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The Twelve Olympians
Zeus, Lord of the Sky, is the wielder of the powerful lightning bolt. Zeus was not always the leader. Before
his rise to power, his father, the titan Cronus, devoured all his children, fearing to be overthrown-- these
included many of the other Olympians (They were later thrown up when he swallowed what he thought was
baby Zeus in swaddling clothes-- it was really a rock). Zeus was spared because his mother, Rhea, fled to the
island of Crete to give birth to Zeus. There, he was raised by the goat, Amalthea and the honey bee,
Melissa. When he was old enough, he and the other Olympians battled the Titans for ten years and finally
Besides the thunderbolt, Zeus also possesses the aegis, a goat skin decorated with the head of Medusa which
is used as a defense to turn anyone he wishes to stone by holding up the head. Athena is the only one trusted to
hold this aegis and is almost always depicted wearing it, not Zeus. Zeus appears in mythology as different
animals, most of the time, but is more often associated with the bull and the eagle.
When the Olympians won the Titanomachy (war with the Titans), Zeus and his two brothers, Poseidon and
Hades, divided up the world. It was decided that Zeus, the greatest, would have the Heavens, Poseidon the
Earth (not just the water), and Hades the Underworld (hence he is not an Olympian). Poseidon, as said before,
does not just rule the water. He was blamed for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as well. He is associated
with horses, and can be distinguished from his brother Zeus by his Triton held in his hand. Poseidon, like
Zeus, is the father of many heroes, and even creatures like Pegasus, the winged horse.
Hera is the goddess of marriage and fertility. She is both Zeus' sister and wife. After being seduced by Zeus
in the form of a cuckoo, which is ironic giving Zeus' adulterous behavior, she married him on the Island of the
Hesperides in the far west of the Mediterranean. Because her husband is so disloyal, she is constantly on the
lookout for anyone he has been with. When she finds them, she always punishes them severely.
Demeter is the goddesses of the harvest. Like Hera, she is also a fertility goddess. She is responsible for the
growth of plants during the year-- especially wheat, which is the most important harvest. She is closest to her
daughter Persephone. When Persephone is abducted by Hades, Demeter is heartbroken and desperately
searches for her beloved daughter. During her search for Persephone, Demeter causes a horrific famine which
in turn causes Zeus to worry that the sacrifices will be curtailed because of this, so he sends Hermes to retrieve
Persephone from the Underworld. Persephone is returned, but has already eaten the food of the Underworld,
which means that she must stay, but Zeus gives the honor to Demeter, and only allows Persephone to go down
to the Underworld with Hades for three months of the year. Every time she leaves, Demeter is again saddened
and causes the earth to stop producing a harvest. This is how the Greeks explained winter.
Hermes is the herald god. He is also known as "the guider of souls." With his winged sandals on his feet, he
is swift to lead the souls of the dead to the Underworld where Charon, the ferryman, can then take them over
the river Styx and into the realm of Hades. Hermes is also known as a thief. When he was just an infant, he
stole Apollo's herd of cattle, and then to make up for it, gave him the lyre which he made out of a tortoise shell.
Pallas Athena is the goddess of war, wisdom, and crafts such as weaving. She is the daughter of Zeus alone,
who gave birth to her from his forehead after swallowing the impregnated Metis ("cleverness"). She almost
always depicted wearing a helmet. The owl is sacred to her as is the Parthenon ("the thing of the virgin"), a
temple built to her in Athens, of which she is the patron goddess. Athena is seen throughout Greek legends
helping mortal heroes like Odysseus and Perseus.
Dionysus is the god of wine. He is also perhaps the only Olympian still considered a god although he is half
mortal. His mother, Semele, had an affair with Zeus. When she was killed by Zeus appearing to her in his true
form, lightening. Zeus took the baby, who, like Athena, came forth from Zeus' body: Dionysus came from his
thigh. He is known for making people, mostly girls, give up their responsibilities and go crazy: that is certainly
the power wine has over some people. He traveled all across the East with his followers of Maenads (wild
girls), Satyrs (men with goat like features pictured as having tails), and the drunken fat man, Silenus.
There are a few stories in Greek myth about those who try to resist Dionysus (wine). Those who tried were
eventually driven mad. Among these unfortunates are: Lycurgus, who in a state of madness prunes his son's
legs, and the Minyads, daughters of King Minyas, who rip apart and eat a child. Ripping apart small creatures
is one of the customs of the Maenads who do it to release their inner beast.
The goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, is the only god or goddess not given birth to at all. She was born from the
foam of the sea. It was said that because Uranus was devouring his children, Gaea, his wife, urged her son
Cronus (Zeus' father) to come in and with a sickle, castrate his father. When the blood mixed in the ocean,
Aphrodite was born. There are many stories involving Aphrodite, and she is one of the favorite subjects for
artists to create. Her "son" is Cupid (Eros).
Hephaestus is the craftsman of the gods. He alone makes the thunderbolts which allow Zeus to retain
power. He is the only one of all the gods depicted as being ugly and dirty. Ironically, he is married to the
fairest of all goddesses, Aphrodite. Because Hera was jealous of Zeus for having Athena by himself, she had
Hephaestus. He is not mentioned very often in myth, but it is noted that he is the one who makes the armor for
the greatest warriors.
Not much is said about Ares, the God of War. He is the son of Zeus and Hera, and is portrayed as a
bloodthirsty barbarian most of the time, although he is known to be Aphrodite's lover. He is the patron god of
the city of Sparta which is a very militarily based oligarchy, and is mentioned several times in Roman myth.
Apollo is the model for all Greek gods. He is attributed with light and truth and gave some the gift of
prophecy. He and his twin sister Artemis, were fathered by Zeus. Because of Hera's jealousy, Leto, their
mother, was forced to wander around the earth looking for a place to give birth because no place would have
her for fear of Hera's wrath. Finally, on two islands in the Mediterranean, Leto gave birth to her son and
daughter. Apollo is founder of the famous Oracle at Delphi where many mortals go to seek the will of the
gods which can be interpreted by priestesses.
Apollo sought love many times, but was never really successful. The most famous story of this is perhaps
that of Daphne, the water nymph. Apollo pursued her until she finally tired of running and cried out to Gaea,
who turned her into a laurel tree.
Artemis is the goddess of the hunt and of virgins. She is widely known as a virgin and becomes deadly when
any man attempts to pursue her. The creatures of the forest are sacred to her, and like her twin brother Apollo,
is very skillful with a bow.
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