The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 3: Ancient Gods & Goddesses

Note: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece–ahem, 35 years ago–I have been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently returned from a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gave an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.

After my last installment, I realized that I’ve been talking a lot about the ancient Greek goddesses and gods, with photos of statues representing them. Some of you may want a refresher or introduction to the pantheon, so here goes: The twelve (or a pagan lucky thirteen, if you include both Hestia and Dionysos) deities lived on Mt. Olympos. They took over the altars after some of them killed the former ruling Titans, who were the parents of some of these Olympians. The colorful Greek myths reveal deities who fully shared the intrigues, jealousies, and battles of the mortals they both protected and victimized, while demanding the proper offerings. As a child, I devoured the exciting stories and longed to visit Greece to see the land that housed these immortal beings. A classic book is Bulfinch’s Mythology, and there are many many others. My favorite deity was Artemis (the Romans, who co-opted much of Greek culture, renamed her Diana, and she has been reincarnated recently as Wonder Woman.) She was the virgin goddess of the hunt and all wild things.  I was a wild nature child myself, so it was empowering to have a model of a strong woman who also loved animals and took no guff from men!

There are a host of minor deities in addition to the major 13, not to mention many monsters and offspring of gods with mortals, and it can be pretty confusing to keep them straight. Wikipedia presents this useful breakdown, thanks to all who contributed!

The major Olympians, from Wikipedia:

Greek Roman Image Functions and attributes
Zeus Jupiter Jupiter Smyrna Louvre Ma13.jpg King of the gods and ruler of Mount Olympus; god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order, justice. Youngest child of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Symbols include the thunderbolt, eagle, oak tree, lion, scepter, and scales. Brother and husband of Hera, although he had many lovers, also brother of Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, and Hestia.
Hera Juno Hera Campana Louvre Ma2283.jpg Queen of the gods and the goddess of marriage and family. Symbols include the peacock, cuckoo, and cow. Youngest daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Wife and sister of Zeus. Being the goddess of marriage, she frequently tried to get revenge on Zeus’ lovers and their children.
Poseidon Neptune 0036MAN Poseidon.jpg God of the seas, earthquakes, and tidal wave. Symbols include the horse, bull, dolphin, and trident. Middle son of Cronus and Rhea. Brother of Zeus and Hades. Married to the Nereid Amphitrite, although, like most male Greek Gods, he had many lovers.
Demeter Ceres Demeter Altemps Inv8546.jpg Goddess of fertility, agriculture, nature, and the seasons. Who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. Symbols include the poppy, wheat, torch, cornucopia, and pig. Middle daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Also the lover of Zeus and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone.
Athena Minerva Mattei Athena Louvre Ma530 n2.jpg Goddess of wisdom, knowledge, reason, intelligent activity, literature, handicrafts and science, defense and strategic warfare. Symbols include the owl and the olive tree. Daughter of Zeus and the Oceanid Metis, she rose from her father’s head fully grown and in full battle armor.
Apollo[A] Apollo[A] Apollo of the Belvedere.jpg God of light, prophecyphilosophy, inspiration, poetry, music and arts, medicine and healing. Son of Zeus and Leto. Symbols include the sun, lyre, swan, and mouse. Twin brother of Artemis.
Artemis Diana Diane de Versailles Leochares.jpg Goddess of the hunt, virginity, archery, the moon, and all animals. Symbols include the moon, horse, deer, hound, she-bear, snake, cypress tree, and bow and arrow. Daughter of Zeus and Leto and twin sister of Apollo.
Ares Mars Ares Canope Villa Adriana b.jpg God of war, violence, and bloodshed. Symbols include the boar, serpent, dog, vulture, spear, and shield. Son of Zeus and Hera, all the other gods despised him. His Latin name, Mars, gave us the word “martial.”
Aphrodite Venus NAMA Aphrodite Syracuse.jpg Goddess of love, beauty, and desire. Symbols include the dove, bird, apple, bee, swan, myrtle, and rose. Daughter of Zeus and the Oceanid Dione, or perhaps born from the sea foam after Uranus‘ semen dripped into the sea after being castrated by his youngest son, Cronus, who then threw his father’s genitals into the sea. Married to Hephaestus, although she had many adulterous affairs, most notably with Ares. Her name gave us the word “aphrodisiac“, while her Latin name, Venus, gave us the word “venereal“.[B]
Hephaestus Vulcan Vulcan Coustou Louvre MR1814.jpg Master blacksmith and craftsman of the gods; god of fire and the forge. Symbols include fire, anvil, axe, donkey, hammer, tongs, and quail. Son of Hera, either by Zeus or alone. Married to Aphrodite, though unlike most divine husbands, he was rarely ever licentious. His Latin name, Vulcan, gave us the word “volcano.”
Hermes Mercury Hermes Ingenui Pio-Clementino Inv544.jpg Messenger of the gods; god of commerce, communication, borders, eloquence, diplomacy, thieves and games. Symbols include the caduceus (staff entwined with two snakes), winged sandals and cap, stork, and tortoise (whose shell he used to invent the lyre). Son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. The second-youngest Olympian, just older than Dionysus.
Hestia Vesta Hestia - Wellesley College - DSC09634.JPG Goddess of the hearth and of the right ordering of domesticity and the family; she was born into the first Olympian generation and was one of the original twelve Olympians. Some lists of the Twelve Olympians omit her in favor of Dionysus, but the speculation that she gave her throne to him in order to keep the peace seems to be modern invention. She is the first child of Cronus and Rhea, eldest sister of Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera, and Zeus.
Bacchus Dionysos Louvre Ma87 n2.jpg God of wine, celebrations, and ecstasy. Patron god of the art of theatre. Symbols include the grapevine, ivy, cup, tiger, panther, leopard, dolphin, goat, and pinecone. Son of Zeus and the mortal Theban princess Semele. Married to the Cretan princess Ariadne. The youngest Olympian god, as well as the only one to have a mortal mother.


Last week, I described our visit to the Acropolis, with some stories and photos of the remnants of the marble sculptures that decorated the Parthenon. The top photo on this blog shows Dionysos lounging on his signature panther skin, in front of the rising horses of sun-god Helios’s chariot. The fragment is part of the East Pediment (the triangular space under the roof) sculptures that were partly removed by Lord Elgin, and most of them now reside in the British Museum. The new Acropolis Museum displays a model of how the original carved by master sculptor Phidias is thought to have appeared:

As I researched the reconstruction, I found that scholars have argued for competing interpretations, but the following is pretty much what the plaques at the Acropolis Museum explain: On the left are the heads of the horses pulling Helios’s sun chariot out of the world-encircling sea at dawn. They face lounging Dionysos, next to Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Artemis, next, looks like she’s ready to rush off on some important mission. Then comes possibly Ares with shield, then seated Hera, flanked by possibly two demigods who are here to witness Athena’s birth full-grown and in armor from Zeus’s head. He is on the throne in the middle, facing Athena with her shield. Hephaestus seems to fall back behind her, after assisting in her birth by splitting open Zeus’s head with his ax. Then we have Poseidon, seated, and it appears to be Apollo with his lyre. Then an unidentified male figure, then Hestia, Dione, and Aphrodite reclining seductively with one shoulder bare. The tableau finishes with what is probably the torso of Selene (the moon goddess) or Nyx (Night) and her chariot horses sinking into the sea at dawn.

The Olympians loved to meddle in the affairs of mortals, often to the detriment of the humans, notably in The Iliad  and  The Odyssey. The gods took sides in the Trojan War, magnifying their own feuds and picking out favorites or enemies among the mortals. Poseidon, for instance, was furious at Odysseus, and so blocked his homecoming for another ten years after he left Troy.

Zeus, with his power plays and arrogance, seems to mirror human kings of the time (and most times). This bronze statue in the Athens Archeology Museum, found in the sea, used to be considered to represent Poseidon with his missing trident, but now experts seem to favor it as Zeus, ready to hurl his missing thunderbolt.

Zeus was also an infamous philanderer, and either had consensual sex or raped a lot of goddesses and mortal women or occasionally men. Many of the deities seem to have been omnisexual, coupling with either sex and with animals, or taking on the form of animals. Zeus, especially, turned himself into such forms as a swan or eagle, or even rain, to have his way with mortals, and he also had sex with a white cow. Apollo and other deities were also bisexual, which was common in Greek culture.

Dionysos, the god of wine and revelry, seems in some of his depictions to be “gender fluid,” as he defies the usual aggressively masculine appearance of the other gods. Here, the god of the vine spends time with one of his lusty satyr companions and what appears to be Eros.

Aphrodite, the goddess of love, also had many lovers. This statue shows her in a teasing confrontation with a pushy satyr, as she threatens to whack him with her sandal. The Athens museum explanation holds that she is playing with the satyr, who is no threat to the powerful goddess.

A probably older, more austere style portrays Aphrodite in a serious pose with her signature dove:

And, again, here is a later, smaller copy of the famous 37-foot-tall statue of Athena originally installed on the Acropolis that was later stolen. She is in full martial mode here, with helmet and shield, holding Nike, or Victory, in her hand.

We’ll see her again, along with Apollo (here with his lyre and raven), when we reach Delphi, sacred to both of them.

I’ll be back next week with more glimpses of Athens, present and past!


You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect.





The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 3: Ancient Gods & Goddesses — 9 Comments

  1. Great stuff! I love the photos!

    Also, interesting glimpses of culture and customs through these myths.

    • Thanks, Sherwood! It’s hard to summarize the complicated affairs of the gods and goddesses, but you see their depictions everywhere in Greece, so I’ll be referencing some of the stories as I go along.

  2. Reliving your trip vicariously. I too read Bulfinch early on and thought I’d become an archaeologist. Now I’m just an armchair historian following along with your glorious pictures.

    • Thanks, Phyl! I, too, had early notions of becoming an archaeologist. I’m no historian, but love unearthing bits of fascinating lore when I travel.

  3. Great to see these pictures, Sara–hope you are inspired for the next book. I was surprised reading recently to find out that some of the most ancient locations for Mars show him as a god of healing, way back when. And I think shoving Vestia out was definitely recent in the timeline–her altar was in every home in Rome, and she was considered hugely important.

    I wish we could know what they meant to their followers, but all we can do is guess, looking at the spectrum of worship today.

    • Thanks, Cat! Yes, I’ve also seen the many references to daily honoring of Vestia with home shrines. And, from what I’ve read, it seems that Dionysos is connected to the very early earth-mother worship, especially of the ancient Pythia at Delphi. During the winter, he was still allowed to reassert himself when ruling Apollo went on leave–the primal, chthonian forces re-emerging to balance the newer rationality.
      (More about all that when I get to the Delphi visit.) But, yes, on the trip I got super-charged with energy and new scenes for the sequel. Write on!