There is hardly a single, educated westerner, who is not aware, at least, of the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. But few, in our modern age, have delved into their interesting, occasionally even amusing, comings and goings, while they lasted.
How long did they last? Well, their final demise officially occurred in 325 AD, when the Roman Emperor Constantine (the one that 5 years later moved from Rome to Byzantium, and renamed it Konstantinoupolis in his own ego) elevated Christianity as the “State” religion. But before their end, the Olympian gods “ruled” for a long time. The first ancient temples that have been identified with Olympian gods (or goddesses) date from around 700 BC with the sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia. This does not mean there were no previous temples, it simply means that the oldest ruins found so far by modern archeology date only that far back. The great Ancient traveler Herodotus (Greek: Ηρόδοτος) makes references to the similarities between several key Olympian gods and their equivalents of Egypt – a much older religion.
They are mentioned frequently in Homer’s (Greek: Όμηρος) Iliad, which was probably written around 800 BC, as taking sides, some gods supporting the Greeks, and some Trojans. The fact that Homer does not take any pains to explain what these gods were, is indicative that the Ancient Greeks of the time knew fully well about them, in fact they were their religion. So, it is probably not unreasonable to say that the Ancient Greeks looked to their gods from, say, 1500 BC to their dethronement in 325 AD, or close to 2000 years. For a comparison, Christianity today, if measured from the days of Constantine, is around 1700 years old, in round numbers.
Before they settled on Mount Olympus, in central Greece, these “folks,” (because they abounded in human attitudes and foibles,) had quite a checkered past; in fact – or rather, in myth – the Olympian gods were actually a third-generation, coming from a whole slew of demihumans, monsters, and strange creatures that battled each other in a fratricidal frenzy. Some even ate their young! We still have some of their names resonating today, such as Titans, Cyclops, Giants, who were children of Ouranos (Greek: Ουρανός = sky) and Gaia (Greek: Γαία = earth). These pre-ancient mythical deities had to be fought and defeated by the new generation, that eventually took over and moved to Olympus.
Greek mythology, when looked upon by today’s perspective, appear as mere fascinating stories, that explained the world and its circumstances as-it-was to children. However, it should be borne in mind that, for 2000 years or so, this – the Olympian gods and their long retinue – was the accepted and obeyed religion, and the folks built temples and offered sacrifices and wishes and requests for their consideration and favorable response, and people were exalted or punished according to their perceived level of worship or impiety. The greatest artifact of human civilization, the Parthenon, was actually a temple for the goddess Athena, (Greek: Αθηνά) protectress of the city of Athens. The greatest explosion of religious fervor, as indicated by the building of temples to one or the other of the Olympian gods, took place about 500-400 BC, when Greece was enjoying a relatively peaceful and prosperous period, following the expulsion of the Persian invaders. It took another nearly 1000 years before Constantine beat these gods down, by decree.
It’s interesting to see how the Olympian gods look in today’s eyes, making comparisons with our modern experiences. So, to this end, we will take a “less than sacred” view of their characteristics.
It was really a sort of “triumvirate.” Zeus (Greek: Ζευς), the king of the gods, head honcho, wasn’t the only one on top (well, he was “on top,” in the sense that he lived upon the highest mountain in Greece, Olympus.) But he was one of three brothers, who had enough sense not to fight, but drew lots and sliced “the cosmos” into three pieces. Zeus drew the long straw and got the best job – the Earth. The next lucky brother, Poseidon (Greek: Ποσειδών), had to take the Sea; and the short straw was drawn by Hades (Greek: Άδης), who had to take the – oops – Underworld and lump it. Let’s look at each in turn.
Starting with Hades, it’s worth noticing that very few temples were built in his honor, just like in modern times, there are few temples or churches honoring the underworld. We, humans, are particular, in that way, still. Maybe because the ancients knew they would all someday cross the river Styx, (Greek: Στυξ, the “River of No Return”) and end up down there. There was no Christian-style resurrection-of-the-dead hope then. Hades had a mean three-headed dog Cerberus, (Greek: Κέρβερος) that would let you “in,” but not let you “out.” It was a place of sadness and shadows. But regardless, by general accounts, Hades was a nice guy, and somewhere along he fell in love with a cute girl named Persephone, he abducted her and took her to his kingdom below. But the girl’s mother, Demeter (Greek: Δήμητρα), one of the Olympian goddesses, in charge of agriculture, took affront and stopped creating crops – which was, of course, her specialty. This family squabble got Zeus involved, so he bartered a compromise, where Persephone would only have to spend part of her time below, and part of her time above with her mother. So Demeter relented, and the three seasons returned. (The Ancient Greeks had only three seasons; for some unknown to me reason somebody re-divided the year into our modern 4.) But one can sense that the Ancient Greeks saw, in their gods, a certain amount of human flexibility and spirit of compromise, rather than a “black-or-white” absolute divine edict/attitude.
Poseidon, master of the waves, was actually in a pretty fair situation, like the sea (well, the Sea then was the Mediterranean – nobody would venture beyond the Pillars of Hercules we now call Gibraltar) was big, unpredictable, and dangerous, and the Greeks were sailors of course. His problem was, that his temples had to be built on land (which was his brother’s establishment) so as a consequence, relatively few were built, in contrast with his power. Visitors to Sounion, near Athens, can gaze at one of his temples, on a promontory with a commanding view of the Aegean Sea. Out of courtesy, or to ensure his goodwill, the Ancient Greeks did give him a place at Olympus, even though he never went there. Nevertheless, the Ancient Greeks, when planning to travel by sea, never forgot to pay their respects – and sacrifices – to Poseidon, and requested favorable winds and a smooth sea for their voyages. Not only that, but there was the all-important fishing, of course! Strangely, Poseidon was also the king of horses, that could be seen racing just below the waves, and their white manes were seen just above when the winds blew. On the way back from Troy, the hero Odysseus (Greek: Οδυσσεύς) infuriated Poseidon by blinding one of his sons (the Cyclops) and bragged about it; and the very short story is that it took Odysseus 10 years of wandering the seas to make it back to Ithaca. You don’t want to provoke an Olympian god, was the message to the Greek faithful. At least, not one who carried around a sharp trident on a stick! In fact, the Greek word “Hybris” (Greek: Ύβρις) is essentially the warning not to antagonize the gods with one’s ego, because it will result in your eventual doom.
Zeus, well, he was into everything, mostly with a light hand, henpecked some times by his wife Hera (Greek: Ήρα), the goddess of home and hearth and marriage, who was forever trying to corral him, from his many “adventurous” pursuits. By some lights, Zeus’ proclivities probably reflect the light attitude Ancient Greeks took, on the issue of infidelity. From Zeus sprang many of the Olympian gods, demigods, and even mortals, that filled the Ancient Greek mythological galaxy.
When not chasing after maidens, he kept busy trying to keep his dysfunctional family of gods in some sort of order. The Ancient Greeks assigned to him (or blamed him) for most of the heroes in their mythology. But he also did bizarre things, such as bringing his child Athena out of his head! A spectacular achievement, but perfectly logical, when one considers that Athena became the goddess of wisdom. The myths tend to present him as a rather loose “manager,” with many lesser gods doing their thing without his permission, in fact without his knowing it because they knew he would object. When he found out these peccadilloes, however, he did not hesitate to punish them – could not kill them, because they were as immortal as he, but could make their lives miserable. The moral was to beware doing things behind the boss’s back, because it may come back to your detriment.
When Zeus became upset with the humans – which was often – he hurled thunderbolts at them, being made in a shop by a lower-grade god Hephaestus (Greek: Ήφαιστος) in his forge. Hephaestus was not held in great esteem, being a sort of “blue-collar” type god, so much that even in modern times, a temple built in his honor in Athens was for centuries known as the Theseum, honoring a mythical hero – but the wrong one!
Poor smithy Hyphaestus was by all accounts an ugly guy, with a limp, but he was married to the prettiest of all Olympians: Aphrodite (Greek: Αφροδίτη). So here was this kind message that Ancient Geeks sent to soothe the human soul, that even ugly people can find pretty partners – a source of concern to the younger set even today. Aphrodite personified female beauty and was born from the foam of the crashing waves on the rocky island of Kythira, between the Peloponnese and Crete. But at some point, she moved east and settled down on the island of Rhodes, known for the best weather in Greece. In later years, she moved to the Louvre in Paris.
From the top of Olympus, Zeus ruled over the rest of the gods, who numbered 12. I won’t bore you with the list, (they tacked-on Dionysus (Greek: Διόνυσος) god of wine & revelry) but will mention a couple more because they are more interesting and more familiar in our times. As we know, the Romans took up the Olympian gods directly, but for some bizarre reason renamed them. One was an automobile, “Mercury,” who was really Ermis (Greek: Ερμής), the messenger of Zeus. Fast, with wings on his heels, so one can see the reason for the modern name. In fact, I believe he is still the patron of the US Postal Service. When he knocked on your door, you knew this was a call “from above.” This could be especially ominous, because he was the go-between the upper and lower world, and would guide souls down under. In one case, he was escorting a nymph down below, but became enamored with her and begot a couple of children on the way. But he had plenty of sidelines, one of which was to protect travelers and ensure commercial success, where often speed of execution is of paramount importance. He carries, besides the winged feet and hat, the “caduceus,” the classic staff of a herald.
Another was a chocolate bar, “Mars” who was really Ares (Greek: Άρης), the god of war, and the planet that was visibly reddish was named after him. Ares took sides in the Trojan War, mainly against the Greeks, so when we bite into a Mars Bar, we’re paying him back. In the Iliad, he seems to be fighting head to head against Athena, who took the Greek side. Αlthough wars have continued, and the two most destructive conflicts in history occurred in the 20th Century, no-one has honored Ares for a millennium and more. That’s because he would switch sides in human conflicts, and thus was unreliable. Or, perhaps this is the spirit of pacifism in human hearts or the Christian message of peace and love that has set the thoughts – if not the deeds- of violence aside? At any rate, we’re now checking out this god via NASA’s robots.
Apollo, (Greek: Απόλλων) who somehow retained the original Greek name, lent his name to the rockets and thus helped to land Americans on the Moon. He was a twin with his sister Artemis (Greek: Άρτεμις), goddess of the hunt. They were born on the island of Delos, next to the modern “nightclub-island” of Mykonos, because their mother, Lyto, was being chased by the enraged Hera, who believed that her husband Zeus had something to do with it all. Anyway, poor Artemis has faded, because hardly anyone really hunts any more – preferring wrapped up beef steaks at supermarkets or souvlakia on a stick. We can still see Apollo every day, driving his chariot (the sun) across the sky. You can still tell the time by him if you make a sundial in your backyard. At night, he would play his lyre, hitting some mean chords at some dive (today he’d probably be playing the bouzouki.) He had a great run of popularity for a couple of centuries because he was also the patron of music and the arts, a handy god during the good times of the Greek “Golden Age.”
Last but hardly least is Athena. We touched on her before, when she was born out of the head of Zeus – fully grown, by the way – and spent her time doing myriad things, one of which was to give a new city her name – Athens. There was a competition for who would be the patron of this new city: Poseidon wanted it too because it was near the Sea. To keep the peace, Zeus decreed that they both should offer the city a gift, and the most welcome gift would be the winner. Well, Poseidon who was into horses – you recall- hit the rock of the Acropolis with his trident, and out popped a horse. (You can still see the cleft on the hill where he struck.) Athena gave the city an olive tree. The horse was nice, but the olive tree won, so she got to name the city & got herself established there. She was the goddess of wisdom, and learning, with her little Attic owl, whom the Ancient Athenians believed was wise, staring around as was its habit. But Athena was also quite warlike, running around with a spear and a shield and a helmet most of the time. In the Trojan War, she stood by and encouraged the Greeks, and got into serious squabbles with Ares, who supported the Trojans – so much so that eventually Zeus had to step in, and ordered them to pull back their horns and let the humans decide the conflict on their own. This warlike attitude must have discouraged suitors, because there is no reference of any hanky-panky with anyone, at a time when it seemed rather a universal pastime. In fact, she was also referred to as “Parthena,” or “Virgin,” in Greek, hence her main temple is known as the Parthenon. She was -obviously- very popular with the Athenians, but also probably the first feminist, so the moral perhaps is that a girl that is too smart and too aggressive may have a tough time finding suitors?
Having at least touched on the 12 Olympian gods, and of Zeus’ brothers, it’s worth looking at a couple of myths that ring true – to my mind- with the modern Greek attitude. See if you agree.
Pandora: When the world and humans were first being created, by a wise third-rate god, Prometheus (Greek: Προμηθεύς), who actually molded humans out of clay under Zeus’ orders, and thus was kind to his creations, wanted to give them a chance of the good life. So he took all the evils that existed: War, disease, calamities, famine, hatred, jealousy, misery, varicose veins, and anything else that was thought bad or objectionable at any rate, and put them in a jar (now called “box” but they had only clay jars then) and sealed it. He gave that jar to Hephaestus; you recall that’s the guy that made thunderbolts for Zeus. Told him never ever to open it. But there showed up the first woman, Pandora (Greek: Πανδώρα), also built by Prometheus, and she of the curious nature, despite dire warnings, simply had to open it to see what was in it. And, out came all the evils that exist today in the world. Her name, which means “all the gifts,” is probably a cynical name created for her by the Ancient Greeks.
Aeolus (Greek: Αίολος): The son of Poseidon, the god of the Sea, was assigned as the keeper of the winds. It took a while, but the Greeks eventually made him a god, too, but at the time of Homer, he had not reached that exalted rank yet. Nevertheless, he had the winds at his command, and, at the end of the Trojan War, he wanted to give the hero Odysseus (Greek: Οδυσσεύς) a smooth sail back to his homeland, the island of Ithaca. So he bagged all the winds except the Levanter (coming out of the East) as the most favorable wind to speed him toward his home. It was called the “AfIliotis” then, (i.e., coming from the rising Ilios, the sun.) He gave the bag to Odysseus, with the request that, once he reached his island, Ithaca, he should release the winds again. Homer says, however, that the sailors did not believe this, they thought the bag contained treasure and opened it. All the winds came out, and drove their boat all over the Mediterranean, taking the well-documented 10 years to finish their trip (although it only took Kirk Douglas 1 hour 34 minutes in the 1954 film.) Of course, had they kept the bag closed, Homer would not have a story to recite in his 12,110-line Megapoem: “Odyssey.”
The moral – one of several – the Ancient Greeks intended in these two examples is a) that people are foolish, and don’t know when they are well-off, and leave things alone, and b) it’s always somebody else’s fault that they are in their present pickle. The latter is what seems to match the persistent attitude in many crisis-ridden societies, who are unwilling to face up to reality and blame their own shortcomings.
One of the shining things about Ancient Greek Mythology is that they meant to send moral warnings and guidance, intending to teach, and thus improve human behavior. The foibles of gods and men, and the resulting fiascoes or even tragedies were there for all to listen – even before writing was invented – and avoid them if they could.