Creatures are not there to feed us and delight our senses; all primitive mythologies knew this well, which gave them metaphorical meaning; and, in so doing, they justified creation in a much deeper way than utilitarian interpretations do.(Albert Béguin, L’Âme romantique et le rêve, 1939)
“Nature is a revelation from God to man…”
Greek mythology is the set of beliefs and ritual practices of the ancient Greeks, whose civilization took shape around 2000 BC.
Three classical collections of myths – the Theogony of the poet Hesiod, the Iliad and the Odyssey of the poet Homer – appeared around this period.
Greek mythology has several characteristics. The Greek gods have a human form and show human feelings. Unlike ancient religions such as Hinduism or Judaism, Greek mythology does not involve revelations or spiritual teaching. Practices and beliefs vary, there is no formal structure such as a religious government, nor is there a written code such as a holy book.
Principal Greek Gods
According to the Greeks, the gods lived on Mount Olympus, in a region of Greece called Thessaly. They formed a society that ranked them in terms of authority and power. However, the gods could roam the world freely, and each of them was associated with one of the three main elements: the sky or heaven, the sea and the land. The twelve main gods, the Olympians, were Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hestia, Hermes, Demeter and Poseidon.
Zeus was the master of the gods, their spiritual father as well as that of men. His wife Hera was the queen of heaven and the guardian of marriage. The other gods associated with the sky were Hephaestus, god of Fire and Blacksmiths, Athena, goddess of Wisdom and War, and Apollo, god of Light, Poetry and Music. Artemis, goddess of Wild Animals and the Moon, Ares, god of War and Aphrodite, goddess of Love, were the other sky gods. They were joined by Hestia, goddess of the Home and Hermes, messenger of the gods and god of Commerce.
Poseidon was the master of the sea who, with his wife Amphitrite, was in charge of a group of lesser deities such as the Nereids and the Tritons. Demeter, goddess of Agriculture, was associated with the earth. Hades, an important god but not considered part of the Olympians, was the master of the underworld where he lived with his wife, Persephone. This underworld, where the underworld was located, was a dark and sad place in the center of the earth, and populated by the souls of the dead.
Dionysus, god of Wine and Pleasure, was one of the most popular gods. The Greeks dedicated many festivals to him and, in some regions, he became as important as Zeus. He was often accompanied by a cohort of deities, the satyrs, centaurs and nymphs. The satyrs were half-man, half-goat creatures. The centaurs had the head and torso of a man, and the body of a horse. The nymphs, as for them, beautiful and charming, haunted the woods and forests.
Worship and Belief in Greek Mythology
Greek mythology emphasized man’s weakness in the face of nature’s immense and terrifying powers. The Greeks believed that their gods, who were immortal, controlled aspects of nature. Therefore, they recognized that their lives depended entirely on the good will of the gods. In general, relations between men and the gods were rather friendly, although they inflicted severe punishments on mortals whose behavior was unacceptable: excessive pride, extreme ambition or excessive prosperity.
Mythology was involved in all aspects of Greek life. Each city was dedicated to a god or a group of gods, for whom the citizens built temples dedicated to worship. They regularly honored the gods in great ceremonies supervised by the high priests. On these occasions, poets told and sang the great legends, thus popularizing a great number of gods.
The Greeks also knew about the gods from the stories that were told in every home, where worship was normal. Different parts of the house were dedicated to certain gods, where people prayed to them. The altar of Zeus, for example, could find its place in the courtyard, while Hestia was always honored near the fireplace.
Although the Greeks had no formal religious organization, they all worshipped certain sacred places. Delphi, for example, was a sacred site dedicated to Apollo. One of the temples at Delphi had an oracle, which travelers consulted about their future. A group of priests represented each of the sacred sites. These priests, who could also be officials of the community, interpreted the divine words but had no special knowledge or powers. In addition to prayers, the Greeks often made sacrifices to the gods, usually a domestic animal such as a goat.
Origines of Greek Mythology
Greek mythology probably developed from the primitive religions of the people of Crete, an island in the Aegean Sea where the first civilization in the region appeared around 3000 B.C. These peoples believed that all natural objects had spirits and that certain objects, or fetishes, had magical powers. Over time, these beliefs formed a set of legends involving natural objects, animals and gods in human form. Some of these legends survive within classical Greek mythology.
The ancient Greeks themselves gave some explanations for the development of their mythology. In Sacred History, Euhemeros, a mythographer who lived around 300 B.C., relates the widespread idea that myths were distortions of history and that the gods were heroes glorified by time. In the fifth century BC, the philosopher Prodicos of Ceos taught that the gods were personifications of natural phenomena, such as the sun, moon, winds and water. Herodotus, a Greek historian who also lived in the fifth century B.C., believed that Greek rituals were a legacy of the Egyptians.
Greek civilization develops particularly during the Hellenistic age, which begins around 323 BC; Greek mythology also changes. New philosophies and the influence of neighboring civilizations produced a gradual change in Greek beliefs. However, the essential characteristics of the Greek gods and their legends remain unchanged.
The Hellenistic period (4th-1st centuries BC) is the period from the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great to the establishment of Roman supremacy, during which Greek culture and science dominated the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. It is called Hellenistic (in Greek, Hellas, “Greece”) to distinguish it from the Hellenic culture of classical Greece.