Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 3

The Olympian Rule

Although which gods are included in the list of twelve Olympians varies, this number would be a constant of the major inhabitants of Olympus. Here it becomes useful to give an account of the major Olympian gods, their importance and their attributions. As the various consorts of these deities could fill up a book on their own, they will only be referenced in cases of particular importance.

Aphrodite was, as stated above, born from the sea foam after Cronus’s genitals were cast into the sea. She was the goddess of love and beauty. She was among the gods invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis who would become the parents of the legendary Achilles. It was said that the only goddess not to be invited to the wedding was Eris, the goddess of discord.

When Eris showed up anyway, true to her nature, she tossed a golden apple into the center of the other goddesses inscribed with the words, “to the fairest.” Three of the goddesses immediately claimed that the gift was theirs by right of their beauty. These were Aphrodite, Hera and Athena.

When the three could not come to a decision regarding ownership of the golden apple, each thinking themselves to be the fairest of the goddesses, they brought the matter before Zeus. Wanting to avoid the quarrel, Zeus passed the decision onto Paris of Troy.

Paris was the son of the Trojan King Priam. The goddesses washed themselves in the spring of Mount Ida and went before Paris for his decision. They rent their clothing and asked him to judge. Although having been given permission to set his own conditions by Zeus, he could not decide among them as he found them all to be supremely beautiful.

The goddesses, undaunted by his inability to decide between them began offering him various things in exchange for his declaration of who was the fairest. Athena offered him wisdom, courage, and glory in battle; Hera offered control of Europe and Asia; but it was Aphrodite whose offer he accepted. Her offer was to grant him a wife who was more beautiful than all of the women of the earth.

The problem with Aphrodite’s offer was that this woman was already married to a Spartan king named Menelaus. Undaunted, Paris abducted his new goddess-given bride, a woman named Helen out from under Menelaus. The legend goes that the other two goddesses, scorned Aphrodite and Paris for this, and they would go on to initiate the Trojan War, of which Homer’s Iliad is largely concerned.

Apollo was the god of the sun, of light, of truth, and poetry among other things. He was often depicted as bearing a bow and arrow, or often a lyre. He was the son of Zeus and Leto, a daughter of Coeus and Phoebe (Titans), and twin brother to Artemis. Due to Hera’s anger and jealousy of Leto as her husband had lain with her and the two produced offspring, Apollo’s early life was largely occupied by protecting his mother against Hera’s wrath.

Hera’s first attempt on Leto was by sending Python, a dragon who dwelled beneath the living surface of Gaia. In order to be equipped to protect his mother, Apollo entreated Hephaestus to provide him with armaments. He received his iconic bow and arrow and, at only four days old, Apollo was said to have slain Python.

Hera wasn’t done going after Leto, however. Her next attempt on Leto was commenced by sending the giant Tityos to dispatch her rival. Tityos was around twenty two square miles’ worth of giant but, with the help of his sister Artemis, Tityos was defeated and cast into Tartarus by Zeus. While in Tartarus, Tityos was doomed to have his liver perpetually consumed by vultures.

Although he was considered a healer of man and god in Greek mythology, he also could bring death and disease with his arrows. One notable instance of this began with a simple insult.

Niobe was the wife of Amphion, one of the founders of Thebes and its ruler. She boasted to Leto that she had seven times as many children (seven sons and seven daughters) as Leto’s two: Apollo and Artemis. Apollo and Artemis swiftly killed all (or in some versions, all but one) of Niobe’s children; Apollo killed the sons while Artemis killed the daughters.

Apollo was bisexual and had a vast number of male and female consorts. He bore many children, however the story of Apollo and Daphne is one of the most famous. As the story goes, Apollo was remarking to Eros that his bow and arrow were above his station, that he was unfit to wield them.

Eros, having had enough of Apollo’s taunts shot two arrows: A golden arrow of love through Apollo’s heart and a leaden arrow of hate or disgust into the nymph Daphne. Apollo immediately pursued the nymph who was disgusted and fled his advances. She entreated her father Peneus, the river god to help her. Her father turned her into a laurel tree, but Apollo’s love of her was unwavering. He embraced the branches, but even they shrank away from him. He declared that as he retained eternal youth, so should the leaves of the tree never decay. He would guard the tree from any who would do it harm, and use its branches as crowns for the leaders of the world.

Ares was the god of war. A son of Zeus and Hera (one of Zeus’s rare dalliances with his own wife), Ares took his sister Enyo (goddess of destruction) as his consort. He was the father of Phobos (fear) and Deimos (terror) borne from Aphrodite. According to Homer, Ares was despised by his father Zeus for his lust for war.

While he was immortal, and loved nothing more than warfare, he was highly intolerant of pain. In Homer’s Iliad, Ares was injured in the battlefield of Troy, and his cries were heard throughout the world. He went back to Olympus whining to his father Zeus to heal him. Zeus quickly let Ares know how much he was despised but, as Ares was his son, he did in fact heal him.

Ares is said to have always gone into war with Enyo joining him on his chariot, and this chariot was driven by Phobos and Deimos.

Artemis, twin of Apollo, was the goddess of the hunt, the moon, the forests and the hills. She was the first of the twins to be born, and actually acted as midwife to her mother Leto during Apollo’s birth. Her weapon was, like that of her brother, the bow.

Artemis believed her destiny to be as a midwife, and unlike many of the philandering gods, she remained a virgin. All of her companions were also virgins and, one day as they were bathing, a man named Actaeon came upon them. He was hunting with his hounds at the time, but was struck by the beauty of Artemis and her cohorts and stopped to gaze upon them further.

When Artemis discovered the man peeping at herself and her companions, she became furious and turned him into a stag. His hunting dogs, no longer recognizing their master tore him to pieces.

Artemis was certainly not one to be trifled with. When Agamemnon, one of the legendary warriors of the Trojan War in Iliad, offended Artemis, she exacted her vengeance by calming the winds which bore Agamemnon’s fleet toward Troy. Stranded in the middle of the sea, Agamemnon’s only choice to appease Artemis was to offer up his daughter Iphigenia.

There are differing accounts as to what exactly happened when Artemis came upon Iphigenia. Some myths say that Artemis spared the woman because of her bravery, others say that Iphigenia was taken as a priestess to help worshippers offer sacrifice to the goddess, while still others say that Athena did in fact take Iphigenia as sacrifice.

Athena was the goddess of wisdom, intelligence, crafts, and architecture and was the patron goddess of Athens which bears her name. Athena’s birth is as interesting as any other myths about her. She was borne of the goddess Metis.

Metis was the goddess of wisdom and craftiness. Zeus and Metis became entangled in a romantic tryst but, fearing a prophecy which stated that Zeus’s offspring by Metis would come to be more powerful than Zeus himself, he consumed Metis (in some versions, he turned her into a fly first) as his father Cronus had done with his Olympian children.

His efforts were too late, however, as Metis was already pregnant with Athena. Metis would give birth in Zeus’s belly, and she forged weapons and armor for her new daughter. Athena grew to adulthood and split the head of Zeus, springing forth from within armed and grown. Zeus, despite the manner of Athena’s technical birth, came through the encounter unscathed.

Other traditions do exist where Athena was born as the mind of god. She still sprung from his forehead, but as a result of his intention of creating another world by use of the word logos.

Among her other attributions was that she was a patron of heroes. In Homer’s Odyssey, she is impressed by the hero Odysseus as he tries to make his way toward his home of Ithaca. She could only assist him from afar, however, by implanting thoughts into his head on his travel back to his homeland.

Demeter was the goddess of the harvest. Of all the cults in ancient Greece, the cults of Demeter were possibly the most widespread and definitely the most secretive.

As the story of Demeter and Persephone is detailed in the book Ancient Greece of this series, it seems fitting to give a different account of the goddess’s myth.

During her search for Persephone, Demeter took the form of an elderly mortal woman and called herself Doso. She was found by four daughters of the king of Eleusis, a man named Celeus. She claimed that she had been attacked by pirates, and entreated them to help her find work befitting an old woman.

Demeter asked the king for shelter, which he gave. He asked if she could nurse his children Triptolemus and Demophon. Demeter did the king one better. Due to his kindness and hospitality, she secretly began feeding Demophon ambrosia (the food of the gods), a substance which would grant immortality to those who partook of it. Then at night, she would hold the boy in the fire to cleanse him of his mortality.

When the queen of Eleusis, Celeus’s wife Metanira stumbled across the scene, she took the situation at face value and screamed. Demeter abandoned her quest to make the boy immortal, and instead taught his brother the secrets of planting, harvesting and agriculture. This is, according to Greek mythology, how the people of the earth learned to grow crops.

Dionysus was the god of wine and merriment. He was born of a mortal woman named Semele. Hera, usually quick to discover her husband’s infidelities, went to Semele as a nurse, or an old woman. Semele told the disguised goddess of the unborn child’s father, that it was Zeus’s child.

Hera encouraged Semele to doubt the Olympian heritage of her unborn child. Semele then went before the disguised Zeus and demanded that he reveal himself. When she persisted, he reluctantly agreed and showed himself in all of his glory. As an unconcealed god, the mortal woman could not survive the sight, and she died in flame.

Zeus, not wanting his child to also perish, removed the still developing child Dionysus from his dead mother’s womb. To allow the boy to grow to full infancy, Zeus sewed Dionysus into his thigh. After a few months of incubation, Dionysus was born. Thus, he was a twice-born god, once of his mother Semele and once from the thigh of Zeus himself.

In another popular Dionysian tale, Silenus, Dionysus’s foster father had passed out in the rose garden of a king. The king nursed him back to health for ten days. On the eleventh day, Silenus took the king to Dionysus who, being so grateful for Silenus’s return and the hospitality of the king, offered the latter his choice of any reward that he so chose.

The king’s name was Midas.

Hades was the god of the underworld. Despite modern depictions, Hades was not the most reviled of all the gods. In fact, during the Titanomachy, he fought bravely with the Olympians against their Titan foes. He was the oldest male childe of Cronus and Rhea and was therefore the last to be regurgitated by the former. This being the case, he can also technically be considered the youngest male (Hestia being the oldest {and youngest} of all the children).

While there was a later belief that Hades and Dionysus were one and the same, the people feared Hades. They would sacrifice black animals such as sheep to the underworld god and, as it was believed that the blood dripped through a crack in the earth, would avert their faces to avoid seeing him.

Hades took Persephone as his wife, but when Demeter refused to allow the crops of the earth to grow, she was returned for two-thirds of the year.

His chariot was led by four black horses, and he kept as a pet and guardian the three headed dog Cerberus.

Hephaestus, the god of fire, masonry and metal working, was the only one of the gods who was considered to be ugly. Born of Zeus and Hera, he often took his mother’s side. In a particular argument of the espoused gods, Hephaestus stepped in between them. Zeus, furious at Hephaestus’s intervention cast him out of Olympus, throwing him by the leg.

Hephaestus flew for the space of a full day, finally landing with an enormous impact on the island of Lemnos. He was nursed back to health, but would always walk with a limp. (although another version has Hera casting him out because he already had a withered foot.)

Despite being cast out, Hephaestus was able to regain his place on Olympus.

In order to prevent the other gods from fighting over who would be able to marry Aphrodite, Zeus arranged the marriage between the goddess of beauty and Hephaestus. Although he was considered to be the most balanced of the gods, the insatiable Aphrodite was constantly unfaithful.

Although she was married to Hephaestus, Aphrodite had a long-running romance with Ares. The two were spotted one day by Helios (the charioteer of the sun), who quickly made Hephaestus aware of the situation.

Rather than confront them outright, Hephaestus set a trap. He forged a net which was so fine it could not be seen by the naked eye. He set his trap and waited for its prey.

When Ares and Aphrodite were ensnared, Hephaestus brought forth the two naked gods to shame them before the others on Olympus. The other gods, however, only laughed at the sight. It wasn’t until Poseidon persuaded Hephaestus to release the two by promising that Ares would pay the fine of the adulterer, that of returning the wife and reclaiming the price he had paid as dowry to Zeus.

Aphrodite not only laid with Hephaestus’s brother Ares, but a prodigious string of gods and men. Hephaestus was hardly a pitiable cuckold though, as he fathered many children and had many consorts of his own.

Hephaestus worked the forges both on Olympus, and within the volcanos of the earth. To help him walk, he forged two robots out of metal (not joking) and endowed them with the gift of artificial intelligence. These two robots would serve as highly intelligent crutches to the god.

Hera was the queen of the Olympian gods, and goddess of marriage, birth and women. Her symbol was the peacock, and these birds were said to have drawn her chariot.

Much of the stories regarding Hera are in regard to her vengeance upon the women with whom her husband Zeus engaged in sexual intercourse, and her wrath against the children born of these affairs.

One of the most amusing stories about Hera and her infamous temper regards a man named Tiresias. When he was young, he came across the sight of two mating snakes, and struck them with a stick. His intervention caused a strange consequence though, as he was changed into a woman.

During his nine years as a female, he married and bore children. He also became a priestess of Hera. When he came across another instance of two snakes mating, he again struck them with a stick and returned to his original male form.

In what can only be called an Olympian parlor bet, Zeus and Hera confronted Tiresias, asking him for whom sex was more pleasurable, men or women. The two gods believed that it was the sex opposite of theirs who enjoyed the greater ecstasy. Tiresias answered that sexual intercourse was more pleasurable for women. Enraged at the answer, Tiresias was struck blind by Hera.

Zeus could not restore Tiresias’s sight; however, he did give him the gift of prophetic sight.

Hermes was the messenger of the gods. He was the son of Zeus and Maia. Among his other attributions, he was also the god of thieves, trade, athletes. He also guided souls to the underworld.

Hermes was a notorious trickster. While still an infant, he leapt from his cradle and hid Apollo’s cattle. Apollo realized what was happening and confronted the child. Hermes insisted that he had nothing to do with it, so Apollo brought him before Zeus in a rage. Zeus, however, thought the matter was hilarious.

Like many of the other Olympians, Hermes was quite the philanderer. He never married, but fathered many children with over forty different women and goddesses.

He was also a patron to inventors, and is said to have invented music, numbers, the alphabet, astronomy, measurement, and many other indispensable creations.

Hestia was the goddess of architecture, the hearth and home, domesticity and the family. She was a daughter of Cronus and Rhea. She was a passive goddess, and is not always considered to be one of the twelve. In other myths, Dionysus replaces her on Olympus.

She remained a virgin, despite the advances of Apollo and Poseidon. She was directed by Zeus to tend the Olympian fires. With any sacrifice, as Hestia was the oldest child of Cronus and Rhea (and the last to be purged, therefore also the youngest), Hestia was the first goddess to receive an offering.

Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, and consort of Hades. Thus she was the goddess of the underworld. She is identified with the growth and productivity of the seasons, due to the above mentioned abduction and residence with Hades during what are the winter months.

Every spring as she returned from the underworld, the plant life would spring back up. As she was symbolically reborn, so were crops and other plants which had lain dormant in during her time in the underworld.

Poseidon was the god of the seas, earthquakes, storms, etc. His weapon (and symbol) was the trident. Another bisexual god, Poseidon had many consorts and children. He was often referred to as the earth shaker, and was one of the Olympian gods who fought against the Titans.

He was in competition against Athena to be the patron god of Athens. Although he lost the contest, he would remain a chief deity among the Athenians.

In Homer’s Odyssey, he was angry with Odysseus (or Ulysses in Latin) for blinding one of his children, a Cyclops. The god of the sea was infuriated, and set about making Odysseus’s journey as difficult as possible. He, in fact, tried to kill Odysseus on more than one occasion, but was always thwarted.

Although much has already been covered in regard to Zeus (and much more will be covered) it seems fitting to give some information about the god outside of his poisoning his father Cronus, and his various infidelities.

Although the primary focus thus far has been on Zeus’s various indiscretions (an accounting of his romantic endeavors alone would fill a few volumes), Zeus also had a protective side, especially toward Hera.

Ixion, king of the Lapiths in Thessaly, would come across Zeus in a way which was new to mortals of the time. According to myth, Ixion had married the daughter of Eioneus, but didn’t pay the dowry. Eioneus, in order to have some assurance that Ixion would come to pay him, held his son-in-law’s horses as collateral to ensure that payment would be made.

Ixion, however, was not about to give his new father-in-law his just dues. He lured Eioneus to his home, saying that he was ready to pay up, but killed Eioneus by casting into a flaming pit.

Killing a member of one’s own family, in the myth, was unheard of, and those who could purify him refused to do so. Zeus, taking pity on the mortal invited Ixion to his table at Olympus, but Ixion’s treachery was not over.

Ixion became enamored with, and began to pursue Hera. When Hera told Zeus about this, the king of the gods could hardly believe that one, especially someone in Ixion’s position, would be so impudent as to make a move on his wife.

Zeus, as a test, created a cloud in the form of Hera (who would come to be called Nephele) and placed it in Ixion’s bed (other stories have the cloud-Hera being placed in Hera’s bed). Ixion had imbibed a few drinks at this point, and when he came across Nephele, he set himself upon it.

Zeus came in and, unable to deny Ixion’s motives any longer, cast Ixion from Olympus, striking him with a thunderbolt. Ixion was bound to a flaming wheel, which was set to spin for eternity.

According to the myth, Nephele (cloud-Hera) had become pregnant through the dalliance with Ixion and gave birth to Centauros. Centauros would go on to mate with the horses of Mount Pelion, thus creating the race of Centaurs.

These are but a few stories related to the gods. The myths surrounding most of them are quite vast, and their essences are still about us today in popular and underground culture.

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