Greek mythology started like many other beliefs in prehistoric times when the people in an effort to understand the natural phenomena of the world around them, created gods and goddesses. These gods and goddesses controlled the heavens and earth and the daily lives of the peoples. Sacrifices, which included animal sacrifices where made to these gods in hope at they would grant good fortune on the peoples of the earth. The Greeks developed these beliefs with a plethora of gods and goddesses who in one way or another controlled the spiritual and practical sides of the Grecian way of life. Though there are many gods and goddesses in Greek mythology the gods and goddesses who resided on Mount Olympus are the most famous of all.
The twelve gods, who resided upon Mount Olympus , the highest mountain in Greece controlled the lives of the mere mortals living below. They would often descend and wander around in the mortal world sometimes to help them or punish them and even to make love to the women and sire children. Children born of this union between mortal women and the gods were demi-gods and were in possession of rare skills, and held in awe by all. The favourite food of the gods was ambrosia and they drank nectar, a drink reserved for the gods alone. Though the gods were all powerful, they also suffered the traits and weaknesses of mortal man, they were prone to jealousy, anger and just being plain awkward. Each of the gods and goddesses had their own area of jurisdiction but only Zeus, the most powerful of the gods had total control of the gods and man.
Zeus (god of the heavens and earth)
Zeus was the youngest son of Cronus and Rhea he was born in the Diktaean cave in Crete , after his birth, his father Cronus wanted to swallow him as he had done to his other children, Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. Rhea, after giving Cronus a stone wrapped in cloth, which he swallowed saying it was the infant, hid the young Zeus in the Idaean cave also in Crete, here Zeus was raised by the nymphs, when he became a man, Zeus gave his father a potion which made him vomit up the children he swallowed. Zeus and his siblings then declared war on their father and the Titans. After the defeat of the Titans, Zeus became the undisputed leader of the gods.
Zeus took as his wife Hera (who also was his sister); she bore him four children Ares, Hebe, Eileithia and Hephaestus. His relationship with Hera was a turbulent one, due to his main weakness, women. Zeus fell in love with other women, mortal as well as other goddesses and sired many children much to the annoyance of his wife, who was jealous and often took revenge on her husbands many lovers. Zeus had affairs and fathered children with the goddesses Maia mother of Hermes, Metis mother of Athena and Leto mother of Artemis and Apollo. These are just three of his conquests; Zeus had hundreds of affairs with women and sired more children, he loved and protected all of his children again to the annoyance of his long-suffering wife Hera.
Zeus also was attracted to Ganymede a member of the royal family of Troy, Ganymede, said to be an exceptional beautiful boy, Zeus kidnapped him to serve as his cupbearer on Olympus, where his task was to make sure that Zeus’s cup was always full of nectar. Despite his failings, Zeus was said to be a fair and just god and many temples were built in his honour the first Olympic games were created to honour the great god Zeus.
Hera (goddess of families and married women)
Hera was queen of all the Olympians, as queen of the gods Hera was both beautiful and calculating. Hera often fell into rages over her husbands affairs with other women; Zeus tiring of these rages would tie her to Mount Olympus by fastening anvils to her feat. Hera not only incensed by her husband’s affair often took retribution on the children and mistresses of Zeus, when a mortal women Zeus was having a affair with gave birth to Heracles, Hera sent snakes to attack the infant whilst he lay in his crib. Hera transformed another of Zeus’s lovers into a cow. Hera was not always spiteful, she raised not only her own children but also many others, she was also helpful to those who were faithful towards her, Jason on his search for the Golden Fleece could not have succeeded without her aid. Throughout Greece , many of the oldest and most important temples are dedicated to Hera.
Athena (goddess of wisdom)
Athena is the result of a union between Zeus and Metis, when Metis became pregnant it was prophesised that a daughter would be born first who would be brave and wise, later a son would be born and he would become more powerful than Zeus. On hearing this prophecy, Zeus swallowed Metis to prevent this event from occurring. Nine months went by and Zeus complained of a terrible headache, he called Hephaestus to help him, Hephaestus struck Zeus on the head with a large axe, and Athena sprung out born as a fully developed women dressed for battle. She became the favourite child of Zeus, although she would become goddess of wisdom she was also a goddess of war. She was the only one of Zeus’s children to use her father’s thunderbolt. Her half brother, Ares was the god of war, but he represented uncontrollable conflict, while Athena taught the rules of organised warfare to mankind.
Although she was a goddess of war she was not warlike, she was also clever and wise. Athena helped other heroes in there battles, heroes such as Achilles and Odysseus. It was Athena who suggested to Odysseus the idea of the Trojan Horse. Athena and Poseidon both wanted to be the patron of Cecropia, the other gods on hearing this dispute told them that both of them that they should make a gift to the city and the gift that was deemed by them to be the most useful the donor would become the patron of the city. Poseidon struck the rock of the Acropolis with his trident and water gushed forth, but as he was the god of the seas, it was salty. Athena stamped her foot on the rock and an olive tree started to grow, the gods deemed this gift the most useful and made Athena the patron of Cecropia, the city was renamed Athens in her honour, though her exploits in battle are known, Athena is remembered for her wisdom and moderation and her peaceful works.
Poseidon (god of the sea)
Poseidon was the son of Cronus and Rhea. As god of the seas, he had immense powers he also had a terrible and unpredictable temper and would meter out punishment to anyone who defied him. Pictures often depict Poseidon driving his golden chariot across the seas whipping the waves with his trident to symbolise his unpredictable tempers. Poseidon also had the abilities to create earthquakes, and this talent earned the nickname “the earth shaker”. Despite these tempers, mariners made offerings to him to guarantee a safe voyage.
Poseidon fell in love with the sea nymph Amphitrite, she hid from his advances in the land of Atlas , he was heartbroken that she refused his advances, so he sent a dolphin to her to convince her of his good intentions she returned and married him. However, like many of the other gods Poseidon had a roving eye and had affairs with numerous women, and sired many offspring, one being Atlas who became the king of Atlantis.
Poseidon also lusted after his sister Demeter, to avoid him she transformed herself into a mare, Poseidon not to be outdone rapidly transformed himself into a stallion and captured her. The result of this incestuous affair was the birth of the horse Arion. Poseidon often changed himself into a stallion, a result of an affair with the Gorgon medusa resulted in the birth of the winged horse Pegasus. Many of Poseidon’s sons went on to become great heroes in Greek mythology among them were Theseus, Orion, Proteus and Despoena.
Odysseus incurred the wrath of Poseidon after he blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus, who was another of Poseidon’s sons. Poseidon created a great storm that delayed Odysseus on his triumphant return from the Trojan wars.
Demeter (goddess of agriculture)
Demeter was the goddess of agriculture. She was responsible for the fertility of the earth, and protected the crops – particularly wheat. She also cared for the fertility of humans, unlike the other gods little is known about Demeter, more is known about her daughter the beautiful Persephone. Hades the god of the underworld had noticed Persephone’s beauty so he kidnapped her, took her to his kingdom below, and made her his queen, her mother Demeter was heartbroken, she searched everywhere for her daughter whilst doing so the crops withered and died. People started to die and this troubled the gods, Zeus took control and sent Hermes down to return Persephone to Olympus .
Before Hermes took Persephone back, Hades made her eat a pomegranate seed, by doing so he had tricked her, by eating whilst she was in the underworld, she would never be able to leave the underworld forever, and she would have to return for part of the year to live with Hades. The ancient Greeks believed that the fertile months during spring and summer, where the time when Persephone lived with her mother and the cold autumn and winter months where when she returned to the underworld to live with Hades.
Apollo (god of light, music and prophecies)
Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto and brother of Artemis. Zeus’s wife Hera on hearing of the pregnancy and of her husband’s unfaithfulness became enraged and demanded that Leto should not receive shelter anywhere in Greece. Leto was forced to wander endlessly until she gave birth to Apollo on the island of Ortygia (modern day Delos) after a long and difficult birth, (nine days and nights!)
Directly after being born, Apollo ascended to Mount Olympus where he received ambrosia and nectar to make him immortal. Apollo became the god of prophecy; music and healing he also represented order, harmony, and civilization. Like many of the gods on Mount Olympus, Apollo also liked women and had many affairs and like his father, he sired many children. He fell in love with nymph Daphne the daughter of the river god Penaus; she did not return his advances despite his constant attentions. Daphne begged her father to transform her so she could escape his attentions, her demand where granted and she was transformed into a bay tree.
Also like many of the Greek Gods, he was a god of war and he was skilled at shooting arrows over enormous distances. He often intervened in human affairs and at the Battle of Troy, he helped Paris kill Achilles with a arrow. Apollo had the gift of prophecy, in his amorous pursuits of Cassandra he gave her the gift of prophecy when she refused his amorous advances the gift became a curse. Apollo is also the god of music and often depicted playing the lyre. Apollo is linked with the image of the ideal male, strong, handsome and eternally youthful. There are many temples around Greece dedicated to Apollo the most famous being at Delphi.
Artemis (goddess of hunting)
Artemis is the sister of Apollo, after her birth she then helped to in the birth of Apollo. This was the foundation of her role as protector of children and of women in labour. Being the twin of Apollo, she shared many of his traits and like Apollo she is often depicted hunting with silver arrows. Artemis was also a goddess of contradictions, like her brother she was blessed with the power of healing, but she also could bring about death and illness is she so designed, which she accomplished with her arrows.
Despite being the protector of childbirth, Artemis was a virgin goddess and cherished her virginity, and gave severe retribution to any man who attempted to dishonour her in anyway. Whilst bathing with her nymphs in a secluded pool, Actaeon son of Aristaeus whilst out hunting with his dogs came upon this scene of virginal splendour. He stopped to admire the beauty of the goddess and her nymphs, but when Artemis saw him, she transformed him into a stag, and then she set his own hounds upon him. They chased and killed what they thought was just another stag.
Apollo like Artemis was very possessive, according to one legend, it came to his attention that Artemis spent a lot of time hunting with Orion, he was determined to put an end to the association. He challenged Artemis to a competition to prove her skill in archery by shooting at an object far out at sea. Her shot was perfect, unfortunately for Orion, the target turned out to be his head. Another legend into the death of Orion by the hand of Artemis is that he tried to seduce the Goddess and she incensed by this, killed him and his hunting dog Sirius with her bow and arrows. Orion became the constellation Orion in the night sky, and Sirius, the Dog Star.
Though Artemis was worshiped in Greece it was in a minor role, she was more popular with the Greeks who had settled in Asia Minor (Turkey) as a fertility goddess. In the city of Ephesus, in Asia Minor, a temple, (the Temple of Artemis (Diana) was built in her honour, which became one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World”.
Aphrodite (goddess of love, beauty and fertility)
Aphrodite, according to two myths was born either as the daughter of Zeus and Dione or from the seed of Uranus’s genitals, which fell into the sea after being, cut off during a fight with Cronus, where she emerged from the sea-foam. Aphrodite is the goddess of love and lovers and her main pleasure was making the other gods fall in love with women. Everyone fell under her power with affairs of the heart both gods and mere mortals. According to one legend, Aphrodite endowed Pandora with her charms, and made Medea fall in love with the hero Jason.
The goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, when wanting amorous attention from her husband, would borrow Aphrodite’s girdle to wear which had the magical power of bewitching any man or god into falling in love with the wearer. Aphrodite also enjoyed illicit affairs, even though she was married to the god Hephaestus. Amongst them was an affair with Ares the god of war, who was the father of four of her children, one of them being Eros.
One legend tells off when Paris of Troy was asked to choose which of the three of the Olympian goddess’s was the most beautiful, despite the promises from both Hera and Athena who offered power and supremacy in battles, he chose Aphrodite as the most beautiful off them all. However, the legend does not tell if Aphrodite was wearing her enchanted girdle at the time.
The legend of her beauty has stimulated artists and sculptors throughout the ages, Botticelli’s work of art of the goddess on a giant scallop shell is one example and the well-known statue of the Venus de Milo, is thought to symbolize the beauty of the goddess Aphrodite.
Continue read on Greek Mythology – Part 2