When I started getting an interest in mythology, I started to think about the references to other gods in the Bible. I was curious to learn more about Baal and Asherah and Moloch, gods who were worshipped by the Canaanites and their neighbors and found continued devotion in the Israelites, who were always proving themselves unfaithful to their singular God. Not much information is actually known about Canaanite mythology outside of a few incomplete texts found at the site of Ugarit in Syria. I’ve decided to give a short overview of the Canaanite deities (as well as a couple human characters). I’ll give more information on those mentioned in the Bible or in the epic Baal Cycle. Continue reading
Of all the mythologies, that of the Norse is second to the Greeks’ in terms of influence on the western civilization, though Egyptian mythology has perhaps surpassed it in popularity over the last couple centuries. The recent Marvel superhero movies have certainly helped with the Thor franchise, though the Valkyries and several of the gods and heroes have captured public imagination thanks to the operas of Wagner. Before listing the gods, I should give a little background in how they are organized. There are two pantheons of gods: the Aesir and Vanir. There really isn’t too much of a difference between them, though the Aesir appear to be more prominent as in addition to ruling Asgard, they have the king-god Odin. According to myths, the Aesir and Vanir warred for a while before coming up with a treaty. Both Aesir and Vanir deities were worshipped by the Norse peoples. There are also deities outside of these two groups, more monster than man, such as the dragon Nidhogg and the serpent Jormungandr. The prophecy of Ragnarok claims that almost all of the gods will die in a a great final battle against the giants and a host of monsters, including Loki. This list may cover bits of German mythology, as the Germanic peoples virtually worshipped the same gods under different names.
A Vanir, Freyr is the son of sea god Njord and brother of Freyja. Freyr and Freyja moved to Asgard following the ending of the Aesir-Vanir war to ensure peace. Freyr and Freyja are both beautiful gods, and both oversee fertility, as well as aspects of sexuality. Freyr himself is the god of male virility and good weather. Depictions of him often involve a large penis. He also owns a shining boar named Gullinbursti, who was literally fashioned by the dwarves using pig skin. Freyr once owned a magic sword that could fight on its own, but had to give it away. What brought this around was his love of the giantess Geror. He asked his servant Skirnir to get her on his behalf, but Skirnir demanded that he get the sword. Freyr agreed. This will come back to bite him later when he battles Surtur. Without his magic sword, he will fall before the fire giant.
Thanks to his association with agriculture and sexuality, Freyr became one of the most popular gods. He was even given rulership over Alfheim, land of the elves. Occasions which saw him receive sacrifices (often in the form of a boar) included weddings and harvests. There is evidence that he received much human sacrifice. In Uppsala, Sweden, worshippers used to throw slaves into a well. Whatever the form of worship, Freyr was obviously one of the most popular gods of his time.
Heimdall is the watchman of the gods, standing guard over Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard. He is the son of nine mothers, however that’s supposed to work. He does not preside over any human affairs, but is nevertheless very important to the gods. He has remarkable abilities related to his guard duties. He can hear anything, and his sight is so good that it penetrates time. He is equipped with Gjallarhorn, a loud horn which he sounds whenever Asgard is in danger. Heimdall has the unenviable task of being on the lookout for the chaotic Loki, a feud which will reach a fatal climax at Ragnarok. Heimdall will sound his horn one last time as the giants invade Asgard. He and Loki will then kill each other at the end of the last battle.
Eostre is probably the least well-known deity on this list, though she did get a significant role in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. She is the goddess of spring and you can guess which holiday is named after her. There are some theories that Eostre is a Christian invention of Saint Bede, and that she is a representative of various dawn and spring goddesses. On the other hand, similar and ancient Germanic names and words among the Germanic names have been found to support her place as an ancient goddess. Eostre is associated with hares (hence the easter bunny). There are no stories about Eostre, but I do find her connection with a holiday people still celebrate fascinating.
A Vanir and father of Freyr and Freyja (thorugh sister/wife Nerthus), Njord is a god of the sea, which naturally made him an important deity among the seafaring Vikings. The only significant myth about Njord is his marriage to the giantess Skadi. Thjazi, Skadi’s father, had just been killed after trying to steal the immortality-granting apples of Asgard. Not wanting to have another war on their hands, the gods agreed to meet some of Skadi’s demands for compensation. One of these was to give her a husband from among the gods, but she could only choose by looking at their feet. She chose the one with the finest feet, believing they must belong the handsome Baldur, but it turned out she had chosen Njord. This marriage proved to be difficult. Skadi’s home was in the snow-capped mountains (she doubles as a winter deity who enjoys skiing), so it was too cold for Njord. Likewise, Skadi couldn’t stand Njord’s seaside home on the beach. Thus they agreed to only spend half a year with each other. When he has been away from Skadi too long, Njord gets into a fitful state, resulting in sea storms.
Hel is the daughter of a bizarre affair between Loki and a giantess (more on that later). Her upper body is healthy, but below her waist it is shriveled rotted. He face is half-beautiful and half-ugly. This frightful figure rules Nilflheim, the realm of the dead. Hel displays indifference towards both humanity and the gods, simply presiding over the dead in a gloomy afterlife (by contrast, the fate of those dead heroes is the paradise of Valhalla, which could only have encouraged the historical Vikings to pursue constant warfare in order to avoid Hel). Hel has a great hound guarding her realm named Garm. Nilflheim itself is sometimes called Hel, leading many to believe that the goddess is merely a personification of a place, much like how Hades is used to describe the afterlife in the Bible.
Surtr is a giant associated with fire, thanks to the large flaming sword he owns. He resides in the realm of Muspelheim, the land of fire. Current people think of his Marvel comics version, which is a giant, horned fire demon, but more traditionally he is portrayed as just a giant with an affinity for fire. Surtr does not really do anything notable until Ragnarok, though the gods dread his coming throughout the myths. In the final battle, he will be the most destructive force, setting fire to everything, both the realms of the gods and earth. Out of this flame shall arise a new earth. The belief that the world would be consumed by fire may have originated thanks to the Icelandic people’s proximity to volcanoes There is no mention of Surtr getting his comeuppance after burning all of creation. I put him on this list because he of all the enemies of Asgard actually gets to succeed for a while.
One of the chief war gods among the Norse and Germanic peoples was Tyr (called Tiwaz by some). Tyr was very popular, and was even in a way worshipped by the Romans, who equated him with Mars, one of their primary gods. In addition to presiding over war, Tyr is also the god of honor and justice.
Tyr’s parentage varies from source to source. He is either the son of a giant or Odin himself. His most well known myth involves Fenrir. One of the children of Loki, Fenrir was a monstrous wolf who broke every bond the gods attempted to place on him. The gods wanted to bind him because they had grim prophecies about what the beast would do to them. Finally, the dwarves constructed a magical ribbon that could bind Fenrir, but the wolf refused to let the gods use it, since he suspected that the harmless-looking ribbon was a trick. He said he would agree if one of the gods placed his hand in his mouth as insurance. Tyr volunteered, knowing that Fenrir would surely bite him once he was trapped. He bravely placed his hand inside as the wolf was bound. Angered when he couldn’t break free, Fenrir bit off Tyr’s hand. Tyr will die in Ragnarok at the hands of another great dog, the hell hound Garm, though he will take his opponent out with him.
Tuesday is named after Tyr.
Odin, or Wotan (as he is known in Wagner’s Ring Cycle), is the all-father, the ruler of the Aesir. Odin is a god of knowledge and wisdom, and also of war. In many cultures, anyone killed in battle was considered a sacrifice to Odin. Thanks primarily to the Thor movies Odin is seen as a noble, caring ruler. This is far from the way the myths portray him. He is violent, manipulative, and like Zeus always has an eye out for attractive mortal women. Speaking of an eye, Odin only has one. Hearing that further knowledge could be gained from the well of Mimir, he set out to acquire it. Mimir said he could only drink the well’s water if he was willing to cut out an eye and cast it in. Odin was willing and got his knowledge. Odin has since been known by his alter ego of the One-Eyed Wanderer, wielding a large walking staff
Odin also gained wisdom by literally sacrificing himself to himself, hanging from a tree for nine days. He refused all help, suffering until at last the Germanic runes appeared to him, along with all their secrets and magic. Odin thus gained not just more wisdom and knowledge, but mastery over magic. Thus his worshippers would also hang people in sacrificial honor to Odin, sometimes volunteering themselves.
Odin is linked to several special animals. He has two ravens, Huginn and Muginn, who go about observing creation and reporting back to him so that he might have more knowledge. He has an eight-legged horse Sleipnir, actually the offspring of Loki and a horse. Odin also has charge over Valhalla. The Valkyries, winged female warriors on horses collect many of the war dead, bringing them to Valhalla. When Ragnarok comes, these soldiers, the Einherjar, will ride out with Odin to battle the force of evil. This will not save Odin, who will be devoured by Fenrir.
Wednesday is named after Odin (or more accurately the alternate name Woden).
Loki is the most complex character in Norse mythology. A trickster figure, he plays pranks on the gods, but just as often uses his wits to aid them. His trickery eventually morphs into full-fledged villainy. Loki is the son of the giant Laufey, but for some reason was accepted among the gods of Asgard. He would play many tricks on them, but would usually find a way to fix the problems he caused. He is something of a jester figure. He amused Skadi the giantess with physical humor in order to get her through her anger. He was able to point out the flaws of the other gods with painful accuracy in the Flyting of Loki. He also fathered three horrific figures with the giantess Angborda. These included the ravenous wolf Fenrir, the great serpent Jormungandr, and the goddess of the dead Hel.
One example is the case of the apples of Idun. Having a squabble with an eagle, Loki was lifted by the bird. He learned that he had been abducted by the shape-shifting giant Thjazi. He begged to be released. Thjazi agreed, but only as long as Loki would bring Idun, the tender of the apples that give the gods their immortality, to his home. Loki went to Idun and lured her away from Asgard by saying he had found fruits more marvelous than hers. Idun fell for this and found herself imprisoned by Thjazi. When the gods started to age, they learned the truth and threatened to kill Loki if he didn’t get Idun back. He turned into a bird and flew to Thjazi’s house, where he transformed Idun into a nut so he could carry her back. Thjazi gave chase in his eagle form, but was killed in a fire trap.
After another of his pranks, Loki learned that he was to be beheaded by Thor, per the terms of a deal he had made. But he cleverly pointed out that it was impossible to take off his head without taking part of his neck with him. Thor agreed, and then proceeded to sew his mouth shut. Loki ripped his mouth open, resulting in a crooked, ugly smile. Perhaps this incident played a major pat in his most infamous scheme. The god of light and beauty, Baldur, was immune to all harm, as his mother had made everything in creation swear never to kill him. Loki saw this as a challenge, and learned that the mistletoe had not sworn such an oath, since it was so small and harmless. He created a spear with mistletoe on its tip and tricked the blind god Hod into throwing it at Baldur. Baldur was killed. Frigg learned that Baldur would be resurrected if she could convince every creature to weep for him. However, a cruel giantess refused to weep. This giantess turned out to be Loki, who this time did not seek to undo the damage he caused.
Fed up with Loki, the other gods pursued him in a long-winded chase, finally catching him and chaining him inside a cave. They placed a venomous snake above him, which drip venom on him. Loki’s wife Sigyn eases his torments by catching the venom in a dish, but sometimes it overflows, brining Loki great pain. Loki will be freed in time for Ragnarok, joining an army of giants and monsters against Asgard. Loki and Heimdall will slay each other.
No Norse god is more well known than Thor, and I agree that he is the best. He is the god of thunder, lightning, and battle, and has the specific role of protecting mankind, making him far more altruistic than most other gods. He has a fiery temper, and the red hair and beard to match. His greatest weapon is Mjolnir, a great hammer crafted by dwarves. The hammer is so heavy and powerful that Thor needs to wear enchanted gloves and a belt. Thor also has a chariot pulled by two magical goats, who themselves can grow back after being killed and eaten.
Thor, along with Loki, has the lion’s share of surviving myths. One recounts his battle with the giant Hrungnir. Hrungnir lost a race with Odin and was afterwards was invited to dine at Asgard. He became drunk and began to insult and threaten the gods, even claiming to take the loveliest, Freyja and Sif, Thor’s wife, back home with him. Thor himself was gone, and was furious when he came to the hall to see his family threatened by the giant. He challenged Hrungnir to a duel, winning with a great blow to the head with Mjolnir.
Thor’s adventures could also be comical. These tales involve trips with Loki, god of mischief. Once Thor awoke to find Mjolnir missing. Loki learned that the giant Thrymr had stolen and buried it, and would only return it if Freyja was given to him as a wife. Loki informed Thor, who reluctantly agreed to disguise himself as Freyja by wearing a dress that veiled his features. Thrymr was ecstatic to have the lovely Freyja in his home, though he was baffled by how she was able to consume so much food and mead. Loki explained that she had not eaten in over a week. Thrymr than started to lift the veil for a kiss, but saw Thor’s fearsome red eyes. He backed away in startlement. Loki explained that the eyes were a result of too little sleep. Thrymr finally moved forward with the marriage, having Mjolnir brought in to sanctify it. Thor quickly took his hammer and, while still in his bridal dress, beat up the giants before speeding away.
Thor is fated to kill the great serpent Jormungandr, but he himself will die as it will poison him first. Thor almost averted this prophecy when he speared the serpent on a fishing trip. He could kill it and possibly gain survival past Ragnarok. However, his aide, the giant Hymir, was so terrified of the beast that he let it go. Thus Thor’s demise is ensured.
Thursday is named after Thor.
Five Other Notable Norse/Germanic Deities
Baldur: The god of light and beauty, Baldur was the most virtuous and beloved of the gods, and despite his death he will come back to life to lead the new gods after Ragnarok.
Freyja: The sister of Freyr, Freyja is primarily the goddess of love, sex, and fertility, though she also oversees aspects of war. She drives a chariot pulled by two large cats. Freyja is the most lovely Asgardian, and many antagonists have concocted schemes to force her into a marriage.
Frigg: Frigg is Odin’s wife and therefore queen of the Asgardians. Friday is named after her.
Hermod: This is the messenger of the gods, basically the Norse Hermes.
Sif: The wife of Thor, Sif is an agricultural goddess noted for her golden hair. Loki once shaved her head, a prank that saw him get battered by a furious Thor.
Cotterell, Arthur : Norse Mythology: The Myths and Legends of the Nordic Gods Annes Publishing Limited, 1997
Release Date: February 26, 2016
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Gods of Egypt is an expensive retelling of Egyptian mythology, chiefly Horus’ war with Set. Thought up in 2012 and filmed in 2014, the film for some reason took until early 2016 to get its theatrical release, perhaps from heavy amounts of post-production for all the CGI. Due to a stupid-looking trailer and the hiring of white actors for the roles of Ancient Egyptians, general movie audiences were already against the motion picture before its release, resulting in what is easily a major box office flop. As of the time of this review it’s made about half of its budget back.
The main plot centers on Horus, who after having his eyes pulled out and his father Osiris murdered, sulks in a tomb. Set, Osiris’ murder, takes over Egypt. Things change for Horus when human thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites) hands him back one of his eyes. The two embark on a quest to restore the kingdom for Horus and get revenge of Set.
I should probably talk about the casting first, as it generated great controversy. Since Gods of Egypt was filmed in Australia, money was saved by hiring many Australian actors. Arguably a few of the native peoples could have been used, but most of Australia’s more well regarded actors are white. No such excuse exists for the hiring of white Europeans like Gerald Butler (Set) and Nikolaj-Coster Waldeau (Horus). I have to admit it was pretty hilarious to hear the grand Egyptian god of the desert roaring in a Scottish accent. That’s not to say the cast is all-white. Thoth is played by African-American Chadwick Boseman, who also attempts a more African accent. Elodie Young, a French actress of mixed descent, looks quite right for major Egyptian goddess Hathor.
The director, Alex Proyas, has defended his casting decisions and deviations from historical accuracy by saying that his film is set in an alternate world. This would seem to be the case, as the world is both flat and Egypt-centric as presented in the original myths. The question is, does the film succeed in spite of white-washed casting and complaints about accuracy?
Not really. It isn’t the complete pile of crap that many critics are saying it is. It’s fun and has some really cool visuals. Where it really fails is in its screenwriting. Gods of Egypt tries really hard to have a lot of humor like the Marvel movies. It seems every time something dangerous or serious is happening, a quip just has to be made. A more epic, serious movie would have been much better, especially since the jokes more often than not don’t land. One exception is the vain, overly honest, knowledge-obsessed Thoth, who is legitimately funny.
This film is CGI heavy, perhaps too much. It looks like actual landscapes were filmed, but the senses can potentially be overloaded by all the perfect architecture, computer-generated animals, and crazy colors. Even when people are talking in a desert the sky is CGI red like they’re trapped ina video game. The creatures themselves don’t look realistic either, however well-designed they may be. Fans of Egyptian history will also be displeased to see some of the aesthetic choices, such as a European crown instead of the tall pharaoh hats during the coronation scene.
Almost the entire character list is made up of the gods themselves. I didn’t find any of the performances awful unless you count Gerald Butler’s over-acting, which I found entertaining. Also entertaining was Ra (Geoffrey Rush), who does a good job of portraying a wise and weary primal deity. Assisting the cast of gods is the human thief Bek, who seems to be permanently stuck in an optimistic, naïve state. In the interest of spoilers I won’t give away his main storyline. It’s sympathetic enough, but despite the films’ efforts I didn’t find his character all too endearing. In fact, he was annoying.
If I had to compare Gods of Egypt to anything else, I would choose the Clash of the Titans remake and its awful sequel Wrath of the Titans in that it’s a hyper, CGI-fueled retelling of old myths. The main contrast is in how the gods are portrayed. In most movies and shows based on Greek myths, the gods are (rather correctly) portrayed as jerkasses who act on their whims and emotions and who humanity must eventually rebel against. Most of the deities in Gods of Egypt are more noble, though still flawed. The authority of Ra and Horus are considered good for the universe, not destructive.
Gods of Egypt is not a great movie and though I enjoyed it I can’t even call it a good one. I recommend a theatrical viewing only if you want to have a fun, silly way to kill a couple hours, or perhaps you want to support a mythology-based movie, of which there aren’t very many outside of Greek-inspired tales.
Being a mythology buff, I’d like to go into more detail about how the various Egyptian gods are portrayed in Gods of Egypt. There will be spoilers in this section. First I want to address a specific scene.
Osiris is ready to coronate Horus in front of all the gods and people (save Ra, who is off on his space boat keeping the world safe from Apophis). Set comes in and signals an army of humans and monster-gods to take things over. Osiris demands him to stop and Set stabs him to death for his troubles. Horus takes on his battle form to fight him. What bugs me about this scene is how all of the gods, some who are shown to have great fighting capabilities later on, all cower and quiver like a bunch of wussies. You’ve got Thoth and Isis, two masters of magic. And it’s not like the original myths where Set was trying to murder Osiris and his family but wasn’t out to be an awful ruler. Here he’s openly declaring that he will turn all humans into slaves and rig the afterlife to generate more revenue for him. Why don’t they do something? Why do they let him get away with it and fight him later instead of nipping his takeover in the bud?
Anat and Astarte (Abbey Lee and Yaya Deng): The two Near Eastern goddesses are actually in this movie, though instead of being Set’s wives they are presented as his military commanders, riding snakes into battle. Myth buffs hoping to see them finally on the big screen will be disappointed, as they are little more than henchwomen, not two of the most popular female deities of the ancient world.
Anubis (Goran D. Kleut): Anubis is portrayed as usual as a dog-headed deity. Also as usual he is mistakenly presented as the main god of death, though this time he’s just doing his job and isn’t some evil god of darkness.
Apophis: The great serpent is accurately depicted as trying to engulf the universe in chaos. The special effects team decided to make him a worm instead of a snake, with three circular rows of teeth. Initially just a cameo, he does play a larger part in the film’s climax.
Hathor (Elodie Yung): The goddess of love is presented as a bit mischievous and serves as the love interest of Horus. Thankfully they didn’t equate the role of goddess of love with a lusty whore and she’s a strong character in her own right. She fights through magic, her lion form of Sekhmet not mentioned or used. Her hat has cow horns, a nice callout to her cow form. There’s some weird backstory about her being indebted to demons of the underworld.
Horus (Nikolaj-Coster Waldeau): The main character of the movie, Horus is an okay character. He spends a lot of his time complaining and he utters many of the not-funny quips. His winged falcon battle form is pretty cool though.
Isis (Rachael Blake): Thanks to a certain terrorist organization in the Middle East, Isis’ role is tremendously reduced. As Horus’ mother in the myths, she was heavily present, using her sorcery and guile to aid her son in his war against Set. It’s a shame that fears over associating with an army of Jihadists had my favorite Egyptian deity reduced to the role of “mother” (she is never referred to by name!). She just helplessly reacts to what happens in the opening and then dies offscreen of grief. You won’t see the beautiful, intelligent, and protective character of myth here.
Nephthys (Emma Boothe): Referred to as a goddess of protection instead as one of darkness, death, and night, Nephthys is an okay character. To my appreciation they acknowledge that she was married to Set in the myths. She’s one of the last holdouts against Set’s rule in the film.
Osiris (Bryan Brown): Osiris is the wise father of Horus and gets killed off to kickstart the story. No mention is made of him eventually being resurrected as the green-skinned god of the dead. In contradiction to the myths, Horus is already born before his murder, instead of having Isis reassemble his corpse in order to produce an heir.
Ra (Geoffrey Rush): Like in the myths, Ra is dragging the sun around the earth, in this film literally doing so by tying it to his ship with a chain. What’s absent is the many gods who usually would assist him in battling Apophis. Here he’s all by himself, which does make him more badass. He also serves as the wise mentor figure for Horus.
Set (Gerald Butler): Set was villainous in the myths, but here he’s an absolute bastard. They rip off Hades’ backstory form Clash of the Titans, making him the jealous brother stuck with the least desired realm, in this case the desert. Like Horus he has a pretty awesome armored battle form, based on the mysterious Set animal. He’s an entertaining villain, even though he engages in all kinds of villain clichés.
Thoth (Chadwick Boseman): Thoth is depicted as an aloof nerd who is obsessed with obtaining all knowledge. His mastery over sorcery is only hinted at and he is shown using his brain. It was very amusing to watch him struggle with a riddle when my friend sitting next to me in the theater solved in instantly. The film doesn’t mention any association with the ibis bird or baboon.
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 getting into 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 subordinate her. 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 only 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 torments.
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 for helping him create things, 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 against humans when they 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 primordial being 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, 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
The Celtic peoples used to inhabit most of western Europe, residing from Spain to eastern France and from northern Italy all the way to Ireland and Scotland. They even had pockets of civilization in areas such as modern day Turkey. Different groups of Celts had different deities, though some were shared among them. Before going down the list there are several important things to consider.
- The Celts had many more gods than other peoples, as they would have a special deity assigned to each individual spring, river, and natural landmark. This list only focuses on gods with greater spheres of influence.
- The Celts can be said to have several pantheons, although several popular gods crossover. There are Celtic gods unique to Hispania, Gaul, Britain, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Gods on the British isles tend to be shared more between different sub-groups of Celts. Thanks to the preservation of their myths and legends by writers, the Irish and Welsh are the most well-known (Irish gods will be referred to as the Tuatha De Danaan, meaning “Children of Danu”, Danu being a primal mother goddess).
- Because Celts did not produce images of their gods, or write down their myths, preferring oral tradition, information on most deities is rather scarce. Any images or information comes from their Roman conquerors, who believed that they were merely their own gods under different names. As a result, any images of Celtic gods were of Roman design, and made to fit the images of characters such as Zeus and Apollo.
- Celtic mythology is further muddled by Christianity. Celtic legends and myths were put to paper by Christian monks and other writers. Along with Christianizing many aspects of the tales, it’s believed that many of the heroes and other characters were originally gods turned into human, though still very incredible and supernaturally gifted characters. Suspected examples are Cuchulain and Merlin. This list only includes names that are definitely known to have been worshipped as gods.
This familiar goddess was actually a Roman creation. Britain was finally conquered by the Romans under the rule of Emperor Claudius. Claudius was presented with an image of himself standing atop a defeated woman representing the island. Under Hadrian the woman started to appear in a far more dignified manner on coins and was even elevated to the status of goddess. The representation of Britain, Britannia was depicted as an Athena-like figure, paying homage to both the Greco-Roman world and the Celtic lands dominated by Rome. Like Athena, she wears a soldier’s helmet and a white dress. In her hands are a spear and a shield. She was later brought back on British coins in the 17th century. She became and still is one of the signature symbols of Great Britain, though the origins of the warrior woman on coins is unknown even by many British citizens. Although not an original Celtic god, she was nevertheless worshipped after the Roman invasion by both the island’s native inhabitants and its colonists.
Taranis is the Gaelic god of thunder and the wheel. Like other deities from Gaul, no myths survive about him, only his functions as a god. Ancient statues and art show him as a bearded figure, holding a lightning bolt in his right hand and a wheel in the other. Romans saw him as the Celtic interpretation of Zeus thanks to his apparent ability to wield and throw lightning. As for the wheel, it was associated the cyclical nature of time and the sun. The six or eight spokes on wheels corresponded to major, annual Celtic festivals, and in fact the calendar for the Celts was the Wheel of the Year. Although most information about him has been lost, Taranis can be seen as one of the most important deities of ancient Gaul.
Balor was not worshipped, but still a god. He was the king of a race of monster-gods called the Fomorians. At one time they ruled Ireland until the Tuatha de Danaan, the gods the Irish worshipped, arrived. Balor was a giant, and his greatest weapon was a third eye on his forehead. The lid of the eye was so heavy that servants had to attach ropes to it in order to pry it open. Once this was done, the third eye would destroy anything in its gaze. In the beginning of his myth, Balor rules over Ireland, even having dominion over the Tuatha de Danaan. He learns that his grandson is prophesied to overthrow him. Locking his only child, the woman Ethniu, in a tower, he believes that his fate is averted. However, she is rescued and eventually gives birth to Lugh, god of light. Lugh sides with the Tuatha de Danaan. In the Battle of Mag Tuired, the Fomorians and Tuatha de Danaan fight to decide the fate of Ireland. Balor keeps the battle in the Fomorians’ favor, even killing the silver-armed king Nuada. But Lugh kills him, with a spear or slingshot depending on the interpretation. Balor’s eye is hit and it is sent out the back of his skull, vaporizing his own army. Balor is associated with the concept of the evil eye.
Also known as Brigit and Bridget, Brigid is one of the most well-known Irish deities, and in a way is still worshipped today. She is the goddess of art, blooming of the spring season, healing, high dimensions, livestock, poetry, smithing, and springs. She was merged with the Christian St. Brigid. However, some scholars argue that, since St. Brigid is given such magical qualities and has conflicting and unclear biographies, that she is merely a Christianized form of the goddess. Many Catholics in Ireland and its neighboring isles still revere Brigid, and depending on how you view the saints, she could be considered a holdout from the pagan era. Although her Irish form is well-known, Brigid was actually a mother goddess worshipped all over Europe, known in Britain and Gaul as Brigantia.
Although performing the common function of a fertility goddess, Epona is more noted for her dominion over horses and all similar animals. In the ancient world, horses were an integral part of both land transportation and warfare, so much so that Epona received widespread popularity among non-Celts as well, with cults to her ranging all the way to North Africa. Roman cavalry in particular were fond of her. She is depicted riding sidesaddle on a white mare. Kings would symbolically marry her to affirm their royal status. Unfortunately, this involved actually having intercourse with a white mare and then killing the animal afterwards to distribute its body. The name Epona is familiar to gamers, as it was given to the hero Link’s horse in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series.
Yet another goddess of fertility and animals, Artio was noted for a specific association with bears. One uncovered statue shows a woman, believed to be Artio, seated on a throne and holding fruit. Approaching her is a bear, evidently being fed by her. No myths survive about Artio, but I think she’s a very cool goddess just from the fact that she is associated with bears. Bears had religious significance in Ancient Europe. In addition to being symbols of power, several prominent animal-shaped constellations were named after them, such as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. It is debatable whether Artio’s bear association was related to hunting, protective power, or both. Romans saw her as Artemis/Diana, their goddess of the hunt who often transformed into a bear.
Lugh is the grandson of Fomori king Balor and the Irish god of light and crafts. Worshipped all over the British Isles, Lugh is most well known in Ireland, where he for a time serves as the king of its gods. Aside from killing Balor and bringing the Tuatha de Danaan to power, Lugh’s accomplishments also include creating a regular pan-Irish series of athletic games and fathering famed hero Cuchulain. Lugh is also the god of the spear, which in most versions is what he uses to kill Balor. His own personal, magic spear is incredibly sharp at its point, able to go through anything, and is one of the four great treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan. Many historians and others believe that Lugh was downgraded and heavily altered by Christian monks and scholars to the point that he became the leprechaun. This would indeed be a humiliating end for the savior and king of the Irish gods.
Cernunnos is one of the more well-known Gaelic gods thanks to several recovered pieces of artwork. These include the Pillar of the Boatmen and the Gundestrup Cauldron, showing Cernunnos as a man sitting cross-legged and adorned with stag antlers. Cernunnos, often referred to simply as the “horned god”, was associated with hunting, animals, fertility, and nature in general. Cernunnos, as a fatherly god associated with the male activity of hunting, might have a link to stag parties, as he himself has the horns of a stag. Thanks to his appearance, the “horned god” was equated with the devil in Medieval Europe.
2nd. Manannan Mac Lir
Manannan Mac Lir is the main Celtic sea god, and appears quite often in surviving tales. He is a protector of Ireland, as the sea surrounds it. He himself is a master of magic, and he rides the ocean on a chariot driven by sea-horses (of the mythical equine kind, not the real ones). Other portrayals show him in a much more simple boat, using an oar to row himself around. The Isle of Man is named after him. According to one tale, the name is given from another god, Mac Cuil. Mac Cuil is not much of a god and actually practices thievery. However, he eventually converts to Christianity, changing his ways and spreading his new religion all over the island he is on. Manannan Mac Lir approaches him and sadly notes that in this new age his name will be forgotten. Mac Cuil assures him that as long as he himself remembers the sea god, The Isle of Man will keep its name, and thus the name of its god, alive.
Morrigan, the “Phantom Queen”, is the Irish goddess of war and death. She is perhaps the most feared deity, as she often appears in one of her various physical guises to let a warrior know death is around the corner. She might appear as a hag washing his armor, or as a bird sitting atop his future corpse. Morrigan’s main animal is the crow or raven, birds noted for hanging around battlefields to scavenge on the dead. Morrigan is responsible for the death of famed Irish hero Cuchulain. With a crush on him, she uses various disguises to gain his affections. Attempts to approach him in animal form see her getting wounded. With each rejection, her ire grows hotter and she eventually causes him to die in battle, resting on his shoulder as a crow to assure his enemies that he is truly dead. Morrigan is also a triple goddess, a confusing concept in which one deity is actually three separate individuals. Morrigan is Anand (or Anu), a goddess of fertility, Badb, a war goddess who transforms into a crow, and Macha, the death crone. Other versions have Morrigan as the third of another triple goddess.
Other Notable Celtic Gods
Aengus Mac Gog: Aengus is the closest thing the Celts have to a full on god of love.
Belenus: Gaulish god of healing and light, Belenus was equated with the ever-popular Apollo and thus was highly favored by Roman colonists.
Dagda: Powerful father of the Irish gods, Dagda wields a club while holding a cauldron
Danu: Danu is the mother of the Irish gods and in Welsh mythology is Don.
Ogma: Irish god of eloquence and learning, he is also a great warrior and wields a Fomorian sword.
Sucellus: Also known as the “Hammer God”, Sucellus carries a long-handled hammer and a bowl of what cold be wine. He is believed to be the god of agriculture and wine.
Cunliffe, Barry The Celtic World McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1979
Ellis, Peter Berresford The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths and Legends Running Press Book Publishers. 1999
Stewart, R.J. Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses Sterling Publishing. 1990
Various Heroes of the Dawn: Celtic Myth Time-Life Books. 1996
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, HowardJohnson.com, & Google Images
Like most polytheistic societies, the Egyptians had plenty of gods. There are at least a hundred confirmed deities (the actual number gets tricky when you consider that some gods were merged into one or others had alter egos), and they covered all aspects of life. Here are my ten favorite Egyptian gods and goddesses.
The son of Ra, the sun god, and Bast, the cat goddess, Maahes is one of many protector/war deities. Taking after his mother, Maahes has the head of a feline, specifically a lion. Maahes also has the cool distinction of being the god of knives, and is drawn holding two long knives. He’s also the god of lotus plants for some reason. The most fearsome and memorable aspect of Maahes is his treatment of prisoners of war: he ate them! Maahes is probably the one war god that enemies of Egypt would not want to meet. Maahes isn’t as well known in popular culture, possibly because he only appears in the myths as one of the deities protecting Ra (the sun) against the ravenous serpent of darkness Apep.
With so many cults and changing views over thousands of years of history, Egyptian myths about creation are inconsistent. This applies to the origin of humans as well. Ptah was said to have used the power of thought to create humanity, but there is also the story of Khnum. The ram-headed Khnum literally builds humans out of clay. He makes two bodies for each individual, one physical and the other spirit. He then merges them to create the final product, though frog goddess Heket breathes the actual life into them. The center of worship for Khnum is the Nile island of Elephantine. Khnum is one of my favorites because the idea of fashioning humans by hand and breathing life from them brings the creation of Adam and Eve by God into mind.
Ra is the head honcho of the Egyptian pantheon, but I was hesitant about putting him higher on the list. This is because even though he literally is the sun, he actually comes across as a little weak and indecisive in many of the myths. Isis poisons him and makes him give up his secret name to that she can have magical power over him. When overseeing the meeting on whether Horus or Seth should have authority over Egypt, he can’t make up his mind which one to support. And despite having the powers of the sun at his disposal, he needs an entire entourage of fellow gods and the prayers of humans to fight off Apep. Still, Ra can be awesome, as he is the creator deity. In fact, Ra is an amalgamation of several deities. The Egyptians streamlined their religion by saying that Amun, Atum, and Khepri were actually alternate names and forms of Ra (which is why you might see Ra referred to as Amun-Ra). Ra is the father of most of the major gods and goddesses and is also the father of the pharaohs. So while he may look weak or gullible in some of the myths, Ra still has an indispensable function in Egyptian culture.
Set is one of two Egyptian gods that can actually be considered a villain. He is the god of chaos, the desert, storms, violence, and later foreigners as well. Most of these things aren’t highly regarded. Still, Set did have some respect among worshippers due to his power. He is one of the chief defenders of Ra, standing at the front of the sun god’s sun barque in order to stave off Apep. His most vile act and establishing moment of villainy is murdering his brother Osiris in an attempt to gain his throne, and then spending decades trying to kill his son Horus, as well as battling Osiris’ wife Isis. Set eventually loses for good, but is compensated for his loss with multiple wives from the Canaanite pantheon (in an early example of a crossover story). Historically, Set’s popularity with Egyptian worshippers took a huge hit when the invading Hyksos took over and made him the chief deity. Set is a jerk, but he does provide most of the interesting conflict in the actual myths. Other common names for him are Seth and Setesh. No one knows for sure what his animal head comes from. It could be a fictional creature to symbolize his authority over chaos, or it could be a portrayal of a jackal or aardvark, creatures that dwell in the desert and wilderness.
I only put Sobek in the top ten for one reason: he’s a crocodile! In addition to being a patron for one of the coolest animals, Sobek represents royal, protective, and military power. Sobek is either depicted as a man with a crocodile head or just a crocodile wearing a crown. Historically, Priests raised crocodiles and dressed them up as Sobek in honor of the god, even directing their prayers at the reptiles. He had several centers of worship, one which was actually once called Crocodopolis. Some of Sobek’s most devout worshippers went as far as to merge him with Ra, effectively making him the number one god.
Apep is the other villain of Egyptian mythology, an embodiment of darkness and chaos. Unlike Set, he has no functions that make him an object of worship. In fact, priests would utter prayers against him. Apep is usually in the form of a great black serpent, constantly seeking to destroy Ra and thus the sun, ending all life and light. At night, Apep attacks Ra’s sun barque while it is in the underworld. When the sun rises, it means Ra has won, as he usually does. However, if there’s an eclipse, it means Apep has won a rare, though temporary victory. Apep makes the list because he’s one of the rare fully evil gods, and possibly the most powerful. I wonder why he isn’t used as the main villain in popular culture as much, with Set and (mistakenly) Anubis often getting that role. Another name for Apep is Apophis. Ancient Egyptians actually didn’t want him killed, as they thought this would upset the balance of the universe and destroy everything.
Hathor is one of the most popular goddesses in Egyptian history. This is natural, as she is the goddess of love, mothers, birth, fertility, music, dancing, and miners. Except for maybe miners, all of these things are very popular with humankind. Although much art and statues show her with a cow head, this is actually not her primary form and is more symbolic of her role as a fertility goddess. In fact, she may be the most beautiful goddess, and often dances naked before Ra to cheer him up when he’s down. What really puts Hathor in the top five is her alter ego as Ra’s avenger Sekhmet. As Sekhmet, she gains a lion’s head. In one myth, Ra responds to rebellion by unleashing her on humanity. However, she grows so enamored with drinking the blood of her victims that she won’t stop. Ra just wants to teach humanity a lesson, not make them extinct. Taking the advice of some other gods, Ra creates a wine that looks and smells like blood. Sekhmet drinks it up and passes out, enabling her transformation back into Hathor. Hathor’s close relationship with Ra gives her the title “Eye of Ra”.
Horus, often depicted with a falcon’s head or even as a human child, is the god of the sky, the sun, war, and protection. But his most important duty is as the god of pharaohs. Pharaohs are the physical human embodiments of Horus. Horus has a decades-long war with Set, which sees him lose his left eye. Horus is born with solar power in his eyes, giving him power over day, but now he is missing one. Thoth intervenes and creates a lunar eye, giving Horus power over both day and night. Horus has a couple other interesting encounters with Set. One sees them turn into hippos and fight each other, which ends indecisively thanks to Isis throwing harpoons at them. Another actually has Set attempting and failing to rape Horus, as semen was given magical qualities by ancient Egyptians and could theoretically be used as a weapon. Ra and Osiris may be the most powerful gods, but Horus gave the pharaohs the divine right to rule, justifying their authority.
Thoth is the god of art, diplomacy, knowledge, writing, and the moon (he has to share the moon with Khonsu). His favorite animals are the ibis bird and the baboon, and he takes their forms. What makes Thoth so awesome is that he’s really smart, and that he even though he’s not the type that fights, he still helps Horus and Isis achieve final victory over Set. He can usually be found at Ra’s side as his personal secretary, even joining in to help fight off Apep when they travel through the underworld. In the afterlife, he records the results of weighing of the souls, helping decides who can travel to paradise and who will have their soul consumed by the monstrous Ammit. Thoth is also a nerd, being the creator and patron of astronomy, botany, geometry, math, medicine, and theology. Much of his knowledge is contained in the Book of Thoth.
Arguably the most popular Egyptian deity (even being worshipped by Romans until well into their decline), Isis is the goddess of children, love, and motherhood. She also responds to the prayers of all people, with particular interest for common people and those in hard positions, even slaves. Most important to the actual myths, she is the goddess of magic. Egyptians were obsessed with magic. To them it was very real. Isis uses magic to protect and aid Horus in his war with Set, and on a couple occasions uses trickery to gain power over Ra, such as the time she learns his secret name. In her greatest feat, she is able to resurrect Osiris’ body in order to have sex and give birth to Horus (Osiris is resurrected for good later, but becomes the god of the dead while Horus takes his place in the world of the living). Isis was even more popular than Horus, and was the center of a major cult in Roman-dominated Egypt. Isis is perhaps the strongest female deity in character and power, in world as well as Egyptian mythology, which ensures her top spot on this list.