name: Jupiter or Jove. The sky-god Zeus rules Mount Olympus. His
weapon is the thunderbolt, and his bird is the eagle. The central
figure of the myths, Zeus epitomizes their complexity. At times
he is divine and represents a pure, eternal sense of justice; at
other times, he is capricious and cruel.
in-depth analysis of Zeus.
name: Juno. Zeus’s wife and sister, Hera is a very powerful goddess
known mostly for her jealousy. She is often vicious and spiteful,
and it is usually Zeus’s infidelity that incites her. Many unfortunate
mortals endure hardships by provoking Hera’s wrath.
name: Neptune. The god of the sea, Poseidon is Zeus’s brother and
second only to him in power. Poseidon holds a decade-long grudge
against Odysseus. The often cruel and unpredictable violence of
the seas is assumed to be a result of his anger.
name: Pluto. The brother of Zeus and Poseidon, Hades rules the underworld,
the realm of the dead, with his wife, Persephone.
name: Minerva. Usually just called Athena, this goddess emerges
from Zeus’s head fully-grown and armed. Associated with war, cleverness,
and wit, it is no surprise that she favors Odysseus. Athena is the goddess
of Wisdom, Reason, and Purity and is chaste, like Artemis and Hestia.
just called Apollo. A son of Zeus and Leto and Artemis’s twin, he
is the god of Light and Truth, the master of Poetry and Music, and
the god of Archery. His Oracle at Delphi is revered for her powers
of prophecy and truth.
name: Diana. Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis is the beautiful huntress
goddess and, like Athena, is somewhat masculine. Artemis is normally
good and just, but demands a human sacrifice during the
name: Venus. Aphrodite is the sweet and delicate goddess of Love,
Beauty, and Romance. Even so, she often shows formidable power,
as in the story of Cupid and Psyche, and is herself a principal
cause of the Trojan War. In a strange twist, lovely Aphrodite is married
to the ugly and crippled Hephaestus.
name: Mercury. Hermes is the son of Zeus and the Titan Atlas’s daughter
Maia. The messenger of the gods, he is fast and cunning. Hermes
is a master thief, the god of Commerce and the Market, and the guide who
leads the dead from Earth to Hades.
name: Mars. A vicious god, Ares is hated by both his father, Zeus,
and mother, Hera. The god of War, he is always bloody and ruthless,
yet we see in his vain bullying that he is also, paradoxically,
name: Vulcan or Mulciber. Hephaestus is either the son of Zeus and
Hera, or simply of Hera alone, who gives birth to him in retaliation
for Zeus’s solo fathering of Athena. The only ugly Olympian, he
is also partially crippled. Hephaestus is the armorer and smith
of the gods, and he forges spectacular magical objects. He is kind,
generous, and good-natured.
Other Gods, Deities &
known as Gaea or Mother Earth. She is the first being to emerge
in the universe, born somehow out of the forces of Love, Light,
and Day. She gives birth to Heaven, who then becomes her husband.
This story is vastly different from the Christian creation myth,
in which a deity exists first and then fashions the Earth.
known as Ouranos or Father Heaven. Born out of Earth, he becomes
Earth’s husband and proceeds to father all the original creatures
of the earth, including the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Furies.
The original gods, children of Heaven and Earth, and parents of
the six original Olympians. Defeated by Zeus and his siblings in
a war for control of the universe, most of the Titans are imprisoned
in the bowels of the earth. Prometheus, who sides with Zeus, and
his two brothers, Epimetheus and Atlas, are not imprisoned. Atlas
is forced to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders forever.
name: Saturn. Cronus becomes the ruler of the Titans by overthrowing
his father Ouranos. He swallows each of his children as his wife
Rhea gives birth to them. Rhea is able to save one, Zeus, who forces
Cronus to vomit up his siblings, with whom he defeats the Titans
for control of the universe.
of the most enduring figures in Greek myth, Prometheus is the only
Titan to side with Zeus against Cronus. He repeatedly defies the
gods by helping humans, most notably by bringing them fire from Olympus.
Though Zeus devises a cruel torture for him, chaining him to a rock
where every day an eagle comes to pick at his innards, Prometheus
or Bacchus, god of wine. He embodies both the good and evil effects
of alcohol. At times he is a jovial partier and patron of music
and art, but at other times he is the god of madness and frenzy.
name: Ceres. Though a sister of Zeus, Demeter lives on earth. Demeter
is the goddess of corn and harvest. She is kinder than Dionysus
but also sadder, mostly because Hades has taken her daughter, Persephone,
as his reluctant bride. Demeter thus lies in mourning for four months
of the year, leaving the
name: Proserpine. The beautiful daughter of Demeter whom Hades kidnaps
to be his wife. She is usually passive, agreeing to whatever is
asked of her. Once she even places some of her beauty in a box.
name: Cupid. The son of Aphrodite. Eros uses his bow to fire magic
arrows that cause people to fall in love. He is a beautiful young
man, though he is typically depicted as a winged cherub. Eros, who
is often blindfolded, performs works of romantic mischief whenever
known as the Erinyes, the Furies are three horrible sisters—Tisiphone,
Megaera, and Alecto—who torment evildoers and punish them for their
mysterious sisters who affect the paths of all in the universe.
Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis assigns each person’s
thread, and Atropos snips the thread of life at its end. Since fate
is the only force to rule above both gods and men, the fates arguably
have more power than anyone else in the Greek universe.
Famous Heroes & Heroines
name: Ulysses. Odysseus is the protagonist of Homer's Odyssey.
is the king of Ithaca and a great warrior in the Trojan War but
is best known for his decade-long trip home from the war. Odysseus
survives the challenges he encounters by using his wits. A fine talker
and brilliant strategist, he is perhaps the most modern and human
of the classical heroes.
in-depth analysis of Odysseus.
famous Greek hero, a son of Zeus who rises to Olympus at his death.
Hercules is renowned for his incredible strength and bravery, but
he lacks intelligence and self-control. Most of his adventures begin
with a horrible mistake that he makes and then attempts to fix.
His most famous feats, the Twelve Labors of Hercules, are the punishment
he receives for murdering his family in a fit of madness.
son of King Aegeus of Athens and a quintessential Athenian hero.
Theseus is the model citizen: a kind leader, good to his friends
and countrymen. Theseus does have his shortcomings, however: he
abandons Ariadne, and later doubts his own son, which leads to his
of the least impressive of the Greek heroes. Jason’s most notable
feat is his assembly of a cast of heroes to travel on a long fraudulent
quest—the recovery of the Golden Fleece. When Jason arrives in Colchis
to retrieve the Fleece, the daughter of the king, Medea, falls in
love with him. Jason abandons her and marries a princess later for
political gain. In revenge, Medea kills Jason’s new wife and her
own children, whom Medea had by Jason. Though he lives on, he bears
the burden of this tragedy, in some ways a fate worse
son by the beautiful princess Danaë. Danaë’s father, forewarned
that Perseus will someday kill him, locks the infant and his mother
in a trunk and casts it into the sea. Perseus survives, comes of
age, and sets out to kill the monster Medusa and bring back her
head. As prophesied, he kills his grandfather, though unwittingly,
by hitting him with a stray discus.
son of the king of Thebes. Oedipus frees Thebes from the menace
of the Sphinx and marries the widowed queen, Jocasta, unaware that
she is his mother. Learning the truth later, he faces fate and blinds
himself as penance.
in-depth analysis of Oedipus.
hero of the Oresteia
, Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays.
father is the great king Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks in the
Trojan War, and his sister is the sacrificed Iphigenia. When his
mother, Clytemnestra, kills Agamemnon to avenge Iphigenia’s death,
Orestes kills her. As a result, the horrible Furies plague him until
he atones for his crime.
Characters of the Trojan War
son of King Priam of Troy, Paris unwittingly starts the Trojan War
by judging Aphrodite the fairest of all the goddesses. Aphrodite
arranges for Paris to marry the beautiful Helen, but Helen is already
married. Helen’s kidnapping leads the Greeks to unite against Troy
and sparks the decade-long Trojan War.
Paris is only
a minor figure in the Trojan War battles and is usually portrayed
as weak and unheroic.
most beautiful woman who has ever lived, Helen is promised to Paris
after his judgment of Aphrodite. Her kidnapping causes the Trojan
War. Helen is peculiarly silent in the Iliad,
with Paris for ten years before returning home with Menelaus, her
original husband. Helen is treated as more of an object than a person.
son of King Priam, Hector is the bravest and most famous of the
Trojan warriors. Unlike his brother Paris, he faces challenges with
great strength and courage. His death ends the Iliad.
only great Trojan warrior who survives the war, Aeneas is protected
by Aphrodite, his mother. He flees Troy, carrying his father on
his back and leading his child by the hand. His values are more
Roman than Greek, as he is first and foremost a warrior.
the great kings who leads the Greeks in the Trojan War and whose
story continues in the Oresteia.
toward Achilles almost costs the Greeks the war, and his cold-hearted
sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia ultimately costs him his life.
most famous Greek in the Trojan War, whose strength and bravery
are unrivaled. Achilles is selfless, courageous, and devoted to
the gods—he is the finest Greek warrior. His mother, the sea-nymph
Thetis, has made him invulnerable everywhere except his heel, and that
is where he is struck and killed.
first and most famously foolish woman of Greek myth. Married to
Epimetheus, Prometheus’s simple-minded brother, she has been entrusted
with a box that the gods have told her never to open. Pandora peeks inside
the box, unleashing evil into the world. She manages to close the
box just in time to save Hope, humankind’s only solace.
son of one of the Muses, Orpheus is the greatest mortal musician
who has ever lived. His most famous exploit is his journey to Hades
to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice. He loses her forever by ignoring
Hades’ orders and turning to make sure she is behind him. Orpheus
also travels on the Argo
and protects Jason and the others from
the Sirens. He is killed by a pack of roving Maenads, and his head
floats to Lesbos, where it becomes a magical icon.
Oracle at Delphi
A priestess of Apollo and the most famous prophet
in all of Greece. Humans typically consult the Oracle to ascertain
the will of the gods or a person’s fate. She most often appears
at the beginning of a story, as a character asks his fate, finds
it unpleasant, and then tries to change it—only to become a victim
of fate precisely because of his efforts to change it.
daughter of King Minos of Crete. Ariadne falls in love with the
hero Theseus and uses a golden thread to help him defeat the Labyrinth
of the dreaded Minotaur.
with Circe, Medea is one of two famous sorceresses in Greek myth.
Medea selflessly helps Jason defeat her own father and obtain the
Golden Fleece. After Jason turns on her, she kills his new wife
and then her own children.
in-depth analysis of Medea.
daughter whom Agamemnon offers at Aulis as the human sacrifice that
Artemis demands. In one version of the myth, Artemis saves Iphigenia
and makes her a priestess who conducts human sacrifices. In this version,
Iphigenia is rescued by her brother, Orestes.
of the three Gorgons. Medusa is a horrible woman-beast with snakes
for hair. Her gaze turns men to stone. She is killed by Perseus.
half-man, half-bull monster that terrorizes Minos’s Labyrinth. It
is killed by Theseus.
beast with the head of a woman and the body of a winged lion. The
Sphinx blocks entry to the city of Thebes, refusing to budge until
someone answers her riddle and eating anyone who fails. When Oedipus solves
the riddle, the Sphinx promptly kills herself.
one-eyed giants, of whom Polyphemus is the most famous. In some
myths they are the children of Heaven and Earth; in others they
are the sons of Poseidon. They forge the thunderbolts of Zeus, who favors
terrible Cyclops who imprisons Odysseus and his men and eats them
alive. They escape only after blinding him. In later myths, he becomes
a pitiful character who recovers his sight but chases after the cruel
nymph Galatea who mocks him.
vile three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades.
counterpart of Zeus in Norse mythology. Odin is a quiet, brooding
figure. He trades one of his eyes and suffers for nine nights to
attain the insights of the Well of Wisdom, which he passes on to
men along with the mystical powers of the runes and poetry. Odin
rewards fallen warriors with a place in Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain.
He bears the burden of delaying Ragnarok, the day of doom for both
the gods and mortals, as long as possible.
fearful goddess who presides over the realm of the dead, which is
called Hel (not synonymous with our word “hell,” however). The fact
that a female occupies this position is a significant and striking
difference from Greek and Roman myth.
“Choosers of the Slain,” these splendid female warriors select and
carry dead warriors to Valhalla.
wronged by her husband, conceives a son with her brother Sigmund.
She bides her time until the son is old enough to help Sigmund kill
her husband. Signy then kills herself by walking into the fire that
also consumes her husband and her other children.
son, a fierce warrior who braves a ring of fire for the love of
the beautiful woman-warrior Brynhild. Sigmund is always honest,
brave, fierce, and giving, thus embodying the ideal Norse warrior.
He is the prototype for Siegfried, popularized in Wagner’s
Valkyrie who angers Odin and is punished with imprisonment in a
ring of fire. She is a dazzling character, with strength both of
soul and body. She is the prototype for Wagner's Brunnhilde, the
most famous Valkyrie in opera.