Greek mythology has been a source of inspiration for artists and philosophers for millennia. This is in part because they are so well documented. But also because the ancient and classical Greeks were incredibly driven in their pursuit of creative perfection, known as arete.
Particularly in the city-state of Athens, Greeks were pursuing ideals of excellence in sculpture, painting, mathematics, philosophy, theatre, sport, and war. This focus on greatness is why the Romans admired and replicated so many Greek themes and artistic styles, and copied many ancient texts for posterity. It’s also why they were such an inspiration for the 14-16th century Renaissance!
Many factors combined have led to Greek mythology dominating modern understandings of mythology in general. Not least because the gods and the stories are beautifully complex, fun, and all-encompassing.
We’ll be exploring the ancient Greek creation myths of earth and humanity. As well as the Olympian gods and their primordial forefathers.
Note: In this text I quote a number of Ancient and Classical theologians, historians and playwrights – I’ve put their names in brackets, and included references at the bottom so you can find out more!
The Ancient Greek creation myth
The ancient Greeks and Romans had a variety of myths surrounding the origins of the world and the human race. Most often, it was believed that humans were fashioned from clay. Sometimes Zeus breathed life into us, and sometimes it was his daughter, Athena.
But the Greek creation story focuses on the origins of the earth, rather than the creatures on it. So that’s where we’ll start.
Gaia and Ouranos
In the beginning there was the Chasm, or Chaos, ‘a crude, unstructured mass, nothing but weight without motion’ (Ovid). From this nothingness came Gaia, the earth, and she created Ouranos, the sky, to be her equal. And they brought order to the chaos.
The children of Gaia and Ouranos were the Cyclopes and the Titans – primordial gods. But Ouranos knew that his children would rule over his world, and despised them for it. So he hid them as they were born inside a deep cave within Gaia.
But Gaia groaned in pain, and wished her children were out in the light. So she thought up a plan and told it to her children – she would create the unbreakable metal adamantine and fashion a reaping-hook from it, and one of them would destroy their father with it.
The titans were afraid of the vicious Ouranos, and none stepped forward. But Kronos, the last-born, said that he was not afraid, and he would do it. So that night, when Ouranos came to Gaia and spread himself across her, Kronos reached out and with one stroke cut off his genitals. And just like that, he was defeated! The blood that fell from Ouranos’ wound made many creatures, and in some tales, from the genitals themselves formed Aphrodite, making the goddess of love a primordial god herself.
Kronos, repeating his father’s misdeeds
Kronos and Rhea, his sister, later parented Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon, and each of them Kronos swallowed as soon as they were born. He did this because ‘he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that it was fated for him to be defeated by his own child’ (Hesiod). Like his father, he hated them for it.
But one day, Rhea bore Zeus. She begged her mother Gaia and her father Ouranos (who still resented his son for robbing him of his power) to take her child and raise him in secret. They did so, secreting him far from Kronos’ sight. To fool him, Rhea swaddled a stone and gave it to Kronos. He ‘put it away in his belly, the brute, not realising that thereafter not a stone but his son remained, secure and invincible’ (Hesiod).
Titanomachy – the Battle of the Titans
When he had grown up, Zeus returned to the land of his birth. By strength and strategy, he defeated his tyrannic father, and Kronos threw up all of his children. Then, Zeus freed his father’s mighty brothers, Obriareos, Kottos, and Gyges, giants who had been imprisoned at the end of the world.
In return, these hundred-armed gods gave him his thunder and his lightning bolt, and with these Zeus and his siblings waged war against Kronos and the Titans. For ten years they battled, until finally, by Zeus’ mighty lightning rod and the help of the three hundred-armed giants, the Olympians won.
They banished Kronos and his siblings to Tartarus, chaining them in the darkness beyond the edge of the world.
The creation of man in Greek mythology
‘Where other animals walk on all fours and look to the ground, man was given a towering head and commanded to stand erect, with his face uplifted to gaze on the stars of heaven’ – Ovid
There are a number of ancient Greek creation stories around the birth of man. Below, I’ve given both the most common one, and one of the more arb ideas of mankind’s formation! We also found two more interesting origin myths here, which discusses the belief that man sprung from the earth just as the plants do, as well as the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages of man.
Prometheus forming man from clay
In this myth, the titans Prometheus and Epimetheus are spared imprisonment in Tartarus with the other titans because they did not fight against the Olympians in the Titanomachy. Instead, they are tasked with creating life on earth, making the various animals and plants out of various materials. Prometheus is to form man from clay, and Athena will breathe life into him.
Epimetheus begins to give the animals their various qualities. But by the time he gets to man, he realises he has run out of qualities to give! No wings, swiftness or fur are left. So Prometheus comes up with a solution, standing man upright to give them the aspect of the gods, and giving to him fire.
Later, Zeus decrees that man will forevermore sacrifice a portion of his food to the gods. But Prometheus loves his creation more than he loves the Olympians, who had banished his siblings to suffer in Tartarus. So he tricks Zeus, creating two offering piles for Zeus to choose from. One, he makes a pile of bones wrapped in enticing fat. The other is the best of the meat, wrapped in animal hide. When Zeus chooses the bones as his sacrifice, he is forced to keep to his word – that’s why in Greek sacrificial feasts, the humans always got to eat the tasty bits of the animal and give the gods the parts they don’t really want!
Of course, Zeus is furious, and takes away man’s fire. But Prometheus sneaks it back to us, bringing a hidden torch from the sun. But this is one step too far, and Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock on the Caucasus Mountains. There, an eagle pecks out his liver every day, an endless suffering for turning his back on the gods.
Thankfully, Prometheus is eventually saved when Chiron the Centaur agrees to die for him and Heracles then kills the eagle.
Prometheus bound to a rock, his liver eaten by an eagle. Francesco Bartolozzi, 1795
The Orphic myth of Zagreus and the Titans
A rarer account, referred to by Pindar and Plutarch, has mankind directly descended from the Titans. In the story, the Titans attack and devour the infant Dionysus, known in that particular infantile state as Zagreus.
Zeus, enraged, swallows the child’s heart and thereby rebirths him. As punishment, he strikes the Titans with his thunderbolt, and from their ashes, man emerges. And thus is man’s body evil, but his soul pure.
This story, known as the Orphic myth, has always been one of the lesser-known of the creation myths. But it’s certainly a rather unique one!
Greek gods – the Pre-Olympians
The idea of an earth mother and sky god likely existed in some form in the Greeks’ belief system before ideas around the Olympian gods existed – but this is so far back in history that only a few vague visual sources remain.
Gaia is the ancestral mother of all, who created even Ouranos, her partner. She is the greatest primordial deity.
According to the 8th century BC theologian Hesiod, ‘Earth bore first of all one equal to herself, starry Heaven, so that he should cover her all about, to be a secure seat for ever for all the blessed gods’. Ouranos is the personification of heaven, the sky.
The children of Gaia and Ouranos are known as the Titans. These gigantic primordial gods pre-date the Olympian gods and represent natural forces or elements, forming the early Greek understanding about how the world came to exist as it does.
There are many Titans, their numbers varying according to the different sources. These are the more significant and well-known of these.
Also called Okeanos, this god is the ocean, and the first-born of Gaia and Ouranos.
The god tasked with holding up the sky. In most tales, he is condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky after being defeated in the Titanomachy. He certainly personifies endurance.
The god of the sun, who rides his golden chariot across the sky every day from East to West, and makes the return journey at night.
The goddess of the moon, Selene rides side-saddle on her horse, or also rides her own nightly chariot.
The god of fire, Prometheus is famous for having stolen fire from the Olympian gods to give to humanity, thereby beginning human civilization. He is also a great trickster, and played an important role in the Olympians’ battle with Kronos and the Titans.
The father of the first Olympian gods and the last-born child of Gaia and Ouranos. He was viewed as a destructive, all-consuming force, and the father of time. In Hesiod’s 7th c. BC Theogony, he is referred to as ’crooked-schemer Kronos’ – clearly not a much-loved character.
Titan goddess of motherhood and fertility, as well as comfort and ease. Rhea is the older sister and wife of Kronos, and the mother to many Olympian gods.
Also called Memory, this goddess is the mother to the iconic Muses.
Goddess of the dawn, dew and frost.
The Olympian gods rule over all creation (or at least, all of Greece) after overthrowing their ancestors. In Archaic and Classical Greek sources, they’re known to be fickle and scheming. Full of kindnesses and cruelties, they really don’t ascribe to any sense of morality as we know it. They are much more like humans, than like human ideals of what man strives to be. But as gods, they are above human understandings of morality, and they do expect mortals to remain virtuous and devout.
Below, I’ve given a brief rundown and some interesting notes on each of the Olympian gods. I’ll have full posts on each of them, to dive into a lot more detail than can fit here!
Διας/Ζευς (THEE-as / zeh-OOS)
Also known as: Kronides (son of Kronos), Jove, Jupiter, cloud-gatherer, thunderer
Patron of: The sky, weather, thunder and lightning, justice
Attributes (how to recognise him in art): Sceptre, lightning bolt, eagles, older bearded figure
Here I am with the king of the gods (although an alternate view is that this sculpture depicts Poseidon with his trident rather than Zeus with his lightning bolt) – this sculpture has “perfect” dimensions, the arms expanded past human norm to make it as wide as it is long
King of the gods, Zeus is the chief figure in Greek mythology. Married to Hera, he is infamous for cheating on her with many mortal and immortal women. And not always in his anthropomorphic form, either! In a few of the many stories, he gets a woman pregnant while in the shape of a swan, and another as a bull, when he carries her on his back across the river (how the logistics of that work, I can’t say). In another, he is a gold rain falling onto her lap. Zeus’ indiscretions lead to many of the demigod heroes, so there’s good reason for them!
In most myths, Zeus doesn’t actually like humans. But he tolerates us, because what he does like is sacrifices. He is mighty, persuasive, and all-powerful, and shares some strong similarities with the Hungarian god Isten, as well as other sky gods.
Also known as: Juno
Patron of: Marriage
Attributes(how to recognise her in art): Crown, sceptre, mature matronly figure
Zeus’ wife Hera is the goddess of marriage and birth, but she’s most well known for being cheated on, and punishing the women. She’s thrown children from Mount Olympus (Hephaestus), refused Leto a place to give birth, and self-impregnated to birth an immense monster.
Even Zeus is afraid of his wife, with her vindictive and vengeful personality – although, with a husband that keeps falling in love with other women for all eternity, it’s hard to blame her.
Also known as: Neptune, Kronides (son of Kronos), the earth shaker
Patron of: The sea, earth-quakes and horses
Attributes(how to recognise him in art): Trident, older bearded figure, often surrounded by various sea-creatures
Wedding of Poseidon (right) and Amphitrite, relief frieze on the ‘Statue Base of Marcus Antonius. 2nd century BC
The god of the sea and of storms, Poseidon is one of the moodiest gods in the Greek pantheon. Considering the unpredictability of both sea and weather, and their effect on people’s livelihoods, it makes sense that the Greeks would imagine this god to be particularly vengeful.
Poseidon is warlike but very creative – he’s responsible for creating all life in the sea (which certainly feel like some of the most imaginative creatures in existence).
In Homer’s famous Odyssey, Poseidon drives Odysseus across the ocean for ten years following the Trojan War, after Odysseus blinds his Cyclops son, Polyphemos. That’s the problem with upsetting a god – they can hold a grudge for way too long.
Also known as: Ceres
Patron of: Corn and crops – she’s an agricultural fertility goddess, and mother of Persephone
Attributes (how to recognise her in art): Ears of corn, sceptre, torches, crown, mature matronly figure
Demeter isn’t one of the most popularly known goddesses now, perhaps because crops aren’t very sexy. But she is a mighty goddess, and one even Zeus recognises as an impressive force.
When Hades abducts Persephone, her daughter, Demeter roams the earth in search of her, refusing food and comfort. This is, until Zeus realised that if she didn’t find her daughter, ‘she would have destroyed the whole race of mortal men with painful famine and would have deprived the Olympians of the glorious honour of gifts and sacrifices’ (Homeric Hymn to Demeter).
This is why Persephone may spend two-thirds of the year with her mother, and why Greek crops thrive for this period.
Also known as: Minerva, Pallas, bright-eyed, of the flashing eyes, Athene
Patron of: She is the virgin goddess of war and wisdom, arts and crafts, and weaving
Attributes (how to recognise her in art): Helmet, spear, shield, greaves, aegis, owl
You’ll find Athena all over Athens, even on more modern buildings, like the National University of Athens, pictured here.
Athena is the patron goddess of Athens, after having won the city in a contest with Poseidon. In one of the most unusual births, Zeus gives birth to Athena himself, when Hephaestus cleaves his head to relieve a headache and she emerges from it, fully formed and with weapons in hand!
The virgin goddess Athena holds domain over war and wisdom, and serves as advisor to her father. Considering the masculine bent of ancient Athens, her position is an unusual one. Only men were allowed to vote, and spaces of knowledge, feasting, and exercise were all reserved for men; women in this society had an extremely limited role. Still, Athena is one of the most important gods in the Pantheon, and epitomises wisdom, forethought and honour in battle.
Also known as: Mars, Enyalinus
Patron of: War
Attributes (how to recognise him in art): Usually shown in armour, Ares is a difficult god to identify, as his representations change with time and different artists’ interpretations
‘Ares, man slaughtering, blood-stained, stormer of strong walls’ – Homer, Iliad
Very few of the ancient Greek writers have anything good to say about Ares. The god of destructive war has a quick temper and a savage thirst for violence, often goading or tricking leaders into war. He is liked by neither gods (except for Aphrodite) or man, but the Greeks are careful to sacrifice to him, to ensure their safety and success.
Despite being the god of war, Ares is defeated multiple times, by Athena, the hero Heracles, and the Aloadae, two giant brothers. Among others, his sons are Deimos (Panic or Dread) and Phobos (Fear), which I think really says it all.
Also known as: Cyprus, Cytherea, Venus, Kallipygian
Patron of: Sex, beauty, fertility, pleasure and procreation, intimacy and deceit
Attributes (how to recognise her in art): beautiful youthful figure, often naked, sometimes accompanied by Eros, her son
Pan attempting to woo Aphrodite, while she prepares to slap him away with her slipper – and Glenn getting a closer look
The goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite has inspired many poets and artists through the millennia. Her symbols – the dove, rose and swan – are still considered some of the most romantic symbols today. But Aphrodite is not only the goddess of romantic love – she is a fertility goddess, worshipped for the yearly rebirth of nature.
Aphrodite has many lovers, but she’s also known to have a fondness for bringing young lovers together. With a distinct naughty streak, she delights in making her fellow Olympians fall in love with mortals. In fact, Aphrodite is responsible for many of Zeus’ starry-eyed attachments!
Like the other Olympians, Aphrodite is quick to punish those who slight her – in her case, that’s people who deny themselves the pleasures of love, and remain virgins. How dare they…
Also known as: Diana
Patron of: Wildlife, the moon, chastity and childbirth; she is the virgin goddess of archery
Attributes (how to recognise her in art): Bow, quiver and arrows, hunting clothes, animals and wildlife, a youthful athletic figure
The virgin hunter Artemis is the patron of young women and the protectress of childbirth. Having acted as midwife to her twin brother, she continues this role for mortals. Because of her virginity, Artemis has an uncommon level of independence even for goddesses, and spends most of her time in the forests.
When she was a young maiden, Artemis asked her father Zeus if she could remain a virgin, never to be married off. He accepted, and while a number of men try to rape or seduce her, every one of them die for it.
While Artemis’ main role is aiding childbirth, she was worshipped as a patron goddess of Sparta (alongside her brother) and a big contributor to Greece’s success in the Persian Wars. Because of this, she is commonly sacrificed to before battles.
Apollo (left) and Artemis (right) on an Attic red-figure cup. circa 470 BC
Also known as: Phoebus, Loxias, Musagetes
Patron of: Healing and plagues, archery, music, prophesy, and the sun
Attributes (how to recognise him in art): Bow, quiver and arrows, laurel wreath, tripod, lyre, youthful beardless figure
In typical fashion, Zeus got the goddess Leto pregnant and his wife Hera hated her for it. So she chased the pregnant Leto around the world, refusing her a place to give birth. Until finally, Leto came across the rocky and barren island Delos. Here, Leto gave birth to Artemis, and then Artemis acted as midwife while Leto birthed Apollo (the gods come out fully grown in many stories).
Apollo, lord of archery, decided that he would be the great prophesier for the gods. So, he made his way to the famous oracle of Delphi, and there he killed the great serpent Python, who guarded the oracle. Thus he ‘took possession of the oracular seat’ (Apollodorus, The Library).
Despite his frequent bouts of violence, Apollo is considered by the ancient Greeks to be reason and moderation personified. He is never liked by Hera, both because he is the son of a rival, and also because he himself kills one of her children. But everyone else thinks he’s just great.
Also known as: Mercury, prince of thieves, giant-slayer, psychopompos (who escorts the deceased to the afterlife)
Patron of: heralds, thieves, travellers, luck and commerce; he is the messenger god
Attributes (how to recognise him in art): Winged cap and boots, traveller’s cloak and pointed hat, youthful, usually beardless figure, caduceus (a staff with wings and two snakes wound around it – not to be mistaken with the staff of Asclepius, which has one snake and is now an international symbol of medicine),
One of the most mischievous and inventive gods of the Greek pantheon is Hermes, the messenger god. Because of his role as messenger and guide, he came to represent the crossing of boundaries in Greek thought.
Hermes’ patronage of travellers (and his role guiding the dead across the river Styx to the underworld), didn’t go unappreciated. In his name, stone pillars called Hermae were put up along roadsides to guide people and give them good fortune. These unusual pillars are some of the earliest examples of Greek sculpture, and feature phalluses but no other limbs.
You can find some Hermae displayed on your way up the Acropolis! These ancient pillars have lost their heads and their shafts, but they’re still very cool to see.
Hermes is also father to Pan, god of the wild; and leader of the Nymphs and Graces. He is known as the prince of thieves because in various episodes he’s stolen Poseidon’s trident, Artemis’ arrows, Apollo’s sacred herd, and Aphrodite’s girdle. He is also credited with inventing the alphabet, the pan pipe, and the game of knucklebones, among others.
Also known as: Vulcan
Patron of: Forges and craftsmen; he is the lame-legged god of crafts, building and metal-work
Attributes (how to recognise him in art): Axe, tongs, working apron, sometimes has backward-facing feet, or even wheelchair-bound
Hephaestus is the Olympians’ craftsman, making many of their iconic tools. He is lame-footed because (in some stories) when he was born, Hera was enraged that her husband Zeus had once again cheated on her, so she threw his child from Mount Olympus.
In other stories, Hera gave birth to Hephaestus herself, without a partner, and she flung him from Olympus because of his deformity. There he grew up, and returned to the home of the gods when he was older.
Hephaestus is ill-matched in his marriage to the beautiful goddess Aphrodite, and she cheats on him with Ares, among others. He spends much of his time in his forges within the mountains, and always remains a rather unglamorous god.
Also known as: Bacchus, Iacchus
Patron of: Wine, fertility, life-force, ecstasy and madness, theatre
Attributes (how to recognise him in art): Vines, a wreath of vine leaves, drinking cup, thyrsus (staff with a pinecone atop it), youthful figure; he is often accompanied by wild animals, satyrs and maenads
The god of wine, madness and theatre, Dionysus is one of my all-time favourites. He’s such an unusual character. Joyful and extravagant, he regularly has orgies of wine and feasting. Satyrs and maenads (mad, dancing women whose name translates to ‘the raving ones’) spend their days with him in excess.
The humour and frivolity of Greek comedy was developed with the tastes of this god in mind. These plays are often garish and absurd, and totally irreverent even to the gods.
Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Semele, ‘delivered by a fiery midwife – Zeus’ lightning flash’ (Euripides, Bacchae) which, in many stories, killed his mother.
Also known as: Pluto, Pluton, Zeus Katachthonos, Kronides (son of Kronos), Aidoneus
Patron of: The dead; he rules over the Underworld, in many stories unwillingly
Attributes (how to recognise him in art): Scepter, older bearded figure, often depicted with Cerberus, the multi-headed dog that guards the gates of hell.
Ancient Roman statues of Persephone, Hades and Cerberus
The eldest son of Kronos and Rhea and the last to be regurgitated by his father, Hades has a bit of a raw deal. After they overthrew Kronos and the Titans, Hades and his brothers Zeus and Poseidon drew lots for what parts of the world would be their domain. Zeus drew the sky, Poseidon the seas, and Hades the underworld, Erebos.
Hades is not considered to be displeased with his lot, and rules fairly. He is stern and unmoved by prayer, and remains a shadowy, unknowable personality. He’s quite different to the Christian conception of the Devil, which is partially because in Greek mythos, everyone goes to the Underworld when they die, not just evil-doers.
Also known as: Kore, Core, Proserpina
Patron of: Spring growth; she is the goddess of the Underworld, (abducted) wife to Hades
Attributes (how to recognise her in art): Torch, pomegranate, ear of corn
Hades abducts Persephone. Pottery made and found in Taranto (Italy), 350-325 BC
Persephone is the cheerful maiden of springtime, daughter of Zeus and Demeter. One day, while picking flowers, she is abducted by Hades and brought to the underworld where he dwells. Hades tricks her into being unable to leave by giving her a pomegranate to eat. The pomegranate is an ancient Greek symbol of marriage, and when she eats just one seed of the fruit, she is bound to her new husband for ever.
However, Persephone’s lot is not too bad. She is the queen of the Underworld, and may return to her mother and Mount Olympus a full two-thirds of the year. When she comes, Spring begins. And when she returns to her dark home, Winter darkens the land above.
Also known as: Vesta
Patron of: The hearth (the fireplace, central to food-making and home-making)
Attributes (how to recognise her in art): Mature, matronly figure – she is very rarely depicted in art, and has mainly been identified through context
The firstborn of Kronos and Rhea, Hestia is peaceful and pure. You won’t find her in many myths, because as her patronage suggests, she tends to be home, tending the hearth.
Hestia is the firstborn of the Olympians, but because she’s the last one to be thrown up by Kronos, she’s often referred to as the youngest of his children! Funny, that. And while her role isn’t very glamorous, making and preserving fire was a difficult and vital role in primitive societies, so she has always been an important goddess.
Closing up our Greek myths
So, these are ancient Greece’s most important myths and gods! Of course, Greece has one of, if not the most well-documented mythologies in all of human history, so there’s a huge wealth of material. Follow along as we deep dive into some of them over the next few months!
And of course, if you would like to know more about a particular god, hero or character in mythological Greece, please let me know. I’ll do my very best!
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Circa 8 AD. Translated by Raeburn, D. 2004
Hesiod. Theogony. Circa 700 BC. Translated by West, M. L.
Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Circa 600 BC. Translated by Athanassakis, A. N. 1976
Apollodorus, The Library. Circa 100-200 AD. Translated by Mezzabotta, M
Euripides, Bacchae. Circa 405 BC. Translated by Johnston, I. 2003