Greek myths and legends form the richest, most fertile collection of stories in Western culture, excluding the Bible. Yet despite their diversity they tend to share a common outlook on life. The Greeks cherished life and believed in living it to the fullest degree, since death was an inevitable fact. Only a small minority accepted the idea of resurrection after death; to the rest of the Greeks death was a dismal state, whereas life was dangerous, thrilling, and glorious. So the Greeks believed the only answer to death was to carve an imperishable legend for themselves. They pursued fame with astonishing energy in the five centuries from Homer to Alexander the Great. They were a tough, restless, ambitious, hard-living, imaginative race. But their lust for reputation made them touchy about their honor, and so they were also feisty and vengeful. Their myths and stories show all of these traits in abundance.
The Olympian Gods mirrored these Greek qualities, being quarrelsome, unforgiving deities who enjoyed warring, banqueting, and fornicating. They were always depicted in human form with beautiful, powerful bodies. The Greeks admired strength, beauty, and intelligence. And to them man was the measure of all things.
Because of the Greek urge for fame, their mythology produced a wealth of heroes, who tended to be adventurous fighters - bold, experienced, strong, clever. However, they also had faults that sometimes ruined them: overweening pride, rashness, cruelty, all of which arose from the very source of their successes - ambition.
The legends of tragic dynasties show this same characteristic. Despite their worldly power, the royal families of Crete, Mycenae, Thebes, and Athens were afflicted with faults that rendered them vulnerable to disaster: pride, ruthlessness in getting revenge, stubbornness, and sexual conflict. No race has understood quite as clearly as the Greeks how character is destiny, or how our very achievements can stem from the same source as our shortcomings.
In the end the ancient Greeks achieved the fame they sought so avidly. And their mythology has been a mainstay of Western art and literature for well over two thousand years.
The Titans were the old gods who were supplanted by the Olympian gods. Gaea, the earth, and her son Uranus, the heavens, produced the Titans, among other beings.
Cronus was the chief Titan, a ruling deity who obtained his power by castrating his father Uranus. Cronus married his sister Rhea, and together they produced the Olympian gods, whom Cronus swallowed at birth to prevent them from seizing power. His son Zeus defeated him and the other Titans, and bound them in the underworld.
Rhea was Cronus' wife. Vexed at having him swallow their children, she hid Zeus from him and gave him a stone to swallow instead.
Oceanus was the unending stream that encircled the world, who with his with Tethys produced the rivers and the three thousand ocean nymphs.
Hyperion was the Titan of light, the father of the sun, the moon, and the dawn.
Mnemosyne was the Titaness of memory and the mother of the Muses. Zeus fathered the Muses.
Themis was the Titaness of justice and order. She gave birth to the Fates and the seasons.
Iapetus was the Titan who fathered Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Atlas.
Prometheus was the wisest Titan, a benefactor to mankind, whom he created. His name means "forethought." Originally an ally of Zeus, he later tricked Zeus and was chained in the Caucasus Mountains, where every day, an eagle would feed upon his liver.
Epimetheus was a stupid Titan whose name means "afterthought." He accepted the gift of Pandora from Zeus; and Pandora, the first woman, unleashed all the evils of the world on mankind.
Atlas, for warring against Zeus, was forced to bear the weight of the heavens upon his shoulders at the edge of the world.
Other primordial deities
The Cyclopes were one-eyed monsters, the children of Gaea and Uranus. There were at first three and they represented the thunder, lightning, and thunderbolt. They helped Zeus against the Titans.
The Hecatoncheires were three more monsters produced by Gaea and Uranus. Each had fifty heads and a hundred arms and amazing strength. These creatures represented the cataclysmic forces of nature. Briareus was distinguished by the fact that he once served as Zeus' bodyguard. Together they helped Zeus defeat the Titans.
The Giants were generated by Uranus' blood when Cronus mutilated him. They became strong enough to attack the Olympian order and were vanquished after an earth-shattering battle.
The Furies, who pursued and punished sinners, also sprang from the blood of Uranus. Specifically, they punished matricides.
The Olympian gods
Zeus was the supreme deity of the Greeks and was depicted as a robust, mature man with a flowing beard. At first a storm-god who wielded the thunderbolt, Zeus became the All-Father who populated the heavens and earth by his promiscuous liaisons, and he finally became the grand dispenser of justice. His palace was on Mount Olympus, together with the homes of the other Olympians.
Hera was the jealous wife and sister of Zeus, the protector or marriage and childbirth. In several myths she was quite vindictive towards those with whom Zeus fell in love.
Poseidon, a brother of Zeus, as lord of the sea and a god of horses. A wrathful, moody god, he carried a trident and traveled in the company of sea nymphs and monsters of the deep.
Demeter was Zeus' sister, a goddess of vegetation and fertility. She had various lovers, including Zeus, and a daughter, Persephone, who was taken by Hades. In Demeter's grief the earth grew barren, and only when her daughter returned to her for six months of each year did the earth become fruitful.
Apollo, the son of Zeus, was the god of light, of intelligence, of healing, and of the arts. Apollo has several love affairs and a few rejections that he punished.
Artemis was Apollo's twin sister. The goddess of chastity, she was a virgin huntress who was shown carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. By some quirk she presided over childbirth and was associated with the moon.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was either born or sea-foam or was the daughter of Zeus. She represented sex, affection, and the power of attraction. According to some myths Hephaestus was her husband, Ares her lover, and Eros her son.
Athena was the virgin goddess of wisdom, a warrior who sprang fully armed from Zeus' head after he had swallowed the Titaness Metis. She was also a goddess of the arts and the guardian of Athens. Her chief traits were prudence and valor.
Hestia was the mild virgin goddess of the hearth, the family, and peace. She was Zeus' sister.
Ares, the bullying god of war, was the son of Zeus and Hera. A brutal deity who delighted in slaughter and looting, he was also a coward. In his adulterous affair with Aphrodite, Ares was caught and exposed to ridicule by her husband, Hephaestus.
Son of Zeus and Hera, Hephaestus was the lame, ugly god of the crafts, a skilled artisan who created many wonderful things. He was injured by Zeus for defending Hera in a quarrel.
Hermes, the cleverest of the Olympian gods, ruled wealth and good fortune, was the patron of commerce and thievery, promoted fertility, and guided men on journeys. He was herald and messenger of the gods, a conductor of souls to the netherworld, and a god of sleep. Hermes was the son of Zeus and was depicted with a helmet, winged sandals, and the caduceus.
Hades was lord of the underworld, the region of the dead. Since he was a brother of Zeus, he was sometimes included among the Olympians. He was a stern, dark, inexorable god, and his kingdom was gray and lifeless. He abducted Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, and made her his queen.
Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, was the goddess of youth and acted as a cupbearer to the gods.
As a youth, Ganymede was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle that carried the boy to Olympus. There Zeus gave him immortality, made him his lover, and established him as a cupbearer.
Iris was the goddess of the rainbow and sometimes a messenger or the gods.
The Three Graces presided over banquets and festivities. They represented splendor, mirth, and good cheer.
The Nine Muses were part of Apollo's retinue and were the daughters of Mnemosyne, or memory. These were the goddesses of inspiration: Clio oh history, Melpomene of tragedy, Urania or astronomy, Thalia of comedy, Terpsichore of dance, Calliope of epic poetry, Erato of love verse, Euterpe of lyric poems, and Polyhymnia of sacred songs.
Persephone was the lovely daughter of Zeus and Demeter, a goddess of springtime. After Hades abducted her she became the queen of the underworld, but Demeter missed her so much that the earth grew barren. Hades struck a deal with Demeter and allowed Persephone to spend six months each year with him, during which time the land died (autumn and winter) and six months with her mother, during which time the earth flourished (spring and summer).
Dionysus, a fertility god and god of the vine, was the son of Zeus and Semele. He served to liberate the emotions and to inspire men with joy. Like the grape vine, he suffered death but was resurrected. His female worshippers were the frenzied Maenads. Yet out of his celebration grew tragic threatre.
Pan, the son of Hermes, was the god of flocks. He had the torso and head of a man, but the hindquarter and horns of a goat. A marvelous musician, he played the pipes and pursued various nymphs, all of whom rejected him for his ugliness.
The Satyrs were men with horses' haunches and tails, two legged as opposed to the four-legged Centaurs.
The Centaurs were principally savage beasts, half-horse and half-man. Chiron was the exception, a Centaur famous for his virtue and wisdom.
The Dryads were tree-nymphs and had beautiful female shapes. There were also mountain nymphs, wood nymphs, stream nymphs, and sea nymphs, all in female form.
The Gorgons were three hideous dragonfish sisters that could change men into stone at a glance. Medusa was the most famous one.
The Sirens were sisters who sat on rocks by the sea and lured sailors to their doom by singing to them.
Helios was the sun god, but he did not play a large part in Greek mythology.
Aeolus was the custodian of the four winds.
Castor and Polydeuces (or Pollux) were famous twins who protected sailors. Polydeuces' brotherly devotion when Castor died made their names a by-word for fraternal twins.
Proteus, the son or attendant of Poseidon, had the ability to prophesy and to change his shape at will.
Triton was the trumpeter of the sea and was depicted blowing a large conch shell.
The Fates were three powerful goddesses who determined the lives of men. Clotho wove the thread of life; Lachesis measured it out; and Atropos cut it off with her scissors of death.