Greek mythology is a culmination of various influences. Civilizations in the Mediterranean have a history of invasion and assimilation. The conquered would adopt the invader’s traditions and vice-versa. Add Ancient Greek’s system of separate city states and favored deities, and the multitude of Greek myths and gods is understandable. This Greek Myths study guide will help to sort them out.
The Olympians were the ruling deities of the Ancient Greeks but not the first supernatural forces revered by Ancient Greeks. In fact, the Twelve Olympians were not believed to be the creators of the world. Instead they were thought to be the third generation of reigning gods.
The Greek poet Hesiod traces the lineage of the Olympians and the creation of the cosmos, gods, and humans in The Theogony..
According to Hesiod, all that existed sprang from a vast darkness called chaos. To the Greeks, chaos meant “a yawning void" and its origins are not given in The Theogony. (Mythology, The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling, Littleton, C. Scott., Duncan Baird Publishers, London, UK. pg. 136) From chaos, the five initial elements arose; namely,
- Gaia (Earth)
- Tartarus (the underworld in the depths of the Earth)
- Erebus (the gloom of Tartarus)
- Eros (Love)
- Nyx (Night)
These entities would produce the other elements of the world either through mating or spontaneously.
For example, the formidable Nyx got together with Erebus and gave birth to Day and Aether (the upper atmosphere). She also bore some of the more dreaded aspects of human existence: Doom, Death, Misery, Resentment, Deceit and Strife. Strife in turn gave birth to Murder, Carnage, Battle and Lawlessness. (Gloom and doom must have been the theme at Nyx family gatherings!)
Gaia and Uranus
Gaia, on the other hand, produced her earliest offspring all by herself. Gaia’s children were Uranus (the stars and heavens), Mountains and Pontus (the sea personified). Later Gaia would give birth to many children by different fathers, but her most legendary children were conceived with her husband and son, Uranus. To the Ancient Greeks, incest was only taboo amongst mere mortals and the marriage of Gaia and Uranus was considered sacred in that it joined the earth and heavens.
Rise of The Cyclopes
They would have many children, some monstrous such as the three one-eyed Cyclopes, and the three Hecatonchires (Hundred-handed) whom were part human and had fifty heads and one hundred hands each. These offspring were forced to reside in Tartarus. Some of the couple’s other children were exquisite such as Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. Their most legendary children were the six sons (Oceanus (god of the seas), Hyperion (a sun god), Iapetus, Coeus, Crius, and Cronus) and six daughters (Tethys, Theia, Themis (an earth goddess), Rhea (an earth goddess), Mnemosyne (goddess of memory), and Phoebe) known as The Titans. Fearing he would lose his power to one of his sons, Uranus traps them inside their mother, Gaia.
This Greek Myths study guide continues on page 2 with information on two of the best known of the Twelve Olympians, Zeus and Aphrodite.
The Twelve Olympians
Greek Myths study guide continued.
1. Aphrodite: First up, this lovely goddess has two myths associated with her birth.
As Aphrodite Urania, she is the child of Uranus and the most senior of the Olympians. In this myth, Aphrodite is brought forth from the Ocean after Cronus, at his mother’s request, freed his Titan siblings by castrating his father, Uranus. The severed genitals were thrown to the ocean where Uranus’s semen mixed with the foam to produce the lovely Aphrodite. Since her creation resulted from his castration and not intercourse, Aphrodite Urania represents a pure and sacred love. It was believed she was brought up by The Three Graces on the island of Cyprus, and taken to Olympus when the Olympians crushed Cronus.
As Aphrodite Pandemos (of the people), she is he daughter of Zeus and a sea nymph named Dione. This version paints Aphrodite as the goddess of sex and physical attraction.
2. Zeus: Next, the mighty Zeus is the youngest of Cronus and Rhea’s children. (Yes, they were brother and sister. Again, these mythical figures were not held to the standards of human society.) His birth was significant in that his mother managed to spare him the fate of his five older siblings. Believing he would be dethroned by one of his sons, Cronus swallowed each of his children at birth. A distraught Rhea schemed with Gaia to save the sixth by removing him right after his birth. Gaia brought the infant Zeus to a cave on Crete where he was cared for by a half-goat, half-nymph creature named Amaltheia who fed him goat’s milk and honey. Meanwhile, Rhea wrapped a stone and presented it to Cronus who ingested it. Amaltheia was rewarded by Zeus years later when he placed her in the heavens as the constellation Capricorn.
As a full grown god, Zeus swears to defeat his father and avenge his imprisoned siblings. He has his first wife, the wise Metis, mix a vomit-inducing tonic he can slip into Cronus’s evening cup of mead. Cronus drinks the tainted drink and regurgitates the stone followed by his five adult children. Zeus then frees the Hundred-handed and Cyclopes to help him defeat the Titans in a ten-year war known as the Titanomachy. It was the Cyclopes, in exchange for their liberty, whom made the powerful weapons associated with the Olympian gods. To Hades, they gave the helmet of invisibility; to Poseidon, the three-pronged trident, and to Zeus the gift of thunderbolts.
Eventually, the Olympians were victorious and the Titans were doomed to eternity in Tartarus. Two more conflicts ensued: one with the Giants, and one with Typhon. In both Zeus triumphed and became the supreme god to the Ancient Greeks.
Read about the rest of the Twelve Olympians on page 3 of this Greek Myths study guide.
Greek Myths study guide, page 3.
3. Hera: Queen of the gods and patron of marriage and married women. A daughter of Cronus and Rhea, Zeus’s sister Hera would become his second wife. She was his equal in many ways, but fiercely jealous of his many lovers and often cruel to children of these other women or goddesses, as well as the mistresses themselves.
4. Athene: This virgin goddess of good counsel was the patron of Athens and daughter of Zeus and Metis, a Titan goddess of practical wisdom. When Zeus learned of Metis’s pregnancy, he swallowed her whole because he feared the child would supplant him, but wished to gain the wisdom of his wife. Some time later, Zeus suffered an excruciating headache and ordered Hephaistos to crack open his skull with an axe. An armed and grown Athene emerged. She was to become Zeus’s favorite child, and that's saying something!
5. Apollo: Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, an attractive daughter of two Titans. He was the god of light and the sun. Apollo was also the patron of the arts, music, and healing. Apollo was instrumental in helping his father during the Giantomachy. Sadly, Apollo was notoriously unlucky in love. Perhaps his relative, Aphrodite and Hermes' son Eros (Cupid to the Romans) should have helped him!
6. Dionysus: This god of wine had many cults dedicated to him. Can you guess why?
7. Hermes: This messenger of the gods was the son of Zeus and the goddess Maia, daughter of Atlas who literally supported the world. Hermes was the god of flocks, traders, travelers, and thieves.
8. Ares: The god of war. He had two children with Aphrodite, Anteros-the god of lawful love, and Harmony.
9. Hephaistos (Hephaestus): The ugliest of the Twelve Olympians, this god of metalwork crafted objects for his fellow gods. As punishment for spurning his advances, Zeus forced the beautiful Aphrodite to marry the not-so-beautiful Hephaistos. Unfortunately for Hephaistos, the marriage didn't hinder Aphrodite's love life.
10. Artemis: The virgin goddess of hunting and twin sister of Apollo. She was also associated with the moon. Along with Hera, Artemis protected women in childbirth.
Poseidon: Zeus’s brother and god of the sea. He was a significant god amongst the Twelve Olympians and known for his volatile, quick temper.
12. Demeter: The goddess of agriculture. A well known classical myth involving Demeter explained the cycle of the seasons to the Ancient Greeks. Demeter’s daughter Persephone was taken by Hades as his wife. A distraught Demeter abandoned her normal activities and crops suffered. Eventually, Zeus arranged for Persephone to be returned for six months of the year thus creating spring and summer.
Although not officially an Olympian, Hades should be mentioned. Hades, god of the underworld was a brother to Zeus and Poseidon, Hades helped defeat the Titans but preferred his own domain to Mount Olympus.
While there are many other Greek myths and gods besides the Twelve Olympians and Titans, this Greek Myths study guide will help you understand Greek Mythology. Good luck and please add any of your favorite Greek gods and myths in the comments.
Mythology, The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling, Littleton, C. Scott., Duncan Baird Publishers, London, UK. 2002
The Three Graces,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User Yair-haklai, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Three_Graces-Louvre.jpg
Poseidon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User Hansjorn, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Poseidon_sculpture_Copenhagen_2005.jpg