Here in the 21st century Greek mythology continues to hold our attention.
These ancient stories have provided inspiration for a number of recent novels like Rick Riodan’s Percy Jackson saga, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles and Circe and Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships. They’ve also provided inspiration for Hollywood, where these ancient stories become blockbusters like 2004’s Troy starring Brad Pitt and 2014’s Hercules starring Dwayne Johnson.
So why do they hold our attention? Why do we continue to be interested in mythology?
My take? Because of the DRAMA. The Ancient Greeks literally invented tragedy and comedy; their stories are full of epics highs and crushing lows. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the actions of the gods themselves…
There were many different gods but the main cast were thought to live on Mount Olympus. They were revered by the Ancient Greeks, being known as the Olympians.
- Zeus – King of the gods, and god of the sky
- Hera – Queen of the gods, and goddess of marriage, family and childbirth
- Poseidon- God of the sea
- Demeter – Goddess of the harvest and agriculture
- Hestia – Goddess of the hearth
- Aphrodite – Goddess of love and beauty
- Apollo – God of music and the arts, medicine and the sun
- Artemis – Goddess of hunting, wild animals, childbirth and the moon
- Athena – Goddess of wisdom, warfare and handicrafts
- Ares – God of war
- Hephaestus – God of fire and metalworking
- Hermes – Messenger of the gods and god of travel, commerce and thieves
- Dionysus – God of wine, festivity and madness
Not an Olympian but still a major god was Hades – God of the Underworld.
They were powerful and often very vengeful. Seriously anyone who said they could do something better than a god often didn’t have a very happy ending. An example of this vengeful streak can be seen in the Judgement of Paris, where the Trojan prince Paris was tasked with giving a golden apple to the most beautiful goddess (a recipe for disaster). Out of Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, he chose Aphrodite who offered him the most beautiful woman in the world. This happened to be Helen of Sparta, thus sparking the flame that became the Trojan War. All gods took sides with the slighted Hera and Athena supporting the Greeks. Athena inspired the Greeks to create the Trojan horse which was the final nail in the coffin for Troy which was destroyed. So yeah, gods were generally speaking not necessarily the nicest deities according to the stories.
As Dr Jenny March wrote in her book on the classical myths “the gods are imagined as glorious beings, human in form and character – and with human failings too, for they can be lustful, vengeful and petty – and having family and social lives similar to those of mortals.” By imagining them similar in some respects to humans, they became much more relatable and we can see how integral the gods were in the lives of the Ancient Greeks by exploring different surviving artefacts. For example this beautiful Athenian coin from 467-465 BC:
On the left is the head of Athena, the city’s namesake and patron with her helmet representing her role as goddess of war. The opposite side of the coin has ΑΘΕ which means of Athenians and include an owl which was Athena’s sacred animal. To have a god or goddess on a coin, shows the reverence in which the Athenians held her.
Another surviving artefact from Ancient Greece is this wonderful amphora:
The amphora shows some of the gods on Olympus. With Hermes on the left with his mother Maia (one of the Pleiades) and in the middle Apollo playing his kithara with Dionysus on the right with a maenad. Luckily for us many examples of Greek pottery have survived, and it’s through this medium we uncover more about the Ancient Greek’s cultural life and how the gods were integrated within it. In mythology there are many “traditional stories, to explain the relationship between gods and humans, how cities were founded, and why religious rituals were performed“.
So strong were the gods and their stories in Greek society that they even found their way into Ancient Rome (an empire supposedly founded by Aphrodite’s son Aeneas who survived the sack of Troy). Before the arrival of Christianity, the Romans believed in many different deities, some of which were throwbacks to the Ancient Greek gods and goddesses. That’s why so many of the main gods can be referred to in their Greek or Roman form like so:
- Zeus / Jupiter
- Hera / Juno
- Poseidon / Neptune
- Demeter / Ceres
- Hestia / Vesta
- Aphrodite / Venus
- Apollo / (for some reason still just known as Apollo)
- Artemis / Diana
- Athena / Minerva
- Ares / Mars
- Hephaestus / Vulcan
- Hermes / Mercury
- Dionysus / Bacchus
- Hades / Pluto
In these new roles the gods/goddesses kept most of their qualities e.g. Venus was still the goddess of love, although some of them also took on new attributes, like Vesta having her own cult of Vestal Virgins who attended the fire in her temple. She had a festival known as Vestalia which was one of the most important on the Roman calendar.
It’s amazing when you think about it how these figures are still so well-known to us today, and that we still want to learn their stories. We don’t believe the gods are real as the Ancient Greeks did, but we are still interested in them from a cultural and literary perspective. Their stories have weaved their way into modern society, to be heard by new audiences with every new generation.
What do you make of the Greek gods? Do you have a favourite? (Mine is Artemis!) I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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The Penguin Book of Classical Myths by Jenny March
DK History of the World in 1000 Objects