The Greek religion is one of the most versatile and vast domains of world mythology. It consists of a plethora of gods and goddesses as well as other mythical beings who make frequent appearances in their legends and literature.
Did You Know?
The ancient Greeks considered the Olympians as their main deities and believed that just like the humans, they were a family that would argue, fight, as well as care for each other. Greek mythology is a collection of a series of myths and legends that form an inevitable part of their ancient religious setup.
Much like the other contemporary religious traditions, the religion of ancient Greece was polytheistic in nature. This is evident from the large number of narratives that explicitly detail the Greek religious lores. Even the two Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are based on the Trojan war, refer to numerous Greek deities and try to relate to them in some way or the other. And of course, we have plenty of archaeological evidence including sculptures, reliefs, inscriptions and so on providing us with a clear description and depiction of the Greek divinities.
The Greek Pantheon
The Greek pantheon can be divided into four categories:
– The Olympians were the principal deities of the pantheon.
– The Primordial divinities were the first ones to have ever existed. They are supposed to be the antecedents of all the gods and goddesses.
– The Titans were the first generation of Giants, who seemingly descended from Gaia and Ouranos.
– The Giants were also the offspring of Gaia and Ouranos but were born after Ouranos was castrated and thus bore numerous deformities.
The Olympians are a group of twelve (sometimes fourteen) principal divinities of the Greek pantheon. They are said to have defeated the Titans in the ‘War of Gods’ and thus achieved this supreme position. According to Greek mythology, their abode is on the top of Mount Olympus, hence the name Olympians.
Description: Zeus rules over Mount Olympus and is the king of the Gods. He is the son of Cronus and Rhea, the husband to Hera, and has 15 children, all of whom are Olympians.
Depiction: He is depicted as a tall and a sturdy man with regal attire. He has long hair and a long beard. Generally, he is depicted in a standing pose, but we also have some seated sculptures of Zeus.
Attributes: The thunderbolt is his main attribute which is generally placed in his right hand. Sometimes, he carries a royal scepter in his left hand. The bull and eagle are his sacred animals.
Description: Hades is the God of the dead. He is the lord of the Underworld and the guardian of all wealth that is hidden beneath the surface of the earth. He is the elder brother of Zeus and is married to Persephone.
Depiction: Though he does not have many classical depictions, he has been depicted seated on his throne, along with his three-headed dog, Cerberus by his side.
Attributes: He always holds a Helm of Darkness and the Key of Hades in his hands. His sacred bird is the screech owl.
Description: Often known as Neptune, Poseidon is the lord of the sea. He is the one who creates the horses from sea-foam and is also the creator of earthquakes. He is the brother of Zeus and Hades.
Depiction: He is depicted as a sturdy old man with a long beard, holding a trident in his hand.
Attributes: He usually holds a trident, but the statue of Poseidon at Goteborg, Sweden, depicts him as a youth holding a fish and a conch shell in his hands.
Description: Hera is the Goddess of childbirth and marriage. She is often said to be the Goddess of the feminine and is the wife and sister of Zeus.
Depiction: She is depicted as a calm and an impressive woman, often seated on a throne and wearing a crown on her head.
Attributes: She holds a pomegranate and a lotus-tipped staff in her hands. Animals associated with Hera include the lion and peacock.
Description: Considered to be the deity of farmers, Demeter is the Goddess of fertility, grain, agriculture, harvest, and creativity. She is a sister of Zeus and the calmest of all deities.
Depiction: She is represented, either standing or seated, as a motherly, matured woman, wearing a long attire and a veil.
Attributes: She carries corn and a torch and sometimes, a wand. She is symbolized by the Cornucopia. Animals depicted alongside Demeter include pigs and serpents.
Description: Hestia is the sister of Zeus and is the Goddess of homes, hearth, and cooking. She is the center point of all homes of the Greek civilization.
Depiction: She is depicted in a standing pose as a modest mature woman wearing a veil.
Attributes: Her common attributes include a hearth and a kettle.
Description: Ares is the God of order, courage, violence, and bloodshed, thus highlighting both negative and positive aspects. He is the son of Zeus and Hera and the lover of Aphrodite.
Depiction: He is depicted in a standing position either as a strong and matured person with a dark beard and dressed as a old or young warrior.
Attributes: He holds a spear in his hand and has a helm on his head. Animals sacred to him are snakes, vultures, alligators, boars, and dogs.
Description: This son of Zeus is the God of mischief, travel, trade, language, and animal husbandry. He is the messenger of Gods and has a humorous knack of playing tricks on people.
Depiction: In common depictions, he is either a strong and an athletic youth or an old man with a long beard.
Attributes: He carries a wand and wears a traveler’s cap. His sandals have wings. The animals associated with Hermes are hawk, tortoise, and ram.
Description: A son of Zeus, Dionysus is the God of enjoyment and merriment. He governs the intoxication of wine, parties, festivals, and merry occasions.
Depiction: He is represented as a drunk either as a young or old man. As a young man, he has long hair and is beardless. As an old man, he has a long beard.
Attributes: His most common attributes include a drinking cup, grape-vine, and an ivy. He is depicted alongside animals such as snakes, dolphins, tigers, and sometimes donkeys.
Description: Hephaestus, the husband of Aphrodite and son of Zeus, is the God of blacksmiths and all metal workers as well as stonemasons. He is also the God of technology and is considered to be so skilled that he made the arms and armor of Greek heroes such as Achilles.
Depiction: He is depicted as a crippled old man holding hammer and tongs and sitting on a donkey.
Attributes: Common attributes include blacksmith’s tools and sacred animals include a crane and a dog, other than his donkey.
Description: Apollo is the most learned Greek God. He is the God of music, medicine, health, light, truth, and archery. He is associated with the sun, and is the most handsome deity. He is a son of Zeus and the twin of Artemis.
Depiction: He is depicted as a tall young man with wavy hair and an elaborate hairdo. Most images depict him in a standing position.
Attributes: His attributes are bows, lyres, and laurels. Animals sacred to him are swans, ravens, hawks, foxes, snakes, and crows.
Description: She is the twin of Apollo and is associated with the moon. She is the Goddess of hunting, virginity, wildlife, and dew.
Depiction: She is depicted as a young woman wearing a knee-length attire. She is always equipped with bows and arrows.
Attributes: Apart from bows and arrows, her attributes include spears and animal hide. Many a time, she is accompanied by a deer. Other animals she is associated with include wild boars, bears, and dogs.
Description: The adulterous consort of Hephaestus and the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite is the Goddess of love, lust, and beauty.
Depiction: She is depicted as a beautiful young woman with an elaborate hairdo. She is also portrayed nude in order to indicate the sexual pleasures that she symbolizes.
Attributes: Her sacred bird is the dove. Her common attributes include a scallop shell, a myrtle, a rose and a pomegranate.
Description: She is the Goddess of wisdom and warfare. Athena was born from the head of Zeus with armor on her body, indicating that she was a born warrior. She is the patroness of the city of Athens.
Depiction: She is depicted as a strong, long-haired woman with a crested helm on her head. Usually depicted in a standing pose, a rare portrayal of Athena seated on her throne along with her shield is found on a coin of Attalus I who ruled Pergamon in 200 B.C.
Attributes: She holds a shield and a spear in her hands and is accompanied by an owl.
The Primordial Divinities
The primordial gods or the ‘Protogenoi’ as they are called are the entities which form the very fabric of the universe. They are the group of the ‘first born’ beings and it was from them that the entire universe sprang up. Hence, they are also immortal. There are not many anthropomorphic representations of the primordial entities but they do form a vital part in the list of Greek gods and goddesses.
Aether- is an atmospheric entity.
Ananke- represents importance of things and inevitability.
Chaos- is an entity that symbolizes vacuum, void, or emptiness.
Chronos- is the primordial entity representing time.
Erebus- is the god of darkness and the creatures within.
Gaia or Gaea- is the anthropomorphic form of mother Earth.
Hemera- is the goddess of light.
Nyx- is night personified.
Ouranos- is the lord of heavens, the Ourea are the mountain spirits.
Phanes- represents cosmos and reproduction.
Pontus- is the father of marine life and the Nesoi are the guardian goddesses of the islands.
Tartarus- refers to the underworld. It is the darkest and stratigraphically the lowest part of the universe. It also sometimes represents hell.
The Titans or the ‘older gods’ are described to be a powerful race of gods who were the descendants (often considered to be the children) of Gaia and Ouranos. They were later on defeated by the Olympians in the famous ‘War of Gods’. Each Titan symbolized certain entities and values.
Atlas- was the titan who was made to carry the universe on his shoulders by Zeus.
Aura- is the titan of breeze.
Cronus, was the king of the titans depicted with a scythe in his hand which he used in order to castrate his father Uranus.
Eos- represents the daybreak.
Helios- represents the rising and setting of the sun.
Mnemosyne- represents remembrance and recollection.
Oceanus- is the god of the rivers/fresh-water.
Perses- represents both, peace as well as pandemonium.
Phoebe- is the titan of astrology and prophecies.
Prometheus- is the one who created the human race.
Selene- represents the moon.
Styx- is hatred and evil personified. It also represents the river Styx that flows in the underworld.
Themis- is the titan of stability, law, and order of the universe.
The Giants were born when the blood of Ouranos that flowed after he was castrated fecundated Gaia. They were huge beings born with a lot of deformities. They are often depicted as having numerous hands and eyes, serpent tails, wings, etc. However, all of them were born wearing the gear of a warrior and had spears in their hands. They were essentially the demi-gods.
Alkyoneus- was considered to be immortal in his own territory, but was later on killed by Heracles.
Antaeus- was also defeated and killed by Heracles. He used to fight and murder all those who dared enter his territory.
Geryon- was a monstrous giant with three bodies, six legs, two pairs of wings and a tail of a serpent.
Orion- was a very well-known giant and a handsome hunter who later on became a constellation of stars and was placed in the sky by Zeus.
Polyphemus- is a giant who appears in Homer’s Odyssey. He captures the hero Odysseus and his troops only for a short while before being blinded by the hero of the epic.
Porphyrion- was the ruler of the giants. Classical accounts state that he attempted to rape Hera and so was slain jointly by Zeus and Heracles.
Talos- was a giant with a pair of wings who was gifted to Europa by her lover, Zeus, as her bodyguard.
Tityos- was slain by the siblings Artemis and Apollo after he attempted to rape their mother.
Typhon- was a winged giant with a snake’s tail who could command the storms. He could not be defeated as he was immortal and so he was captured alive and imprisoned in the dungeons of Tartarus.
Apart from these four broad categories which are the part of the mainstream mythology, we also have several folk deities who have their own cults and are worshiped by various sects of people, especially in the rural areas. So, the Greek folk pantheon has a plethora of earthly gods, sea spirits, sky deities, deities of health and fertility, and various divinities worshiped by the farmers. Interestingly, there were also a number of mortals who were elevated to godly status by the gods themselves due to their success and heroic exploits. So, the Greek pantheon has various deities assigned with the tasks of overcoming all sorts of troubles and evils that the humans have to face in their day-to-day to lives.