The ancient Greeks believed in a wide variety of gods and goddesses. The twelve Olympians are the major deities in the Greek pantheon and consisted of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and either Hestia or Dionysus. These gods ruled over the known universe as well as a host of lesser gods, demi gods, spirits, fantastic beasts and humans.
The gods were thought to have made their home on Mount Olympus, but worship of gods and goddesses took place in formal sanctuaries which usually contained a temple. Gods were also worshiped in sacred places or shrines in the countryside; at home; in the city; or as needed.
This world, where all gods meddled incessantly in the lives of mortals, and were often petty and jealous, taking out their wrath on mortals who had challenged or slighted them in some way - is a world worth getting to know!
Are your ready to enter a world ruled by gods and goddesses?
The most powerful of the Pantheon, Zeus was a sky god whose main weapon, the thunderbolt, was given to him by the Cyclopes in thanks for his assistance in freeing them from Tartarus. In addition to being King of Olympus and supreme ruler of the gods, he had a series of other roles that emphasised different aspects of his authority. Zeus Horkios, for example, identifies Zeus in his role as the upholder of oaths; and Zeus Xenios was the patron of hospitality and guests.
Zeus was the father of innumerable children, many of which were gods, demigods and heroes.
Hera was the Queen of the gods, married to Zeus, and was the goddess of marriage, women, the sky and the stars of heaven. She was usually depicted wearing a crown and holding a royal, lotus-tipped sceptre.
A jealous woman, and angry at her husband's many infidelities she often made the life of Zeus’ offsprings very difficult. Hera’s continued persecution of Heracles is a good example of this.
During Heracles’ infancy, Hera sent snakes into his crib. Already an exceptional child however, Heracles strangled the snakes, thwarting her plan. Undeterred by this, she waited until Heracles was a man, married with children. Hera drove Heracles into a fit of madness compelling him to kill his entire family. Once he awoke from this madness, Heracles appealed to the Oracle of Delphi in order to find out how to redeem himself from his sins. The Oracle instructed Heracles that he would have to put himself into the service of Eurystheus, King of Argos, for 10 years and do whatever was asked of him. Unbeknownst to Heracles, the Oracle had been directed by Hera to further punish, and potentially kill, Heracles.
Poseidon was the Olympian god of the sea, earthquakes, floods, drought and horses. This last attribution was a result of a contest he entered into with Athena to determine who would name the capital of Attica. The gods decided that the one to create the most useful gift should be the one to give their name to the city.
To win the favour of the people, Poseidon created the first horse for them, however the King of Athens refused the prize, instead choosing Athena’s gift of the first olive tree. In his fury, Poseidon afflicted the land with drought!
Poseidon’s most distinctive attribute was his three pronged trident. It was said to be the way he controlled the sea; created water sources and earthquakes; and brought forth storms. Tridents with their barbed spikes were, and continue to be, used for fishing.
Athena was the goddess of wisdom, military victory, the defence of towns, heroic endeavour, weaving, pottery and other crafts. According to the poet Hesiod, on the advice of Gaea and Uranus, Zeus swallowed his first wife, Metis whole to prevent her from giving birth to a child who could challenge his power. Instead, Athena burst fully formed from Zeus’ head clad in her armour.
As the wise goddess of warfare, she was the protectress of all heroes who were distinguished for shrewdness and pragmatism, as well as for their strength and valour such as Heracles, Perseus, Bellerophon, Achilles, Diomedes, and Odysseus.
Ares was the god of war, battle-lust and courage. In contrast to his half-sister Athena, he represents the violent physical aspects of war. Ares delighted in the tumult and confusion of battle, and revelled in death and destruction. As a result, he was disliked by almost all the gods, including his parents, Zeus and Hera.
Worship of Ares was relatively uncommon in ancient Greece, but when cult sites and temples were dedicated to Ares they were usually located outside the city walls, possibly to stop enemies approaching.
Ares was thought to dwell in Thrace, considered by the Greeks to be a warlike state, and he was particularly esteemed in Sparta with its strong militaristic culture.
Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation. Her origin story varies, but the best known asserts that she was born from the sea foam, aphros, off the coast of Cyprus. When she came ashore, all the gods were captivated by her beauty and each wanted her for a wife. Despite fierce competition Aphrodite was given in marriage to the smith Hephaestus, god of metallurgy and fire, in payment for release of Hera. This was not an ideal match, and Aphrodite had numerous affairs, most notably with Hermes, Dionysus, Poseidon, Adonis and Ares (to whom she had three children). According to Homer, this last affair ended Aphrodite’s marriage with Hephaestus demanding a divorce.
Dionysus was the god of wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity, theatre, madness and wild frenzy. Dionysus was born to the mortal Semele after an illicit affair with Zeus. Hera, enraged by Zeus’ infidelity sought to destroy any remnants of the affair. Zeus ordered Hermes, his messenger, to hide the newborn from his jealous wife by taking him to live with the mountain nymphs. Under their care, the infant Dionysus grew to maturity.
The female followers of Dionysus were known as Maenads, from the Greek maenades, meaning mad or demented. During the rites of Dionysus, Maenads were inspired to a state of ecstatic frenzy through a combination of dancing and intoxication. While under the god’s influence they roamed mountains and forests and were supposed to have unusual strength, including the ability to tear animals or people to pieces.