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Greek mythology is one of the most fascinating mythological accounts of the ancient world. The Greek myths were actually efforts of the people to explain the creation of the world, the nature around them, weather conditions and generally any superhuman that was happening in their daily life. At first, Greek mythology stories were transmitted orally and they were usually narrated in the form of songs. Only in the 5th century, BC was the Greek Mythology written down in plays. Note that these myths constituted the main theme of the ancient plays written by famous play writers, like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Quick links: Facts | 12 Gods of Olympus | Other Deities
The most ancient works to portray the mythology was certainly Iliad and Odyssey, dating from the 8th century BC. The poem Theogony by Hesiod followed around 700 BC. As the name of the poem depicts (Theogony means the birth of Gods), it deals with the creation of the human world and the ancient Gods.
The Greek mythology says that the Greek gods were living in Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. Like all gods, they were immortal. The imagination of the people would not picture them as eternally young, but each god had a different age. For example, Zeus and Hera were middle-aged, while Apollo and Aphrodite were forever young. To keep their eternal life, the Olympian Gods would eat ambrosia and drink nectar.
The Olympian Gods were 12 in number. However, in Greek mythology stories, there were also many other smaller gods and deities that lived in the earth. For example, nymphs of the sea lived in the waves and nymphs of the forest lived inside the boles of the trees.
For the ancient Greeks, many natural phenomena or nature itself were also personalized as gods. Aether was the god of the upper air, Hemera was the goddess of daylight, Erebus the god of darkness and Zephyros the god of the west wind. There were also special gods for feelings and situations, such as Themis for justice, Via for violence, Eris for discord, Hebe for youth, Hypnos for sleep, Mania for insanity and many others.
The gods would usually mate with each other or with mortals and have children. For example, Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, and Ares, the god of war, gave birth to Cupid, the god of love. Also, the coupling of Zeus and a mortal woman named Leto gave birth to two important gods, Apollo and Artemis. It was very frequent that the child of a god and a mortal was made god or at least had superficial powers.
Let's take the example of Hercules, the son of Zeus and mortal Alcmena. Although he was not considered a god, he had inherited some extra-human powers. He had great strength and could beat huge giants in battle. Hercules is mostly known in mythology for his twelve labors, such as the slaying of the Nemean Lion and of the 9-headed Lernaean Hydra, the steal of the Esperides Apples and the Capture of Cerberus.
Another hero with superficial powers was Theseus, the son of mortal Aethra and the divine Poseidon. He is famous as a king of Athens and also for his difficult tasks: to kill the Minotaur and to win the legendary Amazons during their siege of Athens.
Gods, for the ancient Greeks, had a very liberal attitude in life. Family unions were not applicable to them, that is why brothers could marry their sisters and have children or a son could kill his parents. How much liberal rules were for the gods, this would not apply for mortals. If a mortal broke up a moral rule, the punishment was severe.
Particularly strong for the mortals was the anti-blasphemy rule, which banned people from talking unrespectfully against a god. If someone did so, the god would get angry and punish him.
In general, the ancient Greeks would consider something bad in their lives as punishment for gods. If they had a disease, they would pray to the gods to forgive his sins. If a flood would occur and destroy their city, they would make a sacrifice to calm down the gods. From this, it can be seen that there was a sense of respect and fear between people and the gods and that people didn't feel free to live their lives, but thought that everything would come or be taken away from them.
Some facts about the Greek mythology (Theogony by Hesiod, Cronus takes over power, Zeus taking power) and the Olympian gods: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Aphrodite and more.
Hesiod depicted the universe as a chaotic place until the emergence of the divine beings Eros (Love), Abyss (Tartarus) and Erebus (Darkness). After them, Gaia (Earth) was born who gave birth to Uranus (the Sky). Uranos fertilized Gaia to give birth to the twelve Titans, six males: Coeus, Crius, Cronus, Hyperion, Lapetus and Oceanus; and six females: Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Rhea, Theia, Themis, and Tethys. They also gave birth to the three Cyclopes Arges (thunderbolt), Steropes (lightning), and Brontes (thunder) and the three Hecatoncheires. Hecatoncheires were massive creatures with 50 heads and 100 arms of great strength.
Cronus, a second generation god, made war with his father for the rule of the universe. He eventually won, having his sister-wife Rhea as his consort and the other Titans as his court. However, Uranus and Gaia prophesized that Cronus would be put aside in the rule of the world by his own children, in the same way, that Cronus put aside his father.
Fearing that this would come true, Cronus swallowed the five children she had obtained with Rhea: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. That time, Rhea was pregnant to another child, Zeus, and fearing that this child would also be swallowed by Cronus, Rhea went to a mountain cave in Crete to give birth. Zeus was hidden there and he was raised by a goat named Amaltheia and some nymphs. Instead of a child, Rhea gave Cronus swallow a stone.
When Zeus grew up, he decided to revenge his father for all the bad things he had done to the family. Using a trick, Rhea made Cronus vomit her five children, who joined their brother Zeus in this family war. On one side, there was the Olympian Gods and the Cyclops and on the other side, there were Cronus, the Titans, and the Giants. Zeus and the Olympian Gods finally won in the war that lasted for ten years.
After the Titanomachy between the gods of the new and older generation for the rule of the world, Gods chose Mount Olympus as their residence, the highest mountain in Greece. Zeus was their leader and Hera was his sister-wife. The twelve Olympian Gods actually consisted of Zeus and his siblings, as well as few children of Zeus who were born later. People gave the gods special domains of the rule and also attributed them human characteristics.
Zeus was the god of the earth and the sky. His symbols were the thunderbolt, the eagle, the bull and the oak. Although he was married to Hera, his elder sister, he would frequently cheat on her with many mortal women, other goddesses, and nymphs. He is usually depicted in statues and paintings as a middle-aged man seating on his throne or throwing a thunderbolt, the symbol of punishment.
Hera was the queen of the Gods. Pictured as a middle-aged still charming woman, Hera was the protector of women and marriage. She was jealous in character and when she knew about the infidelity of Zeus, his mistresses would suffer a lot. The peacock was her symbol. According to the myth, Hera was also the protector of the Amazons.
Poseidon, the god of the sea and the earthquakes, was much adored in ancient Greece. As many cities had strong naval power, Poseidon was the protector of these cities. He usually mated with nymphs of the water and had many children. His symbols were the trident, the dolphin, the fish, and the horse. He was seen as an old man riding his horse-carriage out of the waves.
Hades, another brother of Zeus, was the ruler of the Underworld, the world of the dead. The ancient people depicted him as an old man with white hair and a beard. His kingdom was found under the earth. Using a trick, this old man married a beautiful young girl, Persephone, the beloved daughter of goddess Demeter.
Hestia was the goddess of the hearth and the household. She was the noblest and most lovable goddesses for the ancient Greeks and she symbolized harmony in the family and the city. Every household and public building in ancient Greece had an altar dedicated to Hestia in the center of a room where the fire would burn all day and night. Hestia was never married or had children. Not being able to bear the continuous quarrels between the gods, Hestia left Olympus and went to live somewhere quieter, giving her place in Olympus to Dionysus.
Aphrodite was the goddess of beauty. She was forever beautiful and young. Shallow in nature, Aphrodite has a lot of affairs with mortals. Her son was Cupid, the familiar young boy with wings who played with his arrows and made people fall in love. Aphrodite was no directly connected to Zeus. She was probably a generation older than the other Olympian Gods. The myth says that she was born out of the foam of the sea either near Paphos Cyrpus or near Kythira island.
Demeter was the goddess of nature and fertility. She maintained the circle of life on the earth (the circle of young and old, life and death), alternating the seasons and reviving nature in spring. She is depicted in statues holding a tuft of grain. A very important festival, the Eleusinian Mysteries, was held every year dedicated to Demeter and her daughter Persephone.
Apollo was another famous god, not a brother but a son of Zeus. Apollo and Artemis were twins that Zeus had with a mortal woman, Leto. Apollo was born in Delos, which later became his sacred island. He was the god of music and light, poetry and the arts, medicine, truth, and prophecy. Note that the all oracles in ancient Greece were dedicated to god Apollo and people believed that God was actually speaking to them through the priests. He was pictured as a young, handsome and sensitive man.
Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo, was a fierce female. She enjoyed sports and particularly hunting. Her symbols were the bow and arrows. She used to hide in the forests with her companions. Wild in nature, Artemis had asked her father never to confine her with marriage and she kept her virginity for all her life. Her female companions were also obliged to remain virgins.
Ares, the god of warfare and violence, was the son of Zeus and Hera. He was not a likable god in ancient Greece, which is why there are no many temples of Ares. However, people were afraid of his anger and included him in their offerings.
Athena was also a goddess of war, but more of strategic war, not of violence like Ares. She was also the goddess of wisdom and justice. The daughter of Zeus and a mortal woman, Athena was born out of the head of Zeus when her pregnant mother was killed out of Hera's jealousy. Noble in nature, Athena didn't match with men and would mostly deal with warfare.
Hermes, also the son of Zeus, was the foxiest of all the Olympian Gods. He was the messenger of the Gods, which is why he knew all their secrets. He was also the guide to the Underworld and the protector of thieves, shepherds, orators, road travelers, and merchants. He used to wear winged sandals to fly and give messages quickly.
Apart from these twelve gods, there are many other deities of less importance in Greek mythology, like nymphs, or of later generation, such as Dionysus, the protector of wine, festivals, and theatre. Many of these gods were created by the mind of Greeks and have native characteristics, while other gods, like Dionysus, have been "imported" by eastern civilizations.
One thing to notice is that the ancient Greek gods were divine because of their supernatural powers and eternity, not their character. They were far different from the modern notion of gods. The Olympian Gods were weak in nature and had faults, while they frequently merged with mortals and interfered with their lives. Actually, the ancient Greek gods were copies of human characters and society. Obviously, they were immortals, but to keep their immortality they would eat ambrosia and drink nectar. Interestingly enough, a mortal could also be made immortal by a god, following a certain ritual.