Few concepts have endured the ages more than that of the Greek gods, who were once heralded as the controllers of all things, including man, the weather, and even fate. Importantly, despite the fact that the Greek gods have been able to endure the centuries and millennia as a major topic of historical lore, the specific names and purposes of each god have become obscured over time. As a result, the overall perception of Greek gods in modern times is that such a systems of gods was simply ridiculous as no evidence existed to prove the existence of these deities. For those living in ancient Greece, however, the system of gods was highly relevant, and as such, ultimately shaped the behavior, beliefs and societal laws of the time. Essentially, the population of ancient Greece did not have access to many of the technological or scientific advancements that humans have today.
As a result, they did not possess the knowledge or understanding of the universe to effectively distinguish the difference between common naturally occurring phenomenon and events that seemed to occur through the actions of a higher power. To gain a deeper understanding of the social and cultural environment of the time with regard to the Greek gods and their influence over the beliefs and behaviors of man in ancient Greece, the following section will provide a detailed discussion regarding four of the most prominent Greek gods, which include Zeus, Demeter, Ares, and Athena. In addition, the specific purpose and beliefs regarding each of these gods will be outlined in detail so as to establish a more comprehensive framework of the role these gods played in the daily life and total society of ancient Greece.
Zeus, Leader of the Gods
Anyone familiar with Greek mythology, and even those that are not are still familiar with Zeus, as he represents the most prominent of the Greek gods as the existed in Greek mythology. Ultimately, Zeus served as the supreme ruler of the gods located on Mt. Olympus, and thusly, was typically regarded by Greek citizens as the central figure to the deity hierarchy. In the beginning, Zeus was born in 700 B. C. to his father, Cronus. Cronus was considered a particularly bad father as he was known to eat most of his children. As Cronus sought to eat Zeus, however, Zeus fought back and overthrew Cronus in order to win the role of supreme leader of the gods. Within Greek mythology lore, Zeus was considered a relatively fair and just god as he would reward Greek citizens that were good and punish the Greek citizens that engaged in bad behaviors or broke sacred laws that were established at the time. His weapon of choice when it came to punishing the wicked was a thunderbolt, and as such, remains a symbol that has become synonymous with Zeus and typically accompanies any likeness, drawing or sculpture, of Zeus that has been created. Although Zeus was the supreme ruler of the ancient gods, many of these gods were actually his children. Some of these children sat high in his favor while others did not. In the end, Zeus was considered a somewhat absentee father, yet his wrath and will was generally followed by man without question as Greek citizens were highly fearful that they would be on the receiving end of Zeus’ brutal force if they did not abide by the rules and laws prevalent in Greek society.
Demeter, God of Farming and Agriculture
Demeter is known as the goddess of corn, grain, and harvest, and is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and therefore, the sister of Zeus. In Greek mythology, Demeter was the god that controlled the crops and harvest by making crops grow. As a result of this critical skill, Greeks were require to sacrifice the first loaf of bread from each harvest to her. In addition, Demeter was believed to be responsible for the seasons. Specifically, the abduction of Persephone by Hades had a profound impact on Demeter. Specifically, for the duration that Persephone was held in the underworld, Demeter became despondent and neglected her duties to the point where all of the crops and plants slowly wilted and died. This sparked a reaction from Zeus who sought to save Persephone from the underworld, only to find out that while there, Persephone had eaten four pomegranate seeds, and as a result, was required to spend four months each year in the underworld while she spent the other eight months on Mt. Olympus with her mother. As such, the four months that Persephone was required to live in the underworld would cause Demeter to become depressed and lonely, causing her to make the plants wither and die during this period, which is now known as fall and winter. Ultimately, Demeter was regarded as an extremely important Greek god as she was responsible for the crops and yield, which determined whether or not enough food would be available for the citizens to live in comfort for another year.
Ares, God of War
One of Zeus’ children was Ares, who was the son of Zeus and Hera. Interestingly, despite the fact that Zeus was considered his father, Ares was fabled to have been born through of immaculate conception. Importantly, of the Greek gods, Ares was disliked and feared by the citizens due to his brutal nature and battle lust. In addition to the Greek citizens, the other gods on Mt. Olympus did not much care for Ares, and was believed to be hated above all others by his father Zeus. Ares’ primary adversary was Athena, his sister who was also a child of Zeus, and was also known as a god connected to warfare. Perhaps the most famous of Ares’ indiscretions involves his adulterous affair with Aphrodite, which led to a significant amount of conflict on Mt. Olympus. Ultimately, Ares was the most despised yet feared of the gods, and was typically blamed by Greek citizens whenever a threat of war or conflict came about.
Athena, God of Wisdom
The last god of Greek mythology to be discussed here is the goddess Athena, who was known to ancient Greece as the goddess of wise counsel, war, and heroic endeavors, as well as and other crafts. Also a child of the supreme ruler of the gods, Zeus, Athena was fabled to have been born full grown out of Zeus’ forehead, already armed to the teeth in preparation for battle. Due to the circumstances of her birth, Athena was heralded as the favorite child of her father, which significantly increased the animosity and rivalry between Athena and her brother Ares. As a result of Athena being favored by her father, she was generally allowed to access and utilize all of Zeus’ weaponry, including his coveted thunderbolt, when the need arose. Importantly, Athena only engaged in conflict during occasions when the land was threatened by an outside enemy, and as such, did not intervene in conflicts arising from civil unrest. Finally, Athena was known as the virgin goddess, and as such, she was generally regarded by ancient Greeks as a pure and fair goddess that was true to her calling with regard to protecting Greece from enemy threats.