Ancient Greek Mythology is a group of myths or stories about the Greek mythological gods and heroes, where gods and people are often placed in extreme situations.
The ancient Greeks worshiped many gods within a culture that tolerated diversity. Unlike other belief systems, Greek culture recognized no single truth or code and produced no sacred, written text like the Bible or the Qur’an. Stories about the origins and actions of Greek divinities varied widely, depending, for example, on whether the tale appeared in a comedy, tragedy, or epic poem. Greek mythology was like a complex and rich language, in which the Greeks could express a vast range of perceptions about the world.
A Greek city-state devoted itself to a particular god or group of gods in whose honor it built temples. The temple generally housed a statue of the god or gods. The Greeks honored the city’s gods in festivals and also offered sacrifices to the gods, usually a domestic animal such as a goat. Stories about the gods varied by geographic location: A god might have one set of characteristics in one city or region and quite different characteristics elsewhere.
PRINCIPAL FIGURES IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY
Greek mythology has several distinguishing characteristics, in addition to its multiple versions. The Greek gods resembled human beings in their form and in their emotions, and they lived in a society that resembled human society in its levels of authority and power. However, a crucial difference existed between gods and human beings: Humans died, and gods were immortal. Heroes also played an important role in Greek mythology, and stories about them conveyed serious themes. The Greeks considered human heroes from the past closer to themselves than were the immortal gods.
Given the multiplicity of myths that circulated in Greece, it is difficult to present a single version of the genealogy (family history) of the gods. However, two accounts together provide a genealogy that most ancient Greeks would have recognized. One is the account given by Greek poet Hesiod in his Theogony (Genealogy of the Gods), written in the 8th century bc. The other account, The Library, is attributed to a mythographer (compiler of myths) named Apollodorus, who lived during the 2nd century bc.
A1 The Creation of the Gods
According to Greek myths about creation, the god Chaos (Greek for “Gaping Void”) was the foundation of all things. From Chaos came Gaea (“Earth”); the bottomless depth of the underworld, known as Tartarus; and Eros (“Love”). Eros, the god of love, was needed to draw divinities together so they might produce offspring. Chaos produced Night, while Gaea first bore Uranus, the god of the heavens, and after him produced the mountains, sea, and gods known as Titans. The Titans were strong and large, and they committed arrogant deeds. The youngest and most important Titan was Cronus. Uranus and Gaea, who came to personify Heaven and Earth, also gave birth to the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants who made thunderbolts.
A2 Cronus and Rhea
Uranus tried to block any successors from taking over his supreme position by forcing back into Gaea the children she bore. But the youngest child, Cronus, thwarted his father, cutting off his genitals and tossing them into the sea. From the bloody foam in the sea Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, was born.
After wounding his father and taking away his power, Cronus became ruler of the universe. But Cronus, in turn, feared that his own son would supplant him. When his sister and wife Rhea gave birth to offspring-Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon-Cronus swallowed them. Only the youngest, Zeus, escaped this fate, because Rhea tricked Cronus. She gave him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow in place of the baby.
A3 Zeus and the Olympian Gods
When fully grown, Zeus forced his father to disgorge the children he had swallowed. With their help and armed with the thunderbolt, Zeus made war on Cronus and the Titans, and overcame them. He established a new regime, based on Mount Olympus in northern Greece. Zeus ruled the sky. His brother Poseidon ruled the sea, and his brother Hades, the underworld. Their sister Hestia ruled the hearth, and Demeter took charge of the harvest. Zeus married his sister Hera, who became queen of the heavens and guardian of marriage and childbirth. Among their children was Ares, whose sphere of influence was war.
Twelve major gods and goddesses had their homes on Mount Olympus and were known as the Olympians. Four children of Zeus and one child of Hera joined the Olympian gods Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Demeter, and Ares. Zeus’s Olympian offspring were Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, and Athena. Hera gave birth to Hephaestus.
A4 The Offspring of Zeus
Zeus had numerous children by both mortal and immortal women. By the mortal Semele he had Dionysus, a god associated with wine and with other forms of intoxication and ecstasy. By Leto, a Titan, Zeus fathered the twins Apollo and Artemis, who became two of the most important Olympian divinities. Artemis remained a virgin and took hunting as her special province. Apollo became associated with music and prophecy. People visited his oracle (shrine) at Delphi to seek his prophetic advice. By the nymph Maia, Zeus became father of Hermes, the Olympian trickster god who had the power to cross all kinds of boundaries. Hermes guided the souls of the dead down to the underworld, carried messages between gods and mortals, and wafted a magical sleep upon the wakeful.
Two other Olympian divinities, Hephaestus and Athena, had unusual births. Hera conceived Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, without a male partner. Subsequently he suffered the wrath of Zeus, who once hurled him from Olympus for coming to the aid of his mother; this fall down onto the island of Lemnos crippled Hephaestus. The birth of Athena was even stranger. Zeus and Metis, daughter of the Titan Oceanus, were the parents of Athena. But Gaea had warned Zeus that, after giving birth to the girl with whom she was pregnant, Metis would bear a son destined to rule heaven. To avoid losing his throne to a son, Zeus swallowed Metis, just as Cronus had previously swallowed his own children to thwart succession. Metis’s child Athena was born from the head of Zeus, which Hephaestus split open with an axe. Athena, another virgin goddess, embodied the power of practical intelligence in warfare and crafts work. She also served as the protector of the city of Athens.