Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the Greek pantheon and the rich web of stories that tell of the lives, loves, battles and adventures of Greek gods and goddesses.
These tales have inspired millennia of writers and poets, and even prophets of later religions. They also served to entertain everyone else fortunate enough to read or hear them.
Here comes a very concise overview of the main gods and goddesses who populate the ancient myths in Greek mythology – to be updated with time to include minor gods and goddesses.
Let us start with the first and most important member of the Greek pantheon. His name might start with the last letter of the alphabet but Zeus was the foremost of the Greek gods and king amongst them. He was also their god of justice and the law.
Zeus was not always ruler of Mount Olympus but the youngest son of the first king of the gods, Cronus, and his wife, Rhea. Zeus overthrew his father and drew lots with his two older brothers to decide which of the three worlds they would each rule. Poseidon and Hades won dominion over the sea and the underworld respectively while Zeus became the god of the sky.
The chief Greek god is sometimes depicted with a shield named Aegis, which he uses to manipulate natural phenomena like storms and wind, and to control the level of brightness of the day. His weapon is the thunderbolt, a tool he readily uses against fellow gods who earn his ire and also against dishonest Men.
Zeus is called Jove (Jupiter) in the Roman pantheon.
Hera is Zeus’s counterpart – the queen of the gods. She presided over issues pertaining to females and womanhood like marriage, fertility and childbirth. Dominion over kings, domains and empires was also hers.
Zeus and Hera reigned over the gods together but their relationship did not end there – they were also brother and sister, children of Cronus and Rhea. Greek myths tell of how Zeus forced the relationship and many tales recount Hera’s attempts, often successful, at thwarting Zeus’s plans in spiteful revenge later.
The cow, the peacock and the lion are animals associated with Hera. Her statues are almost invariably of a youthful, crowned woman, and she is sometimes shown holding a pomegranate in her hand. The Romans worshipped her as Juno.
The Greek goddess of love is arguably the most well-known goddess of the ancient world, a position perhaps only contested by her Roman equivalent, Venus. Aphrodite represented not just love but also physical attraction and sexual desire. She herself wore a magical girdle that induced passions in those around her.
There are two myths around her birth – one is that she was the daughter of Zeus and Dione, the other that she was born of the sea after Zeus threw Uranus’s castrated genitals into the water.
Aphrodite’s husband was the crippled Hephaestus and they had no children together. She, however, did bear many other children, including Eris, Eros, Phobos, and Deimos with her husband’s brother, Ares, and also had several other lovers.
Statues of the goddess of love always present a sensual, young woman either nude or only partially clothed. The scallop shell features often in relation to the story of her birth from the water, and she is also seen with roses and myrtle, sparrows and doves.
Known most widely as the Greek god of War, Ares was also the deity who oversaw all manner of bloodletting and violence that accompany battle. He was the son of Zeus and Hera but his father is said to have disliked Ares more than anyone else.
He had romantic dalliances with Aphrodite, his sister, and they were the parents of eight children, including Phobos (fear), Deimos (terror) and Eris (discord) who often accompanied their father into battle.
While he was the god of war, Ares was not altogether successful as a combatant in his own right. Greek myths regale us with stories of his many humiliating defeats and he was regarded as universally unpopular among both gods and men.
Ares is always depicted as a clean-shaven, armed, youth and is associated with vultures, snakes and wild boar. He evolved into Mars in Roman mythology, a vastly more popular character.
Here comes another prominent member of the Greek pantheon; Hades, the God of the Underworld. His name might be eternally linked to the dead and tormented but Hades was one of the three sons of the first rulers of the gods, Cronus and Rhea; his brothers were Zeus and Poseidon. After Zeus overthrew their father, Hades literally drew the short straw to become the lord of the underworld while his brothers gained dominion over sky and sea.
The name ‘Hades’ had such negative connotations in Greek society that they were loath to say it out loud. Instead, the name ‘Plouton’ (wealthy) was chosen because it alluded to the wealth of precious metals and resources mined from under the ground where his realm lay. ‘Hades’ was then used to refer only to the underworld itself.
Hades is depicted with a drinking horn, scepter and key. Two animals accompany him – a screech owl and Cerberus, the three-headed hound that guards the entry into the underworld. The Romans adopted a variation of Plouton for themselves, calling him ‘Pluto’.
Poseidon, god of the seas and oceans was the brother of Zeus and Hades, and the son of Cronus and Rhea. He also extended his control to smaller water bodies like rivers and controlled droughts and earthquakes. He won his role after drawing lots with his brothers to decide who would preside over which of the three planes of existence – sea, sky and underworld.
As lord of the waters, Poseidon is also the protector of all marine animals and is often shown with dolphins. However, he is also credited with creating the first horse, an attempt to create the most beautiful animal in his love pursuit of the goddess, Demeter.
After Zeus, Poseidon is the second most powerful of the Greek gods. His personality in myths of his exploits comes across as one driven by avarice and materialism. He is depicted as a powerfully-built man with a thick, flowing beard wearing a bejeweled crown and holding a large trident.
The Romans envisioned Poseidon as Neptune in their pantheon.
Apollo is best known as the patron god of music, poetry and the arts. However, his spectrum of specialties extended to healing, knowledge and archery. In addition, he was charged with the task of pulling the sun across the sky every day, which he did riding his four-horse chariot.
His mother was Leto and his father, Zeus. When Hera, Zeus’s wife, discovered that Leto carried her husband’s progeny, she barred her from giving birth on land; Leto gave birth on Delos, an island that had just formed. Apollo had a twin sister, Artemis.
Apollo is always represented as a youthful man at his prime, handsome, powerful and athletic. While he is most often associated with all manner of positive things like light, truth and healing, it is said that arrows he shoots from his bow also have the power to cause disease where they land.
Apollo himself has no dominion over the sea but he is often associated with the dolphin, possibly because of the manner of his birth.
The virgin goddess of the hunt is one of the most empowered female characters in Greek mythology. Twin sister of Apollo, she is the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and oversees hunts, hunting grounds, childbirth and young girls.
According to Greek myths, she asked Zeus to grant her eternal chastity and virginity and thus never had relationships with any mortal or other gods. There is no shortage of instances, though, where various gods have tried to seduce and even force themselves upon her. However, Artemis emerged with her honor intact each time.
Always armed with at least one weapon and possibly more from an armory of hunting spears, knives and bows and arrows, Artemis is often portrayed in the company of animals. She is always young and lithe of form, dressed in a way that reveals her athletic build.
Artemis from the Greek myths became Diana to the Romans.
Another strong and positive female role model from Greek mythology, Athena was the goddess of military tactics and strategy, reason, intelligence, literature and a variety of other fields which require keen mental acuity. Athena was an important part of the Greek pantheon and played an important role in some major Greek myths such as the one regarding the Battle of Troy.
Legends tell of how Zeus swallowed Athena’s mother whole while she carried her in the womb. He started having terrible headaches and the other gods cleaved his forehead; Athena emerged from within fully grown and fully armored. It is because she went through Zeus’s head that she is associated with intelligence and cleverness.
Zeus admired Athena and she was even permitted her to wield his thunderbolt. However, Athena is most often associated with defense instead of attack. The Greeks credited Athena with a slew of priceless inventions, including the bridle, rake, plow, yoke, pot, flute, chariot and ship.
Statues of Athena show a lean, athletic, young woman with a crested helm and often a spear as well. The wise owl and wondrous olive tree are associated with Athena. To the Romans, she was Minerva.
Woman in her classic gentle and nurturing form was represented by the ancient Greeks in the personification of the goddess Demeter. She was the goddess of the earth, agriculture, harvest, grain and nourishment.
Demeter stood amongst the gods as sister to Zeus, daughter of Cronus and Rhea. With Zeus, she bore Persephone, who was abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. It is said that winter is the period when she withdraws her gift of earthly bounty to man and mourns her daughter. This bestows upon her the title of the goddess of the seasons.
Depicted as a sober, mature woman and usually shown with a cornucopia and/or sheaves of wheat in her hands, Demeter also often carries a lotus staff. Pigs and snakes are associated with her. In Roman mythology, Demeter became Ceres, from whose name we get the English word ‘cereal’.
While we seldom associate the words ‘humble’ and ‘unassuming’ with gods and goddesses, Hestia certainly deserves both titles. Being the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and sister of Zeus, this virgin goddess of the home and hearth had excellent blood. However, she abdicated her position at the table of the Twelve Olympians, allowing Dionysus to ascend in her place.
Hestia’s symbols are the hearth and kettle, making her the goddess of the domicile. In that respect, she was not worshipped publicly (in contrast to her Roman counterpart, Vesta) and there are no temples dedicated to her. Instead, it is believed that homes usually had a small prayer house or altar to honor the goddess.
Hestia took a vow of chastity and she is usually represented as a middle-aged woman wearing a veil.
The Greeks were known for their wild revelry during festivals and most joyful events, particularly those where wine was consumed, were considered to be blessed by Dionysus. He was the Greek god of that intoxicating substance as well as revelry, merrymaking, drunkenness and earthly pleasures.
Dionysus is unique in that he is the only immortal Greek god born of a mortal woman. Fathered by Zeus, he lost his mother to a jealous Hera’s machinations while still unborn. Zeus stitched the fetal Dionysus to himself and his birth from the king of the gods bestowed immortality upon him.
Hera pursued Dionysus even after this, and Zeus left him in the charge of the mountain nymphs. This is why festivals dedicated to the god of wine were held not in temples but in wooded areas.
Statues of Dionysus from ancient Greece depict an older man with a thick, curly beard, always brandishing a wine cup and often holding a bunch of grapes. In later Greek society, he also gained the name ‘Bacchus’, which was subsequently adopted by the Romans.
Hermes, messenger of the gods, was always one of Man’s greatest allies in their coexistence with the beings they worshipped. He is the god of travel, communication, trade and boundaries (his name means ‘boundary maker’). His swiftness and wanderings made him the patron of both athletes and thieves.
He is often seen as a guide, leading souls of the dead on their journey to the afterlife. Myths about Hermes paint the picture of a mischievous god, always brimming with ideas for a laugh at his fellow deities. However, his nimble mind is also employed by various gods when in a quandary.
Images of Hermes always portray a youthful man, unbearded and with a pleasant countenance. On his feet are his legendary winged sandals, a gift from Zeus in recognition of his speed and agility. The Romans named him Mercury.