For the Greeks, gods don’t generate the universe; the universe creates gods. These “gods” spontaneously generated. Thus, sometimes Greek gods are simply personified abstractions or concepts with no real personalities. (We still refer to Father Time and Mother Nature.)
Chaos (or the Void, or Chasm)
Not a deity itself, but the opening from which other primordial beings arose; implies a gap or separation to make room in the middle.
Gaea (Ge) = Earth, Mother Earth
Spontaneously produced male principles.
Uranus = Sky, who covers her. (Egyptians have Nut and Geb in opposite gender roles.)
Ourea = Mountains.
Pontus = Sea (his rain as seed). As sibling-lovers, they yielded ultimately many sea gods and monsters [Harpies (“Snatchers”), Gorgons, Sirens, Scylla], and Nereus (the protean wise old man of the sea who begot Thetis who begot Achilles). Some generations later, the offspring include the Sphinx (“Strangler”?), Cerberus, the Hydra (“Watery”), the Chimera (“She-Goat”), the Nemean Lion.
Eros / Amor = Desire, Love
as the binding principle in Nature, the force of attraction, the first motion.
Nyx / Nox = Night (or “dark place in the earth”), This produced alone the dark necessities: the Moerae (Fates) who apportion birth, length of life, time of death; and Nemesis (Retribution) who brings pain and punishment.
Erebus = Darkness
These two (Erebus and Nyx) sexually produce their opposites:
Aether = Light
Hemera = Day
Gaea and Uranus sexually produced six male and six female Titans (unknown meaning) and then some incests follow. This batch of ur-forces, known for their size and strength, are more anthropomorphic than the first generation but for the most part are ousted now by the Olympian gods we’re more familiar with through the stories, where these deities seldom appear. They’re seldom represented in art too.
Ocean (the river enclircling the world), Hyperion (sun-god father to Helius the sun-god, Selene the moon, and Eos the dawn*), Themis (“Law”), Mnemosyne (“Memory”), Phoebe (“Brilliant,” having something to do with the light of the sky), and others (Tethys, Coeus, Crius, Theia, Iapetus: little more than names), And Rhea and Cronus (below).
Gaea also brings forth the Cyclopes (“Round-eyes” or single-eyed beings who make for Zeus the thunder and lightning-bolt), Hecatonchires (“Hundred-handers” with fifty heads like Briareus “Strength”).
Atlas and Prometheus also belong to this generation.
*[Selene fell in love with shepherd Endymion, seduced him while he slept in his cave, bore him fifty daughters, and got Zeus to place him in eternal sleep so that he would never grow old. Eos was lascivious but loved Tithonus, a Trojan prince, whom she asked Zeus to make immortal too, but she forgot to add that he wouldn’t age — so eventually she avoids bed, and finally locks him up in his room. His piping voice inside drones on endlessly and later versions of the myth report that he was turned into a cicada, chirping uselessly in the wind.]
Uranus/Sky constantly lays across Gaea/Earth, smothering her so that the offspring remain inside her. Thus there is no space for the activity of the world to take place. The notion that Sky and Earth were once united in sexual embrace, separated during creation, was widespread in the ancient world.
So son Cronus plots with mother Gaea and castrates father Uranus with a sickle, so that Sky ascends to its appropriate place and earth reaches its proper configuration. (The story also was used by Freud to detect a new patriarchal paranoia in the culture: mother and son vs. father).
The blood falling on Earth gave birth to the Erinyes (the Furies), ferocious female spirits who haunt those who shed the blood of kin, and Giants (“Earthborn Ones”), who are violent and will battle Zeus and the Olympians.
The genitals themselves fell into the sea.
Cronus (Saturn) [attempted etymology with Chronos = Time, but…]
Having been told by his parents that it was his destiny to be vanquished by one of his own offspring (= the parental threat of vengeful martyrdom: “Some day you’ll have kids of your own; then you’ll see”), he in turn swallows his own kids as soon as they’re born from Rhea, his sister and wife.
Zeus escapes being swallowed thanks to Rhea’s rock-in-swaddling-clothes substitution trick. The vomited rock (Hesiod 67) became a tourist site, called omphalos (navel), exhibited at Delphi and oiled daily by the priests and decorated on holidays.
Originally an oriental fertility goddess whose worship involved mystical frenzies, drums and cymbals, a young lover named Attis, and animals. The etiology of the din associated with worship involves the story of Zeus’ birth. She secretly handed the infant over to the Curetes (historically on Crete, orgiastic worshippers of a mother-goddess), who performed a war dance, banging their spears against their bronze shields so that the cries of baby Zeus would be covered and not heard by Cronus.
Cronus was forced eventually to vomit up the rest of the kids, Zeus became king of the gods, and he and his brothers and sisters took up residence on Mount Olympus, from which the Olympians get their name (in Thessaly of northeast Greece? or a mystery region above?). These gods did battle with the Titans. A prophecy claimed that the Olympians could win only with the help of the Hecatonchires. They are released and the Cyclopes from Tartarus where a fearful Uranus had imprisoned them. Their strength is restored with nectar (“that which overcomes death”?) and ambrosia (“undying”) which the Olympians also feast on perpetually. The Cyclopes in gratitude make Zeus the thunderbolt, his special weapon. The Titans end up essentially imprisoned, with Atlas condemned to hold up the heavens at the edge of the world, ensuring the continued separation of Sky and Earth.
Gaea for some reason resented Zeus’ victory and coupled with her offspring Tartarus to create Typhoeus (a.k.a. Typhon). Zeus was victorious and so is also an archetypal dragonslayer (Hesiod 76f). (Cp. Marduk vs. Tiamat in Babylonian myth, YHWH vs. Leviathan in remnants of Hebrew myth, norse mythology, etc.)
Metis (“Cleverness”) was first of Zeus’ seven consorts, and became pregnant with Athena. So Zeus figured out how to forestall the seemingly perpetual yielding of power to the next generation by swallowing her, swallowing cleverness to make it part of his own being. He defied the prophecy by defying biological logic. Zeus represses women instead of children and forestalls opposition by disposing of mothers, and so, unlike previous generations with their suppressions, establishes a lasting order. He usurps the female reproductive role too, just to be sure. Eternal order is established now (for this long extinguished culture); no more yielding of power to sons. (This may reflect the historical conquest and amalgamation c. 2000 bce when invaders brought their own gods to the Greek peninsula.) This has been a tale of the ascent of the power of the male over the female.
Cronus and Rhea produced 6 Olympians:
Zeus (Jupiter / Jove)
“Father of gods and men.” He’s a god of battles, a giver of victory (like the earliest vestiges of YHWH), a male thunderstorm god, a northern Aryan sky or mountain god (Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter derived from same Indo-European word) associated with the thunderbolt, especially in cartoon iconography.
The Greeks didn’t know the origin of the name and tried to connect it with “to live,” but it really derived from the Aryan “Dyu” = “to shine.” The name relates to the Latin term for “god”: “deus.”
He was hidden away as an infant for protection from Cronus. Amalthea (goat, or woman with pet goat) became Zeus’ nurse and he was brought up by nymphs with honey from Melissa, the bee. As an adult he slew a goat and the skin (the “aegis”) made him unconquerable. He cast lots with his brothers Poseidon and Hades, winning mastery over the sky and land.
Zeus is not more moral, or beyond good and evil; he just outdoes the Titans. With some writers, Zeus is supreme, all-knowing (omniscient), and all-powerful (omnipotent); elsewhere he is limited by necessity (“ananke”) or fortune and luck (“tyche”) or destiny (“moira”).
One story has Rhea forbidding Zeus to marry since she knows his proclivities. Zeus, outraged, threatens to rape her; she turns into a serpent. He does too and rapes her, leaving her with none of her former powers.
Fifty sexploits are recorded, each possibly a marginalizing of a goddess worshipped before the invasion of the Indo-Europeans. Zeus’ breedings yield 19 daughters, all virgins.
The Olympics were held in his honor.
The history of the gods started out with Gaea as a goddess giving birth alone to her sons and ends with Zeus who can give birth to a daughter by himself. Zeus has forestalled the earlier opposition and foilings of the female cunning by disposing of the mother as well as the infant. He usurps the female reproductive role. Athena’s perpetual virginity and the many other daughters’ too [all from liaisons: e.g., Themis (Right), Eunomia (Order), Eirene (Peace), Dike (Justice)] guarantee their refusal to be the source of any further threat to the male throne.
God of the sea. The three sons of Cronus and Rhea divided up the cosmos and drew lots for realms.
Hades (Pluto) = Invisible One
God of the underworld. He’s grim but just, and although the place ends up bearing his name, he does not equal Hell nor is he Death. He’s also the god of wealth, that is, the precious metals hidden in the earth.
Sister and shrewish wife of Zeus. Goddess of marriage, especially monogamy; of childbirth; of relief from menstrual cramps; of strife and war to some extent. Her name means “protectress.” Before the Aryan invasions, Hera was an earth goddess and mother goddess in Anatolia, Crete, and Samos. She becomes an archetypal nagging distrustful wife, monitoring her husband’s moves, and an archetypal wicked stepmother. Her character is a reflection of the diminution of her rank and the resultant paranoia and nastiness of the patriarchal culture in charge. She is able to renew her virginity annually by bathing in a sacred spring near Argos. She gave birth to the monster-serpent Typhoeus.
Goddess of the hearth. A passive goddess who, although associated with the hearth (the center of the Greek home or oikos) and therefore family life, nevertheless foreswears marriage and motherhood. (But then Pat Robertson’s illegitimate son probably still runs “The Family Channel.”)
Minimal mythology surrounds her since she has, appropriately, no “adventures.”
She’d get small offerings of food. In Rome, her fire was cared for by six virgin priestesses: the Vestals.
Patron goddess of corn (cereal) and grain cultivation (agriculture), of human control of the earth, of the seasons somewhat, but generally related to culture than to nature. She can create famine. She constitutes a rare positive image of motherhood. “Meter” = Gr. mother.
Persephone (Proserpine) was her daughter with Zeus who, with Zeus’ permission, is taken/kidnapped by Hades to be queen of the underworld. (In Greek culture, the father arranges marriages, perhaps against the hopes of the mother, which from another perspective can seem like rape and death.) Demeter searches until Helios tells her, whereupon she leaves Olympus. Persephone is allowed to visit, but the pomegranate insures her return to the underworld (red = death; seeds = fertility / resurrection). The story ends up accounting for the cyclic life and death pattern of the seasons: the pattern of death, planting, and renewal. The Eleusian mysteries are associated with the story too, for a psychological/spiritual manifestation of the same pattern.
The rest of the Olympians are mostly Zeus kids:
Cupbearer of the gods before Zeus’ boy-toy Ganymede (Trojan prince). Daughter of Zeus and Hera, and goddess of youthful bloom. She was also the bride of Heracles apotheosized.
God of war. Son of Zeus and Hera and detested by them both. Surprisingly, we don’t get much myth about him, except for Homer’s Iliad.
Goddess of wisdom, justice and war (and the wisdon is derived from a fondness for schemes and contrivances). “Pallas Athena” = strong young man or warrior maiden; she is somewhat androgynous. Athens was named in her honor. The Parthenon housed her statue; Parthenos = virgin.
Zeus swallowed her mother Metis. He later had a headache and called upon Hephaestos (or Prometheus), who split his head open. Out sprang Athena fully armed and screaming the war cry. She was associated with fertility (oddly), but mostly in terms of olive trees (more a matter of economics and commerce), birds (owls), and the serpent. She was also associated with the image of Medusa (on her shield) — this was her mother originally?
God of craftsmanship and skill. He was ugly and lame; his soles and heels were turned backwards either from birth (Hera, in a fit of vengeance against Zeus’ production of Athena, decided to give birth alone), or from an incident after he aided Hera when she was being tormented by Zeus (for harassing Heracles) who threw him from Olympus, after which he fell for an entire day.
Another story has it that his mother Hera threw him for shame of his deformity. The goddesses of the sea (including Thetis) tended his recovery, and for 9 years he made them clasps, jewelry, earrings, etc. He sent a throne to Hera which bound her in invisible shackles. Requests were sent to him, but he said he had no mother. Finally he was brought to Olympus by Dionysus, drunk, and promised Aphrodite as his wife, so he released Hera.
He fashioned the first human woman, Pandora.
God of high culture, of light, medicine, music, and flocks, but alsoprophecy. Son of Zeus and Leto, he was another dragonslayer, against Pytho.
Twin of Apollo and midwife for him immediately after her birth (but sort of an honorary male). She is a chaste huntress (the antithesis in some respects of the urban Athena), destructive and creative, and a loner, haunting the remote regions of the countryside.
The Greeks promoted celibacy as a precondition to physical achievement such as hunting (and Actaeon’s story records a violation of this indirectly). Somehow, despite the hunting, she is celebrated for being a nurturer of young animals too, that adolescent Ellie-May Clampett phenomenon. Artemis became a goddess of childbirth (again oddly) taking over the role from the waning Ilithyia. When Paul the self-appointed apostle denounced her in Ephesis there was a riot against him.
Goddess of sweet lust, “love,” sexuality, beauty, the sexual urge operating on every level of creation, laughter and hoaxes, the whisperings of maidens. “Aphrodisiazein” = to make love, vs. Eros = physical love or desire.
One legend has her born out of the sea from father Uranus’ genitals, which were hacked off by Cronus. The sea foam mixed with semen sloshed around until from the shining white foam (aphros) she appeared. (Thus is she associated with the castration fear born of fear of female sexuality, as in the Adonis story too?).
Originally a Cyprian love goddess, she may have taken on Astarte’s/Istar’s characteristics when Cyprus was colonized by the Phoenicians in the 9th century bce. Her cult then went to mainland Greece (which would acount for the birth from the sea and the journey across waters).
Only Athena, Artemis, and Hestia escape her influence. Zeus compels her to fall in love with the Trojan Anchises (so that Aeneas is born). Her kids, mostly by Ares: Phobus (Fear), Deinos (Terror), Eros (Cupid), Harmonia (wife of Cadmus). By Hermes: Hermaphroditus and Priapus. She was a bad mother, naturally. She is promiscuous and adulterous, so disturbing to the Greeks.
Messenger of the gods, god of travel, commerce, rhetoric, herds, medicine, also a trickster, liar, and thief. Son of Zeus and Maia. Two copulating vipers entwined on a staff = the caduceus.
God of wine, god of madness. Son of Zeus and Semele (a Theban princess).
It was a shock when his name appeared in the deciphering of Linear B because he was thought to be a much later creation. His mother was tricked by Hera into demanding that Zeus appear in his full glory, at which time she burned up. Zeus took the fetus and sewed it up in his thigh until birth.
Another birth story had him torn to death as a baby and resurrected in a cave.
Dionysus brought his mother back from the underworld, and is associated with resurrection, hence “twice-born Dionysus.”
The Maenads are followers of his who carry the Thyrsus (a stick topped with a pinecone), find themselves in a state of psychological ecstasy, and engage in Dionysian rites such as omophagy (devouring of animals). One often finds Satyrs around too (part men, part goats).
Because of the resurrection associations, the wine, and other matters, it is no wonder Jesus was able to catch on outside of Judaism in the Greek world.
Greek gods did not reveal their will in sacred writings, so priests have to perform rituals instead. Interpretation relies on signs.