Few figures from ancient mythology are as popular and well-known today as the Greek gods. You can find them in books and movies, company names and Halloween costumes, and even in space, where tons of astrological features are named after them!
But what if you want to know more about the Greek goddesses and gods than just their names and a vague idea of their function? In this article we’ll provide a comprehensive guide to the Greek pantheon, starting with an introduction to the Greek gods and their mythic origins. Then, we’ll do a deep dive on the Twelve Olympians, go over some other important minor deities, discuss Greek gods family tree, the history of their worship, and wrap up with all the places you might encounter this ancient pantheon today!
Greek Gods and Goddesses: An Introduction
As in many ancient religions, there were hundreds of beings recognized as deities by the Greeks. These deities were mostly associated with abstract concepts like memory and justice and natural forces and features like rivers, seasons, death, and rebirth. There were also gods associated with agriculture and craftsmanship (like shepherding and blacksmithing) and the social order (i.e. marriage, the law). These gods were understood primarily as inexorable forces that governed human existence, but they also had a human aspect.
These gods also marry, have children, fight, intermingle with mortals, insult each other, take vengeance, make war, and create great art. They have hierarchical and familial relationships. Mythology shows the gods both hurting and harming both mortals and each other in fairly equal measure, and not necessarily in accordance with modern conception of justice or fairness.
To the modern observer, ancient religions can seem truly bizarre. The gods seem petty and irrational—not benevolent or better than humans, but embodying the entire spectrum of human strengths and foibles while simultaneously ignoring human conventions (the Greek gods’ family tree is incredibly complicated—and incestuous). But to the Greeks, the gods were not meant to behave better than humans or judge human conduct; they were simply the absolute forces that ordered the universe and drove all phenomena. Their human aspects simply made them intelligible.
Mount Olympus, the mythic home of the Greek gods. Photo by flickr user stefg74.
Mythic Origins of the Greek Gods and Goddesses
In the Greek view, the main gods of Olympus were far from the original gods of the Universe. In the beginning was only Chaos. From Chaos came four beings:
#1: Eros, who represented not only love but the power to reproduce
#2: Gaia, the earth
#3: Tartarus, the empty abyss beneath the earth
#4: Nyx, the night
Gaia birthed Uranus, the sky, from herself. Gaia and Uranus then had many children together, who were known as the Titans. Among the Titans were both gods and monsters. Uranus was not pleased with Gaia’s monstrous children, and so attempted to force them back into her womb, causing her incredible pain. Because of this, Gaia had her youngest son, the Titan Kronos, castrate his father with a sickle and cast the testicles into the sea.
Kronos then became ruler of the gods. He took his sister Rhea as consort. But as he had overthrown his own father, he feared his children would overthrow him. So he consumed each of his children as they were born.
However, with her last child, Zeus, Rhea tricked Kronos by offering him a stone wrapped in swaddling instead. She hid Zeus on earth, where he was raised by a nymph. When he grew to manhood, Gaia helped Zeus drug Kronos and then give him a potion to make him throw up all of his siblings: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia.
With his siblings as allies, he established himself at Mount Olympus and led a war against Kronos and the other Titans. With his victory, he became king of the greek gods and goddesses. He imprisoned the defeated Titan men in the depths of Tartarus. However, he allowed the Titan women to remain above and in fact went on to have children with many of them! He also married Hera and made her his consort.
To the Greeks, Rhea, Cronus, and the Titans most likely represented the gods who were worshiped before the worship of the main Olympians were established.
Major Figures of the Pantheon: The Twelve Olympians
The number twelve had great symbolic significance to the Greeks, and so there always had to be twelve primary Olympians. This is regardless of the fact that far more than twelve gods lived at Olympus, and some of the Twelve barely resided there if at all (like Poseidon and Hades). Myth holds that Hestia forfeited her place as one of the Twelve when Dionysus ascended Olympus, to keep the correct number.
Who was among the Twelve was not always consistent, either—some descriptions kept Hestia and left out Hades, for example. However, the following Greek goddesses and gods were those most commonly named as the Twelve.
God of: Storms, fate and destiny, law and order, kingship; king of the gods.
Origin: Child of Titans Kronos and Rhea
Usually Depicted As: A strong, mature, kingly man with a dark beard.
Symbols and Icons: Thunderbolt, eagle, oak, bull
- Married to Hera
- Brother of Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, and Hestia
- Fathered many of the Olympian gods: Athena, Persephone, Ares, Apollo and Artemis, Dionysus, and many other more minor gods and demigods. Only Ares was fathered with Hera; the rest were from extramarital dalliances.
After Zeus threw down Kronos, he, Poseidon, and Hades drew lots to divide up the cosmos. Zeus got the sky. The earth was considered equally under the mastery of all three brothers.
Zeus' primary original aspect was as a weather god; thunderbolts forged by Hephaestus were his chosen weapon.
Later, he came to symbolize order, the law, and fate; he was considered more powerful than all the other gods and thus his rule went unchallenged.
He had a huge number of affairs with both goddesses and mortal women, and the many children resulting from said affairs. He often took animal form to seduce mortal women.
Other than the story of him overthrowing the Titans, most of the best-known myths of Zeus today center around his seduction (or rape) of various women. Here are some notable ones:
Leda: Leda was the wife of Tyndareus, the Queen of Sparta. However, Zeus desired her, so he transformed into a swan and either seduced or raped her, depending on the version of the story. Leda also slept with her husband the same night, and then laid two eggs. From one egg came her children with Zeus, Helen (of Troy fame) and Polydeuces (or Pollux). From the other egg came her children with Tyndareus, Castor and Clytemnestra.
Europa: Zeus saw and desired the beautiful Europa, a Phoenician noblewoman. He disguised himself as a white bull in her father’s herds. When out with her handmaids, she admired the beautiful bull and climbed atop his back. He seized the opportunity to take her away, swimming across the sea to Crete. After Zeus had several children with her, she married the king of Crete. The name of the continent "Europe" comes from Europa.
Danae: Danae was the daughter of a king. This king heard a prophecy that her son would overthrow him, so he locked Danae in a tower so no man could touch her. However, Zeus transformed into a shower of gold, came in through the grates of her tower, and impregnated her with Perseus. The king threw Danae and Perseus into the sea in a wooden chest. Zeus asked Poseidon to bear them to safety.
Goddess of: Marriage and childbirth, women, and the sky and stars; queen of the gods
Origin: Child of Titans Kronos and Rhea
Usually Depicted As: A beautiful, majestic matron wearing a crown
Symbols and Icons: The peacock, the cuckoo, the pomegranate, the cow
- Married to Zeus (also his sister)
- Sister of Demeter, Poseidon, Zeus, Hades, and Hestia
- Mother of Ares, Eris, Hebe, and Eileithyia, (with Zeus)
- Mother of Hephaestus (without male intervention!)
As wife of Zeus, she was queen of the Greek gods. She was undeniably powerful in her own right, but was not really considered Zeus’ equal; in myths about direct confrontations between them Zeus always emerged the victor.
She was considered somewhat stubborn and quarrelsome; she and Zeus had a tumultuous relationship. She was known for tormenting Zeus’ many lovers and so had a reputation for being "jealous."
Every year, she renewed her virginity by bathing in a spring at Nauplia.
Many of Hera’s appearances in myth revolve around her attempts to torment the lovers of Zeus and the children resulting from these unions.
Heracles and the Milky Way: Hera repeatedly tormented Zeus’ child with the mortal Alcmene, Heracles. (Zeus’ attempt to placate Hera by naming the child in her honor was not successful.) She set many obstacles against him throughout his life. One notable story about Hera and Heracles was that when he was an infant, Zeus tricked Hera into breastfeeding Heracles, presenting him simply as an abandoned child. When she realized who he was, she yanked the baby from her breast, and the spray of milk that followed became the Milky Way.
Lamia: Zeus took a beautiful queen of Libya as his mistress, and she bore him multiple children. Enraged, Hera killed Lamia’s children and turned her into a monster (typically part-serpent) who devours the children of others.
God of: The sea, flood, drought, earthquakes, horses
Origin: Child of Titans Kronos and Rhea
Usually Depicted As: A mature, dark-bearded man with a trident
Symbols and Icons: The trident, the horse, the dolphin, the bull, the tuna
- Brother of Demeter, Hera, Zeus, Hades, and Hestia
- Married to Amphitrite
- Fathered many children with various mothers; a large number of these children were monstrous in some respect or another.
When Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades defeated their father Kronos, they drew lots on who would rule over what, and Poseidon drew the sea.
He is thought to be much like the sea: capable of being both majestic, calm, and stormy by turns. Like his brother, Zeus, he was known to have many lovers.
He was considered to have the power to give sailors safe passage.
He is often credited with creating the horse; he rode around on the surface of the sea in a chariot pulled by magic horses. The Greeks believed that sacrificing a horse would win Poseidon’s favor.
Patronage of Athens: Poseidon and Athena were both in bitter competition to become the patron god of Athens when it was a newly-founded city (and before it was called Athens, of course). Athena proposed they hold a content for the patronage of the city: each would present a gift to the city and the king, Cecrops, would judge which present was best and therefore which god would be patron.
Some versions of the myth have Poseidon giving the people a spring, which turned out to be saltwater and so useless. Some versions have him creating and gifting the city with the horse. Either way, Athena gave the city the olive tree, which Cecrops deemed the better gift. Athena became patron and the city was called Athens in her honor.
Goddess of: All plants and fruit, agriculture, grain, bread, fertility, and newlyweds.
Origin: Child of Titans Kronos and Rhea
Usually Depicted As: A crowned, blonde, somewhat voluptuous, mature woman bearing grain. Often portrayed with her daughter, Persephone, or in a chariot drawn by horses or dragons
Symbols and Icons: Corn, pigs, fruit, poppies, sheaves of wheat, the cornucopia/horn of plenty.
- Mother of Persephone (by Zeus)
- Sister of Hera, Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, and Hestia
The name "Demeter" has two potential derivations; it could mean either "mother earth," or "giver of grain/barley." She was primarily a Greek goddess not just of nature but of cultivation; she taught humanity how to cultivate grain. As such she was also considered the giver of bread. Without her blessing, nothing grew and people starved.
Rather than dwell in Olympus, she spent most of her time wandering the surface of the earth with her daughter, Persephone.
Mother and daughter were often worshiped together, particularly as part of the Eleusinian mysteries. This was a mystery cult centered at Eleusis that promised initiates entrance into the blessed paradise Elysium in the afterlife. The contents of the mysteries were closely-guarded secrets. We have a general idea that they were primarily a ritualized presentation of the myth of Persephone, but we don’t know all the specifics. So many details of the mysteries remain a mystery to this day!
Many agrarian festivals were held in her honor throughout Greece.
Demeter was also a goddess of fertility, and the priestess of Demeter was responsible for explaining the duties of marriage to newlywed couples.
The most important myth about Demeter is the myth of the abduction of Persephone—a story that has endured in the popular imagination through the present day.
The Abduction of Persephone: The god Hades wished to marry Persephone, but he knew that it was unlikely that Demeter would allow anyone to marry her daughter as it would separate the two. So he petitioned Zeus, who gave him permission to abduct Persephone.
When Persephone was gathering flowers with her companions, he came forth from the earth, snatched her up onto his chariot, and descended down with his new bride into the Underworld.
Demeter, distraught, searched everywhere for her daughter with the help of the goddess Hecate. But she couldn’t find Persephone anywhere on earth. In her grief, she made it so all crops failed and all vegetation withered.
Eventually, the Greek god Helios told her he had seen Hades carry off Persephone. Outraged, Demeter went to Zeus to demand her daughter be returned. Zeus complied because humanity was starving, and commanded Hades to return Persephone to the surface world.
Hades did return her. But before that he offered Persephone a single pomegranate seed to eat. Because she had eaten of the fruit of the Underworld, she had to return there part of every year. Thus she spends a third of every year (or half, depending on who is telling the tale) in the Underworld, and the rest of the year on the earth’s surface with her mother.
This myth is used to explain the cycling of the seasons: when Persephone is above ground, Demeter is happy and things grow. When Persephone is in the Underworld, Demeter is sad and the earth is barren (so, winter).
God of: King of the Underworld, god of death and funerals; also considered the god of the metals and riches of the earth and soil
Origin: Child of Titans Kronos and Rhea
Usually Depicted As: A dark-bearded, mature man; had two commonly depicted aspects: enthroned in the underworld, or pouring earthly riches from a cornucopia
Symbols and Icons: Black sheep, cyprus, narcissus
- Husband of Persephone
- Brother of Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia
- Father of The Furies (sometimes)
His name has two possible derivations: one meaning "he who makes invisible," and another meaning "receiver/embracer of all."
He became god of the underworld when he, Poseidon, and Zeus drew lots to see who would control which realms of the cosmos. However, he was allowed to ascend Olympus at will, although he did not know what transpired on earth or on Olympus when he was in the underworld.
He presided over the trials of the dead.
He was considered a chthonic deity—associated with the earth and underground as opposed to the sky or sea.
The Greeks considered him somewhat pitiless and he was not well-loved; unsurprising for the god of death! He was also often referred to euphemistically, with names like "Clymenus" (the illustrious) and "Eubelus" (the giver of good counsel) due to Greek superstition. He was also known as "the hidden one" because he had a helmet that made him invisible.
Like Poseidon and Zeus, he had several extramarital dalliances; although of an order of magnitude less, it seems.
By far the most notable myth about Hades is his abduction of Persephone; see Demeter’s section above for this myth.
Goddess of: wisdom and reason, battle strategy/warfare, handicrafts, weaving. Patron goddess of Athens.
Origin: Was the child of Zeus and Titan Metis. Fearing his child would usurp him, Zeus consumed the pregnant Metis. Later, he endured a "splitting" headache—until Hephaestus split open Zeus’ head with an axe and the fully-formed, armor-wearing Athena emerged.
Usually Depicted As: Wearing body armor with a shield and a lance; or wearing a helmet and the aegis, her cape printed with the face of Medusa.
Symbols and Icons: The owl, the olive tree, the goose, the serpent
- Had a close relationship with Zeus; often cited as his favorite child
- Was in many ways counterparts with Hephaestus, who wished to marry her; she refused
She represents logic and rationality to such an extent that she cannot be "afflicted by Aphrodite"—she cannot fall in love. As such, she is a sworn virgin. She is also considered to have a somewhat androgynous aspect.
She has a close relationship with Zeus and was thought to sit at his right hand and give her wise counsel when occasion required.
As opposed to being aligned with natural forces, Athena is primarily a goddess of civilization. She was considered a force of power and wisdom who protected the law, the state, and social institutions. In many ways she is the opposite of her fellow sworn virgin goddess Artemis.
As protector of the state, she also had an aspect as a goddess of warfare and battle; she was considered the goddess of military strategy. This stands in contrast to Ares, who was the god of thoughtless battle-lust. The Greeks took it as somewhat self-evident that Athena surpassed Ares in battle.
She was considered, much like Hephaestus, a great innovator and creator of many of the useful crafts used by humankind. Pretty much any carefully-designed invention or craft commonly used for human industry was thought to be inspired or created by Athena. She was notably considered the inventor of weaving.
She also created the olive tree.
Athena was a particularly beloved goddess by the Greeks; she had many cult sites and they often sacrificed bulls to her.
We've already covered how Athena became patron goddess of Athens in the Poseidon section, but there are also other notable myths about her.
Arachne: Arachne was a young Greek woman who claimed that she was a better weaver than Athena herself. Insulted, Athena challenged Arachne to a weaving contest. Athena wove scenes of the gods’ glories and triumphs, while Arachne wove scenes of the gods abusing mortals.
There is some variation in exactly what happened—some versions claim that Arachne’s weaving was superior, and some that Athena won. However, Athena was enraged by Arachne’s insult to the gods through her woven scenes and turned her into a spider, weaving only webs.
God of: Craftsmen, blacksmiths, fire, volcanoes
Origin: Typically considered a child of Hera and Hera alone. She conceived him herself, but when he was born crippled, she threw him out of the heavens. He was rescued and raised by Thetis and Eurynome. He was later welcomed back to Olympus after proving his skill as a craftsman.
Depicted As: A middle-aged, bearded man with the tongs and hammer of a blacksmith, usually wearing a short-sleeved tunic and cap; sometimes riding a donkey. Sometimes visibly crippled; sometimes ugly, especially in post-ancient depictions.
Symbols and Icons: Hammer, anvil/tongs, axe
- In some ways a counterpart to Athena; he initially wished to marry her but she rebuffed him.
- Married Aphrodite when his request to marry Athena was denied.
- Had a somewhat contentious relationship with his mother, Hera
Hephaestus is notable for being the only primary Greek god of Olympus with a disability.
Aphrodite was not happy to be married to him and engaged in an ongoing affair with Ares.
Hephaestus was the craftsman of the gods and made many of their most prized possessions, for example:
- Hermes’ winged sandals
- Aphrodite’s’ girdle
- The chariot of Helios
- The armor of achilles
Hephaestus taught man the crafts associated with smithing and as such was often worshiped in tandem with Athena, who was also associated with crafting.
He was also known for his healing abilities; his priests were renowned for their knowledge of healing snake bites.
As Hephaestus was often ridiculed and mistreated for his lameness, many of his myths are about shaming those who cross and denigrate him—even the other gods.
Aphrodite and Ares: Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus, but they did not have a happy marriage. She had an ongoing affair with Ares, god of war.
Helios, the Greek sun god, revealed the affair to Hephaestus when he saw the lovers cavorting together from his chariot above. Enraged, Hephaestus decided to lay a trap. He hung a fine-woven, invisible net above their trysting-place and told his wife he would be gone for some time.
When Ares and Aphrodite were in flagrante delicto, the net dropped, trapping them in an amorous embrace. Hephaestus invited the gods to come view his unfaithful wife and her lover. The goddesses declined, but the men went to see.
Hephaestus demanded back the bride-gifts he had paid for Aphrodite, but Zeus refused and told him they needed to work out the marital manner themselves. Ares was ordered to pay a fine to Hephaestus.
None of this, of course, made Aphrodite faithful to Hephaestus.
Goddess of: Love, passion, beauty, sex
Origin: When Uranus was castrated by Kronos, his testicles were cast into the sea. Aphrodite rose from the foam that formed around the testicles.
Depicted As: A beautiful, nude woman; or in a clothed, seated style similar to other Olympian goddesses
Symbols and Icons: Apple, myrtle wreath, scallop shell, the dove, the swan, the rose, the pomegranate
- Unhappily married to Hephaestus
- Had an ongoing affair with Ares
- Had many children by different lovers, mortal and immortal
"Aphros" means foam; while Aphrodite’s primary aspects were related to love and sex, she was also a goddess of the sea. She rescued shipwrecked sailors. She also guarded plants, and was (somewhat unsurprisingly) the goddess of prostitutes.
In some regions she was also a Greek goddess of war and considered the lawful wife of Ares; her connection to war perhaps explains the coupling of Ares and Aphrodite throughout myth.
She had a magic girdle made my Hephaestus that made the woman who wore it irresistible; she would loan it to Hera when Hera wished to recapture the attention of Zeus’ wandering eye!
Unlike most of the other female gods, who tended to have a fairly limited number of lovers, Aphrodite was known for her many mortal and immortal lovers.
She was known for her jealous nature; while she was very generous to her worshipers, she was spiteful to those who denied her.
Aphrodite myths typically concern her love affairs. Her liaison with Ares and the trap laid by Hephaestus was already described. Other than Ares, her most famous lover was Adonis.
Aphrodite and Adonis: Adonis’ parentage is not consistent in myth, but in all accounts his pregnant mother was turned into a myrrh tree and he was born from the tree some time later. Aphrodite was taken with the baby and gave him into the care of Persephone. However, Persephone refused to give the child back. To solve the dispute, Zeus (or sometimes Calliope) decreed that Adonis would spend four months of the year with each goddess and the remaining four months however he chose. He decided to spend eight months of the year with Aphrodite. (It is unclear at exactly what point in the story Adonis becomes a young man and the lover of Aphrodite, but that is how he is typically depicted.)
Unfortunately, Adonis is gored to death by a wild boar. In different versions of the myth, the boar is sent by a different god or goddess to take retribution against Aphrodite for some perceived wrongdoing. One of the most famous versions has her immortal lover Ares sending the boar to kill Adonis out of jealousy. Aphrodite hears Adonis’ cries and rushes to his side, where he dies in her arms. She turns his blood into the anemone flower.
Adonis was actually a cult figure in ancient Greece and the subject of many mystery cults concerned with the Underworld, resurrection, and immortality. He and Aphrodite were sometimes worshiped in tandem as part of these cults.
God of: war and battle (especially bloodlust), but also associated with courage and civil order
Origin: Child of Zeus and Hera
Depicted As: Either as a mature armored warrior or a nude youth, but almost always with his helmet.
Symbols and Icons: Spear, woodpecker, vulture, dog, peaked warrior’s helmet
- Best-known relationship among the gods was as the lover of Aphrodite
- Also had many children, some by Aphrodite but most by others.
- Was accompanied into battle by his children with Aphrodite, Phobos and Deimos (Panic and Dread), and his sister, Eris (Strife)
While Athena represented battle strategy and cunning, Ares represented bloodlust and battle frenzy—he enjoyed conflict for its own sake and was known to aid both sides by turns in the battles of men.
In addition to battle and bloodshed, he was also said to cause plagues and epidemics. As an agent of violence and chaos, he was not well-loved by his parents or the other gods (except for by Aphrodite).
Like most of the other male gods, he had many lovers, but Aphrodite was the most notable one.
Because he was an agent of violence and chaos, he was not necessarily hugely popular across Greece. He was worshiped primarily in the northern parts. Additionally, the Spartans believed they were descended from him, and at a certain point in Spartan history he received human and dog sacrifices.
He wore a golden helmet and bronze armor made by Hephaestus.
Some Ares myths have already been mentioned; he was humiliated by Hephaestus for his affair with Aphrodite, and he killed Adonis because he was jealous of Aphrodite’s love for him. But here’s one other:
The Areopagus: The site where criminal trials were held was named after Ares because he was, in myth, the first being tried there.
One day he came upon a son of Poseidon trying to rape his daughter, Alcippe. To protect her, he killed her assailant. Poseidon was furious and demanded justice for the death of his sons. A trial was held and twelve gods acquitted Ares, saying his violence was justified.
Goddess of: Nature, wild creatures, hunting and archery, virgins, childbirth, and witches
Origin: She was a child of Zeus and Leto, delivered on the island of Delos because that was the only place that would offer Leto sanctuary from Hera’s wrath.
Usually Depicted As: A girl or young woman with a bow and arrow, usually with a stag or hunting dog
Symbols and Icons: Deer, cyprus, the moon, bear, palm tree
- Twin sister of Apollo
- Accompanied by many companions, including the Pleiades
Her name is typically thought to mean "healthy" or "vigorous." Artemis is primarily a nature goddess and was often identified with local nature goddesses in her worship.
As a young girl, she begged her father to be able to remain a virgin forever; he granted her wish. Priests and priestesses of Artemis took vows of chastity.
Artemis protects women and wild animals, especially the young. She was a goddess of the natural world. In spite of her status as a virgin goddess she was also associated with childbirth.
Hunting with her silver bow, she wanders the woods with her companions, who are mostly female. Some of her notable companions include the Pleiades, the seven sisters. However, several of the Pleiades did not remain virgins and ended up having children, like Maia, who bore Hermes to Zeus.
She was considered responsible for the sudden deaths of girls and women, but could also protect, cure, and heal these things.
Her twin brother Apollo was in many ways her counterpart; they had a close and complementary relationship. Some traditions placed them as husband and wife, but this is not the most common interpretation.
The most famous myth about Artemis is the myth of Actaeon.
Actaeon and Artemis: The young hunter Actaeon came upon Artemis bathing naked in a woodland spring. He was so struck by Artemis’ beauty that he remained to watch and was discovered by the goddess. As punishment for his transgression, she turned him into a stag, and he was hunted down and ripped to pieces by his own hunting dogs.
God of: Prophecy, the sun, music, poetry, the arts, archery, healing
Origin: Child of Zeus and Leto; born on Delos
Usually Depicted As: A beardless, beautiful youth (naked or robed), often holding a lyre
Symbols and Icons: The lyre; eagles, snakes, crows, cicadas, wolves, dolphins, ravens, the laurel tree, the number 7
- Twin of Artemis
Apollo was one of the most widely worshiped and beloved Greek gods of Olympus. Like many of the gods, Apollo had a somewhat dualistic aspect; he was both the patron of the most civilized arts, like music and poetry, and capable of extremely violent and barbaric acts.
Apollo was a close counterpart to his sister, Artemis. While she was a goddess of wild nature, he was much more closely associated with civilization; she was connected with the moon and he with the sun; while she was thought to be responsible for the sudden deaths of women and girls, his arrows caused the sudden death of men and boys. Artemis had a silver bow, and he had a wooden one. Both gods also had a healing aspect.
As a god of civilization, Apollo protects flocks and cattle and the founding of towns. Additionally, Apollo was a god of prophecy; one of the most famous oracles in Greece, the oracle at Delphi, was dedicated to him.
And of course, like many of the gods, he was known for his many lovers, male and female—although he was not very lucky in love, with many of his pursuits and affairs having tragic ends.
Many of the myths of Apollo center around his unfortunate pursuits of women and men.
Daphne: Apollo loved the beautiful Daphne, who had sworn to remain a virgin. He chased her until she could run no more. She cried out to her grandfather, river god Peneus, for aid. He turned her into a laurel tree so that Apollo could not touch her and she could remain forever a virgin.
Cassandra: Apollo gave Cassandra, a princess of Troy, the gift of prophecy in an effort to win her affections. When she rejected his advances, he cursed her that no one would ever believe her prophecies.
Hyacinthus: The beautiful young man Hyacinthus was one of the lovers of the god Apollo. However, the west wind, Zephyr, also loved Hyacinthus and was jealous. So one day when Apollo and Hyacinthus were taking turns throwing the discus, Zephyr blew Apollo’s discus off-course, causing it to strike and kill Hyacinthus. Apollo turned the dying man’s blood into a flower, the Hyacinth.
God of: Travel and trade, eloquence and insight, luck and the unexpected, athletes, messenger of the gods, bringer of dreams
Origin: Child of Zeus and Maia, one of the Pleiades
Depicted As: Typically depicted with his winged sandals and hat, sometimes with a sheep on one shoulder
Symbols and Icons: Winged sandals, winged helmet, caduceus (a winged staff with two snakes twined around it), rooster, tortoise, ram, hare, crocus
- In many ways, Hermes was somewhat of a loner god; he interacted with most all the gods but did not necessarily have a close association with any of them
- However, he did father Hermaphroditus with Aphrodite.
"Hermes" is probably derived from "herma," the heaps of stones that indicated boundaries and marked landmarks.
As the messenger god, Hermes was both a god of travel and of social communication. He protected travellers and guarded those who crossed boundaries.
He had a mischievous, trickster aspect; he was the god of all communication and eloquence, whether it was honest or not. He was frequently able to get away with deception simply because he was so charming! He also guarded thieves and prostitutes.
As a figure of craft and cunning, he was credited with many inventions, including the lyre, music, the alphabet, numbers, measures, weights, astronomy, combat, and gymnastics.
As a messenger, he was also considered a god of diplomacy and protected embassies and diplomats. He was a god of dreams in his messenger aspect as well.
Finally, he was tasked with leading the souls of the dead to the underworld, and was one of the only gods with free passage to and from there.
Hermes had a particularly illustrious childhood, engaging in wild feats as soon as he emerged from the womb.
The Cattle of Apollo and the Lyre: The day Hermes was born, he left his cradle to look for adventure. He decided to steal 50 cows from Apollo’s herds. Using trickery and cleverness he covered all the tracks so his crime couldn’t be traced.
After a long and fruitless search, Apollo finally used his own oracular powers to find Hermes. Hermes denied stealing the cows, but Apollo didn’t believe him and brought him before Zeus. Zeus was delighted with Hermes’ cleverness and did not punish him, only ordered him to return the cattle.
When it came time to return the cattle, Apollo found Hermes playing a new instrument he had just made out of a turtle shell—the lyre. Apollo offered to let Hermes keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre. Hermes agreed, and the gods were friends from that moment on.
God of: wine and drunkenness, celebration and festivity, but also madness and frenzy.
Origin: Child of Zeus and Semele. Considered "twice-born" because his mother died while pregnant with him after beholding the full glory of Zeus. Zeus saved the child by carrying him to term in his own thigh.
Depicted As: Earlier he was portrayed as a bearded man and later as a beautiful, but somewhat androgynous, young man
Symbols and Icons: Grapes, the thyrsos (a pine-cone tipped-staff), panthers and leopards, the wine cup, the ivy wreath
- Married to Ariadne, daughter of Minos, a Cretan king.
- Lover of Aphrodite; she bore Priapus by him
Dionysus was connected with wine, drunkenness, festivity, fellowship, and nature. His cult was also associated with art and literature. However, there was a dark side to his worship, as he was connected also to frenzy and madness—the untamed wildness both of nature and of drink. His entourage consisted of wild spirits of fertility, like the sileni and the satyrs.
He was also considered to have power as a prophetic deity and a healer of illness. In his aspect as a nature god he was the protector of trees. He was considered somewhat effeminate or androgynous in nature.
The ecstatic nature of his worship attracted many female followers, but was not as popular among men, who were uncomfortable with the female wildness associated with his rites.
There are not a huge number of myths centered on Dionysus, but he does feature in one well-known story.
King Midas: For King Midas' hospitality to Dionysus’ foster father, Silenus, Dionysus offered the king whatever boon he wished. Midas wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. Realizing that he could not eat or drink and even turning his own daughter to gold, Midas repented of his choice of gift and prayed to Dionysus to take it away. Dionysus told him to wash in the nearby river and the gift would be taken.
As there are literally hundreds of Greek gods and goddesses, this is not a comprehensive list. But we have outlined the most notable greek gods and goddesses other than the Twelve Olympians.
Atlas—Titan Who Holds Up the Sky
Atlas was a Titan, the Son of the Titan Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene or Asia. He was was in the Titan army that fought against Zeus and the Olympians; as punishment he was made to bear the weight of the heavens. In art he is typically depicted as a man holding up the sky or the stars
Persephone—Goddess of Spring, Queen of the Underworld
Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus; the story of her abduction by Hades was detailed above. Many of her attributes as a goddess revolve around this tale. Her return to the surface world at the end of winter is what caused spring to begin as her mother allowed new growth, and her journey to Hades in the autumn caused plants to wither and die as her mother killed living things in her grief. Thus she became known as a Spring goddess as well as the Queen of the Underworld.
She was worshiped with her mother as part of the Eleusinian mysteries and associated with immortality because of her cyclical passage into the underworld and return to the surface world.
In her dual aspect as the bringer of spring and the queen of the Underworld, she was associated with both life and death. She is known for either bestowing favors or her wrath on the many heroic visitors to the Underworld in myth. She aided Hades in cursing the souls of the dead when necessary.
Sometimes she was known as the mother of the Erinyes (the Furies) with Hades, but not always. She was depicted both as a young agriculture goddess with her mother, with a torch and sheaves of wheat, and as the throned Queen of the Underworld, sometimes besides Hades. Her major symbols are the torch, wheat, and the pomegranate.
Eos—Goddess of the Dawn
Eos, Greek goddess of the Dawn, was the child of Titans Hyperion and Thea and the sister of Helios, the sun, and Selene, the moon. She is most notable in myth for drawing the ire of Aphrodite after taking Ares as a lover. The jealous goddess cursed her with insatiable lust, leading her to kidnap a number of handsome mortals.
Eros—God of Love, Passion, and Fertility
Red-figure plate with Eros by Ascoli Satriano Painter, circa 340-320 BC. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.
Eros was originally considered one of the very first Greek gods—the son of Chaos who allowed for not only love, but fertility to come into the universe. Through the power of Eros other gods were able to reproduce and the universe as we know it was arranged.
In later years, Eros was demoted to a mere son of Aphrodite (with Zeus, Ares, or Hermes depending on the tale) and simply an ancillary assistant to her powers of love, sex, and fertility.
Hecate—Goddess of Witchcraft
Hecate, daughter of Titans Perses and Asteria, assisted Demeter in her search for Persephone, lending her torches so the search could continue into the night. When Persephone was found, Hecate remained below with Persephone and became an underworld goddess.
Hecate supervised religious rites, was the mistress of demons, and was the patroness of witches. She was accompanied at all times by a black cat and a black dog. Her shrines were found at crossroads, and the Greeks would lay sacrifices at crossroads during full moons to worship her.
Hecate was a goddess that most Greeks worshiped specifically to avoid the misfortunes she had the power to visit upon them.
Helios—God of the Sun
Helios, Greek god of the sun, was the child of Titans Hyperion and Thea and the brother of Selene, the moon, and Eos, the dawn. He was sometimes called the "All-seeing" because he was said to see all that passed on earth from his chariot that pulled the sun across the sky.
Helios was sometimes equated with Apollo, who was also associated with the sun, but they did have separate identities as deities.
Hestia—Goddess of the Hearth and Domesticity
Hestia was the first child of the Titans Kronos and Rhea, making her sister to Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Poseidon, and Hades. Some accounts place Hestia as one of the twelve Olympians; others say that she abdicated her place in favor of Dionysus so that the number could remain twelve.
After both Poseidon and Apollo sought to marry her, Hestia petitioned Zeus to remain a virgin. He granted her request and made her the presiding figure over all sacrifices. She was worshiped mostly with a shrine in every family hearth, as opposed to publicly, but Greeks took the sacred fire of Hestia with them whenever they went to establish new settlements. As she never leaves her home in Olympus, she is also associated with rest and sanctuary. She is closely associated with the family and domesticity. Her symbols are fruit, oil, wine, and one-year-old cows.
Iris—Goddess of the Rainbow, Messenger of the Gods
Iris, like Hermes, was a messenger of the gods. Iris served as the messenger for the Olympians during the Titomachy—the war with the Titans. Associated with the rainbow, she could travel all the way from the heavens across the earth and into the underworld. Se was the child of Thaumus and the Oceanid Electra.
Nike—Goddess of Victory
Nike, daughter of the giant Pallas and the river Styx, was the Greek goddess of victory. However, she did not have her own cult; she was primarily considered an attribute of Athena and Zeus. She was usually depicted with wings, carrying a palm branch, wreath, or staff to carry the message of victory. She later came to symbolize all kinds of success, not just martial victory.
Nyx—Goddess of Nyx
Nyx, or night, was one of the four original forces that emerged from Chaos. Alone and with various partners, she bore many deities who functioned as the most primordial of forces. She bore Aether (Brightness) and Hemera (Day) with Erebus (Darkness). Her children that she bore alone included Hypnos (Sleep), Thanatos (Death), Geras (Old Age), the Moirai (the Fates, sometimes said to be borne with Hades), Nemesis (Retribution), Eris (Strife), and the Oneiroi (Dreams). While she was not widely worshiped, her great power was acknowledged; it was said that even Zeus feared her power and majesty.
Pan—God of Fertility, Nature, Shepherds, and Goatherds
The child of Hermes and Dryope, Pan was born with the horns, legs, and ears of a goat. When he was born, his mother was so alarmed by his animalistic appearance that she ran away screaming—hence the term "panic."
Pan was a god of untamed nature and lusty fertility. He was known for his many amorous pursuits and his pipe-playing ability. Interestingly, many of his goatlike characteristics later became associated with Christian conceptions of the Devil!
Selene—Goddess of the Moon
Selene was the Greek goddess of the moon, worshiped primarily at the new and full moons. She was the child of Titans Hyperion and Thea and sister of Helios and Eos. Other than her aspect as moon goddess, Selene is known primarily for her relationship with her mortal lover Endymion, her sleeping prince, who wakes only when she visits him and so never ages or dies.
Selene is typically represented as a woman crowned with the crescent moon, driving a chariot.
Themis—Goddess of Justice, Wisdom, and Divine Law
Themis, a child of Uranus and Gaea, was Zeus’ second consort before he married Hera; with him she bore the Horae (the goddesses of the seasons and time). Sometimes the Moirai (the fates) and the Hesperides are also listed as children of Themis and Zeus.
As the personification of divine law, Themis was fairly widely worshiped in Greece. She was considered a goddess of order who supervised rituals and ceremonies. She was also connected with prophecy and oracles.
Themis is typically depicted as a serious woman carrying scales.
3 Famous Greek Goddess Groups
Many minor Greek deities were conceived of as groups of beings, usually goddesses who were sisters. While this is not a comprehensive list, we have identified some of the most important groups of Greek goddesses here.
The Furies—Goddesses of Vengance
The Furies (or the "Erinyes," the angry ones) were Greek goddesses of vengeance, possibly identified as personified curses or the ghosts of the murdered. Sometimes they are described as children of Gaia and Uranus who sprang up from the blood of Uranus’ severed genitals, while in other tellings they are the daughters of Nyx and Hades. They reside in the underworld, but pursue the wicked across the surface of the earth. They could torment an entire community for an unpunished crime. They were usually depicted as grim young women wearing black mourning attire.
It was only later that the number and identity of the individual furies was established. There were thought to be three:
- Alecto ("unceasing in anger")
- Tisiphone (avenger of murder")
- Megaera ("jealous")
Due to Greek superstition, they were often referred to euphemistically as the Eumenides ("the kind ones") or the Semnai Theai ("venerable goddesses.")
The Muses—Goddesses of Art and Science
The muses, daughters of Zeus and the Titan Mnemosyne ("memory"), were the group of Greek goddesses considered responsible for artistic (and sometimes scientific) inspiration. The were the patronesses of poets, artists, musicians, dancers, seekers of knowledge, and so on. They were led by Apollo and associated with wells and springs.
The muses were unmarried but various muses gave birth to many famous mythic figures, like Orpheus, Hyacinthus, and the Sirens.
In some early accounts there are only three muses, but the standard number is nine. While the Greeks would have primarily considered the muses a unit, the Romans ascribed specific artistic and scientific domains to each muse, although not in a standardized way.
- Clio, "the proclaimer"—history
- Euterpe, "the well-pleasing"—tragedy or music/flutes/lyric poetry
- Thalia, "the blooming"—comedy
- Melpomene, "the songstress"—tragedy and lyre playing
- Terpsichore, "delighting in the dance"—lyric poetry, dancing, and/or flute playing (origin of the word "terpsichorean"—pertaining to dancing)
- Erato, "the lovely"—lyric and love poetry
- Polyhymnia, "she of the many hymns"—sacred poetry, or mimicry, or dancing, or geometry
- Urania, "the heavenly"—astronomy
- Calliope, "she of the beautiful voice"—heroic or epic poetry; most notable of the nine muses
The Fates—Goddesses of Destiny
Goddesses of: Human destiny
About These Goddesses:
These Greek goddesses, known as the Moirai, were considered daughters of Nyx or, less frequently, daughters of Zeus and Themis. They determined mortals' lifespans and their shares of misery and suffering and were imagined as three very old women who quite literally spun the thread that made up individual human destiny:
- Clotho, "spinner"—spun the thread of human fate
- Lachesis, "allotter"—dispensed the thread
- Atropos, "inflexible"—cut it (causing death)
Greek Gods Family Tree
Below see the family tree of the main Olympian Greek gods and goddesses as it is most commonly understood today. However, it’s important to emphasize that the relationships between the gods were not static and shifted over time, sometimes dramatically—as we see with Eros, who was originally considered one of the original children of Chaos and later became a mere son of Aphrodite, no longer one of the primordial forces that shaped the initial universe.
On this Greek gods family tree, a single arrow shows offspring, with branching arrows representing siblings. A double line bond means a partnership of marriage and/or children. The pink boxes indicate the Twelve Olympians.
The Worship of the Greek Goddesses and Gods
Greek worship involved rites, oracles, sacrifices, and festivals. The most formal elements of worship were place-based: gods were worshiped at their own particular temples and sacred sites through specific rites and rituals. Priests (and/or priestesses) to a particular god would oversee the rites associated with that god, which often involved animal sacrifice and the pouring of wine (the libration). Priests and priestesses also interpreted oracles at sacred oracle sites like Delphi. Interestingly, many priestesses either had to be virgins or past menopause.
Outside of more formal rites, Greek citizens also offered sacrifices to particular gods to give thanks or to invoke their protection. They might also pray to the appropriate god for a particular concern or issue, and make some kind of offering if they felt the prayer was answered.
The other main component of Greek worship was the festival. Festivals centered around music, theatre, and sports (like the Olympics!) were held to honor the gods.
Those are some general trends in worship. However, it is difficult to make absolute statements on exactly how specific gods were worshiped, because a lot of worship was very localized. Different city-states had their own preeminent deities, and might worship particular deities in different ways. Furthermore, ideas about the gods and how they were related to each other, especially in terms of marriage and parentage, were constantly shifting over time. Newer gods (for example, from neighboring countries) were often incorporated into the pantheon, and some gods would be combined or fade in eminence over time.
Nonetheless, the main figures of the Greek pantheon and the mythology surrounding them were clearly well-developed by around the 8th B.C., when Homer crafted the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, it’s worth noting that just because a god was included in the twelve Olympians does not mean they were widely worshiped—for example, there was very little worship of Hades. Conversely, some very widely worshiped figures were not in the main Olympian pantheon, like Themis.
Due to close contact between the Greeks and Romans, the Roman pantheon was very influenced by Greek mythology, and many Roman gods took on the attributes and myths of similar Greek gods.
Some Greek gods are also worshiped today, as part of Neo-pagan religions.
The theater was often part of religious festivals in ancient Greece.
Greek Goddesses and Gods Today
The Greek gods continue to be a source of fascination and inspiration in all areas of human endeavor. There have been many operas, ballets, and theater productions based on Greek myth throughout all of history. The Greek gods were a huge inspiration to Romantic and Neoclassical artists and poets.
More recently, the Greek gods have inspired tons of movies, TV shows, books, comic books, and video games. Some notable pop-culture works that have borrowed or adapted Greek mythology include:
- The 1997 Disney movie Hercules
- TV show Xena: Warrior Princess
- The 1981 and 2010 films Clash of the Titans
- Wonder Woman comics
- The Percy Jackson book series by Rick Riordan
- The God of War video game franchise
Additionally, many astronomical bodies like asteroids and asteroid belts, moons, stars, planets, and comets are named for figures of Greek and Roman mythology. Most of the planets in our own solar system are named for Roman deities, but many of the moons and asteroids are named for Greek deities. For example, the Demeter asteroid belt, Themis, a moon of Saturn, and Eris, a dwarf planet.
The Greek Gods and Goddesses: Key Points to Remember
Unlike modern gods, who are generally thought of as benevolent and all-knowing, Greek gods personified the forces that organized and drove the world. As such, they were just as often petty and violent as they were just and magnanimous within Greek myth.
Within myth, the Olympian gods rose to power after a war with the Titans. The Twelve Olympians were:
- Zeus, king of the gods and god of storms
- Hera, wife of Zeus, goddess of marriage and childbirth, the heavens
- Poseidon, god of the sea
- Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility
- Hades, god of the underworld
- Athena, goddess of wisdom, craftsmanship, war
- Hephaestus, god of smiths and fire
- Aphrodite, goddess of love, passion, and fertility
- Ares, god of war and battle frenzy
- Artemis, goddess of the hunt and nature
- Apollo, god of prophecy, the arts, music, and healing
- Hermes, messenger of the gods, god of travelers
- Dionysus, god of wine, celebration, and frenzy
In addition to the Twelve Olympians, there were also hundreds of other gods worshiped throughout Greece. Some were mostly considered aspects or minions of more major deities, while others had robust cults of their own.
The Greek gods and goddesses may have gotten up to some crazy shenanigans, but they served as inspiration for religions that followed. Learn about the 20th-century's Aleister Crowley and the multiple religions he was involved in here.
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.