The ancient Greeks and Romans worshiped many divinities—the gods, goddesses, and other beings who controlled nature and influenced human activities. The ancients formed cults* and built temples to their divinities. They also held festivals in their honor, and made sacrifices* to them. The myths, legends, and literature of the Greeks and Romans recounted the lives and actions of these divine beings.


Early Greek Divinities. The earliest Greek divinity dates from the 1000s B.C. on the island of Crete. This deity* was a great goddess (or perhaps a group of goddesses) who ruled over all of nature—the sky, the sea, the moon, and life and death. The great goddess was also associated with animals and with hunting, and in early Greek art she was often depicted with snakes. The Cretans had many different names for her, including Britomartis (sweet maiden), Dictynna, and Ariadne. Later, Greeks brought the idea of the great goddess to the mainland as Demeter and other goddesses.

The Hellenes, a nomadic* people from the north, brought into Greece their sky god Dyaus (from the Sanskrit* word for “sky”), an early form of the Greek Zeus. Zeus reigned supreme over both deities and human beings. In the words of the Greeks, he was “Zeus the first, Zeus the last, the Lord of the Lightning/Zeus the head, Zeus the center, the source of all being.” Zeus lived in the sky as well as on Mt. Olympus, the home of the other major gods, who together are called the Olympian deities after Mt. Olympus. Every four years the Greeks held a festival at the temple of Zeus at Olympia, during which time those states who were at war declared truces with one another.

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat

* deity god or goddess

* nomadic referring to people who wander from place to place to find food and pasture

* Sanskrit ancient language of India

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

The Twelve. People in classical* Greece referred to the most important Olympian gods and goddesses as the Twelve. These deities were also known as the Greek pantheon. The Twelve included Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, Athena, and Hestia. Athenians had built the Altar of the Twelve in the center of the city, and the deities were depicted on the frieze* of the Parthenon. Greeks even called out the names of the Twelve when they took an oath.

Zeus was the most important of the Twelve. He was married to Hera, his sister and the queen of the gods. Since Hera was also the goddess of marriage and childbirth, all Greek women worshiped her. In Arcadia in the Peloponnese*, Hera was known by three titles—Maid, Wife, Widow. Poseidon, Zeus’s brother, was the god of the sea. Greeks also worshiped him as the god of horses and earthquakes. Poseidon carried a trident*, with which he created freshwater springs by striking the ground.

Demeter, Zeus’s sister in classical mythology, was the Earth-Mother or Grain-Mother. The women of Athens honored Demeter at the festival of the Thesmophoria held every year in the late autumn. She was also worshiped at the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were the most famous of the Greek mystery cults. According to Greek mythology, Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld*, to be his wife. Although Hades returned her for half of the year, Demeter was so unhappy during the six months Persephone was in the underworld that she caused the earth to be barren. Finally, with the intercession of the gods, Demeter was persuaded to forgo her anger as Persephone was allowed to visit her mother for a certain time each year.

Apollo was the god of destruction and healing and of music and culture. He was also the god of prophecy. An oracle* at the shrine of Apollo at Delphi provided inspired advice. People from throughout the Greek world traveled to Delphi to ask the god questions regarding their crops and their children, and representatives of Greek states asked the oracle about matters of state policy. Apollo’s sister, Artemis, was a hunter who aided women during childbirth. She also defended all wild animals and children.

Ares, the only son of Zeus and Hera, was the deity of war. He was cruel and bloodthirsty, attracting little affection from the Greeks. Ares had a love affair with Aphrodite, a fertility goddess and the goddess of love, who was married to Hephaestus, the god of fire. Hephaestus was also the blacksmith of the gods, and he made their armor and other metal implements for his fellow divinities.

Hermes, a friendly and popular god, guided travelers and helped shepherds with their flocks. He was the messenger of the gods and led the souls of the dead to the underworld. The patron* goddess of the city of Athens was Pallas Athena, Zeus’s favorite daughter. Athena was said to have sprung miraculously from her father’s head, full grown and dressed in armor. She supervised the business of war and the work of craftspeople. She also symbolized wisdom and counsel and could outwit Ares in battle. Hestia, the goddess of the hearth*, was the last of the Twelve, although she was sometimes replaced (as on the Parthenon frieze, for example) by Dionysus, the god of vegetation, wine, festivals, and drama.

* frieze in sculpture, a decorated band around a structure

* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece

* trident three-pronged spear; similar to a pitchfork

* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades

* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made

* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter

* hearth fireplace in the center of a house

Other Greek Divinities. Although these 12 Olympians were the most important deities, the Greeks worshiped many others as well. At daybreak, they prayed to Helios, the sun god who sees everything. He was sometimes honored along with Hemera, the goddess of the day. Rivers and springs were also worshiped. For example, Scamander, a river close to Troy, had its own priest, and girls who were about to marry took a ritual bath in its waters. There were also numerous nymphs, who were lesser goddesses of nature. Naiads were nymphs of bodies of water and of springs, dryads lived in woods and trees, and oreads were mountain nymphs. Other spirits included the Horai (goddesses of the seasons), the Muses (goddesses of the arts and sciences), and the Graces (goddesses of charm, grace, and beauty). Certain divinities, such as Eris (strife), Phobos (fear), and Eros (love), represented human emotions and feelings. During the Hellenistic* period, Tyche (fortune) was regarded as a protector of cities as well as individual persons.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability often descended from a god

The Greeks also had cults devoted to heroes*. Heracles, the most popular of all Greek heroes, was worshiped as both a hero and a god. (He was known as Hercules by the Romans.) The son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal woman, Heracles was famous for performing the Twelve Labors—a dozen tasks that required tremendous courage and strength. Because these labors were regarded by the Greeks as heroic acts performed in the service of his fellow humans, Heracles was made a god after his death. Asclepius was another popular hero. A skilled doctor, Asclepius was killed for attempting to raise the dead. Both the Greeks and the Romans worshiped him for his healing power. Orpheus was a legendary musician whose art was so powerful that he was able to charm beasts and even arouse the gods of the underworld. He was most famed for his attempt to bring back his wife, Eurydice, from the world of the dead, simply by the power of his music.


According to Greek myth, the gods of the pantheon did not always rule the universe. They first had to defeat the Titans, who were the children of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). According to the Greek poet Hesiod's Theogony, Cronos and Rhea, the king and queen of the Titans, were the parents of Zeus and other gods and goddesses. Fearful that his children would dethrone him, Cronos swallowed them as they were bom.

Rhea deceived Cronos by hiding the newborn Zeus and giving Cronos a stone wrapped in baby's clothing instead, which he swallowed. Zeus and the other gods defeated the Titans after ten years of fierce battle. They imprisoned the Titans below earth in Tartarus, the place of punishment in the underworld. The most famous Titan is Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to human beings.


Early Roman Divinities. The earliest Roman divinities were numina, which were spiritual forces that controlled particular activities of daily life. Unlike the Greek gods and goddesses, numina were spirits that existed in natural objects, such as trees, and did not appear as humans. To help crops grow, for instance, a priest called upon many different numina, such as Vervactor (turner of fallow* land), Reparator (preparer of fallow land), and Sarritor (the one who hoes). An expectant mother might pray to Nona and Decima, the spirits who presided over the final two months of her pregnancy. The numen Fabulinus aided babies in speaking their first words, while Statulinus helped babies stand.

Early Romans honored a trio of powerful gods: Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. Jupiter, like Zeus in Greece, ruled supreme. Mars was a god of war similar to Ares, although Mars was also a god of agriculture. Quirinus, a god unique to Rome, was the god of the Roman people when they were peaceably assembled. He was later identified with Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. Other deities worshiped by the early Romans include Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, and Janus, who was the god of the door.

Importing New Gods. As the Romans came into contact with other peoples, especially the Greeks, they adopted the deities of other peoples as their own. For the most part, the Romans had no myths about their own native gods, and they borrowed the stories of the Greeks. For example, the Romans worshiped the water spirit Neptune, whom they identified with the Greek god Poseidon, and the grain spirit Ceres, who came from Demeter. The 12 most important Olympian gods of the Greeks became the most important gods in Rome.

As the empire spread, the Romans adopted the deities of the conquered peoples. They gave these local gods and goddesses Roman names. For example, in Commagene (now southeastern Turkey) the supreme god was Doliche, but the Romans called him Jupiter. Roman soldiers carried these names throughout the empire, and they became well known. Some gods had several names and a variety of functions. Juno was an ancient Roman goddess, but as Juno Populina she was worshiped by soldiers, as Juno Rumina she blessed the city of Rome, and as Juno Ossipagina she healed broken bones.

Occasionally, the Romans intentionally imported new cults. In the 200s B.C., the Roman Senate brought the cult of Asclepius to Rome to treat the sick. During the Punic Wars with Carthage, the Senate introduced into Rome the goddess Cybele from Asia Minor. Several cults native to Egypt and the Near East spread during the Roman Empire. The Egyptian goddess Isis had numerous devoted followers in Rome. The cult of Mithraism was introduced to Rome from Persia. Its followers—mainly soldiers, traders, and civil servants—worshiped Ahura Mazda, a deity of order and light, and Mithras, a god who fought against the forces of chaos and darkness.

* fallow land plowed and left unseeded for a season or longer so that moisture and organic processes can replenish the soil's nutrients

Roman emperors were also worshiped as divinities. Ruler worship had been practiced in the Hellenistic kingdoms. In stages this practice developed within the early Roman Empire. The Romans believed that their emperors became gods when they died. A few emperors expected to be worshiped during their lifetimes, but when carried to excess this desire was often regarded as a sign of instability or even madness. Caligula, for example, believed that he really was the brother of the gods Castor and Pollux but was widely regarded as insane. Likewise, the emperor Cornmodus, who dressed himself up as Hercules, was viewed as excessive. The name of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, had a religious meaning, setting him apart from other people. Far more moderate than his successors Caligula or Commodus, Augustus nevertheless expected to become a divinity upon his death, as did the emperor Vespasian. As Vespasian lay dying, he is said to have exclaimed, “Oh dear! I think I’m becoming a god!” (See also Christianity; Cults; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Heroes, Greek; Myths, Greek; Myths, Roman; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman; Rulers, Worship of.)

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