The Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus

The names of scores of Greek gods and goddesses appear already in Homer's epic tales of the war against Troy (Iliad) and of the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus on his long and tortuous journey home (Odyssey). Even more are enumer­ated in the poems of Hesiod, especially his Theogony (Geneaology of the Gods) composed around 700 B.C.


The Greek deities most often represented in art are all ultimately the offspring of the two key elements of the Greek universe, Earth (Gaia/Ge; we give the names in Greek/ Latin form) and Heaven (Ouranos/Uranus). Earth and Heav­en mated to produce twelve Titans, including Ocean (Okeanos/Oceanus) and his youngest brother Kronos (Saturn). Kronos castrated his father in order to rule in his place, mar­ried his sister Rhea, and then swallowed all his children as they were born, lest one of them seek in turn to usurp him (see FIG. 20-40). When Zeus (Jupiter) was born, Rhea de­ceived Kronos by feeding him a stone wrapped in clothes in place of the infant. After growing to manhood, Zeus forced Kronos to vomit up Zeus's siblings. Together they overthrew their father and the other Titans and ruled the world from their home on Mount Olympus, Greece's highest peak.


This cruel and bloody tale of the origin of the Greek gods has parallels in Near Eastern mythology and is clearly pre-Greek in origin, one of many Greek borrowings from the Ori­ent. The Greek version of the creation myth, however, appears infrequently in painting and sculpture. Instead the later twelve Olympian gods and goddesses, the chief deities of Greece, figure most prominently in art—not only in Greek, Etruscan, and Roman times but also in the Middle Ages, the Renais­sance, and down to the present.




Zeus (Jupiter) King of the gods, Zeus (see FIGS. 5-36 and 21-42) ruled the sky and allotted the sea to Poseidon and the Underworld to Hades. His weapon was the thunderbolt, and with it he led the other gods to victory over the Giants (FIGS. 5-17 and 5-79), who had challenged the Olympians for control of the world.


Hera (Juno) Wife and sister of Zeus, Hera was the goddess of marriage and was often angered by Zeus's many love affairs. Her favorite cities were Mycenae, Sparta, and Argos, and she aided the Greeks in their war against the Trojans.


Poseidon (Neptune) Zeus's brother, Poseidon (see FIGS. 7-62 and 18-17) was one of the three sons of Kronos and Rhea and was lord of the sea. He controlled waves, storms, and earth­quakes with his three-pronged pitchfork (trident).


Hestia (Vesta) Daughter of Kronos and Rhea and sister of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hera, Hestia was goddess of the hearth. In Rome, Vesta had an ancient shrine with a sacred fire in the Roman Forum. Her six Vestal Virgins were the most important priestesses of the state, drawn only from aristocratic families.


Demeter (Ceres) Third sister of Zeus, Demeter was the god­dess of grain and agriculture. She taught humans how to sow and plow. The English word cereal derives from Ceres.


Ares (Mars) God of war, Ares was the son of Zeus and Hera and the lover of Aphrodite. In the Iliad he took the side of the Trojans. Mars, father of the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus (see FIG. 6-10), looms much larger in Roman mythology and religion than Ares does in Greek.

Athena (Minerva) Goddess of wisdom and warfare, Athena (FIGS. 5-32, 5-44, and 5-79) was a virgin (parthenos in Greek) born not from the womb of a woman but from the head of her father, Zeus. Her city was Athens, and her greatest temple was the Parthenon (fig. 5-42).

Hephaistos (Vulcan) God of fire and of metalworking, Hephaistos fashioned the armor Achilles wore in battle against Troy. He also provided Zeus his scepter and Poseidon his tri­dent and was the "surgeon" who split open Zeus's head when Athena was born. In some accounts, Hephaistos is the son of Hera without a male partner. In others, he is the son of Hera and Zeus. Born lame and, uncharacteristically for a god, ugly, his wife Aphrodite was unfaithful to him.

Apollo (Apollo) God of light and music and a great archer, Apollo (see figs. Intro-7, 5-3, 5-57, and 19-63) was the son of Zeus with Leto/Latona, daughter of one of the Titans. His epithet Phoibos means "radiant," and the young, beautiful Apollo is sometimes identified with the Sun (Helios/Sol).

Artemis (Diana) Sister of Apollo, Artemis (see FIGS. 5-57 and 17-46) was goddess of the hunt and of wild animals. As Apollo's twin, she was occasionally regarded as the Moon (Selene/Luna).

Aphrodite (Venus) Daughter of Zeus and Dione (daughter of Okeanos and one of the nymphs—the goddesses of springs, caves, and woods), Aphrodite (FIGS. 5-60 and 5-83) was the goddess of love and beauty. In one version of her myth, she was born from the foam (aphros in Greek) of the sea (see FIG. 16-27). She was the mother of Eros by Ares and of the Trojan hero Aeneas by Anchises. Julius Caesar and Augustus traced their lineage to Venus through Aeneas.

Hermes (Mercury) Son of Zeus and another nymph, Hermes (FIGS. 5-58 and 5-62) was the fleet-footed messenger of the gods and possessed winged sandals. He was also the guide of travelers, including the dead journeying to the Underworld, and he carried the caduceus, a magical herald's rod entwined by serpents, and wore a traveler's hat, often also shown with wings.

Equal in stature to the Olympians was Hades (Pluto), one of the children of Kronos who fought with his brothers against the Titans but who never resided on Mount Olympus. Hades was the lord of the Underworld and god of the dead.

Other important Greek gods and goddesses are Dionysos (Bacchus, see FIG. 17-37), the god of wine and the son of Zeus and a mortal woman; Eros (Amor or Cupid) (see FIGS. 5-48, 5-84, 17-43, and 19-85), the winged child god of love and the son of Aphrodite and Ares; and Asklepios (Aesculapius}, son of Apollo and a mortal woman, the Greek god of heal­ing, whose serpent-entwined staff is the emblem of modern medicine.