No gods are more well known to the western world than those of the Greeks. Greek mythology is extensive, with hundreds if not thousands of myths having been passed down over the centuries. It’s like the fictional universes of Marvel or DC, with a large cast of characters who manage to connect to each other in a complicated web of tales. Many phrases have been derived from it: “caught in a net”, “Pandora’s box”, “caught between a rock and a hard place”, “Herculean effort”. Its gods, though no longer worshipped, show up in many places. Sea kings and mermen with tridents come from Poseidon, speedy people such as the Flash wearing winged shoes or helmets come from Hermes, and the idea of God striking people with lightning is a leftover from Zeus. These are my top ten Greek gods, and while there were many to choose from, it was easy to find my favorites since the most of the very colorful characters are confined to the twelve Olympians.
Hermes has the role of the messenger of the Gods. His functions for humanity make a long list. He is the god of travel, trade, speech, sports, borders, searching, and even thieves, and guides the dead to the underworld. Like many of the Olympians, he is the son of Zeus, his particular mother being mountain nymph Maia. Although important in an official capacity to both the gods and mankind, Hermes also has the reputation of a trickster. One well known example is when, while still in his infancy, he decided to steal Apollo’s prized herd of cattle. He reversed the hooves of their feet, so when he led them away it looked as if they went in the opposite direction. Apollo was angry and confused, but did eventually find his half-brother and bring him to Zeus for trial. Zeus found the whole affair hilarious and rather than punish Hermes, simply had him return the stolen cattle.
Hermes also had the honor of slaying the hundred-eyed giant Argus. One of Hera’s henchmen, Argus was keeping Io, one of Zeus’ numerous illicit love interests, prisoner. On Zeus’ behalf, Hermes put all the eyes of the giant to rest by playing a soothing song on his lyre. He then killed him and freed Io. As a god of athletics and sports, Hermes was honored with the Hermaea, in which sacrifices were presented as athletic competition. As a speech deity, Hermes’ name is the root of the word “hermeneutics”, the interpretation of philosophical and religious texts.
Hermes was merged with Mercury in Roman religion.
Hera is one of the three daughters of Cronus and Rhea. She is the goddess of all women, with emphasis on motherhood, pregnancy, and marriage. She is also the general deity of family and can be seen as the queen of the gods, as she is married to Zeus. Ironically, her personal life is a poor reflection of all these institutions and virtues. Most of her actual children with Zeus include disruptive war gods such as Ares and Discord. Her husband has hundreds, if not thousands of dalliances with other goddesses and mortal women. Unable to take vengeance on Zeus, Hera settles for attacking his lovers and their children, her most notable and long-lasting target being Hercules.
Although most of her myths involve retribution against Zeus’ lovers, Hera had a less malicious side. In fact, she was the patroness of Jason and his Argonauts, giving him advice and assistance at several points of his heroic search for the Golden Fleece. Depictions of her in popular culture tend to swing between a vain, villainous, and jealous queen and a loving mother figure.
Hera is associated with two animals. One is the cow. Since Hera is described as having large, beautiful eyes, she is linked to cows, which themselves have large eyes. More well-known is her association with the peacock, a colorful bird which symbolizes her beauty, extravagance, and immortality. According to myth, the bird’s decorative spots are the goddess’ tribute to her servant Argos, whose eyes she used to adorn and thus create the first peacock.
In Roman mythology she is known as Juno.
The only titan on this list, Prometheus actually sided with Zeus and the Olympians in the war against Cronus. Although modern popular culture often makes him out to be a fire deity, he is actually the god of forethought and counsel. Prometheus’ greatest act was creating humans, fashioning them out of mud and clay before life was breathed into them by Athena. Not content to merely make mankind, he also gave them qualities such as arts and crafting and civilization. However, his preference for humans over the gods caused him to rebel against Zeus. The gods were had a dispute with mankind over their sacrifices. Many humans were poor and were losing all of their potential meat through their sacrifices. Prometheus suggested to Zeus that he split a bull into two portions. Whichever portion Zeus chose would include all the parts given to the gods. The other portion would be left for mankind to use and consume. Prometheus took all of the good meat and over them placed the stomach, considered the worst part of the animal. He encased the other bad parts with bones and fat, an appetizing sight. Zeus chose the latter, meaning that humanity would get to eat the best parts of the sacrificial animals.
Angered, Zeus decided to take fire away from mankind so they could not roast their meat. Prometheus saw the plight of his humans and managed to steal the fire of the gods. Zeus’ wrath was fully aroused. Prometheus was chained to a rock, where for eternity he was to regularly having his insides eaten out by an eagle. Mankind likewise was punished when Zeus tricked Pandora into opening a box full of ills and evils. Despite Zeus’ declaration of an unending torment, Prometheus’ story had a happy ending. The sympathetic Heracles slew the eagle and freed him from his chains.
The twin sister of Apollo, Artemis is the goddess of hunt, forests, archery, young girls, and the moon. Far later in the second century AD she was combined with moon goddess Selene. In order to establish herself as a free woman, Artemis vowed to remain a virgin, as being married would place her in a more domestic role. So fierce was her protection of her chastity that when the hunter Actaeon stumbled upon her bathing and made sexual advances, she turned him into a stag, causing his fifty hunting dogs to turn on him and tear him apart. As a goddess of hunting and the wild, Artemis was associated with several animals, primarily hunting dogs, deer, and bears.
While being a goddess of archery and bears is cool, what really puts Artemis on this list is the story of the Aloadai. The Aloadai were twin giants, Ephialtes and Otus, who wanted to both destroy the reign of Zeus and abduct Hera and Artemis as their wives. They actually got dangerously close to succeeding, overpowering and imprisoning Ares and resisting Zeus’ thunderbolts. On the cusp of defeat, Artemis bravely turned herself over to them. However, with only one of the desired goddesses, the Aloadai started to quarrel. Acting on their dispute, Artemis turned into a deer and ran between them. Wanting to stop her, or perhaps in competition, they both hurled a spear at her, but she jumped so that they impaled and killed each other, saving the rule of the Olympians.
What prevents Artemis from going higher on the list are two rather cruel actions she committed. First, queen Niobe bragged that she had seven sons and seven daughters, while Leto, Artemis’ mother, only had her and Apollo. The twin deities went on a rampage and killed all of her children, as well as turning her into stone. They also cursed anyone who tried to give the children a burial by turning them into stone. In another horrible tale, Artemis’ virginity was questioned by Aura, a minor goddess of breezes and hunting and also a devotee of virginity. Artemis had her raped by Dionysus as punishment.
Artemis was known as Diana in Roman mythology.
The son of Zeus and the titan Leto, Apollo is depicted as a beardless young man, and was incredibly popular in the ancient world. Apollo is the god of healing light, prophecy, flocks, colonists, plagues, poetry, and music (he is the head of the choir of Muses!). With dominion over medicine and the arts, it was no wonder that his favor was highly sought by ancient Greeks. He bears a couple similarities with his sister Artemis. First they are both archer deities. Secondly, as Artemis was later combined with moon goddess Selene, he was combined with sun god Helios. Apollo is also an archer deity, blessing Paris so that he can hit Achilles’ weak spot and when he’s in a mad or vengeful mood hitting people with arrows that transmit disease.
Apollo’s gift of prophecy was believed to have been transmitted to the Oracles of Delphi. These priestesses were thus considered the cream of prophets, giving some women an unusually high social position in the ancient world. Snakes and ravens are associated with Apollo and were believed to possess prophetic qualities. Delphi itself is the site where the child Apollo killed a great python and instituted a series of athletic events. Apollo likewise transferred his gift of healing to his son Asclepius, who was such an accomplished doctor that he resurrected famed hunter Hippolytus from the dead. But seeing the natural order of death thwarted thus, Zeus killed Asclepius (but resurrected him as a full-fledged healing god out of respect for his son Apollo).
Like most other Greek deities, Apollo was heavily flawed. He rivaled his father in the number of love affairs, fathering many sons and daughters. However, unlike Zeus he never married, ensuring that there would be no spurned wife taking revenge on all of his children. The most famous romantic endeavor of Apollo was his pursuit of hunting nymph Daphne, brought on by the maddening love arrows of Eros. Daphne did not return his feelings and in what could uncomfortably be seen as an attempt at rape, Apollo chased her down and grabbed her. Crying out to Gaia, Daphne vanished from the god’s grasp and was reborn as the laurel tree. In honor of her, Apollo started wearing laurel leaves. Apollo was also quick to punish any mortals who claimed superiority to him. When a the satyr named Marsyas claimed to be a greater flute player, the god of music beat him in a flute contest and afterwards tied him to a tree and whipped him.
Apollo was not equated with any Roman deities, being directly brought over from Greece. If Zeus were to die, it is believed Apollo would have succeeded him as ruler of the Olympians. The actual biological male children of Zeus and Hera included violent war gods and deformed Hephaestus.
Poseidon is up higher on the list mainly because firstly I find sea gods cool and secondly he always stirs up conflict and drama, most notably in the Odyssey. His image is well-known a strong, muscular man with a great beard, long hair, and wielding a trident. He is also mentioned as having blue hair to match his dominion over the ocean. In addition to being the god of all things related to the seas, he presides over horses and earthquakes. He is moody (more known for his bad-tempered side), just like the behavior of the sea. His chariot is pulled by hippocampi, horses that can travel on the sea.
Poseidon, like his brother Zeus, is infamous for his sexual appetite and has nearly a hundred listed wives, consorts, and flings. Foremost among them is Amphitrite, a sea nymph who spurned his initial advances. Amphitrite did not find Poseidon’s wrathful nature attractive and fled, hiding herself away. Desperate to marry her, Poseidon sent out several agents to find her. One, the chief dolphin Delphinus, found her and talked her into marrying him. Thus she became the queen of the seas. Though an Olympian, Poseidon prefers joining his favored wife in a grand undersea palace.
In the epic poems surrounding the Trojan War, Poseidon is close to being the main villain. In the Iliad he starts off as simply supporting the Greeks. But in the Odyssey his cyclops son Polyphemus is blinded by Odysseus, returning from victory in the Trojan War. He thus torments Odysseus and his crew with storms and sea monsters, until only Odysseus remains alive. To make things worse, the hero is trapped on an island for almost ten years. Under the name of Roman sea god Neptune, Poseidon also antagonized Aeneas and the Trojan remnant in the Aeneid. Poseidon also has a rivalry with Athena, which plays out mainly in the founding of Athens and the Odyssey.
Heracles is the only mythological character to be both a human hero and a god. He is one of the earliest known superheroes. Heracles, more well known by his Roman name Hercules, is the son of Zeus and Alcmene. Alcmene abandoned her child when she learned that her lover was Zeus, and thus she was subject to Hera’s wrath. In an ironic twist, Hera took pity on the abandoned child, whose identity she did not know, and nursed him. By giving him her milk, he acquired his unnatural strength. Athena managed to return him to Alcmene and her husband Amphitryon and the child was named Heracles in honor of Hera in an attempt to placate her. This did him little good, as Hera would drive him to madness. In his unnatural fury, Heracles murdered his family and as punishment he had to perform his twelve famed labors. These seemingly impossible tasks were given by King Eurystheus of Mycenae.
Most of these labors involved killing or capturing fantastic beasts such as the Hydra, the Nemean lion, and even Hades’ dog Cerberus. He also had the rather disgusting task of cleaning the Augean stables in one day, stables which housed thousands of cattle and had not been cleaned in thirty years. Rather than attempt power-sweeping, he used his brains and diverted two rivers, washing out the stables. One of his last tasks was obtaining mystical apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. This required a journey that saw him fight and defeat the half-giant Antaeus and the dragon Ladon, almost get used as a human sacrifice in Egypt, and outwit the Titan Atlas into grabbing the apples for him. His twelve labors completed, Heracles was free to pursue further adventures, joining the Argonauts, having a brief tenure as a member of Dionysus’ revelry-ridden entourage, and in his kindest act freeing Prometheus from his eternally decreed torment.
Heracles finally met his end during his marriage to Deianeira. Nessus, one of many rapacious centaurs, attempted to abduct his wife, but was killed by a poisoned arrow. As he died, he told Deianeira that his tunic had the power to sexually excite her lover. This seeming act of deathbed amends turned out to be an act of vengeance. Tainted by the poisoned arrow, the tunic killed its wearer. After his death, Heracles was revived and ascended to Olympus, becoming a new god and thus getting him on this list.
Hephaestus is the god of forging, fire, sculpture, stone masonry, and various other kinds of ancient engineering skills. He is one of the few truly sympathetic gods. First of all, he was born ugly, a great abnormality for the gods. Disappointed, Hera cruelly cast him off of Mount Olympus. According to which myth you read, his lame leg was a birth defect or a result of the landing. Raised by sympathetic sea nymph Thetis (who later was the mother of Achilles), Hephaestus grew vengeful when he learned of the circumstances of his birth. He created a golden throne and mailed it to his birth mother. Hera was pleased with its appearance and sat on it, but the enchanted chair glued her to her seat. Unable to free her, the gods tried to get Hephaestus back. This was done when Dionysus got the smithing god drunk and hauled him up Olympus. After freeing Hera, Hephaestus was welcomed back into the family and became one of the Olympians.
When the gods quarreled over who should marry the beautiful Aphrodite, goddess of love, Zeus tried to prevent a war by giving her to Hephaestus. Overjoyed at having such a beautiful wife, he used his skills to fashion her incredible jewelry. However, put off by both his appearance and his usually restrained demeanor, Aphrodite frequently cheated on him with other mortals, sometimes other gods (though Hephaestus seems to have fathered children outside of his marriage). The most well known case was the handsome and more wild Ares. Learning of their affair, Hephaestus fashioned a special trap involving an unbreakable net. As the naked lovers started on their bed, the net was dropped on them and Hephaestus brought in the other gods to further humiliate them.
Hephaestus forged the weapons of the gods, but these paled in comparison to his other feats. He built himself a wheelchair, quite the novelty back in the ancient world. He also built various robots, including two guard dogs, the giant Talos, mechanical assistants, and even tables that responded to voice commands and brought the Olympians whatever food and drink they wanted.
Romans equated Hephaestus with Vulcan, god of fire and volcanoes.
Athena is the goddess of wisdom, warfare, and weaving. Her first two dominions made her one of the most popular and sought out gods. By being the goddess of wisdom and reason, she was popular with the various Greek philosophers. And though Ares was the god of war, she was more sought after in times of conflict, as she emphasized strategy and defense of the state while Ares was more about bloodlust and carnage. Animals associated with her include the owl and the snake, which is why owls are often characterized as wise or highly intelligent when anthropomorphized. Athena is often depicted with a helmet resting on her head. Her birth is a little odd. Fearing a prophecy that his first wife Metis would bear a son who overthrows him, he swallowed her up. Nine months later he got a series of headaches, which culminated with Athena springing out of his head fully grown. She ended up becoming Zeus’ favorite child.
Athena was the patroness of heroes. Her favorite was Odysseus, who like her relied heavily on his brains. She helped him get home from the Trojan War, though usually by implanting thoughts rather than direct action. She does take a more direct role when he gets back to Ithaca, disguising him as an old beggar and then helping him slaughter the unruly suitors going after his wife Penelope. She also helped Hercules with a couple of his labors. Compared to the other gods, Athena does not do much in the way of cruelty towards mortals. Her only particularly horrible act was turning Medusa into a monster for being raped inside her temple by Poseidon, which I still don’t understand the reasoning for. In another tale, the weaver Arachne boasted that was better than Athena at weaving. To her credit, Athena warned her to stop being arrogant before challenging her to a weaving contest and then turning her into a spider (even then, some versions of the tale have her turn Arachne turn into a spider out of pity after she hung herself. After all, spiders are great weavers).
As is well known, Athens is named after the goddess. This is the source of a popular myth in which the unnamed city was deciding who its patron deity should be. Athena was wise and a great war goddess, but they were near the sea, which Poseidon ruled over. King Cecrops decided that whoever gave the best gift would be their patron. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and gave them a spring of water. However, it was salty sea water. Athena struck the earth as well, creating an olive tree that symbolized prosperity and the hope for peace. Obviously, her gift was better and she was chosen as the patron deity. Angered, Poseidon cursed the city with water shortages, which historically has actually been a real problem.
Athena was equated with Minerva, a war goddess, in Roman mythology.
Hades is not just the god of the dead, but of the wealth of the earth as well, including all gold, jewels, and gems that can be found underground. This led him to be called Pluto, equating him with Plutus, the Roman god of wealth. Thanks to modern views and a fear of death, Hades is often misrepresented as a Satanic villain obsessed with bringing further death upon humanity and then tormenting them in hell. First of all, an immortal god could surely be patient enough to wait for people to die and would not be acting to kill them. Secondly, ancient peoples would want to have the comfort of knowing that the ruler of the afterlife is a just, fair god. After all, they’re going there! Hades may even be the most morally upright of the Olympians.
Hades is actually the oldest of the three sons of Cronus. When casting lots with his two brothers, he ended up with the Underworld. His most noted myth is his abduction of Persephone, perhaps his most heinous act. Feeling lonely in the Underworld, he grew a love for vegetation goddess Persephone and abducted her, bringing her to the realm of the dead. In grief and anger, Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, let the earth grow barren. Seeing that the world would die out, Hades agreed to return Persephone. However, he had made sure she ate food of the Underworld, which bound her there. In a compromise forged by the gods, it was agreed that Persephone would stay with Hades for a third of every year, which brought about annual winter as Demeter would grow sour during these periods. In later myths it seems that Persephone learned to love Hades, perhaps because she was now also the queen of the Underworld and the goddess of spring. Hades has his sole extramarital affair with a nymph named Minthe, who Persephone is quick to punish.
Hades only gets vengeful when humans try to cheat the boundaries of life and death. Otherwise he is a fair judge who places souls in their proper place. One of his duties was to ensure that the dead were given proper burial rites. One cunning man, Sisyphus, told his wife not to honor them. Thus when he ended up in the Underworld he convinced Hades to let him approach his wife and correct the mistake. Sisyphus was let back into the land of the living, but did not return. The gods threw him back into the Underworld and he was punished with the task of trying to push a boulder up a hill. Every time he is close to the top, the boulder rolls back down and he has to start all over again.
As the ruler of the Underworld, Hades possesses many fascinating things. Guarding the entrance is the three-headed dog Cerberus, described in one source as having a mane of serpents around each head. Hades holds vast amounts of underground wealth, effectively making him the treasurer of the gods. He has the Helm of Hades, which grants its wearer invisibility and was once given to Perseus. Hades also has several demigods working under him, including the vengeful Furies, the ferryman Charon, and Hypnos, god of sleep. Hades is not the actual god of death, that distinction going to the primordial deity Thanatos.
Ten Other Notable Greek Gods
Aphrodite: The goddess of love, sex, and beauty, Aphrodite arose from the castrated genitals of sky god Oranos and was involved in many ill-fated romances.
Ares: The god of war, Ares is an obnoxious and bloodthirsty figure who is often humiliated.
Demeter: Demeter is the goddess of agriculture and the harvest.
Dionysus: A very popular figure for ancient Greeks, Dionysus is the master of wine, revelries, the vine, grapes, madness, and ecstasy.
Eris: One of the few children of Zeus and Hera, Eris is the goddess of war and strife, and was the one who got three goddesses quarreling over an apple, leading to the Trojan War.
Gaia: She is the earth and mothered many children, including the giants.
Hecate: Hecate is the goddess of sorcery, magic, and ghosts and lives in the Underworld.
Hestia: The goddess of home and hearth, Hestia was heavily prayed to historically, but plays little role in the myths, mainly because she prefers to keep to herself and wants to stay out of all the quarrels and shenanigans her family members are up to.
Pan: A recognizable figure with his goat legs, Pan is the god of nature, shepherds, various herd animals, and sexuality.
Zeus: Zeus is the king of the gods and is in charge of storms, the sky, and, hypocritically given his sexual misbehavior, law, justice, & vows.
D’Aulaire, Ingrid D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing. 1962
Various Titans and Olympians: Greek and Roman Myth Time-Life Books. 1997