In Greek mythology the universe created the gods, rather than the other way around. Heaven and Earth existed first as vague entities, and their children were the Titans. The children of the Titans were the Olympians, the principal Greek gods. The Titans, or Elder Gods, ruled the universe until the gods overthrew them. Cronus (in Latin Saturn) is the most important and powerful, and other notable Titans include Ocean, Mnemosyne (Memory), Atlas (who holds up the earth), and Prometheus, who became the helper of mortals.
The fact that the gods are created rather than creators affirms a uniqueness of Greek mythology. This also supports Hamilton’s theory that the Greek gods were more human and familiar than the deities of most other cultures. Heaven and Earth are interesting deities, as they are both physical places and living beings. The Greeks felt an “aliveness” in all of Nature, which would later manifest itself as nymphs and sea-gods.
Hamilton then describes the home of the gods, Mount Olympus. There is a physical Mount Olympus in Thessaly, Greece, but the home of the gods is mysteriously conceived of as both a high mountain and a vast, heavenly region. It is not part of heaven, however, but neither is it on earth, the sea, or the realm of the dead. Olympus is a perfect place where rain never falls and the gods spend their time feasting and listening to music.
The Greek heaven is also familiar and merely an exaggeration of human pleasures. Though its physical qualities are left mysterious and self-contradictory, Olympus is basically a place where the Greeks could imagine the “purer” pleasures being fully enjoyed at all times – music, food, and beauty.
Hamilton then names the twelve proper Olympians with their Greek and Latin names: Zeus (Jupiter), the leader, his brothers Poseidon (Neptune) and Hades, also called Pluto, their sister Hestia (Vesta), Zeus’s wife Hera (Juno), their son Ares (Mars), and Zeus’s other children: Athena (Minerva), Apollo, Aphrodite (Venus), Hermes (Mercury), Artemis (Diana), and Hera’s son Hephaestus (Vulcan).
Mythology is something like a large, complex study guide, and Hamilton logically begins by listing the main characters. These gods will reappear throughout the tales and develop characters of their own, but at first it is useful to have them all listed here at once for easy reference.
When they first began to rule, Zeus and his brothers drew lots and Zeus became Lord of the Sky and supreme ruler, while Poseidon got the sea and Hades the underworld. Zeus is the mightiest of the gods, and wields the thunderbolt, but despite his power he can also be opposed and tricked. The mysterious power of Fate is often more powerful than he is as well.
Hamilton introduces the power of fate here, which will be an important theme in many myths. Even the fact that Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades “drew lots” shows that they themselves are not supreme deciders of destiny – there is still randomness and fate that controls their lives as well.
Zeus mostly has two seemingly contradictory traits. He is constantly falling in love with new women, and then using a variety of tricks to hide his trysts from Hera, his wife. At the same time, Zeus is the most glorious god, and he demands upright moral actions from his followers.
Many of the gods have these contradictory sides, which makes sense as the Greeks were using them to explain life itself, which is often self-contradictory, and simultaneously both foolish and solemn.
Hera is both Zeus’s sister and his wife. She is the protector of marriage and married women, but otherwise she an unlikeable goddess. She is constantly punishing Zeus’s lovers, whether they are innocent are not. She holds long grudges, like making sure Troy was destroyed just because Paris, a Trojan, had judged another goddess to be more beautiful.
Hera is the epitome of the jealous, capricious side of the gods, as her punishments usually outweigh the crimes, and sometimes there is no crime at all, she is just jealous of a mortal’s beauty or luck. Her character shows that the gods are certainly not always shining examples of justice.
Poseidon is the ruler of the sea, and second to Zeus in power. He carries a trident and gave the first horse to mankind. His brother Hades rules over the dead and the metals buried underground. Hades rarely leaves the underworld to visit Olympus, and the gods do not welcome him. He is not an evil god, but terrible and just.
The sea was very important to the Greeks as a method of travel and source of food, so Poseidon was a very significant god, and he will be accompanied by a host of other creatures.
Pallas Athena is the child of Zeus alone, as she sprang fully-armored from his head. She is warlike and fierce, but she also protects cities and civilizations. Phoebus Apollo is a beautiful god who plays the lyre. He is the god of both Light and Truth, he taught mortals the art of Healing, and he wields a bow. His oracle at Delphi is important in many myths. There are a few stories where Apollo is cruel and merciless, but mostly he is civilized and poetic.
Apollo is the “most Greek” of the gods, almost entirely pure and holy, the representative of truth, light, and music. But at the same time he can be terrifying with his bow, and he is on occasion randomly cruel. Athena also shares this dichotomy. She was the god most beloved of the city of Athens, the first democracy.
Artemis is the Lady of Wild Things, hunting, and the protector of maidens. In some myths she is terrible and frightening, but in others she is the epitome of purity and chastity. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, is sometimes the daughter of Zeus and sometimes is born of the sea-foam. Aphrodite is joyful and mischievous, but also sometimes weak and malicious.
There are a surprising number of unmarried, forest-loving maidens in the myths, and Artemis and Athena both scorn love. Like most of the gods, Artemis and Aphrodite have both a purer, more civilized side and a more brutal, frightening side. For Aphrodite this describes the extremes of love itself.
Hermes is Zeus’s messenger, who wears winged sandals and a winged hat. He is the most cunning god, both the lord of Commerce and the Divine Herald leading dead souls to the underworld. Hermes appears in more myths than any other god. Ares, the God of War, is a hated god with little personality who delights in chaos and bloodshed. The Romans liked him more than the Greeks did, and to them Mars was a noble, powerful warrior.
Hamilton will slowly piece together the different ideals valued by the Greeks and the Romans, and these will define many of their gods and heroes. It is significant that Ares was hated by the Greeks, but honored by the Romans – generally, Roman culture celebrated warfare for its own sake more, while the Greeks preferred strength to protect beauty.
Hephaestus is the God of Fire, and the only ugly god. He is the armorer and smith of the gods, and along with Athena is the patron of handicrafts. Sometimes his forge is associated with volcanic eruptions. Hestia is a virgin goddess who rarely appears in the myths, but she was important in every Greek home as she was the Goddess of the Hearth.
Hestia’s character shows how the myths are not necessarily accurate portrayals of Greek religious life – Hestia rarely appears, but she was important in daily life. The other gods are more important for the great stories they inspire and the natural phenomena they explain.
Besides the twelve Olympians, there are other lesser divinities in Olympus as well. The most important is Eros (Cupid in Latin), the God of Love. He is Aphrodite’s son, and carries arrows of sudden passion. Hebe is the Goddess of Youth, and the Graces incarnate aspects of beauty and happiness. There are also nine Muses who inspire art, music, and science.
The Greeks also used their mythology to help explain abstract concepts, which for them also had a sort of “aliveness.” In this way it made sense that some people had been blessed with gifts of poetry or song, as they had been blessed by the Muses.
Other abstract ideas are also vaguely personified as gods, like Themis (Divine Justice), Dike (Human Justice), Nemesis (Righteous Anger), and Aidos, the feeling of shame that keeps humans from doing wrong.
Themis becomes more important later, at least according to Hamilton, by signifying Zeus’s divine morality as well as his power – Justice herself resides with him.
Supernatural figures live in other places beside Olympus. The sea is associated with Ocean, the Titan who rules a river that encircles the earth. In the sea dwell Pontus (the Deep Sea), Nereus (the Old Man of the Sea), the Nereids (sea nymphs), Triton (the trumpeter of the sea), Proteus (a shapeshifter), and the Naiads, who are water nymphs.
The sea and waterways were very important in Greek daily life, and they explained the many currents, storms, and sea life with a host of supernatural creatures. This helped make sense of the seeming randomness of Nature.
The underworld is ruled by Hades and his queen Persephone. The underworld itself is often called Hades as well, and is a mysterious place somewhere beneath the earth. Tartarus and Erebus are its two realms: Tartarus is where the Titans are imprisoned, and Erebus is where mortals go when they die.
The underworld only occasionally appears in the myths, and Hades himself rarely so. The poets preferred not to “linger there,” though its complex geography was necessary to make sense of death.
Different poets describe Hades differently – to Homer is a vague, unhappy, dreamlike place, while to Virgil and others there are parts where the wicked are punished and the righteous rewarded. Virgil describes the geography of Hades as well: there are five rivers, Acheron (river of woe), Cocytus (river of lamentation), Phlegethon (river of fire), Styx (river of the gods’ unbreakable oath), and Lethe (river of forgetfulness).
The different poets’ descriptions of Hades show how ideas about death changed. The earlier Greeks, more concerned with entertainment and explanation, saw the underworld as it seems from a naturalistic perspective, while the later Romans desired divine justice, and so had the sinful punished and the righteous rewarded.
Charon is an old boatman who guides souls across the Acheron and Cocytus, and then a three-headed dog called Cerberus guards the gate of Hades. Rhadamanthus, Minos, and Aeacus are three former kings who judge the dead souls. Good souls are sent to the blissful Elysian Fields, while evil ones are sentenced to eternal torment. Somewhere in the underworld is Pluto’s ghostly palace. The Furies, who punish the wicked, live in Hades also, along with the personifications of Sleep and Death.
The underworld became a realm of the both the mysterious – sleep and dreaming – and the frightening – punishment and torture. The characters and geography recur throughout the myths, with a different emphasis each time. Many of these figures have become archetypal in modern Western literature.
Many lesser gods dwell on Earth as well. Earth herself is called “All-Mother,” but she is never personified as a goddess. Pan is the chief of the half-goat Satyrs. He plays the pipes and dances with the Oreads (mountain nymphs) and Dryads (tree nymphs). Silenus is Pan’s son, a fat old man who rides a donkey and is always drunk.
The Greeks were especially fond of trees, as the myths will show, but like everywhere else they populated the earth with many supernatural creatures to explain natural phenomena and provide entertainment and beauty.
Castor and Pollux are twins who are sometimes gods. There are different stories about them, but always they represent brotherly devotion, as when Castor was killed, Pollux asked to die also to be with his brother. Zeus rewarded their love by letting them spend half their time in Hades and half in Olympus. They are represented by the Gemini (Twins) stars, and they protect sailors.
Many “explanation” myths have to do with stars and constellations, like this one. The idea of spending part of one’s time dead and part alive will repeat with Demeter and Dionysus, and reflects the mystery of winter and spring – for half of the year the earth seems dead, and then everything is reborn.
Also on earth are the Sileni and the Centaurs, who are both part human, part horse, as well the wind gods: Aeolus the King of Winds, Boreas (the North Wind), Zephyr (the West Wind), Notus (the South Wind), and Eurus (the East Wind). The Gorgons are three sisters, dragonlike monsters whose look turns mortals to stone. The Graiae are also three sisters, old women who share one eye between them. The Sirens live on an island and lure sailors to death with their song.
These half-humans and monsters seem to go against Hamilton’s theory of the Greeks’ rational, human universe. The Gorgons mostly exist for a hero to slay, but the Sileni and Centaurs are part of the natural world, neither good nor evil. These are the parts of the myths that Hamilton saw as “still primitive.”
The three Fates are very important but have no assigned home in heaven or earth. They are three sisters who control the destinies of mortals. Clotho is the spinner of life’s thread, Lachesis assigns one’s destiny, and Atropos cuts the thread at death.
The Fates rarely appear, but sometimes they seem like the most powerful forces in the universe, as even Zeus cannot go against them. They live outside of space and time, and are perhaps a rationalization of the sometimes cruel randomness of life.
In general the Romans adopted the Greek gods and Greek mythology, changing only the names of the deities. The original Roman gods were vague, abstract divinities without personality: The Numina presided over various daily practices, the Lares were spirits of a family’s ancestors, and the Penates guarded hearths and storehouses. Saturn was one of the Numina, but he later merged with Cronus, the father of Jupiter (Zeus).
The Romans, as conquerors of many cultures and countries, adopted many of those cultures into their own, but they were clearly most enthralled with Greek mythology. Except for these few examples, Greek mythology became Roman mythology, with only the names changed and more emphasis on the martial aspects of the stories.
Janus was another of the original Numina, “the god of good beginnings” who had two faces, one young and one old. Other notable Roman deities were Faunus, Quirinis (the deified Romulus, Rome’s founder), the wicked Lemures, Pomona, and Vertumnus.
Like the Greeks, the Romans also had gods who were important in daily life but had few myth-worthy stories told about them.