Unlike many of their ancient contemporaries, the gods of the Greek pantheon were essentially human: shape-shifters capable of taking the forms of animals and natural phenomena, but otherwise human in appearance and attitude, as opposed to the animal-headed deities of the Near East.
Mythology is a Greek word coined to refer to the systematic ordering of myths performed by classical writers such as Hesiod. Local traditions continued to be followed in the forms both of ritual and of stories told. In the classical literary works the stories were unified and made largely consistent.
But few Greeks would have known of any inconsistencies: If they believed his grandmother Gaia raised Zeus, they probably had not heard the versions of the myth that had him raised by a goat or the nymph Cynosura.
Perhaps because of those regional traditions, while different gods were associated with different aspects of life, the lines between them were sometimes fuzzy. Hyperion and Apollo were both gods of the Sun, while Helios was the personification of the Sun and Eos was the goddess of the dawn, functions that overlap and may indicate the coexistence of multiple preclassical sun god traditions.
Further, there were gods associated only with a particular site: a nymph with a particular cave, a minor god with a particular river, and gods such as Adonis who were worshipped only at specific times.
Theogonies (of which Hesiod’s is the most famous of the surviving texts) described the origins of the gods and were used in religious rituals and credited with supernatural powers. Singing a passage from a theogony could calm the sea, invoke the protection of the gods, or appease one’s supernatural enemies.
In Hesiod’s theogony the world begins with Chaos, and the first gods embodied basic concepts of early Earth: Uranus was the sky; Gaia, the earth; Pontos, the sea; and Aither, the light. Uranus and Gaia conceived 18 children: the 12 Titans—300-handed, 50-headed giants—and three Cyclopes.
When Uranus imprisoned some of her children, Gaia implored the Titans to kill him. Only Cronus agreed, castrating and killing his father. He grew paranoid and proceeded to eat his own children as they were born, to prevent them from doing to him as he had done to Uranus.
With Gaia’s help Cronus’s wife Rhea hid Zeus from him, and the young god and future patriarch of the pantheon slayed his father, freeing his siblings from the Titan’s stomach.
The gods of primary importance to the Greek pantheon were the 12 Olympians, children and grandchildren of the Titans. The exact makeup of these 12 has varied, with various stories picking two from among Hebe, Helios, Hestia, Demeter, Dionysus, Hades, and Persephone. Constant, though, were the other 10 that follow:
Zeus. The ruler of Mount Olympus and god of thunder and the sky. Zeus is the father of many figures from myth, famous for disguising himself to seduce some object of lust. Apollo, Ares, Artemis, and Hermes are his children, as are the heroes Perseus and Heracles. With Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, he conceived the Muses.
Hera. Zeus’s sister and wife. The goddess of marriage was often upset with Zeus for his philandering. In one story she gives birth to Hephaestus by herself to spite her husband for his many children with others. Hera may have evolved from an early pre-Hellenic goddess.
Aphrodite. The goddess of love and beauty, born from the sea foam when Zeus threw his father’s castrated member into the ocean. Often portrayed as vain, the love over which she presides is more properly lust. She is unfaithful to her husband Hephaestus.
Apollo. The god of music, poetry, and the Sun, Apollo was associated with numerous oracular sites, important to Greek culture and religious practice. He had both male and female lovers and sometimes pursued them as vigorously as his father had.
Usually his wrath was reserved not for those who spurned him but those who stood between him and love: When Clytia, the sister of Leucothea whom he loved, betrayed them to her father, Apollo turned her into a sunflower, forced to follow the path of the Sun every day.
Ares. The god of war, one of the gods associated with foreigners. Homer describes him as a native of Thrace.
Artemis. The goddess of hunting, twin sister of Apollo. Though she was a goddess of chastity, she was also a goddess of fertility; though a virgin, she was the goddess of childbirth. She was also often associated with young people, teenagers, and preteens.
Athena. The daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom, crafts, war, and cunning. She was the patron goddess of Athens, born from Zeus’s skull when he swallowed her pregnant mother.
Hephaestus. The god of the forge, Aphrodite’s long-suffering husband and the most dim-witted of the gods.
Hermes. Maybe the best example of the multiple functions of some of the gods: Hermes was the god of travel, commerce, speed, literature, athletes, thieves, liars, and standards of measure.
Poseidon. God of the sea, a sibling of Zeus. Well known for his wrath, he was also the god and cause of earthquakes.
The Olympians came to power after their war with the Titans and dwelled atop Mount Olympus, a real mountain, one of the highest in Europe at more than 9,000 feet.
Many narratives centered on heroes like Aeneas and Perseus, and on their unusual births, often beginning with a god falling in love with a mortal (and sometimes disguising themselves in order to seduce the mortal). Other stories tell the mythical origins of cultural artifacts, such as the theft of fire by Prometheus and Hermes’ creation of the lyre.
Above all other historical events, many myth stories revolved around the Trojan War. While the war was most likely fought, it is doubtful it took on such a scale as myth has ascribed to it, and as the myths grew, the story of the war moved further and further from reality.
What was probably a simple battle of conquest became in Greek myth an epic struggle that begins with Eris’s golden apple and proceeds to the judgment of Paris, his abduction of Helen of Troy, the deaths of Hector and Agamemnon, the fall of Troy, and the hero stories that became the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid.
The Iliad and the Odyssey were Homer’s main works, though Homer, a blind poet, may not have actually existed. The poems recount the end of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s lengthy journey home in its aftermath.
The Homeric hymns were also attributed to Homer in antiquity and use the same dactylic hexameter. They vary in length, another possible indication of multiple authorship, but each hymn focuses on one of the gods, singing his praises and telling his story.