The Gods of Greece and Rome: The Twelve Olympians |
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The Gods of Greece and Rome: The Twelve Olympians


The mythology and literature of the Ancient Greeks contain many stories about the gods. The Greeks were polytheists, that is, they believed in many gods. They also adopted an anthromorphic approach to their gods, and built temples, in which they placed statues of the gods in human form. As a result Greeks felt that the gods were like them, and shared the same attributes and desires as humans, although on a grander scale of course. As the influence of Greek culture spread to Rome, the Romans began to identify their own native Italian deities with the gods of the Greeks. In classical myth, the twelve most important gods, known collectively as the ‘Hellenic Pantheon’, led by the ‘King’ or ‘Father’ of the gods, inhabited the peaks of Mount Olympus, part of a mountain range in Greece, which separates Macedonia and Thessaly. Its height is about 9,600 feet and it is therefore covered with perpetual snow. The Romans came to equate the twelve deities of the Pantheon with the twelve ‘Consenting Gods’, which they had themselves inherited from the Etruscans – also six male gods and six female ones – , who assisted Jupiter in coming to his decisions. In the sections below Sabidius gives a brief portrait of each of these ‘Twelve Olympians’, together with brief information as to their parentage and children, their main attributes, and information about how they were worshipped. In each case the relevant Greek name is shown in brackets.

1. Jupiter (Zeus). Jupiter, the King of the Gods and ruler of both the Heaven and Earth was the son of Saturn (Cronus) and Rhea. His name ‘Jupiter’ really means ‘Sky-Father’. He married his sister Juno, by whom he had three children, but he had many other children by goddesses and mortal women. He was worshipped as the god of rain, storms, thunder and lightning, and when launching his thunderbolts he was known as ‘Jupiter Tonans’ or ‘Fulminator’, i.e. ‘The Thunderer’. Another of his epithets was ‘Jupiter Pluvius’, i.e. the Rain-maker’. Armed with thunder and lightning, he shakes his ‘aegis’ (or shield) which produces storms and tempests. The Romans believed that Jupiter was omniscient and omnipotent, that is, he could both foresee the future and determine the course of human affairs. He revealed the future to men through signs in the heavens and through the flights of birds, which were carefully interpreted by the Roman college of priests, known as ‘augurs’. He was also regarded as the guardian of law and the protector of justice and virtue, and the punishment of perjurors was one of his particular functions. In Rome he was worshipped as ‘Jupiter Optimus Maximus’ (‘the Best and the Greatest’) in his temple on the top of the lofty Capitoline Hill, which he shared with Juno and Minerva, and in which his statue was placed. As the lord of heaven he was also the prince of light, and therefore the colour white was sacred to him, and only white animals were sacrificed to him on the Capitol. His priest, known as the ‘Flamen Dialis’ always wore a white cap, and the consuls were always attired in white when they performed sacrifices to him on the Capitol on the first day of the year when they entered into their office. He was also a warrior god, whose aid was always invoked by the Romans before any military campaign and a portion of the spoils of war was always shared with him at its conclusion. The annual Roman games, the ‘Ludi Romani’, were celebrated in his honour.

2. Juno (Hera). Juno, the Queen of the Heavens, was Jupiter’s consort, as well as his sister, being the daughter of Saturn. By Jupiter she was the mother of Vulcan, Mars and a daughter Juventas (or Hebe). Juno’s particular function was to watch over the female sex; on their birthdays Roman women were expected to offer her sacrifices, and on 1st March all women took part in the great festival in her honour, known as the Matronalia. The month of June, originally Junonis, was named in her honour, and was considered the most favourable time for getting married and for conception. Juno was the goddess of marriage, and presided over both child-birth and newborn children, under the name of ‘Lucina’. Juno was also given the surname ‘Moneta’ (i.e. ‘She who warns’), a title bestowed upon her because the cackling of her sacred geese had given the warning when the Gauls were attacking Rome in 390 B.C. and thus saved the Capitol. As a result a temple dedicated to Juno Moneta was founded on the Capitoline Hill, and in the Third Century this temple became the financial centre at which coins were struck. Indeed, it is from her name ‘Moneta’ that our words ‘money’ and ‘mint’ are formed. Thus Juno acquired the function of protectress of the state’s finances. In Homer’s ‘Iliad’, as Hera, she is particularly known for her hostility towards Troy during the ten-year Trojan war, and then, as Juno, in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ for her malevolence towards Aeneas and his followers as they try to settle in Italy. Only right at the end of Book Twelve does Jupiter finally prevail upon her to drop her antagonism to Aeneas, but then on the strict understanding that he and his followers cease to describe themselves as Trojans. According to classical myth, Juno’s long-standing hatred of Troy was the consequence of the ‘Judgment of Paris’, when Paris, the son of Priam, King of Troy, awarded the golden apple marked ‘For the fairest’ to Venus, rather than to her or Minerva. This resentment towards both Troy and Aeneas is perhaps the best example of the spiteful nature for which Juno or Hera was particularly renowned in classical literature.

3. Neptune (Poseidon). Neptune was the brother of Jupiter, and, hence, also the son of Saturn and Rhea. As lord of the sea, he is usually portrayed carrying a trident, the weapon particularly favoured by tunny-fishers, the most important Mediterranean fishermen. He married Amphitrite, who was herself a sea-nymph, and by whom he had a son Triton. In the Homeric poems Poseidon is portrayed as being equal to Zeus in dignity, but less powerful. Although he was one of the Olympians, he was also represented as living in a palace at the bottom of the sea near Aegae in Euboea, where he kept horses with brazen hooves and golden manes, drawn by which he rides his chariot over the waves of the sea, which become calm as he approaches. He was also portrayed as the god and controller of horses, and, in consequence, is also often shown as holding a horse-whip as well as a trident. In this role as god of horses, he was believed to have taught men the art of managing horses by the bridle, and to have been the originator of horse races. In Greece he may, in earlier centuries, have even been worshipped in the form of a horse. In Rome his temple stood in the Campus Martius. In Greek legend he is said to have built the walls of Troy for Laomedon, but later he sided with the Greeks against the Trojans. In Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ he is hostile to Ulysses, whom, by means of storms, he continually prevents from returning home as a consequence of his blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus, who was identified as the son of Poseidon by another nymph named Thoosa.

4. Ceres (Demeter). Also the daughter of Saturn and Rhea, Ceres was the goddess of corn and agriculture. She is best known as the mother of Proserpina (Persephone in Greek), her daughter by her brother, Jupiter, who when gathering flowers in a meadow near Enna in Sicily was carried off to the Underworld by her uncle Pluto (Hades) to be queen of the Underworld. Ceres searched for her daughter everywhere, but without success, and in consequence forgot to look after the crops. Because the earth became barren, Jupiter sent Mercury into the lower world to collect Proserpina. Pluto agreed to her return on condition that she ate nothing in the Underworld, but, in her excitement at the prospect of her return, Proserpina ate a pomegranite seed, and was therefore compelled to spend six (or three) months of the year with Pluto in the Underworld. Nevertheless, the earth became fertile again. The meaning of the legend is clear: the Proserpina who has to spend a proportion of her time in the underworld is the seed-corn, which remains concealed in the ground for part of the year; the Proserpina who then returns to her mother Ceres is the corn which rises from the ground to nourish both men and animals. In Attica Demeter was worshipped with great splendour, and the Athenians maintained that agriculture had been invented in their country. Every year the famous Eleusinian mysteries were celebrated in honour of Demeter and her daughter. In Rome the worship of Demeter had been introduced into the city in 493 B.C. when during a famine the Sibylline Books had enjoined the building of a temple to Ceres and Proserpina below the Aventine Hill, and the worship of Ceres took over all the attributes and legends associated with Demeter. During the remainder of the republican period decrees of the Senate were deposited in the temple of Ceres for inspection by the tribunes of the people. In statues Ceres is usually shown holding the ears of corn which feature so largely in the Demeter-Eleusis legends. Her festival, the Cerealia, was held in Rome annually on 19th April, and we derive our word ‘cereal’ directly from her name.

5. Vesta (Hestia). According to legend Vesta was the eldest child of Saturn and Rhea. She swore to remain a virgin, and, as a maiden divinity, she was the goddess of the hearth, or, more accurately of the fire that burns on the hearth. As the hearth (the ‘focus’) was seen as the centre of domestic life, she was also therefore the goddess of domestic life. Tending the hearth was considered to be the function of unmarried daughters. Vesta was also the goddess of the sacred fire of the altar, and so the first part of every sacrifice was presented to her. A town or a city was considered by the Greeks to be an extended family and had its sacred fire in its town-hall, known as the ‘prytaneum’. When a Greek town sent out a party to found a colony elsewhere, the emigrants took some of this fire from their mother town to burn on the hearth of their new home. As goddess of the hearth, Vesta was inseparably connected with the household gods, the ‘Penates’, associated with the ‘penus’ or store-cupboard, in which the provisions of the house were kept. According to legend, Aeneas brought the eternal fire of Vesta, together with the Penates, from Troy. In Rome respect for Vesta was demonstrated by the custody of the undying fire by the six Vestal Virgins, all women from noble families, who, under the direction of the chief priest, the ‘Pontifex Maximus’, tended the flames in her temple. The Temple of Vesta, which was round in imitation of the round huts of the Latins, was placed in the Forum, where a remnant of it can still be seen. The Vestals were a central part of the Roman state cult, and their lives were regulated by very strict taboos. The feast of Vesta was held in Rome in mid-June, when her temple was cleansed with water from a sacred spring, and when the ‘penus’ of each house was traditionally renewed.

6. Minerva (Pallas Athena). Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, was the daughter of Jupiter and the sea-nymph Metis. Jupiter swallowed Metis whole to prevent her from bearing a son that might threaten to depose him, but, sometime later he had a severe headache, which he asked his son Vulcan to relieve by striking his head with an axe. This Vulcan did, and Minerva then sprang forth, in full armour, from her father’s head. She was the goddess of wisdom, and of the arts and handicrafts, and indeed of every kind of intellectual activity, and in her statues she is sometimes portrayed holding an owl, which symbolised wisdom. Another of her functions was to guide men in the dangers of war, and so she was frequently represented wearing armour, including a helmet and shield. As an Italian deity, her worship is supposed to have been introduced into Rome by the second king, Numa Pompilius (715-673 B.C.), and in 509 B.C. the great temple on the Capitoline Hill dedicated to the triad of Jupito, Juno and Minerva was completed. Hence, it is clear that Minerva was one of the foremost deities of the Romans. The Roman festival of Minerva, called the Quinquatrus, lasted for five days from 19th to 23rd March. As Athena, she was the patron deity of Athens, and her temple, the Parthenon, inside which was her statue, is the most famous temple in the world.

7. Venus (Aphrodite). Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, was the daughter of Jupiter and Dione, and was reputed to have been born in the foam of the sea off the island of Cyprus. She was married to her half-brother Vulcan, but also loved Mars, and a human, Anchises, to whom she bore Aeneas, the Trojan hero and the legendary ancestor of the Roman race. She far surpassed all the other goddesses in physical beauty and hence received the prize of the golden apple in the ‘Judgement of Paris’. In the Trojan War she gives her support to the Trojans and saves the life of Paris when he is about to be killed by Menelaus, the estranged husband of Helen, whom Paris has abducted. In Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ she gives help and advice to her son Aeneas during his long travels to Italy. She also falls in love with a youth, Adonis, and was overcome with grief when he was killed during a boar-hunt. In her statues she was usually portrayed together with her son Cupid (Eros), with his famous ‘darts’, which he carries in a golden quiver, and which, when released, would infect with overwhelming desire any man or god whom they struck. Venus, herself, had the power of granting beauty and irresistible charms to others, and whoever wore her magic girdle became an object of love and desire to others. In Greece, the islands of Cyprus and Cytherea were the principal places where she was worshipped. In Rome her worship was introduced from Sicily at the beginning of the Second Punic war towards the end of the Third Century B.C. Later, her worship was promoted by Julius Caesar, who traced his own descent from her through Aeneas’ son, Julus, and he erected a splendid temple in her honour. The Emperor Hadrian built an even more majestic temple in her name in 135 A.D.

8. Apollo. He was the son of Jupiter and Latona (Leto) and was born, together with his twin-sister Diana (Artemis), on the Greek island of Delos, to which Leto had fled to escape the jealousy of Hera. In his case the name Apollo was used by both the Greeks and the Romans, but he is often known as ‘Phoebus’, a Greek epithet meaning ‘the bright’ or ‘the pure’. Of all the deities associated with Greece and Rome, Apollo is perhaps the most attractive, both in appearance and character. As god of all brightness and light, it was natural that he should be closely associated with the Sun, and he was believed to drive his four-horsed chariot (or quadriga) across the sky each morning. He was held to perform functions in relation to both music and medicine. However, his most important attribute was his close interest in all matters affecting law and order, as well as in the intellectual, social and moral spheres. He was thought to preside over public actions, such as the founding of cities, the drawing up of codes of law, and the constitutions of states. A particular function of Apollo was his role in punishing homicide, the ultimate violation of the social order, and, as the divine archer, he was seen to punish murderers with his avenging arrows. These are also in evidence at the beginning of the ‘Iiad’, when, enraged by their treatment of his priest Chryses and the abduction of his daughter Chryseis, his arrows create a terrible pestilence in the Greeks’ camp. However, Apollo is perhaps best known for his function as god of prophecy, and was understood to exercise many of his legislative and ritual functions by means of his oracles, the most famous of which, in historical times, was at Delphi in central Greece, where his priestess, known as the ‘Pythoness’, sat on a tripod over a cleft in the rock from which issued an intoxicating vapour, and then gave opaque responses to questions put to her, which were then interpreted by priests to those who had come to consult the god. This advice was usually ambiguous, but was sometimes good and politically significant. Apollo’s most important connection with Rome came from the city’s relative proximity to the Greek colony of Cumae on the northern tip of the Bay of Naples. Cumae was renowned for its worship of Apollo, and it was also the seat of another of his prophetesses, called the ‘Sybil’. This Sybil was to be immortalised by Virgil in the Sixth Book of his ‘Aeneid’, in which she introduces Aeneas to the Underworld, where he meets the shades of many heroes of the Roman future. In the Sixth Century B.C., the Sybil was reputed to have sold the three volumes of the Sibylline Books to King Tarquinius Priscus. These oracular books were kept in the Capitol by a college of fifteen priests, who were consulted only on the orders of the Senate. A temple of Apollo was consecrated in Rome as early as 432 B.C. and in 212 B.C. annual games, the ‘Ludi Apollinari’ were instituted in his honour. Apollo’s status in Rome was greatly enhanced by the devotion of the Emperor Augustus, who erected magnificent temples to the god on the Palatine Hill in Rome, and at Actium in Greece to celebrate his victory over Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C.

9. Diana (Artemis). Diana, the daughter of Jupiter and Latona (Leto), and twin-sister of Apollo, was the goddess of hunting and the patroness of chastity, which she guarded with determination. When the hunter Actaeon saw her bathing naked in a pool, she turned him into a stag, whereupon he was killed by his own hounds. Diana was also worshipped in relation to childbirth. Just as her brother Apollo was linked with the Sun, Diana was associated with the Moon, and sometimes identified with the lunar goddess Selene. In statues she is usually portrayed with a quiver and arrows in view of her function as a huntress, and her character was often seen as a vengeful one. When, Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus, boasted that she had seven children, whereas Latona had only two, Diana and her brother punished her by shooting all her children with their arrows. In the Asian city of Ephesus, she was worshipped as a universal mother figure until well into the Christian era. Indeed, as recorded in ‘The Acts of the Apostles’, when St. Paul visits Ephesus, he is met with the universal shout of “Great is Diana of the Ephesians”. In Italy, the most famous shrine of Diana was at Aricia in the Alban Hills, but her worship was introduced to the Aventine Hill in Rome by King Servius Tullius as early as the Sixth Century B.C. Diana was also sometimes identified with Hecate, a goddess of the Underworld, and she was also worshipped by the Romans at crossroads under the name of Trivia.

10. Mars (Ares). The son of Jupiter and Juno, Mars was the god of war. His savage and sanguinary nature, which delighted in bloodshed and ruin, made him an object of hatred to all the other gods, except his half-sister Venus, who had a love-affair with him. His worship in Greece was limited, but in Rome he enjoyed the highest honours next to Jupiter himself, and as father of Romulus and Remus was considered as the founder of the Roman race. Indeed Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus (an old Roman god of Sabine origin, under whose identity Romulus was worshipped by the Romans after his death) were worshipped as the three tutelary deities of Rome, and to each of these a ‘flamen’ (or priest) was believed to have been appointed by King Numa Pompilius in the Seventh Century B.C. Most of the gods were considered by the Romans and Italians to have agrarian functions relevant to a largely rural society, and this was especially true in the case of Mars, who was worshipped as the protector of agriculture, and, under the name of Silvanus, as guardian of cattle. Most of his festivals fell during the month which bears his name, i.e. March, which was towards the end of the ‘close season’ for both war and agriculture, that is, the autumn to spring. During this month, the ‘Salii’, the ‘leaping’ priest of Mars were active. Clad like ancient Latin warriors, they danced around, brandishing their spears and clashing their holy shields, with the purpose of expelling evil spirits and, by their leaping, stimulating growth in the fields. The Salii were also active again in October, towards the end of which they laid up their shields in a ritually-significant manner to indicate the end of the campaigning season. The area of Rome dedicated to military exercises was known as the ‘Campus Martius’ (or the Field of Mars), and this was situated beside the Tiber just outside the city boundary. The Emperor Augustus built a large temple in the Forum dedicated to him, under the name ‘Mars Ultor’ (the Avenger).

11. Vulcan (Hephaestus). Also the son of Jupiter and Juno, Vulcan was the god of fire and all mechanical arts. He was lame, a condition caused by his being thrown out of heaven, either by his mother, disgusted by his weakness, or by his father, infuriated because he had sought to support his mother during one of his parents’ quarrels (the traditions vary in this case). He married his half-sister Venus, but became jealous of her affections for his brother Mars. However, as we read in Book Eight of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, he managed to catch the two of them in a net, as they were embracing, and thus to hold them up to ridicule before the other gods. In Homer, he appears as the great artist of the gods in Olympus. He had his workshop in his palace on Olympus, which contained an anvil and twenty bellows, which at his bidding all worked spontaneously. All the palaces on Olympus were the result of Vulcan’s handiwork, and he did much skilled work for the other gods. He also made Achilles’ armour, in which he fought during the Trojan War, and, in the Book Eight of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, he makes Aeneas, at the behest of his mother Venus, a shield in which are depicted scenes from future Roman history, including in its centre Augustus’ victory at Actium and his triple triumph in 29 B.C. Virgil devotes over a hundred lines to describe this magnificent shield, his description of which subsequently exercised a great influence on the artistic and cultural imagination of later Roman artists and poets. Vulcan’s favourite abode on Earth was the island of Lemnos, where he had come to rest after being hurled out of heaven, but he is also associated with other Volcanic islands, including Sicily, where in late traditions the one-eyed Cyclopes are portrayed as his workmen, forging thunderbolts for his father Jupiter. With regard to his worship, because fire is destructive, Vulcan was usually worshipped only outside the city of Rome, but his feast, the Vulcanalia, was celebrated on 23rd August. During this festival, the celebrant threw little fishes into the flames; these fish were offered for the preservation of human lives. Vulcan was also accorded his own ‘flamen’ or priest.

12. Mercury (Hermes). Mercury, the son of Jupiter and Maia, was the messenger of the gods, and amongst his numerous attributes or functions he was the god of herdsmen, eloquence, dreams, commerce, and good luck. Jupiter made Mercury his herald and he was regularly employed by the gods, and especially his father Jupiter, to bring messages to deities and humans on the Earth. For instance at the beginning of Book Five of the ‘Odyssey’ he descends to Earth at Jupiter’s behest to command the nymph Calypso to release Ulysses from his seven year imprisonment on the island of Ogygia. Furthermore, as recounted in Book Four of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, Mercury is sent by Jupiter to remind Aeneas, who has become ensnared at Carthage by his love for Dido, that his destiny is to found a kingdom in Italy, and tells him that he and his followers must move on without delay. Another important function of Mercury was to act as the conductor of souls or shades of the dead from the upper world to Hades. He was also regarded as the god of roads and the protector of those travelling along them. Hence, numerous statues of him called ‘Hermae’ were erected on Greek roads, and at doorways and gates leading on to them. In his statues, Mercury is invariably shown with the following features: he wears a travelling hat, called a ‘petasus’, with a broad brim and often adorned with two small wings; he carries a herald’s gold staff, known as a ‘caduceus’, also surmounted with wings and intertwined with snakes; and he wears winged sandals, which carry him across both land and sea in the course of his duties as the messenger of the gods. His son, Faunus (or Pan), born to him by a wood-nymph, was half-man, half-goat, and guarded the crops and the countryside and was famous for playing the pan-pipes, which he called the ‘Syrinx’. In Rome, a temple was built for Mercury near the Circus Maximus as early as 495 B.C. and his festival was celebrated on 25th May.

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