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Historical Timeline

The 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 Hesiod.

In the beginning…

A 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.

The 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

The 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:

1. 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.

2. Hera: wife of Zeus (also his sister).  

3. Poseidon: god of the seas, shaker of the earth (earthquakes). Brother of Zeus.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. Artemis: virgin goddess of childbirth and all wild animals. Daughter of Zeus by Leto. Twin sister of Apollo.

7. Aphrodite: goddess of erotic love. Daughter of Ouranos. Also called Cypris for the island of Cyprus where she was born.

8. Hermes: the herald of Zeus. Guide of souls in the Underworld, bringer of sleep and dreams. Son of Zeus.

9. Demeter: a manifestation of Gaia, Earth. Goddess of all things that grow and in particular grain, cultivated plants. Mother of Persephone by her brother Zeus.

10. Dionysus: god of madness, frenzy, and the god of wine. Patron god of theatre. Son of Semele, Kadmos’ mortal daughter.

11. Hephaestus: god of fire and the crafts, a blacksmith. Only god who works. Son of Hera alone, although some say of Zeus and Hera.

12. Ares: god of war. Son of Zeus. Only son of Zeus and Hera. 

Hades 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.

Hestia, 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.

Mankind 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.

To 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.

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