Greek Gods and Goddesses
Greek Mythology Gods
I taught the Greek gods and Greek goddesses for years as part of my Greek mythology unit in world literature. Most of my students really enjoyed reading about all the adventures and escapades of the immortals. Studying Greek mythology is important for several reasons, one of which is because much of Western literature is based on it. For example, the story of Romeo and Juliet is really a retelling of an ancient Greek myth, Pyramus and Thisbe. Some words we still use today came from Greek mythology, including Chaos, a place with no form or order, and Nike, the goddess of victory. In addition, there are countless allusions to Greek mythology that can be found in modern literature.
The Creation Story
According to Greek mythology, there once was no Earth and no light – just a void called Chaos. Then Erebus and Night appeared, and afterwards, Love appeared. After that, Love produced Light, and then Gaea, an entity that was symbolic with the earth, emerged. Gaea bore the sky god, Uranus. Uranus later became Gaea’s husband, and together they had the Hecatoncheires (huge monsters), the Cyclopes, and the twelve Titans. Uranus hated his monstrous children, and Gaea grew to hate her spouse. She tried to get their children to rise up against him, but only one, Cronus, was brave enough to do so. Cronus, one of the Titans, became ruler in his father’s place and married Rhea, his sister.
A prophecy warned Cronus that one of his sons would overthrow him, so as soon as Rhea had a child, Cronus would swallow it. After Cronus had destroyed five of his children, Rhea had had enough. When she gave birth to child number six, Zeus, she hid the baby and gave her husband a stone to swallow, instead. Zeus was reared by nymphs, away from Cronus.
Once Zeus had grown up, Rhea convinced Cronus to allow Zeus to return to Mount Olympus. Zeus slipped his father a drugged drink, which forced Cronus to throw up Zeus’s siblings that had been swallowed, and all of them were alive and unharmed.
Now an epic battle for supreme ruler ensued, with Zeus and his siblings against Cronus and most of the Titans. Zeus had on his side the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires, along with three of the Titans – Oceanus, Epimetheus,and Prometheus.
Zeus and his group were successful, and he became ruler. The Titans who had fought against him were punished. Atlas was forced to support the earth on his back, and the other Titans were banished to the Underworld.
The Titans that Helped Zeus
Prometheus – The wisest of all the Titans. His name means “foresight.” After man was created, Zeus showed disdain for humanity. When it was to be decided which part of sacrificial animals the gods would get, and which parts humans could keep, Prometheus tricked Zeus. He placed all the good cuts of meat under a pile of bones and skin, and he placed the intestines and organs under a layer of glistening white fat. Zeus, of course, chose the pile with the fat covering, thinking that the more desirable meat would be under it. He was so angry that he took fire away from man.
Zeus allowed Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother, to pass out gifts to the animals and to man. Epimetheus gave the lion powerful jaws, the turtle a protective shell, the horse hard hooves, the birds flight, the bear sharp claws, and so on. When it was man’s turn to receive his gift, there was nothing left – Epimetheus had given them all away without saving anything for mankind. Prometheus took pity on humans. He stole fire back from Zeus and returned it to man. Zeus punished man’s champion by having him chained to a rocky peak, where an eagle would come every day and peck out his liver. The liver regenerated overnight, just to be eaten again the next day. Years later, Prometheus is rescued.
Epimetheus – Brother to Prometheus, his name means “hindsight.” As you can tell by the above story, Epimetheus was none too bright. In addition to acting foolishly about giving gifts to the animals, he also opened Pandora’s box of miseries and evil, unleashing them on the world.
Oceanus – A Titan in the form of a river that encircles the earth. His wife and sister is Tethys, and together they produced all the earth’s lakes, rivers, streams, and fountains, along with numerous water nymphs.
The Twelve Olympians
For the most part, the Olympian gods spend most of their time on Mt. Olympus. The exceptions are Poseidon and Hades. When Zeus overthrew Cronus, he and his two brothers divided their reign. Zeus was to be in charge of the skies, Poseidon was to rule the seas, and Hades’ lot was to rule over the dark Underworld.
Zeus – Chief god. Zeus is the god of thunder and lightning, and is often depicted holding a lightning bolt. Zeus is also the god of hospitality and law and order. He can be wise and just, but at times he’s vengeful and petty. He’s always getting himself into trouble with his fascination with mortal women and female deities.
Poseidon – Zeus’s brother and god of the seas. Closely associated with the horse, Poseidon is usually credited with taming the animals and giving them to man. Poseidon is often pictured holding a trident. He is especially important to sailors and to ocean travelers.
Ares – The son of Zeus and Hera, Ares is the god of war and destruction. The other gods didn’t care much for him, and he’s sometimes depicted as a coward and a whiner. Ares has numerous affairs, including one with Aphrodite.
Hera – Wife and sister of Zeus, Hera is the goddess of marriage. Married women often turned to her for solace. She’s sometimes depicted as chasing behind her womanizing husband and punishing the female mortals with whom Zeus has been dallying.
Athena – Athena sprang dressed in armor from Zeus’s head. Athena is the goddess of wisdom, strength, courage, philosophy, weaving, weapons, and justice. She’s also the goddess of military strategy, although she dislikes war when it can be avoided. Athens is her patron city, and the Parthenon was built to honor her.
Aphrodite – The goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite is the wife of Hephaestus. She has the ability to make anyone fall in love with her. There are two accounts of her birth. According to the Iliad, she’s the daughter of Zeus and Dione, but in other accounts, she was born from the sea and arrived on shore in a giant clam shell. Aphrodite isn’t faithful to her husband, and she has affairs with both gods and humans.
Apollo – Son of Zeus and Leto, Apollo is the god of light and creativity. He’s a healer, a poet, and a musician. He’s sometimes described as the god of prophecy, and he’s honored at Delphi, home of the famous oracle. Apollo was never married, but he has affairs with many women, and oftentimes, when his romantic advances are rejected, Apollo punishes his would-be lovers. In the Trojan War, Apollo punished the Greeks with a plague from his arrows.
Artemis – Apollo’s twin sister. Artemis is goddess of the hunt and of wild animals. She’s often depicted as protecting the young of wild animals, as any good hunter or huntress would. This virgin goddess was often turned to by women in childbirth.
Hephaestus – The only physically imperfect Olympian, Hephaestus is lame. In many accounts, Hera bore him without any help from Zeus, in retaliation for Zeus’s having Athena. He was tossed from Olympus, probably by Zeus, and the fall caused his lameness. Hephaestus is the god of fire and blacksmiths, and he makes the gods’ armor. He’s also known for his kindness. His wife is Aphrodite. Many Greeks believed that when a volcano smoked, it meant that this god was in the volcano forging his metals.
Hestia – Sister to Zeus, Hestia is a virgin goddess who’s symbolic of the home and hearth. Greek cities each had a public hearth that was devoted to the goddess, and the fires in these hearths were never allowed to die.
Hermes – The son of Zeus and Maia, Hermes is the messenger god. His winged hat and winged sandals make him very swift. He’s the god of thievery and deception, and he’s a trickster. One of his duties is to escort dead mortals to the Underworld. He’s also the god of shepherds and herders. Hermes is given credit for the lyre, gymnastics, and the pipes.
Hades – Brother to Zeus and Poseidon, Hades is ruler of the underworld and the dead. He’s also the god of wealth and precious minerals. Hades isn’t evil, but he has no pity. His wife is Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter.
Other important Greek Gods
Dionysus – The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele, Dionysus is the Greek god of wine. He has a split personality that reflects the effects of alcohol. He can be happy and fun loving, or angry and violent. Hera tricked Zeus into killing Semele while Semele was carrying Dionysus in her womb, but Zeus was able to save the child by carrying him in his leg. Because Zeus actually “gave birth” to Dionysus, the wine god was given immortality.
Demeter – The Greek goddess of grains, the harvest, and the soil. Demeter is often depicted as the “Earth Mother,” and she and her daughter, Persephone, were worshipped at the Eleusinian Mysteries, and even today, historians don’t know what occurred at these rituals because they were so strictly guarded. Demeter is also responsible for the growing cycle. When Hades abducted Persephone and carried her to the Underworld, Demeter grieved and wouldn’t allow anything to grow. Zeus intervened, and a truce was made: Persephone would spend part of her life on earth with Demeter, and the rest of the year in the Underworld with Hades. During the months when Persephone is with Hades, Demeter doesn’t allow plants to grow on earth, which is the Greek mythology explanation for the changing seasons.
Eros – The Greek god of love and lust. You probably know him better by his Roman name, Cupid. Eros is the son of Ares and Aphrodite.
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