The Olympians

The Olympians
The divine family and others
The Olympian Gods
The Greek gods were a family, led by
Zeus, whose authority commanded
his two brothers, three sisters and
eight children. In myth, the family
squabbled and fought, a macrocosm
of real families; the goddesses, while
under paternal authority, often
pursued their own agendas.
Zeus, a sky god, and was seen as a
moral and ethical force.
On the other hand, myth abounded
with stories of his seduction of mortal
Zeus at
One of the most famous
images of Zeus in antiquity was
the chryselephantine cult
statue at his temple in Olympia
(this is a smaller Roman
•staff represents authority
•eagle shows vision, strength,
sky connection, rule
•he holds victory (Nike) in his
Temple of Zeus,
Asia Minor, 2nd c.
Zeus was honored with magnificent temples at many Greek sites.
This one, from Asia Minor, is constructed to emphasize lofty
Zeus as
But paradoxically,
Zeus was an
almost comic
figure in his
many sexual
liaisons with
women. He
often appeared in
animal form to
pursue them .
Leda gave birth
to his children by
way of an egg . . .
Marble relief of Jupiter raping Leda in the form of a swan; Roman
in the
form of an
A more
version of
the same
He comes to Danae in a shower of gold
and fathers Perseus
Europa and the Bull: Zeus’s amorous activities lead to
new foundations and new civilizations
Zeus and Hera
Hera, Zeus’s sister, was his wife
and queen.
Zeus and Hera’s
marriage was
portrayed as rocky
and contentious in
myth, but in cult and
art it represented the
ultimate divine
marriage as a model
for humans. Hera was
a beautiful, desirable
bride, Zeus a manly,
welcoming husband.
Hera’s temple,
Acragas, Sicily
Goddesses usually had
priestesses to manage their
places of worship and
officiate at their main
rituals, while gods usually
had priests.
Usually these roles were
hereditary, to aristocratic
The mother of Cleobis and
Biton was probably such a
This late fourth century amphora shows the gods seated
in Olympus. Zeus is enthroned; Hera is by his side with a
scepter-like torch; Apollo plays the lyre nearby.
Zeus appears as
head of his
family as well as
king of the gods.
Zeus’s brother
Poseidon was god
of the sea, armed
with a trident.
He is also a god of
earthquakes, and
associated with the
“Hades” is the word for the
underworld, so Hades is almost an
elemental power like the Titans.
He features in few myths and is seldom
pictured without his wife, Persephone,
whose femininity and fertility make
the Death god less appalling.
Demeter and
Demeter is the grain god,
and Persephone, her
daughter by Zeus, is the
queen of the underworld.
Their mother-daughter
relationship represents the
life-affirming process of
yearly cycles and crop
fertility, where death is
transformed into life.
She gave up
her position as
an Olympian.
But she was
important in
each home,
and in Rome
(as Vesta) had
a crucial civic
cult. These are
Vestal Virgins
with the chief
The first-born of the gods, she is the
goddess of the hearth, the center of
family life.
Athena, born from her father Zeus
”Athena’s special powers of military prowess and wisdom
derived from her special relationship to Zeus, and symbolize
the magnitude and beneficence of female potency when
submitted to benign male control.” (Marilyn A. Katz)
“I am wholly for the
male . . . and entirely
on the father’s side.”
Athena, in Aeschylus’
As holder of the
aegis, Athena shared
Zeus’s power and
was a fearsome
enforcer of divine
She was also the
goddess of feminine
crafts like weaving.
Artemis, the
remained forever
a virgin, roaming
the wilderness, a
liminal and often
threatening figure
Yet another aspect
of this goddess was
to promote the
fertility of animals,
aid in childbirth, and
oversee the
transition of virgins
into brides
Apollo, Artemis’ twin
brother, was the distant,
beautiful, unapproachable
god of music, poetry and
Apollo and
Hermes, another
youthful god, was
both divine
messenger and
Aphrodite was the goddess of love,
symbolizing intoxicating sexuality
and beauty.
In myth she is often portrayed as a
willful “girly-girl,” but she is
elsewhere portrayed as a powerful,
personally-accessible goddess.
Hephaestus, god of the forge and
craftsmanship, was married to
Aphrodite – the ugliest god married
to the most beautiful.
He was born of Hera, in some
versions, without any father.
At one point he was thrown from
Olympus, crippled by his fall to earth.
There are different versions of why
and who threw him, but his return is a
common theme in Greek art.
Hepahestus in a
mechanical chariot
Hephaestus made robotic
servants, invincible
armor with astounding
pictures of human life
(for Achilles), and an
excellent golden chain
mesh for capturing his
wife in bed with Ares.
He is often a comic figure, but one who adds to the Olympian
community. He solves problems, calms arguments – and deals
with a very unfaithful wife in creative ways!
Hephaestus at his
Smiths are often
ambivalent figures in
Indo-European myth.
Think of the dwarves
of Northern myth –
also ugly and “lame”.
This is behind some of
Hephaestus’ low status
and ambivalent role.
Ares, son of Zeus and Hera, was
the god of war, but his warfare
was more brutish, less considered
than Athena’s.
He was also Aphrodite’s lover –
the mixture of Love and War.
He was not much worshipped in
the Greek world, mainly only in
sacrifices before battle.
But the Romans honored him as
Roman Mars was a god of
agriculture as well as warfare. He
represented what a good male
citizen should be:
Both farmer and warrior.
Only later was he associated with
the less attractive Greek god
Dionysus was the last
born of the gods. Like
Athena, he was born
directly from Zeus: this
time from his thigh.
Dionysus was the god of
wine and madness, and
was both loved and
distrusted by the
He was often accompanied by nymphs and satyrs.
Dionysiac celebration involved loss of self and ecstasy.
The Muses, goddesses of inspiration, were
the children of Zeus and Memory
The Fates, who spun human destiny and wove it on a
loom, were the daughters of Zeus and Themis.
With the Muses let me begin,
and with Apollo and Zeus.
For through the Muses and
far-shooting Apollo, human
beings on earth are poets and
musicians, but through Zeus,
they are kings. Blessed are the
ones the Muses love; sweet is
the sound that flows from
their lips.