A Primer on Greek Mythology: Part I — The Gods and Goddesses

by A Manly Guest Contributor on August 23, 2012 · 61 comments

in Manly Knowledge, Travel & Leisure

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Tony Valdes.

Greek mythology might sound like an obscure area of study, as if it is only relevant to wizened old professors in posh offices at Ivy League schools.  Or perhaps you associate the topic with vague memories of sensationalized Hollywood summer movies.  Ancient Greek culture, however, contributes much more to the modern world than we might realize.

The influence of the Greek mythology on western civilization began when the Romans adopted the pantheon of Greek gods; this subsequently influenced the names of the planets in our solar system.  Fast forward through history and you will find evidence of the Greeks in art, books, poetry, movies, television, and popular culture.  For example, every time you don a pair of Nike shoes, you emblazon yourself with the name of the Greek goddess of victory, whose name was, of course, Nike.  A company that makes athletic clothing is trying to say something about itself and those who wear their products by choosing such a name, don’t you think?  Likewise, Midas auto shop, Honda’s “Odyssey” minivan, the Olympic games, and literary heavyweights such as William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and Mary Shelley have all taken cues from the Greeks.  And this barely scratches the surface.

Acquiring a working knowledge of mythology can enrich a man’s life and open cultural doors that would otherwise remain locked.  I would compare being knowledgeable about Greek mythology to one of my all-time favorite heroes: Indiana Jones.  Remember how Indy seemed to have all that really obscure knowledge about myths, legends, and religions from bygone eras?  And remember how awesome it was when he could look at some artifact, document, or piece of architecture and connect the dots?  With a little bit of effort, we can do the same, and we aim to do just that in this series on the basics of Greek mythology for the modern man.  At the end of this series, I will offer you a fun challenge where you can be your own Dr. Jones and impress a lovely lady in your life.  Let’s get started…

What Is Myth?

Although we often associate the word “myth” with ancient systems of make-belief religions, a myth is actually a set of stories that is significant to a culture.  Although they tend to be fictional, it is not a requirement.  Thus Zeus, Superman, Area 51, the Loch Ness Monster, and George Washington can all be considered parts of various mythologies.

George Washington may seem like an odd part of that list, but consider the “larger than life” status that American history has given to our first president.  Although he existed in reality, he is no longer simply a man: Washington is a symbol packed with meaning for our nation.  Along with fictitious characters like Superman, Washington is a significant part of what defines the American way of thinking.  They are eternally linked with who we are and what we believe.

The Problem with Greek Mythology

Before diving into the colorful world of the Greek stories, it is important that we understand that Greek mythology is rife with inconsistencies.  In other words, many of the stories are going to sound absolutely ridiculous and, at times, even contradict each other.

When considering these stories, we must remember that the Greeks were creating stories based on their own fallible human nature.  Thus the Greek gods are often as cruel, inconsistent, and sinful as humans are.   Also keep in mind that the Greeks were not attempting to create a system of absolute truth; they were simply telling stories to explain the world around them.  If you were having a good day, then Zeus was a kind and benevolent god.  If you were having a lousy day, then Zeus was vengeful and merciless.

We could compare this point to some of our modern mythology.  Let’s go back and consider Superman again.  In some stories a piece of kryptonite the size of a pebble is enough to bring the Man of Steel to his knees in agony; in other stories it takes a chunk the size of a basketball to induce tortuous pain.  It all depends on who is telling the story and his or her view of Superman’s weaknesses and strengths.  Likewise, Batman swings on a pendulum that ranges from the campy Adam West portrayal to the gritty trilogy created by Christopher Nolan.

There is one more point that needs clarifying: when the Romans adopted Greek mythology, they gave Roman names to each of the characters.  For our purposes here we’ll refer to everyone by his or her Greek name, but when applicable the Roman name will be included in parenthesis.

With that being said, let’s begin exploring the stories.

The War of Deities

According to the Greeks, in the beginning of time there was Father Heaven (Uranus) and Mother Earth (Gaea).  Together, they bore children known as the Titans.  Cronus (Saturn) and Rhea (Cybele) led the Titans in a rebellion against Father Heaven and Mother Earth.  The Titans defeated their parents and became the rulers of the heavens.

In turn, Cronus and Rhea had children known as the Olympians.  The Olympians are the Greek gods as we know them, led by Zeus and Hera.  Cronus, concerned that his children would overthrow him in the same way that he overthrew Father Time, devoured his children.  Rhea, however, defied Cronus by tricking him into eating a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes in place of the infant Zeus.

When Zeus came of age, he was outraged to learn the fate of his brothers and sisters.  Zeus ambushed Cronus and forced him to vomit up the Olympians, who had apparently survived and grown to maturity in Cronus’ stomach.  With the help of Prometheus, a rogue Titan, the Olympians defeated Cronus and Zeus took his place as ruler of the heavens.  Zeus punished most of the Titans by imprisoning them; however, the Titan named Atlas received a unique punishment: he was doomed to carry the weight of the world upon his shoulders.  Prometheus, since he aided the Olympians, was not punished.

The Olympians

Although Zeus was the most powerful of the Olympians and thus the leader, he delegated control of the universe to his brothers and sisters.  Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia were the children of Cronus and the original six Olympians; all additional Olympians were children of Zeus (though not all were birthed by traditional means).

With the exception of Hades, who was often depicted dwelling in Tartarus, all of the Greek gods lived in splendor in a city that they named Olympus.  This majestic city hovered high above a mountain, which was named Mount Olympus as a result.  Mighty clouds served as the gates of Olympus and it was said that no rough wind or foul weather ever shook the city of the gods.

The Olympians – the sons and daughters of Cronus – and their offspring were center stage of all of mythology and understanding the character of each is crucial to understanding every narrative within Greek mythology, so let’s take a moment to look at the twelve that are referenced most frequently.

Zeus (Jupiter)

After the overthrow of the Titans, Zeus was not only the leader of the Olympians but also the ruler of the universe.  Symbolized by the eagle and wielding lightening bolts as his weapon of choice, there were few who had the courage to challenge even the simplest aspects of Zeus’ will.  Those who did often did so through trickery and guile rather than through direct confrontation.  Depending on the story, Zeus’s personality could range from a benevolent father figure to detached, all-powerful tyrant.  Because the Greek gods mirrored all the same faults and foibles as humanity, Zeus could make mistakes and be deceived.  He was often a skirt-chaser as well, taking a variety of bizarre forms (including but not limited to bulls, swans, and golden rain) to seduce mortal woman.  Shakespeare recounted one more notable encounter in his poem titled “The Rape of Lucretia.”  Super-human demigods like Hercules and Perseus were said to be Zeus’ children with mortal women.

Poseidon (Neptune)

A brother of Zeus and the god of the seas, Poseidon was also responsible for earthquakes, which earned him the moniker “earth shaker.”  His was often portrayed wielding a trident, which he uses to churn the oceans and create storms.  Though he was certainly not as powerful as Zeus, Poseidon was not to be trifled with.  His dominion over the oceans and influence on land could make or break a sea-faring culture like that of the Greeks.  Poseidon was credited with the creation of all sea life, but when the other god and goddesses mocked Poseidon’s creations (fish and other sea life), they challenged him to create something beautiful.  In response, he created horses.

Hades (Pluto)

Contrary to popular belief and Disney’s Hercules, Hades was not the Greek equivalent of the devil in Judeo-Christian tradition.  A brother of Zeus and Poseidon, Hades simply got the short stick when the Olympian brothers divvied up their domains.  Hades ruled over the underworld, also known as Tartarus.  Unlike the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven and hell, all souls – whether good or evil – arrived in Tartarus where Hades was responsible for their care.  The only exception to this rule was “Isle of the Blessed,” which we will see when we examine the Greeks’ concept of geography.  There was some degree of punishment for the wicked and reward for the just, but not to the same degree as the heaven and hell dichotomy.  Hades was the only Olympian who did not make his home atop Mount Olympus.  He brooded in Tartarus with his three-headed dog Cerberus, who guarded the gates and prevented the living from entering and the dead from leaving.  Hades wife, Persephone, was a mortal woman whom Hades abducted.  Persephone’s mother, Demeter, and Olympian, struck a deal with Hades that her daughter would spend half the year with her and the other half in the underworld with him.  The Greeks believed that the result of this deal was spring/summer when Persephone was with her mother and fall/winter when she was with her husband.

Hera (Juno)

Hera was the wife of Zeus and, ironically, the goddess of fidelity.  As you can imagine, she was particularly irritable when Zeus seduced fellow goddesses or, worse, mortal women.  To be mortal and the object of Zeus’ affections was a curse; not only would the woman have to explain the odd circumstances surrounding her child’s birth, but she would also suffer the wrath of Hera, which could be cruel indeed.  Furthermore, the child the woman bore would suffer as well.  No one knows this better than poor Hercules, whom we’ll discuss in more detail later.  Hera was symbolized by the peacock and, though she rarely engaged in any sort of combat herself, she was cunning, stealthy, and held sway over her husband, making her formidable in a way no other Olympian could boast of being.

Hestia (Vesta)

Hestia wasn’t as flashy or dramatic as many of the other Olympians, thus she rarely got the spotlight, but that does not diminish her importance to the Greeks.  She was the goddess of the hearth, which meant that if you had a comfortable home and a happy family then Hestia had blessed you.

Demeter (Ceres)

Like Hestia, Demeter was often upstaged by her fellow Olympians. She was the goddess of grain, which made her very important to everyday life.

Pallas Athena (Minerva)

Pallas Athena, usually referred to simply as Athena, was the goddess of wisdom.  The Greek hoplite helmet she wore perched atop her head easily identified her.  She was frequently shown with a shield and spear in hand as well.  Though she is not directly associated with war (that accolade goes to Ares) Athena was nonetheless frequently involved in the Greeks’ battles.  If Ares was the savage brutality and strength of war, Athena was the cunning, strategic side of it.  She was most famous for her regard of Odysseus, whom was known as the cleverest of all the Greeks.  Like much of mythology, there are conflicting stories about Athena’s origin; however, the most widely known is that she sprang full-grown from Zeus’ head, which sounds terribly painful for both parties if you ask me.

Apollo (Apollo)

Apollo was very popular with the Greeks as he was the god of truth and prophecy.  Temples and oracles were scattered all over Greece that boasted of having a direct line to Apollo; however, the most prestigious of these was the Oracle at Delphi.  It was common for Greek kings to consult Apollo regarding war and political conflicts. The Olympian was no stranger to combat; his weapon of choice was the bow, but he was also frequently pictured with a lyre, which displays the diverse qualities of this particular god.

Hermes (Mercury)

Hermes was a curious looking Olympian: he wore a helmet that looked something like a bowl with wings sprouting from it.  In addition, his sandals had wings and he carried a scepter (the winged rod entwined with snakes that we now use as a symbol for medical practice).  He was the messenger god, a sort of mailman for Olympus and, like the angels sometimes do in Scripture, declares the will of Zeus to the mortal world.  As you can infer from his winged attire, Hermes could move with great speed.  Interestingly, Hermes was also the god of thieves.  You would think someone more reliable would be chosen as Zeus’ mouthpiece, but as far as I know Hermes never took advantage of his status to pull off any capers.

Artemis (Diana)

Like Hestia and Demeter, Artemis rarely took center stage.  She was the goddess of the hunt and preservation of the wild.  Like the aforementioned goddesses, Artemis was essential to the daily lives of the Greeks, but didn’t make for very compelling stories.

Aphrodite (Venus)

Ah, Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love.  Much could be said about this Olympian, but let it suffice to say she stood out even amidst the physical perfection of the Olympians.  As you can imagine, Aphrodite frequently had her lovely fingers entwined in the more memorable Greek myths.  Her long blonde hair strategically covering her lady parts makes her instantly recognizable in many Renaissance paintings; however, she just as often bares all.  There are conflicting stories regarding her birth, but the idea that she sprung forth out of the foam of the sea seems to be the most popular due to Sandro Botticelli’s painting titled “The Birth of Venus.”

Ares (Mars)

Ares was the infamous god of war.  He was not the sort of god the Greeks would consult like Zeus, Apollo, or Athena, but rather he was a personified savage force of nature.  He was quite intimidating on the battlefield until he was wounded, at which point he would bellow in rage and flee to Olympus.  Ares also had a torrid love affair with Aphrodite, which came back to bite him in a significant way.

Hephaestus (Vulcan)

Only one Olympian was outright butt-ugly.  Poor Hephaestus was so unsightly that his mother, Hera, cast him off of the peak of Olympus when he was born.  As a result, Hephaestus walked with a limp.  He functioned as the god of fire and forging, and everything he created was flawless, unbreakable, and of tremendous value.  To have a goblet made by Hephaestus was an honor, but to have a weapon or armor forged by this Olympian was a privilege.  Subsequently, Hephaestus forged the lightening bolts for his father, Zeus.  The great irony of Hephaestus was that his wife was the lovely Aphrodite.  That marriage – and Aphrodite’s subsequent affair with Ares – did not go unnoticed in the Greeks’ stories.  When Hephaestus learned of his wife’s infidelity, he forged a net in which to capture his wife in the act of her betrayal.  One day while Aphrodite and Ares were – ahem – “meeting” with each other, Hephaestus burst into the room and cast the net over the top of them, and then called the other gods to openly mock Ares and Aphrodite caught in the midst of their shameful act.  All is fair in love and war, I suppose.

Dionysus (Bacchus)

Lastly we have Dionysus, the god of wine and festivity.  Though he may not have been essential to survival like some of the lesser-known goddesses or be featured prominently in the drama on Olympus, Dionysus was by far the favorite of the Greeks.  Theatre, celebrations, athletic competitions, and rich wine all fell under the jurisdiction of Dionysus.

Today’s Wrap Up

Every culture and era has its beliefs about deities and their roles in the universe, but only a handful have been as enduring and influential as Greek mythology.  Their pantheon was neither a religion nor a set of cultural fables, but rather something that landed right between those marks.

I think that’s more than enough for us to chew on today.  We could certainly discuss at length the rest of the Greek pantheon, which includes other gods and goddesses as well as lesser supernatural beings, but these twelve are the necessary pieces.  In the next post of this series, we will leave the lofty heights of Olympus and examine the mortal world as seen through the eyes of Greek mythology.

Primer on Greek Mythology Series:
The Gods and Goddesses
The Mortal World and Its Heroes
The Trojan War
The Odyssey and Applying What We’ve Learned

{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

1 AJ Garceau August 23, 2012 at 6:08 pm

This is Awesome. Thank you

2 Charles W. August 23, 2012 at 6:29 pm

YES. Thank you very much. This is a great read.

3 Warren August 23, 2012 at 6:29 pm

So my minor in Classics isn’t completely useless?

4 Paul Lavin August 23, 2012 at 6:49 pm

“… Atlas received a unique punishment: he was doomed to carry the weight of the world upon his shoulders…”

Wasn’t Atlas’ punishment to hold up the sky rather than carry the world on this shoulders?

5 Alejandro August 23, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Great post! Looking forward to the next one

6 Pete August 23, 2012 at 7:29 pm

I’d recommend those interested in Greek myths read The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch – it’s very readable and in the public domain, so it’s free (you can get it at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3327 or a free audiobook from http://librivox.org/bulfinch-age-of-fable/). The Odyssey by Homer is probably the first written adventure story in the western canon (I’d skip the Iliad). Penguin Books has a good translation by E.V. Rieu. I found earlier translations by Alexander Pope and even T.E. Lawrence to be quite hard going.

7 Daniel August 23, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Just so we don’t miss some important elements:

Athena – Also the goddess of weaving (when she lost a weaving contest to a woman named Arachne, she turned her into a spider). Her totem animals were both the snake and the owl.

Apollo – His most important feature was that he was responsible for ALL sickness in men. If you got sick, it was because he shot you with an arrow.

Hermes – Also took the souls of the dead to the underworld (psychopomp).

Artemis – As Apollo’s sister, she was responsible for all sickness in women. You would pray to either Artemis or Apollo to remove sickness, which was a rather important function. Also, although she was a virgin, Artemis was also the goddess of childbirth.

8 Chad August 23, 2012 at 8:19 pm

…and in the beginning there was Uranus. Am I the only one who shook his head at that?

Otherwise, great post as always. Thanks, Tony!

9 Mike August 23, 2012 at 9:16 pm

“Before diving into the colorful world of the Greek stories, it is important that we understand that Greek mythology is rife with inconsistencies. In other words, many of the stories are going to sound absolutely ridiculous and, at times, even contradict each other.” Just like the Bible!

10 Mike M. August 23, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Good post. Bullfinch’s Mythology is a good read – this sort of material is part of our cultural heritage, frequently referred to in older writings.

11 DP August 23, 2012 at 10:48 pm

Hear is something to think about. In the future people will be studying and thinking about Judeo-Christian mythology like we do about Greco-Roman mythology.

12 GTW August 23, 2012 at 10:52 pm

I’m excited for this series, I’ve always liked Greek mythology. What’s always struck me about the Greek myths is that they’re truly an attempt to explain the world through personification. Maybe that’s a feature of all myths, but something about the way the Greeks did it is particularly effective: you can look at the stories and just see how they explain natural or psychological phenomenon by means of interacting personalities (like Persephone’s marriage to Hades explaining the change in seasons) and embody their system of values by means of character’s behavior (like the fact that Athena supported the Greeks while Ares supported the Trojans embodies the idea that tactics and wisdom are more valuable in conflict than strength and brutality).

On a minor note, in the first paragraph of The War of Deities, Uranus is called “Father Heaven,” in the second as “Father Time.” Was he known by both names or was that a slip of the finger?

13 Carlos Crestana August 23, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Very nice post indeed!

Just to correct some info about the Hermes’ symbol being identified with medicine. That, actually, is a common mistake. The symbol of medicine is the Rod of Asclepius and not the caduceus.

That even deserved its own entry on the Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus_as_a_symbol_of_medicine

14 Amanda August 24, 2012 at 12:23 am

Wonderful post. I think we forget about the classics to easily these days.

15 jaklumen August 24, 2012 at 12:49 am

I am surprised no one has mentioned Joseph Campbell yet, particularly as the Jungian archetypes of Warrior, King, Magician and Lover were covered earlier. I had read both Iron John (Robert Bly) and Warrior, King, Magician, Lover and decided to start on the Joseph Campbell citations, starting with Hero With A Thousand Faces. I’m about halfway through.

Granted, Campbell references mythology more broadly, in a more universal tone on human culture, but I think his studies are a natural extension here. He alludes to Greek/Roman/Cretan mythology early on in Hero…, so yes, I’d agree that such as it is being presented here is a good reference point.

16 Jesse Panico August 24, 2012 at 2:52 am

I’ve always thought of Greek Mythology as a particularly manly subject of research. As a child, my father read me the stories from a book he had. Even before getting into singing, dancing and acting, my favorite gods were the three patrons of the arts. (Hermes, Apollo, and Dionysus) It taught me not only what being a man is all about, (It includes a lot of monster-slaying) but also religious tolerance, and that no matter what someone believes, they can still contribute to society in a grand way. I still find it intriguing, and would love to see more of this series.

17 Darren August 24, 2012 at 4:31 am

My only qualm is that you said you would address the 12 important Gods and you actually named 14. I do appreciate the extra information though, and I found this article extremely well written and informative. Thank you!

18 DannyBoy August 24, 2012 at 7:24 am

“Before diving into the colorful world of the Greek stories, it is important that we understand that Greek mythology is rife with inconsistencies. In other words, many of the stories are going to sound absolutely ridiculous and, at times, even contradict each other.

When considering these stories, we must remember that the Greeks were creating stories based on their own fallible human nature. Thus the Greek gods are often as cruel, inconsistent, and sinful as humans are. Also keep in mind that the Greeks were not attempting to create a system of absolute truth; they were simply telling stories to explain the world around them. If you were having a good day, then Zeus was a kind and benevolent god. If you were having a lousy day, then Zeus was vengeful and merciless.”

Sort of exactly like the bible then.

19 ZH August 24, 2012 at 9:31 am

Great Post!

A couple of points:

First, we need to keep in mind that most great minds of Western civilization (including the founding fathers of the United States) were classically educated, which means that they had studied the myths of the ancient Greeks, in the original ancient languages no less. No doubt the myths and the underlying messages that they conveyed had some important lessons and influence on these great men.

Second, there is some speculation that the Greek myths are linked to Alchemy and that Issac Newton himself engaged in Alchemical activities following precriptions believed to be laid out in the myths. Newton interpreted Greek myths as alchemical recipes. One myth, in which the god Vulcan catches his wife Venus with her lover Mars, became an allegory for making a metal alloy called “the Net.” The PBS program NOVA had a segment called “Newton the Alchemist”. It is worth watching.

Looking forward to the future posts regarding this subject.

20 Graham August 24, 2012 at 9:55 am

An excellent overview & one which I think all younger folk should read, after all, they are not being taught this material at school.

I have published some myths & legends on my website (for those that are interested);
http://www.thegentlemanangler.com/historic-tales/

21 Scott Walker August 24, 2012 at 10:42 am

Good article over all. I think it needs to be checked over for grammatical errors and have the sources cited.

Citing your sources when studying myths is important for the sole fact that you can cross reference different sources, gather the differing opinions, and then come up with your own.

For example, there are many stories about why Poseidon created the horse. How about the naming of Athens?

I can’t wait to see the next installment though, always nice to bring some culture to this world.

22 Zyll August 24, 2012 at 11:07 am

Another interesting fact; the days of the week are named after the planets (the seven “wanderers” among the fixed stars):

Sunday = Sun
Monday = Moon
Tuesday = Tiw (Norse God), Mars
Wednesday = Wodon, Mercury
Thursday = Thor, Jupiter
Friday = Frige, Venus
Saturday = Saturn

23 DH August 24, 2012 at 11:46 am

To DP: the sooner the better, we may actually learn something that way.

24 Brenden August 24, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Great post, but the rod carried by Hermes, the caduceus, is mistakenly known as the symbol for medicine when actually the Rod of Asclepius, with only one snake wrapped around it, is the symbol of medicine. Hermes is the symbol of commerce and negotiation. Which is more in line with what Hermes was the god of. And the Rod of Asclepius, with only one snake, is actually what we use for a medical symbol.

25 BA August 24, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Pretty sure polytheism of the ancient greeks was a religion, or multiple religions.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_ancient_Greece
Incredible parallelism with Judeo-Christian concepts – not exactly the same sure, but in pith and substance they share a lot.

26 DH August 24, 2012 at 2:18 pm

In fact, wouldn’t that make a really fascinating series of articles; stripping away the literal and theological interpretations of the Bible as a revelation and actually focusing on what we can learn from the stories as human beings, and as men? It’s so easy to write the Bible off but it does contain some beautiful myths, just like the Greek pantheon that preceded it.

27 Bill Pickford August 24, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Thank you very much for this series of articles – I’ve loved the Greek Myths since I saw Ray Harryhausen’s work in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ when I was a child.
I’m looking forward to the rest in the series.
By the way, for a tale of real Greek heroes – who worshiped these Gods – please read ‘Gates of Fire’ by Steven Pressfield. (Best line – ‘Then we shall have our battle in the shade!’)

28 LB August 24, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Just an interesting point about the confusion with the Scepter of Hermes (Caduceus) being used a symbol for medicine, in light of the fact that this was mentioned in this article I think that the following article on the subject is relevant:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus_as_a_symbol_of_medicine

29 Ben August 24, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Paul is correct… Atlas was punished to hold up the heavens…. Keeping them away from earth… Otherwise all existence would perish

30 EL August 24, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Wow this blog is awesome. Loving it with every passing day.Thanks for the awesome updates!

31 Tony Valdes August 24, 2012 at 8:37 pm

I never expected this article would encourage so many comments! To address some of the questions and such:
1) All the additional information that many of you are adding in the comments in spectacular. It was not my intention to neglect anything – the sheer magnitude of Greek mythology makes it difficult to parse down into a manageable post. The goal is simply to be a “crash course” rather than to be a comprehensive exploration of the topic.
2) Speaking of comprehensive, the final post in the series includes a list of references for anyone interested in further study.
3) A few people have brought up Atlas. He does keep the earth and the sky separated. Edith Hamilton says, “To bear on his back forever the cruel strength of the crushing world and the vault of the sky.” In the next post we will see a rough sketch of the Greeks’ conception of the world, which hopefully will help with this point about the burden Atlas bears. One of my reasons for writing is so that men can recognize how often Greek mythology influences the world around us, so I chose to emphasize Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders since that is how he is most often depicted in art and literature.
4) GTW: My apologies: Uranus is Father Heaven – the reference to him as Father Time was a typo.

32 Jason T. August 24, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Another correction. The post uses Tartarus and the underworld interchangeably, but Tartarus was but one part of the underworld where the worst “sinners” were put after judgement.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartarus

A great topic to cover and stylistically well-written. But the number of typos, mistakes, and grammatical errors was a little distracting.

33 Andrew August 25, 2012 at 12:00 am

It wasn’t just sea foam Aphrodite rose from in the most common version of her birth.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite#Birth

34 Dan August 25, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Re: the Olympians – Hades isn’t usually counted as an Olympian god, since he didn’t live there and didn’t really interfere in the affairs of humanity too much anyhow.

The list usually includes Hestia or Dionysus, but not both – one myth I’ve seen has Hestia retire from the active Olympians to allow Dionysus to take her place. She doesn’t really get a lot of myths either, really.

35 Josh August 26, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I find it particularly un-manly to guttersnipe the bible in a comment section on a well written article on Greek beliefs. It would be nice if the imbeciles that write discriminatory statements would consider how the statement sounds with a less politically correct word.

“Sort of exactly like the bible then.”

Would you be just as proud and smug if you used Torah or Koran?

36 Derek August 26, 2012 at 4:34 pm

First and foremost, I recommend http://www.Theoi.com as an invaluable resource when it comes to Hellenic (Greek) myths. Also, http://www.sacred-texts.com for public domain (read:outdated scholarship sometimes) texts of all sorts.

Something to consider when reading Hellenic polytheology, is that there was never some unifying doctrine. The only thing that they had in common was the Language, and a little bit of common culture. Each region (some just the city) had it’s own holidays, favourite gods, and takes on the myths. You also encounter the myths evolving. For example: the Underworld started out with everyone being a mindless shadow drifting around. As time went on, there were rewards/punishments added in, first for specific individuals, then expanding to others like those individuals, until it became very similar to an underground Christian Heaven&Hell.

37 Derek August 26, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Have to add:
++but as far as I know Hermes never took advantage of his status to pull off any capers.++

HAHAHAHAHAHA
His very first action was to crawl out of his crib, go steal his brother Apollo’s herd of cows (making them walk backward to confuse trackers) and sacrificing some to the gods.
Figuring out where the cows went to (after a witness tipped him off about the backwards walking thing), Apollo went to confront his baby brother. Hermes then mollified Apollo by giving him the lyre he had made when he was on the way to the herd.

Hermes: God of travelers, and therefore merchants and thieves and messengers and other stuff-between-one-thing-and-another.

38 Brian August 27, 2012 at 9:18 am

I’d recommend picking up a copy of “D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths”. It’s technically a children’s book, but the amazing illustrations and excellent writing make the book a worthwhile purchase for anyone. I’ve just finished reading this with my kids, and next we’re moving onto their book of Norse myths.

39 Peter August 27, 2012 at 10:59 am

Thank you very much for this excellent post on greek mythology. I especally liked how you went out of your way to point out that Hades isn’t the devil, references to him as such always drive me crazy.
I’ve been interested in Greek mythology since about the time I could read, which admittedly wasn’t a really long time ago, and I’m the only young person I know who is greatly interested in the myths. (Though the Percy Jackson series has caused an upspike.)

One thing I’d like to point out, though they are commonly said to be such the Greek gods and the Roman gods aren’t just different names. For instance Ares portrays the brutality and savageness of war, as you said, and flees when wounded. Mars (the Roman equivelant) on the other hand, is much more disciplined and braver, as far as I know there are no myths where Mars flees from combat. (The reason for this is the Greeks despised war, while the Romans, being an empire, needed war to survive and thus valued it higher.)
Or, for a different example, Hera, like you said, is rarely involved in fighting and is powerful because she holds sway over Zeus, Juno was known (in one of her forms) as “The Warner” and was very involved with the soldiers, and thus war.

There is one specific area of greek mythology that I have a rather weak knowledge of due to the fact that I haven’t found any trustworthy books on it, and that is the Giant war. Very few myths (that I have found) have any information on it, and I only learned of it’s existance due to the sequal series to Percy Jackson, which is by no means trustworthy for accuracy as the author bends the myths to fit his storyline. Any help would be appreciated.
Thanks!

(Also, in relation to a conversation before, while Uranus is not father time [yes I know that was already cleared up] Kronos [or Cronus, they're the same person] was believed to be basically ‘father time’ even more so in the roman equivalent Saturn, where he gained added respect and authority over crops.)

(Yes, I know the Romans ‘took’ the gods from the Greeks, I was just pointing out that they also altered many of them and that is the cause of many alterations between greek and roman myths.)

40 James Cain August 27, 2012 at 12:26 pm

D’aulaire’s is good. Padraic Colum gathered some myths in his books “The Children’s Homer” and “The Golden Fleece.” They’re for children, yes, but for children in the early 20th century, and thus, not dumbed down.

41 Stef August 27, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Great article. Looking forward to the next parts. Well done!

42 don Roberto August 27, 2012 at 10:11 pm

Josh, I have to agree with you in part, but disagree with you in part.
I don’t think it’s particularly appropriate to be dissing the Bible, since doing so does little but offend believers.

That said, I can only work up limited sympathy for the hurt feelings of members of the Abrahamic religions that dominate the world’s culture. When I see the Old Gods–who are, despite the dismissals above, still worshiped today–granted respect equal to that shown the Abramanic one, *then* you’ll get me fully on your side. I’m sure I found Mr. Valdes’ reference to Hellenismos as “make-belief (sic) religion” as offensive as you did the potshots at the Bible.

Mr. Valdes, to refer to the Olympians as “sinful” is absurd. “Sin” is a concept from Abrahamic religion, and means an act forbidden by the deity thereof, causing one to be separated from Him. In the context of Hellenismos, no such notion exists. Not obeying the Olympians was often dangerous, but not seen as morally inappropriate. And since the Olympians are Themselves deities, Their actions would not be “sinful;” an Olympian’s actions would not separate Him/Herself from Him/Herself.

Let’s see the same respect offered to the Olympians as to the god of Abraham and Isaac. The latter’s treatment of Job was as cruel and capricious, as morally indefensible, as anything done by the Olympians (and, when called on it, His only defense was the logical fallacy “Argument from Authority”). Your dismissive remark about Greeks “creating stories based on their own fallible human nature” is as offensive and disrespectful as any of the anti-Bible comments posted here. I applaud your efforts to bring the Olympians to modern-day men, and eagerly await future instalments, but perhaps you might evince a little more respect for Them and Their followers, living and dead.

43 Ian August 28, 2012 at 1:14 am

jaklumen: “I am surprised no one has mentioned Joseph Campbell yet…”

I was looking for that myself, but understand that Campbell, though well-known, isn’t a household name. But I do think his ideas are worth nothing in any discussion about mythology.

My own belief is that myths have the function of meaning more than doctrine or description; by definition, they are untrue. Not “lies”, but truths of meaning. I also believe that we always have myths, or at the very least the archetypes that jaklumen mentioned, upon which we dress myths or aspects of life with archetypal meaning: victory, success, love, etc. I believe they are always culturally significant and are derived from the psyche (the psychological aspect relating to the body).

I don’t know what the common Greek knew about these myths, the type of Greek who derived them, or the type that held them to be meaningful. My guess is that the commoner had notions about them, but otherwise knew little (I’m guessing that they had folktales), that they were derived from academics, and that academics and elites held them meaningful through their memberships in the many cults and societies that flourished at the time. Their access to literacy and societal influence would have enabled these stories to survive.

I’m drawn to this story and this site as a History graduate who has been wondering about the ideal (archetype) of the Gentleman and have been thinking about researching it and writing about it.

44 Harron August 28, 2012 at 6:58 pm

In reference to comic book mythology, Jack Kirby’s series of the early 1970s ‘The New Gods’ is worth mentioning. It actually combined Greek myths with stories from the Bible,with science fiction elements. It probably had an influence on George Lucas and his ‘Star Wars’ movies !

45 Ian August 29, 2012 at 12:25 am

CORRECTION TO POST #43: I said, “But I do think his ideas are worth nothing in any discussion about mythology.” I meant, “But I do think his ideas are worth NOTING in any discussion about mythology.” I posted a correction right away but don’t see it here, so I really hope this gets posted because that’s a pretty big typo on my part.

In response to those adding detail to the pantheon in the essay: something else to note about the nature of mythology is that myths will change over time, and I believe that culture imposes the changes just as much as it creates the myths. Note depictions of the Virgin Mary over time: depictions of her changed from regal holiness to earthy, common humanity.

Finally, to address the initial point of the essay: how is mythology relevant to manhood? Just as culture writes its own mythology, it defines the ideal man. Pakistan’s ideal man may not be ideal here, and vice versa. The ideal man of Revolutionary America may not be the ideal American man today, and vice versa. But if a gentleman can see how myths come about, how a society evokes its archetypal concerns and energizes them, then he can be made that much more aware of what is expected of him.

My hope is that the author will eventually discuss modern mythology. I think there is one and societies, no matter how technologically advanced, will always have them.

46 Derek August 29, 2012 at 10:25 am

Peter, regarding the giant war, it’s traditionally called the Gigantomachy. That should help you find more information, what there is of it.

Ian, the myths were their folktales. They also involved Heroes and the divinities of local landmarks, especially Rivers and Mountains, Forests Springs. These local daimones often had as much power as the Olympians in their home territory, as well as parenting various local Heroes.

47 R August 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. If Greek mythology had been presented this well in school I would have paid more attention.

48 Joe August 29, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Does anyone know the name of the image at he top of the artcile? The one with all the faces. Or who created it?

49 JJ August 31, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Hermes was also the god of travellers, which also meant many merchants prayed to him as they were constantly on the road. Some would consider merchants to theives in those days (and considered by some today as theives as well).

50 Garrett September 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Very informative, looking forward to part 2.

51 Mark September 3, 2012 at 7:44 am

This is exactly the kind of article that makes this website so cool.

52 Rich September 6, 2012 at 7:04 pm

That was cool.. When’s part 2 coming?!

53 Ian September 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm

@Derek’s post #46: I agree. But the classic Greek myths have held sway and influence much more than Greek folktales. In my studies, I’ve found that to be the norm in all cultures.

Folktales tend to be local, where myths tend to be cultural.

54 Jack October 6, 2012 at 12:21 pm

I associate mythology with the late, great, Joseph Campbell, who taught me what religion was all about.

55 Kirk October 7, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Good write-up. I learned a lot.

56 James B October 9, 2012 at 10:13 pm

Some more back ground on Hermes’s special staff. If you are a civilian doctor, then no the caduceus is not your symbol. However, the military uses the caduceus. It is the center of all the possible medical badges, patches, and branch identifiers.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/68W

Even the famous combat medic badge hosts it right in the center.

57 Isaiah October 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm

With regard to the Gigantomochy, there is very little information about it, and it is usually used in an allusive way. If you look hard you can find some of the giants names, and one of the most mentioned facts is that Heracles was called upon to help the gods win the war.

Also if any of you are wondering about the relationship between Christianity and mythologies, G. K. Chesterton has a great chapter addressing this in his book, ‘Heretics.’

It is chapter 11: Science and the Savages.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/470/470-h/470-h.htm#chap11

58 CENSORED January 6, 2013 at 9:25 am

That was great, and it was my first art of manliness article. I am going to be sure to read more of this stuff!

59 trey February 13, 2013 at 10:07 am

athena was not a weaving god. that was her roman side. in greek she was the god of wisdom and battle stratagy.

60 F. T. Kettering April 13, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Having been thinking and writing about mythology for thirty years, I was excited to come across this excellent article and thread. Many of these comments reinforce my belief that Greek myths were the foundation of a real and vivid religion in antiquity — a culture-shaping religion based more on imagination than on “belief.”
There are two outstanding books by scholars who saw Greek religion in this light: “The Homeric Gods” by Walter Otto (if you can wade through a dense translation); and “Greek Gods, Human Lives” by Mary Lefkowitz. My own books are NOT scholarly — no footnotes, no citations (no posh office!) — but the last one connects directly to the theme of manliness. It’s called “Oracle and Sun,” and no, it’s not about Silicon Valley, but about Apollo and his modern sanctuary in California (all five books available on amazon.com).

61 Aaron May 29, 2013 at 9:05 pm

The image of the heads at the top of the article. I was wondering who is the artist of the piece and when was it created??

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter