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 ‘Dodecatheon’ 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 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 Dodecatheon 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.