About Greek Mythology



Greek myths and legends form the richest, most fertile collection of stories in Western culture, if we exclude 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. While the mystery cults accepted the idea of a resurrection after death, they were a minority. To Homer death was a dismal state, whereas life itself was dangerous, thrilling, glorious. If the ordinary person was bound to perish, so were the great royal dynasties and the mightiest heroes. But this idea did not sadden the Greeks as it had the Babylonian scribes who wrote of Gilgamesh. The Greeks responded with enthusiasm. They felt the only answer to death that was worthy of a man was to carve an imperishable legend by magnificent deeds. The Greeks 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, for they were also feisty and vengeful. Their stories show all of these traits in abundance.

The Olympian gods mirrored these Greek qualities faithfully, being quarrelsome, unforgiving deities who enjoyed warring, banqueting, and fornicating. They were always depicted in human form with beautiful, powerful bodies. Thus they were not only humanly intelligible but extremely pleasing to the eye as well. The Greeks greatly admired strength, beauty, and intelligence. And to them man was the measure of all things.

Few mythologies have produced such a wealth of heroes. This was the natural result of the Greek urge for fame. The heroes tend to be adventurers and fighters — bold, experienced, fierce, strong, and often clever. Their feats were far above those of ordinary humanity. However, they also had serious failings that sometimes ruined them: flaws such as overweening pride, rashness, cruelty, which arose from the very source of their successes — ambition. With Greek heroes ambition was intense, occasionally aspiring to godlike powers. As models of human excellence they provided standards for Greek youths to emulate.

The legends of tragic dynasties show this same ambivalence. Despite their worldly power the royal families of Crete, Mycenae, Thebes, and Athens were afflicted with their own particular faults that rendered them vulnerable to disaster: pride of power, ruthlessness in getting revenge, stubbornness in pursuing some goal, 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 crime.

In the tale of the Trojan War, the heroic and tragic elements are blended. This is perhaps the finest legend of Greek culture. The chief heroes of this story, Achilles and Hector, were doomed to a premature and violent death, but there was a measure of grandeur in their code of honor and in their defiance of fate. Most of the survivors, too, were doomed or suffered a long ordeal. It was a war which no one would win.

In the end the ancient Greeks achieved the permanent 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

Gaea (Ge), the earth, and her son Uranus, the heavens, produced the Titans, among other beings. The Titans were the old gods who were supplanted by the Olympian gods. Their mother Gaea was probably a neolithic earth-mother who was pushed into the background by the patriarchal gods of the Indo-Europeans who invaded Greece during the second millennium B.C., but her worship persisted even into the Classical Age.

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 the throne. His son Zeus defeated him and the other Titans and bound them in the underworld. Cronus' Latin name was Saturn.

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, a Titan, who with his wife 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.

Other Titans include Coeus and Crius. Other Titanesses include Phoebe and Thea. Their attributes and functions were either forgotten or insignificant.

Like the original twelve Titans, their children and grandchildren were also called Titans.

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 an eagle fed upon his liver daily.

Epimetheus was a stupid Titan whose name means "after-thought." 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 vault of the heavens upon his shoulders at the edge of the world.

Other Primordial Deities

Eros, along with Gaea, was the child of Chaos in early Greek mythology. He represented the creative principle of attraction that brings beings together, establishes friendships and marriages, creates cities, and so on. In later myths he was the son of Aphrodite and represented lust.

The Cyclopes were one-eyed monsters, the children of Gaea and Uranus. There were at first three of these storm-demons, and they represented the thunder, lightning, and the 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 of prodigious strength. These creatures represented the cataclysmic forces of nature. Briareus was distinguished by the fact that he once served as Zeus's bodyguard. Together they helped Zeus defeat the rebellious Titans.

The Giants were generated by Uranus' blood when Cronus mutilated him. Eventually they became powerful enough to attack the whole Olympian order and were vanquished only 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 the 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. Jupiter and Jove were his Latin names.

Hera was the jealous wife and sister of Zeus, the protectress of marriage and childbirth. In several myths she was quite vindictive toward those with whom Zeus fell in love. Her Latin name was Juno.

Poseidon, a brother of Zeus, was 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. His Latin name was Neptune.

Demeter was Zeus's full 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. Her Latin name was Ceres.

Apollo, the son of Zeus, was the god of light, of intelligence, of healing, and of the arts. His most important shrine was at Delphi, where an oracle prophesied. Apollo had several love affairs and a few rejections that he punished. He was also called Phoebus Apollo.

Artemis was Apollo's twin sister and a daughter of Zeus. The goddess of chastity, she was a virgin huntress who was shown carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. By some quirk she also presided over childbirth and was associated with the moon. Her name in Latin was Diana.

Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was either born of the sea-foam or was the daughter of Zeus. She represented sex, affection, and the power of attraction that binds people together. According to some myths Hephaestus was her husband, Ares her lover, and Eros her son. Aphrodite's Latin counterpart was Venus, a more erotic goddess.

Athena was the virgin goddess of wisdom, a warrior who sprang fully armed from the head of Zeus 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. She was sometimes called Pallas Athena. Athena's Latin name was Minerva.

Hestia was the mild virgin goddess of the hearth, the family, and peace. She was Zeus's sister. Her Latin name was Vesta.

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. His Latin name was Mars.

Hephaestus was the lame, ugly god of the crafts, a skilled artisan who created many wonderful things. He was injured by his father Zeus for defending Hera in a quarrel. He was identified with the Latin god Vulcan, a deity of volcanic fire.

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. Mercury was his Latin name.

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. His Latin names were Dis and Pluto.

Other Gods

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 of 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 goddesses of inspiration: Clio of history, Melpomene of tragedy, Urania of 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. Proserpina was her Latin name.

Dionysus, a fertility god and a 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 butwas resurrected. His female worshipers were the frenziedMaenads. Yet out of his celebration grew the tragic theater. Hewas also known as Bacchus, Latin Liber, a god of drunkenness.

Pan, the son of Hermes, was the god of flocks. He had the torso and head of a man, but the hindquarters 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 originally men with horses' haunches and tails, two-legged as opposed to the four-legged Centaurs. But in Roman times they were confused with Fauns, or goat-men who roamed the woods.

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 dragonish sisters that could change men to 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 affection.

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.

Mythical Greek Geography

At the center of the earth towered Mount Olympus, where the gods lived and held court. Sometimes Olympus was thought of as the actual mountain in Greece, but more often it was a lofty region in the heavens.

Around the earth ran a limitless river called Ocean. On the northern shores of this river lived the Hyperboreans, a fortunate race of men who never knew care, toil, illness, or old age. This community was isolated from the rest of the world, being unapproachable by land or sea. It enjoyed perpetual light and warmth.

To the West lay Hesperia, the land of the evening star, where the golden apples of Hera were guarded by the dragon Ladon and by seven immortal maidens, the Hesperides. The western lands and seas were populated with monstrous beings: the one-eyed Cyclopes, the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, and the Titan Atlas. But also to the far west lay the Elysian Fields, or Isles of the Blessed, where certain favored mortals went when they died.

In the far south were the Ethiopians, a lucky, virtuous people with whom the gods banqueted. And in the East were the barbarians, or non-Greek-speaking races to whom the blessings of civilization were unknown.

Beneath the disk of the earth was Tartarus, where the Titans were confined, a vast, nebulous realm of darkness. Between earth and Tartarus was the underworld kingdom of Hades, the ruler of the dead. The entrance to this realm was guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog. And once the departed spirits passed they had to be ferried across the River Styx by Charon, the foul-tempered boatman. The place was thought of as cavernous and dim, a joyless abode in which the dead gradually faded into nothingness.