Greek Mythology, beliefs and ritual observances of the ancient Greeks who became the first Western civilization about 2000 BC. It consists mainly of a body of diverse stories and legends about a variety of gods. Greek mythology had become fully developed by about the 700s BC. Three classic collections of myths – Theogony by the poet Hesiod and the Iliad and the Odyssey by the poet Homer – appeared at about that time.
Greek mythology has several distinguishing characteristics. The Greek gods resembled humans in form and showed human feelings. Unlike ancient religions such as Hinduism or Judaism, Greek mythology did not involve special revelations or spiritual teachings. It also varied widely in practice and belief, with no formal structure, such as a church or government, and no written code, such as a sacred book.
The Greeks believed that the gods chose Mount Olympus, in a region of Greece called Thessaly, as their home. On Olympus, the gods formed a society that ranked them in terms of authority and powers. However, the gods could roam freely, and individual gods became associated with the three main domains – the sky or heaven, the sea, and earth. The 12 chief gods, usually called the Olympians, were Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hestia, Hermes, Demeter, and Poseidon.
Zeus was the head of the gods, and the spiritual father of gods and people. His wife, Hera, was the queen of heaven and the guardian of marriage. Other gods associated with heaven were Hephaestus, god of fire and metalworkers; Athens, goddess of wisdom and war; and Apollo, god of light, poetry, and music. Artemis, goddess of wildlife and the moon; Ares, god of war; and Aphrodite, goddess of love, were the other gods of heaven. They were joined by Hestia, goddess of the hearth; and Hermes, messenger of the gods and ruler of science and invention.
Poseidon was the ruler of the sea who, with his wife Amphitrite, led a group of less important sea gods, such as the Nereids and the Tritons. Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, was associated with the earth.
Hades, an important god but not generally considered an Olympian, ruled the underworld, where he lived with his wife, Persephone. The underworld was a dark and mournful place located at the center of the earth. It was populated by the souls of people who had died.
Dionysus, god of wine and pleasure, was among the most popular gods. The Greeks devoted many festivals to this earthly god, and in some regions he became as important as Zeus. He often was accompanied by a host of fanciful gods, including satyrs, centaurs, and nymphs. Satyrs were creatures with the legs of a goat and the upper body of a monkey or human. Centaurs had the head and torso of a man and the body of a horse. The beautiful and charming nymphs haunted woods and forests.
WORSHIP AND BELIEF
Greek mythology emphasized the weakness of humans in contrast to the great and terrifying powers of nature. The Greeks believed that their gods, who were immortal, controlled all aspects of nature. So the Greeks acknowledged that their lives were completely dependence on the good will of the gods. In general, relations between people and gods were considered friendly. But the gods delivered severe punishment to mortals who showed unacceptable behavior, such as indulgent pride, extreme ambition, or even excessive prosperity.
The mythology was interwoven with every aspect of Greek life. Each city devoted itself to a particular god or group of gods, for whom the citizens often built temples of worship. They regularly honored the gods in festivals, which high officials supervised. At festivals and other official gatherings, poets recited or sang great legends and stories. Many Greeks learned about the gods through the words of poets.
Greeks also learned about the gods by word of mouth at home, where worship was common. Different parts of the home were dedicated to certain gods, and people offered prayers to those gods at regular times. An altar for Zeus, for example, might be placed in the courtyard, while Hestia was ritually honored at the hearth.
Although the Greeks had no official church organization, they universally honored certain holy places. Delphi, for example, was a holy site dedicated to Apollo. A temple built at Delphi contained an oracle, or prophet, whom brave travelers questioned about the future. A group of priests represented each of the holy sites. These priests, who also might be community officials, interpreted the words of the gods but did not possess any special knowledge or power. In addition to prayers, the Greeks often offered sacrifices to the gods, usually of a domestic animal such as a goat.
Greek mythology probably developed from the primitive religions of the people of Crete, an island in the Aegean Sea where the region’s first civilization arose in 3000 BC. These people believed that all natural objects had spirits, and that certain objects, or fetishes, had special magical powers. Over time, these beliefs developed into a set of legends involving natural objects, animals, and gods with a human form. Some of these legends survived as part of classical Greek mythology.
The ancient Greeks themselves offered some explanations for the development of their mythology. In Sacred History, Euhemerus, a mythographer from the 300s BC, recorded the widespread belief that myths were distortions of history and the gods were heroes who had been glorified over time. The philosopher Prodicus of Ceos taught during the 400s BC that the gods were personifications of natural phenomena, such as the sun, moon, winds, and water. Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived during the 400s BC, believed that many Greek rituals were inherited from Egyptians.
As Greek civilization developed, particularly during the Hellenistic period, which began about 323 BC, the mythology also changed. New philosophies and the influence of neighboring civilizations caused a gradual modification of Greek beliefs. However, the essential characteristics of the Greek gods and their legends remain unchanged.