The Glory that was Greece

An online resource for students
 by Leigh T. Denault


Mythology: Greek Gods and Heroes

Table of Contents:


Aeneas was a hero of Troy, the son of Aphrodite and the mortal Anchises. He plays a small but important role in Homer’s Illiad. A favorite of the gods, Aeneas has their protection when he unwisely enters into combat with Diomedes and Achilles , both famous Greek warriors. Aeneas was among the few to escape from Troy at the end of the Trojan War (as prophesied by Poseidon ). Aeneas’ story does not end there, however. Hundreds of years after the Homeric epics had become a part of Greek culture, other myths about Aeneas began to gain currency. These legends told of an epic voyage to the western Mediterranean, where Aeneas founded cities in Sicily and Italy. (The Roman poet Vergil’s epic, the Aeneid, deals with this voyage.)


    Aeolus was the keeper and god of the winds. After Zeus triumphed over the Titans, (an earlier race of gods) he assigned his brothers, sisters, and relatives tasks in the realm of Mount Olympos. The winds needed to be contained and looked after, so that they wouldn't destroy the earth. Hera put forward Aeolus, as she was impressed with his steadfast nature. Aeolus was sent to an island named Aeolia, beneath which ran four deep passages in which the north, south, east and west winds were locked, to escape only when Aeolus or another god deemed it necessary.


    One of the best-known goddesses in modern culture, Aphrodite was the goddess of love. Born of the foam of the sea, she came to symbolize passion and lust. She was a prime example of the anthropomorphic nature of the Olympian gods, being herself prone to fits of pride and temper, and drawn to troublemaking. Although given in marriage to Hephaestus by Zeus , she was well known for her liasons with other gods and even mortals. Her son, Eros , took after her in both mischieviousness and iconography.

Birth of Aphrodite
The Birth of Aphrodite. Early 5th Century BCE. Museo delle Terme, Rome.


    Apollo was the god of light, the intellect, the arts, and healing. He was the son of Zeus and the Titan Leto. Also heralded as Phoebus, Apollo signifies light, order, and the sun. The most beautiful of all the gods, Apollo represented the more rational side of both the universe and man. His oracle at Delphi, on Mount Parnassus, was revered throughout the mortal world as a vessel of Apollo's predictions for the future. Mortals sought the oracle from vast distances to discover the will of the gods.


    Ares was the god of war, the son of Zeus and Hera . He loved fighting and to incite war, althought he lost his courage immediately if he himself was wounded. Followed by Panic, Terror, and Trembling, and accompanied by his sister, Eris, and her son, Strife, everywhere Ares walked he brought death and violence.


    Twin sister to Apollo and goddess of the hunt and unmarried women, Artemis vowed to remain chaste. Attended by her hunting-hounds and nymphs, Artemis ranged throughout the mortal forests, hunting with her silver bow. Any mortal man who saw her bathing, or in any way harrassed her, met with a horrible fate. She changed one man into a stag and set his own pack of hunting hounds on him. Like the moon she is often related to, Artemis had two sides. She was gentle and protective toward women and their young children.


Atalanta was a mortal heroine of Arcadia, an accomplished athlete and hunter. She chose to remain a virgin, and claimed that she would only marry a man who could defeat her in a race on foot. In some myths, Atalanta would kill her suitors with a spear as she passed them in the race. The suitor Melanion (Hippomenes in some versions) won Atalanta in marriage with the aid of Aphrodite, who gave him three golden apples with which to beguile the heroine into stopping to collect the treasures. Occupied in seeking the golden apples, Atalanta lost the race and became Melanion’s wife.


    Athena was the goddess of wisdom, laws and jurisprudence, arts and crafts, culture, and learning. She was said to have sprung fully grown and fully armoured from Zeus' head, who, complaining of a headache, asked Hephaestus to split his skull with an ax. In all of the myths but one, Athena had no mother. In the Homeric Hymn-28, however, Athena was described as the daughter of Metis, a Titan. Metis, renowned for her wisdom and cleverness, was fated to have two children: first a girl, and later a boy. The boy was destined to someday overthrow his father. Upon learning this, Zeus flew into a rage and consummed the pregnant Metis. Later, he developed a headache, and here the divergence among the myths merges. Athena was by all accounts Zeus's favorite child, and in many ways the most powerful god on Mount Olympos.

    Athena had many facets. She was her father's child in bravery -- she was the protector of heroes in battle and just causes in war. But she was her mother's child in her just, compassionate behavior. She was the patron of the city of Athens, her gift of the olive tree defeating Poseidon's gift of the horse in their contest for the city. Athena was a virgin goddess, but, unlike Artemis , she was equally compassionate towards both men and women. Her favorite mortal was a man, Odysseus, whose cunning appealed to her. In one account, Athena gave Prometheus the fire he sought from heaven, shielding him until he can escape to the earth. Athena, unlike the other gods, acknowledged her mistakes. She accidentally killed her dearest friend, the mortal Pallas, when she was new to the world, misjudging her own strength. From that point forward she placed his name before hers, making Pallas Athena her full name.


    Circe was a sorceress who lived on an enchanted island in the western Mediterranean, daughter of Helios and Perse. Odysseus encountered her in Book X of The Odyssey. She amused herself by turning the reconnaisance messengers sent by the tactical Odysseus into pigs. Hermes saved Odysseus himself from succumbing to this fate by apprising him of the situation, giving him both a magic flower to resist Circe's magic and a warning not to go to her bed without first exacting a binding promise to ensure his own safety. Odysseus was thus entertained by the now-benevolent sorceress for a year. When Odysseus decided that he felt homesick again, Circe sent him to the realm of the dead to question the seer Teiresias, telling him that he is fated to wander many strange paths before he can return to Ithaca.


Demeter, goddess of the harvest, was Zeus' sister. While many of the Greek goddesses were "adopted" into Greek religion from other cultures, the cult of Demeter seems to have originated in Greece. Her cult was centered on the town of Eleusis, where the Eleusian Mysteries were held in honor of Demeter and her daughter each year. Demeter had a daughter with Zeus named Kore. Kore quickly became associated with, and then merged with, Persephone , a pre-Greek goddess of the dead.

Demeter was responsible for bringing crops to fruition, both wild and cultivated. If she did not give her blessing to the earth, famine and starvation would follow. In the myths, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades , god of the underworld, to be his queen. Demeter was so stricken that she disguised herself as an old woman and wandered the earth, seeking her lost daughter. Eventually she came to Eleusis, where a local ruler took her into his home. Zeus, knowing that if his sister was not given aid, the mortal world would perish, sent Hermes to bargain with Hades for the return of the sunny Persephone. Hades slyly told Persephone that she was free to go -- and then gave her a handful of pomegranate seeds to eat if she was hungry on the way back to the surface. Persephone ate four seeds, and thus she was bound to spend four months of the year with Hades in his dark kingdom. During that period, Demeter was so sorrowful that she allowed the earth to grow barren and the plants to wither despite the bright sun. The myth of Demeter explains why the harsh Greek summers rendered crops and wild plants alike unproductive, and also why Eleusis was a special place for the cult of Demeter.


    Eros, the god of love and passion, was said in the later myths to be the son of Aphrodite . In some of the earliest myths, however, he was considered to be the very first god, the son of Darkness, or Chaos, who brought light and order, and therefore life, through love (Theogony, Hesiod). This idealistic view of love is very different from the erotic version associated with Eros in later myths. Represented as the conceited and spoiled young son of Aphrodite, he used his magical bow and arrows to cause mortals and immortals alike to fall hopelessly in love. Although he obeyed his mother, most of his arrows were shot for personal entertainment.


    God of the dead and king of the underworld, Hades was Zeus' brother. He rarely left his silent, gray palaces underground to visit bright Mount Olympos. Hades was also the god of wealth, for he owned all of the precious gems and minerals that lay below the surface of the earth.


    Helios, the god of the sun, drove his fiery horses and golden chariot across the sky each day, bringing day, heat, and light. Although his own origins are obscure, there is a myth concerning his son by the mortal Clymene, the boy Phaëthon. Granted one wish, he chose to drive the chariot. Phaëthon set fire to te earth in his dipping and diving, until Zeus was forced to throw a thunderbolt at him to cease the destruction. Eventually, the earth recovered, and Helios, deeply saddened by his son's headstrong wish, returned to his daily task.


    Hephaestus was the god of fire, craftsmen, and the protector of blacksmiths, son of Zeus and Hera . He walked with a limp because his father had thrown him over the palace wall when he sided with Hera in an argument. He fell for an entire day, and was nursed by a sea goddess until he could return. The only ugly god, Hephaestus was loved by both gods and mortals because he was peace-loving and kind-hearted. A skilled craftsman, he made the furniture and weaponry to arm and adorn Mount Olympos.


    Hestia, Zeus' sister, was goddess of the hearth and home, and the third virgin goddess. Her sole task at Mount Olympos was to keep the fire burning brightly in the palace hearth.


    Both sister and wife to Zeus , Hera was the goddess of marriage and the protector of women. She initally refused to become Zeus's wife, knowing his reputation for philandering. But Zeus changed himself into a shivering little bird and created an enormous thunderstorm, so that Hera took pity on him and took him into her arms. However, Zeus continued to woo women, constantly making Hera furious with jealousy. The myths are filled with tales of Zeus's infidelity and her ensuing rage.


    The messenger of the gods, Hermes was the son of Zeus and a demigoddess named Maia. A mischievious trickster, Hermes was also the god of thieves, travellers, shepards, and merchants. With his winged cap and sandals, Hermes could travel to the ends of the earth in the blink of an eye. His more serious duty was that of escorting the newly dead to the underworld. Hermes had two famous sons: Pan, the god of shepards, and Hermaphroditus, the son of Aphrodite and Hermes. Hermaphroditus possessed his father's handsome virility and his mother's beautiful face. In some accounts, it is said that the nymph Salmacis, upon falling in love with Hermaphroditus, prayed to be joined with him forever. Her prayers were granted, and their two bodies were physicaly united, making the first hermaphrodite.

Hermes of Praxiteles
Hermes of Praxiteles. 4th Century BCE.

The Moirai

    The Moirai were the three sisters of Fate. They were the children of Zeus and the titan Themis. Clotho, whose name means "spinner", created the thread of life, signifying the birth of a mortal being. Lachesis, whose name means "apportioner", measured the thread. Atropos, whose name means "inflexible", cut the thread, ending the lifespan of the mortal being. Not even the gods had control over the Fates, who in some earlier myths were born of Necessity, greater and more ancient than even the immortals.


    The daughter of Demeter, a child of sun and laughter. For her complete myth, see Demeter's entry.


    God of the sea, Poseidon had enormous power. Zeus' brother, Poseidon lived in a palace beneath the ocean. When he struck the sea with his trident, he could call forth violent storms, but his golden chariot was able to quiet the waves again. If he plunged his trident into the ocean floor, earthquakes rolled out from the epicenter of his rage. His wife, the sea nymph Amphitrite, and his son, Triton, lived with him in his undersea kingdom. Triton was half-man, half-fish, and rode a sea monster with his conch-shell horn. Athena was often pitted against Poseidon in the myths, a pairing that perhaps pitted the ideas of human jurisprudence and wisdom against the elemental chaos of nature.


    Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus, whose names mean "forethought" and "afterthought" were two Titans whose aid enabled Zeus to win his battle against Cronos and the other Titans. They were given the task of creating the men and animals. Epimetheus decided that he would create the animals, while Prometheus set about making the first man. Epimetheus, however, gave to his creations all of the useful and beautiful attributes that Prometheus would have liked to give to man. But all of the swiftness, cunning, courage, claws, wings, and strength, the very finest gifts, had been given already. Prometheus was determined to find a suitable gift for man, greater than the other gifts that Zeus had allotted.

    When Prometheus was chosen by Zeus to determine the means by which men should give sacrifice to the gods, he dissected an ox and covered the better parts with the skin and stomach, to make them appear poor. He created a second offering, this one consisting of bones, offal, and the less desirale parts, but covering the pile with fat. Zeus realized that Prometheus was trying to trick him, but he chose the poorer portion anyway. Zeus retaliated by taking from the men the fire they would need to cook the fine meats witheld from the gods. Athena , taking pity on the cunning and inventive Titan, showed him how he could steal the fire back for mankind -- the perfect gift to make up for his brother's mistake. But she could not save him from Zeus' rage. First, Zeus created Pandora, and sent her to earth to marry Epimetheus, where she released all of the evils into the world. Zeus then punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock, where by day an eagle ate his liver, and by night his flesh grew again so that another day of torment was possible. Later, he relented and allowed Heracules to kill the eagle, thus ending Prometheus's torture.


    Zeus, god of thunder and lightening, and the king of the gods, was the son of the Titan queen and king, Rhea and Cronos. His grandmother, Mother Earth, (Gaea) first bore the Cyclopes, and then the Titans, to her consort Father Heaven. Father Heaven thought that the Cyclopes were ugly as well as fearsome, and he trapped them under the earth. Gaea was greatly angered by this, and she sent the Titans to slay Father Heaven, and to bring back her children. Cronos, the strongest of the Titans, wounded Father Heaven badly, enabling the Cyclopes to escape. The Titans made Cronos the ruler, and Rhea, his sister, became his wife and queen. With his power came corruption, and Cronos imprisioned the Cyclopes once again. Gaea was even angrier than before, but she hid it this time, for she knew that Rhea's child would grow up to overthrow his father.

    Cronos, however, also knew this prophesy. He swallowed his children as soon as they were born to prevent them from reaching adulthood and gaining enough power to defeat him. Rhea was in despair as Cronos swallowed her first five children -- Hestia , Demeter , Hera , Hades , and Poseidon . She plotted to save her sixth child from Cronos. She gave the infant Zeus to Gaea to hide and protect, and offered to Cronos a stone wrapped in a blanket to swallow.

    Zeus grew strong on the isle of Crete, where he drank milk and honey, and was raised by kind nymphs and protected by armed guards. His mother, Rhea, visited him often and told him of the cruelty of his faher, and the necessity that he be hidden from him. If the baby Zeus cried too loudly, the guards would beat upon their shields to drown out the noise, so that Cronos would not hear the baby's powerful wails and realize that he had been fooled. When Cronos discovered the trick, Zeus changed himself into a serpent and Cronos searched for the child in vain. Zeus bided his time, nursing his hatred for his father and vowing to rescue his brothers and sisters.

    When Zeus was of age, he disguised himself as a menial serving man in Cronos's great palace. Rhea mixed a potent poison that Zeus fed to Cronos. The drink caused Cronos to vomit -- first the stone, and then each of the children that he has swallowed.  Zeus'brothers and sisters vowed their undying loyalty to their deliverer, and for ten long years they fought a bitter war against the Titans. Gaea finally told Zeus the secret to his victory -- if he released the Cyclopes, they would fight for him and overthrow the ancient race of gods. In gratitude, the Titans gave to Zeus the thunderbolts, to Poseidon the trident, and to Hades the magic helmet of darkness. The three-hundred handed Cyclopes heaved boulders at the stronghold of Cronos, and the three brothers used their gifts to win the battle. They punished the all of the Titans, save for Prometheus and Epimetheus, who had aided them. Gaea, however, gave birth to one more horror before the three victorious brothers could rest. It was the monster Typhon, with hundreds of heads and fire-spouting eyes. Zeus destroyed it with his thunderbolts.

    The three brothers drew lots to see which one of them should become the ruler of the gods, because they didn't wish to become evil and corrupt like their father. Zeus won the sky, becoming the king of heaven and ruler of the gods. Hades won the underworld and all of its riches, and Poseidon won the sea. Throughout the Greek myths, the concept of the gods as a younger race pervades. They are almost as new as the human beings who worship them, and there are older forces in the earth that even the gods of Mount Olympos do not understand.

Contents Copyright © 2003 Leigh T. Denault