The gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece are a dense and complex subject, yet also strikingly good fun to study. The characters that make up these deities, and the myths they populate, are irresistible and irrepressible. Fascinating tales of passion, hubris and cruelty await those who venture into the realm of the Ancient Greek gods and goddesses.
To truly appreciate these myths, and their significance, however, requires an understanding of the nature and personalities of the gods and goddesses involved. What makes these figures so eminently enthralling isn’t what makes them almighty, but rather what makes them human. Driven by lust, jealousy and revenge, the Ancient Greek gods and goddesses make the myths surrounding them the grand soap opera that they are. To inspire you on your journey into this world, here are 8 Ancient Greek gods and goddesses you really should know about.
Zeus is the king of the Ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Himself, the god of the sky, weather, thunder and lightning, and order and justice. The brother of Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera (who is also his wife) and Hestia, and father to Hermes, Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares, Artemis, Dionysus and Heracles, amongst others. Zeus is all powerful, and wields a bolt of lightning with which to smite his enemies. He rules the land from his throne at the summit of Mount Olympus, the home of the Ancient Greek gods and goddesses.
Wife, and somewhat worryingly, sister to Zeus, Hera was worshipped as the goddess of marriage, women, childbirth and empires. Surviving sculptures and artefacts commonly depict Hera wearing a diadem and wielding a lotus-tipped staff. Historically, Hera was considered a regal, matronly figure. However, Zeus’ many infidelities and illegitimate children often drove Hera to acts of jealousy and vengeance. A common theme in Ancient Greek myths were Hera’s vengeful streaks against Zeus’s lovers, and mortals who had wronged her.
The character of Aphrodite has transcended her Ancient Greek origins, becoming a figure associated with elements of Western culture too. Her beginnings, however, are as the Ancient Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation. Her heritage is conflicted, with the Greek poets Hesiod and Homer providing differing accounts of her inception. The former deemed Aphrodite a product of Uranus’ severed genitals, them having been discarded into the sea; Homer, in his Iliad, however, proffered that Aphrodite was in fact the progeny of Zeus and Dione. They agree that Aphrodite was married to the blacksmith god Hephaestus, another son of Zeus. She did however have many other lovers, including Ares and Adonis – all seduced by Aphrodite’s unrivalled beauty.
According to myth, handsome Apollo was often surrounded by muses, and as his oracular shrine at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi would attest, was a deity of prophecy and truth. Apollo was also recognised as the god of art, music, poetry, healing and light. The twin of Artemis, both were regularly depicted with a bow and arrow in hand. Apollo himself was the ideal Ancient Greek male – a beardless, attractive and athletic youth.
Most of the Ancient Greek gods, goddesses and mythical figures had their counterparts in the Ancient Roman culture and religion. Usually, the depictions, reactions to, and reverence of these figures in both Greek and Roman societies was very similar. This was not the case with Ares – or Mars, as he was known to the Romans. Ares, the god of war, bloodshed and violence, was unpopular both on Earth and Olympus, as he was a brooding, aggressive presence. Mars, by contrast, was celebrated by the Romans as a dignified warrior. This is down to a fundamental cultural rift between Ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. Ares was usually depicted as a nude warrior, wearing only a helmet, and wielding a sword or spear.
Where Ares represented the chaos and vulgarity of war, Athena personified the strategy and skill of battle. The goddess of reason, wisdom, intelligence, peace and warfare strategy, Athena was said to have possessed strikingly bright, keen eyes. The patron of the city of Athens (which was named in her honour), Athena was also the patron of legendary heroes such as Odysseus, to whom she was a divine guide throughout Homer’s Odyssey.
Given her association with the power of the mind, it is fitting that most Ancient Greek traditions told of her being born fully formed and armed out of Zeus’ forehead.
She is often portrayed wielding a shield and spear and her symbol is the olive tree. The olive tree is a reference to her victory over Poseidon in their competition for the patronage of Athens. Athena was victorious over her rival by producing the world’s first of olive tree, which the inhabitants of the city deemed a worthier gift to them than Poseidon’s offering of a majestic horse.
Brother of Zeus and Hades, Poseidon wielded his trident as god and ruler of the seas, rivers and earthquakes. As king of the sea, lord of the waters, he is ruler of one of the three realms of the universe. His brothers, Zeus as king of gods, and ruler of heaven and Earth, and Hades, the guardian of the Underworld, complete this trio. Like Zeus, Poseidon was typically viewed as a mature, sturdy man, with a full beard.
Hades: the god of wealth, king of the Underworld, and the master of the dead. In tales he was often accompanied by Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog. His standing amongst the gods and goddesses of Olympus has been the subject of much debate. This is mainly due to his status as a ‘chthonic’ god – a ruler of a land beneath the Earth – and his role as a villain in many Ancient Greek myths.
We hope that reading this list of Ancient Greek god and goddesses has inspired you to seek out more information about these remarkable figures and the myths they inhabit. Captivating, fantastical stories of magic, murder, betrayal, love and death are what awaits those who venture deeper into this subject. These myths and legends do not exist only in the Ancient past either, their influence has echoed down the ages, going on to inspire everything from NASA’s voyages to the Star Wars films.