The Primordial Greek Gods
Greek mythology starts at the beginning of the world! The Greek Gods that existed then were the Primordial Gods. The famous work of Hesiod, called Theogony (meaning “birth of the Gods” in Greek), presents a complete cosmogony. Natural forces are personified and the most basic components of the cosmos are Gods.
According to Hesiod, in the beginning there was Chaos. Chaos was the personification of the absolute nothingness - an immerse, dark void from which all of the existence sprang. Out of Chaos came Eros, the god of love and procreation. We can see that ancient Greeks considered love as one of the most fundamental powers in the world. Then Tartarus was born, a dark place like the abyss and the original god of the Underworld. Goddess Gaia then followed, the personification of Earth. Erebus, the god of darkness, and Nyx, the goddess of the night, were also born from Chaos. From Gaia came Ourea, the god of the mountains, Pontus, the god of the sea, and Uranus, the god of the heavens.
The full list of the Primordial Greek Gods:
- Achlys: the goddess of the eternal night. The first creature that some say existed even before Chaos himself. According to Hesiod, she is the demon of death.
- Αether: the god of light. The spark of life for every creature. Etymologically, Aether means the highest and purest layer of air.
- Αion: the god of eternity. He was a ghostly primordial deity who personified the meaning of time (sometimes he is confused with god Chronos). In Greek, Aion means “century”. Although incorporeal, he was also portrayed as a monster with a snake body and three heads: one human (male), one bull and one lion. According to a myth, Aion and his companion, Ananke (also with a snake body), wrapped themselves around the cosmic egg and broke it to form the "sorted" Universe (earth - sky - sea).
- Ananke: the goddess of inevitability, compulsion, and necessity. She was an inevitable divine force.
- Chaos: the god of the void. He was the beginning of all life. According to most versions of Greek myths, Chaos pre-existed all.
- Chronos: the god of time. Not to be confused with Aion (god of eternity) or Cronus (the Titan that we will meet later).
- Erebus: the god of darkness and shadow. He symbolizes the silence and the depth of the night together with his sister, the goddess Nyx. He is usually represented as a winged, dark and huge being, a duo with Nyx.
- Eros: the god of love and procreation. Not to be confused with Eros, the winged god of desire that we will meet later.
- Gaia: the goddess of the earth (Mother Earth). She is the mother of all - the primeval mother. At a cosmogenic level, she symbolizes the material side of the Universe whereas Chaos symbolizes the space of the Universe. Eros symbolizes the driving force that unites everything, giving birth to the rest.
- Hemera: the goddess of day.
- Hypnos: the god of sleep and father of Morpheus.
- Nemesis: the goddess of retribution.
- Nesoi: the goddesses of islands.
- Nyx: the goddess of night. She was a sovereign, primordial and cosmogenic entity, respected and feared by most gods. She is the sister of Erebus, the god of darkness and shadow.
- Ourea: the gods of mountains.
- Pontus: the god of the sea and father of the sea creatures.
- Tartarus: the god of the darkest and deepest part of the Underworld - the original god of the Underworld. The Underworld was the place where the wicked are imprisoned and tortured eternally after their death.
- Thalassa: the goddess of the sea and consort of god Pontus.
- Thanatos: the god of death. He is the twin brother of Hypnos (god of sleep) and lives in the dark Tartarus.
- Uranus: the god of the heavens. He soon became ruler of the world and father of the Titans.
The Titan Gods
According to Greek mythology and the ancient Greek religion, the Titans were the pre-Olympian gods. Their parents were Gaia (Mother Earth) and Uranus (god of heavens). They had two other species as siblings, born also from the union between Gaia and Uranus: the Hecatoncheires (meaning "hundred-handed ones") and the Cyclops (meaning “circle-eyed”).
How did the Titans become rulers of the world
The first Titans were twelve; six male and six female. The youngest one was Cronus. At some point, Uranus decided that he did not like the Cyclops and the Hecatoncheires at all. He considered them too ugly and too powerful, so he imprisoned them in Tartarus, the depths of the Underworld. Gaia, the mother of the Cyclops and Hecatoncheires, did not like how Uranus treated her children. She became furious with Uranus and decided to take revenge. She asked her other children, the Titans, to cut Uranus’s genitals and overthrow him… The Titans were too afraid to do that, except one: the youngest of the twelve, Cronus. When Uranus approached Gaia, Cronus surprised Uranus and cut his genitals with a scythe. Cronus with his action had separated Uranus (the heavens) and Gaia (the Earth).
From the drops of Uranus’ blood that fell on Gaia, the Erinyes (Furies), the Meliai and the Giants were born. The Erinyes were deities of vengeance. If you broke an oath or wronged someone, they would hunt you forever. The Meliai were nymphs of the trees, beautiful and gentle deities. The Giants were creatures of immerse strength and very aggressive.
With Uranus defeated, Cronus freed his siblings from the dark Tartarus and the Titans became the new Greek gods. They immediately recognized Cronus as their leader and ruler of the cosmos and helped him consolidate his power. After becoming the undisputed ruler of the world, Cronus, fearing the power of the Hecatoncheires and the Cyclops like his father did before him, imprisoned them once again in Tartarus.
The full list of the Titans:
The first Titans, children of Uranus and Gaia, were twelve; six males and six females.
- Cronus: the Titan god of the harvest. Cronus, although the youngest of the first twelve Titans, became the ruler of the world after overthrowing his father, Uranus. He then married his older sister, Rhea.
- Rhea: the Titan goddess of fertility and generation. She determines the flow of things and her name literally means “the one that flows” in Greek.
- Oceanus: the Titan god of the oceans. He was the eldest son of Uranus and Gaia. His dominion extended in every corner of the Earth and all parts of the horizon. Oceanus was the personification of water and he paired with his sister, the Titaness Tethys.
- Tethys: the Titan goddess of the rivers and fresh water. She was the wife of Oceanus and the mother of more than 3000 River gods (rivers personified by the Ancient Greeks), the Oceanids (nymphs of springs, streams and fountains) and the Nephelai (nymphs of clouds).
- Hyperion: the Titan god of light. His dazzling light shone in all directions. His name means “the one who goes above the earth” in Greek. He symbolized eternal splendor. He fell in love with his sister, the Titan goddess Theia.
- Theia: the Titan goddess of the aether. Theia bore the Titan Hyperion three shining children: Helios (the Sun), Eos (the Dawn), and Selene (the Moon).
- Iapetus: the Titan god of mortal life. He was symbolizing mortality and the mortal life-span. He fathered the Titans Atlas (who was responsible for bearing the weight of the heavens on his shoulders), Prometheus (who gifted fire to men) and Epimetheus (who married Pandora, the first mortal woman). Iapetus was also considered the personification of one of the four pillars that hold the heavens and the earth apart. He represented the pillar of the west, the other three being represented by his brothers Crius, Coeus and Hyperion. The four brothers actively played a role in the dethroning of their father Uranus; as they were all in the four corners of the earth, they held Uranus firmly in place while their brother Cronus castrated him with a sickle.
- Crius: the Titan god of constellations. His name in Greek means “ram” and it shows his connection with the constellation Aries.
- Coeus: the Titan god of intellect. He was also considered the embodiment of the celestial axis around which the heavens revolve. He married his sister, Phoebe.
- Phoebe: the Titan goddess of prophecy and oracular intellect. Phoebe bore the Titan Coeus two children, Leto and Asteria. The Titaness Leto later copulated with the Olympian god Zeus and bore the Olympians Artemis and Apollo. Given that Phoebe symbolized prophetic wisdom just as Coeus represented rational intelligence, the couple may have possibly functioned together as the primal font of all knowledge in the cosmos.
- Themis: the Titan goddess of divine law and order. She also had the ability to predict the future and thus, she later became one of the Oracles in Delphi.
- Mnemosyne: the Titan goddess of memory. Mnemosyne was generally regarded as the personification of memory and remembrance. Later, Zeus slept with Mnemosyne for nine consecutive days, eventually leading to the birth of the nine Muses. In Hesiod's Theogony, the kings and poets were inspired by Mnemosyne and the Muses, thus getting their extraordinary abilities in speech and using powerful words. All the ancient writers appeal to the Muses at the beginning of their work. Homer asks the Muses both in the Iliad and Odyssey to help him tell the story in the most proper way, and even until today the Muses are symbols of inspiration and artistic creation.
The Titans represented for the Ancients the forces of nature as well as natural phenomena. These forces ruled the world from the earliest times of creation. Only Themis and Mnemosyne represented more mental states, justice and memory. During the battle of the gods that followed (the so-called “Titanomachy"), Themis and Mnemosyne were the only two of the first Titans that did not side with their siblings in their war against the Olympians, and continued their course alongside the Olympian gods.
When Rhea became pregnant with the 1st child of Cronus, Uranus prophesized that Cronus’ children will overthrow him as he overthrew Uranus. When Rhea gave birth to their first child, Hestia, Cronus could not get Uranus’ prophecy out of his mind. Overcome with fear and madness, and trying to avoid the fate his father had, he swallowed the newborn! The same happened to their next four children; Cronus devoured all five of his newborns! The only one who survived was the sixth and youngest child, Zeus. Rhea tricked Cronus into eating a rock instead of the baby and left Zeus to the island of Crete, to be raised away from his mad father. Zeus grew older and stronger and eventually sought to free his siblings, leading to the epic battle between the Titans and the Olympians who the latter eventually won thus, overthrowing the previous generation of Greek gods.
It is worth noting that there were many more Titans than the aforementioned, descendants of the first twelve.
The Olympian Gods
The Gods of Olympus were the main Greek gods who lived on the top of mount Olympus. The Olympian gods rose to power by defeating the Titans in the War of the Titans (also called the Titanomachy). They were the children of Cronus and Rhea. Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Hestia and Demeter, Hades, and later on Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Athena, Hephaestus, Aphrodite and Ares. Over the years, the Demi-god Dionysus became part of their group on Olympus.
It is very common to refer to the Greek pantheon as “the 12 Olympian Gods”. However, the ancient Greeks did not worship specific twelve gods. Instead, there were many more, major and lesser - but nonetheless important - gods and others that were worshiped locally.
The rule of Zeus was not absolute. To obtain it, Zeus and his kind had to wrestle with the Titans and then with the Giants. The Battle of the Giants was more formidable and lasted more years. The greatest Olympians took part in the battle. The Giants were not as immortal as the Titans. But they had tremendous power and a monstrous form. After a long and ferocious war, the Greek gods managed to defeat all Giants with the help of Zeus’ demi-god son, the hero Hercules.
The Olympian gods had the same inclinations and the same desires, the same flaws and strengths as the mortals, even sometimes living in similar conditions. They looked like humans, but they were, almost always, prettier and stronger than humans. The gods could be transformed as they wished or teleported to any place they wished to. This was also a motivation for the famous Greek hospitality, which was a very important institution in ancient Greece. The Greeks would always welcome with special joy any foreigner, who could, after all, be a god in disguise!
As can be seen from many myths, the gods of the Greeks were not indifferent to humans. On the contrary, they often came in contact with them, traveling secretly, transforming themselves into ordinary people, rewarding the good and punishing the unjust. The gods did not find a better way to be happy than to live as humans. But they were freed from two great sufferings of mankind: the fear of deprivation and the fear of death. Indeed, the privilege of the gods is carefree. They never think about illness, old age, death. The nectar, the wine of the gods, and the ambrosia, the divine food of Olympus, ensure beauty, health and happiness for the immortals.
The immortal Greek gods settled on the peak of Olympus. There, they built their divine palaces and from there they looked upon the whole world. The ancient Greek religion is based on wisdom. People admired the gods immensely, without envying them. Famous temples were built for them and famous works of art were inspired by them. The gods reflected the ideals of the ancient Greek people.
The full list of the Olympian Greek Gods:
Zeus was recognized as the father of gods and humans. He regulated the celestial phenomena and defined the laws that govern people. He held the lightning bolt with one hand and the scepter with the other, which had an eagle at the top. He was known as the ‘Lord of Justice’. People respected and feared him at the same time. He was taking care of the families, keeping vigil in the home of every mortal and protecting strangers and passers-by from evil. Zeus' wife was the goddess Hera, to whom he was not always faithful. Greek mythology is full of love stories about Zeus, who liked to transform himself into anything he could think of and mingle with other goddesses or mortals.
Demeter was the Greek goddess of agriculture and protected the trees, plants and grains. She was the first to make the earth fruitful and taught people how to grow wheat, barley and other plants. Demeter is somewhat isolated from the twelve gods in ancient myths and this is because she is an even more ancient goddess herself. The Greeks received her cult from the Pelasgians, who originally lived in Greece. According to Greek mythology, Demeter’s daughter is mentioned as Persephone, who was once abducted by God Hades and became his wife. The most sacred and secret religious rites of ancient Greece, the Eleusinian Mysteries, were held in honor of Demeter.
Poseidon was one of the six children of Cronus and Rhea and brother of Zeus. He was allotted the kingdom of the sea but he was also considered the god of horses and earthquakes. This is why he was called “the earth-shaker”. He rarely lived on Olympus, preferring the depths of the ocean. He was sitting on a famous chariot drawn by immortal horses and holding in his hand the famous trident, forged by the Cyclops. When Poseidon was angry, he plunged the trident into the sea and shook it whole from end to end. The sailors prayed to Poseidon so that he spares them from his wrath.
Hades was the brother of Zeus and Poseidon and the god of the Underworld. He was allotted this kingdom when the three brothers took a draw to decide who will take each of three (heavens, sea and the Underworld). He liked to live in the dark and shadowed world of the dead and was rarely seen on Olympus. This is why, although he is one of the most important gods, some lists do not include him in the 12 Olympians. He was also known as Pluto. “Plutos” in Greek means wealth. The Earth is giving us a lot of treasures and since Hades’ kingdom is underneath it, the ancient Greeks believed that he was the one delivering the wealth to them. They actually preferred to call him Pluto because the name Hades was another name for the Underworld and they did not like the idea of death. The entrance to the Underworld is guarded by a monstrous dog, Hades’ favorite pet, the three-headed Cerberus. In order for your soul to cross the silent river, you need to pay the ferryman, Charon, to carry you to the other side on his boat.
Goddess Hera was the sister of Zeus, daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, and at the same time Zeus’ wife. Hera symbolized and protected the sacred institution of marriage. She blessed and helped the women in labor. Greek mythology presents Hera as a modest, measured and faithful woman, but at the same time very jealous. There are almost no myths that refer exclusively to Hera. Her name is almost always associated with the myths about Zeus. However, Hera does not present herself as a goddess submissive to her sovereign husband. She had a strong female personality and she was the only one that dared to object to him.
Apollo and Artemis were siblings, twins actually, children of Zeus and Leto, a Titan goddess. According to tradition, the two children were born on the island of Delos. Apollo is one of the most important and complex Greek gods. He is the god of light, music and poetry, healing and prophecy. He was the one that established the great Oracle of Delphi, which was considered the center of the ancient world. He was the teacher of the nine Muses and when they sang he accompanied them with his famous lyre.
Artemis, Apollo's twin sister, was the goddess of hunting, wild animals and the wilderness. She spent her time in the woods, accompanied by the Nymphs, hunting, with her bow and arrows. She was a virgin goddess and protector of young girls. She was also worshipped as one of the primary goddesses of childbirth and midwifery, relieving the women in labor from diseases. She was sometimes associated with the goddess of the moon.
Aphrodite, the most beautiful among mortals and immortals, was born from the foam of the sea when Uranus’ blood fell on it after his defeat by Cronus. This fact makes her the eldest among the Olympian Gods. Her name literally means “risen from the foam”. Aphrodite was worshipped as the goddess of beauty and passion. She could inspire love in the hearts of men and women. Most myths generally present Aphrodite as a vengeful woman. Aphrodite was worshiped in all parts of Greece and many priestesses were serving her. According to Greek mythology, she married the god of fire and blacksmiths, Hephaestus, but she was in love with the god of war, Ares, with whom she bared many children among which the winged god of love, Eros.
Ares, the god of war, was the son of the Greek gods Zeus and Hera. He was always followed by two of his faithful sons and followers, the gods Deimos and Phobos. Ares was handsome and strong, young and well-armed. He loved war and battles so he was hated by people and his worship was limited. Only in Sparta he was particularly worshipped and had a statue dedicated to him. Ares was tried, according to tradition, for his many war crimes, in one of Athens’ hills, the Areopagus Hill, which later became the seat of the criminal court of ancient Athens.
Hephaestus was the god of fire and blacksmiths. He was born ugly and that is why his mother, the goddess Hera, unable to nourish him, threw him out of Olympus. Since then he has been limping. Hephaestus fell into the sea, where he was picked up by the Nereids and raised by them. Growing up, he became a famous craftsman and set up his workshop on Mount Etna in Sicily. With his various metals, he made works of art of incomparable beauty. He once made a golden throne and sent it to his mother Hera. As soon as Hera sat down, invisible chains bound her without anyone being able to untie them. They tried to persuade Hephaestus, but they only succeeded after they got him drunk first. Hephaestus, the god of fire, gave his name to the volcanoes in the Greek language. It was from him, that the Titan Prometheus took the fire and gave it to the people. Hephaestus was also the one who built the brass and gold palaces of Olympus.
Hermes was the god of wealth, trade, thieves and travelers. He was also known as the Messenger God, being the herald of the Olympians and carrying messages between them. He was the son of Zeus and Maia, daughter of Titan Atlas. He was a clever, inventive and arrogant god. As soon as he was born, Hermes saw a turtle. He took her shell, placed seven strings in it and invented the lyre. He once stole the oxen guarded by god Apollo and locked them in a cave. He wouldn’t admit the theft, but in the end, he confessed. To avoid punishment, he gifted the lyre to Apollo. Hermes wore winged sandals and held the caduceus, his wand which had two serpents twined around it. He was the one who accompanied the souls of the dead to Hades and for that, he was known as the “soul-bearer”.
Athena, according to Greek mythology, was the goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare. Athena was the beloved daughter of Zeus. Her mother was the Titaness Metis, the first wife of Zeus. Zeus received a prophecy informing him that Metis would give birth to the child who would overthrow his father. To escape the prophecy, Zeus swallowed Metis while she was pregnant in Athena. Later, Zeus began to suffer from headaches and called on Hephaestus to help him. Hephaestus hit the head of Zeus with his hammer and Athena sprang out in full armor. She is always pictured to be armed, never as a child, always a virgin. She won the battle for the patronage of Athens over Poseidon. The Parthenon in Athens is the most famous temple dedicated to her. Protector of heroes and wisest among the Gods, Athena was considered one of the most powerful and important Olympian Gods.
Although a demi-god, Dionysus managed to win the heart of the gods and his place on Mount Olympus! As a god of wine, viticulture ritual madness and religious ecstasy, he was very beloved among the people and was considered a very important god. He was the son of god Zeus and the mortal Semele. He was the patron god of theater and taught people how to make wine. The Athenians, to honor Dionysus, held a famous celebration, characteristic of his merriment. Any use of force was prohibited during such holidays.
Hestia was the goddess of domestic life, home and hearth, the flame that kept a family’s home warm. She was the eldest daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and the eldest sister of Zeus. In the middle of the ancient Greeks’ home, there was an altar in her honor. The women of the house had as a responsibility to keep Hestia’s flame burning. The worship of Hestia was connected with the worship of Zeus who protected the strangers-travelers. Goddess Hestia was the first to invent the construction of houses, taught it to people and became the protector of family peace and happiness. She was always staying on Mount Olympus, keeping the sacred flame going.
Other Greek Gods
In addition to the above, there were other, lesser gods that people also honored and respected. The Greeks often offered sacrifices to request their help or gain their favor and built beautiful temples to honor them. Some honorary mentions are:
- Hecate: the goddess of magic and necromancy. She was the one that helped the goddess Demeter in search of her daughter. Dogs were closely associated with her. The ancient Greeks believed that when dogs suddenly barked at night, Hecate was passing by.
- Aeolus: the god of the winds. He was supervising the eight Wind Gods (each wind direction was personified by ancient Greeks).
- Asclepius: the god of medicine. He was the son of god Apollo who taught him the science of medicine.
- Eris: the goddess of jealousy and discord. She was the one that threw the golden apple at the wedding of Thetis and Peleus because they did not invite her. Her action was the starting point that would later lead to the epic Trojan war.
- Pan: the god of wild, shepherds and rustic music. He is considered to be one of the oldest Greek gods and was especially beloved among the people.
But there are so many other Greek gods! There are of course deities who, although great, remained secondary or never exceeded their local character. Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth; the war god Enyalios and his companion Enyos; Lefkothea and Evrynomi, Mothers and Ladies of the Sea Animals, Lords of the Sea Animals by the names Glaucus, Proteus, Nireus, Forkis; and so many more.
Other deities are organized in groups according to their gender and age. The youthful forms are considered more important because they are always in motion, dancing, singing. The Graces, the Muses, the Nereids, the Oceanids are some of the most popular groups of deities.
Many of these lesser Greek gods and goddesses are forces of nature. Cities honor their rivers and springs with a special altar or temple, personifying them. The cult of the winds and the sun were also very popular. The Moon and Eos, the goddess of dawn, also appear in some myths, while the worship of the Earth in the traditional religion never stopped existing.
The existence of such deities has led to the idea that gods are personifications of natural phenomena and nature itself. The Greeks, for example, considered the rivers gods, children of the great gods. The Nymphs could be found in springs and fountains that were considered sacred places; waters from certain springs were considered fertile, therefore they were related to the ritual bath of the groom before the wedding; newborns were thrown into the water of a specific sacred source to be blessed and have a good life.
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