The Sky. The king of gods was ZEUS, a sky god known as a wielder of thunder-bolts. In myth and legend, he is far from omnipotent, though feared by all his fellow deities. He is sometimes said to be the father (with Themis) of the Fates (or Moirai, Moerae, the three old women who spin out the threads of each man's life, but it sometimes appears that he himself is subject to their decrees. In classical times, the Greek gods were very anthropomorphic, but as an adulterer, Zeus could assume other guises, seducing Danae as a shower of gold, Europa as a bull, and Leda as a swan.
The myths about Zeus's many adulteries, which bothered later Greeks who wished to see him as a divine fount of justice, were presumably local variants of the marriage of the earth goddess and her lover (often a sky god), sometimes represented by a priestess and the king or war chief. Such sacred marriages were common all over the Mediterranean, long before Greek speakers arrived. Earth goddesses may have been older and bound more closely the area whose fertility they guaranteed, so Hera is the patron of Argos and Athena of Athens--even Aphrodite is particularly identified with the island of Cyprus. The Greeks would have insisted on the authority of their Zeus over these older goddesses; he marries Hera, and Athena must be reborn from his forehead, while other local goddesses are reduced in legend to mere mortals.
The Sea. Zeus's brother POSEIDON, a river and sea god, was another important male Olympian (all the other male Olympians were sons of Zeus). Poseidon's weapon was the trident, and he was associated with horses as well. Like his brother, he courted the sea-nymph Thetis, a daughter of Nereus, a prophetic old man (or god) of the sea, often conflated with the shape-changing Proteus, another companion of Poseidon. Poseidon finally married another Nereid (there were 50), Amphitrite. Their children included the merman Triton. By mother Earth Poseidon was the parent of the monstrous Charybdis (or Kharybdis, a sea-monster who sucked in waters and spewed them out again--a kind of whirlpool.
Poseidon's father in law Nereus was the son of mother Earth and an earlier sea god, PONTUS. Pontus and Ge's son Thaumas, was important mainly as the father of the winged women-monsters the Harpies and of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow and a messenger of the gods, particularly of Hera. Another brother of Nereus was the sea god god Phorcys (Phorkys), who was (with Hecate) the parent of Charypdis's companion in the straits of Messina, Scylla (or Skylla). Scylla did not start has an octopus-like monster with rapid dog heads on her tentacles, but Poseidon had been interested in her and a jealous Amphitrite turned her into a monster. Phorcys is also sometimes given as the father of the Sirens.
The Sons of Zeus. APOLLO, the son of Zeus and Letoand the brother of Artemis, was the god of light and reason, though he pursued the nymph Daphne so violently that she turned into a laurel tree to escape him. He also failed in his wooing of the Trojan princess Cassandra. In a more successful courtship, he fell in love with Cyrene when he saw her wrestling a lion (and winning), and he carried off to Lybia to found a city in her name; Aristaeus, the father of Actaeon, was their son, as was Idmon, a famous seer.
Apollo himself was the god of seers and prophecy, though some said he had learned the art of prophecy from Pan. He took over the Delphic Oracle from the Python, which he is said to have pursued and killed for having harassed his mother. His defeat of the Python gave him the nickname of Pythian Apollo. Delphi was the most important oracular shrine in Greece, said to contain the omphalos, the navel stone of the earth, and famous for its counsels of moderation. The stories presumably reflect a takeover of the site by priests of Apollo.
Apollo was a famous musician and often associated as a patron of the arts with the nine Muses. Apollo's favorite instrument was the lyre, which Hermes had invented and passed on to his brother in recompense for having stolen various things from Apollo. Pan challenged him to a contest pitting Pan's pipes vs. Apollo's lyre. The mountain god Tmolus was the judge and awarded the prize to Apollo. King Midas of Phrygia disagreed, and Apollo gave him the ears of an ass for this error in taste. The satyr Marsyas championed the flute against Apollo's lyre; his punishment for losing was to be flayed alive. Such cruelty was, however, unlike Apollo, who was a patron of the healing arts. His sons included the famous healer Asclepius.
DIONYSUS, the god of wine, ecstasy, and generally living it up, is one of the gods whose name can be traced to Mycenean times, but Greek mythology portrays him as an outsider, probably a Thracian, and a late-comer among the Twelve Olympians, where he displaced Hestia. The mother of Dionysus was probably a Phrygian earth goddess in origin, but in Greek myth she is the princess SEMELE of Thebes, a daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia. She was was seduced by Zeus and destroyed before the baby's birth when she insisted on seeing Zeus's full splendor. Dionysus was sown up in Zeus's thigh for his last months before birth. As a young child, he was nursed by Semele's sister Ino.
Dionysus punished harshly those who failed to respect his power, and many of the stories about him reflect conflicts over the introduction of his worship. The most famous deals with his return to his birthplace of Thebes. In his old age, Cadmus gave his throne to his grandson PENTHEUS, who opposed the introduction of the worship of Dionysus into Thebes, and was punished by being killed by his own mother, Agave, after which Cadmus and his wife were turned into serpents and sent into exile, a story told in Euripides's The Bacchae, named after the female worshippers of Dionysus, who was also known as Bacchus.
Ever since the German philosopher Nietsche's The Birth of Tragedy (1872), it has been conventional to see Apollo and Dionysus as the opposed sides of Greek culture, with Apollo representing the traditional classic virtues of light and reason and Dionysus representing those darker forces which we ignore at our peril--the great Greek tragedies, after all, were written for a festival in honor of Dionysus. His worshippers were said to tear apart animals with the bare hands and eat the raw flesh, convinced that they were devouring and becoming one with their god. This sense of union with a god is foreign to the Olympians in general. The role of women in his worship was also regarded with distrust. The legend of Orpheus, torn apart by female worshippers of Dionysus, may suggest a latent identification of Dionysus with Orpheus. Orpheus was said to be a founder of mysteries, quite possibly mysteries in honor of the Goddess. Dionysus was eventually worshipped as part of the great Eleusinian mysteries celebrated near Athens, which were chiefly in honor of Demeter and Persephone
HERMES, Zeus's son by Maia, one of the Pleiades, was the messenger of the gods and a patron of both commerce and theft. He invented the lyre, though Apollo took it over as payment for a herd of his cows which Hermes had stolen. His name associates him with the phallic stone herms used to mark boundaries. He was the herald of the gods, and his son Echion became the herald of the Argonauts, while his son Autolycus, the grandfather of Odysseus, showed his ancestry by becoming a famous thief.
Zeus had two sons by his wife Hera: HEPHAESTUS, the lame blacksmith of the gods, and the war god ARES. It was said that Hephaestus became lame because his father threw him off Mt. Olympus for taking his mother's side in an argument. He married Aphrodite, who betrayed him with his brother Ares.
Some Non-Olympian Gods. Zeus and the Olympians were not the first gods to rule the earth, sea, and heavens. The first king of gods was the sky god URANUS (Ouranos). His sons the Titans, led by KRONOS, overthrew and castrated their father. After the Titans overthrew Uranus, Kronos became chief god, and Oceanus was the god of the sea. The Titan rebellion was aided by the one-eyed Cyclops, but they got no rewards from Kronos for their help, and so helped his children when they overthrew the Titans in their turn, led by his son Zeus.
Two important Titans, Themis and her son PROMETHEUS, sided with Zeus and the Olympians. Prometheus was credited with creating human beings. Athene aided him, but Zeus was less pleased. When Prometheus stole fire from heaven and gave it to humanity, Zeus punished him by chaining him to a mountain and having an eagle gnaw away forever at his liver. Prometheus remained defiant. Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus was also a friend of humanity and thus suspectin the eyes of the gods. Zeus gave him Pandora as a bride. She opened a box which Prometheus had hid away, and out flew all the vices, diseases, and evils which afflict mankind, along with Hope, whose task it is to keep us going by telling us pretty lies.
The Titan Hyperion was a sun god, the son of Uranus and Gaea. Hyperion's children included Eos, the goddess of dawn, Helius (Hellus), another sun god, and Selene, a moon goddess. Eos was the mother (by the Titan Astraeus) of the wind gods: Boreas (north), Euros (east), Notos (south), and Zephyrus (west), though some claim Aiolos (or Aeolus) keeps all winds in an island cave.
The younger generation of Greek gods includes PAN, a woodland god with goat's feet and pipe. Pan was said to be a son of Hermes. Another younger deity was Eros, the patron cherub of erotic love. He was said to be the son of Aphrodite by either Hermes or Ares, though some claimed he was one of the very first gods, for obvious reasons. The parentage of her son Priapus, a phallic god, was equally in dispute, with Hermes, Pan, Dionysus, Adonis, and Zeus being among those suggested. Hermaphroditus, on the other hand, is pretty definitely her son by Hermes. According to Ovid, he was a lovely youth who resisted the embraces of the fountain nymph Salmacis till he was joined with her as a single hermaphrodite being.
HADES, although a brother of Zeus and Poseidon, isn't an Olympian. After defeating Kronos, Zeus and Poseidon got the sky and sea, but Hades took (and gave his name to) the Underworld (Tartarus), a grim place, where ghosts must pay the ferryman Charon to take them across the river Styx. After death, only a few great heroes and noble souls are judged worthy of the Elysian Fields, a daylight land where Kronos rules. Elysium and the Elysian Fields are sometimes said not be in Hades at all, but off in the Atlantic, or in some other spot. The river Styx surrounds Hades, although some claim that Charon's ferry crosses the Acheron. Other rivers of Hades are Avernus, Cocytus, Lethe and Phlegethon. Bathing in Lethe purges the dead of their memories of life.
Olympic Goddesses. The Queen of the gods was HERA, Zeus's wife and sister, the patron of marriage and motherhood. Many myths tell of her rage at his adulteries. Another sister of Zeus was Hestia, the goddess of the hearth fire. Hestia was eventually displaced among the Twelve Olympians by Dionysus.
DEMETER was a sister of Zeus and the goddess of agriculture. Her daughter Kore was abducted by Hades, making Demeter so unhappy that nothing grew. Zeus finally arranged for the girl to spend half the year with her mother and half ruling the underworld with her husband Hades. This myth reflects the cycle of the agricultural seasons. As Queen of the Underworld, Kore was known as PERSEPHONE and was a figure to be reckoned with. Together, Demeter and Persephone were important figures in the "mystery" rites celebrated at Eleusis near Athens, where initiates seem to have been promised immortal life. Hecate, the goddess of witches, is Persephone's close friend and ally.
HEBE was Hera's daughter by Zeus and the goddess of youth. She served as cup-bearer to the gods on Mt. Olympus, but either gave up the job on marrying Heracles or was dismissed for literally failing down on the job. Hebe was replaced as cup-bearer to the gods by Ganymede, a beautiful boy (son of King Tros of Troy) whom Zeus abducted.
ARTEMIS was the virgin goddess of the moon and of hunting. Artemis was Leto's daughter and the twin sister of Apollo. Although honored as a patron of motherhood, Artemis was proud of her purity. Poor Actaeon was out hunting when he came upon Artemis bathing in a stream and stopped to look, for which she had him changed to a stag and torn into pieces by his own hunting dogs. Artemis was, however, fond of the mighty hunter Orion, to the point where her jealous brother tricked her into killing Orion, whom she then placed among the stars. Orion had earlier been promised Merope in marriage if he cleared Chios of wild beasts. When her father reneged, Orion raped her (or tried to), for which her father had him blinded, though his sight was later restored by the gods.
ATHENA, goddess of wisdom, justice and war, was said to have burst motherless from the brow of Zeus, though she was also said to be his daughter by the wisdom goddess Metis--or to have been born in Lybia with no parent at all. Athena was a great weaver, and when the mortal Arachne claimed equal skill, Athena first defeated her in a contest and then turned her into the first spider.
APHRODITE (goddess of love and beauty) arose from the sea near Cythera, though some claim that she was Zeus's daughter. Aphrodite married Hephaestus, who caught her in adultery with Ares and displayed the pair, trapped in a golden net, to the assembled gods, who are said to have shown more envy for Ares than sympathy for the betrayed Hephaestus. Aphrodite also loved several mortals, especially the handsome young Adonis. He was killed while hunting by a wild boar sent by a jealous deity. Aphrodite mourned a long time and eventually persuaded Zeus to let him spend at least the summer months alive with her. This is the Greek version of a common Near Eastern vegetation myth. [In Semitic languages "adon" just means "Lord."] Unlike the stories of sacred marriages, the goddess is clearly more important than her lover. The story of Demeter and her daughter has a similar theme.
Some Other Greek Goddesses. Like Nemesis, goddess of retribution, the ERINYES (Furies) hounded evildoers, especially those who violated the bonds of kinship or hospitality. To placate them, they were also sometimes called the Eumenides (which means "the Kindly Ones"). The three of them -Tisiphone, Allecto, and Megaera --are older than Zeus. They have snake hair, dog's heads, and bat wings.
The wife of Kronos was RHEA. Like him, she was a child of Uranus and his wife Gaea (mother Earth). It had been prophesied that Kronos would be succeeded by a child greater than himself, so he swallowed their children as they were born. Rhea hid their son Zeus away, and he grew up to overcome his father and force him to vomit up his siblings, who then helped Zeus defeat the other Titans.The nine MUSES were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. They were patrons of the arts: Calliope (heroic poetry), Clio (history), Erato (lyric poetry), Euterpe (music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (singing and rhetoric), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (pastoral and lyric) and Urania (astronomy). Their home was on Mt. Helicon in Boetia.