Summary: Chapter I — The Gods

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 conquer them.

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.