Mythology, are the beliefs and ritual observances of
the ancient Greeks, who became the first Western civilization about 2000 BC. It
consists mainly of a body of diverse stories and legends about a variety of
gods. Greek mythology had become fully developed by about the 700s BC. Three
classic collections of myths—Theogony by the poet Hesiod and the Iliad
and the Odyssey by the poet Homer—appeared at about that time.
Greek mythology has
several distinguishing characteristics. The Greek gods resembled humans in form
and showed human feelings. Unlike ancient religions such as Hinduism or Judaism,
Greek mythology did not involve special revelations or spiritual teachings. It
also varied widely in practice and belief, with no formal structure, such as a
church government, and no written code, such as a sacred book.
The Greeks believed that the gods chose Mount Olympus, in a region of Greece
called Thessaly (Thessalia), as their home. On Olympus, the gods formed a
society that ranked them in terms of authority and powers. However, the gods
could roam freely, and individual gods became associated with three main
domains—the sky or heaven, the sea, and earth. The 12 chief gods, usually called
the Olympians, were Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, Athena, Apollo, Artemis,
Ares, Aphrodite, Hestia, Hermes, Demeter, and Poseidon.
Zeus was the head of the gods, and the spiritual father of gods and people. His
wife, Hera, was the queen of heaven and the guardian of marriage. Other gods
associated with heaven were Hephaestus, god of fire and metalworkers; Athena,
goddess of wisdom and war; and Apollo, god of light, poetry, and music. Artemis,
goddess of wildlife and the moon; Ares, god of war; and Aphrodite, goddess of
love, were other gods of heaven. They were joined by Hestia, goddess of the
hearth; and Hermes, messenger of the gods and ruler of science and invention.
Poseidon was the ruler of the sea who, with his wife Amphitrite, led a group of
less important sea gods, such as the Nereids and Tritons. Demeter,
the goddess of agriculture, was associated with the earth. Hades, an important
god but not generally considered an Olympian, ruled the underworld, where he
lived with his wife, Persephone. The underworld was a dark and mournful place
located at the center of the earth. It was populated by the souls of people who
Dionysus, god of wine and pleasure, was among the most popular gods. The Greeks
devoted many festivals to this earthly god, and in some regions he became as
important as Zeus. He often was accompanied by a host of fanciful gods,
including satyrs, centaurs, and nymphs. Satyrs were creatures with the legs of a
goat and the upper body of a monkey or human. Centaurs had the head and torso of
a man and the body of a horse. The beautiful and charming nymphs haunted woods
Greek mythology emphasized the weakness of humans in contrast to the great and
terrifying powers of nature. The Greeks believed that their gods, who were
immortal, controlled all aspects of nature. So the Greeks acknowledged that
their lives were completely dependent on the good will of the gods. In general,
the relations between people and gods were considered friendly. But the gods
delivered severe punishment to mortals who showed unacceptable behavior, such as
indulgent pride, extreme ambition, or even excessive prosperity.
The mythology was interwoven with every aspect of Greek life. Each city devoted
itself to a particular god or group of gods, for whom the citizens often built
temples of worship. They regularly honored the gods in festivals, which high
officials supervised. At festivals and other official gatherings, poets recited
or sang great legends and stories. Many Greeks learned about the gods through
the words of poets.
learned about the gods by word of mouth at home, where worship was common.
Different parts of the home were dedicated to certain gods, and people offered
prayers to those gods at regular times. An altar of Zeus, for example, might be
placed in the courtyard, while Hestia was ritually honored at the hearth.
Although the Greeks had no official church organization, they universally
honored certain holy places. Delphi, for example, was a holy site dedicated to
Apollo. A temple built at Delphi contained an oracle, or prophet, whom
brave travelers questioned about the future. A group of priests represented each
of the holy sites. These priests, who also might be community officials,
interpreted the words of the gods but did not possess any special knowledge or
power. In addition to prayers, the Greeks often offered sacrifices to the gods,
usually of a domestic animal such as a goat.
Greek mythology probably developed from the primitive religions of the people of
Crete (Kríti), an island in the Aegean Sea where the region’s first civilization
arose about 3000 BC. These people believed that all natural objects had spirits,
and that certain objects, or fetishes, had special magical powers. Over
time, these beliefs developed into a set of legends involving natural objects,
animals, and gods with a human form. Some of these legends survived as part of
classical Greek mythology.
Greeks themselves offered some explanations for the development of their
mythology. In Sacred History, Euhemerus, a mythographer from the 300s BC,
recorded the widespread belief that myths were distortions of history and the
gods were heroes who had been glorified over time. The philosopher Prodicus of
Ceos taught during the 400s BC that the gods were personifications of natural
phenomena, such as the sun, moon, winds, and water. Herodotus, a Greek historian
who lived during the 400s BC, believed that many Greek rituals were inherited
from the Egyptians.
As Greek civilization developed, particularly during the Hellenistic period,
which began about 323 BC, the mythology also changed. New philosophies and the
influence of neighboring civilizations caused a gradual modification of Greek
beliefs. However, the essential characteristics of the Greek gods and their
legends remain unchanged