Cruel and fickle, passionate and vindictive, jealous and insecure, petty and insane: the inhabitants of Mount Olympus represent an attempt by the ancient Greeks to explain the chaos of the universe through human nature. Thus, like every deity invented before and since, these gods and goddesses are embodiments of human solipsism. (Of course lightning is caused by a giant, angry man in the sky…obvi. I mean, what else could it be?) The stories of their battles, bickering, and sexual conquests have indelibly influenced the course of Western language and narrative. Here is a selection of some of the A-list names of the Greek pantheon.
Aphrodite was the goddess of love, sex, and beauty. Unsurprisingly for a love goddess, she was said to have emerged from the foam generated when the severed testicles of her father, Uranus, were thrown into the sea by his son, the Titan Cronus. (Or is that surprising?) Kind of makes Botticelli’s surreally lovely Birth of Venus—which depicts Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart emerging from the waves—a little more visceral, doesn’t it?
Athena was the goddess of reason, wisdom, and war. She famously sprung fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. A major figure in the Odyssey, in which she instructed Odysseus, she also guided Perseus and Heracles through their trials. The Parthenon was her chief temple in Athens, which is named in her honor. Her Roman equivalent was Minerva.
Ares was the god of bloodlust. (His half-sister Athena represented the more "noble" aspects of combat and civil conduct during war.) Though his fellow deities weren’t particularly fond of him, the Spartans had no problems, er, donating some prisoners of war to his worship. And sacrificing dogs…yeah, that’s right, Ares liked dead puppies. Jerk. His Roman equivalent was Mars.
The twin brother of Artemis, Apollo was among the most important (read: feared) of the gods. Son of Zeus, he disseminated the will of his divine compatriots through various means, notably oracles. The Oracle at Delphi was his mouthpiece; a 2001 study determined that the oracle was likely hallucinating due to ethylene gas rising from the rocks beneath the temple.
Demeter, an agricultural goddess, was mother to Persephone, who was abducted by the underworld god Hades to be his bride. While searching for her stolen daughter, she accepted the hospitality of the royal family of Eleusis. The Eleusinian Mysteries, perhaps the most important religious rites in ancient Greece, are attributed to her teachings. Her Roman equivalent was Ceres.
Dionysus was a son of Zeus born to a mortal mother. When Zeus accidentally killed her, he sewed the young Dionysus into his thigh and, when the young god emerged, passed him to the care of the maenads. The cult of Dionysus revolved around intoxication, sex, and savage ritual sacrifice. He was often symbolized by a bull due to his association with the sacrificial animal. Elements of his character are seen in the Roman god of wine, Bacchus.
Hades ruled the world of the dead, with which he was sometimes synonymous. The chilly lord of the underworld was among the few Greek gods to come across as dispassionate. He was not the ultimate judge of the souls that wandered his domain nor did he mete out their punishments for sins committed during their mortal lives. He was, however, cunning; he tricked Persephone into eating enchanted pomegranate seeds so that she would have to remain with him for a portion of the year.
The queen goddess of Olympus, Hera was both sister and wife to Zeus. Though she is often depicted as reserved and austere, she was mercilessly vindictive when it came to her husband’s [many] extramarital adventures. Unfortunately for the objects of Zeus’s godly affections, Hera tended to torment the "other women" (and their offspring, including Heracles) rather than Zeus himself. Her Roman equivalent was Juno.
Poseidon is best known as the Greek sea god, but he was also the god of horses and of earthquakes. (Thus, many of his temples were inland.) And he had some seriously strange children. Though humanoid, he fathered both the winged horse Pegasus (by Medusa, no less) and the Cyclops Polyphemus, who is blinded by Odysseus and his crew in the Odyssey. His Roman equivalent was Neptune.
With the assistance of Hades and Poseidon, Zeus overthrew his father, Cronus, king of the Titans, and became the chief deity in a new pantheon comprising mostly his siblings and children. In addition to controlling the weather, Zeus was noted for his chronic infidelity to his sister-wife, Hera. Among the results of his weakness for comely mortal women was Helen of Troy. His Roman equivalent was Jupiter.