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The Olympians. The divine family and others. The Olympian Gods.

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the olympians

The Olympians

The divine family and others


The Olympian Gods

The Greek gods were a family, led by Zeus, whose authority commanded his two brothers, three sisters and eight children. In myth, the family squabbled and fought, a macrocosm of real families; the goddesses, while under paternal authority, often pursued their own agendas.

Zeus, a sky god, and was seen as a moral and ethical force.

On the other hand, myth abounded with stories of his seduction of mortal women.


Zeus at Olympia

  • One of the most famous images of Zeus in antiquity was the chryselephantine cult statue at his temple in Olympia (this is a smaller Roman reproduction).
  • staff represents authority
  • eagle shows vision, strength, sky connection, rule
  • he holds victory (Nike) in his hand

Temple of Zeus, Asia Minor, 2nd c. CE

Zeus was honored with magnificent temples at many Greek sites. This one, from Asia Minor, is constructed to emphasize lofty magnificence.


Zeus as lover

But paradoxically, Zeus was an almost comic figure in his many sexual liaisons with women. He often appeared in animal form to pursue them . Leda gave birth to his children by way of an egg . . .

Marble relief of Jupiter raping Leda in the form of a swan; Roman


Zeus abducts Ganymede in the form of an eagle

A more mellow version of the same incident


Hera, Zeus’s sister, was his wife and queen.

Zeus and Hera

Zeus and Hera’s marriage was portrayed as rocky and contentious in myth, but in cult and art it represented the ultimate divine marriage as a model for humans. Hera was a beautiful, desirable bride, Zeus a manly, welcoming husband.


Hera’s temple, Acragas, Sicily

Goddesses usually had priestesses to manage their places of worship and officiate at their main rituals, while gods usually had priests.

Usually these roles were hereditary, to aristocratic families.

The mother of Cleobis and Biton was probably such a priestess.


This late fourth century amphora shows the gods seated in Olympus. Zeus is enthroned; Hera is by his side with a scepter-like torch; Apollo plays the lyre nearby.

Zeus appears as head of his family as well as king of the gods.



Zeus’s brother Poseidon was god of the sea, armed with a trident.

He is also a god of earthquakes, and associated with the horse.



“Hades” is the word for the underworld, so Hades is almost an elemental power like the Titans.


He features in few myths and is seldom pictured without his wife, Persephone, whose femininity and fertility make the Death god less appalling.


Demeter and Persephone

Demeter is the grain god, and Persephone, her daughter by Zeus, is the queen of the underworld.

Their mother-daughter relationship represents the life-affirming process of yearly cycles and crop fertility, where death is transformed into life.


The first-born of the gods, she is the goddess of the hearth, the center of family life.


She gave up her position as an Olympian. But she was important in each home, and in Rome (as Vesta) had a crucial civic cult. These are Vestal Virgins with the chief priest.


Athena, born from her father Zeus

”Athena’s special powers of military prowess and wisdom derived from her special relationship to Zeus, and symbolize the magnitude and beneficence of female potency when submitted to benign male control.” (Marilyn A. Katz)


“I am wholly for the male . . . and entirely on the father’s side.”

Athena, in Aeschylus’ Oresteia

As holder of the aegis, Athena shared Zeus’s power and was a fearsome enforcer of divine right.

She was also the goddess of feminine crafts like weaving.



Artemis, the huntress, remained forever a virgin, roaming the wilderness, a liminal and often threatening figure

Yet another aspect of this goddess was to promote the fertility of animals, aid in childbirth, and oversee the transition of virgins into brides


Apollo, Artemis’ twin brother, was the distant, beautiful, unapproachable god of music, poetry and prophecy

Apollo and Hermes

Hermes, another youthful god, was both divine messenger and trickster



Aphrodite was the goddess of love, symbolizing intoxicating sexuality and beauty.

In myth she is often portrayed as a willful “girly-girl,” but she is elsewhere portrayed as a powerful, personally-accessible goddess.




Hephaestus, god of the forge and craftsmanship, was married to Aphrodite – the ugliest god married to the most beautiful.

He was born of Hera, in some versions, without any father.

At one point he was thrown from Olympus, crippled by his fall to earth. There are different versions of why and who threw him, but his return is a common theme in Greek art.


Hepahestus in a mechanical chariot

Hephaestus made robotic servants, invincible armor with astounding pictures of human life (for Achilles), and an excellent golden chain mesh for capturing his wife in bed with Ares.

He is often a comic figure, but one who adds to the Olympian community. He solves problems, calms arguments – and deals with a very unfaithful wife in creative ways!


Hephaestus at his forge

Smiths are often ambivalent figures in Indo-European myth. Think of the dwarves of Northern myth – also ugly and “lame”.

This is behind some of Hephaestus’ low status and ambivalent role.



Ares, son of Zeus and Hera, was the god of war, but his warfare was more brutish, less considered than Athena’s.

He was also Aphrodite’s lover – the mixture of Love and War.

He was not much worshipped in the Greek world, mainly only in sacrifices before battle.

But the Romans honored him as Mars.


Roman Mars was a god of agriculture as well as warfare. He represented what a good male citizen should be:

Both farmer and warrior.

Only later was he associated with the less attractive Greek god Ares.



Dionysus was the last born of the gods. Like Athena, he was born directly from Zeus: this time from his thigh.

Dionysus was the god of wine and madness, and was both loved and distrusted by the Greeks.


He was often accompanied by nymphs and satyrs.

Dionysiac celebration involved loss of self and ecstasy.


The Fates, who spun human destiny and wove it on a loom, were the daughters of Zeus and Themis.



With the Muses let me begin, and with Apollo and Zeus. For through the Muses and far-shooting Apollo, human beings on earth are poets and musicians, but through Zeus, they are kings. Blessed are the ones the Muses love; sweet is the sound that flows from their lips.