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 their myths.