover – which she knew was Zeus – to reveal himself before her in all his glory. Since humans can’t look upon at gods without incinerating, Semele perished into thin air..
Hera and Callisto
Later, she turned Callisto into a bear, after the latter gave birth to Zeus’ child Arcas. After some time, just as Arcas was about to unwittingly kill his mother, Zeus placed Callisto and her son in the sky as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Big and the Little Bear.
Hera and the Delaying of Births
Hera kept her daughter Eileithyia from attending the birth of Apollo, postponing it by nine days and nights. More famously, she did the same with Heracles; in this case, the delay caused Heracles the throne of Argolid.
Hera and Io
Arguably, Io was the one who endured the most. First Zeus transformed her into a cow so that he can hide her from Hera. Then, Hera sent Argus Panoptes to watch over her, and Zeus – Hermes to kill him. .
After that, Hera transformed Argus’ ghost into a gadfly which bothered Io in her bovine form all the way to Egypt. Finally, Zeus impregnated her there with Epaphus.
Hera, the Vain Goddess
Just like most of the other Greek goddesses, when it came to her beauty, Hera was easily offended.
Once, Orion’s wife Side (“pomegranate”) boasted that she was as beautiful as Hera, so the goddess sent her to the Underworld. When Laomedon’s daughter Antigone did the same, Hera turned her into a stork. Finally, after Paris chose Aphrodite instead of her, she became a sworn enemy of Troy.
Portrayal and Symbolism
Hera was usually portrayed alongside Zeus, as a fully clothed matronly woman of solemn beauty, wearing a cylindrical crown called polos or a wreath and a veil.
Sometimes she carries a scepter capped with a pomegranate and a cuckoo – the former a symbol of fertility, the latter a token of the way she was wooed by Zeus. She is also often accompanied by a peacock, one of her sacred animals.
Homer often refers to Hera as “cow-eyed” and “white-armed” – which are her most famous epithets. She is also sometimes called “a virgin,” since it was believed that every year she bathed in a spring to renew her virginity.
Being born after Hestia and Demeter, Hera is the youngest of Cronus’ and Rhea’s three daughters and their third child overall; Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus – in that order – are her younger brothers. However, since just like each of her siblings but Zeus, she was swallowed by her father at birth and later disgorged to be born again,
she is sometimes referred to as Cronus’ and Rhea’s oldest daughter. Reasonably, since the Titan had to empty his stomach of his children in the order opposite of the one in which he ate them.
Goddess of wisdom, war and the crafts, and favourite daughter of Zeus, Athena was, perhaps, the wisest, most courageous, and certainly the most resourceful of the Olympian gods.
Zeus was told that his son would take his throne from him, just as he had taken power from his father Cronus. Accordingly, when Metis was pregnant, he swallowed her and Athena was born from Zeus’ head, wearing armour and fully grown. A popular theme in ancient Greek art, Hephaistos is often depicted in the role of midwife, splitting Zeus’ head with an axe.
Epithets of Athena include Pallas (girl) and Parthenos (virgin), living up to which, she is conspicuous amongst the gods of Greek mythology for not indulging in illicit relationships with other divinities, demigods, or mortals.
Other epithets were Promachos (of war) - perhaps referring to more patriotic, defensive, and strategic warfare, rather than attacking warfare, in contrast to her more aggressive, conflict-loving brother Ares, Ergane (of the crafts), and Nike (victory)." alt="" />
The goddess was not to be trifled with as her transformation of Medusa into a Gorgon demonstrates, and her sense of justice was such that acts of impiety were swiftly avenged, as with the Archaean heroes following their capture of Troy and desecration of the goddess’ sanctuary.
Athena is also associated with household crafts, giving mortals the gifts of cooking and sewing. She is said to have invented the aulos but on seeing her reflection and her puffed cheeks when playing these pipes, she threw them away, to be picked up by the satyr Marsyas.
She is closely associated with Athens, the city named in her honour after the people of Attica chose her as their patron following her gift of the olive tree, symbol of peace and plenty. The 5th century BCE temple of the Parthenon, which continues to this day to dominate the acropolis of the city, was built in her honour.
Her adopted son Erichthonios, one of the first kings of Athens, is traditionally credited with inaugurating the Panathenaic festival, held every four years to honour the goddess.
The festival included a magnificent procession through the city, the presentation to Athena of a specially woven peplos (depicting the Gigantomachy), and athletic games.
Prizes for the games were amphorae painted with a figure of Athena and contained prime olive oil. In her role as protector, she was also revered in many other major cities, notably as patron of Sparta, as the founder of Thebes in Boeotia, and at Corinth where she appeared on the city’s coins
Protector of Hercules, Athena often aids him in his twelve labours, for example, by helping him hold the world as Atlas searches for the sacred apples of the Hesperides. Perseus was another favourite and was given a shield to protect himself in his quest to kill Medusa.
Achilles is helped to kill Hector, and Odysseus too was often given the benefit of Athena’s wisdom, for example the idea to dress as a beggar on his return to Ithaca, and he is also protected from the arrows of his rivals when he clears the palace of the interlopers.
Jason was yet another hero who benefitted from Athena’s resourcefulness when she encouraged Argo to build the first Greek longship which would carry his name and the fame of the Argonauts." alt="" />
Athena was a major protagonist in Homer’s account of the Trojan War in the Iliad where she supports the Archaeans and their heroes, especially Achilles, to whom she gives encouragement and wise counsel, Menelaos, who is saved from the arrow of Pandaros, and Diomedes, whose spear, in one notable episode, is diverted to injure Ares himself.
Aphrodite was another divinity who came off second best when she clashed with Athena. She also gave protection to Odysseus and is credited with giving him the idea of the Wooden Horse.
Both Homer and Hesiod refer to Athena as ‘bright-eyed’ and ‘Tritogeneia’. She is also frequently called ‘goddess of spoil’, the ‘lovely-haired goddess’, and ‘Alalkomenaian Athena’
Objects associated with the goddess include an owl - symbol of wisdom - and the olive tree. She is often depicted in art with armour, a golden helmet, a shield, and holding a spear.
Her armour is the aegis made, in some accounts, from the skin of a Giant, hung with tassels of gold, and featuring the head of the Gorgon given to her by Perseus.
The most famous representation of Athena in the ancient world was undoubtedly the monumental gold and ivory statue of the goddess by Pheidias which resided in the Parthenon of Athens and was over 12 m high.
The statue has been lost but survives in the form of smaller Roman copies and shows Athena standing majestic, fully armed, holding Nike in her right hand and with a shield in her left depicting scenes from the Battles of the Amazons
and the Giants. On her helmet were a sphinx and two griffins. Celebrated surviving depictions of Athena include friezes from the Parthenon and metopes from the temple of Zeus at Olympia.
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The Temple of Athena Nike: A Small Shrine Dedicated To One of Athena's Many Incarnations
The Temple of Athena Nike is the smallest structure on the Athenian Acropolis, but holds no less importance than its neighboring shrines.
Built to honor Athena Nike, the goddess of victory, the site upon which the temple was constructed has ceremonial roots that date back to the Bronze Age. When the newer,
Classical temple was built in the fifth century B.C., it no doubt did double duty: it stood as a shrine to Athens’ patron goddess, and also acted as a symbol of Athens’ military and political strength.
The location of the Temple of Athena Nike is on the southwest corner of the Acropolis, adjacent to the Propylaia. The position of the temple, on a rocky projection of the outcropping, was particularly vulnerable to attack. The Mycenaeans constructed a wall there to supplement the natural citadel of the Acropolis, and began worshipping there.
There is archaeological evidence dating back to the Bronze Age that suggests this spot was highly important to the worship of Nike, or victory, deities. By the sixth century B.C.,
also known as the Archaic period, a cult of Athena Nike was established and a small, earlier temple was built on the site. When the Persians sacked Athens and destroyed the Acropolis in 480 B.C., the temple to Athena Nike was also left in ruins.
Plans got underway to rebuild this important shrine in 449 B.C. With architect Kallikrates at the helm, the temple was to be a simple Ionic shrine, made of Pentellic marble, and included a prostyle porch with four columns on the front and back. It also was adorned with a sculptural frieze all around, as was customary in Greek temple construction.
However, something delayed the construction, and it was not completed until around 420 B.C., built with Poros limestone and faced with marble.
It was also surrounded by a sort of guardrail or parapet that would have kept Athenians and other visitors from falling off the Acropolis. This fortification was decorated with relief sculptures depicting various presentations of Nike.
As with all Greek temples, the Temple of Athena Nike would have housed a cult statue in its cella. In Greek mythology, Nike deities were often depicted with wings.
This was not the case with Athena Nike. The wooden cult statue was wingless, and thus dubbed Apteros Nike, or “wingless victory”. This was perhaps to ensure that Nike (and hence and military victory or supremacy) would never abandon Athens.
Today, the Temple of Athena Nike can be seen on the Athenian Acropolis, in its restored state. It suffered much the same fate as the other buildings of the Acropolis, having been the victim of Ottoman occupation and Turkish siege in 1687. In 1834, the temple was reconstructed after Greece's emancipation." alt="" />
In 1998, it was dismantled so that the crumbling concrete floor could be replaced, and its frieze was removed and placed in the Acropolis Museum, safe from the harsh environmental elements of Athens.
The ancient Greek goddess Nike was the personification of the ideal of victory. Such personifications of ideal terms were common in ancient Greek culture; other examples include Wisdom, Knowledge, and Justice. Unlike other gods in the Greek pantheon, such personifying deities were not usually given human personalities and histories.
For this reason, little is said about Nike in Greek culture beyond that her mother was Styx (daughter of Ocean) and her father was Pallas, the Titan. She had three sisters, also personified deities: Zelus (Rivalry), Cratos (Supremacy), and Bia (Force) who, with Nike, were always seated by mighty Zeus on Mt. Olympus.
The goddess was a popular figure in ancient Greek art, appearing in sculpture, on pottery, and on coins. Usually fitting Hesiod’s description as ‘beautiful-ankled Nike’,
she is depicted with wings and often carries before her a wreath of victory, which she presents either to other gods or to victorious heroes and athletes. The oldest surviving winged Nike in sculpture is from Delos and dates to 550 BCE and was most probably sculpted by Archermos.
The statue is in the Archaic style and strikes the typical pose of the period with bent knees and running. On Attic 5th to 4th century BCE pottery, Nike also often rides a chariot or sometimes stands next to an altar or a sacrificial bull.
One of the goddess Athena’s most common epithets was Athena Nike and a temple to Athena as Victory was built on the Acropolis of Athens in the late 420’s BCE.
Bronze akroteria (added decoration) on the corners and central ridge of the temple roof represented Nike, and the temple itself was surrounded by a balustrade decorated with a frieze which depicted figures of Nike leading bulls to sacrifice and erecting various trophies such as weapons and armour.
Nike also appeared in decorative sculpture on other buildings, both in friezes and on many temple roofs as an akroteria and on many coins from Thrace to Macedonia, for example, she appears on a silver decadrachm of Syracuse (Sicily) where she is crowning a charioteer (c. 400 BCE).
Statues of Nike were also set up to commemorate military victories, a famous example being the 1.4 m tall Nike (490-480 BCE) on the acropolis dedicated to the general Kallimachos who was killed at the battle of Marathon where the Greeks were victorious over the Persians.
In antiquity, the most celebrated representations of Nike were as part of the great 5th century BCE statues of the deities Athena and Zeus which stood, respectively, within the Parthenon of Athens and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
These larger-than-life chryselephantine statues were made from an inner core of wood sumptuously covered in carved ivory and burnished gold.
Face, torso, legs, and arms were in carved ivory and hair and clothes were made of sheet gold. In both cases, the god held in their right hand a statue of Nike, always closely associated with Athena, and in the case of Zeus and the pan-Hellenic games of Olympia, significant in her role as bestower of prizes.
The statue of Zeus was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the father of the gods is shown seated on a massive, richly decorated throne with more figures of Nike on its legs. Neither statue survives but descriptions by Pausanias, smaller Roman copies, and coin designs help give us a glimpse of the magnificence that we have lost.
A third representation which must have struck a certain degree of awe into the ancients was the statue of Nike by Paionios, which stood on a nine metre tall triangular pedestal just outside the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
Dedicated to the sanctuary by the Messenians and Naupaktians following their victory over the Spartans at Sphakteria in 424 BCE, the Nike itself was three metres tall and would have dominated all of the other dedications at the site.
The statue is sculpted in the rich style popular in the late 5th century BCE, and with a chiton that is at once billowing and clinging and with wings widespread, the impression is that the goddess has just that moment softly alighted onto the pedestal.
Apollo was a major Greek god who was associated with the bow, music, and divination. The epitome of youth and beauty, source of life and healing, patron of the civilized arts, and as bright and powerful as the sun itself,
Apollo was, arguably, the most loved of all the Greek gods. He was particularly worshipped at Delphi and Delos, amongst the most famous of all religious sanctuaries in the Greek world.
Birth & Family
Son of Zeus and Leto, and the twin brother of Artemis, Apollo was born on the island of Delos (in Hesiod’s Theogony he is clutching a golden sword). His mother, fearful of revenge from Zeus’ wife Hera, had chosen barren Delos as the safest retreat she could find.
At his first taste of ambrosia, he was said to have immediately transformed from babe to man. Apollo was then given his bow, made by the master craftsman of Mount Olympus, Hephaestus.
As with the other major divinities, Apollo had many children; perhaps the most famous are Orpheus (who inherited his father’s musical skills and became a virtuoso with the lyre or kithara),
Asclepius (to whom he gave his knowledge of healing and medicine) and, according to the 5th-century BCE tragedian Euripides, the hero Ion.
Apollo is a significant protagonist in Homer’s account of the Trojan War in the Iliad. On the side of the Trojans, he gives particular assistance to the Trojan heroes Hector, Aeneas, and Glaukos, saving their lives on more than one occasion with his divine intervention.
He brought plague to the Achaeans, led the entire Trojan army (holding Zeus’ fearsome aegis) in an attack which destroyed the Achaean defensive walls, and was also responsible for guiding Paris’ arrow to the heel of Achilles, killing the seemingly invincible Greek hero.
Apollo is most frequently described by Homer and Hesiod as the ‘far-shooter’, the ‘far-worker’, the ‘rouser of armies’, and ‘Phoebus Apollo’.
Apollo generally played the dutiful son to Zeus, father of the gods, and never attempted to usurp his position (unlike Zeus who had overthrown his own father Cronus). The pair did have a serious falling out when Zeus killed Asclepius after he had used his marvellous medicinal skills to bring a mortal back to life.
In revenge, Apollo then killed the Cyclopes, the one-eyed giants who made Zeus’ thunderbolts. As punishment, Apollo was obliged to spend a year in the humble service of Admetus of Therae, tending the king’s sheep.
Apollo acquired his lyre from his mischievous half-brother Hermes, the messenger god. While still a baby, Hermes had stolen Apollo’s sacred herd of cattle, cleverly reversing their hooves to make it difficult to follow their tracks. Hermes was permitted to keep his ill-gotten gains but only after he gave Apollo his lyre which he had invented using a tortoiseshell.
Apollo’s darker side as the bringer of plague and divine retribution is seen most famously when he is, with his sister Artemis, the remorseless slayer of Niobe’s six (or in some accounts seven) sons as punishment for her boasting that her childbearing capacity was greater than Leto’s.
Another hapless victim of Apollo’s wrath was the satyr Marsyas who unwisely claimed he was musically more gifted than the god. The pair had a competition and the Muses ruled that Apollo was indeed the better musician. Apollo then had the mortal flayed alive for his presumption and nailed his skin to a pine tree.
The tale is an interesting metaphor for the competition between (at least to Greek ears) the civilised and ordered music of Apollo’s lyre and the wilder, more chaotic music of Marsyas’ flute. Apollo won another musical competition, this time against the pastoral god Pan and, judged the victor by King Midas,
Apollo thus became the undisputed master of music in the Greek world. The god’s defeat of Marsyas and Pan may reflect the Greek conquest of Phrygia and Arcadia respectively.
Objects traditionally associated with the god include:a silver bow - symbolic of his prowess as an archer. a kithara (or lyre) - made from the shell of a tortoise, this was symbolic of Apollo’s ability in music and his leadership of the chorus of the nine Muses. a laurel branch - symbolic of the fate of Daphne who, after Apollo’s amorous pursuit of her, led her father, the river god Phineus, to transform her into a laurel tree. the omphalos - symbol of Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi as the navel of the world. a palm tree - which Leto gripped when she gave birth to her son.
Apollo was a much-loved god, and this was most likely due to his association with many positive aspects of the human condition such as music, poetry, purification, healing, and medicine. The god was also associated with moderation in all things. His arrows, although they could bring destruction could also ward off harm to those he favoured.
A strategy to keep away evil from Greek homes was to set up a pillar of Apollo Agyieus and, on a grander scale, Apollo Propylaios protected city gates.
Apollo oversaw the initiation rites performed by young males (ephebes) as they entered the full civic community and became warriors. Rituals in this process involved cutting hair and offering it to the god, as well as athletic and martial challenges.
The god is frequently associated with the sun (as Phoebus Apollo) and the sun god Helios, but modern scholars mostly agree that the link between Apollo and Helios does not go further back than the 5th century BCE. Apollo continued to inspire the Romans when he was principally considered a god of healing.
Octavian, the future emperor Augustus (r. 27 BCE - 14 CE), famously claimed the god as his patron and even dedicated a temple to Apollo at Actium.
The god of moderation was a useful association and in direct contrast to the god of excess, Dionysos, championed by Octavian’s no. 1 enemy, Mark Antony.
Sanctuaries were built in honour of Apollo throughout the Greek world, notably at the islands of Delos and Rhodes and at Ptoion and Claros. Sites which still possess some vestiges of once-great temples dedicated to Apollo include those at Naxos (6th century BCE),
where the massive doorway still stands proud, at Corinth (550-530 BCE), where seven Doric columns give an impression of a once impressive structure, at Didyma, Turkey (4th century BCE),
whose temple was the fourth largest in the Greek world, and at Side, also in Turkey (2nd century CE) where a corner of its elegant columned facade has been restored.
Apollo’s most direct presence amongst the Greeks, though, was manifested in his oracle at Delphi, the most important in the Greek world. According to legend, Apollo, wishing to reveal to humanity the intentions of his father Zeus, created the oracle on the site where he had killed the serpent (or dragon) Python.
The Panhellenic Pythian games were begun at the site in order to commemorate the death of this divine creature. Tripods and laurel wreaths were given as prizes to the victors at these games. The 30 treasuries built at Delphi by various cities indicate the popularity of the god and the sanctuary in the wider Greek world.
The oracle of Delphi was already well-visited in the 8th century BCE - despite being difficult to get to and open only in summer - and the sometimes cryptic proclamations of its priestesses were not taken lightly, often deciding how laws would be applied or whether a foreign war should be pursued.
Sometimes the oracle’s responses to questions were so obscure that priests at the site offered (for a fee) to give them greater clarity. As the historian B. Graziosi summarises,
Pilgrims often continued to ponder Apollo’s responses, and consult further experts, back home. After that long process of consultation and interpretation, Apollo’s revelations usually crystallised into lines of hexameter poetry, and were always found to be true - even if the correct interpretation sometimes emerged only after the relevant events had come to pass.
Representation in Art
Apollo appears frequently in all media of ancient Greek art, most often as a beautiful, beardless youth. He is easily identified with either a kithara or a lyre, a bronze tripod (signifying his oracle at Delphi), a deer (which he often fights over with Hercules), and a bow and quiver. He is also, on occasion, portrayed riding a chariot pulled by lions or swans.
Perhaps the most celebrated representation of Apollo in ancient Greek art is the statue which dominated the centre of the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (c. 460 BCE). Here, in a majestic pose, he brings order and reason to the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs at the wedding of Peirithoos.
Another fine example of Apollo in his guise as a handsome youth, this time with long locks, is a 2nd-century CE marble relief from a funerary monument in Piraeus. The head of Apollo frequently appeared on Greek coins, notably on the silver tetradrachms of 5th-century BCE Catane (Catania) in Sicily and the gold staters of Philip II of Macedon (r. 359-356 BCE).
Roman sculptors were also fond of Apollo and a celebrated marble statue of the god, now in the Vatican Museums in Rome, is the Apollo Belvedere, a 2nd-century CE copy of a bronze statue of the 4th-century BCE by Leochares.
Even the Etruscans were at it, perhaps one of their most famous sculptures in terracotta being the Apollo of Veii (c. 510 BCE), a striding figure of the god, known to them as Aplu, which once stood on the roof of a temple.
God of the sea and rivers, creator of storms and floods, and the bringer of earthquakes and destruction, Poseidon was perhaps the most disruptive of all the ancient Greek gods, not only for mortals but also to Zeus’ peaceful reign on Mount Olympus.
Despite the above, the trident-bearing god was not always a negative force, and he did have a role as a protector, particularly to mariners, and as the patron of horses and horse breeding. To the Romans, he was known as Neptunus or Neptune.
Origins & Family
Cults to Poseidon date as far back as the late Bronze Age and the Mycenaean civilization (at its peak from the 15th to 12th century BCE), as attested by Linear B inscriptions found at Pylos in the Peloponnese and Knossos on Crete.
Indeed, the god seems to have been one of the most important Mycenaean deities, perhaps no surprise given the culture’s obvious seafaring skills. It may be that Poseidon was a mix of an indigenous but pre-Greek god with Potis, an Indo-European deity. Pylos, we know, had Poseidon as its main god with a priestess as the head of his cult.
In later Greek mythology, Poseidon was the son of Kronos and Rhea, and brother of Zeus and Hades. He was a key figure in the battles for control of the universe between the Titans, the Giants, and the Olympians. On their victory, the three brothers drew lots to decide which domain they would reign over, and Poseidon gained the seas.
The god dwelled in magnificent golden mansions beneath the sea, beautifully adorned with coral and sea flowers. Traditionally, this undersea palace, which included the god’s stables of fine white horses, was located near Aegae in Euboea. Seemingly not content with the seas alone,
Poseidon often interfered in the plans of Zeus, and once even attempted to overthrow his brother with the aid of Hera and Athena. It was as punishment for this treachery that Poseidon was made to build the magnificent walls of Troy.
Poseidon’s wife was the Nereid Amphitrite although she had proved a little difficult during the courting process and once fled to the Atlas mountains. Fortunately, the sea god was helped by the dolphin Delphinus who persuaded Amphitrite to return and marry Poseidon.
In gratitude, Poseidon ensured that Delphinus was remembered for all time by making a constellation in her likeness which still carries her name.
The god’s most famous son with Amphitrite was Triton, who was half-man, half-fish. Two other children were Rhode and Benthesicyme. However, as with the other divinities, Poseidon fathered many other offspring with various partners. Most notable are Theseus (with Aithra),
Polyphemus the Cyclops (whom Odysseus famously encountered on his lengthy return from the Trojan War), Orion the hunter (with the daughter of Minos), the flying horse Pegasus (after the rape of Medusa), the wild horse Arion, and Charybdis (with Gaia), the ship-eating sea monster which created terrible whirlpools.
Perhaps justifiably jealous of all these affairs, Poseidon’s infatuation with Scylla, the daughter of the sea god Phorcys, led Amphitrite to cast some magic herbs in the girl’s bath which turned her into a raging monster with twelve feet and six heads.
Both Scylla and Charybdis would menace mariners who passed the Straits of Messina between Sicily and mainland Italy.
Poseidon was himself responsible for another terrible creature - the Minotaur. Minos’ failure to sacrifice the bull given as a gift by the god resulted in Poseidon bewitching Minos’ wife Pasiphae into falling in love with the bull; and the fruit of their amorous relationship was the half-man, half-bull creature which inhabited the labyrinth of Knossos.
In Hesiod & Homer
The god is a major protagonist in the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad, where he supports the Greeks and gives them either encouragement with rousing speeches, often in disguise as various Achaean personalities, or actually leads them in battle with flashing sword.
However, he does also give aid to the Trojan hero Aeneas in order to escape from the fearsome Achilles. Poseidon also features in Homer’s Odyssey as the nemesis of Odysseus. In revenge for the blinding of his son Polyphemus, he cursed Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years.
Poseidon is most often described by both Homer and Hesiod as ‘deep sounding Earth-shaker’, the ‘dark-haired one’ and ‘encircler of the earth.’ The latter title reminds that many ancients believed that all waterways were connected and that the land floated on water.
For this reason, it made sense that one god looked after all these waterways which encircled the earth (even if many rivers and springs had their own specific personifications in mythology).
Worship & Sacred Sites
Poseidon was said to hold the Isthmus of Corinth in special regard; probably as it was an important sea route. The god was particularly revered here and was the focus of the Panhellenic Isthmian games which were held in his honour near Corinth.
The games were held every two years in the spring and, like the Olympic Games, athletes, charioteers, and horse racers competed for prizes, in this case, a prestigious crown of first pine and then, in the Classical period, of dry celery. Corinth was also one of the earliest cities to connect Poseidon to maritime trade and navigation as indicated by votive clay plaques dating to the Archaic period.
Sounion was another strategic site close to the god, and his 5th-century BCE temple still stands on the promontory which overlooks ships entering the Saronic gulf. The god was honoured by boat races held at the cape once every four years.
In the legendary competition with Athena to win the patronage of Athens, Poseidon offered to the city the gifts of a saltwater spring and a horse.
However, Athena’s gift of an olive tree gained greater favour, and it was she who would become the patron of the great city. Still, the god was honoured by the annual Posideai festival - which perhaps had more to do with agriculture than the sea - and the mid-winter month of Posideon carried his name.
As a protector during earthquakes (despite the fact he was also seen as their cause), the god was often appealed to as Poseidon Asphaleios, and a temple to the god was built on Rhodes for just that purpose. Poseidon had an oracle at Taenarum in Laconia and important sanctuaries at the small island of Calauria off Troezen and Onchestus in Boeatia.
Onchestus had a curious ceremony whereby horses pulled a riderless chariot through the site, and if it crashed, then the chariot was dedicated to the god. Many coastal settlements across the Mediterranean bore his name (for example, Posidonia/Paestum), and mariners and fishermen everywhere made votive offerings to Poseidon for protection.
His cult worshippers most frequently sacrificed bulls, stallions, and male sheep. Finally, the god was also credited as being the father of at least 30 different semi-historical city-founders and several major tribes across Greece, likely reflecting the importance the god had in the Mycenaean period.
Representation in Art
Poseidon is most commonly depicted in ancient Greek art as mature and bearded. He often brandishes his trident, fashioned by the Cyclopes, with which he would create earthquakes by striking it to the ground.
He is also frequently portrayed riding his golden chariot pulled by hippocamps - half-horse and half-serpent creatures with fishtails - or gold-shod horses, of which he was patron. Dolphins, seahorses, and tuna fish are additional marine animals frequently seen in the god’s company in art.
The god appears with Athena in their competition to become the patron of Athens on the west pediment of the Parthenon (447-432 BCE). Poseidon appeared on coinage, perhaps most strikingly the silver tetradrachms of ancient Macedon (306-283 BCE) where he seems about to hurl his trident.
Perhaps the most celebrated representation of Poseidon is the 2 metre-high bronze statue (c. 460 BCE) from Cape Artemisium (although such is the similarity in the depiction of Poseidon and Zeus in ancient Greek art, it may well represent the latter).
The statue was recovered from a shipwreck in the 1920s CE, and the magnificent striding figure now dominates one of the rooms of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Ares was the Greek god of war and perhaps the most unpopular of all the Olympian gods because of his quick temper, aggressiveness, and unquenchable thirst for conflict. He famously seduced Aphrodite, unsuccessfully fought with Hercules, and enraged Poseidon by killing his son Halirrhothios.
One of the more human Olympian gods, he was a popular subject in Greek art and even more so in Roman times when he took on a much more serious aspect as Mars, the Roman god of war.
Son of Zeus and Hera, Ares’ sisters were Hebe and Eileithyia. Despite being a god, the Greeks considered him from Thrace, perhaps in an attempt to associate him with what they thought of as foreign and war-loving peoples, wholly different from themselves.
Ares had various children with different partners, several of whom were unfortunate enough to come up against Hercules when he performed his celebrated twelve labours.
Ares’ daughter Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, lost her girdle to Hercules; his son Eurytion lost his cattle; and Diomedes had his horses stolen by the Greek hero. The courageous but warlike Amazons were also thought to be descendants of Ares.
Ares was noted for his beauty and courage, qualities which no doubt helped him win the affections of Aphrodite (even though she was married to Hephaistos) with whom he had a daughter, Harmonia, and the god of love and desire Eros
. Hephaistos managed to entrap the lovers in an ingenious bed, and the tale is told in some detail in Book 8 of Homer's Odyssey. Once caught, the punishment for Ares' indiscretion was temporary banishment from Mount Olympus
Described by Hesiod in his Theogony as 'shield-piercing Ares' and 'city-sacking Ares,' the god represented the more brutal and bloody side of battle, which was in contrast to Athena who represented the more strategic elements of warfare. In stories from Greek mythology,
Ares was usually to be found in the company of his other children with Aphrodite, Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror), with his sister Eris (Strife), and with his charioteer Ennyo.
Battle With Hercules
The most popular myth involving Ares was his fight with Hercules. Ares’ son Kyknos was infamous for waylaying pilgrims on their way to the oracle at Delphi, and so earned the displeasure of Apollo, who sent Hercules to deal with him. Hercules killed Kyknos, and a furious Ares engaged the hero in a fight.
However, Hercules was protected from harm by Athena and even managed to wound Ares. Another myth and ignominious episode for Ares was his capture by the twin Giants Ephialtes and Otus when they stormed Mount Olympus.
They imprisoned the god in a bronze jar (or cauldron) for one year and he was only freed through the intervention of Hermes.
The Trojan War
In Homer’s version of the Trojan War in the Iliad, Ares supports the Trojans, sometimes even leading them in battle along with Hector. The Iliad shows Ares in a less than positive light, and he is described as 'hateful Ares,' 'the man-killer,' 'the war-glutton,' and the 'curse of men.'
Homer’s picture of Ares, like the above mythological tales, often demonstrates his weakness in comparison to the other gods. Ares is roundly beaten by Athena who, supporting the Achaeans, knocks him out with a large rock.
He also comes off worse against the Achaean hero Diomedes who even manages to injure the god with his spear, albeit with the help of Athena. Homer describes the scream of the wounded Ares as like the shouts of 10,000 men. Fleeing back to Olympus, Zeus ignores the complaints of Ares but instructs Paieon to heal his wound.
Athens & Cult
Ares again upset the harmony of Olympus when he was accused of killing Poseidon’s son Halirrhothios near a stream below the Athenian acropolis. A special court was convened - the Areopagos - on a hill near the stream, to hear the case. Ares was acquitted as it was disclosed Halirrhothios had raped Ares’ daughter Alcippe. Thereafter in Athens, the Areopagus became the place of trial for cases involving murder and impiety.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the city’s strong militaristic culture, Ares was greatly esteemed in Sparta. Ares was not commonly worshipped but there were cult sites with temples
dedicated to the god on Crete (he is mentioned in Linear B tablets from Knossos) and at Argos, Athens, Erythrae, Geronthrae, Megalopolis, Tegea, Therapne, and Troezon. He also had a cult in Thrace and was popular among the Colchians on the Black Sea.
Representation in Art
In ancient Greek Archaic and Classical art, Ares is most often depicted wearing full armour and helmet and carrying a shield and spear. In this respect, he may appear indistinguishable from any other armed warrior.
Sometimes he is shown riding his chariot pulled by fire-breathing horses. The myth of Ares’ battle with Hercules was a popular subject for Attic vases in the 6th century BCE.
In later times, the Roman god Mars was given many of the attributes of Ares, although, as was typical of the Roman view of the gods, with less human qualities. In Roman mythology, Mars was also the father of Romulus and Remus (through the rape of the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia), the legendary founders of Rome,
and, therefore, the city achieved a sacred status. Like Athena for Athens, Mars was also the patron god of the Roman capital and the month martius (March) was named after him.
Ancient Greek goddess of love, beauty, desire, and all aspects of sexuality, Aphrodite could entice both gods and men into illicit affairs with her good looks and whispered sweet nothings.
Born near Cyprus from the severed genitalia of the sky god Uranus, Aphrodite had a much wider significance than the traditional view as a mere goddess of love and sex.
Worshipped by men, women, and city-state officials, she also played a role in the commerce, warfare, and politics of ancient Greek cities. In addition, Aphrodite was honoured as a protector of those who travelled by sea and, less surprisingly, courtesans and prostitutes. The goddess’ Roman equivalent was Venus.
Birth from Uranus
In mythology, the goddess was born when Cronos castrated his father Uranus (Ouranos) with a sickle and cast the genitalia into the sea from where Aphrodite appeared amidst the resulting foam (aphros). In other versions, she is the daughter of Zeus and Dione, the Titaness.
Hesiod recounts the first version and Homer the second, and the Greeks were troubled by such an obvious contradiction from their two great myth-makers. Indeed, Plato even came up with a theory to reconcile the two ancient authors, suggesting that there were actually two different goddesses of the same name,
one to represent (in his view) the higher love between men and another to represent the love between men and women. Plato called these the ‘Heavenly Aphrodite’ and ‘Pandemic Aphrodite’ respectively.
Believed to have been born close to Cyprus, Aphrodite was especially worshipped in Paphos on the island - a geographic location which hints at her eastern origins as a fertility goddess and possible evolution from the Phoenician goddess Astarte or the Near Eastern Inanna (Ishtar).
The two areas of Greece and the Near East witnessed intense cultural exchange prior to the 8th-century BCE Archaic Period, and it is perhaps significant that the 5th-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus states that the most ancient cult site to Aphrodite was at Ascalon in Syria.
It is also possible that the goddess derived from an entirely local Cypriot deity. The strong association with the island is evidenced in her common name, Cypris, meaning ‘of Cyprus’.
More certain than her origins is that the goddess’ birth and consequent association with the sea was manifested in the location of many coastal sanctuaries dedicated to her and several common epithets such as Aphrodite Pontia
(‘of the deep sea’) and Aphrodite Euploia (‘of the fair voyage’). Aphrodite was associated with the brightest planet, Venus, and this, always a valuable navigational aid, may be another connection with ancient mariners.
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Hephaistos & Ares
Compelled by Hera to marry the not-so-great catch of Hephaistos, the lame god of fire and crafts, Aphrodite was less than faithful, having notorious affairs with the gods Ares, Hermes, and Dionysos. The fling with Ares was perhaps the most shocking of the many episodes of infidelity that occurred amongst the Olympian Gods.
Hephaistos, a fiendishly clever designer and engineer, manufactured a special golden bed to entrap his wife. When Aphrodite and Ares were at their most passionate, the bed sprang forth golden chains which locked the naked gods in their illicit embrace.
Their embarrassment was made worse when Helios the sun god shone down his bright light upon the couple so that all the Olympians could get a good look at the disgrace. When finally freed, Ares fled to Thrace and Aphrodite back to Cyprus.
Aphrodite was considered the mother of Eros, Harmonia (with Ares), the Trojan hero Aeneas (with Anchises), Eryx the king of Sicily (with Butes the Argonaut) and, with either Dionysos or Adonis, Priapus (a gardener with huge genitals).
The goddess had a large retinue of lesser deities such as Hebe (goddess of youth), the Hours, Dike, Eirene, Themis, the Graces, Aglaia, Euphrosyne, Theleia, Eunomia, Daidia, Eudaimonia, Himeros (Desire) and Peitho (Persuasion).
Aphrodite often represented unity and concord, as well as mixis or ‘mingling’, and this may explain the goddess’ wide range of associations such as warfare and politics, arenas where disparate groups had to work together as one. She was specifically the protectress of city magistrates, too.
The Trojan War
In mythology, Aphrodite is cited as partly responsible for the Trojan War. At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Eris (goddess of strife) offered a golden apple for the most beautiful goddess. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite vied for the honour, and Zeus appointed the Trojan prince Paris as judge. To influence his decision,
Athena promised him strength and invincibility, Hera offered the regions of Asia and Europe, and Aphrodite offered the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite and so won fair Helen of Sparta.
However, as she was already the wife of Menelaos, Paris’s abduction of Helen provoked the Spartan king to enlist the assistance of his brother Agamemnon and send an expedition to Troy to take back Helen.
Hesiod describes the goddess as ‘quick-glancing’, ‘foam-born’, ‘smile-loving’, and most often as ‘golden Aphrodite’. Similarly, in Homer’s description of the Trojan War in the Iliad, she is described
as ‘golden’ and ‘smiling’ and supports the Trojans in the war. In notable episodes, Aphrodite protects her son Aeneas from Diomedes and saves the hapless Paris from the wrath of Menelaos.
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One of the goddess’ most famous flings was with the beautiful Adonis. Aphrodite kept the youth safely in a chest guarded by Persephone, but the latter fell in love with him too and would not give him back to the goddess of love.
Zeus was obliged to intervene, and he ruled that Adonis should spend four months of the year with each lady (and fourth months rest on his own). Tragically killed in a hunting accident, the impossibly handsome youth was transformed into a flower without scent.
Aphrodite was distraught at her loss, and her grief was commemorated in a cult, the annual highlight of which was a women-only festival, the Adonia.
Representation in Art
The birth of Aphrodite from the sea (perhaps most famously depicted on the throne base of the great statue of Zeus at Olympia) and the judgment of Paris were popular subjects in ancient Greek art. The goddess is often identified with one or more of the following: a mirror, an apple, a myrtle wreath, a sacred bird or dove, a sceptre, and a flower.
On occasion, she is also depicted riding a swan or goose. She is usually clothed in Archaic and Classical art and wears an elaborately embroidered band or girdle across her chest which held her magic powers of love, desire, and seductive allurement. It is only later (from the 4th century BCE) that she is depicted naked or semi-naked.
The story of Aphrodite continued to interest artists, especially during the Renaissance, and she was perhaps most famously captured in Sandro Botticelli’s 1486 CE painting the Birth of Venus, now in the National Museum, Rome.
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Artemis was the Greek goddess of hunting, wild nature, and chastity. The daughter of Zeus and sister of Apollo, Artemis was regarded as a patron of girls and young women and a protectress during childbirth.
She was worshipped across the Greek world, but her most famous cult site was as a fertility goddess at the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. To the Romans, the goddess was known as Diana.
Family & Associations
In Greek mythology, Artemis is the daughter of Zeus and Leto. Born either on Delos or Ortygia (near Ephesus in Western Turkey), she is the twin sister of the god Apollo.
When she was three years old her father sat her on his lap and asked her what gifts she would like. Knowing her father’s power, the young Artemis was not shy of asking and this was her reply (one gets the impression she had been thinking about this for a while):
Pray give me eternal virginity; as many names as my brother Apollo; a bow and arrow like his; the office of bringing light; a saffron hunting tunic with a red hem reaching to my knees; sixty young ocean nymphs,
all of the same age, as my maids of honour; twenty river nymphs from Amnisus in Crete, to take care of my buskins [and feed my hounds when I am not out shooting; all the mountains in the world; and, lastly, any city you care to choose for me, but one will be enough, because I intend to live on mountains most of the time.
Given such gifts as a silver bow made by the Cyclopes and a pack of hunting dogs from Pan, Artemis was, then, regarded as a goddess of hunting and wild nature and a mistress of the animals.
For this reason, she is associated with wild animals (especially young ones), forests, and the moon.
As a goddess of chastity, childbirth, and fertility, Artemis Kourotrophos was the patron of young women, particularly brides-to-be, who dedicated their toys to her as symbolic of the transition to full adulthood
and the assumption of a wife’s responsibilities. inally, the goddess, as a dweller of wild nature, was linked to boundaries and transition, both in physical terms and the abstract.
For this reason, perhaps, the temples dedicated to Artemis were often built either on the margins of human settlements or at places where the land changes such as marshes or at water junctions.
Artemis plays only a minor role in the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad and is described most often as ‘the archer goddess’ but also on occasion as the ‘goddess of the loud hunt’ and ‘of the wild, mistress of wild creatures’.
Supporting the Trojans, she notably heals Aeneas after he is wounded by Diomedes. Hesiod in his Theogony most often describes her as ‘arrow-shooting Artemis.’
A notable episode at the start of the Trojan War which involves the goddess is the saving of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon. The king had displeased the goddess by killing one of her sacred deer.
As punishment, Artemis becalmed the Archaean fleet and only the sacrifice of Iphigenia would appease the goddess into granting a fair wind to Troy.
Agamemnon duly offered his daughter in sacrifice, but in pity and at the last moment, the goddess substituted a deer for the girl and made Iphigenia a priestess at her sanctuary at Tauris." alt="" />
Other accounts of Artemis, however, display her in a far less charitable light. She is said to have killed the hunter Orion after his attempted rape of either Artemis herself or one of her followers.
Artemis turned Callisto, one of the goddess’ entourage, into a bear after she had lain with Zeus, who then turned her and her son Arcas into the constellations the great and little bear (though not before Arcas had founded the race of Arcadians).
The goddess uses her bow to mercilessly kill the six (or in some accounts seven) daughters of Niobe following her boast that her childbearing capacity was greater than Leto’s.
The hunter Actaion, after he dared boast he was the greater hunter or, in another version, had spied on Artemis while she had bathed in a forest pool, was turned into a stag by the goddess.
Actaion was then torn to pieces by his own pack of 50 hunting dogs. Finally, Artemis sent a huge boar to ravage Kalydon after the city had neglected to sacrifice to the goddess.
An all-star hunting party of heroes which included Theseus, Jason, the Dioskouroi, Atalanta, and Meleager was organised to hunt and sacrifice the boar in Artemis’ honour. After a lengthy expedition, Atalanta and Meleager do finally succeed in killing the boar.
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Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
As a deity of fertility, Artemis Ephesia was particularly revered at Ephesus, near to what many believed was her birthplace, Ortygia. Here, her cult included eastern elements (borrowed from goddesses such as Isis, Cybele, and the “Mistress of the Animals”) and her principal symbols were the bee, date-palm, and stag.
The famous temple of Artemis at the city (begun c. 550 BCE) was almost twice the size of Athens’ Parthenon when it was finally finished after a century of labour; it was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The temple boasted 127 columns, and the architrave blocks above them were so heavy, weighing some 24 tons each, that the Ephesians credited Artemis herself with having helped in the construction.
Inside the temple was a giant cult statue of the goddess made of cedar-wood. Today all that remains of the temple are its foundations and a rather sad single column which has been erected from composite remains.
Other Places of Worship
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Other notable places of worship of Artemis were the sanctuaries at Brauron, Tauris, Magnesia, Perge, and on the island of Delos, where the goddess was born in some myth versions and where she assisted the birth of her brother Apollo.
At Brauron, on the east coast of Attica, a temple site and sacred spring was in use from the 8th to 3rd century BCE and hosted rites of passage for young girls and brides-to-be. It is not clear what the rites actually involved but painted pottery vessels used for libations at the site do show young girls running and dancing.
In Sardis, Lydia (western Turkey) there was the fourth largest Ionic Greek temple ever built set up in Artemis’ honour around 300 BCE and then renovated by the Romans in the 2nd century CE.
At Sparta and Athens (after the Battle of Marathon of 490 BCE), Artemis was worshipped as Artemis Agrotera and regarded as a goddess of battle, a goat being sacrificed to her before an engagement by the Spartans and an annual 500 offered to the goddess by the Athenians.
Depictions in Art
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Artemis is most frequently portrayed in ancient Greek art as a beautiful maiden huntress with quiver and bow or, alternatively, a spear. She is often accompanied by a deer, stag, or a hunting dog, and on occasion, she wears a feline skin.
Early representations also emphasise her role as goddess of animals and show her winged with a bird or animal in each hand. For example, on the handles of the celebrated Francois vase (570-565 BCE), she holds a panther and stag in one depiction and lions in another. In later Attic red- and black-figure vases she is also often depicted holding a torch.
A celebrated marble representation of the goddess is on the east frieze of the Parthenon where she is seated between Apollo and Aphrodite with Eros (c. 440 BCE). The goddess is pulling up her robe to better cover herself, perhaps in reference to her reputation for chastity.
A later and perhaps today more famous representation is as a huntress impressively grasping the antlers of a stag, a pose captured in marble by a Roman sculptor copying a lost Greek original attributed to Leochares (c. 325 BCE). Known as the Diane de Versailles, it is now on display in the Louvre Museum, Paris.
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Artemis continued to interest the Romans, and there is a fine 2nd-century CE marble statue of the goddess with bow at the ready and hunting dog at her feet in the Vatican Museums, Rome.
The goddess has a crescent moon on her head, reminding of her long association with that celestial body. Finally, Artemis’ association with fertility,
which was particularly prevalent at Ephesus, is best seen in a marble figurine from that city which has the goddess covered in what appear to be small eggs and animals. Dating to 125-175 CE, it is now on display in the Archaeological Museum of Selcuk, Turkey.
Demeter was one of the oldest gods in the ancient Greek pantheon, and she guaranteed the fertility of the earth and protected both farming and vegetation. This close connection with the earth was inherited from her mother Rhea, and doubtless,she was a reincarnation of local mother Earth goddesses, commonly worshipped in rural communities in the Bronze Age. The sanctuary at Eleusis dedicated to the goddess and her daughter Persephone
and the Eleusinian Mysteries practised there spread the idea across the Archaic and Classical Greek worlds that Demeter would protect her worshippers in the afterlife. To the Romans, the goddess remained popular and was known as Ceres.
Daughter of Kronos and Rhea, sister of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, and Hestia, Demeter was the mother of Persephone and Iacchus (both with Zeus) and Pluto, the god of wealth (with the mortal Cretan Iasion, who was subsequently killed by a thunderbolt from a jealous Zeus).
She also adopted Demophon, the Eleusinian prince, who gave the human race the gifts of the plough and knowledge of agriculture. Demeter was also pursued by Poseidon, and to escape his attentions, she changed into a mare; however, Poseidon too changed into a horse and their resulting offspring was Arion, the winged horse ridden by Hercules.
Demeter and Persephone were very often paired together and sometimes even referred to as a single goddess with a dual aspect. The duo was often referred to as 'the Two Goddesses' and the Demeteres (two Demeters).
Demeter & Persephone
The most important mythology surrounding Demeter was the story of the rape of her daughter Persephone (also known as Kore in Greek and Proserpina by the Romans) by Hades, the god of the Underworld.
One day Hades fell in love with Persephone as soon as he saw her and so carried her off in his chariot to live with him in Hades, the Greek underworld. In some accounts, Zeus had given his consent to the abduction, the location of the crime being traditionally placed in either Sicily (famed for its fertility) or Asia.
Distraught, Demeter searched the earth for her lost daughter and though Helios (or Hermes) told her of her daughter’s fate, she, nevertheless, continued her wanderings until she finally arrived at Eleusis.
It was here, disguised as an old woman, that the goddess cared for Demophon (or Triptolemus), the only son of Metaneira, the wife of Keleos (or Celeus), king of Eleusis. To reward the family for their kindness,
emeter set about making Demophon immortal by placing him on a fire every night. However, when Metaneira saw this she raised an alarm. In response, Demeter revealed her true identity and demanded a temple be built in her honour. This was the beginning of the celebrated sanctuary of Eleusis in Attica (see below)
Once the temple was completed, Demeter withdrew from the world and lived inside it; at the same time, she created a great drought to convince the other gods to release Persephone from Hades.
As the drought claimed ever more victims, crops withered (illustrating Persephone’s mastery over agriculture), and there was so little food that mortals could not even offer their sacrifices to the gods,
Zeus finally persuaded Hades to release his ill-gotten bride. Before giving her up though, the wily Hades put a pomegranate kernel in the girl’s mouth, knowing its divine taste would compel her to return to him.
In other versions of the myth, Persephone could have been released if she had not eaten anything in the underworld during her captivity, but at the last moment, Hades gave her a pomegranate seed. Finally, as a compromise, it was decided that
Persephone would be released but that she would have to return to Hades for one-third of the year (or in other accounts one half). In gratitude for the return of her daughter, Demeter was said to have sent the prince Demophon to teach humanity the cultivation of grain and other tricks useful for agriculture.
Eleusis & the Eleusinian Mysteries
The story of Demeter and Persephone was perhaps symbolic of the changing seasons and the perennial change from life to death, to life once more, or, in other words, the changes from summer to winter and the return of life in spring.
An alternative view of more modern historians is that the disappearance of Persphone is symbolic of the practice of burying seeds in the summer so that they did not dry out before they could be sown in the autumn.
The cycle became one of the rituals of the sacred Eleusinian Mysteries; indeed the symbols of the cult were ears of grain and a torch - symbolic of Demeter’s search for Persephone and a reminder that the rituals at Eleusis were carried out at night.
Eleusis became the most important sanctuary to Demeter, and the site has a religious connection and related monuments dating back to the Mycenaean civilization of the 15th century BCE. From c. 600 BCE the Eleusinian Mysteries became an official ceremony in the Athenian calendar,
and Eleusis became a truly pan-Hellenic site under the Athenian dictator Peisistratus (r. 550-510 BCE). In the 5th century BCE Pericles, the Athenian statesman (l. 495-429 BCE),
oversaw the construction of a new Telesterion (Initiation Hall and temple), then the largest building in Greece. The site continued to attract pilgrims and worshippers well into Roman times with emperors Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) and Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 CE) aggrandising Eleusis.
The sanctuary’s fortunes declined significantly following the decree of Theodosius I (r. 379-395 CE) to close down all pagan sites in 379 CE, and Eleusis was destroyed around 395 CE following the invasion of the Visigoths.
Unfortunately for us today, because all initiates were bound by a sacred oath not to reveal details of the Eleusinian Mysteries, they have to this day remained just that, a mystery. We do know that, from the 6th century BCE, the ceremonies were held twice a year. The first step in the initiation process was known as the "Lesser Mysteries" and held every spring. The more important "Great Mysteries" were held in the autumn over nine days.
Only Greeks could be initiated, although this was later expanded to include Roman citizens. We also know details of some of the outdoor activities, and there was a procession led by the priestess of Demeter along the Sacred Way from Eleusis to the agora of Athens and another return procession led by a symbolic chariot of Iacchus.
There were ritual and communal cleansing and purification ceremonies carried out in the sea at Phaleron, the representation or re-enactment of the myths involving the two goddesses, animal sacrifices (pigs), and the interpretation of sacred texts by priests, the mystagōgoi.
There was also probably drinking, music, dancing, and general revelry involved, as attested by Greek pottery scenes of the rites which show initiates holding the "bacchus" or sacred rod.
Closely associated with fertility and agriculture, the mysteries probably brought worshippers good fortune and, perhaps most important for most participants, the promise of a better afterlife.
Other Places of Worship
Demeter had sanctuaries across the Greek world in most city-states. Homer mentions that the goddess had a precinct named after her at Pyrasos. From the 8th century BCE there was a particularly noted sanctuary and temple to Demeter on Naxos. In the 4th century BCE, a temple was constructed in her honour at Dion.
Other notable sites of worship included Anadania in Messenia, Lykosoura in Arcadia, and, perhaps most curiously, at Phigaleia, also in Arcadia, where a cult statue of the goddess was placed in a cave which had a horse’s head, probably in reference to Demeter’s amorous encounter with Poseidon.
Many southern Italian city-states, especially in Sicily, had important cults to Demeter where she was often associated with civic duties, a link also seen in her worship at Thebes.
Besides the mysteries, at Eleusis during the Archaic and Classical periods there was the Eleusinia, an important biannual games where the prizes were sacred grain. The Thesmophoria, meanwhile, was an all-female autumn festival in Attica to honour Demeter.
Designed to generally promote fertility, the festival saw pigs thrown into pits or caves and left to putrefy; their remains were then mixed with seeds before sowing. Although not particularly informative about the festival itself, Aristophanes (c. 460 - c. 380 BCE), the master of Greek comedy, wrote the play Thesmophoriazusae (411 BCE) where, during the festival,
women take advantage of the traditional exclusion of men and debate the elimination of Euripides (c. 484-407 BCE), one of the great writers of Greek tragedy. There was, too, the Haloa, another largely all-female winter festival in honour of Demeter and Dionysos, the Kalamaia, and the Proerosia festivals.
Demeter in Art
In ancient literature, Homer in The Iliad describes the goddess as ‘golden-haired’, and Hesiod in his Theogony and Works & Days, describes her as ‘bounteous Demeter’, ‘well-garlanded’, ‘hallowed’, and ‘reverend’.
Demeter rarely appears in the visual arts before the 6th century BCE and then she is usually shown with Persephone. In Archaic and Classical art she is often seated, wears a crown of grain and holds a torch (signifying her search for her lost daughter
) or a sceptre, a poppy (the flower that grows so abundantly in untended wheat fields) or simply stalks of grain. Demeter is also sometimes present in scenes depicting the birth of Athena.
From Eleusis, there are surviving relief panels showing both Demeter and Persephone which once adorned the sacred buildings at this her most important sacred site.
The Eleusinian Mysteries: The Rites of Demeter
The Rites of Eleusis, or the Eleusinian Mysteries, were the secret rituals of the mystery school of Eleusis and were observed regularly from c. 1600 BCE - 392 CE. Exactly what this mystic ritual was no one knows; but why the ancient Greeks participated in it can be understood by the testimonials of the initiated.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, held each year at Eleusis, Greece, fourteen miles northwest of Athens, were so important to the Greeks that, until the arrival of the Romans
The Sacred Way (the road from Athens to Eleusis) was the only road, not a goat path, in all of central Greece. The mysteries celebrated the story of Demeter and Persephone but, as the initiated were sworn to secrecy on pain of death as to the details of the ritual, we do not know what form these rituals took.
We do know, though, that those who participated in the mysteries were forever changed for the better and that they no longer feared death.
The rituals were based on a symbolic reading of the story of Demeter and Persephone and provided initiates with a vision of the afterlife so powerful that it changed the way they saw the world and their place in it. Participants were freed from a fear of death through the recognition that they were immortal souls temporarily in mortal bodies.
In the same way that Persephone went down to the land of the dead and returned to that of the living each year, so would every human being die only to live again on another plane of existence or in another body.
The rituals were enacted twice a year. There were the Lesser Mysteries, which took place in the spring, and the Greater Mysteries which those who had been purified earlier took part in when September came. They walked the Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis calling for the Kore and re-enacting Demeter's search for her lost daughter.
At Eleusis they would rest by the well Demeter had sat down by, would fast, and would then drink a barley and mint beverage called Kykeon. It has been suggested that this drink was infused by the psychotropic fungus ergot and this, then, heightened the experience and helped transform the initiate.
After drinking the Kykeon the participants entered the Telesterion, an underground `theatre', where the secret ritual took place. Most likely it was a symbolic re-enactment of the `death' and rebirth of Persephone which the initates watched and, perhaps, took some part in.
Whatever happened in the Telesterion, those who entered in would come out the next morning radically changed. Virtually every important thinker and writer in antiquity, everyone who was `anyone', was an initiate of the Mysteries.
Plato, an initiate himself (as Socrates was before him) mentions the Mysteries specifically in his famous dialogue on the immortality of the soul, the Phaedo: " our mysteries had a very real meaning: he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods" (69:d, F.J. Church trans).
In the Myth of Er, the last chapter of Plato's Republic, a warrior named Er is killed in battle and goes to the afterlife but, unlike the others who accompany him, does not drink of the waters of the River Lethe which would cause him to forget his life on earth and move forward into the next.
Er instead comes back to life on the battlefield and tells his companions about what he saw in the next world and what death is like. He makes it clear that death is not the end of one's life but only the beginning of another part of the journey. Interestingly, Plato never introduces this story as a `myth', as a fiction, but treats it as a factual account.
The translation of the chapter as the `myth' of Er has been unfortunate as it should actually be understood as the account or story of Er. The report of Er is quite probably a reflection of the vision one received from the Mysteries.Plutarch, writing to his wife on the death of their daughter, says, "because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries...we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal. Let us behave ourselves accordingly"(Hamilton, 179). Further, he says, "When a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the mysteries.
Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of qutting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparations" (Hamilton, 179). This description is quite similar to the report given by Er in his account.
Cicero writes, "Nothing is higher than these mysteries...they have not only shown us how to live joyfully but they have taught us how to die with a better hope" and the 20th century historian Will Durant states of the mysteries, "In this ecstasy of revelation...they felt the unity of God, and the oneness of God and the soul; they were lifted up out of the delusion of individuality and knew the peace of absorbtion into deity"
Historian Waverly Fitzgerald sums the experience up clearly writing, "It was said of those who were initiated at Eleusis that they no longer feared death and it seems that this myth confirms the cyclical view of life central to pagan spirituality: that death is part of the cycle of life and is always followed by rebith"
Every ancient testimonial reflects this same understanding and each has the same tone of enlightened liberation from the fear of death.
Just as important was a new-found meaning to one's life. Initiates recognized that their lives had an eternal purpose and they were not just living to die. A belief in the transmigration of souls - reincarnation - seems to have been central to the vision of the Mysteries and this provided people with a sense of peace in that they would have another chance, many other chances, to experience life on earth in other forms.
It is quite likely that the Mysteries were influenced by Egyptian religious beliefs which understood death as a transition to another phase of existence, not the end of one's life.
The Egyptians had maintained this belief since at least the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-c.2613 BCE) and, since there was contact between the two cultures through trade, it is probable that this Egyptian understanding contributed to the deeper interpretation of the Demeter and Persephone story and the vision of the Mysteries.
Although Egyptian belief regularly emphasized an ideal afterlife in the Field of Reeds, a paradise which was a mirror image of one's life on earth, it also recognized the spiritual reality of reincarnation, as did most pre-Christian religious. Time was considered cyclical, not linear,
and one could recognize the pattern of the universe through the changing seasons and understand that, just as trees, grass, and flowers died in one season and returned to life in another, so would human beings. The End
The Eleusinian Mysteries differed from conventional religious practice in that initiates were experiencing first-hand what others were only hearing about in the temples. The traditional worship of the gods was founded on stories told of how the universe worked, the will of the gods, and what those gods had done.
The difference between this kind of religious experience and that of the mysteries would be the same as that of acting in a play compared with hearing about a performance; the actors are going to have a much different, and more meaningful, experience. Even so,
there is no indication that initiates looked down on traditional religious practices or considered themselves superior. Plato most likely did but only because he already thought he was better than his contemporaries.
The Mysteries were enacted for over a thousand years and, in that time, provided countless people with a higher understanding of life and what waited beyond death. The rituals were closed down by the Christian Emperor Theodosius in 392 CE as he saw the ancient rites as inspiring resistance to Christianity and the `truth' of Christ.
As Christianity gained more adherents and power, pagan rituals were systematically stamped out although core meanings, iconography, and symbolism would be appropriated by the new faith and transformed to support the belief in Jesus Christ as the messiah.
The former sites of great pagan ritual and learning were abandoned, destroyed, or turned into churches throughout the 4th and 5th centuries CE. The temple of Demeter and every sacred site in Eleusis was sacked by the Arian Christians with Alaric,
King of the Goths, in his invasion of 396 CE, leaving only ruins and rubble where once the people of the ancient world gathered to experience viscerally the truths of life, of death, and the promise of rebirth.
Dionysos (Roman name: Bacchus) was the ancient Greek god of wine, merriment, and theatre. Being the bad boy of Mt. Olympus, he was perhaps the most colourful of the Olympian Gods.
In Greek mythology, despite being the son of Zeus and Semele (the daughter of Kadmos and Harmonia), Dionysos did not receive the best start in life when his mother died while still pregnant. Hera, wife of Zeus, was jealous of her husband’s illicit affair and craftily persuaded Semele to ask Zeus to reveal himself to her in all his godly splendour.
This was too much for the mortal and she immediately expired; however, Zeus took the unborn child and reared him in his thigh. Most accounts then attribute the satyrs and nymphs as the carers of Dionysos in his childhood and the wise Silenus as his chief educator on Mt. Nysa, far from Hera’s wrath.
Homer describes the god as the ‘joy of men’ and Hesiod likewise describes him as ‘much-cheering’. This is no doubt because Dionysos is credited with giving man the gift of wine. The god gave Ikarios, a noble citizen of Ikaria in Attica, the vine tree. From this, Ikarios made wine which he shared with a group of passing shepherds.
However, unaware of the stupefying effects of wine, the shepherds thought they had been poisoned and so swiftly took revenge and killed the unfortunate Ikarios. Notwithstanding this inauspicious start to the wine industry, wine became an extremely popular drink in antiquity. The Greeks usually drank wine diluted with water (one part wine to three parts water), mixed in a large krater vessel.
Wine was drunk at banquets, festivals, and private parties, in particular, at a symposium, a kind of informal, male-only drinking session where guests reclined on a couch (kline) and engaged in conversation on topics ranging from gossip to philosophy.
In mythology, Dionysos travelled widely, even as far as India, and spread his cult throughout Greece, indeed he was known as being of an eastern origin himself. Orgiastic rituals were held in his honour, where the participants were taken over by a Dionysian frenzy of dancing and merriment to such a degree that they transcended themselves.
It is believed that theatre sprang from this activity as, like Dionysos’ worshippers, actors strive to leave behind their own persona and become one with the character they are playing. Indeed, priests of Dionysos were given seats of honour in Greek theatres.
Dionysos was a protagonist in several other Greek myths. When King Midas of Phrygia found the god’s chief follower and drinking partner Silenus rather worse for wear in his garden following a drinking bout, the king gave him nourishment and returned him to Dionysos. In gratitude, the god granted Midas a wish.
The king requested that everything he touched would turn to gold but alas this included food and water, so the king almost died of starvation and thirst until Dionysos reversed the gift by telling Midas to wash in the Pactolus river.
Another myth tells of Dionysos’ abduction by pirates who were unaware of his identity. The god transformed the ship’s mast into a huge vine, the sails dripped with wine, and a heavenly choir filled the air with music. Dionysos transformed himself into a lion and, assisted by a bear, he dispatched the pirate captain.
In terror, the remaining crew members leapt overboard and were changed into dolphins. Only the helmsman survived the encounter as he had counselled his crewmates against abducting the stranger in the first place, and the boat sailed on to Naxos where the god remained for a while, falling in love with and marrying Ariadne when Theseus stopped off on his return from killing the Minotaur.
When Ariadne died, in her memory Dionysos made her wedding diadem into the Corona constellation.Other myths include Dionysos persuading Hephaistos (probably with wine) to return to Mt. Olympus and release Hera who had been trapped by the god of metallurgy in an ingenious throne.
Hera in her gratitude ensured that Dionysos, actually only a demi-god, became a full Olympian god with permission to reside on Mt. Olympus for all time. Lycurgus, King of Thrace, and Pentheus, King of Thebes, both suffered Dionysos’ wrath when they prudishly tried to stop the excesses of the god’s festivals.
The former was driven mad and the latter was ripped to pieces by a maddened group of female worshippers after he had disguised himself as a woman to spy on their debauchery.
The cult of Dionysos became significant in Athens from the 6th century BCE and the Dionysia festival of Athens and other cities would later evolve into the Bacchanalia of Rome. The island of Naxos was a particularly important sanctuary to the god.
There is evidence of a cult to Dionysos dating from the Mycenaean period (14th century BCE) and the site continued to be important right into the Roman period. There was also a sanctuary and theatre of Dionysos at Athens and a temple to the god at Dion (2nd century CE) which also had Mycenaean origins.
In ancient Greek Archaic and Classical art Dionysos is a popular subject and is often depicted with his thiasos or troupe of satyrs (half-men, half-goat) and nymphs, who from the late 6th century BCE were replaced by maenads, daemonic creatures, who when overtaken by Dionysian frenzy, hunted the forests for victims and ate their raw flesh.
The god is usually bearded in 4th and 5th century BCE depictions and later on more often beardless. He is often identified through his association with the vine, thyrsos - a sacred rod topped with ivy and vine leaves and sometimes a pinecone, a kantharos - drinking vessel for wine - or a drinking-horn, and on occasion he wears a wreath of ivy or the pelt of a panther.
He often cuts a rather effeminate figure and is sometimes shown riding an ithyphallic mule or in a languid, reclining pose such as the celebrated sculpture on the east pediment of the Parthenon (447-432 BCE). Another famous representation is as an infant in the arms of the Hermes of Praxiteles (ca 330 BCE).
Coins from Naxos and Mende depicted the god from the 6th to 4th century BCE, and in the 5th century BCE he appeared on the coins of Crete, Thebes, and Thasos. Dionysos also plays a central role in Euripides’ tragedy the Bacchae, which is set in Thebes.
Hermes was the ancient Greek god of trade, wealth, luck, fertility, animal husbandry, sleep, language, thieves, and travel. One of the cleverest and most mischievous of the Olympian gods, he was the patron of shepherds, invented the lyre, and was, above all, the herald and messenger of Mt. Olympus so that he came to symbolise the crossing of boundaries in his role as a guide between the two realms of gods and humanity. To the Romans, the god was known as Mercury.
Origins & Family
Hermes has a very long history, being mentioned in the Linear B tablets of the Mycenaean civilization, at its height from the 15th to 13th century BCE. Such tablets have been discovered at Pylos, Thebes, and Knossos. With origins, then, as an Arcadian fertility god who had a special love for the Peloponnese, the ancient Greeks believed Hermes was the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia (daughter of the Titan Atlas) and that he was born on Mt. Cyllene in Arcadia.n mythology, Hermes was also the father of the pastoral god Pan and Eudoros (with Polymele), one of the leaders of the Myrmidons, although the god was not given a wife in any Greek myth. The idea that Hermes represented movement is reflected in his role as the leader of both the Nymphs and Graces (Charites).
Hermes & the Gods
Noted for his impish character and constant search for amusement, Hermes was one of the more colourful gods in Greek mythology. While still a baby, he stole his half-brother Apollo’s sacred herd of 50 cattle from Pieria, cleverly reversing their hoofmarks by adding bark shoes to make it difficult to follow their tracks.
Hermes, therefore, became associated with thieves and he managed to keep the stolen herd until the satyrs finally discovered it in a cave in Arcadia. After a hearing before Zeus and the Olympian gods, Hermes was permitted to hold on to the herd (now down to 48 as he had already sacrificed two of them) if he gave Apollo his lyre.
The episode illustrates the god’s link with both physical and moral boundaries and crossing them, and may have a basis in historical events, as here described by the famed expert on Greek mythology Robert Graves:
A tradition of cattle raids made by the crafty Messenians on their neighbours, and of a treaty by which these were discontinued, seems to have been mythologically combined with an account of how the barbarous Hellenes took over and exploited, in the name of their adopted god Apollo, the Creto-Helladic civilizations which they found in Central and Southern Greece.
As messenger and herald, particularly for Zeus, Hermes is involved in many mythological episodes. Perhaps most celebrated was his killing of the many-eyed (some accounts say 100-eyed) monster Argos on the orders of Zeus in order to free Io. Hermes also freed Ares from his year-long imprisonment in a cauldron by the twin Giants Otus and Ephialtes.
One of his most famous regular roles was as a leader of souls to the river Styx in the underworld, where the boatman Charon would take them to Hades. Hermes was also known as something of a trickster, stealing at one time or another Poseidon’s trident, Artemis’ arrows, and Aphrodite’s girdle.
Hermes & the Heroes
Hermes figures in the Trojan War as told by Homer in the Iliad. Although in one lengthy passage he acts as counsellor and guide to the Trojan King Priam in his attempt to reclaim the body of his fallen son Hector, Hermes actually supports the Achaeans in the Trojan War.
The god is most often described by Homer as ‘Hermes the guide, slayer of Argos’ and ‘Hermes the kindly’. Hermes gives particular help to Odysseus, especially on his long return voyage to Ithaca (as told in Homer’s Odyssey), for example, giving him an antidote to the spells of Circe. Another hero helped by the god was Perseus,
Hermes giving him an unbreakable sword or sickle (harpe) of adamantine and guiding him to the three Graeae who would reveal the location of Medusa.
Inventions & Associations
Hermes was credited with inventing fire, the alphabet, dice (actually knucklebones) - and so he was worshipped by gamblers in his capacity as god of luck and wealth, and musical instruments, in particular, the lyre - made from a tortoiseshell by the god. Hermes was regarded as the patron of shepherds thanks to his invention of the pan pipes (syrinx).
Travellers regarded him as their patron, and stone pillars (hermae) with a phallus symbol were often to be seen set up along roadsides to act as guides and offer good fortune to those who passed. Hermae were particularly set up at boundaries, reminding of the god’s role as a messenger between the gods and humanity, as well as his function as a guide for the dead into the next life
. In addition, Hermes was regarded as the patron of the home, and people often built small marble stelai in front of their doors in his honour.
Famous for his diplomatic skills, he was also regarded as the patron of languages and rhetoric. Orators regarded the god who transferred words from sender to receiver as their patron, as did interpreters (another group of boundary-crossers) and, even today, the study and interpretation of texts carries his name:
hermeneutics. In the Hellenistic period, the god was often associated with gymnasia and seen as the protector of youths. Finally, the god’s Latin name, Mercury, is, of course, the name of a planet, naturally, the fastest one to orbit the sun.
Cults to the God
Hermes was honoured just about everywhere in the Greek world but especially in the Peloponnese at Mt. Cyllene and such city-states as Megalopolis, Corinth and Argos. Athens had one of the oldest cults to the god where the Hermaia festival for young boys was held annually. Delos, Tanagra, and the Cyclades were other places where Hermes was especially popular.
Finally, the god had a noted sanctuary on Crete at Kato Symi where young men about to become full citizens engaged in a two-month-long rite where they spent time cultivating homosexual relations with older men in the mountains thereabouts.
Another Hermaia festival on Crete permitted slaves to temporarily take the part of their masters. Once again, Hermes’ association with crossing boundaries of all kinds is evident here.
Representation in Art
In ancient Greek Archaic and Classical art, Hermes is depicted holding the kerykeion or caduceus staff (signifying his role as a herald, the stick is either cleft or with an open figure of 8 at the top), wearing winged sandals (symbolic of his role as a messenger), a long tunic or leopard skin, sometimes also a winged cap (petasos), and occasionally with a lyre.
He may also carry a ram in a nod to his role as patron of shepherds, especially in Boeotian and Arcadian art. In his association with youths, the god was often portrayed holding the infant Hercules or Achilles.
At the same time, his association with trade is evidenced in the seals of Delos where he carries a purse. Perhaps the most celebrated depiction of Hermes in Greek art is the magnificent statue by Praxiteles (c. 330 BCE) which once stood in the temple of Hera at Olympia and now resides in the archaeological museum of the site.
Mercury (Mercurius) was the Roman god of commerce, often serving as a mediator between the gods and mortals, his winged feet giving him the advantage of speed, and so was the patron of circulation in general - of people, goods and messages. Mercury protected both merchants, especially those dealing in grains, and travelers.
Merchants would pray to him for high profits and protection of their trade goods. However, to many, he was also known for being cunning and shrewd as well as a deceiver, often pulling pranks on the unsuspecting, especially the god Apollo. Mercury was the son of the king of the gods Jupiter and purportedly Maia, goddess of the plains.
Considered by some to be of foreign origin, he is often associated with his Greek counterpart Hermes. His Roman name Mercurius is probably derived from the Latin word for merchandise (merx).
Like Hermes, he escorted the dead to the underworld. Allegedly, while escorting the nymph Lara to Pluto’s realm, he fathered the twin Lares, guardian gods of Rome. A temple honoring him was built around 495 BCE and stood on the southwest slope of Aventine Hill near the Circus Maximus of Rome.
Mercury's festival day was celebrated on May 15 in commemoration of the founding of his temple. A cult paying homage to him existed outside the city of Rome in Campania and Latium as well as in Gaul and Britain. The god is frequently depicted holding the caduceus, a wand used to reconcile conflicts, and winged sandals for quickly carrying messages for the gods. The wand had been given to him by Apollo in Greek mythology.
Besides the wand and sandals, he also wore a broad-brimmed hat, the Perasus, and carried a purse, a symbol of his duties as the god of commerce and profits. Like many of the Roman gods, a planet - the closest one to the sun - was named for him.
Mercury & Jupiter
Roman mythology is replete with stories of Mercury. It was Mercury who was sent to remind the Trojan Aeneas to leave his beloved Queen Dido and Carthage and achieve his destiny to found Rome. Often, however, Jupiter would take Mercury with him on many of his excursions to earth to be among the mortals.
According to the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, on one of these trips, the two, dressed as peasants, came to a small village where they were dismissed rudely by its inhabitants. However, they knocked on the door of the small home of Baucus and Philemon.
Although extremely poor, the couple, unaware of who their guests were, shared what little food and drink they possessed with the weary travelers. They were even willing to kill their only goose. Upon revealing themselves to the old couple, Jupiter wanted to reward them; however, they only had one wish, that they would die together.
Even though he destroyed the rest of the village, the king of the gods honored their wishes, but until that day arrived he made them caretakers of a temple he built on the site of their old home.
Mercury the Thief
Besides the god of commerce, Mercury was also the patron of shepherds, cheats and thieves. Ovid relays a story of Mercury who was a master thief himself. A servant named Battus was watching a herd of mares in a pasture when he saw Mercury steal a herd of cattle and drive them into nearby woods.
Mercury told Battus if anyone inquired about the missing cattle he should say that he saw nothing. As a reward, the god gave the old man a heifer. Returning later in a disguise, Mercury asked him if he had seen anything. After being promised a heifer and a bull if he talked, the old man revealed all. Angry, Mercury turned him into stone.
Another time the winged god saved Jupiter from the wrath of his wife, the jealous Hera. While Jupiter was with Io, daughter of the river god Inachus, Mercury warned him of his approaching wife. Immediately, Jupiter changed Io into a heifer.
The suspicious Hera placed the poor girl, still in the disguise of a heifer, under the watchful eyes of the many-eyed Argus. In order to free Io Mercury told Argus boring stories until he finally fell asleep. After Mercury beheaded Argus, Io was freed.
As with many stories in Roman mythology, narratives about Mercury became intertwined with those of Hermes, so it is often difficult to separate the two. One story, more often associated with Hermes, concerns Demeter and her daughter Persephone. In Roman Mythology it is Mercury who escorts the young Proserpina, daughter of Ceres, to the underworld to be with Pluto (the Greek Hades).
One last story tells of the adventuresome Mercury as a small child - again it is an episode more often attributed to Hermes. Although a talented child - he built a lyre out of a tortoise shell - one night he slipped away from his mother and, spying Apollo’s oxen grazing in a field, stole them.
After eating two of them, Mercury returned to his mother. Upon finding his oxen missing and seeing how two of them had been eaten, Apollo realized who was the culprit and took the infant to Mt. Olympus where he was found guilty. Mercury was then forced to return the oxen and he gave his lyre to Apollo to replace the missing oxen.
Ancient Greek god of fire, metallurgy, and crafts, Hephaistos (Hephaestus) was the brilliant blacksmith of the Olympian gods, for whom he fashioned magnificent houses, armour, and ingenious devices. Hephaistos had his workshop beneath volcanos - Mount Etna on Sicily being a favourite haunt - and was, with his lame foot, unique as the only less-than-perfect god. To the Romans, he was known as Vulcan or Volcanus.
Origins & Family
The origins of Hephaistos are obscure but he probably derives from the common idea that early kings should also be masters at certain crafts, especially metalwork, and perhaps, too, magic (which would have included the manipulation of fire).
In Classical Greek mythology, the god was born from Hera and, without a father, Hephaistos was, unlike the other gods, a less than beautiful figure. So much so, that in Greek mythology he is said to have been thrown from the heavens by his mother (or in other accounts by Zeus) because of his ugliness and on landing on the island of Lemnos, the god was crippled.
ared for by Thetis (and possibly also by Eurynome, the daughter of Ocean), he would construct his workshop on the island’s volcano where he lived in an imperishable bright bronze house, where he created his masterpieces of metallurgy.
The god’s physical problems may have been a reflection in myth of the reality of a blacksmith’s harsh working conditions where repeated hammering and toxic fumes can take their toll on both mind and body.
The famed expert on Greek myths, Robert Graves, has another theory and points out that in many ancient tribes of both West Africa and Scandinavia, the village blacksmith, a particularly important and revered member of the community, was often deliberately made lame so that he could not easily offer his services to a rival village.
Returning to mythology, Hephaistos married the goddess Aphrodite. The unlikely union occurred as a result of Hephaistos capturing his mother Hera in the invisible chains of a throne he had built, and the wedding was the price of release.
The scene is a popular one in Greek art and usually depicts Dionysos leading Hephaistos, under the influence of wine, back to Olympus to free the entrapped Hera.
However, the marriage was not to last as Aphrodite had numerous affairs, most notably with the god Ares, although the two were caught red-handed. The whole story is told in some detail by the bard Demodocus in Book 8 of Homer’s Odyssey.
Hephaistos, one day informed by Helios, spied the lovers for himself and so decided to capture them next time they made misuse of his bed by designing an ingenious and invisible net of chains around it.
he amorous couple, sure enough, became entwined in the golden trap, and Hephaistos then called all the Olympian gods to witness the spectacle. Roars of laughter rang around the heights of Olympus and, when finally released, Ares fled to Thrace and Aphrodite to Paphos, Cyprus.
Hephaistos’ most notable offspring in Greek mythology were Erechtheus, the first king of Athens, and Periphetes, who lived near Epidaurus and famously killed passing strangers with an iron club.
In Attic mythology, Hephaistos once tried to rape Athena but the goddess repelled him. The semen which splashed on her leg was wiped off, landed on earth and gave birth to the Athenians. Hephaistos also lent his name to one of the traditional tribes of Attica. Finally, to assist the god in his workshop, Hephaistos had a team of giant cyclops.
Skills & Associations
As an ingenious craftsman, Hephaistos is credited with making the sceptre and aegis of Zeus, the helmet of Hermes, secret locking doors for Hera’s chambers, and even the lovely first woman, Pandora, who he sculpted out of clay.
He also manufactured automatons - gold maids who could speak and were intelligent - for himself, bronze Talos as a gift for King Minos of Crete, and watchdogs for Alcinous, king of Phaeacia. The god even acted as midwife at the birth of Athena, splitting Zeus’ head with his axe so that the goddess might be born from there.
Both Homer and Hesiod describe Hephaistos as ‘the cripple-foot god’ and ‘the lame one’. Supporting the Achaeans in the Trojan War, he memorably fights and defeats the river god Xanthos with fire and produces magnificent armour and a shield of bronze, gold, silver, and tin for Achilles, the latter being decorated with a multitude of scenes and described at great length by Homer.
Worship & Sacred Sites
Hephaistos was particularly worshipped at Athens and Lemnos in the northeast Aegean. Athens had a celebrated temple jointly dedicated to god and Athena (also a patron god of crafts and their exponents); still standing on a rise in the now excavated ancient Agora, it is one of the best-preserved temples in the Greek world.
The Doric temple built c. 449 BCE and sometimes known as the Hephaisteion or Thesium has 13 columns on the long sides and six at the facades. The temple originally contained large bronze statues of Athena and Hephaistos.
According to Sophocles, blacksmiths would march through the city carrying their tools during the annual Chalkeia festival which honoured the pair of gods. The even more spectacular Hephaestia festival was held in Athens only once every five years and involved torchlight parades and extravagant sacrifices to honour Athena and Hephaistos.
At Lemnos, meanwhile, where, as we have seen, the god was thrown to earth in some accounts, Hephaistos gave his name to the city of Hephaistia, which had a sanctuary dedicated to him. Certain landmarks on the island were linked to the god and his craft such as the bay at Mudros (meaning ‘mass of molten metal’).
Even the earth of the island was exported in antiquity as people believed it had qualities as both a cure and poison. Other sites where Hephaistos was revered and often associated with naturally-occurring fires included Caria and Lycia. Agrigento on Sicily once had an important temple dedicated to the god (c. 430 BCE),
although there are today few remains of it. Finally, as the god was thought to have his workshop beneath volcanos he was linked to many, but especially Mount Aetna (Etna) on Sicily.
Representation in Art
In ancient Greek art, Hephaistos is often depicted wearing a pilos or workman’s hat and an exomis or workman’s tunic. He also often holds tongs, an axe, hammer, saw, or chisel, and is frequently seen riding a mule side-saddle. The latter depiction is in reference to his lameness which, curiously, is rarely explicitly portrayed in Greek art.
n a few Attic vases the god’s feet are shown pointing backwards. He is a prominent figure on the east pediment of the Parthenon (447-432 BCE) where the scene of Athena’s birth is shown. This mythological subject was also popular on Attic pottery where Hephaistos, with his axe, splits the head of Zeus from where Athena is born.
The east frieze of the Parthenon shows all the gods of Olympus in a row watching the city’s Panathenaic procession with Athena and Hephaistos, the two patrons of the crafts, sat next to each other chatting.
A Visual Who's Who of Greek Mythology
The hero of the Trojan War, leader of the Myrmidons, slayer of Hector and Greece's greatest warrior, who sadly came unstuck when Paris sent a flying arrow guided by Apollo, which caught him in his only weak spot, his heel.
The impossibly handsome youth whom Aphrodite fell in love with. The goddess kept Adonis safe and sound in a chest guarded by Persephone, but she fell in love with him too and would not give him back.
Zeus intervened and ruled Adonis should spend four months of the year with each lady. Tragically killed in a hunting accident he was transformed into a flower without scent. He may at once represent both the fertility and barrenness of the soil.
King of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks during the Trojan War, his leadership skills were only equalled by his selfishness, the latter famously upsetting Achilles when he stole the hero’s female war-booty Briseis.
After 10 years of war, the king was killed by his jealous wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus while he was enjoying his coming-home banquet. The famous gold Mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae, in fact, predates him by four centuries.
Goddess of love, beauty, and desire; her whisperings could derange both men and gods. She was especially worshipped on Cyprus, where she was believed to have risen from the foaming sea where Kronos threw the genitalia of his father Uranus. Unwilling wife of Hephaistos, she had famous flings with Ares, Hermes, and Dionysos.
Dashing and handsome, the son of Zeus and Leto was the god of healing and the arts. Twin brother of Artemis, his famous offspring include Orpheus and Asclepius.
Often represented holding a lyre, he was immensely popular and had many temples and sanctuaries dedicated to him, notably at Delos and Delphi where his oracle dwelt.
The talented Lydian weaver who foolishly challenged Athena to a sewing competition. Arachne does indeed produce a mesmerising cloth, but Athena loses her cool and destroys it. When the girl hangs herself as a consequence, the goddess transforms her into a spider so that she can go on weaving forever.
The unpopular and troublesome god of war with a quick temper and never-ending thirst for battle. Handsome and courageous, the son of Zeus and Hera was a bringer of doom but was especially popular in martial Sparta.
His children were Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror), who often accompanied him on the battlefield.
The group of heroes who sailed on the Argo with Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. The team included Hercules, Theseus, the Dioskouroi, Atalanta, Orpheus, and Meleager
Argus (aka Argos Panoptes)
The one-hundred-eyed monster of dubious parentage. Set to guard Io by Hera, the creature did not see his demise coming at the hands of Hermes.
The daughter of King Minos of Crete who helped Theseus escape the Minotaur's labyrinth by giving the hero a ball of string so that he might find the entrance again.
Not getting much reward for her efforts she was shortly after dumped on Naxos where Dionysos picked her up to become the god of wine's consort.
Goddess of hunting, fertility, wild animals, and childbirth, she was the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and twin sister of Apollo. Famously preferring a life of hunting to marriage, she had one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world dedicated to her, the temple at Ephesos.
The god of medicine, he learnt his skills from his father Apollo and passed them on to such luminaries as Hippocrates. His medicinal skills were so effective that Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt for threatening the mortality of humanity.
Asclepius' sanctuary at Epidaurus was famed throughout the ancient world and he is often depicted holding his staff (bakteria) with a sacred snake coiled around it.
The hero huntress who accompanied Meleager on the Calydonian boar hunt. Her other achievements included slaying a pair of centaurs and beating Peleus at wrestling. Long a maiden, she only consented to marry the man who could beat her in a foot-race.
Hippomenes won her hand by dropping apples on the track to distract Atalanta, but the pair's matrimony was short-lived for, after making love in a temple of Zeus, they were punished by the god who transformed them into lions.
The maiden goddess of wisdom, war, and crafts, she was Zeus' favorite daughter and patron of Athens, which dedicated the Parthenon to her. In art, she often wears armor and a helmet pushed back on her head as in the silver coins of Athens.
The unlucky Titan who had to carry the heavens as a punishment from Zeus for leading the Titans against the Olympian gods in a failed attempt to control the universe. Father of many stars, including the Pleiades, he was Plato's king of Atlantis.
The son of Poseidon who was famously tasked by King Iobates of Lycia with slaying the Chimera. This monster with a lion’s body, a snake for a tail, and the head of a goat sprouting from its back was killed by the hero who flew his winged horse Pegasus.
The legendary founder of Thebes. Of Phoenician origin, he was sent to search for his sister Europa but, failing to find her, founded his city where a cow lay down, as instructed by the oracle of Delphi. He slew a dragon in the area and, sowing its teeth in the earth, he thus created the local population.
The Muse of epic poetry and rhetoric. She is traditionally the most important of the nine Muses and is often depicted holding a writing tablet and stylus.
The half-horse and half-man creatures who, often drunk, represented passions unabated and unbridled chaos. Living in Thessaly, some could be wise such as Chiron, tutor of Achilles, Hercules, and Asclepius. A popular subject in art, they appeared on several metopes of the Parthenon.
The ferocious three-headed hound of Hades which protected the entrance to the Underworld.
The ferryman who transports the souls of the dead across the river to Hades.
The sea monster which haunted the straits between Sicily and the Italian mainland, later rationalised as a whirlpool. Odysseus managed to escape it by grabbing onto an overhanging tree.
The fire-breathing monster which is front-part lion with a snake's tail and the head of a goat on its back. Slain by the hero Bellerophon, it was the offspring of either Typhon and Echidna or reared by Amisodarus.
The wise centaur who tutored Achilles, Jason, and Asclepius. He was especially knowledgeable of medicine and is often portrayed carrying a ready snack of hares over one shoulder.
The sorceress daughter of Helios and Perse who changed Odysseus' men into pigs. Although the hero himself could resist Circe's charms and magic by using the 'moly' plant, the group stayed on her island for a whole year, eventually acquiring useful advice for the perils of the journey home.
ClioThe Muse of history and often depicted holding a scroll.
The one-eyed giants who live a savage, pastoral existence in a far off and unknown land. Hesiod describes three: Brontes, Steropes, and Arges, who are divine craftsmen, assistants to Hephaistos.
Large Mycenaean fortification walls were credited to them, such was the size of the blocks used. Homer's Odysseus famously visited them and was captured by one, Polyphemus (see below).
He was the master craftsman who designed the Minotaur's labyrinth at Knossos, the wooden cow for Minos' wife Pasiphae to attract the bull she had fallen head over heels for, and various automatons. He was also the father of the hapless Icarus.
The 50 daughters of Danaus who, avoiding marriage with the 50 sons of Aegyptus, fled with their father to Argos. The girls were pursued, though, and, on their wedding night, Danaus instructed them to kill the 50 men.
One girl did not, Hypermestra, and she founded the dynasty of Argos. As a punishment for the dreadful deed (at least in Roman mythology) the girls must fill a large bowl with water down in Hades, made a neverending task as it has holes in it.
Dawn (aka Eos)
The winged daughter of Hyperion and Theia who rides a two-horse chariot across the sky each morning. Partial to handsome chaps she bagged the hunters Cephalus or Orion and the Trojan prince Tithonus, depending on the version of the myth.
She asked Zeus to give the latter lover immortality but omitted to request eternal youth so that the poor fellow eventually withered away and was locked in a room as a mere keepsake.
She was the mother of Memnon.
Daughter of Kronos and Rhea, she was the goddess of fertility and agriculture. She managed to negotiate the release of her daughter Persephone from Hades and both were the focus of the Eleusinian Mysteries cult. In art, she often carries a torch, sceptre, or stalk of grain.
The bad boy of Mt. Olympus, he was the god of wine, merriment, and theatre. The son of Zeus and Semele could subvert the best intentions of gods and men with his wine and is often portrayed alongside his rowdy entourage of satyrs, nymphs, and maenads.
The half-snake, half-woman monster who was the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto. With Typhon, she created more monsters, many of which Hercules and other heroes fought, including Cerberus, the Chimera, and the Lernaean Hydra.
The Muse of singing.
The forever youthful primeval god of passionate desire, who brings irrepressible feelings and wild impulses to whoever his loosely aimed arrows hit. Assistant to Aphrodite, he was the protector of homosexual love.
The daughter of Phoenician king Agenor or Phoenix, who was abducted by Zeus who transformed himself into a bull. Arriving on Crete, the couple had three children: Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon. Zeus gave her a hound who always got its quarry,
Talos the bronze man, and a javelin which always hit its target. Europa later married the Cretan king Asterius.
The Muse of lyric poetry and often portrayed playing a double aulos or flute.
Fates (aka Moirai) The three goddesses who personified Fate. They were Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, and were daughters of Zeus and Themis.
Winged creatures, born from the blood of Uranus, who punish the wicked by dispensing disease and madness. Daughters of Earth and Sky, they also protected senior family members.
The primaeval earth goddess. With Tartarus, she gave birth to the monster Typhon. In art, a popular depiction is Gaia giving the baby Ericthonius (an Athenian hero) to Athena.
The handsome Trojan prince who caught Zeus' eye and was transported by the god (or his eagle) to Olympus where he serves as a cup-bearer.
Born from Ge and the blood of Gaia or Uranus, these unruly and immensely strong creatures fought the Olympian gods but were defeated when the latter had help from Hercules. This battle, the Gigantomachy, was a popular subject in Greek temple sculpture.
Their number included Pallas, Alcyoneus, Porphyrion, Polybotes, Ephialtes, Hippolytus, Enceladus and Eurytus. They were all either killed or imprisoned beneath the volcanoes of Greece and Italy.
The three monstrous sisters - Medusa, Stheno and Euryale - whose stare could turn onlookers into stone. In Archaic art,
they have sharp teeth and flowing locks of snakes, but in later times they are portrayed as beautiful women. They frequently appear on temple pediments, shields, and armour.
The three sisters who share one tooth and one eye between them. The hero Perseus consulted them on the whereabouts of Medusa and got his answer by stealing their eye.
They were the daughters of Phorcys and Ceto, and are named as Pemphredo, Enyo and Deino.
Three (or more) goddesses who personified charm, grace, and beauty in all its forms from the aesthetic to the intellectual. Offspring of Zeus and Eurynome, they were also accomplished at poetry, dancing, and music, and particularly associated with spring flowers.
The name of the Underworld and the god who ruled it. Brother of Zeus and Poseidon, Hades abducted Persephone, tricking her with a pomegranate, but was compelled to give her up for half the year.
He may be represented holding a cornucopia - symbol of the life which comes from the soil - a staff, or riding a chariot pulled by black horses. Hades the place was not necessarily a place of suffering but conceived as the last resting place of the soul.
However, very wicked people were taken by the Furies down to the lowest level - Tartarus - and there received eternal torments.
The moon goddess associated with witchcraft, magic, doorways, and creatures of the night - especially hounds and ghosts. Hesiod makes her daughter of Perses and Asteria. She is often depicted with three faces representing her role as guardian of crossroads.
The wise and noble son of the Trojan king Priam; he is the great hero of the city but falls at the hands of Achilles during the Trojan War. In vengeance for his killing of Patroclus, his body is dragged around the city walls behind the chariot of his slayer.Priam successfully appeals to Achilles for the restoration of his son's body whose funeral closes the Iliad.
The god of the sun who rode his golden chariot across the skies each day. Son of the titans Hyperion and Theia, he was famously represented by the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
The genius blacksmith and god of fire, metallurgy, and crafts, he was lame after he was thrown from Mt. Olympus by either Zeus or his mother Hera, upset at his ugliness.
Husband of Aphrodite under false pretenses, from his workshop on Mt. Etna he created such wonders as the aegis of Zeus, the helmet of Hermes, the first woman Pandora, and the great shield of Achilles.
The famously jealous wife of Zeus, often with good reason, she was the goddess of marriage and family. Representing the ideal woman and fidelity,
the daughter of Kronos and Rhea would take awful revenge on many of her husband's lovers and resulting offspring, especially Hercules. Patron of Argos, she was the mother of Ares, Hephaistos, and Hebe, amongst others.
The semi-divine hero and son of Zeus and Alkmene, who performed such prodigious deeds that he won immortality and his place amongst the Olympian gods. His 12 mighty labours included slaying monsters like the Lernaean Hydra,
the Stymphalian Birds, and the ferocious three-headed hound of Hades, Cerberus. He is usually portrayed in art carrying a huge club and wearing the skin he ripped from the Nemean Lion, another of his victims.
The herald and messenger of the gods was himself the god of trade, wealth, luck, language, thieves, and travel. Son of Zeus and Maia (daughter of Atlas), he was an impish seeker of amusement but had a more serious role as leader of dead souls to the River Styx.
Patron of the home, he is often depicted wearing winged sandals or hat and holding his herald's staff or kerykeion.
The virgin goddess of the hearth, home and hospitality who is the daughter of Kronos and Rhea.
Horae (aka Hours)
The daughters of Zeus and Themis, who personified the seasons. They are Eunomia (Good Order), Dike (Justice) and Eirene (Peace) with their mother as the fourth and representing Divine Law. The three sisters guard the gates of Mt. Olympus.
The son of Nyx (Night) and personification of Sleep, he lives in the Underworld. Often depicted as a winged youth, he touches the head of the tired with a branch or pours a magic liquid on them to induce slumber.
The son of the master craftsman Daedalus, who flew too close to the sun and so the wax melted on his artificial wings fashioned by his father in order to escape King Minos of Crete.
Falling into the sea and drowning, the stretch of waters in that area became known as the Icarian Sea, and then, when Hercules dragged the washed-up body to an island, he renamed that place Icaria in honor of the fallen youth.
The king of the Lapiths in Thessaly who, in order to avoid paying the handsome bridal gifts for his future wife Dia, prepared a trap for her father Eioneus.
This was a concealed pit, at the bottom of which was a charcoal fire. Invited for absolution at Mt. Olympus following the murder of Eioneus, Ixion then attacked Hera.
Zeus had fooled him, though, into thinking a cloud was actually Hera and then punished Ixion by having him tied to an ever-spinning wheel of fire in Hades.
The hero whose father Aison had been robbed of his kingdom by Pelias, and when Jason came to claim his rightful inheritance, Pelias sent him on the impossible task of finding the Golden Fleece.
Happy to oblige, Jason assembled his crew - the Argonauts of the ship Argo - and, with help from Athena, brought back the Fleece to Thessaly along with his sweetheart Medea.
Pelias refused to give up the throne, Medea killed him with a potion, and the couple settled, in any case, in Corinth.
Kronos (aka Cronus)
The Titan who was the son of Uranus and Gaia. He killed and castrated his father and then married his sister Rhea to produce the Olympian gods.
Afraid he would be overthrown like his father, Kronos devoured all of his children, but Rhea saved Zeus, whom she hid on Crete, giving her husband a rock as a substitute.
Gaia contrived for Kronos to cough up his children, who, led by Zeus, promptly did overthrow him. Kronos was then imprisoned in Tartarus. In other versions, he is the king of a Golden Age and rules a land of paradise.
Leda was the queen of Sparta and mother of Clytemnestra. She was seduced by Zeus who took the form of a swan, and from this union was born Helen (from an egg) and the twins Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri.
In some versions, it is Nemesis who is seduced and Leda only looks after the egg and resulting offspring.
Daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe, she is the mother (with Zeus) of Apollo and Artemis, giving birth to her offspring on the island of Delos, hence its important sanctuary to Apollo.
The female followers of Dionysos who participated in frenzied rituals of dancing and music.
The satyr who was gifted at playing the aulos but, after foolishly challenging Apollo to a musical competition, lost and was flayed alive for his troubles.
The daughter of Aeetes, king of Colchis and granddaughter of Helios, she was skilled in the arts of magic and potions. She helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece by charming the dragon which protected it.
She then hampered the pursuit of the Argonauts by dismembering her young brother Apsyrtus. In another shocking episode, she tricked Pelias' daughters into chopping him up and boiling him in a big pot as a punishment from Hera.
Medea fled to Corinth with Jason, but rebuffed by the hero, she killed his new love Glauke and then her own children in spite.
Fleeing again, this time in a dragon-pulled chariot to Athens, she would later try to poison Theseus, thus fully completing her reputation as an all-round bad egg.
The gorgon whose stare turned onlookers to stone. She had once been very beautiful but was transformed into a hideous gorgon by Athena after she had been raped by Poseidon in one of the goddess’ temples.
Killed by the hero Perseus, from the blood of her decapitated torso sprang Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus.
He was a hero who successfully led an all-star expedition to hunt and kill the Calydonian boar which had been terrorising central Greece. Known as an all-round good egg, he had also been one of the argonauts with Jason who found the Golden Fleece.
The Muse of tragedy plays, hence usually portrayed holding a tragedy theatre mask.
The younger brother of Agamemnon, and the king of Sparta whose wife Helen ran off with Paris sparking the Trojan War. He survived the conflict and eventually returned home via Egypt.
The first wife of Zeus and personification of Intelligence. Zeus swallowed her as he feared she was pregnant with a child who would overthrow him. From this action sprang Athena, born from the god's head.
The king of Phrygia who had the knack of changing anything he touched into gold, a skill he received from Dionysos in thanks for looking after the satyr Silenus.
A less favorable trait were his donkey ears, given to him by Apollo after Midas had judged Pan the better musician of the two.
The king of Crete whose palace at Knossos contained the labyrinth and Minotaur. The terrible half-man, half-bull creature was the fruit of Minos' wife Pasiphae's amorous engagement with a bull sent by Poseidon to punish the king for not sacrificing a prize bull to the god as promised.
Minos extracted yearly tribute from Athens in the form of young men and women who were sacrificed to the Minotaur, but the hero Theseus managed to slay the Minotaur and end the practice.
Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa but was mortal as his sticky end reveals. Falling out with Daedalus, the architect of his labyrinth, the king pursued him to Camicus but was boiled in his bath by the king's daughters there. In the afterlife, he was made a judge of souls along with his brother Rhadamanthys.
The half-man, half-bull creature which was the fruit of Minos' wife Pasiphae's amorous involvement with a bull sent by Poseidon. Haunting the labyrinth of Knossos, he would be killed by the Athenian hero Theseus, keen to put an end to the yearly sacrificial offerings of young men and women.
The Titan who was the personification of Memory and mother of the nine Muses.
Nine masters of the arts. Daughters of Zeus and Memory (Mnemosyne), they gave the arts to mankind so that they might forget their troubles and to inspire artists of all kinds.
They were: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania.
The young hunter from Thespiae in Boeotia, he was the son of Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. The impossibly handsome youth one day fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water in the forest.
Pining away from thirst and despair, and ignoring the attentions of Echo, he died but was transformed into a flower of the same name. Narcissus was especially popular in Roman art and appears in over 50 wall paintings at Pompeii.
Both a goddess and the personification of retribution. Daughter of Oceanus and Night, she is relentless and merciless, especially punishing hubris.
The sea nymphs who are the daughters of Nereus. They can assist sailors and are often in the company of Poseidon.
The centaur who unwisely picked a fight with Hercules and was struck by the hero's arrow for his troubles. In his revenge, though, Nessus tricked Hercules' wife Deianeira into using his blood which acted as a poison and killed his slayer when Deianeira coated her husband's cloak with it.
Night (aka Nyx)
Born from Chaos she personifies Night and is feared by both gods and men. Connected to oracles, she is also the mother of Sleep (Hypnos).
The winged personification of Victory, whose father was the Titan Pallas and mother Styx. She was a popular subject in art, often accompanying Athena and famously represented in the statue from Samothrace and on the hand of the giant statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
The daughter of Tantalus and wife of Amphion of Thebes, she foolishly boasted that as she had so many children she was superior to Leto. The goddess promptly sent her children Apollo and Artemis to put Niobe in her place.
Apollo killed all Niobe's sons with his bow, and Artemis did the same to the daughters. The distraught mother then became a rock on Mt. Sipylus which, washed continually with waters, mimicked Niobe's weeping forever.
Young females who hang around natural features such as rivers, springs, mountains, caves, and particular trees. They are often found in the company of Artemis and Pan, and they can help hunters and sailors but may be prone to abduction where handsome youths are concerned. If rebuffed, they could turn violent, as in the case of Echenais who blinded the Sicilian herdsman Daphnis.
The Titan son of Uranus and Gaia. His waters encircle the world and so is the source of all rivers. His wife is Tethys with whom he fathered the Oceanids and river-gods.
The wily king of Ithaca known for his quick wits, courage, and leadership. The son of Laertes and Antikleia, he was instrumental in the Trojan War by persuading Achilles to join the cause and coming up with the ruse of the Trojan Horse. The voyage back home from Troy turned into an epic adventure and subject of Homer's Odyssey.
He encountered the Sirens, the Cyclops Polyphemos, visited Hades, and spent an age with the lovely Calypso, but eventually made it back to his faithful wife Penelope and son Telemachus.
The king of Thebes who tragically confused his family relations, killing his father and, after solving the riddle of the sphinx, marrying his mother Epicaste (later Iocasta), both by mistake.
Following his mother's suicide, and blinding himself for his stupidity, their descendants were cursed to endure many miseries. He is the subject of the famous tragedy named after him by Sophocles.
The home of the Olympian gods and Greece's highest mountain at 2,918 m.
The mighty hunter who was the son of Poseidon and Euryale, one of the Gorgons. He famously had 50 sons with 50 different nymphs, tried to woo Artemis, and famously pursued the Pleiades, but was shot by the huntress goddess and transformed into a constellation for his troubles. The appearance, rise, and fall of his stars were used as a guide for when to perform certain agricultural tasks by ancient farmers.
Son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope, no wonder Orpheus was a virtuoso musician and poet. His lyre-playing calmed the Sirens on Jason's Argonaut expedition for the Golden Fleece and charmed Persephone to release from Hades his dead love Eurydice.
He won his case but broke his promise not to look back on leaving the underworld and so his love was taken from him forever. Distraught, the great artist never played again, and he met a sticky end, ripped apart by the Maenads for being miserable.
The pastoral god who dwelt amongst the mountains, caves, and rivers of Greece. With the legs and horns of a goat, the patron of shepherds was the inventor and master of the syrinx or panpipes,
which had been the nymph of the same name, but she panicked at Pan's attention and transformed herself into reeds, which the god then blew to create musical sounds.
The first woman, made by Hephaistos (or in other versions Prometheus) and beautified by the impressive team of Athena, Hermes, Aphrodite, and the Graces; she opened the jar she was expressly told not to and so let out all the ills of the world leaving inside, caught on the lip, only one consolation: hope.
The winged horse of Bellerophon, which was born from Zeus and the blood of Medusa. Pegasus helped the hero slay the Chimera and then enjoyed a semi-retirement on Mt. Olympus, where he brings Zeus' thunderbolt whenever required. The horse was a popular design on coins, especially those of Corinth.
The faithful wife of Odysseus, who warded off many suitors while her husband was fighting during the Trojan War and then dallying on his long odyssey home. One of her delaying tactics was to tell her suitors she first had to finish weaving a shroud for Odysseus' father Laertes, but each night she pulled out what she had woven that day. She is the mother of Telemachus.
The amazon daughter of Otrere and Ares, who accidentally killed her colleague Hippolyte. She later led an army to assist Priam during the Trojan War but was killed by Achilles.
Persephone (aka Kore)
e was the goddess of vegetation, especially grain. Abducted by Hades to live with him in the Underworld, the beautiful goddess was eventually released, but by a trick of a pomegranate seed, she was compelled to return to Hades for a portion of the year.
This was symbolic of the agricultural cycle or the common practice of burying seeds underground. Like her mother Demeter, she was an important focus of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria festival.
Helped by Athena and given the invisible-making cap of Hades and a giant sword and winged sandals from Hermes, the hero made good on his rash promise to king Polydectes and beheaded Medusa.
On his way home, he won the hand of fair Andromeda, the Ethiopian princess who was tied to a rock and left to Poseidon's dreadful sea-monster in punishment for her mother Cassiopeia's boast she was prettier than the Nereids, the sea-gods children. Using the head of Medusa, the hero turned the monster to stone and rescued Andromeda.
The seven daughters of Atlas and the nymph Pleione, who, pursued by the hunter Orion, was immortalized by Zeus and became the constellation of that name. The rising of the stars in May and descent in October/November were used as guides by ancient farmers for when to harvest and plow.
The one-eyed Cyclops who captured Odysseus and his men in Homer's Odyssey. The giant was the son of Poseidon, and he ate two of his prize each morning and evening until Odysseus got him drunk and blinded him. In revenge, the cyclops cursed the hero to endure all manner of delays on his onward journey home.
The Muse of hymns to the gods and heroes.
The god of the sea and bringer of storms and earthquakes, he often meddled in the plans of his brother Zeus. Son of Kronos and Rhea, he had many children, including Theseus, was responsible for such monsters as the Minotaur, and had a temple at Sounion dedicated to him.
The king of Troy who was the son of Laomedon and father of Hector and Paris (along with 48 other sons and several daughters, including Cassandra). He persuaded Achilles to return Hector's body for proper burial with a moving speech in Homer's version of the Trojan War. The pious king was killed by Neoptolemus when his city was finally sacked.
The trickster Titan who stole fire from the workshop of Hephaistos and gave it to mankind. Zeus punished him for his interference by having an eagle eat his liver every day after he was taken to the faraway east where he was chained to a rock. After many years of this terrible fate, Prometheus was finally relieved by a passing Hercules who shot the eagle with an arrow.
The Titan who was both sister and wife of Kronos, with whom she bore the Olympian gods. She protected Zeus by giving her husband a rock wrapped in cloth to swallow as a substitute after he had a mind to eat all his offspring.
Satyr (aka Silens)
The lustful and wine-loving wild men of nature who had some animal features and followed Dionysos. Intelligent yet mischievous, the most famous of their number was Silenus, a wise tutor of Dionysos.
The monster which lived in a cave and preyed on passing sailors and sea-life going through the straits between Sicily and the Italian mainland. She had twelve feet, six heads, three rows of teeth, and the bark of a dog. She is the daughter of Hecate.
The moon goddess. She was the daughter of Hyperion (or Helios) and Theia, who fell in love with Endymion. Unfortunately, Zeus took a disliking to the handsome youth and set him to sleep forever in a cave on Mt. Latmus to be visited every now and then by the goddess (the dark phase of the Moon).
The satyr who was father of all the other satyrs. He was the wise tutor of Dionysos.
Half-bird half-woman creatures who lured sailors to their doom with beautiful singing. Odysseus famously avoided their call by tying himself to the mast of his ship when he passed their home near Scylla and Charybdis. With his escape they were fated to commit suicide, hence their frequent portrayal in art diving into the sea.
The king of Corinth who cheated death twice by escaping Hades, the second time by arranging for his wife to forget the necessary funeral offerings to the gods. He lived to a ripe old age, but Zeus punished him for his impertinence by having him forever roll a stone up a hill when he reached the underworld for the third and last time.
The eldest daughter of Oceanus and the personification of a river in Arcadia. Thetis, in one version of the myth, dipped Achilles into Styx's waters to make her son immortal. Later, she became the river that runs through Tartarus in the deepest part of the Underworld.
Talos (aka Kalos)
The bronze automaton made by Hephaistos to protect Europa, who then switched guard duties to Crete. He saw off trespassers by throwing large stones or heating himself red-hot and then embracing his victims. In some traditions he is killed by his jealous uncle Daedalus, in others, he is killed by Medea who released his magic life-source liquid, stored in his foot.
The rich king of Sipylus who was granted the honor of dining with the gods but somehow disgraced himself, either by stealing the gods' ambrosia or tricking them into eating his son Pelops whom he had previously boiled. Zeus punished him for his wickedness in one of those delicious tortures he often dished out.
Down in Hades, Tantalus had to stand in a pool of water which drained every time he tried to take a drink from it, and above him dangled fruit which withdrew from his reach each time he tried to grab one (hence the verb 'tantalize').
The son of Gaia and Aether (Sky), he was the father of Typhon. It is also the name of the deepest level of Hades, where particularly wicked people like Sisyphus and Tantalus were punished, and where the unruly Titans are imprisoned.
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