following historical timeline illustrates how we look back through time via the
ancient texts to see the mythological past. It also shows the time period during
which an oral tradition prevailed and gave way to the written word. The most
ancient writings in Greece are called Linear A and Linear B. The writings were
used by the Minoans and Mycenaeans whose civilizations were destroyed sometime
after 1200 BC. A four-hundred year “dark age” followed during which the
ability to write was lost completely. Writing was reintroduced using the
Phoenician alphabet about 750 BC which resulted in the writings of Homer and
few words from Hesiod’s Theogony
give the origin of the earth and the gods:
Chaos was born first and after her came Gaia [Earth]
the broad-breasted, the firm seat of all
the immortals who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus,
and the misty Tartarus in the depths of broad-pathed earth …
Gaia now first gave birth to starry Ouranos [sky],
Her match in size, to encompass all of her,
And be the first seat of all the blessed gods.
genesis of the world to the ancient Greek as told in the Theogony was not one of creation by a superior being but one of
birth and includes the birth of the gods who then create man. The universe
bursts into being instead of being created, crafted. Religion in ancient Greece
was the Zeus religion, or as it’s also termed, “the religion of the
Olympians.” The first ruler of the gods was Ouranos, the sky god, but he was
overthrown by his son Kronos, the leader of the Titans. Zeus, his son, came to
power by overthrowing Kronos.
The First Family
new first family formed its seat of power on Mt. Olympus in northern Greece and
was known as the Olympian gods. They remained active all during the period of
time covered by Greek mythology. They were twelve in number:
Zeus: ruler of the gods. God of sky and weather, comes as lightening
and thunder. He is also mentioned as “father” of all mortals and immortals.
Hera: wife of Zeus (also his sister).
Poseidon: god of the seas, shaker of the earth (earthquakes). Brother of Zeus.
Athena: warrior goddess but also goddess of crafts, particularly
weaving. Goddess of wisdom. She is the virgin daughter of Zeus and Metis, the
most wise of all the gods and goddesses.
Apollo: son of Zeus who, from his Oracle at Delphi, prophesied the
will of Zeus. God of light and order. God of both plague and healing.
Artemis: virgin goddess of childbirth and all wild animals. Daughter
of Zeus by Leto. Twin sister of Apollo.
Aphrodite: goddess of erotic love. Daughter of Ouranos. Also called
Cypris for the island of Cyprus where she was born.
Hermes: the herald of Zeus. Guide of souls in the Underworld,
bringer of sleep and dreams. Son of Zeus.
Demeter: a manifestation of Gaia, Earth. Goddess of all things that
grow and in particular grain, cultivated plants. Mother of Persephone by her
Dionysus: god of madness, frenzy, and the god of wine. Patron god of
theatre. Son of Semele, Kadmos’ mortal daughter.
Hephaestus: god of fire and the crafts, a blacksmith. Only god who
works. Son of Hera alone, although some say of Zeus and Hera.
Ares: god of war. Son of Zeus. Only son of Zeus and Hera.
is not mentioned among the twelve since he was the god who ruled the Underworld,
where all the dead go. He is also known as Plouton,
giver of wealth. The name “Hades” stands not only for the god but also for
the Underworld. Don’t be misled by our common usage of “Hades” as the
Christian hell. The Greeks didn’t have a hell although Tartarus, which is a
part of Hades, is the closest thing to it. When Zeus came to power, he banished
the Titans (the gods associated with Kronos) to Tartarus. The Titans were a race
of gods whose inventive intellect was based on ingenuity and creativity. But the
Zeus intellect was based on wisdom, a higher philosophical form. The name
“Titans” means the “overreachers” and indicates that the Titans were apt
to let their ingenuity get the better of them.
goddess of the hearth, was frequently included among the twelve instead of
Dionysus. She was of singular importance to the family. She occupied the central
position in the home and provided protection and warmth. Every evening they
covered the coals with ashes to keep it from burning out and every morning
revived it with selected wood. Hestia was the sacred flame, and the ancient
Greek viewed fire as the passageway connecting our world with that of the
immortals. They sacrificed on the sacred hearth and prayed to their ancestors
there. The sacred flame had to remain pure. In 479 BC after the invading
Persians had occupied Athens and burned much of it, the Archon sent out word to
all that the hearth fires be extinguished and relit from that at Delphi. A torch
carrier then brought the sacred flame from the Oracle into Athens.
was created later by the gods, and they formed us from the ashes of the Titans
leftover when Zeus struck them with a thunderbolt to send them to Tartarus. Thus
man has the native Titan intelligence, the inventiveness, curiosity and a
tendency to overreach through arrogance. Though we also live in the presence of
wisdom and have access to it, but it is not so much an indelible part of our
nature. Above all things, Greeks abhorred arrogance.
these gods, many others must be added to complete the ancient Greek pantheon.
Refer to Tripp’s,
The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology for a description of these. I find this handbook
indispensable because it not only provides the basic information on all the gods
and heroes but also lists sources of the ancient texts where you can track down
a firsthand account of their activities.