The Greeks left humanity great contributions in almost all areas of knowledge, such as philosophy, arts, sports and architecture. However, the Greek heritage also brings fascinating tales. The so-called Greek myths were an attempt to explain life and natural phenomena.
In general, the gods occupied the main roles in most of the tales of Greek mythology. The disputes between mortals and divinities or fantastic beings was also a recurring subject. It is worth mentioning, what we call mythology today, was religion at the time. Much of the Greek myth survived through the works of Homer and Hesiod.
What is Greek mythology?
The term "Greek mythology" covers the entire set of myths related to the Greek tradition, presented through existing literary evidence. Thus, Greek mythology is defined as the narration of mythical stories created by the Greeks and related to their gods and heroes, the ritual practices of their worship, and also the way such a society perceives the world around them.
These myths were at first disseminated through orality, later, however, they arrived through Greek literary production. Many modern researchers have studied Greek myths, because the understanding of their symbolism, is a way to understand religious and political institutions, and Greek culture in general.
When did Greek mythology begin?
There is no way to determine exactly when Greek Mythology began, this is because it is believed to have originated, as we highlighted earlier, in oral tradition. It is likely that Greek myths evolved from stories told and proliferated between 3000 to 1100 BC.
History of Greek Mythology
The early Greeks, who were agricultural populations, attributed a spirit to each phenomenon of nature. Over time, these vague spirits became gods, with human form, accompanying the evolution of Greek society itself.
As the Greeks turned to expanding their territory, a new pantheon emerged, based on strength, bravery, and heroism in battle. The ancient deities of the agricultural world were assimilated into new, more powerful gods or discredited altogether.
What myths can tell us about Greek society
Modern scholars have used Greek myths as symbolism for contemporary theories, such as the theory of the Oedipus complex, formulated by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, based on Sophocles' (496-406 BCE) tragedy, Oedipus the King.
Other researchers use myths to better understand Greek society. For example, how that society viewed homosexuality, since in the mid-Archaic period (between 800 BCE and 500 BCE), the Greeks gradually began to project relationships between gods and heroes. By the late 5th century BCE, it is believed that some poets attributed at least one lover to every major god except Ares.Existing myths, such as that of Achilles and Patroclus, also adhered to a similar pattern.
The adaptation of mythological stories was a common phenomenon, first introduced by the Alexandrian poets, and continued until the rise of the Roman Empire.
Greek Mythology Chronology
Saturn devouring a son. Image: Francisco de Goya
With the advent of epic poetry came the development of a concept of mythological chronology. Although contradictions in the myths make absolute dating impossible, the mythological history of the world is divided into 3 or 4 broader periods:
- The Age of the Gods or Theogony (birth of the gods): myths about the origin of the world, the gods, and the human race.
- The Age of Gods and Men: Myths of Interactions between Gods, Demigods and Mortals.
- The Age of Heroes The last and greatest of the heroic myths is that of the Trojan War (considered by many researchers to be a separate fourth period).
Who created Greek mythology?
Greek mythological stories were initially shaped through oral and poetic tradition, before being disseminated in writing through the works of Greek literature. Therefore, there is no creator of Greek mythology, it is a joint and popular work.
The oldest known literary sources are the two epics, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" by Homer (8th century BC), which are devoted to the events of the Trojan War and Odysseus' adventures that followed.
The poetic works of Hesiod (8th century BCE) are also considered a source of information, with his "Theogony" and "The Works and Days," which deal with the Greek conception of the creation of the world, the succession of divine rulers, and the origins of mankind.
Several other myths have also been preserved in writings of scholars and poets of the Hellenistic period and texts by Roman writers, such as Plutarch and de Pausanias.
The Greek Gods
The Greeks, from the earliest times, tried to explain natural phenomena by creating stories, thus developing a rich mythological tradition. Most of these myths are centered on the gods.
The gods of Olympus were 12 - 6 male and 6 female entities - generally voluble and fearsome. There were Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, and Hestia. The gods of Olympus gained power by defeating the Titans in the Battle of Titans.
In practice, the 12 gods were not worshipped with the same intensity, there were major gods and others, considered minor, worshipped locally, depending on the region. For example, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades were the major gods, while Dionysus was a minor god.
According to Greek theogony, from Olympus, Zeus ruled over gods and men. Son of Cronos and Reia, in Greek mythology, he was the god of the heavens and lightning.
Legend has it that Cronos swallowed his children, trying to avoid his fate, since his parents, Gaia and Uranus, had prophesied that one of his descendants would claim his power. Zeus, after being swallowed, manages to free himself and also his brothers, breaking his father's body. Thus, he starts to lead Olympus.
Zeus was married to Hera, but was known for his romantic affairs, begetting several descendants, including Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Persephone, Dionysus, Perseus, Heracles, Helen of Troy, Minos, and the Muses. With Hera, he begot Ares, Hebe, Hephaestus, Angelos, Ilithia, and Eris.
Zeus was the strongest and most important of all mythological beings. In the Homeric epic of the Iliad, Zeus sent lightning bolts against his enemies. His other emblems were the eagle and the goat.
In Greek mythology, Hera was the wife and sister of Zeus, as she was also the daughter of Cronos and Gaia. She was the goddess of marriage. Always jealous of Zeus' husband for his infidelities, she often took revenge on Zeus' mistresses.
Hera was often depicted or portrayed holding a scepter as a symbol of dominance or holding a pomegranate - the symbol of fertility - in her hands. Other known symbols of Hera were the peacock, the cuckoo, which symbolized the arrival of spring and various flowers and plants that symbolized the blessing of nature.
In most Greek myths, Poseidon is the god of the waters: the sea, rivers, springs, and drinking water. Son of Kronos and Rhea, and brother of Zeus, he sometimes lived on Olympus, but sometimes lived in his palace in the depths of the sea, along with his wife, the Nereid (sea nymph) Amphitrite. Poseidon was the father of Theseus, but also of Procrustes and Skiron and several giants.
Poseidon traveled the seas with his golden chariot; the waves opened at his passage, fish and other sea creatures played around him. With his trident, he could create storms or calm the waters.
Poseidon was the protector of sailors and fishermen. He was also considered responsible for geological phenomena such as earthquakes, so sacrifices and invocations were offered to him for the stability of the earth, while he was honoured with horse races. His symbols were the trident, the fish - usually tuna - and, more rarely, the horse or the bull.
Demeter was the deity of agriculture, but also of free vegetation, of the soil and its fertility, whose consequence would be considered also the protector of marriage and maternity. Demeter was the daughter of Cronos and Rhea.
Demeter is a two-faced goddess, one benevolent, the other vengeful. When her daughter, Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, she leaves Olympus and begins to wander in black among the people, looking for the young girl. Her youth and beauty are replaced by gray hair and mourning. In addition, the crops dwindle and humanity is nearly extinguished, if not for Zeus, who forces Hades to returnPersephone your mother.
Ares was the Greek god of war, the son of Zeus and Hera. In myths, Ares appears as a bellicose and provocative being, representing the impulsive nature of war. The Greeks were ambivalent about Ares: although he possessed the natural dexterity necessary for success in war, he was considered a dangerous force.
Crushing, insatiable in battle, destructive and butcher - all adjectives that perfectly describe the god. In Homer's Iliad, Zeus says that he is the most hated god. Moreover, his value as god of war was in doubt: during the Trojan War, Ares was on the losing side, while Athena, often portrayed in Greek art as the bringer of Victory, favored the Greekstriumphant.
Ares plays a relatively limited role in Greek mythology as represented in literary narrative, although his many love affairs and abundant offspring are mentioned. He is known as the lover of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
In Greek mythology, Hephaestus was the god of fire, including all its forms, such as flame, volcanoes, etc, and of any process or art performed with it, such as metallurgy. The god's actions also reached to the inner flame, the creative inspiration.
According to Homer's Iliad, he was the son of Zeus and Hera. However, Hesiod, in Theogony, presents him not as the result of the quarrel between Zeus and Hera, born of Hera through parthenogenesis, that is, without fertilization.
Hephaestus is the youngest of the gods. According to general descriptions, he has a bad appearance and is deformed, so much so that his own mother, Hera, expelled him from Olympus out of shame.
The baby fell into the sea, where he was picked up by Thetis and Euryinome, who raised him for nine years. As soon as he grew up, the god immediately set up his first smithy at the bottom of the Aegean Sea, forging magnificent objects for these two deities.
Dionysus is considered a minor deity within Greek mythology, but has great importance, as his worship significantly influenced the religious events of Greece. From 6 BC he began to be represented with the other gods on Olympus.
Dionysus was described as an eternal adolescent. He was the god of wine, of parties, of joy and also of the theater.
Apollo is the brother of Artemis and considered the most important god after Zeus. We have no clear indications of his origin, but the predominant opinion of scholars is that his cult entered Greece through the East.
The most common Greek myth about her birth states that it took place on the island of Ortigia, now Delos, being the son of Leto, Zeus' lover. By orders of Hera, no place accepted her to give birth, except Ortigia. It was an island that until then sailed free in the waves and was therefore undetected by Hera.
Later, Zeus stabilized the island for Apollo to be born. The labor pains lasted nine days and nine nights. Artemis was born first and then came Apollo.
Artemis is one of the oldest gods of Greece. Daughter of Zeus and Leto, twin sister of Apollo, she is the goddess of the hunt, protector of children, forests and animals. Artemis, along with Hestia and Athena, were the only goddesses over whom Aphrodite had no power.
From the first hours of her birth, Artemis demonstrated courage and leadership. Although a newborn, she helped her exhausted mother give birth to her second son, Apollo, and thus became the goddess of childbirth. From the age of three, hunting was her favorite pastime. She was a determined and unyielding child, and Zeus had great love for her and satisfied her every desire.
One of the first things Artemis asked for as a gift from her father was eternal purity and virginity. Devoted to hunting and nature, she was indifferent to the joys of marriage and the pleasures of love.
Artemis was a ruthless goddess who almost never forgave. Her deadly arrows constantly targeted mortals, gods, and heroes who ignored her existence or neglected her principles and worship.
The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli. Image: Wikipedia
Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty, sexuality, pleasure, and procreation. As with many Greek deities, there is more than one myth about her origin. According to Hesiod's Theogony, she was born when Kronos cut off the genitals of her father, Uranus, and threw them into the sea. According to Homer's Iliad, however, she is the daughter of Zeus and Dione, goddess of the nymphs.
Because of her beauty, other gods competed for her attentions and even warred. Zeus, therefore, arranged her marriage with Hephaestus. Aphrodite, however, had many lovers, among gods and mortals. Aphrodite played is considered the mother of many deities and other entities.
Thanks to the legend of her emergence from the sea, Aphrodite was widely worshipped as the protector of sailors. Because of her connection to the god Ares, she was worshipped as a war deity in Sparta.
Athena was the goddess of wisdom, strategy, and warfare. She often aided heroes and was always represented armed. She never had a partner or lover, although Hephaestus once tried unsuccessfully. Athena was the most beloved daughter of Zeus.
The birth of Athena is rather peculiar. It was prophesied that Métis, first wife of Zeus, would beget a child that would topple him from the throne. Zeus then swallowed her, but Métis was already pregnant in Athena.
Later, Zeus began to suffer from headaches and asked Hephaestus for help, who, with a great hammer, struck the head of the all-powerful god. Thus, Athena came out of the wound, wearing armor and carrying her shield.
Hermes was the messenger of the gods. He also carried the souls of the dead to Hades. In addition, he was the protector of thieves, gambling and commerce. According to the most accepted version of the myth, Hermes' father was Zeus and his mother was Maia, one of the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione
Hermes was considered essentially the first teacher of the human race. He taught mankind writing and the sciences; there are myths that attribute to him the transmission of the knowledge of fire to people.
Hermes represents speed, flexibility, variability, but it has a dark side, which represents the deceptive ways that the mind sometimes follows, after all it is also exceptional in deceit, lies and theft.
Besides the 12 most famous gods, there were others who inhabited Mount Olympus:
- Hecate : Goddess of magic. He helped Demeter find her daughter. The Greeks believed that when dogs barked at night, it was because Hecate was passing between them.
- Éolo God of the winds.
- Themis : Goddess of justice. She was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, and was the second wife of Zeus. The goddess is always depicted blindfolded, holding a sword in her left hand and a balance in her right.
- Éris : Goddess of jealousy and discord.
- Nemesis : Goddess of Justice, represents the Divine Judgment. She kept human affairs in balance by setting limits and imposing punishments.
- Nyx Nyx was a primordial entity, respected and feared even by Zeus himself.
Where the Greek gods lived
According to Greek myths, the gods inhabited Mount Olympus (a mountain in the Cyprus region) in their palaces. The Pantheon - today Mytikas - was the meeting place of the deities, while Zeus' throne was in the region that is now Stefani.
Mount Olympus is the second highest mountain in the Balkans and dominates the borders of Macedonia and Thessaly with high peaks and deep ravines. In 1938 it was declared a National Park.
Other deities from Greek Mythology
In addition to the gods, Greek mythology includes many other entities.
Nymphs were female figures of divine origin, young in appearance, living in the wild, wandering the mountains, accompanying Artemis playing with her. They were all beautiful. According to Greek tradition, there were 3 types of nymphs:
- Naiades the nymphs of rivers, springs and fountains, which are the most famous and from which the tales about the Fairies derive.
- Oréades are the nymphs who lived in the mountains, around the springs.
- Dríades the nymphs of trees and meadows.
In Greek mythology, it was common for the gods to have many lovers, some even human. Thus, the demigods were born, half human, half god. They possessed great physical strength and agility, but were still mortal. In general, the demigods become heroes. Heracles, Achilles and Perseus are some of the most famous.
The creatures of Greek mythology were created entirely by unbridled human imagination, and usually combine realistic elements of different existing creatures. They usually appear in supporting roles, but they usually steal the show and are some of the best known figures of Greek mythology.
Minotaur was born when Poseidon decided to take revenge on the demigod Minos for his disrespect for not sacrificing him a beautiful white bull. The god made Minos' wife, Pasiphae, copulate with a bull and thus was born this terrible child, a man with a bull's head.
Minotaur spent his entire life trapped in the Labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos, built by Minos, devouring 7 boys and 7 girls from Athens every year, until Theseus exterminated him.
Centaurs were creatures whose body had the upper part of a man and lower part of a horse. They lived in forests, in packs and possessed great physical strength.
Mermaids were bird-shaped creatures with a female head. These creatures lived by the sea and possessed a beautiful voice, which they used to seduce sailors and devour them.
Medusa had snakes on her head instead of hair, and would turn anyone who looked at her to stone.
Scylla was a beautiful nymph desired by Poseidon. In jealousy, his wife Amphitrite transformed her into a monster, poisoning the water in which the nymph bathed. Scylla began to have the body of a fish, a woman's torso and dog's heads coming out of her chest.
Lernae Hydra was an aquatic monster with reptilian features and many snake heads. When one head was cut off, another would immediately be born in its place.
Pegasus was a winged horse, son of Poseidon and Medusa. When he once came down to Corinth to drink water, he was captured and tamed by the hero Bellerophon and together they accomplished many feats, such as the extermination of the Chimera.
Chimera was a creature with the body of a lion, a head also of a lion and another of a goat, and a tail that ended in a snake's head.
Cerberus was the monstrous three-headed dog that guarded the gates of the Underworld, allowing souls in, but never out.
Cyclopes were one-eyed giants who used to work as blacksmiths for Hephaestus, helping in the making of Zeus' thunderbolts.
The Titans were descendants of primordial deities. The first twelve Titans were a tribe of powerful giant gods. Later, the gods of Olympus, led by Zeus, opposed the Titans whom they defeated in the famous Battle of Titans.
The death of the Olympian gods
With the expansion of Christianity, the old beliefs and rituals were replaced. But regardless, ancient Greek religion played an important role in Greece. Ancient civilizations developed greatly because of the Gods. People began to build temples, statues, and murals in honor of them, some of which survive to this day. All of this makes up the Greek identitythat has become famous all over the world.
In this way, the gods of Olympus were not really destroyed, but what was religion, became a set of tales.
Are Greek mythology and Roman mythology the same thing?
The relationship between Greece and Rome is very ancient. There are reports of contacts between the two cultures dating back to 12 B.C., causing many customs to mix. Therefore, many Greek gods have Roman counterparts.
However, besides the names and some details in the stories, the biggest difference is in how the two peoples viewed religion. The Greeks were centered on their beliefs in myths, while the Romans were more focused on performing rituals.
It is also worth noting that myths are a reflection of how a people interpret the world around them, so despite the similarities, Greek Mythology and Roman Mythology are not the same thing.
Greek mythology in our daily life
Greek culture has crossed the borders of countries and also of time, so that, often without realizing it, we are using or referencing it to the present day.
Psychoanalysis, for example, used Greek myths to exemplify human behavior and thus we have the Oedipus Complex, the Electra Complex, among other theories. In popular imagery, love is symbolized by a child with a bow and arrow, just like Eros.
Our vocabulary also has words and expressions coming from Greek mythology, such as hypnosis, which comes from Hypnos, god of sleep. The Trojan War generated many expressions: "Trojan horse" to classify something as a deception, "Greek gift" for an unwanted present and "to please Greeks and Trojans" for something that can please different tastes. Another expression often used is "work/Herculean effort", for what seems impossible to accomplish, in reference to the 12 labours of Hercules.