Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology
The Beginnings — Poseidon, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hermes, Demeter, and Dionysus
Zeus's brother Poseidon gained control of the sea as his portion of the world. And like the sea he had a stormy, violent nature. Poseidon built a palace in the watery depths and sought a wife who could live there. At one time he courted Thetis, the sea nymph, but he gave her up when he learned that she would bear a son greater than its father. Then he courted Amphitrite, another sea nymph, but she disliked him and fled far away. Poseidon sent messengers to fetch her, and one of them, a dolphin, was able to persuade her to marry the lord of the sea. Yet the marriage was not very happy for her because Poseidon, like Zeus, persisted in extramarital affairs. In one case Amphitrite transformed her husband's mistress into a loathsome, barking monster.
Not satisfied with lordship over the sea, Poseidon coveted earthly realms as well. In his dispute with Athena for dominion over Athens, the two gods had a contest as to which one could give the Athenians the best gift. Poseidon shoved his trident into the Acropolis and produced a flowing stream or a horse. Undismayed, Athena gave the Athenians an olive tree. And Poseidon challenged Athena to combat. Zeus, however, demanded that the quarrel be submitted to the arbitration of the gods. Then the male gods sided with Poseidon, while the goddesses favored Athena. Since Zeus withheld his vote, the goddesses were in the majority so that Athena won. But Poseidon flooded the country around Athens in retaliation. His other bids for power were unsuccessful, too, as he tried to seize Naxos from Dionysus, Aegina from Zeus, Corinth from Helios, and Argolis from Hera. His quarrelsome greed made him rather unpopular with the other Olympians.
As a warrior goddess, Athena was depicted in long, flowing robes, wearing a helmet and holding a spear in one hand and a winged victory in the other. She was a redoubtable fighter and took an active part in the war against the Giants and in the Trojan War. Unlike Ares, who was rashly bellicose and sometimes cowardly in battle, Athena had a cool, prudent courage that aided her in various undertakings. A protectress of heroes, she assisted Perseus, Heracles, Bellerophon, Achilles, and Odysseus in their various exploits. Nonetheless, Athena never felt the pangs of love and she remained a virgin. Once Hephaestus tried to violate her, but Athena managed to defend herself and Hephaestus spilled his seed on the ground, which gave birth to Erichthonius. Athena took care of this infant, and eventually he became king of Athens and made Athena the chief deity of the city. Another time Teiresias accidentally found Athena bathing, so she blinded him. But at his mother's pleading she gave him the gift of prophecy to compensate for blindness.
Athena was of great benefit to mankind as a goddess of the peaceful crafts. Among her inventions were the trumpet, the flute, the pot, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the bridle, the ship, and the chariot. She also invented mathematics and excelled in the arts of cooking, spinning, and weaving. She particularly prided herself on the ability to weave, and when a princess from Colophon, Arachne, produced a flawless tapestry the angry goddess changed her into a spider. Although Athena invented the flute, she became disgusted with it when Hera and Aphrodite laughed at her swollen cheeks as she played it, so she threw the flute away and pronounced a curse on it. The satyr, Marsyas, picked the flute up and acquired great skill on the instrument. Apollo became jealous of Marsyas' ability and challenged him to a music contest. When Apollo won he flayed the poor satyr to death and nailed his skin to a tree.
Definitely not a goddess to be trifled with, Athena was once assaulted by the furious Ares, who struck her on her invincible breastplate, the aegis. Athena then picked up a huge boulder and flung it at the god of war, causing him to crumple to the ground. Yet despite her rather mannish character, she was merciful in legal disputes and preferred peaceful ways of settling quarrels.
The god Apollo had many functions. As a deity of light he helped to ripen crops, destroy pests, and heal illnesses. Yet he could also be deadly as he shot his terrible arrows and created plagues. A god of prophecy, he had many oracular shrines, the chief one being at Delphi. He was a shepherd god as well and protected flocks. The master of the lyre and song, Apollo was especially vain about his musical prowess, and kept the Muses as part of his retinue. Beyond this he was a builder and a god of colonies. In his representations he was depicted as a nude, beardless young man of handsome proportions, and he was often shown with a bow and quiver or a lyre.
Hera had sent the serpent Python to pursue Apollo's mother, Leto, during her pregnancy. Four days after he was born Apollo called for a bow and arrows. When Hephaestus had furnished these Apollo went in search of Python. At length he managed to trap the serpent in a gorge by Parnassus and promptly slew the monster with his arrows. Apollo then had to purify himself, going into temporary exile in Thessaly.
On two occasions Apollo aroused the anger of his father, Zeus. The first time he had acted in consort with Hera, Poseidon, and other gods to dethrone Zeus, who had been unusually high-handed. Zeus was captured and bound to his couch, where the rebels threatened to kill him. However, the nymph Thetis brought Briareus, the fifty-headed monster, to guard Zeus, and this effectively quashed the rebellion. In vengeance Zeus hung Hera by her heels from Olympus, and he sent Apollo and Poseidon to a year's servitude under King Laomedon. And when Laomedon refused to pay them their rightful wages for building Troy and tending the royal oxen, Apollo visited Laomedon's kingdom with the plague and Poseidon sent a sea-monster to ravage the land.
The other time Apollo angered Zeus occurred when Zeus killed Apollo's son, Asclepius, for resurrecting a dead man. In retaliation Apollo killed Zeus's armorers, the Cyclopes. Zeus would have sent Apollo to Tartarus except that Leto pleaded for her son. Apollo was then given a year's servitude under King Admetus, for whom he performed great services.
After defeating Marsyas in a music contest Apollo had another contest with Pan, the goat-god. Apollo again gained the victory, emerging as the undisputed master musician.
Such a comely, youthful god was usually quite successful with nymphs and women. A randy bachelor, he seduced Phthia, Thalia, Coronis, Aria, Cyrene, and the nymph Dryope, having children by each. But some of his pursuits were failures. Marpessa eluded him. The nymph Daphne was changed into a laurel tree by Mother Earth before Apollo could ravish her. To console himself Apollo made a laurel wreath from her. When the Trojan princess Cassandra rejected him after he gave her the gift of divination, he turned the gift into a curse by making it so that no one would believe her prophecies.
Apollo also fell in love with a handsome boy, Hyacinthus. Zephyrus, the West Wind, fell in love with the boy, too, and became very jealous of Apollo. One day as Apollo was instructing the boy in discus-throwing Zephyrus seized the missile in mid-air and hurled it against Hyacinthus' head. The boy was killed, but where his blood fell there sprang up the hyacinth flower bearing the boy's initials.
The twin sister of Apollo, Artemis was the virgin-huntress, a goddess of the chase and forest creatures. The young also fell under her care, and because her mother Leto had delivered her without pain Artemis was called upon to help in childbirth. She was usually depicted in long robes carrying a bow and quiver, and she was accompanied by a troop of woodland nymphs.
One of those nymphs was Callisto, whom Zeus made love to in the guise of Artemis herself. One account says that when Artemis discovered the poor nymph was pregnant she reached for her bow and an arrow. Just as Artemis was about to kill the hapless girl, Zeus changed Callisto into a bear and set her up in heaven as the constellation of Ursa Major.
Artemis was very secretive about where she bathed, so when the hunter Actaeon came across her and her nymphs in the nude she changed him into a stag and set his own hounds to tear him to pieces.
Aphrodite was the goddess of love in all its forms, a protectress of marriage, the inspirer of ideal affection, and a deity of abandoned sexuality. Often she was depicted as a voluptuous nude of striking beauty. But as though her natural charms were not enough, she also possessed a magical girdle that rendered her irresistible to gods and mortals alike.
Zeus gave Aphrodite to Hephaestus, the ugly, lame craftsman of the gods, to be his wife. Hephaestus was infatuated with his beautiful bride, but apparently she was less than enchanted with him, for she took the virile Ares, god of war, as her lover. Helios reported her misconduct to Hephaestus, who fashioned a very fine but powerful net and suspended it above his wife's bed. Hephaestus then told his wife he was going away for a few days, and Aphrodite summoned Ares. While the adulterous couple was sporting in bed the net fell, binding the two fast. Hephaestus then called upon the other gods to witness his naked wife and her lover in the trap he had laid. Moreover, he demanded that Zeus return the dowry he had paid for his wife, but Zeus was disgusted with the whole affair and left. Apollo and Hermes jested about how they would not mind being caught in the net with such an attractive goddess; and Poseidon became enamored of Aphrodite and offered to guarantee payment of the dowry, should Ares default. Hephaestus released Ares and never received the dowry, but neither did he divorce his wife. In the end he had to tolerate her infidelities.
From that time on Aphrodite slept with many. She bore children to the gods Hermes, Poseidon, and Dionysus, two of which were sexually abnormal. If Zeus never lay with her he was tempted, and he punished her by making her fall in love with a mortal, the handsome Trojan prince, Anchises. In disguise Aphrodite offered herself to the young man, who made love to her on his bed of furs. In the morning she revealed her true identity, which terrified Anchises. She said that no harm would befall him unless he revealed her secret tryst with him. Naturally Anchises could not help telling about it among his drinking companions, and Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him that would have killed him had not Aphrodite deflected its course a little. But Anchises could never walk upright again. Yet the result of his union with Aphrodite was Aeneas, a great hero.
Proud of her beauty, Aphrodite took offense when a queen of Cyprus bragged that her daughter was more lovely. Aphrodite infected the girl with an incestuous love for the king, her father. The girl contrived a union with the king and became pregnant. Upon learning that he was the procreator of his daughter's child the king chased the girl in a rage, his sword upraised. And just as he was about to cleave her Aphrodite changed the girl into a tree, and as the sword fell, splitting the tree, a child was born.
Aphrodite took the infant Adonis and entrusted him to Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. He grew into a handsome youth, and Persephone took him for a lover. Aphrodite, on learning of his comeliness, went to the underworld to retrieve Adonis, and a squabble arose between the two goddesses. It was decided through arbitration that each one should have him for a third of the year, and that he should have a third to himself. Dissatisfied with this agreement, Aphrodite seduced Adonis with her magic girdle into remaining with her for the whole year. The angry Persephone reported this situation to Aphrodite's old lover, Ares, who changed himself into a boar and attacked Adonis, killing the youth. As Adonis' blood fell to the ground anemone flowers sprang forth. And since his soul descended to the underworld, Persephone at last had him all to herself. However, Aphrodite petitioned Zeus to allow Adonis to spend the summer months in her company, and Zeus agreed.
The cleverest and most precocious god was Hermes. His functions were related to travel for the most part, as a god of the roads, of commerce, of thievery, and an usher of the dead in the netherworld. He was also a phallic god, and pillars with a head called herms were set up in front of Greek homes. A god of intelligence, he invented the lyre, the pipes, the musical scale, astronomy, weights and measures, boxing, gymnastics, and the care of olive trees.
Immediately after he was born he went out and killed a tortoise. From its shell Hermes created the lyre, and with it he lulled his mother Maia to sleep, which left him free to do as he pleased. Before long he came across a splendid herd of cattle that belonged to Apollo, so he promptly stole the herd and disguised the tracks so that no one could trace him. When Apollo discovered his loss he went out searching in all directions for the stolen cattle. He even posted a reward. Finally he got wind of their whereabouts and found two cow hides at Hermes' dwelling. Still an infant, Hermes was pretending to sleep. But Apollo insisted on taking him before Zeus.
Zeus was astonished when Apollo accused the babe of thieving his cattle. But Apollo browbeat Hermes into a full confession. After admitting that he had sacrificed the two dead cows to the gods, Hermes promised to deliver the rest of the herd to Apollo. On the way to get the cows Hermes took Apollo home and showed him the lyre he had made. Apollo was so entranced with it that he exchanged the cattle for the lyre. Hermes also demonstrated the pipes he had created, and Apollo told him where he could learn the art of divination in exchange for the pipes. The two gods were fast friends ever after.
Hermes presented himself to Zeus as a new god and promised never to steal or tell a lie again. Zeus then defined his duties as a god of travel and gave Hermes his winged sandals and his staff, the caduceus. In his role as the messenger of the gods he appeared in more myths than any other god, with the possible exception of Zeus.
The grain goddess, Demeter, was a full sister to Zeus and an Olympian deity in her own right. However, as an agricultural goddess her destiny was more closely bound to the earth than to the celestial regions of Olympus. Demeter instituted the Eleusinian Mysteries, a religious cult that apparently believed in reincarnation. Just as the grain springs up every year after its harvest and wintry death, so the members of this cult believed that the human soul would be reborn after the body's death.
Demeter had one daughter, Persephone or Core, whom she adored. Zeus had fathered the girl, and she was strikingly beautiful. The god of the underworld, Hades, desired her. And one day as she was picking flowers Persephone wandered away from her companions to pick a strange but lovely narcissus plant. As she stooped down the earth yawned at her feet and Hades rode out from the bowels of the earth and abducted her. Demeter was heartsick at the loss and searched everywhere for her daughter in vain. After nine days of hunting she found Helios, the sun god, who told her what had happened. Hades had taken the maiden to be his queen, while Zeus had consented to it.
Demeter in her anger abandoned Olympus and came to live on the earth disguised as a crone. She arrived at Eleusis and was taken into the home of Prince Celeus and his wife Metaneira, where she was allowed to nurse their son Demophoon. In return for their hospitality Demeter decided to make the infant immortal by secret rites. Metaneira, however, grew suspicious and burst in upon Demeter as she was burning away the baby's mortal parts. The mother screamed and her son died. Demeter then revealed herself as the goddess, scolding Metaneira and ordering that a temple be built in her honor at Eleusis. The temple was constructed to be Demeter's dwelling place.
Still brooding about her daughter's loss, the goddess laid a curse on the earth that caused every plant to wither. Since nothing would grow, the lands became desolate and inhospitable to life. Zeus started to worry and finally sent Hermes down to the netherworld to fetch Persephone back to her mother. It was decreed, however, that if she partook of any food in the kingdom of the dead she would have to return. Persephone had languished in Hades' realm, eating nothing and grieving. But as Hermes arrived she took a bite of a pomegranate that Hades had given her and swallowed some of the seeds. When Hermes delivered Persephone to her mother, Demeter was saddened to learn that Hades now had a permanent claim on her daughter. Yet, Persephone was allowed to remain with Demeter for eight months of a year even if she had to spend the other four in the underworld. This then was the reason why the earth was barren in winter — Demeter was sorrowing for her lost daughter.
As the god of the vine Dionysus was closely connected to the earth. Since his mother Semele was a mortal, Dionysus had the status of a demi-god. And like the grapevines that he established, Dionysus himself was dismembered and resurrected. He could inspire men with lofty visions or degrade them into raving savages through his powers of intoxication. His worship was marked by ecstatic ritual, by frenzied excesses in the wildernesses, and also by sublime dramatic festivals. He was often accompanied by the Maenads, or Bacchantes: wild women carrying rods tipped with pine cones.
When Dionysus' mother was destroyed by Zeus revealing himself in a flash of lightning, Zeus took her unborn infant and sewed it inside of his thigh. There the new god developed and had a second birth. But Hera held a grudge against the child and sent the Titans to tear him to pieces, which they did. He was brought back to life, however, by the Titaness Rhea, his grandmother. And Zeus saw to it that Dionysus was protected. Cared for by mountain nymphs, the god invented wine and in time he grew to maturity.
Then Dionysus set about his mission of establishing vine cultivation, with its mysteries and rites, throughout Asia Minor and India. He met opposition in various places but those who opposed him usually met with terrible fates. Accompanied by Maenads he visited Thebes, which was ruled by King Pentheus, his own cousin. Pentheus took an immediate dislike to this strange young man of dissolute appearance and to his enraptured retinue of women. He ordered the whole group chained and imprisoned, against the sound advice of Teiresias the seer. No earthly power could shackle the god and his followers; they escaped easily. Dionysus shattered Pentheus' palace and drove him mad. In his lunacy Pentheus decided to spy on the Maenads in their revels and went dressed as a woman. Out in the mountains he came upon the frenzied woen as they feasted on animals they had torn apart. The Maenads rushed upon Pentheus, thinking him a wild beast. Pentheus' own mother ripped his head off while the others tore him limb from limb.
On another occasion Dionysus was walking along the shore and pirates captured him, seeing in the richly dressed young man an easy source of ransom. On board the ship the pirates tried to chain him, but their attempt was fruitless, for the shackles kept falling off. The helmsman recognized the divinity of the captive and pleaded with the captain to release the god, yet the captain spurned his advice. Then Dionysus caused the ship to run with wine and a vine to entangle the mast. Moreover, he changed himself into a lion and a bear, which terrified the crew. As Dionysus mauled the captain, the crew leapt overboard, except for the helmsman, and were transformed into dolphins. The god then resumed his true form and reassured the frightened helmsman that he had found favor with the son of Zeus and Semele.
Dionysus was never a great lover, but he did comfort the princess Ariadne after the hero Theseus had deserted her. In fact Ariadne bore him several children, and when she died he set the crown he had given her in the heavens as a token of his love for her. He was also faithful to the mother he had never seen. Determined to retrieve her from the underworld, Dionysus went down, forced Death to stand aside, and brought Semele out of that gloomy region. By virtue of his connection with Zeus he was able to secure a modest place for his mother on Olympus.
The sources of these tales range from Homer to Ovid, a span of about eight hundred years. Yet these myths show a certain consistency. Most of them revolve around some conflict. The Greeks were contentious and loved fights, contests, battles of wit, trials. The Homeric epics, the Olympic games, the dialogs of Plato, the drama festivals, the public trials, and the recurrent warfare between Greek cities all bear witness to the prevalence of conflict in Greek culture. Of course conflict arises in any society, but the ancient Greeks made a 'way of life of it and created a dynamic but very unstable civilization.
In these myths of the gods we can locate the source of conflict in a keen sense of honor. The reason the Greeks accepted these diverse gods is that they behaved in ways similar to the Greeks. Although Olympian morality was almost nonexistent, the gods and goddesses possessed a very sharp sense of what was due them. The Greeks were a proud people, and they created gods and goddesses who lived by pride. Handsome, vigorous, immortal, these deities were exceedingly jealous of their own honor. A common theme of these myths was that mortals who infringed the rights of the gods suffered terrible punishments. Arachne, Actaeon, Teiresias, Anchises, Metaneira, Pentheus, and Adonis are cases in point. Another frequent theme was that disputes among the gods must be settled by arbitration. Poseidon and Athena, Apollo and Hermes, Aphrodite and Persephone, and Demeter and Hades had to settle their arguments in this way. And often one or both of the disputants were unhappy at the outcome. A heaven full of proud deities is just as unstable as a country in which pride is rampant. The only thing that held Olympus together, in fact, was the might of Zeus, who presided as supreme judge. Gods like these would have found the Sermon on the Mount unintelligible.
Three of the myths recounted in this section are vegetation myths. The story of Demeter is connected to the annual birth and death of grain, while that of Dionysus is related to the cycle of the vine. Unlike the other gods, both deities must undergo great suffering, Demeter through the loss of her daughter and Dionysus through his own dismemberment. Moreover, in each tale the underworld plays an important part. As the kingdom of Death it stands for the state to which every living thing must come. But the fact that Persephone and Dionysus are able to emerge from it, just as grain and grapes are reborn each year, holds out the hope of resurrection to mortals.
The third vegetation tale, that of Aphrodite and Adonis, is a restatement of the myth of Ishtar and Tammuz, which appears under "Babylonian Mythology." The Greeks tended to turn Ishtar's story into a parody of vegetation myths. The quarrel between Aphrodite and Persephone seems like little more than the wrangling of two matrons over a common lover.
Again we notice the ascription of personality to the gods. Generally the personality depends upon a god's functions. Thus it is natural that Poseidon be tempestuous as the god of the sea, or that Artemis be mannish as the goddess of the forest, or that Hermes be clever as a god of commerce and thievery, or that Aphrodite be seductive as the goddess of love, and so on. Yet while the gods gained in vividness and particularity from this process, they lost any transcendent quality they might have had and became almost parochial in their appeal. Once their characters, functions, and deeds had been defined, the Greek gods really could not develop anymore. For all their glamour they became lifeless stereotypes. And the end result was that people ceased to believe in them.