Time Out
Athens guidebook


Greek Myth and Legend: A religion of epic proportions
First edition, 2004

 

 

"The capital's name
honours Athena,
goddess of wisdom.
This bold, beautiful
divinity governed all
knowledge – from
weaving to astronomy."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Parthenon, Athens


The Hellenic deities certainly weren’t exactly role models. They lied, cheated, squabbled and toyed ruthlessly with humans. Zeus, King of the Gods, assumed various shapes – white bull, swan, golden cloudburst – to seduce unwilling women. His enraged wife Hera persecuted his mistresses, even chasing one pregnant rival with a giant python and transforming another into a pet cow. The list of dirty divine deeds is longer – and messier – than a Greek gyro.

The god’s main spin-doctors were Homer, whose epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey kick-started Western literature in the eighth century BC, and Hesiod, who wrote The Theogony in the seventh century BC. Ancient critics sometimes found fault with these saucy tales. "Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is a shame and disgrace among men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving one another," the philosopher Xenophanes later complained. Yet most Greeks didn’t mind the bad behaviour, considering it just as instructive as a good example – and a far better yarn.

Even firmly into the days of monotheism, myths have been the backbone of education and entertainment. Scholars have memorised ripping tales, then recited them at dinner parties. Politicians have tweaked the stories for propaganda. Artists have depicted scenes on pottery, while poets and playwrights have plumbed this rich vein of melodrama.

The Ancient Greeks believed deities took a very active role in human affairs and destinies. They wooed them with lavish temples, prayers, rites, offerings and games, like the Olympics. The sacrifice of animals – usually bulls, sheep or goats – was especially popular. Priests would slit the creatures’ throats, sprinkle the altars with fresh blood, burn the choice bits for the gods and foretell the future from the entrails.

People could worship any and all deities. Cities had patron gods, like Athena in Athens, as did the trades. New divinities were borrowed freely from other cultures and woven into local mythology. Oracles, like Delphi, transmitted the gods’ cryptic advice and prophecies.

Cults were a major force in Greek society. The most famous took place just outside Athens in Eleusis, the site of a sanctuary to the fertility goddess Demeter. The celebratory rituals, known as the Eleusian Mysteries, were shrouded in secrecy, but rumours of drunkenness and orgies continue to this day.

These pagan rites gave way to Christianity in 324 AD, but Greek myth lives on. The Romans, then the Renaissance, revived these tales, which have since become a cornerstone of Western civilisation.

The Gods
One creation myth claims the deities and living creatures sprang from the stream Oceanus encircling the world. In the most common version, Mother Earth emerged from the chaos and bore her son, Uranus (sky), while she slept. He showered her with fertile rain and she gave birth to flowers, trees, beasts, birds, the hundred-handed giants, the early gods (Titans) and one-eyed Cyclops.

Family strife led the Titans to attack Uranus. The youngest of the Titans, Cronus, cut off his father’s genitals with a flint sickle and became sovereign. He married his sister Rhea, but insisted upon devouring their children, as prophecy declared a son would dethrone him. He swallowed five babies, then Rhea wised up. She gave birth to Zeus in secret, then hid him with nymph nursemaids on Crete.

Zeus grew to manhood and poisoned his father’s honeyed drink. Cronus vomited up the elder siblings – Hades, Poseidon, Hera, Hestia and Demeter (see A-Z of Greek Gods). With their help, Zeus vanquished the Titans and became king of the gods and heaven. A dozen major deities dwelled high on Mount Olympus, while Hades brooded in the Underworld and Poseidon ruled the ocean. Earth remained a neutral zone.

Supporting the 12 Olympians was a cast of thousands. The three Fates spun, measured and snipped the threads of mortal lives. The Furies punished evil-doers, while the nine Muses inspired poets, artists and musicians. Trees contained beautiful female spirits (dryads), as did streams (naids) and fields (nymphs). Lusty, goat-legged satyrs frolicked with wild women (maenads) in holy groves. Centaurs, skilled in sorcery and healing, raped and revelled. Other gods included Pan (shepherds), Asclepius (healing), Eros (love), Hypnos (sleep), Helios (sun), Selene (moon) and Nemesis (punishment).

The Goddess
The capital’s name honours its patron Athena, goddess of wisdom. This bold and brilliant divinity governed all knowledge – from weaving to astronomy and battle strategy. She represented victory and noble defence, unlike Ares, the bloodthirsty god of war. Athena also was the goddess of wit, morality and clear air, and the protector of small children. The flute, yoke, trumpet and plough number among her inventions.

Her birth was extraordinary, even by Greek mythology standards. In a fit of insecurity, worried that a son might surpass him, Zeus swallowed his pregnant first wife. Soon a horrible migraine gripped the king of the gods. The pain grew so severe, he begged for his skull to be chopped with an axe. Out sprang Athena, full-grown, armed and shouting.

Despite the splitting headache, she was her father’s favourite. Zeus refused her nothing, even allowing her use of his mightiest weapon, the thunderbolt. She remained a virgin, lofty and pure, but still managed to have a son. The smith god Hephaestus tried to ravage her. She fought him off, but some of his semen brushed her thigh and fell to earth, growing into Erichthonius, an early king of Athens.
Athena won the city in a contest against her uncle, the sea god Poseidon. He struck the cliff of the Acropolis with his trident and a salt-water spring gushed from the rock. Athena produced an olive tree. The gods voted her contribution more useful to humans – as it brought food, oil and shelter – and awarded her Athens.

The ancients celebrated her each year at the Panathenea festival. A grand procession wound up the Acropolis, dominated by Phidias’ majestic statues of the goddess (one so massive that sailors in the Saronic Gulf could see her lance and helmet). Her great temple, the mighty Parthenon (meaning "virgin" in Ancient Greek) still stands today.

The Heroes
Brave, handsome heroes obsessed with fame and glory star in many tales. More often than not, their ambition wrecked havoc.

Achilles is a prime example. Though he was a magnificent warrior, his "destructive wrath brought countless sorrows" to his people during the Trojan War, as Homer recounted in The Iliad. His arrogance finally outraged the gods: mid battle, they directed an arrow to Achilles’ only vulnerable spot – his heel. Hercules started poorly – with the murder of his wife and children in a bout of madness – but the strongman redeemed himself through the Twelve Labours.

Oedipus unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother (Sigmund Freud named his famous complex after this pitiful character). The great musician Orpheus played so sweetly, the gods allowed him to bring his bride back from death – on one condition: he couldn’t look at her until they reached the surface. Riddled with doubt, he glanced back and lost her again. The heartbroken hero soon perished, torn apart by wild animals.

Jason, leader of the Argonauts, captured the coveted Golden Fleece, aided by the sorceress Medea. After ten years of happy marriage, he chucked her out. The vengeful woman murdered their children and his new wife, then fled in a chariot drawn by winged dragons.

Medea reappeared briefly as Queen of Athens, stepmother to the hero Theseus. She attempted to poison him and was banished. Theseus went on to face the Cretan Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull, imprisoned in the Labyrinth, who devoured young Athenian boys and girls. He killed the monster with the help of Princess Ariadne, then callously abandoned her on the way home. His comeuppance was swift: nearing Athens, Theseus forgot to hoist the white sail, a sign of victory for his worried father Aegeus. The grieving king leaped to his death.

Theseus was strong, but refined, smart and diplomatic, all qualities the ancient Athenians prized. He united the Attica region and laid the foundations of democracy. Perseus, on the other hand, was more of an action hero. He decapitated Medusa, the snake-haired gorgon, whose gaze turned flesh to stone.

Odysseus was celebrated as the cleverest Greek. The wily king fought in the Trojan War to reclaim Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. His return trip took years, rather than weeks. Homer’s Odyssey traces this epic journey, plagued by shipwreck, witches, sirens and giant man-eating Cyclops. Finally Odysseus reached his homeland, the island of Ithaca, to discover his faithful wife Penelope besieged by greedy, pushy suitors. He slew them with a great bow and reclaimed his kingdom – an unusually happy ending for ancient mythology.

The Humans
The first generation were the ‘golden race’, who lived without care. They never grew old, lived easily off the fat of the land, and died contented. Next came the silver race, eaters of bread. They were so quarrelsome and ignorant that Zeus destroyed them. The insolent bronze race ate flesh and delighted in war.

A more noble age, known as the race of heroes, followed. Sired by gods on mortal mothers, the warriors at Troy and the Argonauts were part of this era. The fifth and final race, known as the race of iron, is beset with unworthy descendants: cruel, unjust, lustful and treacherous. Hesiod wrote: "I wish I were not of this race, that I had died before, or had not yet been born."

Prometheus stole fire from the heavens and gave it to humans. Enraged, Zeus created the first woman, intelligent, lovely Pandora (meaning ‘the all-gifted’). The gods gave her a box, containing 10,000 curses. Curious, she opened it and released evil into the world. Pandora quickly slammed the lid, but hope alone remained inside.

The Greeks had a myth for every moment from the cradle to grave. The countless stories tapped into a plethora of universal themes – jealousy, infatuation, ambition and loyalty, to name a few. Perhaps this resonance explains their continued popularity, nearly 2,800 years after Homer first captured them in song.

 

 

 

 



"Theseus was strong,
but refined, smart and
diplomatic, all qualities
the ancient Athenians
prized highly."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The countless stories
tapped into a plethora
of universal theme –
jealousy, infatuation
ambition and loyalty,
to name a few."

 

 

 

See also:
A-Z of Greek Gods
Hero worship in film


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