Introduction to Greek Mythology
Greek mythology with the plethora of myths, is considered to be
the richest of all the mythologies across the world, historians and
philosophers of the antiquity dealt with the Greek myths,
the most known is Herodotus who was aware of the religious and mythological scenes of other eastern civilizations and compares them with those of Greece.
The Creation of the five Generations of Man
According to Hesiod, there are five human races with each race
created by the gods and coming into being after the extinction of
the previous one. From a modern perspective it is easy to see
Hesiod’s poem as an historical account of the invasions and
development of ancient Greece.
The first human beings were the children of Gaea and lived as subjects of Cronus. They were a perfect, golden race living in a Golden Age of peace and harmony, carefree, with no worries about old age, pain, misery or hunger. They lived on and enjoyed the plentiful fruits of the Earth, feasting on wild honey, wild fruits and fresh milk from goats and sheep. All these good things, bestowed upon them by nature, they shared and their days were spent in continual joy and happiness and when death came to them, for they were mortal humans, it came like a peaceful sleep after which they became guardian spirits for the living. This Golden Age or Paradise is the first phase of existence from which man has now been excluded and can never return to.
After the golden race came the silver race. Unlike the former, the silver race was not perfect. During this Silver Age, the people lived as farmers and grew grain to make into bread which they then ate. They were feeble and, according to Hesiod, were too controlled by their mothers. This was a matriarchal age, further symbolised by silver being the metal of the female Moon. In the later patriarchal age of Hesiod, such a community of ‘mother’s boys’ would have been seen as weak and feeble. Hesiod continues that these people of the silver race were not wise and did not honour their gods and, as a consequence, were destroyed by Zeus - the ruler at the time, who replaced them with the bronze race.
This new bronze race of men were cruel, heartless and warlike
relishing violence and slaughter. They ate flesh as well as bread
and their weapons, and artefacts were made of bronze. As a result of
their violence, their time on earth was brutal and short, subdued by
their own hands to sink into Hades. They were followed by another
nobler, heroic bronze race of warriors born from the union of gods
and mortal women. This divine race of semi-gods and heroes took part
in the voyage of the Argo and fought in the Trojan War. They all
settled at the ends of the earth in the Elysian Fields, the final
resting place of the souls of the virtuous and heroic, living
forever without worries or fears.
From a modern perspective of this historic period, this first bronze race seems to point to the earliest Hellenic invaders of the region who were Bronze Age herdsmen and who would have held beliefs about a typically Indo-European sky god such as Zeus. The second race of bronze people could allude to the Mycenaean warrior kings who ruled in 1600-1100 BC and glorified the heroic, warrior ethos that is seen in the myths of Jason and Achilles.
The last generation of man is the iron race. This final race is depicted as cruel and unjust, its people suffering from a never ending existence of fatigue, hardships and worries. It is the Age in which Hesiod lived and he could say nothing good about them, stating that they lacked courage, honour, respect and any desirable virtue at all. From the perspective of the Mycenaeans this seems to describe the last wave of Hellenic invaders, the Dorians, who swept down from the north, conquering the Mycenaeans with their iron weapons.
The Greek Gods
The ancient Greeks were polytheists meaning that they worshipped
many gods and goddesses, These early Greeks believied that the gods
watched over them and maintained order and harmony in the world. To
this end, each god or goddess represented a single aspect of nature.
The ancient Greeks believed that most of the gods were like humans
in form but immortal and far more powerful. This power meant that
they could control all aspects of human life, determining when they
were born and when they died, what fortunes or misfortunes would
befall them and the kinds of relationships they would have. The gods
were not distant abstract beings but could be seen, heard and
interact with mankind. In many ways they were the perfect humans –
perfect in as much as they never suffered the mortal’s deprivations
and prohibitions of life, pain or death, and could take their
pleasures in whichtever way they chose without feeling the need to
control emotions, regardless if these emotions wre positive or
negative. As a consequence, the gods did not always behave well. In
essence, the ancient Greeks assigned to their gods all the
attributes that they would like to possess themselves but without
the controls that collective human behaviour imposed.
Among the many gods worshipped by these ancient people, the twelve gods who dwelt on Mount Olympus formed a special category of their own. These twelve gods are known by the Greek translation ‘Dodekatheon’ and they were worshpped as a group together in a common cult as well as individually. These gods are usually accepted as being Zeus, Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Demeter, Apollo, Artemis , Hermes, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus and Hestia – although in some versions of the myth Hermes is replaced with Pluto or Hades, Hestia with Dionysus and Demeter with Heracles.
The twelve gods lived high in the clouds, between the sky and the earth, on the summit of Mount Olympus the highest mountain in Greece. From here they could look down on the humans, supervise and judge what they were doing and consequently support or punish them. Their lives were comfortable and luxurious and although their inability to control their lusts and passions often led to fierce arguments they would often carouse together with songs, dancing, love and laughter, feasting on ambrosia and drinking nectar – the sole sustenance of the gods.
Although all possessing magnificent powrs there was one thing
that they could never do. None of them should ever break the sacred
oath that Zeus had made by the waters of the Styx. Styx was the
daughter of Oceanus and Tithys, and was personified as the sacred
river in the Underworld. She had been specially honoured by Zeus for
the part she played in the Battle of the Giants. If a god, who had
sworn to keep a promise under this oath, broke his word they were
doomed to be left without breath for one year and to spend the next
nine years in isolation from the rest of the gods.
The King of all the gods of the Dodekatheon was Zeus while Hera was the first in the rank of the goddesses. Aside from these principal Olympian gods there were minor gods of the earth, sea, sky and the Underworld. These minor gods accompanied the twelve gods of Olympus and were worshipped by the humans according to their attributes.
Hesiod’s poem of the creation of the human species is only one
version however and a different version can be found in many other
writings from ancient times. This story begins with four brothers
who were the sons of the Titan, Iapetus. Atlas was the eldest son
who ruled the city of Atlantis, a vast land which lay in the western
ocean. After losing against Zeus in the battle of the Titans with
the gods he was punished by Zeus. This punishment was two-fold.
Firstly, Atlantis was overrun by Athenians and then submerged
beneath a great ocean flood. Secondly, Atlas was commanded to stand
at the edge of the world, for all eternity, holding up the sky.
Iapetus’ second son was Menoetius who also sided against Zeus during the battle. Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt and sent him to eternal damnation deep in the bowels of the earth in Tartarus.
The remaining two sons of Iapetus were Prometheus (foresight – so named because of his ability to foresee what is to come) and Epimetheus (hindsight – named because of his talent at being able to reflect upon things that had happened). Prometheus was the wisest of the Titan race and had learned many abilities from Athena such as mathematics, medicine, how to work with metals and how to study the pattern of the stars in the heavens as well as many other wondrous secrets. With his wisdom of foresight he had understood what the outcome of the battle was to be and cleverly decided to support the gods rather than his father. He was also influential in persuading his younger brother, Epimetheus to do the same, thus being able to ensure his survival.
According to this version of the creation of man, there were no mortal beings on earth during the period prior to Zeus becoming the ruler of the Cosmos. The gods then decided to create a new order of beings fashioned from earth and fire. These new forms of life were the mortal creatures of the earth. After reaching this decision they commanded Prometheus and Epimetheus to adorn and endow them with various talents and skills. Epimetheus decided to do this task alone and Prometheus agreed to this with the proviso that he can check the end result. Epimetheus began with the animals of the earth, sea and sky, equipping them with all the attributes they would need in order to survive and perpetuate their species. All the good things that the gods had provided were shared out equally amongst these creatures, so that although each species was different none was better nor worse than any other.
Epimetheus, however, became so absorbed and attentive to this task that when he came to the humans he realised that he had not given them any special qualities or abilities. As Epimetheus pondered what to do, Prometheus, realising the state of man, decided to help his brother. He stole wisdom from the goddess Athena and fire from Hephaestus and gave them both to the human race. He also bestowed on them his wealth of knowledge about science and the arts and endowed them with hope as a weapon in the face of life’s adversities.
The Battle of the Giants
According to the myth the Giants (Gigantes) had sprang from the
spilt blood that fell to earth when Cronus
castrated his father Uranus. As their name depicts, they were huge,
frightful creatures, with an unbeatable power. Having the form of
humans, with bushy beards that writhed with serpents, their legs
ended in a dragon-like tail. Unlike the Titans who were immortal,
the Giants were mortal beings and, it is said, human beings
descended from this race.
Although Gaea had initially supported Zeus in the war with the Titans she was extremely angry with him for the severe punishment that he had dealt to her children, the Titans. As a result, she plotted with the Giants and urged them to spring a surprise attack on the gods in their home at the summit of Mount Olympus. So began the Battle of the Giants which created turmoil throughout the Cosmos.
The Giants were twenty four in number and included their leader, Alcyoneus, and the frightful, goat-like Pallas, Enceladus, Polybutes, Ephialtes, Peloreus, Eurymedon (the king of the Giants according to Homer), Porphyrion (one of the strongest Giants), Theodamas, Leon (the lion-headed Giant), Aristaeus and many others. As they marched towards the gods on Mount Olympus they tore up any obstacle in their way, mountains were demolished causing the ground to shake and tremble, rivers were moved which caused the sea to encroach and engulf the lands. These actions, which seem to reflect the many geological changes that occurred in the region during pre-historical times, caused the gods to be very fearful.
The population of the gods had increased with new deities having born to swell the numbers of the original Olympians and Zeus gathered them altogether ready for war. Leading parts in the war were played by Zeus’ own children, Athena and the twins Artemis and Apollo as well as the warlord Ares, Poseidon, the swift-footed Hermes messenger of the gods and Dionysus with the Sileni and the Satyrs as well as countless others. However, even with this swell in numbers they knew they could not subdue the Giants by themselves. They fought bravely but the Giants could not be overpowered. It was then, that the gods recalled a prophecy which had told them that in order to win they should enlist the support of a mortal being, the lion-skin clad Heracles, who was famed for his superhuman strength. Zeus’ daughter, Athena was despatched to bring Heracles and with his support the gods felt more confident that victory would be on their side.
The battle then began in earnest. Heracles
began by shooting a poisoned arrow at the leader of the Giants,
Alcyoneus. As it pierced his flesh, Alcyoneus fell to the ground as
if slain. However, as soon as his body hit the earth, Alcyoneus
sprang to life again, regaining his powers from the earth from which
he had been born. On Athena’s instruction Heracles picked up the
Giants’ leader and hurled him away from the boundaries of his native
land where he then clubbed him to death. Another Giant, Enceladus,
tried to escape by swimming west across the Mediterranean. Athena
pursued him and hurled a great disc at him, crushing and burying him
at the bottom of the sea. His bulk with the disc on top becoming the
island of Sicily. The frequent earthquakes on this island are
attributed to Enceladus rolling on his injured side beneath the
mountain and the volcanic fires of Etna to be his laboured breath.
Poseidon chased the Giant, Polybutes, across the Aegean Sea,
throwing a massive rock from the island of Kos, which hit its
target, pounding him to the ocean depths. This is how the island of
Nisyros in the Dodecanese was formed with the Giant’s remains buried
beneath it. Athena killed Pallas and, gruesomely, skinned him and
made her famous shield (aegis) out of his hide. From that day, she
has been known as Pallas Athene. The god, Ares, killed the Giant
Peloreus whilst Zeus slaughtered Eurymedon and Porphyrion. Heracles
with the help of Apollo fought off and slew Ephialtes and
single-handedly killed Leon, Porphyrion, Peloreus, Theodamas and the
leader of the Giants, Alcyoneus, making Heracles the most important
of the Giant slayers. So one by one, all the giants were destroyed,
save one, Aristaios, who was transformed into a dung beetle by Gaea
in order to keep him safe from the wrath of the gods. With all the
Giants wiped out the Olympians were left as the sole masters of
all who lived there. However, there was one more enemy to be overcome before this could happen and this enemy was the serpent monster, Typhon.
The Battle of the Titans
Zeus and all the children of Cronus resolved to punish their father and, the Titans, perceiving the power of Zeus, rallied for war against him. Thus began the battle between Zeus and Cronus over control of the Cosmos. This is the famous Battle of the Titans against the future gods of Olympus. On Zeus’ side were his brothers and on the side of Cronus were most of the Titan brothers. They chose the almighty Atlas, the son of Iapetos, for their leader. Some of the Titans, however, supported the gods. These included Oceanus and his daughter Styx, her children Kratos (Power), Bia (Violence), Zelus (Zeal) and Nike (Victory). Furthermore, although one of Iapetos’ sons, Atlas, had sided with the Titans, another son, Prometheus, sided with the gods. Not surprisingly Gaea, the mother of the Titans, supported her grandson Zeus and prophesised that they would only be victorious if the Cyclops and the Hecatonicheires were set free from their prison in the underworld. Consequently, Zeus descended into the deep abyss of Tartarus and released the one-eyed Cyclops and the hundred armed Hecatoncheires, drawing them into an alliance with him to fight against Cronus. For their allegiance Zeus promised them great benefits if he became ruler. In return, the Cyclops gave the power of thunder, lightening and thunderbolts to Zeus. To his brother Poseidon they gave the trident and to Hades they gave the helmet of darkness, a hood, fashioned from dog skin which makes the wearer invisible.
The two armies then began their battle in earnest. The Titans were camped on the top of Mount Orthrys and from there they launched their attack on Zeus’ army camped on the summit of Mount Olympus. The war lasted for ten years and Gaea’s prophecy was correct because without the gifts and support of the Cyclops and Hecatoncheires the gods would have failed. Hades, made invisible by his helmet of darkness, crept unseen into the battle and stole Cronus’ weapons and while Poseidon threatened Cronus with his trident, Zeus finished him off with a shower of thunderbolts. The three Hecatoncheires used their three hundred hands to bombard the Titans with mighty boulders and a sudden fearful roar from the god Pan sent them fleeing for their lives. At last the Titans were defeated and they were rounded up and sent beneath the earth to Tartarus where they were kept in chains and surrounded by a bronze fence and a triple wall. To this day, among the dreadful vapours and dense shadows, they languish still. Only a few were spared. The Titanesses were allowed to go free because of the help given to Zeus by Rhea. The appointed leader of the Titans, Atlas, was given the harshest punishment of all. Instead of being chained up in Tartarus he was exiled to the ends of the earth and was condemned to hold the earth and the sky upon his shoulders.
Thus, the old divine order was incarcerated deep in the bowels of the earth, whilst the victorious Olympian gods ascended into the sky to bring new values and new concepts into the world. To symbolise and remind both gods and humans of his superior powers, Zeus took the stone, which his father had swallowed believing it to be the infant Zeus, and sent it to the Oracle of Delphi at the foot of Mount Parnassus. For centuries afterwards mortals would come to worship and anoint it with oil and make offerings upon it.