Mythology

A short introduction to Ancient Greeks, the Gods of Olympus and other stories

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Greek mythology is the last trace of the prehistoric Greek religion. Over a millennium before Christ the ancient Greeks believed in the Olympians, a group of all-powerful gods. The myths that have come down to us involve their adventures and lives, as well as those of the famous heroes of ancient Greece, like Odysseus and Jason. These myths survived because they had the greatest number of followers. The approach of treating them more like bedtime stories is erroneous at best. The modern world fails to realize that these myths express historical facts, ancient philosophies and most of all, an unique world view.

The Olympians, named so because they resided on Mount Olympus, were ruled by Zeus, the supreme deity. However, they were not the first gods to appear. According to Hesiod's Theogonia, the first divinities were Eros (love), Erebus (underworld), Uranus (sky), Nyx (night), and Gaia (earth). These gods were born of Chaos, the primeval state of life. Chaos meant gaping void in ancient Greek. Chaos was a bottomless pit, where everything fell endlessly until Earth was born to form a bottom. This lifeless mass did not possess even a latent form of order and direction, and everything within it traveled in all possible directions. Furthermore, it never went away - when the sky was separated from the earth it remained between them. One might say that all the efforts of civilization are directed toward overcoming chaos, and that civilization never had any other aim.

The first gods were born of mating or division. Most of the gods born of division embody negative concepts - Deception, Distress, Sarcasm, Death and more. They were the children of Nyx, goddess of the night.

An alternative view, put forth in antiquity by Greek philosopher Pherecydes, is that Chronos (time) was the first god ever (hence chronology, chronicles, etc). Gods like Aphrodite and Ares, generally considered secondary, were the first elements of Empedocles, who created the universe out of four principles, based on this opposition of love and war. Chronos was the father of Zeus. The Olympians ruled the earth and all of its natural forces, which are considered the bodies of the gods. The people in ancient Greece always prayed to them before embarking on a journey so they'd be assured a safe passage.

The oldest myths can be traced back to Hesiod and Homer. They appeared around eight centuries before Christ. They can hardly be considered authentic today, as they were part of the prehistoric oral tradition. They have undergone countless modifications and revisions. The issue of originality is important, because there is evidence that shocking tales of incest, murder and cannibalism have been omitted. The notions themselves have been preserved in myths.

Zeus was the father of heroes Heracles and Perseus, and the youngest son of Chronos. His siblings were Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter and Hestia. When he was born his father wanted to swallow him like he had the rest. Note the fascinating philosophical aspect - being born and losing your life to time. The mother of Zeus, the Titan Rhea, hid him in a cave, which was located in Crete on Mount Dicte. Today this cave is a top tourist attraction. When he grew up Zeus forced Chronos to purge his siblings, and these gods took control of the world. He divided up the world with his brothers, Hades and Poseidon, and took the sky. Poseidon took the sea, and Hades took the underworld.

Zeus married his sister Hera, the goddess of wedlock. She was the supreme queen of the Olympian gods. She despised Heracles, her husband's son born of a mortal woman. She was more favourable toward the hero Jason, who could not have regained the Golden Fleece without her help. The cult of Hera goes a long way farther back than that of Zeus. She was worshipped throughout Greece and most of the main temples were dedicated to her. Her image as a petty, jealous woman subordinated to her husband reflects the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, which occurred in antiquity.

Heracles received the standing of a god after his death. He married the goddess Hebe and they lived on Mount Olympus. The god Dionysus, associated with wine, replaced earth goddess Hestia in the pantheon of the most supreme gods. She was happy to relinquish her place, as she grew tired of the constant bickering of the gods. Dionysus is the son of Semele, a mortal woman, and Zeus. Zeus had sent Semele to the underworld as a punishment, and Dionysus rescued her. Consequently the god of the sky showed his evil nature and struck her with lightning. The god of wine gave Midas the dubious privilege of turning everything he touched into gold, and thankfully took this power away later.

Hades is a major deity, but he is not considered an Olympian because he resided in the underworld. Another god that merits special attention is Pan, the god of shepherds. He is the son of Hermes, the messenger. His mother was a nymph, but he himself had no luck with this group. Pan had an ugly form, with the horns and legs of a goat. The nymph Echo spurned him and lost her voice, doomed only to repeat others until the end of time. The word panic is also derived from Pan. Ancient Greeks believed that this god caused people to feel sudden fear in vast, isolated places.

The age of the Olympians was superseded by the age of gods and men. In this epoch gods and men moved together in the world. This period is marked by several distinct tendencies. Male deities seduced or raped mortal women to produce a hero. Most often Zeus was in this position. Very rarely female deities seduced mortal men, as was the case with Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who slept with Anchises and gave life to Aeneas. Another demigod, born of such an union was Achilles.

Obviously people could not explain natural phenomena like fire in ancient times, so they attributed this to the gods. Such are the myths of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, Tantalus, who stole their nectar and ambrosia and gave it to his followers, and Demeter, who taught agriculture to Triptolemus. Prometheus and Tantalus were punished severely. Tantalus was doomed to stand under a fruit tree in a pool of water. When he tried to drink water, it disappeared, and when he tried to grab fruit, the tree raised its branches just out of his reach. You can guess where the word tantalize comes from.

The tales of Jason and the Argonauts, the Trojan War, Odysseus, the Iliad and others were created in the so-called age of heroes, which came after the age of gods and men.

Song, dance, poetry, science, philosophy and art were attributed to the Muses, who provided inspiration. According to Hesiod they were born of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. There were three original Muses - song, practice and memory. The last muse was named Mneme. You can see this root in amnesia, for example. According to the canon the muses were nine. They symbolized epic poetry, religious poetry, love poetry, music, history, tragedy, dance, astronomy and comedy.

Obviously we cannot mention all the gods and goddess here, so it will suffice to note several of the more interesting ones. The goddess Nemesis symbolizes fate, or at least that aspect of it related to divine retribution. Indeed, divine justice is a major element in Greek myths. This goddess brought swift vengeance against those who committed hubris - mortals who dared to put themselves on par with the gods. She is believed to be a daughter of Zeus, and alternatively of Nyx, the dreadful goddess of night. The goddess of victory was Nike. Sound familiar? Of course. Her greatest power was flying and running at an amazing speed. Bia was the embodiment of force. She was Nike's sister. She is a major character in Prometheus Bound, a Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, relating the story of his punishment for stealing the gods' fire. Many centuries later Percy Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound, in line with the Romanticist dogma that humans are supreme governors of the universe.

Finally we come to Thanatos, the god of death. He was the son of Nyx. This ugly god was associated purely with darkness and pain, manifesting the eternal fear of death. Later on he came to be portrayed as a beautiful young man, when people started to see death as romantic instead of terrifying. However, in the most ancient myths he is presented as the worst of Night's offspring. That definitely says something considering the traits of this lot. An exception is Affection. This deity is the only child of Night with some redeeming qualities. Although this isn't certain - Affection is placed between Deception and Old Age. Indeed, the line between affection and deception, or love and betrayal, is very thin. The view was that after a life of both, you come to old age, when nothing matters any more.

Thanatos was hard to deceive, but some managed to. One such entity was Sisyphus. When his time to die came, he chained the god of death with his own shackles. This meant that no mortals could die. Ares evetually freed the god and gave Sisyphus over to him, but this didn't stop the cunning man. He told his wife to make no sacrifices after his death, and when he travelled to the underworld, he complained to Hades that nobody was honoring his passing. Hades then sent him back to Earth to confront his wife. Naturally Sisyphus remained there for quite a bit. Zeus found out and condemned Sisyphus to push a heavy rock up a hill, only to see it roll back down repeatedly. Today Sisyphus is practically synonymous with heavy, meaningless labor.

Greek myths feature a myriad of sea gods. This is because most of the major Greek cities were located along the Mediterranean coastline. Plato once likened the Greeks to frogs huddling around a pond. Some Greek philosophers claimed the sea gods were primordial powers and that water was the first element. This focus on sea deities is reminiscent of Genesis, where the spirit of God is described as hovering over waters. Jesus walking on water and Moses parting the Red Sea are important to view in this regard. The myth of Arachne is truly poignant. Arachne was a mortal woman gifted in the art of weaving. She defied the goddess Athena to weave a more beautiful tapestry than her. Angered by the challenge, Athena touched Arachne's forehead to make her regret her actions. Arachne lapsed into depression and hanged herself. The goddess pitied her and brought her back to life - as a spider. The myth lies behind the term arachnophobia - fear of spiders.

The gods of Mount Olympus were perfect in form - they never got sick, they never suffered, and they never died. In spirit, they were comparable to humans - sometimes heroic and majestic and sometimes petty and trivial. We thus come back to the quote from the Iliad, mentioned at the outset. We put our faith and hope in beings, who are just like us. We are not comfortable believing that those above us are actually superior in quality, but we are likewise not comfortable believing that we are alone in the universe.