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Chapter 05

The Twelve Olympians: Zeus, Hera, and their Children

APHRODITE [af-roh-deye'tee] (VENUS)
APOLLO [a-pol'loh]
ARES [ar'eez] (MARS)
ARTEMIS [ar'te-mis] (DIANA)
ATHENA [a-thee'-na] or ATHENE (MINERVA)
DEMETER [de-mee'ter] (CERES)
DIONYSUS [deye-o-neye'sus] or DIONYSOS (BACCHUS)
HADES [hay'deez] (PLUTO)
HEPHAESTUS [he-fees'tus and he-fes'tus] or HEPHAISTOS (VULCAN)
HERA [hee'ra] (JUNO)
HERMES [her'meez] (MERCURY)
HESTIA [hes'ti-a] (VESTA)
POSEIDON [po-seye'don] (NEPTUNE)

  • The fourteen major deities are listed above, alphabetically.
  • Zeus is the supreme god and his wife is Hera; they are king and queen, father and mother of gods and mortals.
  • Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades are the trinity who control the important spheres of power: Zeus, god of the sky, Poseidon, god of the sea, and Hades, god of the Underworld.
  • Apollo has the same name for both the Greeks and the Romans.
  • The fourteen deities are reduced to a canon of twelve Olympians: Hestia is removed from the list and so is Hades, whose home is not Mt. Olympus but the Underworld.

HESTIA [hes'ti-a], “hearth,” (VESTA) was the august and revered goddess of the hearth and its fire, which was considered sacred and a symbol of both the home and community. She remained a virgin and was a goddess of chastity, just like Athena and Artemis. For the Romans she was the goddess VESTA, and Vestal Virgins attended to her worship.

ZEUS [zous], “bright” (JUPITER), originally a god of the sky, became the supreme god with final authority. He appears as a bearded, regal figure with a scepter and a bolt of lightning and thunder in his hand. He often carries his shield, the AEGIS, which is also an attribute of his favorite daughter Athena. He married his sister HERA [hee'ra] (JUNO), originally an earth mother goddess. As the wife and consort of Zeus, she retains much of her inherent dominance to become a difficult partner.
The characterization of Zeus is most complex. On the one hand, he mirrors the harassed, philandering husband, who has countless affairs and is upbraided and intimidated by a self-righteous, nagging wife. On the other, he emerges as the almighty god of morality and religion, a just god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked.

The most important sanctuary of Zeus was at Olympia beside the river Alpheus in the territory of the city of Elis in the northwestern Peloponnese. Here the Olympic Games originated in 776 B.C., said to have been founded by Zeus’ son Heracles. Among its many buildings was an imposing temple of Hera, but the temple of Zeus was the most magnificent, adorned with the following sculpture:

  • West pediment: the battle of the Greeks and the centaurs at the wedding of the Lapith king Perithoüs (a son of Zeus). Particularly impressive is the central figure of Apollo (another son of Zeus) with arm outstretched, imposing order on the scene of violence and chaos (see MLS, Chapter 5 and p. 260).
  • East pediment: the fateful chariot race between Pelops and Hippodamia and her father Oenomaüs; the central figure of Zeus assured Pelops’ victory in the coming race and the winning of Hippodamia as his wife (see MLS, Chapter 18).
  • Doric frieze: metopes (relief sculpture) depicting the Twelve Labors of Heracles.
  • The cult statue of Zeus in the naos (or cella), made by the Athenian sculptor Pheidias; it was huge, with its surfaces inlaid in gold and ivory. This regal Zeus was seated on a throne that was elaborately decorated with various mythological motifs.

Dodona in northern Greece was another significant sanctuary of Zeus. Here, however, the oracle of Zeus was the most important element. Private individuals and political representatives came to Dodona with questions of every sort. The god answered by means of various omens (such as the rustling of the leaves of his sacred oaks) and eventually through a priestess (in a manner similar to the more famous sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi).

EILEITHYIA [eye-leye-theye'a] was a goddess of childbirth, like her mother, Hera, and Artemis.
HEBE [hee'bee], “youthful bloom,” was a cupbearer of the gods. She became the wife of Heracles.
HEPHAESTUS [he-fees'tus and he-fes'tus], or HEPHAISTOS (VULCAN), was sometimes considered to be the son of Hera alone. He was lame from birth and Hera, ashamed of his deformity, cast him out of Olympus; we are also told that once, when he interfered in a quarrel between Zeus and Hera on behalf of his mother, Zeus hurled him down from Olympus and he landed on the island of Lemnos, which became his cult-place. In either case, he was restored to Olympus. Hephaestus was above all a divine artisan and smith, a god of the forge and its fire, whose workshop was said to be in various places, including Olympus. Assisted by the three Cyclopes, he could create marvelous masterpieces of every sort, among them the shield of Achilles.


Ares, marble sculpture, pp 123

Ares, Roman copy of a Greek original (possibly by Skopas) of ca. 340 B.C.

ARES [ar'eez] (MARS) was the virile and brutal god of war, associated with the area of Thrace.

The wife of Hephaestus was Aphrodite [af-roh-deye'tee] (VENUS); theirs was an archetypal union between the lame intellectual and the sensuous beauty. Aphrodite turned to the handsome and whole Ares for sexual gratification (playing out yet another archetype); but military Ares and promiscuous Aphrodite were outwitted by the ingenious and moral Hephaestus, who fashioned unbreakable chains that were fine as a spider's web and hung them as a trap on the bedposts above his bed. Thus he ensnared the unwitting lovers in the midst of their illicit lovemaking and summoned the gods down from Olympus to witness the ludicrous scene. Ares and Aphrodite were released from their chains only when it was agreed that Ares should pay an adulterer’s fine.
For the Romans, the relationship between Vulcan (Ares) and Venus (Aphrodite) was of serious poltical import. Their union represented allegorically the conquest of war by love. The Roman Peace (Pax Romana) was the happy and noble result.

Zeus, in the form of an eagle or a whirlwind, carried off the handsome Trojan GANYMEDE [gan'i-meed] to be, like Hebe, a cupbearer to the gods. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite explains:
Zeus in his wisdom seized and carried off fair-haired Ganymede because of his beauty, so that he might be in the company of the gods and pour wine for them in the house of Zeus, a wonder to behold, esteemed by all the immortals, as he draws red nectar from a golden bowl.
Zeus took pity on Ganymede’s father, who mourned since his son had mysteriously disappeared, and gave him the gift of wondrous horses. To console the father, Zeus sent Hermes to explain how Ganymede would never grow old but be immortal just like the gods. And the father rejoiced.
The innocence of this depiction implies the joyous calling of a young man chosen by god for a special immortality. The sensual appreciation of beauty, on the other hand, encourages another interpretation: the passionate, homosexual love of the supreme god Zeus for the young and handsome Ganymede.

Zeus mated with MNEMOSYNE [ne-mos'i-nee] (“memory”), to produce the nine MUSES [myou'zez] (“reminders”), patron goddesses of the arts; thus allegorically, god and memory provide creative inspiration. The Muses live in Pieria in northern Thessaly (and are called the PIERIDES, peye-er'i-deez) or near the Hippocrene Fountain on Mt. Helicon in Boeotia. Their spheres are sometimes specifically assigned:
CALLIOPE (kal-leye'o-pee), epic poetry
CLIO (kleye'oh), history, lyre playing
ERATO (er'a-toh), love poetry, hymns to the gods, lyre playing
EUTERPE (you-ter'pee), lyric poetry, tragedy, flute playing
MELPOMENE (mel-pom'e-nee), tragedy, lyre playing
POLYHYMNIA (pol-i-him'ni-a), sacred music, dancing
TERPSICHORE (terp-sik'o-ree), choral dancing, flute playing
THALIA (tha-leye'a), comedy
URANIA (you-ray'ni-a), astronomy

The three Fates, the MOIRAI (moi'reye), the Roman Parcae, were the daughters of Zeus and Themis (or Night and Erebus). They were imagined as three old women spinners, and were considered to control the thread of life and thus each person’s destiny:
CLOTHO (kloh'thoh), "spinner," spins out the thread of life.
LACHESIS (lak'e-sis), "apportioner," measures the thread.
ATROPOS (at'ro-pos), "inflexible," cuts the thread.

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