Greek mythology represents a step forward in the evolution of humanity as a step away from the single feminine creator god to a more complex hierarchy of gods and a mythology set up to describe the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and other aspects of day to day life. This complex mythology allowed the Greeks to continue a pantheistic approach to worship while acknowledging one Supreme Being in Zeus, ruler of the gods. The interesting facets of Greek mythology lie both in its creation myths, the fallibility of its gods and the over-lapping tendencies of the domains of the gods.
To completely understand Greek mythology, you must understand the creation of the gods of Olympus, the “heavenly” mountain home of the gods. As would be later immortalized in the movie, “Clash of the Titans”, the gods of Olympus were not the first deities in Greece. Zeus, who would become the ruler of the gods, was the youngest son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Hera, Poseidon, Demeter and others were also children of the Titans. (“Clash of the Titans”) The gods who lived on Mount Olympus would later come to be called Olympians (Skidmore), but which gods are included in the twelve seems to vary a bit by source. Most include Zeus, Hera, Athena, Ares, Artemis, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Poseidon and Apollo. Some also include Zeus’ sister Demeter while others include Hades. Those who exclude Hades from the list often do some because as god of the underworld, he allegedly lived there and not on Mount Olympus with the other gods.
Perhaps the most important thing about the creation myths for the Greek gods is that strayed from the single, female creator goddess belief system that had been common in most of Greece until this period. Prior to the inception and acceptance of this new Greek mythology, Hera as the goddess of hearth and marriage had been worshipped throughout Greece. Later, in the most common Greek myths she is depicted as submissive to Zeus and a jealous woman bent on the destruction of her husband’s lovers and their offspring.
Hera was worshipped throughout Greece, and the oldest and most important temples were consecrated to her. Her subjugation to Zeus and depiction as a jealous shrew are mythological reflections of one of the most profound changes ever in human spirituality. (Skidmore)
After the creation of the more standard Greek mythology, it would become more common around the world for patriarchal gods to surface and the creator goddess to slip into history.
Another interesting factor of Greek mythology is the complete belief that their gods were not perfect. One myth involving the birth of Dionysus shows Zeus being tricked by Hera and Semele, Dionysus’ mother. (Hunt) According to the myth, Zeus fell in love with Semele and went to her invisible and she was so happy to have a god as a lover that she did not object initially to not seeing his face. In a jealous fit, Hera went to Semele and convinced her to elicit a promise from Zeus that he would grant her any one wish. She did and Zeus, being blinded with lust, agreed to the promise. She asked to see his true face and was destroyed by the brilliance of seeing a god (Hunt). This is but one example of the many times that gods showed their fallibility. Demeter caused the creation of winter because Hades’ had stolen her daughter Persephone away to the underworld and Aphrodite helped ignite the Trojan wars over her vanity (Skidmore).
When creating the Greek mythos, Homer and others who spread the stories through the land were careful not to offend worshippers of lesser gods by claiming domain for just one person. In Greek mythology, it is not uncommon for more than one god or goddess to oversee a particular area of life or of the universe. Sometimes, there are small delineations between the two gods, but generally the myths were written so that a worshipper could not be wrong for choosing another god to worship. For example, Helios was technically god of the sun, but Apollo was lord of the sun, carrying it across the sky each day in his chariot of fire. Thus, if someone chose to worship Apollo as god of the sun, he wouldn’t technically be wrong. Another example of this is Poseidon and Aphrodite. Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, was often worshipped by sailors. Some even claimed that she was born of the sea-spray. But Poseidon was the lord of the seas. (Hunt) Again, the myths are forgiving allowing worshippers to choose whichever they deem most appropriate. This is never more evident than in the goddess of the home, marriage and general womanhood. Hera is the goddess of marriage, but Aphrodite and Eros were the goddess and god of love. Artemis is the goddess of childbirth. There were also lesser gods and goddesses who contributed in these seemingly overlapping domains.
Ultimately, the contribution of the Greek gods and Greek mythology to the development of humanity is multi-tiered. For perhaps the first time, the mythology created a patriarchal basis for worship. It taught lessons of humility and hubris by showing the gods as fallible and it created an explanation for the world around them. Hades’ love for and kidnapping of Persephone was the reason for the changing seasons, Poseidon’s love for Demeter and efforts to give her the perfect gift led to the creation of the horse and Aphrodite’s vanity led to war. For the first time, the gods were more than simply a source of existence; they were an explanation for the world. The development of Greek mythology also led to a flurry of art and architecture and tales that would be passed on verbally and then ultimately be written down by Homer and others, creating the first vestiges of literature.
Clash of the Titans. Dir. Desmond Davis. Perf. Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Jack Gwillim, Susan Fleetwood, Pat Roach, Burgess Meredith and Harry Hamlin. MGM, 1981.
Evslin, Bernard. Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths New York: Bantam, 1966
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths Mt. Kisco, New York: Moyer Bell
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology New York: Mentor, 1940.
Hunt, John. “Greek Mythology” <http://www.desy.de/gna/interpedia/greek_myth/greek_myth.html>. 13 June 2007.
Lidemans, Micha F., Ed. “Greek Mythology” , February 24, 2007. <http://www.pantheon.org/areas/mythology/europe/greek/articles.html >. 13 June 2007.
Skidmore, Joel. “Mythweb” . 10 June 2006, Fleet Gazelle, San Francisco. <http://www.mythweb.com/>. 13 June 2007.