Three classic collections of myths-Theogonyby the poet Hesiod and the Iliad and the Odyssey by the poet Homer-appeared atabout that time. Greek mythology has several distinguishing characteristics. TheGreek gods resembled humans in form and showed human feelings. Unlike ancientreligions such as Hinduism or Judaism, Greek mythology did not involve specialrevelations or spiritual teachings.
It also varied widely in practice andbelief, with no formal structure, such as a church government, and no writtencode, such as a sacred book. Principal Gods The Greeks believed that the godschose Mount Olympus, in a region of Greece called Thessaly, as their home. OnOlympus, the gods formed a society that ranked them in terms of authority andpowers. However, the gods could roam freely, and individual gods becameassociated with three main domains-the sky or heaven, the sea, and earth.
The 12chief gods, usually called the Olympians, were Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, Athena,Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hestia, Hermes, Demeter, and Poseidon. Zeuswas 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 godsassociated 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 oflove, were other gods of heaven. They were joined by Hestia, goddess of thehearth; 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 ofless important sea gods, such as the Nereids and Tritons. Demeter, the goddessof agriculture, was associated with the earth. Hades, an important god but notgenerally considered an Olympian, ruled the underworld, where he lived with hiswife, Persephone. The underworld was a dark and mournful place located at thecenter of the earth.
It was populated by the souls of people who had died. Dionysus, god of wine and pleasure, was among the most popular gods. The Greeksdevoted many festivals to this earthly god, and in some regions he became asimportant as Zeus. He often was accompanied by a host of fanciful gods,including satyrs, centaurs, and nymphs.
Satyrs were creatures with the legs of agoat and the upper body of a monkey or human. Centaurs had the head and torso ofa man and the body of a horse. The beautiful and charming nymphs haunted woodsand forests. Worship and Beliefs Greek mythology emphasized the weakness ofhumans in contrast to the great and terrifying powers of nature. The Greeksbelieved that their gods, who were immortal, controlled all aspects of nature.
So the Greeks acknowledged that their lives were completely dependent on thegood will of the gods. In general, the relations between people and gods wereconsidered friendly. But the gods delivered severe punishment to mortals whoshowed unacceptable behavior, such as indulgent pride, extreme ambition, or evenexcessive prosperity. The mythology was interwoven with every aspect of Greeklife. Each city devoted itself to a particular god or group of gods, for whomthe citizens often built temples of worship.
They regularly honored the gods infestivals, which high officials supervised. At festivals and other officialgatherings, poets recited or sang great legends and stories. Many Greeks learnedabout the gods through the words of poets. Greeks also learned about the gods byword of mouth at home, where worship was common. Different parts of the homewere dedicated to certain gods, and people offered prayers to those gods atregular 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 noofficial church organization, they universally honored certain holy places. Delphi, for example, was a holy site dedicated to Apollo. A temple built atDelphi contained an oracle, or prophet, whom brave travelers questioned aboutthe future. A group of priests represented each of the holy sites. Thesepriests, who also might be community officials, interpreted the words of thegods 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 animalsuch as a goat.
Origins Greek mythology probably developed from the primitivereligions of the people of Crete, an island in the Aegean Sea where the region’sfirst civilization arose about 3000 BC. These people believed that all naturalobjects had spirits, and that certain objects, or fetishes, had special magicalpowers. Over time, these beliefs developed into a set of legends involvingnatural objects, animals, and gods with a human form. Some of these legendssurvived as part of classical Greek mythology.
The ancient Greeks themselvesoffered some explanations for the development of their mythology. In SacredHistory, Euhemerus, a mythographer from the 300s BC, recorded the widespreadbelief that myths were distortions of history and the gods were heroes who hadbeen glorified over time. The philosopher Prodicus of Ceos taught during the400s BC that the gods were personifications of natural phenomena, such as thesun, moon, winds, and water. Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived during the400s BC, believed that many Greek rituals were inherited from the Egyptians. AsGreek civilization developed, particularly during the Hellenistic period, whichbegan about 323 BC, the mythology also changed.
New philosophies and theinfluence of neighboring civilizations caused a gradual modification of Greekbeliefs. However, the essential characteristics of the Greek gods and theirlegends remain unchanged. See Also Aegean Civilization. Bibliography”Greek Mythology,” Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 98 Encyclopedia. (c)1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.