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Unlike many other creation stories, in the Greek versions
the gods are created by the universe instead of
the other way around. In the beginning, two entities exist, Heaven
and Earth. Their children are the Titans, whose children, in turn,
are the Olympians, the main Greek gods. The Titans—who include such
notables as Ocean, Mnemosyne (Memory), and Prometheus, mankind’s
benefactor—rule the universe until Zeus and their other children
The term “Olympians” comes from Mount Olympus, the gods’ mystical
home, which is conceived as a high mountaintop but is really a magical
place that exists on a heavenly plane—not the heavens (which Zeus
alone rules), earth, sea, nor underworld. Shared by all the gods,
Olympus is perfect. Rain never falls there, and the gods while away
their time eating, drinking, and listening to music. There are twelve
proper Olympians: Zeus; his two brothers, Poseidon and Hades; his
two sisters, Hestia and Hera (who is also his wife); his children,
Ares, Athena, Apollo, Hermes, and Artemis; and two gods sometimes
considered his offspring, Hephaestus and Aphrodite.
There are also lesser gods in Olympus, like Eros, the
Graces, and the Muses. Several, like Hebe, goddess of Youth, are
rarely mentioned in myths. There are also a few abstract forces
personified, if not completely, who live on Olympus: Themis, Divine
Justice; Dike, Human Justice; Nemesis, Righteous Anger; and Aidos,
the sense of respect and shame that keeps humans from sinning.
Besides the Olympians, supernaturals also abound in the
sea and underworld. Poseidon rules the sea, which is populated by
the Nereids, sea nymphs who are distinct from the Naiads, the
freshwater nymphs; Triton, the trumpeter of the sea; the shape-shifting
Proteus, Poseidon’s son or attendant; Pontus, a god of the deep
sea; and Nereus, a god of the Mediterranean. There is a different
god for every river, and the Titan Ocean—lord of the mysterious
river that encircles the earth—lives there along with several other
minor water gods.
Hades and his queen, Persephone, are the only rulers
of the underworld—a place often simply referred to as Hades, after
its king. A mysterious locale somewhere under the earth, it is the
realm of the dead. Many myths concern a mortal’s journey to the
underworld and his encounters with its vicious guardian, the three-headed
dog Cerberus. Divided into two sections, Tartarus and Erebus, Hades
has five famous rivers: Acheron, the river of woe; Cocytus, the
river of lamentation; Phlegethon, the river of fire; Styx, the river
of the gods’ unbreakable oath; and Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.
A boatman named Charon ferries the dead from Erebus across the junction
of the Acheron and the Cocytus to the gates of Tartarus, where they
are judged by three former kings, Rhadamanthus, Minos, and Aeacus.
The wicked are sentenced to eternal torment, while the good are
admitted to the Elysian Fields, a place of perfect bliss. Other
dwellers of Hades include the Furies and the personified forces
of Sleep and Death.
Earth has its share of lesser gods as well. Pan and Silenus
are mischievous and jovial earth gods. Pan rules over the Satyrs,
a race of goat-men, and dances with the Dryads, the forest nymphs,
and the Oreads, the mountain nymphs. Also on earth are the twins
Castor and Pollux, sometimes spoken of as gods. The twins represent
the ideal of brotherly devotion because, when an angry cattle-herder named
Idas killed Castor, Pollux begged to die out of love for his brother.
Rewarding this devotion, Zeus allows them to spend half the year
in Hades and the other half on earth. Earth is also home to the
wind gods: Aeolus, King of the Winds; Boreas, the North Wind; Zephyr,
the West; Notus, the South; and Eurus, the East. The earth is also
home to many other nondivine supernatural beings, such as the Centaurs—half-men,
half-horses, one of whom is Chiron, an important tutor to many eventual
heroes. Two trios of sisters are also earth-bound: the fearsome
Gorgons, of which Medusa is one, and the Graiae, three ancients
who share one eye. Finally, the Fates, who are assigned neither
a place in heaven nor earth, spin, measure, and cut the threads
of men’s lives. The Fates are not subject to the decrees of any
of the gods, not even Zeus himself.
With few meaningful changes, the Romans adopted much
of Greek mythology, as their existing deities—the Numina, the Lares, and
the Penates—were largely abstract, vague personifications of the
processes of daily life. The most significant Numina were Janus and
Saturn, who later represented the Greek Cronus, Zeus’s father.
Aside from the twelve Olympians, there are two equally
important gods who reside on earth: Demeter and Dionysus (Bacchus).
These two are the best friends of humanity: Demeter, goddess of
the harvest and nature, provides fruitful plenty and protects the
threshing-floor, while Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, rules
the grapevine and so the production of wine. Demeter is celebrated
in a festival every fifth September; her prime temple is at Eleusis,
and her worship is a central and mysterious aspect of ancient life.
Bacchus also comes to be worshipped at Eleusis—a natural pairing
of the two gods who bring the pleasant gifts of the earth and, significantly,
are both overpowered by seasonal change. Just as the frost kills
the fields and the vines, these two gods—unlike the Olympians—live
in a world filled with regular suffering.
Hades, wanting a queen, kidnaps Demeter’s only child,
Persephone. Demeter wanders the earth in aimless despair, eventually resting
in Eleusis in human disguise. One day, the kind family that has
been harboring her accidentally discovers her divine nature and offends
her. They build the great temple at Eleusis to appease her anger.
Still, Demeter locks herself in the temple out of sadness, and at
that time nothing grows on the earth. Finally, Zeus sends Hermes down
to Hades to try to set everything right. Hades agrees to let Persephone
return to her mother but slyly makes her eat a magic pomegranate
seed that necessitates her return. Eventually a compromise is arranged:
Persephone will stay with Hades for one-third of the year, Demeter
for the other two-thirds. When Persephone returns to the underworld
at the start of each winter, Demeter’s renewed sorrow makes the
Earth barren. Persephone returns each spring, causing Demeter’s
joy and thus the springtime’s blossoming.
Dionysus is the only main god who has one human parent:
Zeus is his father, but his mother is a mortal named Semele. Enraged
at Zeus’s affair, Hera cunningly fixed Semele’s death while she
was pregnant. Zeus snatched the baby from his mother’s burning body and
implanted it in his own side until birth, when Hermes carried the
infant god off to be raised in secrecy by the nymphs of Nysa, a magic
valley. Dionysus is generally a good god, spreading the secrets of
wine production everywhere he goes. He even loves the mortal Ariadne
after Theseus cruelly abandons her and dares defy Hades and rescue
his mother from death. Somehow succeeding, Dionysus leads Semele
up to live as an immortal in Olympus. He has another side, however;
as one might expect from the lord of wine, he is a god of madness
and insanity. The wild, bloody Maenads are his followers. When
Pentheus, king of Thebes, defies him, Dionysus drives Pentheus’s
mother and sisters so insane that they rip Pentheus apart with their
bare hands. Dionysus is the final component of the Greek pantheon,
and as time goes on, his influence grows. He eventually becomes
the god of holy inspiration, in whose honor the most famous theater
and poetry festival is held. Taking place every spring, it commemorates
his rebirth—according to one story, he is torn to pieces each year
either by the Titans or by Hera’s orders, depending on the version
of the myth. Like Demeter’s, his story is one of tragedy and death,
though he always rises from the dead.
Hamilton introduces the Greek gods as divine beings whose
actions offer some preliminary explanations for the mysteries of
the world and also shows us just how much the gods resemble humans.
They sometimes make mistakes, fight with one another, and in some
cases even suffer. This human aspect of the gods cements the link
between the divine and the visible world and lends credibility to
the explanations the myths set forth, implying that the uncertainty
and mystery of nature that surrounds us could be explained by the
erratic actions of the gods. So, if it was puzzling to the Greeks
that wine could cause drunken happiness and inspiration but also
lead to wild, dangerous madness, its duality is reconciled by the
stories that depict the dual nature of Dionysus himself. That deeply
perplexing condition of the seasons—fields mysteriously lie barren
for a third of the year and then break out into beautiful, flowery
spring—is accounted for by Demeter’s annual mourning for the loss
of her daughter. Dionysus’s duplicity and Demeter’s depression are
two very human qualities and allow us to explain otherworldly phenomena
with reference to the same characteristics we see in other people
in the visible world.
As these myths play such a vital role in explaining the
innumerable twists and peculiarities of the world, it is no surprise
that there is such an enormous cast of characters. The realm of
waterways and navigation alone warrants a whole cast of characters
in itself. Seafaring and sea trade were critically important to
Greek civilization, so the Greeks felt a need to explain the complexities
of bodies of water—hence the wide variety of water-oriented gods.
The tumult of the seas and rivers can be explained by the warring
wishes of their respective gods, just as a stormy sea could signify
the anger of Poseidon and a calm sea the beneficence of a sea-nymph.
Since much of what occurs in the waters is inexplicable, the Greeks
could not ascribe it all to one all-powerful water god, therefore
a whole host of divinities were used to explain the wide variety
of watery mysteries. The large number of gods and beings thus indicates
the complexity the Greeks found in the world around them, which
is reflected in the intricate, specific explanations provided by
The complexity of the myths and the large cast of characters
may also be due to the diversity of sources and traditions from
which Hamilton compiles her material. She borrows from playwrights
and poets whose works span two vastly different cultures and more
than a millennium of history. Versions of the same myths differ
across these sources, as Greek and Roman cultures had no singular
work—like the Bible in Judeo-Christian tradition—to house a definitive version
of their stories. Each author was thus an independent inventor,
altering the myths to suit his own tastes and purposes. Hamilton herself
is a similar kind of reteller, a redefiner and reinterpreter more than
a simple collector of stories. She notes multiple versions of her stories,
but usually prefers one over others. In any case, her retelling alerts
us to the incredible depth of the world of Greek myth.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!