Main The Mythology Book

The Mythology Book

More than 80 classic myths retold and explained, from early creation beliefs to classical hero narratives and the recurring theme of the afterlife.

The latest title in the bestselling Big Ideas series,The Mythology Book explores the compelling worlds and characters depicted in myths and legends. Delve into each myth and discover the meanings behind these stories, getting to the heart of their significance to different cultures worldwide. More than just stories, myths are testament to the amazing creativity of humans striving to explain and make sense of the world around them.
Year: 2018
Language: english
Series: Big Ideas Simply Explained
File: PDF, 20.80 MB
Download (pdf, 20.80 MB)

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Gaia first gave birth to her equal, Ouranos
Origin of the universe
Rhea swaddled up a stone and passed it to Kronos to swallow
The birth of Zeus
Zeus in his first youth battered the earthborn Titans
The war of the gods and Titans
No wind beats roughly here, no snow nor rain
Mount Olympus
He bound cunning Prometheus in inescapable fetters
Prometheus helps mankind
Her impulse introduced sorrow and mischief to the lives of men
Pandora’s box

Zeus had many women, both mortal and immortal
The many affairs of Zeus
Mighty Hades who dwells in houses beneath the earth
Hades and the Underworld
He slipped a pomegranate, sweet as honey, into her hand
The abduction of Persephone
The raving ladies streamed out of their homes
The cult of Dionysus
Turning round, he caught a glimpse of his wife and she had to return
Orpheus and Eurydice
A bringer of dreams
Hermes’ first day
Athena presents the olive tree, Poseidon the wave
The founding of Athens
I will give infallible counsel to all who seek it
Apollo and the Oracle of Delphi
One loved; the other fled the name of love
Apollo and Daphne

Life and death are balanced on the edge of a razor
The Trojan War
This pair of tyrants. They murdered my father
Orestes avenges Agamemnon

Tell me oh muse, the hero’s story
The quest of Odysseus
After the labours had been accomplished, he would be immortal
The labours of Herakles
He had the face of a bull, but the rest of him was human
Theseus and the Minotaur
Disdaining his father’s warnings, the exhilarated Icarus soared ever
Daedalus and Icarus
Watching the Gorgon’s head in the polished shield, he beheaded her
Perseus and Medusa
Hate is a bottomless cup, I will pour and pour
Jason and Medea
Unfortunate Oedipus – of all men, least to be envied!
The fate of Oedipus

She wants Adonis more than she does heaven itself
Aphrodite and Adonis
Whatever I touch, may it be transformed into tawny gold
King Midas
In a single day and night the island of Atlantis disappeared beneath the
The legend of Atlantis

I sing of arms and the man
Aeneas, founder of Rome
A desire seized Romulus and Remus to build a city
The founding of Rome
The father of gods spurts red flames through the clouds
Numa outwits Jupiter
Conceive of Vesta as naught but the living flame
Vesta and Priapus
The fates will leave me my voice, and by my voice I shall be known
The sibyl of Cumae

I love you as I love my own soul
Cupid and Psyche

I am on fire with love for my own self
Narcissus and Echo
She yet spins her thread, as a spider
Arachne and Minerva
I pay the due penalty in blood
Cybele and Attis
Mithras is the Lord of generation
Mithras and the bull
He carved a statue out of snow-white ivory
For lying with me, take control of the hinge
Carna and Janus
No wood nymph could tend a garden more skilfuly than she
Pomona and Vertumnus
Even death shall not part us
Pyramus and Thisbe
Those whom the gods care for are gods
Philemon and Baucis

From Ymir’s flesh the earth was made
Creation of the universe
The ash of Yggdrasil is the noblest of trees
Odin and the World Tree
The first war in the world
War of the gods

They mixed honey with the blood and it turned into mead
The Mead of Poetry
Thor might smite as hard as he desired and the hammer would not fail
The treasures of the gods
Am I wrong in thinking that this little fellow is Thor?
The adventures of Thor and Loki in Jötunheim
The unluckiest deed ever done amongst gods and men
The death of Baldur
Brother will fight brother and be his slayer
The twilight of the gods
When the worm comes to the water, smite him in the heart
Sigurd the dragon slayer
Wonderful the magic sampo, plenty does it bring to northland
The Kalevala
The Dagda was eighty years in the kingship of Ireland
A complex god
As soon as he touched the earth, he was a heap of ashes
The voyage of Bran
One will be long forgetting Cúchulainn
The cattle raid of Cooley
He has the name of being the strongest and bravest man in Ireland
Finn MacCool and the Giant’s Causeway
So they took the blossoms and produced from them a maiden
Who so pulleth out this sword is the rightwise king born of all England
The legend of King Arthur


From the great heaven the goddess set her mind on the great below
The descent of Inanna
Command and bring about annihilation and re-creation
Marduk and Tiamat
Who can rival his kingly standing?
The epic of Gilgamesh
Two spirits, one good, the other evil, in thought, word, and deed
Ahura Mazda and Ahriman
Brahma opened his eyes and realised he was alone
Brahma creates the cosmos
Siva placed the elephant’s head on the torso and revived the boy
The birth of Ganesha
O king, it is wrong to gamble oneself
The game of dice
Rama is virtuous and the foremost among all righteous men
The Ramayana
I am the lady, ruler of the worlds
Durga slays the buffalo demon
O! Meenakshi! Fish-eyed goddess! Grant me bliss!
The fish-eyed goddess finds a husband
You are to be the king over all the world
The origins of the Baiga
Yang became the heavens Yin became the earth
Pangu and the creation of the world

The ten suns all rose at once, scorching the sheaves of grain
Yi shoots the sun
I’ll roam the corners of the oceans and go to the edge of the sky
The adventures of the Monkey King
Having finished making the lands, they went on to make its spirits
Izanagi and Izanami
All manner of calamities arose everywhere
Susanoo and Amaterasu
Your rice of the Skyworld is good
Fire and rice
There was a man called Dan’gun Wanggeom who created a city and
founded a nation
The legendary foundation of Korea
Hae Mosu made the sun shine and its rays caressed Yuwha’s body


The Earth is a giant island floating in a sea of water
Cherokee creation
It will not be well if they omit it
Spider Woman
Begin a Deerskin Dance for it because everything will come out well
from that
The Woge settle a dispute
She was the shade of the whale
The raven and the whale
And the sun belongs to one and the moon to the other
The Hero Twins
So then the sun went into the sky
The legend of the five suns
In the beginning, and before this world was created, there was a being
called Viracocha
Viracocha the Creator
The canoe was a wonder
The first canoe
The creator of the world has always existed
The sky makes the sun and earth

I was alone with the Primeval Ocean
The creation and the first gods
Hail to you, Ra, perfect each day!
The night barque of Ra
Isis lived in the form of a woman, who had the knowledge of words of

Ra’s secret name

He will not die! Osiris will live a life forever
Osiris and the underworld
If they built fires, evil would come
San creation myth
I will give you something called cattle
En-kai and the cattle
Tie the calabash behind you and then you will be able to climb the tree
Ananse the spider
The life-force of the earth is water
The Dogon cosmos
The queen wants to kill you
Eshu the trickster

Come and hear our stories, see our land
The Dreaming
Spear me slowly. I still have more to teach you
The killing of Luma-Luma

The world of myth is never far-off
The Déma
Master of everything that is
Ta’aroa gives birth to the gods
Death obtained power over mankind
Tane and Hine-titama
But the redoubtable Maui was not to be discouraged
Maui of a thousand tricks
What would you say to our driving the birds to Easter Island?
Makemake and Haua
When I utter his name, he hears in the heavens
Mapusia and the Work of the Gods
I do not forget the guiding stars
Aluluei and the art of navigation


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With rare exceptions – such as a recently discovered Amazonian tribe, the
Pirahãs – every human culture has developed its own mythology to explain
its origins and make sense of the phenomena observed in the natural world.
The word “mythology” comes from the Greek muthos, meaning “story”
and logia, “knowledge”. Myths tell of the creation of the world or predict its
end; they explain how animals were made and the land formed; they bridge
the world of humans and the world of the spirits or gods; they try to impose
order on a terrifying chaos, and to confront the mysteries of death. Crucially,
myths are also the foundation of religions: they define cultures and codify
their values.

Ancient civilizations
The mythologies of the ancient world take up much of this book. In ancient
Mesopotamia – in the crucible of civilization of the 4th millennium BCE,
when humankind first learned to live in cities – the Sumerians developed the
first recorded pantheon of deities. It was preserved in statues, carvings, and
ancient texts – such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the eponymous hero
searches for immortality. Such a quest was repeated in myths the world over.
Subsequent Mesopotamian civilizations developed, demoted, or culled the
Sumerian gods and the myths associated with them. The powerful goddess
Inanna, for example, became Ishtar in the Babylonian pantheon and later the
Phoenician goddess Astarte.
Like other civilizations, ancient Mesopotamia was shaped by the
narratives it used to explain the cosmos. Its rulers were guided by the gods,
whose capricious will was interpreted by priests. The gods had to be
continually praised and placated. During the Akitu, a 12-day festival held in

the great temple of Marduk, people chanted the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian
myth of Creation, with the force of a magical incantation in their ritual reenergizing of the cosmos.
Myth is the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.

Maya Deren

Great cultures
Myths had a great influence on the societal fabric of history’s greatest
civilizations. The rich and complex mythology of ancient Egypt emphasized
the creation of order out of chaos. Such stories validated the governance of
society and legitimized a status quo in which the pharaoh himself was viewed
as divine and therefore worthy of being served. The Egyptians also saw time
as cyclical; events that happened in their society were merely repeating what
had happened before and had been recorded in their myths.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the foundation myths of city states were
fundamental to the concepts of citizenship; they bound ideas of patriotism
and common interest with divine authority. In Greece, which consisted of
more than 1,000 city-states, each had a founding myth and a protective deity,
which led to a highly complex set of myths that was often contradictory. It
took the poets Homer and Hesiod to create a comprehensive, pan-Hellenic
record of Greek mythology. Homer’s epic stories – the Iliad and Odyssey –
and Hesiod’s Theogony comprised the first and most authoritative attempts to
weave the disparate Greek myths into one narrative thread.

In ancient Rome, the local myths of Italic peoples, such as the Latins and
the Etruscans, blended with the Greek myths that had gone before them. The
poet Virgil composed a foundation myth for Rome, the Aeneid, consciously
modelled on the epics of Homer, while Ovid retold many Greek myths in his
narrative poem Metamorphoses, and recorded the myths of a number of
purely Roman deities in his poem on the religious year, Fasti. The Romans
enriched the mix by adding deities from Phrygia (such as the Great Mother
Cybele), Egypt (the goddess Isis), and Syria (Elagabal, or Sol Invictus,
briefly the chief god of Rome).

Preserving myths
The line between literature, myth, and folktale is blurry; many myths have
been preserved as literary works. The popular tales of King Arthur are rooted
in Celtic myth; while the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the great works of
Hindu mythology, are celebrated masterpieces of epic poetry. In preliterate
societies, myths were recited and passed along orally. The written recording
of a myth depended on luck, which probably led to the disappearance of a
great many mythologies. Even in literate societies, such as the Viking-Age
Norse, some myths survived through only a single source. Had the
manuscripts of the mythological poems known as the Edda – and of Snorri
Sturluson’s later Prose Edda – been destroyed, we would know as little about
Norse mythology as we do about the myths of the ancient Britons.

Living religions

Many tribal peoples – including the Dogon of Mali, the Baiga of central
India, the Tikopia of the Solomon Islands, and the Ifugaos of the Philippines
– still live in a world suffused by what outsiders might call myths. Oral
tradition in these societies is remarkably enduring: as proven by the abundant
myths or Dreamings of the Aboriginal Australians, the myths of the déma
(creation spirits) among the Marind-Anim people of New Guinea, or the
eloquent Chantways of the Navajo in North America. Many myths from these
peoples, however, have not reached the outside world because they are secret,
or they have not been collected or translated, or they have been lost as
exposure to outsiders has attacked and destroyed indigenous cultures.
Mythology is the territory of poetic imagination, and the stories individual
cultures tell are a profound expression of the creative impulse. Yet myths are
more than simply stories; they are the stories cultures tell themselves about
the great mysteries that perplex and intrigue us all: questions of birth and
death and everything in between. Even now, myths remain the bearers of
tradition and the spiritual and moral guide of peoples all across the globe.
Myth … takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance hidden by
the veil of familiarity.

C. S. Lewis
Writer, scholar, and author of The Chronicles of Narnia

The ancient Greeks first entered the territory now associated with them in
about 2000 BCE, when Egypt was still a great power and the Minoans of Crete
were evolving into a highly sophisticated society. The first migrants, who
probably came from Russia and central Asia, settled in the mountainous north
and the Peloponnese to the south, where the city of Mycenae was founded c.
1600 BCE. Described by Homer as “rich in gold”, the Mycenaean civilization
prospered thanks to trade networks across the Aegean and Mediterranean
With the Bronze Age collapse of palace culture and the end of Mycenaean
civilization c. 1100 BCE, Greece entered its Dark Age. By the 8th century BCE,
poleis (“city-states”) began to emerge as agricultural and trading hubs.
Greece became a collection of separate city-states – such as Athens, Sparta,
and Corinth – united by a shared language and the worship of common gods.
However, Greek religion was not standardized; there was no book of doctrine
to tell people how they should worship. Their mythology borrowed from their
ancestors – the myth of the Minotaur came from the Minoans in Crete, and
the Mycenaean era was the setting for the Trojan War, immortalized in
Homer’s Iliad.

Athenian dominance
The Classical era in Greece began with the fall of the powerful Persian
empire in 479 BCE. Having defeated the Persians, the city-states of Athens
and Sparta fought each other for dominion over Greece. As the pre-eminent
power, Athens was the setting for many Greek myths, from its origins under
the care of its patron goddess, Athena, to tales such as Jason and Medea.
Many of the surviving Greek myths come to us via Athenian dramatists:
from the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in the 5th century
BCE to the comedies of Aristophanes (c.446–c.386 BCE) and Menander

(c.342–c.291 BCE). These works told stories about the gods and heroes of
Greek mythology and inspired later writers such as Shakespeare (1564–
1616), whose A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet borrow
from Greek myth.
The era of Athenian dominance ended in the 4th century BCE, when the
Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great built his empire. Thanks to
Alexander’s conquests, Greek culture and mythology were exported as far as
Asia Minor, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India.

The major deities
It was the poets Homer and Hesiod who imposed order upon the myriad gods
and beliefs inherited from earlier times. Homer set down his poetry from oral
tradition around 800 BCE, after the migrations that followed the collapse of
the Mycenaean culture. His two epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, gave the
Greeks a history, a pantheon, and guidelines for how to live their lives. As the
Olympian family of 12 principal gods dwelling on Mount Olympus gradually
replaced older beliefs, Homer and Hesiod gave them distinct characters and
appearances. Because Homer’s epic poems were set in an aristocratic and
feudal society – which preceded the birth of democracy in Athens in the 5th
century BCE – his gods behaved like chieftains, motivated solely by their own
Like other ancient agrarian peoples, the Greeks were local in their focus.
They ordered their religious life around local places, identifying different
hills, streams, and plains with different deities. This mythic lore invested
every corner of the land with spiritual significance. The earth was the source
of existence: divine power originated in its depths, as did the crops. Myths
sought to explain aspects of agrarian life. The tale of Persephone – daughter
of the harvest goddess Demeter – and her imprisonment in the Underworld
by Hades was a way of accounting for the changing cycles of the agricultural

The rise of the cult
At the end of the 5th century BCE, various mystery cults arose in the Greekspeaking world. Chief among these were the Eleusinian mysteries, an ancient
agrarian cult honouring Demeter and Persephone and promising paradise for

the dead. The Dionysian cult, which originated in Asia, worshipped Dionysus
and involved wild dancing, drinking, and ecstasy. Unlike the public worship
of the gods, which was well documented, these mystery cults consisted of
secret rites and doctrines that remain enigmatic to this day, but would go on
to influence the beliefs and myths of ancient Rome.

Creation by Mother Earth
Theogony, Hesiod, c. 700 BCE; Argonautica, Apollonius of Rhodes, c. 250
BCE; Natural History, Pliny the Elder, 79 CE; Library, PseudoApollodorus, c. 100 CE.
Chaos – a vast and infinitely dark void at the origin of the universe.
Gaia The primordial earth-mother goddess, and personification of the
solid world.
Ouranos The sky god, Gaia’s spontaneously conceived son; later father of
the Titans, the Hecatoncheires, the Kyklopes, the Erinyes, Aphrodite, and
many other gods and goddesses.
Kronos A Titan who castrated his father, Ouranos; also associated with
the harvest.

In the beginning was Chaos, an open chasm of emptiness – infinitely deep,
dark, and silent. In his vision of the universe’s origin, set down in Theogony,
the Greek poet Hesiod saw creation as the imposition of a positive reality on
this negativity and absence. Key to that reality was the capacity for change.
The nothingness of Chaos could have continued, eternally unaltered, but
existence, once created, brought with it endless cycles – the comings and
goings of the seasons, generations of humans, birth, and death. These cycles
were set in motion by the making of the original division between night and
day; time was now measurable and meaningful.
Out of the Chasm came Night, and from Night in turn came Day.


Earth mother
The first Greek goddess, Gaia, was the earth in its mineral form – its rocks
and soils, its mountains and its plains. From its solid and seemingly inert
state, it became. vibrant with the potential for new life. The first
manifestation of that new vitality was Ouranos, god of the sky, spontaneously
conceived within the womb of the great Earth Mother Gaia, with whom he
would subsequently father children.
Though Gaia’s son, Ouranos was her equal. Hesiod wrote that she bore
him specifically so that he could “cover her”. While this was a statement of
fact – the sky being above the earth – it adds more than a hint of sexuality to
the relationship between the earth and heaven. In real life, the Greeks were as
horrified at the idea of incest as we are. Its function in their mythology
appears to have been to show that all the different aspects of existence are
intensely conflicted, yet intimately linked. The sky was not simply positioned
above the earth; it conjoined with it dynamically and, ultimately, creatively,
just as night did with day, darkness with light, and death with life.

Gaia, the Earth Mother, sits with her two godly progeny at her side in an ancient Greek
stone relief. It was said that an oath sworn by Gaia would prove irrevocable.

Kinship and conflict
While creative, these conjunctions inevitably cast opposing principles into a
never-ending struggle for supremacy. Hesiod’s portrayal of primal sexual
relations was essentially violent; male and female forces as complementary
but also competing. It was far from an idealized world view, and the
depiction of Ouranos was even more extreme; the despotic patriarch would
brook no rival – not even his own children.
Ouranos’s jealousy of his sons and daughters was such that, at each birth,
he took them away and stowed each one in some hidden recess of the earth –
which was actually his wife’s body. He did this to establish his ownership of
Gaia. Her sexual attentions had to be entirely and eternally available to him,
so their offspring could not be allowed to see the light of day. Successive
infants were consigned to subterranean depths.
First came the 12 Titans – the sisters Theia, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Themis,
Tethys, and Rhea, and their brothers Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion,

Iapetus, and Kronos. Each in his or her turn was rammed into some
convenient crack or crevice of the earth and left there, trapped. After the
Titans came three giant brothers, the Kyklopes, each of whom had a single
eye at the centre of his forehead. Like their siblings, they were consigned at
birth to be buried in the heart of the earth. Then came three more giants of
even greater strength– the Hecatoncheires, whose name means “hundredhanded” in Greek. Each was also said to have 50 heads, making them
formidable – they too were incarcerated by Ouranos deep inside the earth.

The sky god Ouranos is depicted as a benign father with offspring draped around him in a
wood engraving after a fresco by the Prussian artist Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841).

Hesiod and his Theogony
The ancient Greek poet Hesiod may well be a myth in his own right for
there is no evidence that any such person actually existed. The works
attributed to him –assorted poetry from the eighth and seventh centuries
BCE – may simply have been conveniently bundled together. They include a
miscellany of poems, from brief narratives to genealogies that record the
heroic ancestries of important families.

The importance of these works in tracing
back traditions and uncovering origins is
undeniable. The genealogical poems
discuss human beginnings, while the
Theogony, Hesiod’s most famous work,
focuses on the birth of the gods and is the
source for much of what we know about
Greek myth. Hesiod was not the only
available authority; other more mysticminded thinkers and writers promoted an
alternative “Orphic” tradition, built around
the myth of Orpheus, the bard and musician. For the most part, however –
and for well over 2,000 years now – it has been the version of mythical
events attributed to Hesiod that has held sway.

The upstart son
As for Gaia, the Earth Mother felt both physically burdened by the number of
infant bodies literally forced back inside her and also deeply upset by the
attempted suppression of her children. Finally, she rebelled and appealed to
her sons for help. She secretly made a sickle out of adamant – by legend an
unbreakable mineral – and gave it to Kronos. The next time Ouranos spread
himself over her, attempting to force her into intercourse, Kronos leapt out
from his hiding-place to aid his mother. Wielding his sickle, and with one fell
swoop, he sliced off his father’s genitals.
It was the ultimate patriarchal nightmare – the father not just supplanted
by his son but castrated by him, with the connivance of his wife. Even now,
however, Ouranos’s potency was not quite spent. The splashes of blood and
semen that flew from his wound sowed spirit life wherever they landed,
bringing into being a vast assortment of new-born nymphs and giants, good
and bad. The Erinyes, three baleful sisters better known to us now as the
Furies, were angry and avenging spirits. Aphrodite was a deity of a very
different kind. Where Ouranos’s wound-spatter landed in the ocean, this most
beautiful of goddesses was born. She stepped from the waves, bringing with
her all the delights of erotic love.

Beautiful Aphrodite emerges from the ocean, where the seed of her brutal father had fallen.
The Birth of Venus (her name in Roman mythology) was painted by Peter Paul Rubens (c.

A white foam arose where the immortal skin touched water: amidst the waves, a beautiful
maiden took form.


Titans of all trades
When Kronos had finally freed his brothers and sisters from captivity in the
earth, the Titans were to serve a twofold mythic function. First, they were
living, breathing, loving, and fighting personalities. Each of them symbolized
a different aspect of existence, so that collectively they represented a way of
ordering and enriching the world. The eldest daughter Mnemosyne, for
instance, stood for the faculty of memory and all it brought with it in terms of
history, culture, and heritage. Later, having lain with her nephew Zeus, she
would give birth to the nine Muses – divine patronesses of scientific study,
historical study, poetry, and the performing arts.

Tethys, who married her brother Oceanus, went on to bear him 3,000 sons
– all river gods – and as many daughters, the Oceanids, who were nymphs of
springs, rivers, lakes, and seas. Her younger sister Theia, too, took a brother,
Hyperion, for her husband; she bore him Helios, the sun, and his sister Eos,
goddess of dawn. Helios and Eos had a sister, Selene, who was a goddess of
the moon, though her aunt Phoebe – sister to Tethys, Mnemosyne, and Theia
– also had lunar associations.
Themis, the youngest female Titan, was associated with reason, justice,
and with the orderly conduct of existence in the universe. Like her sister
Mnemosyne, she would for a time become consort to her nephew Zeus. Of
their children, the Horae (“Hours”) would oversee the measurement and
passage of the seasons and of time. Another daughter, Nemesis, took her
mother’s association with justice to violent extremes; as her name suggests,
she became notorious as the personification of punishment and divine
The name of the youngest male Titan, Iapetus, comes from iapto, a Greek
word meaning “wound” or “pierce”. The implications of this translation have
long been debated. Ancient poets seem to have been unsure whether he was
given this name because he sustained an injury or because he made the
weapon that inflicted it. Meanwhile, in classical literature, Iapetus appears
both as a deity of mortality and of skill in crafts.

Thousands of Greek deities, unanimously descended from Gaia and Ouranos, all embodied
the values, virtues, and vices of humans, vividly dramatized in the colourful mythology of
ancient Greece.

Patricidal patriarch
Artists in ancient Greece almost invariably represented Kronos carrying a
sickle – an emblem of his attack upon his father. The sickle also has more
mundane and practical associations. Kronos came to be seen as the godly
guarantor of a successful harvest. The connection between these two
functions – the idea that one generation had effectively to be destroyed for its
successor to survive and thrive, took an early hold on the Greek
Kronos, having killed his father, now replaced him as the head of the
household: he then married his sister Rhea and began to produce children of
his own. Much like his father, Kronos would soon confront the idea that
human life can only advance through intergenerational struggle. This theme
runs through the Greek mythological tradition, and is most notoriously
associated with the story of King Oedipus.

See also: The Olympian gods • The war of gods and Titans • The many
affairs of Zeus • The fate of Oedipus

Origin of the Olympian gods
Theogony, Hesiod, c. 700 BCE; Library, Pseudo-Apollodorus, c. 100 CE.
Kronos King of the Titans; son of Gaia and Ouranos.
Rhea Sister and wife of Kronos.
Hestia Goddess of the hearth.
Demeter Goddess of the harvest.
Hera Queen of the Olympian gods.
Hades Lord of the Underworld.
Poseidon God of the seas.
Zeus King of the Olympian gods; killer of Kronos.

Kronos, Titan son of the earth goddess Gaia and the sky god Ouranos, proved
every bit as possessive a patriarch as his father had been. After just one
generation, a dismal pattern of godly conduct was emerging; just as Ouranos
had dominated Gaia, Kronos required his wife and sister Rhea to be
exclusively and endlessly available to him in order to meet his sexual needs.
No one else, least of all his children, would be allowed to compete for her
attention. Having deposed his own father to become king of the Titans,
Kronos knew how dangerous it was to let a child grow in envy and rage.
Both Earth and Sky foretold him that he would be dethroned by his own son.


Determined that no one should pose such a threat to him, Kronos ensured
that the children Rhea bore him were destroyed just as quickly as they were
conceived. As soon as she gave birth to a new baby, he would swallow it
whole. Hestia, the first child that Rhea bore, was gone in a single gulp, before
her mother could even cradle her in her arms. Another daughter, Demeter,
soon followed: she too was swallowed promptly. Hera, the third daughter,
went the same way, and Kronos’s sons fared no better. First came Hades –
bolted down before he could utter his first helpless cry – swiftly followed by
the next son, Poseidon, who met the same fate.

Kronos, known as Saturn by the Romans, as depicted in Saturn Devouring His Son,
Francisco Goya, (1821–23). The work is part of the artist's “Black Paintings” series.

The despairing Rhea finally turned to her mother, the elderly Gaia, and her
neutered father Ouranos, for help. Together they hatched a devious plan to
save their daughter’s next child.

Switched with a stone
Rhea followed her parents’ advice. As soon as she had given birth to Zeus,
the last of her sons, and before his father Ouranos had a chance to see him,
she hid the baby away. Then she wrapped a stone in swaddling clothes and
handed it to her unsuspecting husband in place of the infant.
Kronos, in his rapacious greed, did not even look at the bundle before he
tipped back his head, opened his mouth wide, and dropped it in. The “baby”
tumbled straight down into his stomach, ready to join the jostling crowd of
children already there. Unknown to Kronos, they had all survived in the deep
darkness of his belly. There they grew in size and resentment.

Brought up in safety
Meanwhile, Rhea, on the recommendation of the child's grandmother, Gaia,
spirited the infant Zeus away, carrying him across the sea to the fertile island
of Crete. There, in a concealed cave on the thickly wooded slopes of Mount
Ida (now known as Psiloritis, the highest mountain on Crete), Rhea left her
son in the care of a warlike tribe called the Kouretes. They, in turn, gave the
baby to a nymph named Adamanthea (Amalthea in some sources), who
nursed Zeus in secret. According to Hesiod, the nymph was frightened that
Kronos – thanks to his universal authority over the earth, sea, and sky –
would be able to see where his son was being hidden. To prevent Kronos
from finding him, she hung Zeus from a rope that dangled between the earth
and the heavens but was in neither one realm nor the other.
Adamanthea cared for Zeus and nursed him with milk from a herd of goats
that grazed nearby. Whenever the baby gurgled, squealed, or cried, the
Kouretes danced and chanted to disguise the sound. As a result, Kronos was
completely unaware that his youngest son was still alive.

Zeus seeks his father
In no time at all, it seemed, Zeus grew to manhood. He was hungry for
revenge against his cruel father. Yet, if Zeus was ever to emerge from hiding,
some sort of showdown between them would be inevitable. Kronos could not
afford to let a potential usurper live. If he became aware of Zeus’s existence,
he would view his son only as a threat to his power.

Zeus is protected from all-seeing Kronos by his attentive nymph carers and the noise of the
Kouretes, as shown in this 17th-century painting The Childhood of Zeus on Mount Ida.

Kronos’s fear of being usurped was fully justified. When he finally met
his son, whom he believed to be dead, he was forced to yield to Zeus in the
most brutal way: Zeus simply turned up one day and, with the help of his
grandmother, Gaia, ambushed his father. He kicked Kronos violently in the
stomach and forced his father to vomit up the contents of his stomach. First to
emerge was the stone Kronos had swallowed, believing it to be the infant
Zeus. The young god took this stone and set it upright in the earth as a
monument to Kronos’s cruelty, and a symbol of his triumph over the wicked
Zeus placed the stone at the omphalos or “navel” of the Greek ancient
world – at Delphi, in the very centre of Greece. In future ages, the stone
would become a shrine, renowned for its oracle. Pilgrims would visit it to
seek the guidance of the priestess, or Sibyl, regarding their personal
problems, and the Sibyl would provide them messages of wisdom, which

were said to come directly from the gods.
First he vomited up the stone, which he had swallowed last. Zeus set it up to be a sign … a
wonder to mortal men.


Great deities disgorged
After vomiting up the stone, Kronos began to disgorge his offspring. One by
one, Zeus’s elder brothers and sisters came out of their father’s mouth – no
longer babies, now, but fully grown. Once reborn, they became the Olympian
gods and were revered for their powers.
Soon after their rebirth, the sons and daughters of Kronos went to war with
the mighty Titans for control of the cosmos. After their victory, the gods set
up their seat of power on Mount Olympus and drew lots to decide who would
take which role in ruling the universe. The three sons of Kronos divided the
cosmos up between them; one would take control of the sky, another would
have the sea, and the third would preside over the Underworld. Zeus, whose
weapon of choice was the thunderbolt, became ruler of the sky and leader of
all the Olympian gods.
Hades, the first son to be born, and the last to be regurgitated, became lord
of the Underworld. His name came to stand for both the deity and his unseen
realm, where souls go after death. Hades was not happy to have been
allocated this dismal domain, but there was nothing he could do about it.
Meanwhile, Poseidon, who had been the tiniest baby, became the almighty
“Earth-Shaker”, the god of the sea in all its awesome power.

Kronos and Rhea’s eldest child, Hestia (“hearth”), was the first to be
swallowed by her father – and the last to reappear when Zeus forced him
to vomit up his offspring. Given that she was both the oldest and youngest
of the children, she was widely referred to as “Hestia, First and Last”. Like
the later Roman god Janus, Hestia was seen as the embodiment of all of
life’s ambiguities and ambivalences. Like Janus, too, she quickly came to
be associated with the home, with domesticity and all its blessings. In

particular, her realm was that of the hearth
– the fire that was a household’s warm and
hospitable centre. The hearth was also the
site of the altar where sacrifices were
offered to any domestic gods; she presided
over these rituals, too.
Though herself a sworn virgin, having
refused all proposals of marriage, Hestia
was considered the protector of the family.
The metaphorical family of the state was
also part of her realm, and she would look
after the public altar or hearth within a city.

Disparate goddesses
The three female children of Kronos also had important roles to play. Hestia,
goddess of the hearth, ruled over people's domestic life. As goddess of the
harvest, Demeter was a life-giver to the worshippers who relied on her annual
bounty. She proved a fickle protectress, however, ready not just to cross
swords with her siblings but to withhold favours from humankind at any
perceived slight.
Hera’s role was more prominent than that of her sisters, and she became
the foremost female deity following her marriage to her brother Zeus. To her
great dismay, however, Hera never quite received the recognition and
honours she expected as the queen of the gods. As the goddess of women and
marriage, Hera was supposed to represent the archetypal wedded state, but
she became known for her marital troubles.
Nor was Hera the goddess who inspired men’s passions. While Hera was
portrayed as a wifely figure, Aphrodite was the goddess associated with
feminine beauty, sexuality, and erotic pleasures. The Greeks had these two
different deities for what, in ancient times, were considered two separate
spheres of affection. One deity represented marital love, the other romantic
and erotic love. While this distinction may now be alien to many people, in
most cultures and at most times in history, the majority of marriages were
arranged – as transactions for the management and transmission of property
and land. The idea of “companionate” marriage – in which the love between a
husband and wife is the driving factor – is a relatively modern convention.

Zeus and Hera become man and wife in a scene from a decorative, marble-and-limestone
frieze that was part of a temple in Selinunte, Sicily, dating from the 5th century BCE.

The Dodekatheon
Aphrodite was the only member of this first generation of Olympians who
was not a child of Kronos and Rhea; some accounts suggest she was the
daughter of Zeus, but Hesiod, Pausanius, and Ovid all described her as
Kronos's sister who was born from sea foam after the castration of Ouranos.
Despite being the same generation as Kronos and Rhea, she was always
considered an Olympian, rather than a Titan, and one of the gods and
goddesses who eventually made up the Dodekatheon – the 12 most important
Olympians in the Greek pantheon. The Dodekatheon included Zeus,
Demeter, Hera, Poseidon, and Aphrodite from the first generation of
Olympians. The hearth goddess Hestia was not among them, as she later
chose to live on earth to avoid her siblings’ squabbles; Hades, similarly, was
not included because he resided permanently in the Underworld.
After the war between the gods and the Titans established the Olympians
as rulers of the cosmos, the first generation of gods went on to have many
children. Many of the gods and other figures in Greek mythology were
children of Zeus.
Of the second generation of gods, several joined the Dodekatheon, and
were powerful deities in their own right. The gods Apollo, Ares, Dionysus,
Hephaistos, and Hermes all joined the ranks of Zeus and his siblings on
Mount Olympus, as did the goddesses Artemis and Athena. The Dodekatheon

met as a council to discuss matters in their ruling of the cosmos, and
Dionysus, god of wine, attained his seat at the table only after Hestia left
Olympus to reside on Earth.

Aphrodite had an illicit affair with another Olympian – Ares, the god of war. They were
caught in bed by her husband, Hephaistos, the blacksmith god, who threw a net over the pair.

Athena and her uncle Poseidon did battle over Athens – a family squabble that the goddess
won. The struggle is illustrated in this Venetian fresco by Giambattista Mengardi (1787).

Human personalities
The Olympian gods were all too human in their personalities, and often
lacked the lofty transcendence of the supreme beings in later religions. In a

dramatic soap opera of fierce rivalries and petty spats, their actions were
influenced not by a desire to work for the good of humankind, but by their
own selfish desires and whims. The Greeks therefore did not worship the
gods by attempting to emulate them, instead treating them as they might a
powerful human ruler, by offering sacrifices and celebrating the deities at
regular festivals. At its core, this was a system of exchange: people offered
gifts to the gods in the hope that the gods would give them what they asked
for. The gods often rewarded mortals who treated them well and showed
them the appropriate deference and respect.
Zeus and his siblings could be needlessly cruel and were often subject to
jealousies and petty fights. His brothers Poseidon and Hades often used
humans as pawns in these squabbles, which usually stemmed from a
reluctance to accept the supreme god's authority as unquestionable.
Still more reluctant was his sister Demeter, a strong-willed deity in her
own right. After she was pursued and raped by Poseidon, and Hades abducted
her daughter Persephone, Demeter wreaked havoc across the world.
Infidelity, too, was a major theme in all Greek myths – not just in the affairs
(and assaults) committed by Zeus that riled the jealous Hera.

Marble sculptures from the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens show the gods –
from left to right: Dionysus, Demeter, Persephone, and Artemis – reacting to the birth of

Demeter was wroth with the gods and quitted heaven.


Twixt god and mortals

Despite their power, in many ways Greek deities appear to have an
intermediate status, hovering somewhere between the spiritual and the real.
Their attributes reflect the countless aspects of Greek everyday life in which
the gods played an implicit part. All the gods had specific areas of influence,
such as Zeus and Athena, who were among the theoi agoraioi (gods of the
agora – the marketplace and people’s assembly). Both Zeus and the goddess
Hestia were also gods of the home (theoi ktesioi). Hestia, Dionysius, and
Aphrodite were among the theoi daitioi, who presided over feasts and
The gods themselves also needed sustenance. According to Greek
tradition, they lived on a diet of nectar and ambrosia, carried up Mount
Olympus by doves. To later belief systems, the notion that deities needed
material sustenance seems at odds with their divinity. Ancient Greek
authorities, however, agreed on the importance of this nourishment for the
gods to empower and sustain them.

See also: Origin of the universe • The war of the gods and Titans • Mount
Olympus • The founding of Athens • The sybil of Cumae

Olympians take power
Iliad, Homer, 8th century BCE; Theogony, Hesiod, c. 700 BCE; Library,
Pseudo-Apollodorus, c. 100 CE.
The slopes of Mount Olympus and plains of Thessaly, northern Greece.
Olympians The gods Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia.
Titans Oceanus, Hyperion, Coeus, Tethys, Phoebe, Rhea, Mnemosyne,
Themis, Theia Crius, Kronos, and Iapetus.
Kyklopes The one-eyed giants Brontes, Steropes, and Arges; sons of
Hecatoncheires The giants Briareos, Kottos, and Gyges; sons of Ouranos
and Gaia.
Zeus slipped easily into a position of authority over his brothers and sisters:
though the youngest, he had been in the world by far the longest. His siblings

supported him as he strove to overthrow his father and assert his primacy
across the cosmos. So began the Titanomachy – the War of the Gods and
Titans. Zeus, with the support of his siblings, launched a concerted and
determined attack against the Titan gods. The siblings were joined by some
of Ouranos’s cast-out sons. The three Kyklopes – the one-eyed giants
Brontes, Steropes, and Arges – sided with Zeus after he freed them from the
Underworld. They were skilled craftstmen who made weapons for the gods: a
mighty thunderbolt for Zeus, a cloak of invisibility for Hades, and a trident
for Poseidon. The Hecatoncheires – Briareos, Kottos, and Gyges – also
fought for the gods. Each of these terrifying giants had 50 heads and 100
hands, and howled as they rampaged across the battlefield.

Zeus, leader of the gods, stands beside an eagle in this 4th-century statue. The eagle, Zeus’s
messenger, remained a symbol of power from ancient Rome to Nazi Germany.

Total war

The war was fought on the lower slopes of Mount Olympus and across the
open plains of Thessaly, but the earth-shattering conflict encompassed the
entire world. Huge rocks were hurled around; entire mountaintops were
ripped up and sent flying back and forth as projectiles; bolts of lightning
flashed like javelins across the sky. Flames rose up to the farthest heights of
heaven; the thud of marching feet caused quakes in the most remote reaches
of the Underworld; swirling dust clouds darkened the sky, and the din of
conflict was deafening.
According to Hesiod, the intensity of the fighting “pained the soul”. The
advantage tipped back and forth without any real interval for a full ten years.
Neither side would yield, so finally Zeus rallied his cohorts. He refreshed the
Hecatoncheires with nectar and ambrosia – the divine and exclusive
sustenance of the gods, which conferred immortality on any mortal who
consumed it. This may not have been the effect it had on the Hecatoncheires,
but according to Hesiod, “the heroic spirits grew in all their hearts” after Zeus
gave it to the giants.

The Fall of the Titans by Giulio Romano (1532–35). Depicting the war of the Titans, this
continuous fresco covers the walls and ceiling of the Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo Te,

Ultimate triumph
Reinvigorated, the Hecatoncheires proved the tipping point. With such
formidable allies and weapons, the gods were at last able to defeat the Titans.
They banished them to Tartarus, the lowest pit of the Underworld, where the
Titans were imprisoned for all eternity under the watch of the
Hecatoncheires. Zeus and his siblings now had full control over the cosmos.
They set up their imperial seat on the top of Mount Olympus, from where
they ruled the universe.

Warfare in ancient Greece
After the rise of the city states of Athens, Sparta, and beyond, warfare
became a way of life for the people of ancient Greece. The states fought
each other for territory, trade, and power in highly ritualized wars – both
sides would consult with oracles and sing hymns to the gods before
meeting for set-piece battles. Scholars use the term “limited warfare” to
describe the ancient Greek model, in which cities were destroyed but the
victors were honourable, fighting within a set of rules of conduct.
Some city states, such as Sparta, became very militaristic. This perhaps
explains the recurrence of the idea of a war in heaven. Such stories
dramatized real-life shifts in theological and spiritual thinking in ancient
societies: for example, the Titanomachy could explain the shift from an
earth-cult, centred around deities who lived in the Underworld, to the
more sky-based theology found in ancient Greece.

Zeus’s bolts flew thick and fast from his mighty hands, with flash and thunder and flame.

See also: The Olympian gods • War of the gods • A complex god • The game
of dice

Home of the gods
Theogony, Hesiod, c. 700 BCE; Illiad and Odyssey, Homer, c. 800 BCE;
Description of Greece, Pausanias, c. 150 CE.
Mount Olympus, northeastern Greece.
Zeus King of the Greek gods.
Hera Wife and sister of Zeus; queen of the gods.
Hephaistos The blacksmith god; son of Hera.
The Muses Children of Zeus.
The Horai Three sisters; goddesses of time and the seasons.
The Moirae Three sisters; goddesses of fate.
Originally, the dwellings of ancient Greek deities were not in the heavens but
in the heart of the earth. Once Zeus and his siblings defeated the Titans,

however, the Greeks turned their eyes heavenward to worship the new
generation of gods and goddesses. Hephaistos, god of fire and the forge, built
them palaces in the sheltered ravines of Mount Olympus. Hesiod described
the mountain as “many-folded”, a phrase suggestive of a sky-high stronghold
full of secrets.
The palaces were built of stone on bronze foundations. They were both
gigantic and luxurious, their floors inlaid with gold and precious stones. Zeus
set up his throne at the top of the peak of Stefani. From here he hurled his
thunderbolts at those who displeased him in the world below.

Mount Olympus, home of the Greek gods, rises from the Plain of Thessaly. Thessaly was
the site of the decade-long war fought between the Titans, and Zeus and his siblings.

Life on Olympus
The council of the gods typically met in Zeus’s golden courtyard to discuss
their rule of the cosmos, and gathered in Zeus’s hall to while away the
evenings with feasting. Apollo sang to them, accompanying himself upon his
lyre. Sometimes the Muses came up from their home at the foot of Olympus
to sing, dance, and tell stories. There were separate stables for the creatures
that drew the gods’ chariots – most famously, those that pulled the blazing
car of Apollo, the sun god. Zeus had a chariot drawn by the four Anemoi,
gods of the winds – Boreas (north), Euros (east), Notos (south), and Zephyros
(west). Poseidon’s chariot was pulled along by fishtailed horses of the sea,
while Aphrodite’s was drawn by a team of doves.
The Horai – the sisters Eirene, Eunomia, and Dike – guarded the gates to
Olympus and saw to the orderly passage of time and the seasons. Another trio
of goddesses, the Moirae (Fates), sat at the foot of Zeus’s throne and watched
over the lives of mortals.

The council of the gods meets amongst the clouds on Olympus in this fresco by Italian
Renaissance master Raphael (1518), which shows Zeus conferring immortality on Psyche.

Physical and symbolic
What we refer to today as “Mount” Olympus is actually a massif, with over
50 distinct peaks almost 3,000m (9,850ft) above sea level. Much of the time,
its upper slopes are wreathed in snow or dense cloud, cutting off the summit
from the view of mortals down below. It is no wonder that the ancient Greeks
held this to be the royal seat of their reigning dynasty of gods.
The idea of the sacred mountain existed long before the Greeks began to
worship the Olympians, and is found in many other cultures. Mount Meru,
for example, towered at the cosmological centre of Indian religions; Mount
Fuji dominated the Japanese religious scheme; and Inca priests in Peru
offered sacrifice high up on the Andean summits.
In mythology, the mountain peak has often seemed to occupy a separate
physical space from the earth. Homer underlined this by showing Mount
Olympus from different perspectives. Viewed from earth, it was described as
“snow-topped” or “cloud-enveloped”; for the gods, however, their home was
a place of permanent sunshine and clear blue sky.

Changing gods
Anthropologists use the term “syncretism” to describe the merging of
strands from different religious systems. Ancient Greece had many
examples of this. The sanctuary of Dodona, in northwestern Greece, lay in
a valley surrounded by a grove of oak trees. The site seems to have been

sacred to a matriarchal earth goddess since at least the second millennium
BCE – before the idea of Zeus took root. After the ascendancy of the
Olympians, the earth goddess was supplanted and one of Zeus’s many
wives, Dione, was worshipped at Dodona.
Isthmia – on the narrow land connecting the Peloponnese peninsula
with the rest of Greece – was the obvious site for a shrine to Poseidon, god
of the sea, beset on the narrow strip of land by roaring waves on either
side. Yet archaeologists have found remains at Isthmia dating back long
before the era of the Olympians, dedicated to a deity or deities unknown.

The gods pressed far-seeing Zeus of Olympus to reign over them.

See also: The Olympian gods • The war of the gods and Titans • Cupid and
Psyche • Pangu and the creation of the world • The legendary foundation of

Origin of humanity
Theogony and Works and Days, Hesiod, c. 700 BCE; Library, Apollodorus,
c. 100 CE
Greece, the Aegean, and the Caucasus Mountains, Western Asia.
Zeus King of the gods.
Iapetus The youngest Titan, son of Ouranos and Gaia.
Klymene A sea nymph, daughter of the Titan Oceanus.
Prometheus Son of Iapetus and Klymene.
Deukalion Human son of Prometheus.
Pyrrha Wife of Deukalion.
Hephaistos The blacksmith god.

Zeus’s victory in the war with the Titans had been hard won but decisive. He
and his brothers held unchallenged sway over the heavens, earth, and sea.
The usurper of a usurper, he had seized supremacy by dethroning Kronos,
who had himself toppled the tyrant Ouranos. No ruler could afford to become
complacent, however seemingly unassailable their position – and a challenge
to the authority of Zeus was fast approaching.

Spirit of rebellion
Prometheus, a young Titan and therefore a survivor of the old regime, was
the son of Iapetus and Klymene, celebrated for quick intelligence, dexterity,
and skill. Prometheus’s very name meant “Thinking Ahead”: he was an
inventor and a strategist. Different sources disagree on the precise part
Prometheus played in the continuing struggle between Zeus and his subjects.
Despite this, all sources regard him as a central part of the conflict.
Self-confident in his cleverness, Prometheus was independent-minded,
irreverent, and defiant. His contempt for Zeus’s authority was all too clear.
Worse still, he appeared to pass on this rebellious spirit to Zeus’s human

Prometheus Carrying Fire, by Flemish painter Jan Cossiers (1671), shows the young Titan
stealing the precious resource for mankind.

From clay to stone
According to Apollodorus’s Library, Prometheus was the creator of
humanity, shaping the first man and woman from moist clay. This first race
of humans walked the earth for only a single generation before being swept
away by an angry Zeus in a worldwide flood. Prometheus’s human son
Deukalion and his wife Pyrrha were the only survivors. Typically,
Prometheus had out-manoeuvred Zeus, prompting his son and his daughterin-law to save themselves by building a floating wooden chest in which to
ride out the deluge.
Deukalion survived the great flood and its aftermath by showing more tact
than his father. He thanked Zeus for letting him and Pyrrha live, built an altar,
and offered sacrifice. Zeus was so pleased to see this submissive spirit that he
not only allowed Deukalion and Pyrrha to go on living but told Deukalion
how he could re-create humanity. He and his wife were told to pick up stones

and throw them backwards over their heads. They did so and wherever
Deukalion’s stones landed, the bodies of living men immediately took form;
where Pyrrha’s came to rest, women sprang up out of the ground.
Prometheus shaped men out of water and clay.

Klymene’s children
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, “Iapetus
took Klymene, Oceanus’s elegant-ankled
daughter to his bed”. Other ancient authors,
however, referred to her as “Asia”. With
Iapetus, Klymene bore four sons, each of
whom was, ultimately, fated for misery.
During the war of the Titans, Zeus killed
Klymene’s prideful son Menoetius, by
hurling him into the underworld with a
lightning-bolt. Following the victory of the
Atlas carries the heavens on his
shoulders. Although commonly
Olympian gods, another of Klymene’s sons,
mistaken for an earth globe, the
Atlas, was made to suffer for his role in
round structure weighing on Atlas
leading the Titan forces. He was sentenced
represents the celestial sphere.
by Zeus to carry the heavens on his
shoulders as punishment for resisting the Olympian ascendancy.
Epimetheus, Klymene’s third son, was every bit as foolish as
Prometheus was cunning. Against his brother’s advice, he was duped into
accepting Pandora as a gift and marrying her. He had no idea that she had
been created to be both beautiful and deceitful, and was sent by Zeus to
bring all manner of sorrows into the world.

A trick backfires
Unlike Appolodorus, Hesiod’s genealogy incorporated mortal humans almost
from the beginning, though he said little about their origins. They were
mentioned as existing during the reign of Kronos, but only incidentally,

emerging into the foreground only in the age of the Olympian gods.
When Zeus summoned humans for a meeting on the sort of sacrifices they
would have to offer him, Prometheus intervened on their behalf. Wrapping
some choice beef inside an ugly oxhide, and a bundle of bones inside some of
the most delicious meat, he offered Zeus the choice of which sacrifices
should be made to him thenceforth. Zeus appeared to have fallen for the trick,
asking for the outwardly appealing bag of bones – though Hesiod hints the
king of the gods may have chosen this deliberately, to have an excuse for
hating humans.
Either way, Zeus was enraged. Far from easing people’s plight as he had
intended, Prometheus’s cunning made them victims of Zeus’s rage. The
angry god hid the secret of fire from his human subjects. This not only
deprived them of warmth and comfort but also hindered human progress.

Mortal men and women sprung up fully formed from the stones thrown by Deukalion and
Pyrrha, as shown in Peter Paul Rubens’s 1636 painting, and repopulated the earth.

The stones which Deucalion threw became men; the stones which Pyrrha threw became

The Five Ages

Kronos’s reign may have been unpleasant for the Titan’s children but was,
says Hesiod, a “Golden Age” for mortal humans. Sickness, war, and
discord were unknown; men and women lived for centuries, trees and
fields yielded their produce freely through an endless Spring. The rise of
Zeus saw an immediate decline in human fortunes. The men and women
of this “Silver Age” lived only a hundred years, most of it spent in an
extended childhood; when they finally grew up, they were foolish and
quarrelsome. An “Age of Bronze” came next: its men were warriors, who
spent their short lives squabbling and fighting. The “Heroic Age” which
followed was an improvement on the Bronze Age in the sense that its
perennial wars took on a noble and epic character. This was the age of
Homer’s Trojan War, and very different from Hesiod’s “Iron Age” in
which he himself lived – and in which we all live now – in fearfulness,
scarcity, misery, and toil.

Out in the cold
Without fire or the technologies it makes possible, mortals existed in a
miserable state of subsistence. They foraged for food in darkness, damp, and
cold, with only animal skins for clothes, surviving on raw roots, berries, and
fruits (when they were in season) and uncooked carrion. They used twigs as
rudimentary tools and old bones for weaponry, in what could scarcely be
qualified even as a “primitive” existence. As they fought a daily battle to
stave off starvation, any possibility of shaping their wider destiny was

Stolen fire
Prometheus came to humanity’s rescue. He took some glowing embers from
a blaze built by the gods high up on Mount Olympus and, secreting this fire
inside a hollow fennel-stalk, he carried it down to the little encampments
where mortal men and women shivered on the plains below. Soon, “visible
from afar”, fires twinkled across the length and breadth of the peopled world.
In that moment, human life was instantly and permanently transformed.
Heat, warmth, light, and safety from predatory beasts was just the start. In
no time at all, mankind began to thrive – smelting metal, fashioning the finest
jewellery and the strongest tools, blacksmithing all kinds of weapons, from

hoes and hammers to spears and swords. Each new innovation opened the
way to others – suddenly, humanity was progressing at a breakneck pace.

Prometheus was punished by the gods for giving humans fire. He was chained to Mount
Caucasus to endure constant torture, as depicted by Jacob Jordaens (1640).

Harsh punishment
Zeus was enraged by Prometheus’s theft of fire. Not only had he been defied
in the most public way, but his power over humanity had been significantly
weakened. Zeus decided that Prometheus deserved an eternal and painful
punishment. He had the thief seized by his henchmen Bia (“Violence”) and
Kratos (“Power”) and carried to a high mountain peak. Here, with the help of
Hephaistos, the blacksmith god, they chained Prometheus to a rock. An eagle
flew down, tore at his abdomen, then pulled out the living, pulsing liver, and
gorged on it. Despite the agony of this torture, it was no more than a
beginning for the rebellious Titan. Each night his internal organs and his skin
grew back, ready to be attacked afresh by the eagle the next day.

For centuries, Prometheus was tied to the rock. He was finally rescued
from his torments by Herakles, who found him while hunting for the elusive
apples of the Hesperides. Prometheus would only give Herakles the apples’
location after he killed the eagle and set Prometheus free. Prometheus was
not the only one punished for stealing fire from the gods. Zeus also inflicted
his rage upon humankind, instructing Hephaistos to create the woman
Pandora to punish the humans by bringing them hardship, war, and death.

It stung anew Zeus, high thunderer in his spirit, and he raged in his heart when he saw
among men the far-seen beam of fire.

See also: Origin of the universe • The war of the gods and Titans • Pandora’s
box • The many affairs of Zeus

Origins of evil
Works and Days, Hesiod, c. 700 BCE.
The foot of Mount Olympus, Greece.
Prometheus Titan brother of Epimetheus; creator of humanity – and its
greatest benefactor.
Zeus King of the gods of Mount Olympus.
Hephaistos Olympian blacksmith god and creator of the first woman.
Pandora The first woman; created on Zeus’s instruction.
Epimetheus Titan brother of Prometheus.
In Hesiod’s account of humanity’s mythic origins, Works and Days, man was
first created alone, with no female mate to accompany him on his journey
through the world. Woman would make her first appearance not as man’s
helpmate and partner, but as his punishment.

A jealous god
When the Titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods, he did much to
empower humanity, at high personal cost. In an existence that had been
largely trouble-free, humanity, to whom he gave the gift of fire, continued to
thrive and prosper. In punishment, however, Prometheus would be held
captive and tortured eternally at the hands of Zeus, who was a jealous and
grudging deity. Far from rejoicing in man’s improving fortunes, the god felt
threatened by humanity’s growing confidence.
Zeus concluded that in order to correct the balance between divine and
human power, some great calamity in the world was required. That calamity
was woman. On Zeus’s orders, the blacksmith and fire god Hephaistos set to
work, shaping soft clay into a female mate for man.
The glorious lame god moulded clay into the shape of a demure and decorous young maiden.

Works and Days

Gilding the lily
The other Olympians then added their own contributions to the woman’s
make-up: Aphrodite gave her beauty and attractiveness; Athena gave her skill
in sewing; Hera gave her curiosity; and so on. Hermes, the gods’ messenger,
gave woman the power of speech to help her communicate – but he also gave
her the dangerous gift of guile. This new woman was enchanting in her
beauty, seductive in her softness, inspiring in her smile, and soothing in her
gentleness. In light of these traits, she was given the name Pandora (literally
meaning “all gifts”). Her name alone would have caused Prometheus
concern. He had previously warned his brother Epimetheus not to accept any
offering from Zeus, in case it unleashed “some evil thing for mortal men”.
However, due to the punishment of Prometheus, Epimetheus had been left in
charge in the world of men. Whereas Prometheus’s name meant “Thinking
Ahead” or “Foresight”, Epimetheus’s meant “Thinking After”. He was
gullible and did not stop to think when Zeus’s messenger Hermes presented
him with Pandora as a goodwill present to humanity from Zeus. Nor did he
give a second glance to the present that she herself brought with her – a
pithos or ceramic jar (usually re-imagined as a richly ornamented box in

modern retellings). The all-gifted girl was both gift and giver.
Prometheus had warned him never to accept a gift from Zeus.

Works and Days

Fatal curiosity
There was nothing inherently evil about Pandora. Although she had been
warned against opening the pithon, it was her innocent curiosity – itself a
characteristic given by Hera – that led to her downfall. When she could not
resist peeping inside the jar, she pulled back the lid, all the ills and
misfortunes of the world flew out: Hunger, Sickness, Loss, Loneliness, and
Death. Horrified, Pandora hastily pushed the lid back on – just in time to
prevent Hope from escaping. With hope, the world could still persevere,
despite the adversity that the jealous Zeus had inflicted on mankind.

Pandora, as depicted by the British Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–
1882). She is holding the infamous box from which all the troubles of the world poured forth.

At least one source states that Hephaistos
was ugly and squat from birth, which
explains why he was thrown from the top of
Mount Olympus by his disgusted mother,
Hera. Landing further down the mountain
with a crash, he was then rendered lame as
The unprepossessing appearance of this
first divine artisan was in sharp and highly
symbolic contrast to the beauty of the many
things that he created. He was often aided
by attendants such as Cedalion, who helped
with his creations. Hephaistos is widely known as the Greek “blacksmith
god” and presided over manufacture in its broadest sense – perfecting his
craft in everything from metalwork and the manufacture of weapons to
fine jewellery and intricate items of clothing.
Of all his many creations, Pandora is certainly the most wonderful –
and the most flawed. According to Hesiod, it was Hephaistos who created
the first woman, thereby enabling each generation of humanity to
repeatedly replicate itself. In this sense, the craft of Hephaistos gave birth
to humanity’s future.
See also: The Olympian gods • Prometheus helps mankind • The Mead of
Poetry • Nanga Baiga

Lovers of the gods
Iliad, Homer, 8th century BCE; Theogony, Works and Days, The Shield of
Heracles, Hesiod, c. 700 BCE; Library, Pseudo-Apollodorus, c. 100 CE.
Greece and the Aegean.
Zeus Father of the gods.
Hera Zeus's wife; queen of the gods.
Mnemosyne Goddess of memory.
Europa Phoenician princess.
Antiope Daughter of the river god Asopos.
Leda A Spartan princess.
Metis Daughter of Oceanus.
Athena Daughter of Metis.

The sexual adventures of Zeus, the king of the gods, made up a significant
strand of ancient Greek mythology. Without Zeus’s many infidelities, the
myths suggest that knowledge and artistic expression of any kind – poetry,
music, drama, or works of art – would not exist.
One of Zeus’s first affairs was with Mnemosyne, the Titan goddess of
memory. After he slept with her on nine consecutive nights, nine daughters
were born. Collectively known as the Muses, each of these daughters became
responsible for inspiring mortals in a particular area of artistic endeavour:
Calliope inspired epic poetry; Clio history; Euterpe lyric poetry and song;
Erato love poetry; and Polyhymnia sacred poetry. Melpomene became
responsible for inspiring tragic drama, Thalia took charge of comedy and
pastoral poetry; Terpsichore inspired dance, and Urania astronomy.
All through the classical period, musicians and poets called on the Muses
for assistance as they worked. “Blessed is he whom the Muses love,” said the
Greek poet Hesiod after invoking their help in Theogony, his poem about the
genealogy of the gods. With the inspiration of the Muses, Hesiod said,
musicians and poets could relieve a suffering mind of its cares.

The nine Muses lived on Mount Helicon, central Greece. In this scene by Jacques Stella (c.
1640) they are visited by Minerva (Athena), goddess of wisdom and patron of the arts.

The Muses gladden the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their songs, telling
of things that shall be.


Hera and the cuckoo
Zeus’s instinct for trickery was an integral part of his character and informed
all of his erotic exploits. He had assumed the form of a mortal – a handsome
shepherd – to seduce Mnemosyne, and many of his other love affairs
involved similar sorts of shape-shifting.
Hera, Zeus’s wife, had also been won this way. The notoriously
formidable goddess had dismissed Zeus disdainfully when he had first
approached her, forcing him to take deceptive measures to win her affections.
First, he summoned a thunderstorm, then he stood outside her window and
took on the form of a fledgling cuckoo, its expression helpless and its
feathers ruffled up as if chilled and battered by the wind-blown hail. Hera
could not bear to see this tiny creature suffering. She cupped the cuckoo in
her hand and placed it inside her dress against her bosom, so that it could get
warm. At this point, Zeus assumed his normal quasi-human form and seduced
The conquest of Hera was not the only time Zeus took the form of a bird.
Zeus took on the shape of a swan in order to seduce the Spartan princess
Leda. As with Hera, he took advantage of his victim’s compassion.
Apparently fleeing from an attacking eagle, he fell into her arms, but when
she cradled him protectively, Zeus raped her. In the case of the Theban
princess Semele, his choice of species – a raptor – clearly signalled his
predatory intentions. Taking the form of an eagle, his royal emblem, he
visited Semele and made her pregnant. Dionysus, god of wine and festivity,
was the result of their union.

Ruined innocence
Zeus’s conquest of Alcmene – a mortal princess with whom he fathered
Herakles – was more sinister. Alcmene was a paragon of beauty, charm, and
wisdom. She was betrothed to Amphitryon, the son of a Theban general. Zeus
assumed his guise to approach Alcmene while her fiance was away avenging
the deaths of her brothers.
King Acrisius of Argos was particularly anxious to keep his only daughter
Danaë chaste. He had been warned by an oracle that she was destined to bear
a son who would one day slay him. To avoid this fate, he placed her in a cell
so that no one could come near her. However, Zeus took the form of a shower
of gold to pour himself through her prison skylight. The child of the
encounter, Perseus, would later unwittingly cause her father’s death.


As the daughter of the Titans Kronos and
Rhea, and wife and sister of the mighty
Zeus, it might seem odd that Hera was
commonly associated with cattle. She was
often pictured with a sacred cow and in the
Iliad is described as “cow-faced” or “oxeyed”. Such imagery was probably more
flattering than it sounds. To the ancient
Greeks, the cow was an emblem of
motherhood and prosperity; wealth was
often measured in the number of livestock
While Hera was clearly no sex symbol – a role more associated with
the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite – she did exemplify the importance of
women in everyday life in Greece. She was celebrated as a goddess of
both marriage and virginity. At Kanathos, in the Peloponnese, she was
worshipped as Hera Parthenos (“Virgin”) and was said to renew her
virginity by bathing in the spring every year. The Heraion of Argos –
possibly the first of many temples dedicated to Hera – honoured her as
Zeus’s consort and queen. Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae, according to
Homer, were the cities she loved best.

Zeus as beast
Despite her name, Europa was a child of Asia, a princess from Phoenicia, a
region covering parts of Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. Smitten by her charms,
Zeus took on the form of a fine, white bull and mingled among her father’s
cattle. Picking flowers, Europa noticed the new bull and was struck by its
beauty and its seeming gentleness. When she drew near to pet it, the bull lay
down and she climbed onto its back. Suddenly, the bull leapt up and sped
away across the fields and over the sea while the terrified girl clung on for
dear life. The bull only stopped when it reached the island of Crete, where
Zeus at last revealed himself and bedded his young victim. Zeus rewarded
Europa by making her Crete’s first queen. In time, she gave birth to Minos,
the island’s first king. Scholars think the story of Europa may have originated
in Crete, where the cult of the bull also produced the story of Theseus and the

For his assault on Antiope, the daughter of Asopos, a river god from
Attica in central Greece, Zeus took the shape of a satyr – a half-man, halfgoat who roamed the wild woods. Usually associated with the idea of
lechery, satyrs were often depicted with erections in ancient art: Zeus had
disguised his identity, not his lust.

A fearful Europa rides the waves, clinging to Zeus, who took the form of a bull to abduct
her. The powerful image was painted in 1910 by the Russian artist Valentin Serov.

Suddenly, the bull, possessed of his desire, jumped up and galloped off towards the sea.


Hiding from Hera
In some stories, it was Zeus’s quarry who had to take a different shape. In the
case of Io – the daughter of the king of Argos, and a priestess in the temple of
Zeus’s wife Hera – Zeus transformed himself into a cloud to make his
approach and conceal it from the watchful Hera. Once he had raped Io, he
turned her into a beautiful white heifer, to hide her from his wife. Hera saw
through the trick and asked if she could have the heifer as a gift. Zeus had no
option but to agree. Hera consigned Io to the care of the hundred-eyed giant
Argus to watch over.

Maddened with frustration, Zeus sent his son Hermes to slay the all-seeing
herdsman; the divine messenger blinded Argus with a touch from his
kerykeion, or staff. As the giant lay there dead, Hermes collected up his
hundred eyes and set them in a peacock’s tail: the bird was sacred to Hera
from that time on.
If Zeus thought the way was now clear for him to pursue Io, he was
wrong. Hera sent a fly to attack her. Buzzing about, and biting her again and
again, the insect put Io to flight and chased her across the earth. Io was never
to find rest.

The birth of Athena
Metis, Zeus’s cousin – and in some accounts, his first wife – wrought her
own transformation in a bid to shake off Zeus’s pursuit. Metis assumed a
series of different forms to avoid him, but Zeus eventually succeeded in
catching her and making her pregnant. Nevertheless, Zeus was worried:
Metis was renowned for her sharp intellect and wiliness, and an oracle had
told him that Metis was destined to bear a child who matched her strength
and cunning. Zeus – a usurper who had overthrown his own father – was on
his guard against this child. Just before Metis was due to give birth, Zeus
challenged her to a shape-shifting match. She was vain enough to agree.
When Zeus told her that he did not believe she could transform herself into a
tiny fly, she promptly did – and was swallowed by a triumphant Zeus.

Athena springs from a gash in Zeus's head, in a scene decorating an amphora (c.500 BCE)
from Attica, Greece. Behind Zeus, Prometheus holds the axe that made the wound.

It was a clever trick, but it did not succeed. When Zeus developed an
unbearable headache, the Titan god Prometheus swung an axe at his head,
splitting it wide open. Out from the wound sprang Athena, the goddess of war
and wisdom, in a full suit of armour. She became one of the most important
deities on Olympus and the patron goddess of the powerful city state of
Asteria in the form of a quail flew across the sea, with Zeus in pursuit.


Both transformed
In some stories, both predator and prey underwent changes. Zeus again
disguised himself as an eagle to pursue Asteria, the Titan goddess of shooting
stars. She transformed herself into another bird – the timid quail – in a
desperate bid to escape and finally dived into the sea. There she changed her
shape again and was preserved forever as an island, later variously identified
as Delos or Sicily. It was on this island that Asteria’s younger sister Leto was

to find sanctuary some years later, after she too caught the lecherous eye of
Zeus. Here she gave birth to twins: Apollo, the god of the sun and of poetry,
prophecy, and healing; and the divine huntress Artemis, goddess of the moon.
Mythology relates scores of Zeus’s exploits, highlighting a sexual appetite
that apparently drew little censure in ancient Greece. Despite his countless
acts of rape, deception, and infidelity – the king of the gods was not seen as a
villain. In his dialogue Euthyphro, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato,
declared: “Do not men regard Zeus as the best and most righteous of the
See also: The birth of Zeus • The war of the god and the Titans • The
Olympian gods

The Underworld
Iliad and Odyssey, Homer, 8th century BCE; Theogony, Hesiod c. 700 BCE.
The Underworld.
Hades Brother of Zeus; god of the Underworld.
Charon Ferryman of the River Styx.
Cerberus Three-headed guardian of the Underworld; son of the serpentine
Typhon and Echidna.
Tantalus A Phrygian king held captive by Hades.
Sisyphus King of Corinth, who tricked Hades into letting him go free.
Hekate Goddess of witchcraft and necromancy.
While Zeus ruled over the skies and Poseidon over the seas, their brother
Hades guarded his subject-souls in the Underworld – the kingdom that bore

his name, where mortal humans went when they died.
Five dark rivers marked the boundaries of Hades’s kingdom. Acheron was
the river of sadness, Cocytus of mourning. Lethe was the river of
forgetfulness, and Phlegethon an impassable river of fire. The River Styx
marked the main border between Earth and the Underworld. The dead queued
on one side of the river and paid the ferryman, Charon, with a coin to grant
them passage into Hades. Because of this belief, the ancient Greeks were
sometimes buried with a coin in their mouth, known as “Charon’s obol”.
On the other side of the river lay a dark and dismal realm. There, the new
arrivals had to go through a large gate, guarded by the three-headed, snaketailed monster, Cerberus. Though loosely described as a dog, this creature
was born of the union between the giant snake-man, Typhon, and the maneating serpent-maiden, Echidna. Cerberus turned this same ferocity on those
who attempted to escape.
Charon and Cerberus were not the only non-human residents of Hades.
Nyx, the goddess of night, lived there – as did Eurynomos, a flesh-eating
demon, and the goddess Hekate. The Furies served Hades as his torturers,
while Tartarus was both a deity and the pit where Titans were punished.

Hades and his abducted bride, Persephone, watch over the tortured souls of the dead in
François de Nomé’s 17th-century depiction of the Underworld.

Hellish punishments
Some souls faced hideous torments in Hades. The crimes of Tantalus, a
Phrygian ruler, were twofold: to test the gods, he had cooked and served up

his son at a banquet he was hosting for them; and, as a guest at Zeus’s table,
he had tried to steal nectar and ambrosia, which would make him immortal,
to take back with him to Earth. For this, he was imprisoned in Hades,
wracked with thirst and hunger, surrounded by a pool of water, and with
fruit-laden branches that dangled inches from his face. When he leaned over
to taste either the water or the fruit, they withdrew from his reach, driving
him into a frenzy.
Sisyphus, King of Corinth, had tricked Hades into thinking that he had
been taken to the Underworld prematurely, and managed to get himself
returned to Earth. As punishment, he was sentenced to push an enormous
boulder up a hill. Each time he got to the top, the stone rolled back down to
the bottom and he had to start all over again – and again, and again, for the
rest of all time.
Round the pit from every side the crowd thronged, with strange cries, and I turned pale with


Once Death has caught hold of a man, he never lets him go.


The Greek afterlife
Hades was not the only realm for the dead. According to the ancient writers,
fallen heroes and the most virtuous were sent to the Elysian Fields –
paradisiacal islands where they could live in bliss. Neither Hades nor
Elysium, however, were representative of the ancient Greek view of the
afterlife. Stories about Elysium, or the punishment of Sisyphus, were isolated
tales: there is no sense that the ancient Greeks, as a whole, believed in a
systematic judgement of the dead.

Despite Zeus’s victory over Kronos and his Titans, and his otherwise
unchallenged authority over the universe, Hesiod’s Theogony tells us that

the goddess Hekate, associated with
darkness, was honoured “above all others”.
Darkness and death were seen as powerful,
immutable elements.
Hekate was conventionally depicted with
three heads, representing the full moon, the
crescent moon, and the empty dead-black
sky. She was often identified with
crossroads, especially those where three
different paths met. Associated with liminal
spaces and transitions, she was often
worshipped by those wishing loved ones a
safe crossing into the realm of the dead.
Hekate was invited to stay in the
Underworld as a companion to Hades’s
wife, Persephone, but was allowed to come and go as she wished. In myth,
Persephone is often seen as the maiden and Demeter the mother; Hekate is
the crone to complete the trio.
See also: The war of the gods and the Titans • The abduction of Persephone •
The quest of Odysseus • The Sibyl of Cumae

Life, death, and the seasons
Theogony, Hesiod, c. 700 BCE; Hymn to Demeter, Homer, c. 600 BCE;
Description of Greece, Pausanias, c. 150 CE.
Sicily; the Underworld.
Demeter Goddess of the harvest, sister of Zeus and Hades.
Persephone Demeter’s daughter, who became the queen of the
Hades God of the Underworld and Demeter’s brother.
One of classical Greece’s Homeric Hymns refers to Demeter as the “sacred
goddess with the glorious hair” – her thick and lustrous golden tresses were
emblematic of the abundance of the harvest. Demeter was the goddess of the
harvest, charged with ensuring that the fields were rich and fertile. Before
tragedy struck, there was no winter, cold, or decay.

Hades kidnaps Persephone in a field of daffodils in British artist Walter Crane’s The Fate
of Persephone (1877). Two of his four horses rear up between a sunlit world and ominous

Demeter’s despair
One day, Demeter’s beloved daughter Persephone was out with some nymphs
in one of Sicily’s prettiest vales, picking flowers. Persephone marvelled at the
“roses, crocuses, lovely violets … irises, hyacinths, and narcissi”, exulting in
the beautiful colours and heady fragrances of the scene.
When Persephone pulled a narcissus from the ground, the earth split and
opened up beneath her. A huge chariot thundered forth, drawn by sable-black
horses. As her companions fled, Persephone stood transfixed. A tall, shadowy
figure leaned down from the chariot and scooped her up. Persephone’s uncle,
Hades, had come up from the Underworld to take her as his bride.
Persephone struggled and wept, crying out for her father, Zeus. But her pleas
went unanswered. Some versions of the myth suggest that Zeus himself had
played a part in the abduction by conspiring with his brother. Hades took
Persephone with him down into the gloomy Underworld. He promised that
she would be queen of his subterranean kingdom, revered and beloved by all
– but she was inconsolable.
Hades dragged Persiphone into his speeding chariot and she screamed out loud.

Hymn to Demeter

Demeter’s despair

Persephone’s mother, Demeter, was equally distraught. Frantically combing
the forests, fields, and hills in search of her daughter, she called out
Persephone’s name over and over again – but received no reply. In her grief,
Demeter blighted the countryside, causing the crops to die and all the leaves
to turn brown. It seemed as if the entire earth had died. Eventually, the sun
god, Helios, told Demeter that her brother Hades had snatched her daughter
and spirited her off to his dismal realm. At this news, Demeter was filled with
rage, and wrought yet more destruction upon the earth. Hades’s abduction of
Persephone had set all of creation askew. At last, Zeus was forced to
intervene in the quarrel between his siblings. He ruled that, so long as
Persephone had not taken food or drink since she arrived in the Underworld,
Hades must agree to release her.

A seasonal solution
Unfortunately, Persephone had eaten something in the Underworld. Hades
had given her a pomegranate, the fruit of the dead, and she had consumed
several of the sweet seeds. This resulted in a fresh judgement from Zeus, who
decided that Persephone could return to the world above – but she would
have to go back down to the Underworld and reside with Hades for three
months of every year.
Persephone’s sentence explained why, with the onset of winter, the world
appears to fade and die, as Demeter mourns her daughter’s absence. Then, as
spring approaches and Persephone returns to the surface of the earth, its fields
and forests once again come into bloom.
Stealthily, though, Hades slipped a pomegranate, sweet as honey, into Persephone’s hand.

Hymn to Demeter
Eleusian mysteries
Priests at the shrine of Eleusis, a settlement near Athens in the region of
Attica, developed an elaborate set of ceremonies based on the story of the
abduction of Persephone. The “Eleusinian Mysteries” are among the
oldest and best known of the secret religious rites of the ancient Greeks.
By the Greek classical period (5th–4th century BCE), the Eleusinian

The priests of Eleusia honoured
Demeter, Kybele, and Persephone
on this altar from Chalandri, Attica,
c. 360 CE. The male figure is
Iakhos, leader of the Eleusinian

Mysteries were already ancient. The cult
spread to Athens soon after the annexation
of Eleusis in 600 BCE. As with similar rituals
in other early societies, the Eleusinian cult
strove to assert a sense of control over the
growing cycle and the seasons.
The highpoint of the Eleusinian calendar
came toward the end of winter, with
ceremonies designed to ensure the return of
the sun and the renewal of the earth. The
ceremonies involved rites of personal
purification, animal sacrifices, libations (the
ritual pouring of wine onto the earth),
fasting, and feasting.

See also: The Olympian gods • Hades and the Underworld • Cupid and

Passion versus restraint
Homeric Hymns to Dionysus, Homer, c. 600 BCE; On Nature, Heraclitus,
c. 500 BCE; The Bacchae, Euripides, 405 BCE.
The countryside around Thebes, central Greece, during the reign of King
Dionysus God of fertility, wine, and madness.
Zeus King of the gods.
Semele Dionysus’s mortal mother.
Hera Zeus’s wife; goddess of women and marriage.
Maenads Delirious, drunken female followers of Dionysus.
Pentheus King of Thebes.

Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, was born after Zeus’s liaison with a
mortal named Semele. Her insistence on seeing Zeus revealed in his full
divine glory resulted in her death, because a mere mortal was not permitted to
see an undisguised god. Zeus rescued the fetus and sewed the unborn child
into his thigh. After this, Dionysus was born again – both as a boy-deity and
as an emblem of fertility. Zeus’s wife Hera then cursed Dionysus, sending
Titans to dismember and kill him. Zeus, however, brought his son back to life
once more.
Women, here he is: the man who mocks you and me and our unruly rituals.

The Bacchae

The Maenads
Dionysus presided over fertility both for the vineyards and for women’s
wombs. His followers, predominantly female, were known as Maenads –
meaning “raving ones”. These women shared their god’s love of wine and
raucous behaviour, and he encouraged them to indulge in both. Marauding
bands of Maenads terrorized the Theban countryside so much that Pentheus,
the King of Thebes, banned the cult of Dionysus. The king’s decree was
angrily rejected by many women – including the king’s own mother – who
went out into the countryside to praise the wine-god in one last, climactic rite.
Dionysus convinced Pentheus to climb a tree to enjoy the view of the final
orgy. Dressed in women’s clothes, the king went to watch, but was seen by
the ecstatic Maenads. Mistaking him for a wild animal, they tore him limb
from limb.
See also: The Olympian gods • The many affairs of Zeus • Vesta and Priapus
• A complex god

The finality of death
Argonautica, Apollonius of Rhodes, c. 250 BCE; Library, PseudoApollodorus, c. 100 CE.
Greece and the Underworld.
Orpheus A renowned musician; the son of Calliope and Oeagrus.
Eurydice The bride of Orpheus; killed on her wedding day
Hades The king of the Underworld.
Persephone The young wife of Hades and queen of the Underworld.
Greek mythology’s great bard, Orpheus, was born of the relationship between
Calliope, the Muse of poetry, and Oeagrus, a Thracian river god. Orpheus’s
most heartfelt verses were dedicated to Eurydice, who became his wife – only
to be killed by a snakebite on her wedding day.

Lyrical lamentation
Wandering through the woods, Orpheus mourned Eurydice in impassioned
song, which surpassed anything he had ever composed. The music was so
moving that the nymphs and gods wept to hear it. Eventually, Orpheus
decided to travel to the Underworld to beg Hades and his queen to take mercy
on him and return Eurydice to life.
In the Underworld, Orpheus played for Hades and Persephone. The queen
was so touched by the music that she begged her husband to break the rules
of the Underworld and release Eurydice. Hades agreed, on the condition that
Orpheus did not lay eyes on Eurydice while she remained in the Underworld.
Orpheus led his bride through the caverns of darkness and despair, slowly
winding upwards towards the earth’s surface. Eurydice followed after him at
a distance, so that he would not look upon her.
At last, Orpheus caught a glimpse of daylight up ahead. Happily, he
glanced back at his wife, only to realize even as he saw her that she was lost
to him – pulled back down, despairing, into the realms of death.

Orpheus plays his lyre in a 3rd-century CE Roman mosaic from Antakya, Turkey. The bard
is surrounded by wild animals that are entranced by his sublime music.

See also: Hades and the Underworld • The abduction of Persephone • The
descent of Inanna • Osiris and the Underworld

Unpredictability and change
Odyssey, Homer, 8th century BCE; Theogony, Hesiod, c. 700 BCE; Homeric
Hymns, Anonymous, c. 600 BCE; Orphic Hymns, Anonymous, c. 250 BCE–
150 CE.
Mount Olympus, Greece.
Hermes The messenger god; son of Zeus and Maia.
Zeus King of the gods.
Maia Daughter of Atlas and Pleione; mother of Hermes.
Atlas A Titan; father of Maia.
Pleione A sea nymph; mother of Maia.
Apollo The sun god.
Orion A giant hunter.

Hermes, generally described as the “messenger of the gods”, was that and
much more. Famously, he was able to flit from one place to another in an
instant, carried through the air on winged sandals that would become
emblematic of the god himself. His ability to fly was key to his role as
courier. Symbolically, though, the god’s rapid travel suggested his quickness
of thought and his heedlessness of the normal restrictions of time and space.

The god Hermes, with a painted whiplash in his right hand, leads a chariot carrying the
nymphs Basile and Echelos in this marble votive relief dating from 410 BCE.

Springing to life
Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia, daughter of the Titan Atlas and the
sea nymph Pleione. Known to the Romans as Mercury, he showed his
mercurial character from the very beginning of his life, when (according to
the Homeric Hymn to Hermes) he “jumped straight from his mother’s womb”
and landed in his cradle. The young god did not lie there long, but instead
leapt out of the cave that had been his mother’s refuge – despite being only
one hour old – to find and steal the cattle of the sun god, Apollo. Hermes had
barely stepped outside the cave when he was diverted by the sight of a
tortoise. Scooping out the animal, he turned the hollow shell “into a singer”.
He covered the opening with cowhide, leaving a sounding-hole; he then
stretched strings across it and built a little wooden bridge to make the world’s
first lyre. Plucking the strings, he burst into song, recounting epic stories of
the world and its creation – of Titans, Olympians, nymphs, men and women,
and other beings.

Maia and the Pleiades
Hermes’ mother was one of Zeus’s many
amatory conquests. According to Hesiod’s
Theogony, Maia, daughter of Atlas the
Titan and Pleione the sea nymph, had gone
up to Zeus’s “holy bed”, slept with him,
and bore him a son – the messenger god.
Maia in turn would be rewarded with her
own winged transformation.
After the war of the gods with the
Titans, while Atlas was forced to carry the
The seven daughters of Atlas and
sky and heavens upon his shoulders, his
Pleione – depicted here by Elihu
wife Pleione was romantically pursued by
Vedder (1885) – fly to the heavens
Orion, the great huntsman. For seven years
and become the Pleiades.
Orion harassed not only the sea nymph but
her seven daughters as well. At last Zeus answered their prayers and
intervened, first turning Orion into the group of stars now associated with
his name – Orion’s belt. He then transformed Pleione and her daughters –
including Maia – into doves. They flew into the night sky to become the
Pleiades, a cluster of stars whose appearance is traditionally associated
with the onset of rainy weather.

[Hermes] fastened on his feet the immortal golden sandals which carried him faster than the


Multi-faceted god
Not yet a day old, Hermes was already the world’s first musician, poet, and
historian. His multi-faceted genius was also capricious.The Homeric Hymn
states that, even as he sang, he was “inwardly attending to other matters”: as
Apollo’s sun went down, Hermes crept onto the lands of the god and took his
cattle. Walking the beasts backwards, so their trail seemed to lead in the
opposite direction, he herded them back to his home.

The quick cunning displayed by Hermes had much in common with
“trickster” spirits of other mythologies, such as West Africa’s Ananse, or the
Loki of Norse legend. Despite his love of pranks, Hermes also possessed a
capacity for more serious deeds. For example, he is held to have invented the
ritual sacrifice when he slew two of Apollo’s cows, skinned, and roasted
them, and – hungry though he was – left the aromatic flesh on a platform to
atone for his theft.
The caduceus, the rod that Hermes carried in his left hand, could confer
sleep and healing at a touch. The two symmetrically coiling serpents that
wound around the caduceus suggested its ability to balance and reconcile
opposing sides, whether through changing them from one form to another or
through negotiation and trade – Hermes was also believed to be the god of
And Maia bore to Zeus glorious Hermes, the herald of the deathless gods.

See also: The war of the gods and Titans • The many affairs of Zeus • The
quest of Odysseus • Arachne and Minerva • The adventures of Thor and Loki
in Jötunheim • Ananse the spider

Origins of the state
Homeric Hymns, Anonymous, c. 600 BCE; Library, Pseudo-Apollodorus,
c. 100 CE; Description of Greece, Pausanias, c. 150 CE.
Athens, Greece.
Athena Goddess of wisdom and patron deity of Athens.
Hephaistos The god of blacksmiths and craftworkers; father of
Erichthonius Founder of the city of Athens.
Poseidon God of the seas and contender for patron of Athens.
Cecrops First king of Athens.
The Homeric Hymn to Athena begins with the words, “Of Athena, guardian
of the city, I sing”. No other Greek deity was so closely identified with a
particular location, nor does any other location loom so large in our modern-

day perceptions of Greek culture. When we think of ancient Greece – its
literature, its art, its democracy – we are thinking largely of ancient Athens.
The mythological associations of Athens with the goddess of wisdom are
reflected in its reputation as a cultural and intellectual haven full of
philosophers, artists, and playwrights. This dazzling legacy arose from the
solid foundations of trade and industry, as the prosperity, confidence, and
technical expertise of its people came together to make the city grow and

The Parthenon (“Temple of the Virgin Goddess”) was built at the top of the Acropolis of
Athens in the mid-5th century BCE. It replaced an earlier temple dedicated to Athena.

Work and pleasure
One foundation myth makes this connection between beauty and technology
explicit, linking the beginnings of Athens with the craftsman-god Hephaistos.
Lame and ugly though he was, Hephaistos was married to the lovely
Aphrodite. This union was symbolically suggestive of the marriage of utility
and beauty, of work and pleasure, that was prevalent in Greek culture.
However, in common with other Olympian marriages, their union also
featured frequent infidelities.

A son is born
At one point, Aphrodite deserted her husband entirely for the war god, Ares.
After she left, Hephaistos fell passionately in love with Athena, then pursued
her and attempted to rape her.

Athena put up a furious resistance and pushed Hephaistos away just as he
ejaculated. His semen struck Athena’s thigh, and she brushed it off
disdainfully. It landed in the Greek soil, and there produced a new life; in
some retellings, this offspring was Erichthonius (“born of the very soil”),
who would go on to found the city of Athens.

By land and sea
Athena played a central role in another of the city’s foundation myths. When
Erichthonius was establishing his community on the coast of Attica, he called
on the gods for a divine patron to come forward. With Athena and Poseidon
both eagerly desiring the role, a contest was arranged to see what each deity
could offer the future city and its people. Its victor would be decided –
fittingly, for the birthplace of democracy – by a vote.
In the contest, Poseidon shook the earth, smiting it with his trident and
making a vast wave come rolling forth. This was a bounteous spring – but its
waters salty. In response, Athena then poked the ground, which produced an
olive tree, laden with its abundant and valuable fruit. The goddess of wisdom
was confirmed by Cecrops, king of the city, as the people’s choice. However,
Poseidon’s gift ensured that the seaport status of Athens was as important to
its prosperity as its fertile fields and groves. “Look kindly on those who make
their way in ships”, says the Homeric Hymn to Poseidon. The sea god
remained in the city’s prayers.

Athena and Poseidon’s contest is depicted on an amphora created by the Amasis Painter,
c.540 BCE. The signature between the two gods reads Amasis mepoiesen (“Amasis made

The Athenians are far more devoted to religion than other men.

Description of Greece
See also: The Olympian gods • The many affairs of Zeus • Cupid and Psyche
• Arachne and the spider

Inspiration, poetry, and wisdom
Homeric Hymn, author anonymous, c. 600 BCE; Description of Greece,
Pausanias, c. 150 CE.
Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in central Greece.
Apollo God of the sun and the arts, who was also associated with wisdom.
The Pythia Apollo’s high priestess at Delphi.
Hera The wife of Zeus.
Zeus King of the Olympian gods; father of Apollo.
Leto Mother of Apollo and Artemis.
Artemis Sister of Apollo.
Asclepius Son of Apollo.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, in central
Greece, was the site of the most important oracle in the ancient world. It was
believed that the god Apollo channelled prophecies through the Pythia, the
high priestess of the temple.

Raising a temple
Apollo’s association with Delphi began when he was just four days old.
Taking the form of a dolphin, he left his birthplace on the island of Delos in
the Cyclades, a group of islands in the Aegean Sea, to seek out and kill the
feared Python, a huge and ferocious dragon that lived in the innards of the
earth, beneath what was regarded as its omphalos, or “navel”, near the town
of Delphi. An enraged Hera, the wife of Zeus, had sent the monster to hunt
down Apollo’s mother, the goddess Leto, who had become pregnant by Zeus.

The Pythia sits on a sacred tripod as she receives a message from Apollo in Camillo Miola’s
The Oracle (1880). The figures in the foreground shake bay leaves as part of the ritual.

Although Leto escaped and gave birth to Apollo and his twin sister
Artemis on Delos, Apollo wished to avenge the attempt to destroy his
mother. Apollo slayed the Python with a bow and arrows made for him by the
blacksmith god, Hephaistos. He buried the creature beneath the omphalos
stone, which marked the geographical centre of the earth, and established his
temple to symbolize the resounding triumph of heaven over earth.

Joy and wisdom
By the fifth century BCE, Apollo had supplanted Helios the Titan as the sun
god in the Greek pantheon. The Homeric