Introduction to Greek Mythology

Greek mythology expresses neither unity nor consistency. The lack of coherence is due to the several factors that went into the formation of Greek myths and mythological personages. First, the existing fragments of Greek myths cover a period from the 2d millennium to the beginnings of the Christian era.

These myths and fragments of myths are in many cases parts of total mythological cycles in local communities, but in many cases the entire cycle is not known today.

Second, the corpus of Greek mythology contains mythological elements from different cultures and histories. For example, the Indo-European cultural element is represented in deities such as Zeus, whereas the Minoan-Mycenaean structures of Aegean civilization are symbolized by figures such as Demeter, Aphrodite, Rhea, and others.

Complicating the problem even more is the fact that Greek poets, tragedians, and philosophers present their own literary and philosophical interpretations and dramas of the deities, making use of the many strands and varied traditions of the mythological cycle

People, young and old, always loved telling the stories of Greek mythology. They told them long before they were able to grasp the script, and since then, they have never stopped telling them.
In the cold countries of the north, they tell the stories, near the fireplace. But in the south and warm countries that do not know winter, they say them in the countryside, during the long warm nights. From an island to an island, to the Aegean, to the Ionian, passed the fable tellers, following the winding trails on the mountain slopes of Crete and the Peloponnese.

They traverse as far as Asia and the Black Sea coasts. Eagerly welcomed in the villages. There is no feast at the fairs without their voice being heard. There is a place for them even in the races, where young people compete in power, stumble, throw the javelin, stretch the bow, or walk by riding chariots.

When everyone is sweating from the summer heat and the cloud rises from the hooves of the horses and the runners and the larynx is all dried, then the rasps rise. And they start to say some old legend, accompanying their words with the lyre chords. So they have been passed down the years.

Eather peacefully or with violence the kings came and went in city states who are dead today. Tiryns, Mycenae, ancient Argos, Iolkos, Sparta and so many others.
In those times, everything was a useful material for fiction writers: the wars and the misfortunes in the families of the strong ones, the states that were destroyed or fled, all gave them the opportunity to create their stories. Nothing, in any place, was inexplicable from a legend, both the shape of a rock and the tradition in a sacrifice. Hearing them there was no mystery left anymore, even in the sky.

Greek mythology remains one of the richest and most influential mythological traditions in the world. Not only has it formed the foundation of ancient Greek religion and philosophy, but it has also permeated Western literature, art, and modern pop culture.

The mythology of Greece while rooted in the ancient world, continues to resonate with modern audiences because of its universal themes and characters. Scientific interpretations, especially from psychology, sociology, and anthropology, provide avenues to delve deeper into these myths, transcending their fantastical elements and revealing the profound human truths they encapsulate.

Greek mythology is populated by a pantheon of deities, each governing different aspects of the world and human experience. The twelve Olympians, led by Zeus, are the principal gods.Figures like Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus embarked on epic quests, showcasing human strengths and weaknesses. Their tales often intertwine with the lives of gods and other mythical creatures.

Ancient Greek mythology belongs to the common cultural heritage of those who belong to the western civilization. In order to understand, and in fact briefly and concisely, we say that a woman is jealous like Medea, that she is faithful like Penelope, a man is as resourceful as Odysseus,we talk about the Oedipus complex or the Electra complex, for later antiquity writers and visual artists based on their fiction by persons and events of ancient Greek mythology. Mythology and mythical persons seem to form a common heritage and a common ground of conciliation and communication.

However, what exactly we know about the persons mentioned above and more generally, about myths and where do we get our knowledge from, are the primary sources, the epics of Homer, Hesiod, the tragic poets, the mythographers, the angiography, the great works of sculpture and the figurines


The chaos of Greek Mythology

Complicating the problem even more is the fact that Greek poets, tragedians, and philosophers present their own literary and philosophical interpretations and dramas of the deities, making use of the many strands and varied traditions of the mythological cycles.

The gods are portrayed in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, then again in Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days. Each of the great Greek tragedians, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, gives expression to the myths in his dramas. Philosophical interpretations in the pre-Socratics and in Plato and Aristotle continue this tradition of interpretation and reinterpretation.

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.

Adaptation to the Greek culture

Mythology has changed over time to adapt to the evolution of Greek culture. The first inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula, who were agricultural populations, had attributed a spirit to every natural phenomenon. Over time, these vague spirits took on human form and became part of mythology as gods and goddesses.

During the descent of tribes from the north, came a new divine pantheon, based on conquest, strength, bravery in battle and heroism. Older deities of the agricultural world were assimilated by stronger ones or completely discredited. Modern researchers attribute interpretations and symbols of our time to ancient Greek myths.

Many see the transition from an older matriarchal society to another patriarchal one that succeeds it, through the myths of the Atreides, the Amazons, etc. Already existing myths, such as that of Achilles and Patroclus, also joined a similar pattern. The adaptation of the stories of Greek mythology was a common phenomenon, first introduced by the Alexandrian poets and continued after all the writers of the early Roman Empire.

The achievement of epic poetry was to create historical circles, and consequently to develop a concept of mythological chronology. Although contradictions in the stories make an absolute dating impossible, it is almost possible.

Theogony and the Homeric Epics

While the age of the gods is usually of more interest to modern students of myth, Greek writers of the archaic and classical eras had a clear preference for the age of heroes. For example, the Iliad and the Odyssey overshadowed the divinely inspired Theogony and the Homeric Epics in both extent and popularity. Thanks to Homer’s influence, the “worship of heroes” leads to a reconstruction of the spiritual life, which separates the gods from the divine heroes, the Olympians and the Chthonians.

In Works and Days, Hesiod distinguishes between four generations (or tribes) the history of man: the golden, the silver, the bronze, and the iron age. These generations (or races) are separate creations of the gods corresponding to times. Thus, the golden generation corresponds to the rule of Saturn, while the next ones, to the kingdom of Zeus.

Hesiod inserts the generation-era (or race) of the heroes immediately after the Bronze Age. The last age is, according to the poet, the Iron Age, during which he himself lived. The poet considers it the worst and explains the presence of evil through the myth of Pandora. In Metamorphoses, Ovid follows Hesiod’s theory of the four seasons.

The first humans according the Greek Mythology

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.

first humans

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.

Creation of the World

creation-of-the-worldOnce upon a time, before the Universe was born, a giant egg was in the vast space. And one day, the egg cracked and opened. A winged spirit came out, lifting up the top of the shell and pushing the other half under his feet. The Uranus shell, the Earth below. And the first spirit that came to the world before all else was Love.

With his own grace, Uranus loves the Earth, gives her light and warmth, throws her in autumn and spring the warm rains that prepare the crops and the flowers. And the Earth gives him her love, making all the seeds germinate and the juice climbing on the branches.

To attract him, she changes tirelessly, the leaves on trees and shrubs are tenderly green at first with subtle nuances, reaching autumn their golden brightness. The Greeks never imagined that this beauty of the world came just from coincidence. And since people feel so well, Nature should have a similar soul to the human.

When Uranus and Earth came out of the void, monster creatures were exposed, huge mountains, oceans, flaming stars, started to make their way here and there. The continents did not have clear boundaries, the rivers often overflowed, flooding and destroying the plains.

The sun did not yet know how to follow a normal road that was far enough from the Earth in order not to burn it and close enough to warm her up and ripen the seeds she hid in her ground. It was the Chaos.

Uranus and Earth gave birth to six gods: the Titans. Their first was the Ocean. He was responsible for the vastness of the liquid element, which covers the Earth, similar to a protective zone. Another, Heperion, was caring for the sun. Their three brothers, Koius, Krieus and Iapetus, had less clear responsibilities since their birth. They are above all ancestors of future deities and races.

The Titans had assistants in their work the six Titanides, their sisters. The first-born, Tethya, went to mingle with the Ocean: for he is not only violence and anger.The sea is able to smile from time to time. There are the sea storms but there are as well the bright mornings and the calm waters. This is what Tithia brought to her brother. Something that without her, was missing a lot.

Close to Hyperion stood Theia, the mother of the Sun, the Moon and Ios. The Titan Koios got together with Phoebe, and by their union Leto was born. Two other Titanides were left without a companion: Themis and Mnemosyne. Themis is the Law, the Order, the Balance. In her, the forces of Chaos were subordinated, a condition essential to the presentation of organic life. Mnemosyne is the spiritual power, the memory of the Universe. Without it the world would never know from whence it came.

Greek Gods and religion

The 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.

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.

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 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.

According 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.

In 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.

Hesiod’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.

Hera (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.

Dionysus 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.

Athena  is the goddess of wisdom, war strategy, and crafts. She is represented by the owl, olive tree, helmet, and spear. Born fully armed from Zeus’s head, Athena is a virgin goddess and the patron of Athens. She is known for assisting heroes like Odysseus and Perseus and her contest with Poseidon over the city of Athens.

Artemis is the goddess of the hunt, wilderness, and childbirth. She is depicted with a bow and arrow, deer, and cypress tree. As a protector of young girls, Artemis is a virgin goddess and the twin sister of Apollo. She is known for punishing Actaeon and demanding the sacrifice of Iphigenia during the Trojan War.

Ares, the god of war, is symbolized by the spear, helmet, dog, and vulture. Representing the brutal and chaotic aspects of warfare, Ares is often depicted as aggressive and bloodthirsty. His myths include his affair with Aphrodite and numerous battles with other gods and heroes.

Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and desire, is associated with symbols like the dove, swan, and rose. Born from the sea foam, Aphrodite has the power to incite love and passion. Her myths involve numerous love affairs, including with Ares and the mortal Adonis, as well as the story of the Trojan War sparked by her promise to Paris.

Hephaestus is the god of fire, metalworking, and craftsmanship. His symbols include the anvil, hammer, and tongs. Despite being the only Olympian with a physical disability, Hephaestus is a master blacksmith who creates magnificent weapons and items for the gods. His myths include his marriage to Aphrodite and the creation of Pandora.

Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is the god of travel, commerce, and thieves. His symbols are the caduceus, winged sandals, and helmet. Known for his speed and cunning, Hermes guides souls to the underworld and serves as a mediator between gods and mortals. His myths include stealing Apollo’s cattle as an infant and assisting numerous heroes.

Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, home, and family. Represented by the hearth and its fire, Hestia is a virgin goddess who embodies domesticity and the stability of the household. Her myths are fewer compared to other Olympians, as she is known for her gentle and non-confrontational nature, and her role in the daily lives of the Greek people.

The Greeks in relation to their Gods

For the Greeks, people are not totally different from the gods, who they have as their ancestors. Everyone is from the same generation and from the blood of Heaven. Gods and people are the children of Heaven. But the mortals are somewhat deafened relatives.

They have less power and confidence than their ancestors. They leave faster and they are lost while the gods are staying. However, somehow, some succeed in re-discovering the heavenly spark within them and conquer immortality. These are the heroes. Their achievements and their value take roots in memory, and when their mortal life ends, they find immortality among the gods.

There were still other legends to explain the birth of the people. Most often, with changes in name and place, the history resembles that of Foronas of Argos. The first mortals came out of Nature, trees, springs, mountains. This was so natural to the ancient Greeks, because it seemed to them that people were very close to Nature. Like animals in the forests and fields, so they rejoice in the spring, soak up the autumn and get trapped inside their home in winter. Like the trees, they grow up, they grow stronger, give their fruit-their children, as the fruits are the childrens of the trees – and they dry up to die.

At the beginning of the cosmos, the Greeks were saying, people experienced happiness, living in a Nature created for them. The Earth offered them every delicious food and fruit in such great abundance that no one thought of gathering riches, nor was there any poor. Peace reigned, for no one wished for more of those things that belonged to all. It was the Golden Age.

Since then everything has changed. Other generations have come. The Earth was taught to take out all those goods and the mortals learned the work. After the Golden Age came the Bronze Age. Then there was violence and war. Then the Iron Age, which is still ours, a time of misery. All this birth of the cosmos and the coming of one generation after another, came, as ancient Greeks believe, from a dark will, stronger than their own gods: the Fate.

Battles of the Gods and the creation of man

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.