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Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes

The ancients Greeks were polytheistic — that is, they worshipped many gods. Their major gods and goddesses lived at the top of Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece, and myths described their lives and actions. In myths, gods often actively interfered in the day-to-day lives of humans. Myths were used to help explain the unknown and sometimes teach a lesson.

A family portrait of the Twelve Olympians
A family portrait of the Twelve Olympians

For example, Zeus, the king of the gods, carried his favorite weapon, the thunderbolt. When it rained and there was thunder and lightning, the ancient Greeks believed that Zeus was venting his anger.

Many stories about how the Greek gods behaved and interacted with humans are found in the works of Homer. He created two epic poems: the Iliad, which related the events of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, which detailed the travels of the hero Odysseus. These two poems were passed down orally over many generations.

Aphrodite, the goddess of love, sits with the war god, Ares in this painting by the Renaissance artist Botticelli. Aphrodite is one of several Greek goddesses, and is often referred to by her Roman name, Venus.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love, sits with the war god, Ares in this painting by the Renaissance artist Botticelli. Aphrodite is one of several Greek goddesses, and is often referred to by her Roman name, Venus.

A Greek Soap Opera

The Greeks created gods in the image of humans; that is, their gods had many human qualities even though they were gods. The gods constantly fought among themselves, behaved irrationally and unfairly, and were often jealous of each other. Zeus, the king of the gods, was unfaithful to his wife Hera. Hera plotted against Zeus and punished his mistresses.

Courtesy NASA and Cislunar Aerospace, Inc.
Courtesy NASA and Cislunar Aerospace, Inc.
Many Greek myths explained the mysteries of nature. The myth of Apollo, for example, describes how the sun moves across the sky to rise and set each day.

In addition to Zeus and Hera, there were many other major and minor gods in the Greek religion. At her birth, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sprang directly from the head of Zeus. Hermes, who had winged feet, was the messenger of the gods and could fly anywhere with great speed. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was the most beautiful being in the universe. Her brother, Ares, the god of war, was sinister, mean, and disliked. Poseidon ruled the sea from his underwater place and Apollo rode his chariot across the sky, bringing the sun with him.

God/ Goddess Important Attributes
Zeus King of the gods, Zeus killed his father Chronos. He is also the god of thunder.
Hera The wife of Zeus, Hera is the goddess of fertility.
Poseidon The god of the sea.
Hades The god of the underworld.
Apollo God of the sun, music, and art, one of the most versatile gods.
Artemis Goddess of the hunt, Moon, and childbirth. The sister of Apollo, she is also a very versatile Olympian.
Aphrodite The goddess of love and the mother of Eros, known to the Romans as Cupid.
Ares The god of War.
Athena Sprang full-grown from Zeus's head. She is the Goddess of wisdom. The city of Athens is named for her.
Hermes The messenger god wears a winged helmet and winged sandals.
Dionysos The god of wine and revelry. Dionysos had an enormous following throughout the Greek world.
Eros The god of love. Often depicted as a young child, Eros used magical arrows could to cause people to fall in love.


Source: Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes
Abridged from Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes
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