Mythology was an integral part of the lives of all ancient peoples. The myths of Ancient Greece are the most familiar to us, for they are deeply entrenched in the consciousness of Western civilization. The myths were accounts of the lives of the deities whom the Greeks worshipped. The Greeks had many deities including 12 principal ones who lived on Mt. Olympus. The myths are all things to all people - a rollicking good yarn, expressions of deep psychological insights, words of spine-tingling poetic beauty and food for the imagination.
They serve a timeless universal need and have inspired great literature, art and music providing archetypes through which we can learn much about the deeper motives of human behavior. No one has the definitive answer as to why or how the myths came into being…not many are allegorical accounts of historical facts.
The Olympian family was a desperate lot despite being related. The next time you have a bowl of corn flakes give thanks to Demeter the goddess of vegetation. The English word cereal for products of corn or edible grain derives from the goddess' Roman name - Ceres. In Greek the word for such products is demetriaka. Demeter was worshipped as the goddess of earth and fertility.
Zeus was the king and leader of the 12. His symbol was the thunder and in many of his statues he appears holding one. Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes, was most at home in the depths of the Aegean where he lived in a sumptuous golden palace. When he became angry (which was often) he would use his trident to create massive waves and floods. Ever intent upon expanding his domain, he challenged Dionysos for Naxos, Hera for Argos and Athena for Athens.
Ares, god of war, was a nasty piece of work, fiery tempered, bloodthirsty, brutal and violent. In contrast Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, symbol of security, happiness and hospitality was as pure as driven snow. She spurned disputes and wars and swore to be a virgin forever.
Hera was not a principal deity. Her job was a subservient one - she was Zeus' cupbearer. Athena, the powerful goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens, is said to have been born (complete with helmet, armor and spear) from Zeus' head, with Hephaestus acting as midwife. Unlike Ares, she derived no pleasure from fighting, but preferred settling disputes peacefully using her wisdom. However, if need be she went valiantly into battle. Hephaestus was worshipped for his matchless skills as a craftsman. When Zeus decided to punish men he asked Hephaestus to make a woman. So Hephaestus made Pandora from clay and water and as everyone knows, she had a box, from which sprang all the evils afflicting humankind.
Apart from one misdemeanor, Hephaestus' character seems to have been exemplary. During the Trojan War Athena asked the god to make her a new suit of armor. Poseidon, on hearing this, teased Hephaestus by saying that when Athena came to his forge she would expect him to make mad passionate love to her. As Athena wrested herself from the eager Hephaestus, he ejaculated against her thigh. She removed his seed with wool and threw it away and Gaea who happened to pass by was inadvertently fertilized. When Gaea's unwanted offspring was born, Athena brought him up, and he eventually became King Erichthonius of Athens.
Apollo, god of the sun and Artemis, goddess of the moon were the twins of Leto and Zeus. Many qualities were attributed to Apollo, for the Ancient Greeks believed that the sun not only gave physical light, but that its light was symbolic of mental illumination. Apollo was also worshipped as the god of music and song which the ancients believed were only heard where there was light and security. Artemis was worshipped as the goddess of childbirth and protector of children…yet, paradoxically, she asked Zeus if he would grant her eternal virginity. She was also the protector of suckling animals, but loved to hunt stags!
Hermes was born of Maia, daughter of Atlas and one of Zeus' paramours. He had an upwardly mobile career. His first job was as protector of the animal kingdom. As the chief source of wealth was cattle, he therefore became the god of wealth. However, as civilization advanced, trade replaced cattle as the main source of wealth, so Hermes became god of trade. However, a prerequisite for good trade was good commerce, so he became the god of commerce. To progress in commerce a merchant needed to be shrewd, so this attribute was assigned to Hermes. Later it was realized that to excel in commerce one needed to use the art of persuasion, so Hermes was promoted to god of oratory.
Last but not least of the 12 principal deities was the beautiful Aphrodite, goddess of love who rose naked out of the sea. Her tour de force was her magic girdle which made everyone falls in love with its wearer. The girdle meant she was constantly pursued by both gods and goddesses because they wanted to borrow the girdle. Zeus became so fed up with her promiscuity that he married her off to Hephaestus, the ugliest of the gods.
Hades never made it to Mt. Olympus, but his job was nevertheless an important one. Hades' dominion was the vast and mysterious underworld (Tartarus). He was the benevolent god who gave fertility to vegetation and who yielded precious stones and metals. But he was also the feared guardian of a dark realm from which no-one, having once journeyed, ever returned.
A number of the countless lesser gods were powerful but never made it to Zeus' inner circle. Pan, the son of Hermes was born with horns, beard and tail and goat legs. His ugliness so amused the other gods that eventually he escaped to Arcadia where he danced, played his shepherd's pipe and watched over the pastures, shepherds and herds.
Dionysos, son of Hera and Zeus, was even more hideous at birth - horned and crowned with serpents. His parents boiled him in a cauldron, but he was rescued by Rhea and banished to Mt. Nysa in Libya where he invented wine. He eventually returned to Greece where he organized drunken revelries and married Ariadne, daughter of King Minos.
In addition to the gods the Ancient Greeks revered many beings that had probably once been mortal, such as King Minos, Theseus and Erichthonious. Intermediaries between gods and humans, such as the satyrs, also appear in the myths. The satyrs lived in woods and had goat horns and tails…they worshipped the god Dionysos, so, appropriately, they spent much of their time drinking and dancing. Nymphs lived in secluded valleys and grottoes and occupied themselves with spinning, weaving, bathing, singing and dancing.
Pan found them irresistible. The Muses, of which there were nine, were nymphs of the mountain springs…they were believed to inspire poets, artists and musicians. Finally, mention should be made of the three crones Tisiphone, Aledo and Megara - sometimes called the Furies - whose job it was to deal with grievances from mortals and punish wrongdoers. They had dogs' heads, snakes' hair, bloodshot eyes, coal black bodies and bats' wings and carried brass-studded scourges. It was considered unlucky to call them by name - they had to be called Eumenides - the kindly ones!
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