The ancient Greeks were polytheistic, meaning that they worshipped multiple deities as well as other supernatural beings. At the core of their religious system were 12 gods and goddesses known as the Olympians, who were venerated around Greece, as well as in Greek cities around the Black Sea and other colonies in the western Mediterranean. These deities existed within a hierarchy, with Zeus – king of the gods – holding the top position. They had very different characters and temperaments, with many of them notable for their character flaws (such as jealousy, infidelity and vanity) on top of their great deeds and powers.
The gods were tied closely to individual cities: Athena, for example, was closely associated with Athens, while Zeus was linked with the sacred site of Olympia, in which the Olympic Games were held in his honour. The ancient Greeks also looked to the different deities to help them with specific circumstances or needs, such as Hera for weddings and Ares for matters of war.
Unlike many religions followed today, the ancient Greeks had no common religious text underpinning their belief system – although Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony had considerable influence. The relationship between humans and deities was instead based primarily on acts of exchange, with the gods and goddesses offered – and appeased with – gifts, offerings and animal sacrifices.
Religious practices and events were typically organised at a local level, with ceremonies undertaken at altars – and later temples – devoted to individual gods. One particularly gruesome observance was pharmākos, in which a man or woman perceived to be ‘ugly’ was selected as a scapegoat – they would be fed and paraded around before being beaten with green twigs. The scapegoat would then either be ostracised from their community or stoned to death.
There were two main ways of becoming a priest in ancient Greece; the position was either inherited from a parent (either male or female, for some women could be priests too), or a person was appointed by a priest on his or her deathbed. Priests were generally associated with one god specifically, and while they organised religious ceremonies and prayers they were not necessarily religious experts.
The ancient Greeks had no word for religion. The closest terms were eusebeia (piety) and threskeia (cult). Nonetheless, religious practices and faith were intertwined with daily life. Everything in the natural world was spiritual and divine, and most events were attributed to the influence of the gods. Religious festivals were also important events; the most famous were held every four years at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia and included feasting, sacrifice and athletic competitions.
6 heroes and villains of Greek mythology
The gods weren’t the only ones to make mischief – they were supported by a cast of monsters, Titans and heroes
Bravery was something Herakles – son of Zeus – had to learn early in life; one of his first deeds involved eliminating two serpents sent by the goddess Hera to murder him in his crib. Such feats continued into adulthood: he is perhaps best known for completing the 12 impossible ‘labours’ assigned to him by King Eurystheus – which included the slaying of beasts such as the Nemean lion, whose golden fur made it impervious to attack from a mortal.
Betrayal, vengeance and justice – these are the components that have made the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece so compelling over the years. The story begins when Jason’s father, the king of Iolcus, is killed by his half-brother Pelias. Vowing to reclaim the throne, Jason joins forces with the Argonauts (a band of 50 heroes) in a bid to acquire the Golden Fleece, a symbol of kingship that lay beyond the edge of the known world.
Venerated as the greatest of all warriors of antiquity, Achilles is the protagonist of Homer’s Iliad; his most notable feat was killing the Trojan prince Hector during the Trojan War. According to legend, Achilles’ goddess mother Thetis had dipped him into the River Styx to make him invulnerable save for his heel – the part of the foot from which she held him. As such, when the Trojan prince Paris shot Achilles in the heel with an arrow, he died. It’s from this tale we get the idiom ‘Achilles’ heel’.
Medusa was certainly monstrous, although it could be argued that her villainous deeds were somewhat out of her control. The daughter of the sea gods Phorcys and Ceto, she was a breathtakingly beautiful mortal woman – until she invoked the jealousy of Athena and was transformed into a hideous creature with snakes for hair. According to legend, any person who gazed upon Medusa would turn to stone.
Greek mythology has its fair share of gruesome deeds and grisly goings-on, but those attributed to Cronos are among the most disturbing. The son of Uranus, ruler of the universe, Cronos dispatched the genitals of his father with a great stone sickle before casting his testicles into the sea. When his own children – Demeter, Hestia, Hera, Hades and Poseidon – were born, Cronos devoured them all in a bid to circumvent a prophecy that suggested they were going to overthrow him.
According to Athenian legend, King Minos – one of Zeus’ many sons – imprisoned the murderous minotaur, a mythological creature that was part-bull and part-man (and also the offspring of Minos’ wife, Pasiphae) within a labyrinth on the island of Crete. Every nine years, a tribute of children (seven Athenian boys and seven maidens) were fed to the monster until it was killed by Theseus, son of the Athenian king, Aegeus.
12 top gods and goddesses of Olympus
Goddess of sexual love and beauty
When Cronos castrated his father Uranus and threw his testicles into the sea, the waters frothed and birthed the goddess Aphrodite. Although primarily known as the goddess of sexual love, fertility and beauty, Aphrodite – who was married to Ares – was also worshipped as a deity of the sea. As befits her origin story, her name comes from the Greek word aphros, meaning foam.
God of war
In contrast to his sister Athena, Ares embodied the more brutal aspects of warfare. He was never particularly popular with the Greek public and – despite receiving sacrifices in times of warfare – had few formal places of worship in temples. His offspring inherited his penchant for violence: they included Diomedes (who fed his horses a diet of human flesh) and Kyknos (who used strangers’ heads to build a temple to his father).
God of grape-harvest, winemaking and wine
Dionysus was the only Olympian with a mortal parent: Semele, lover of Zeus. He gained a cult-like status and was worshipped in woods rather than in temples. According to legend, Dionysus was one of the only gods to successfully return a dead person from the Underworld; this was his mother, who had burned to a crisp after being tricked by Hera into seeing Zeus in his true form.
Herald of the gods
In Homer’s Odyssey, Hermes appears as a messenger of the gods as well as an escort of the dead on their way to the Underworld, but he was also associated with cattle, sheep and agriculture. People in ancient Greece would attribute to Hermes incidents of good fortune, such as the discovery of small treasures.
Goddess of war, handicraft and reason
Athena was said to have been the favourite child of Zeus. It is said she was born without a mother, instead springing forth from Zeus’ forehead (although one story suggests this only occurred after Zeus devoured the pregnant Metis, goddess of counsel). Over time Athena became known as the goddess of war, representing more civilised aspects of battle such as skill, wisdom and justice.
God of high culture and healing
Of all the ancient Greek gods, Apollo is the only one to have the same name in Roman mythology. Beautiful and athletic, he is considered the embodiment of kalos kagathos, a phrase used in ancient Greece to refer to gentlemanly conduct in a military context.
Goddess of war, handicraft and reason
Hephaestus was, according to myth, either born lame or became lame in childhood. He seemed to displease his parents, Zeus and Hera, who each threw him out of Olympus at different intervals. Considered ‘ugly’ by the other Olympians, Hephaestus was venerated for his skill as a craftsman and made weapons for both gods and mortals.
God of the sea
Ill-tempered and vengeful, Poseidon was considered one of the most tempestuous gods of the Olympians. He was god of the sea, earthquakes, storms and – perhaps rather curiously – horses.
Goddess of wild animals and the hunt
Known for her deftness with a bow and her ability to turn herself – and others – into animals, Artemis was one of the most venerated of Greek deities. Her temple at Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World until its destruction in AD 401.
Goddess of harvest and agriculture
Demeter was said to have taught humans how to sow and plough food, thereby putting an end to their formerly nomadic existence. But just as her powers could be fruitful, so too could they be disastrous: she was believed to bestow famine upon those who displeased her. As goddess of fertility, she also possessed the ability to gift women with a good or bad pregnancy.
Goddess of women, marriage, family and childbirth
As the goddess of marriage and monogamy, it’s fitting that the goddess Hera was also well-known for her vengeful rage in the face of infidelity. She repeatedly sought revenge on her husband Zeus’ many mistresses and illegitimate children.
Father of gods and men
As king of Mount Olympus (the home of Greek gods) Zeus was father of both gods and mortals alike. He was believed to be omnipotent and was known for having many lovers (much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife, Hera).
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Rachel Dinning is digital section editor at HistoryExtra
This article first appeared in BBC History Revealed’s essential guide to ancient Greece