Greek Gods and Goddesses—The Twelve Olympians (With Pictures and Quiz)
Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Greece
The ancient Greeks worshipped a number of different gods and goddesses, who were in charge of various aspects of daily life. They identified six principle goddesses and six gods, who were known as the twelve Olympians because they were said to live on top of Mount Olympus.
The Olympians are all the descendants of Kronos and Rheia, with the exception of Aphrodite who is a more primal Goddess, conceived when Uranus was castrated by his son Kronos.
In Greek mythology, the Olympians feature in numerous stories and emerge as highly distinctive personalities forming part of an extended and often dysfunctional family. Through the ages, the twelve Olympians have inspired countless works of literature and art, continuing to exert a profound influence over western culture even after their regular worship came to an end.
Zeus the King of the Gods
Zeus was often portrayed in ancient art as a powerful man with a full beard. As God of the heavens, Zeus wields a thunderbolt and has power over the weather. He is also seen as looking down on the world of mortal men and women and is angered by certain kinds of wrongdoing, in particular the breaking of oaths, ill treatment of guests or murder between family members.
Zeus himself however, was not to be taken as an example of good behaviour for mortals. Although married to Hera, he is known for his many amorous liaisons with both mortals and with nymphs (minor nature goddesses who lived on earth and lived in the woods, on mountains, streams or pools).
He is particularly known for turning himself into different animals in order to trick and gain access to those who took his fancy, for example he turned into a swan to approach Leda, who became the mother of Helen the beautiful woman whose abduction lead to the famous war between Greece and Troy.
Hera the Wife of Zeus
Hera is the queen of the gods, the wife and sister of Zeus. She is portrayed as a tall and beautiful matron, usually decorously robed.
Hera is the patron of women, marriage and the family. Her own married life was difficult, as Zeus was constantly unfaithful to her and she is often described in myth as being jealous and angry with him because of this. She could also be cruel and vengeful to the women whom Zeus favoured - even if they had had little choice in the matter.
Poseidon the God of the Sea
Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and Hera.
Poseidon is often shown as a great bearded man holding a trident as he is God of the Sea. He is also God of earthquakes and of horses.
Hades the God of the Underworld
Hades, another brother of Zeus, was God of the Underworld, the land of the dead.
The Greeks usually did not think of their dead going to Heaven or Hell but rather to a dark and shadowy place where they would live a sort of ghostly imitation of their earthly life. Hades was married to Persephone, queen of the dead. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of crops and the fertility of the land, and he abducted her as a young girl.
Demeter Goddess of Grain
Demeter, another sister of Zeus, is the goddess of agricultural fertility, thus her favour was vital for ensuring the success of the harvest and the survival of the community.
The most important story about her is the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, God of the Underworld. Demeter wandered the earth in her grief looking for her daughter, and when she discovered what had happened she let the earth become barren and the crops fail so that humanity faced starvation. Zeus was forced to intervene. He ruled that if Persephone had eaten nothing in the Underworld, she was free to return to her mother.
Unfortunately, Persephone had been tempted to taste just five pomegranate seeds, in Hades’ garden. As a compromise, Zeus got Hades and Demeter to agree that the girl should spend six months of the year in the Underworld and the other half of the year with her mother.
Aphrodite Goddess of Love
Aphrodite is the beautiful goddess of love. The story of her birth is a strange one; before Zeus became king of the gods, he overthrew his father Kronos and castrated him with a sickle throwing his genitals into the sea. Thus Aphrodite was conceived, amid the waves and emerged gloriously from the sea at Paphos, in Cyprus. She is married to Hephaistos the Smith God, but had an affair with Ares, God of War.
Aphrodite has a son Eros, a mischievous boy with a bow, whose arrows cause their victims to fall helplessly in love with the person they are looking at.
Hephaestus the God of Smiths and Metalwork
Hephaestus is the God of fire, smiths and metalwork.
He is the son of Hera, produced by her without a father, in a show of independence. It is said that Hephaestus was born lame, disgusted; Hera threw him down from Mount Olympus into the sea where he was brought up by sea goddesses Eurynome and Thetis.
Another version of the story has Zeus flinging Hephaestus down from the mountain when he tried to intervene in their quarrels. Hephaestus was married to Aphrodite, goddess of love but she had an affair with Ares, God of war.
Ares the God of War
Ares is the God of war and thus an unpopular deity.
He is the son of Zeus and Hera. He had an affair with Aphrodite, Goddess of love but her husband Hephaestus discovered what was happening. In order to get revenge, the craftsman-god created a web of beaten metal, so fine that it could not be seen. He placed this web above the bed so that it fell on Ares and Aphrodite when they were in bed together and Hephaestus brought the other gods and goddesses to witness their disgrace.
Hestia the Goddess of the Hearth
Hestia is the goddess of the hearth. The hearth was very important in ancient Greek homes; it was a source of light and warmth and where food was prepared for the family to eat. Although Hestia was important in terms of everyday Greek religious worship, there are not many stories about her in mythology; she was a quiet goddess.
It is said that when Heracles, the son of Zeus, was deified after his death, Hestia gladly yielded her place to him as one of the twelve Olympians, preferring to live in obscurity.
Athene Goddess of Wisdom
Athene is another daughter of Zeus and the story of her birth is curious. Zeus was once in love with a nymph called Metis but was told that if he had a son by her, that son would eventually overthrow him as king of the gods. To prevent this happening, he swallowed Metis whole. As Metis was very wise, she used to give Zeus advice from inside him. Not long after he swallowed her, Zeus was suddenly struck with agonising pains in his head. Eventually, Hephaestus the god of metalwork, took an axe and cracked open Zeus’ skull, immediately the goddess Athene leapt out, fully armed and uttering her war cry.
Athene is portrayed as a virgin goddess, a young woman fully armed and wearing a war helmet. She combines traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics; she is a goddess of wisdom and good counsel for rulers and war leaders, she is a patron of wool-working and other traditional women’s crafts and also for other kinds of craft such as metal work, carpentry and ship building. She is the patron goddess of Athens.
Apollo the God of Music, Prophecy and Healing
Apollo was the son of Zeus and a goddess called Leto, one of the earlier generation of Titan deities who reigned before the triumph of the Olympians.
Apollo is associated with archery, knowledge, prophecy, the arts and music. He is often represented as leader of the nine Muses, who are patrons of various types of musical performance, dance and poetry. Apollo is portrayed as a handsome young man, often holding a bow or playing the lyre. He is also crowned with a laurel wreath.
Apollo was the patron of the Delphic Oracle, a shrine where a priestess would tell the future to those who asked. For centuries people would come from all over Greece to ask questions of this Oracle but the answers given were often riddling and easily misunderstood. Apollo is also known for his affairs with mortals and nymphs. He never took a bride but remains always in the character of the young bachelor. The god also has a darker side; those who died of plague or other disease were often imagined as shot by the arrows of Apollo.
Artemis Goddess of the Woodlands
Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo. A virgin goddess she is portrayed as a young girl who carries a bow and is often accompanied by dogs. She is goddess of hunting, of woodlands and wild places, of young girls and is protectress of babies and all young animals. She is accompanied by a train of nymphs as she wanders the open spaces hunting with her dogs and bow.
Artemis guards her virginity fiercely and, like her brother Apollo, she can be cruel and ruthless. Myth tells us that when a young man called Actaeon, lost out hunting in the forest, accidentally spied upon Artemis bathing in a pool, she flung water at him turning him into a deer; he was torn apart by his own hunting dogs.
Hermes Messenger of the Gods
Hermes is the herald and messenger of the gods, portrayed with winged helmet and sandals.
He is the son of Zeus and a nymph called Maia who brought him up in her cave.
A cunning god, when he was a baby, Hermes was caught stealing cattle belonging to Apollo. Hermes is the God of messengers, trade, travellers and thieves. He also leads the souls of the dead to the Underworld.
Hermes often appears in Greek mythology as an intermediary between Gods and mortals, and as mediator between the Olympians themselves.