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The Gods in Greek Mythology

mytholgy-greek-godsThe ancient Greeks were polytheists meaning that they worshipped many gods and goddesses, These early Greeks believed 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 whichever way they chose without feeling the need to control emotions, regardless if these emotions were 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.

ZeusAmong 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 worshipped 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 powers 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 Tethys, 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 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.

HestiaAccording to Herodotus, Homer and Hesiod defined the gods. They drew from a rich and complex historical and mythological past, indicating themes and trends that have become decisive for the understanding of Greek mythology. Hesiod presupposes the reality of the gods, whereas Homer’s characterization of them is symbolic. In neither case, however, do the gods possess a universal meaning; in making use of the mythological historical tradition both poets tend to constantly merge various traditions into the unity of their forms of narration.

The 12 major deities in the Olympian pantheon are Zeus, Hera, Athena, Hermes, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo, Artemis, Poseidon, Demeter, and Dionysus. Zeus is the most prominent deity of Greek mythology. He is clearly of Indo-European origin and is a celestial deity related to and symbolized by the sky and sky phenomena. He is the thunderbolt, a god of lightning, a god of rain. He is a ruler-father, sovereign, and controller.

AphroditeIn the Iliad Zeus is referred to as the son of Cronus, but Cronus is given no other prominence, and Zeus is often called father of the gods. Zeus is often related to various female consorts at Eleusis his consort is Demeter; at Thebes, Semele; and at Argos, Hera. Each one of these female deities is a symbol of earth and fertility. In Homer, Zeus is a reigning god who sits on a throne at the top of Mount Olympus. He is attended by his council of deities: Hera, Apollo, Poseidon, Artemis, and Athena. Each of these has his or her own dwelling on Olympus. The palace and walls were built by Hephaestus.

HephaestusHesiod’s Theogony gives another story of Zeus. It provides a genealogy of the birth of the deities. The first god was Uranus, who mates with Gaea, the earth; from this union, the Titans and Cyclops are born. The most important of these offspring is the Titan Cronus, who marries his sister Rhea. Cronus receives a prophecy that foretells his overthrow by one of his children; therefore when his children are born he immediately swallows them. The distressed Rhea is advised by her parents to go to Crete when she becomes pregnant again.

She does so and on Crete gives birth to Zeus. Gaea becomes nursemaid to Zeus and devises a stratagem to save him from his father. She wraps a stone in clothing and presents it to Cronus as his new son. Upon ingesting the stone, Cronus disgorges it and all of the other children he had previously swallowed, including Hera, Poseidon, and Hades. Another element in the myth relates that the safety of Zeus is ensured by a group of divine beings called kuretes who dance around the young child, creating such a noise that the cries of the child cannot be heard by Cronus. This story of the birth of Zeus may be part of a chthonic religion that is related to the Mediterranean orgiastic traditions of Greece.

Zeus thus appears in the two mythological traditions, one Indo-European, the other Mediterranean (Aegean), as a sky-god belonging to invading Indo-Europeans. As the head of the pantheon he is symbolized by forms other than the sky, and through his marriages and amorous adventures he assimilates the indigenous deities to the Indo-European pantheon. The Titans may have been the ancient gods of the earth, and Hesiod’s myth blends the two traditions into a single narrative.

heraHera (lady in Greek) is the great goddess of the indigenous inhabitants of ancient Greece before the Indo-European invasions. She symbolizes a matriarchal and polyandrous culture. As the great goddess, she annually takes a mate in a sacred marriage, a ritual enactment of fertility and the coming of spring. Zeus, the sky-god of the Indo-Europeans, marries Hera at Argos, and this marriage becomes the archetype for monogamous patrilineal marriage and kinship. Hera becomes the goddess of marital virtue. Hesiod’s version is that Hera was the sister of Zeus; when she is disgorged by Cronus, Zeus marries her.

Poseidon was originally an Indo-European deity and an elder brother to Zeus. He is often referred to as the producer of thunder but more often as the wild horse. In the time of Homer he was called earth shaker, and this name may be related to the sound of horses’ hooves.

Several stories tell of Poseidon’s mating with goddesses in the forms of mares. In Arcadia, Demeter changes herself into a mare and is chased by Poseidon; from their mating is born Persephone and a horse Arion. Poseidon then becomes a god of the sea when he mates with the sea goddess Amphitrite.

DionysusDionysus is not an Indo-European deity. Probably Phrygian in origin, the god and his cult travelled to Macedonia, then to Thessaly and Boeotia. The myth of his birth relates that his mother is Semele and that he was fathered by Zeus. When Hera, Zeus’s wife, learns of Zeus’s infidelity and the approaching birth, she disguises herself as Semele’s nurse and convinces her to demand that Zeus reveal himself in the totality of his godliness to her. Zeus appears to Semele in the fullness of his thunder and lightning. The appearance strikes Semele dead, but just before her death Zeus snatches Dionysus from her womb, cuts open his thigh, and places the child therein; after nine months Dionysus is born from the thigh of Zeus. Dionysus is called the twice-born from the womb of Semele and the thigh of Zeus.

Dionysus’s appearance always seems to be accompanied by some violent activity that presents a threat to conventional order. As the centre of an orgiastic mystical cult, he tends to break the bonds of social life. Euripides, in his drama The Bacchae, describes the Dionysian cult. (Dionysus is also called Bromios, the Boisterous, or Bacchus.) The aim of the cult was to produce ecstasy the experience of standing outside of oneself or enthusiasm the experience of being filled with the god. The heart of the Dionysian mystery was that the devotee and the god become identical. The majority of the cult followers were women, the Maenads, those who had gone mad in their ecstasy. When the priest of Dionysus played on his flute, the devotees went into a frenzy, in which they were said to dismember animals.

Apollo stands in contrast to Dionysus. Whereas Dionysus orients his devotees to wild orgiastic rites, Apollo is the god of moderation and represents the legal or statutory meaning of religion. Apollo is foremost a god of law; he is described by Plato as the source of law. In his role as lawgiver, Apollo refers to the precedents of the gods and laws of the city.

Apollo has another side, however. Like Dionysus, he was related to the oracle of Delphi, and his devotees there were enthusiastic and ecstatically possessed. W. K. C. Guthrie, in The Greeks and Their Gods, suggests that Apollo originated in Siberia and that the ecstatic powers attached to his cult were derived from the tribal shamanism of that area rather than from the Dionysian cult at Delphi. Because of the common ecstatic elements, Apollo’s cult exerted a moderating influence upon the distinctly non-Olympian religious experience of Dionysus.