A PANTHEON OF GODS
The Greeks were pantheistic, meaning they believed in many gods. In the Greek community of gods, each had certain powers and weaknesses, a realm of life over which they were in charge, and a distinct personality. The Greek gods resembled humans in many ways, from their physical appearance to their personalities. The most important gods, the Twelve Olympians, had power over most things, but there was an assembly of lesser gods as well.
The Nichoria Bone
A million years ago, giant mammals roamed the Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks later discovered some of their bones. One, the Nichoria Bone, has now been identified as the thigh bone of a woolly rhinoceros. Modern archaeologists found it in the early 1970s CE at the Nichoria Acropolis, a sanctuary in the Peloponnese region of Greece, where it had been put on display. Scientists determined the early discoverers
had transported it from the Megalopolis Basin, a site 35 miles (56 km) away. Adrienne Mayor, a researcher from Stanford University, points out that its original location coincides with the place the ancient Greeks called the “Battleground of the Giants.” She believes the great beasts in Greek mythology may have been an attempt to explain the origins of the bones.
her own marriage with Zeus. He was always with other women, so Hera was always devising ways to punish them. Zeus’s brother Poseidon ruled the seas, and his other brother Hades was in charge of the underworld and the dead. Zeus’s daughter and favorite child was Athena, a powerful goddess in charge of civilization, crafts, and agriculture. Apollo, Zeus’s son, was the god of the sun, revered for beauty and truth. Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis, reigned over Earth and nature. Aphrodite, another daughter of Zeus, was the goddess of love and beauty, and his son Hermes, who was swift and shrewd, kept watch over commerce and trade. The god of war, Ares, was the least-favorite son of Zeus and Hera: the poet Homer reports that both his parents despised him. Rounding out the dozen were Hephaestus, the god of fire, and Hestia, the protector of the home.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Humans needed the gods’ help at times. They made offerings and sacrifices to ensure a good harvest or the health of a child. Much of the year was taken up with numerous holidays and festivals that revolved around recognizing the gods’ superiority and power. Humans tried to channel this power to their benefit—or at least ward off the gods’ revenge. In Greek mythology, one theme came up again and again: it didn’t pay to anger the gods. A powerful example was the story of Prometheus.
Prometheus was himself a god, but he was not as strong as the all-powerful Zeus. One time, Prometheus tricked Zeus. Prometheus let Zeus choose between two offerings of a calf. One was of good quality but disguised to look poor, whereas the other was of poor quality but dressed up to be attractive. Zeus chose the better-looking one. This meant humans would henceforth keep the meat of their sacrifices and give the gods the skin and bones. Zeus was angry, so he withheld fire from humans to make their lives harder. Once again, however, Prometheus outwitted the great god. He stole fire by hiding it in the stalk of a fennel plant. Then he smuggled it to Earth and gave it to humans. Now Zeus was furious.
Sometimes the Greeks might enlist the help of the gods to inflict harm on people who had wronged them. They wrote a curse on a thin lead tablet, describing the punishment they desired and the name of their enemy—perhaps a political rival, a thief, or even a spouse. Then they heated and rolled up the lead sheet to hide the writing, often tucking in herbs or some of the intended victim’s hair for added potency. Then they tossed it into a pit at a sanctuary or a fresh grave. There the curse tablet could make its way to the gods, who could decide whether to carry out the curse.
HEROES OF OLD
In addition to the immortals, Greek mythology features numerous examples of heroes and heroines who interacted with the gods on behalf of humans. Heroes were semidivine beings, often the offspring of a god and a mortal. This let them feel more sympathy for humans than the fully immortal gods. But heroes had a connection to the world of immortals that humans could never attain. Heroes and heroines could cross back and forth, giving people a glimpse, and perhaps an understanding, of a larger existence and purpose.
Theseus, legendary founder of the city of Athens, traveled to the ancient kingdom of Minos and killed the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull beast that regularly devoured unlucky young Athenians sent as sacrifices. Strong and shrewd, the half-god hero Herakles redeemed his wrongdoings by embarking on the most difficult challenges the gods could devise, slaying monsters and stealing precious items. Perseus was another beast-killing hero, and he became the legendary founder of the civilization of Mycenae.
ASKING THE ORACLE
The Greeks used other methods to communicate with the gods. Oracles were priestesses who could supposedly receive messages from the gods and then convey them to mortals. One of the most famous oracles was in Delphi, at a temple to Apollo. At Delphi, Apollo spoke through his priestesses, who relayed his messages to those who had made the steep climb up the mountain, gave a rich gift, and offered an appropriate sacrifice. Anyone could consult the oracle, not just Greeks, but Greeks got first priority.
A sacred place for Greeks was at Eleusis, which was home to a sophisticated cult for Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Each September, to celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth, members went through an elaborate process involving purifying baths, sacrifices, and dances. These rites, known as the Eleusinian Mysteries, were kept a secret from anyone not in the cult, upon threat of death. The cult remained popular for hundreds of years until the Christian emperor Theodosius shut it down in the 300s CE.
Humans consulted oracles with a variety of questions, from how an athlete would perform at the Olympic Games to which army was likely to be favored in battle. Should two people get married? Should they farm? Where should a new colony be established? The answers were usually vague and sounded like riddles. They could be—and typically were—interpreted in different ways, depending on what the asker wanted to happen.
Seers also had a role in helping humans navigate the mysterious world of the gods. Seers didn’t relay the gods’ messages as oracles did. Instead, they interpreted what were believed to be signs from the gods. These signs were not always obvious— the gods might disguise their messages in the organs and entrails of sacrificed animals, for example. Seers were educated, respected, and usually well paid for their services, which included offering advice on political and military matters.
The Greeks diligently tried to communicate with, and often appease, the gods. However, with time they recognized many things were governed by the laws of nature, not the gods. It fell to early Greek scientists to begin offering rational explanations to life’s mysteries.