PAGAN GODS & GODDESSES
ADONIS Beloved of Aphrodite, the central figure of a widespread fertility cult, god of vegetation and re-birth. Adonis seems clearly linked with Tammuz, the Assyro-Babylonion god who dies and rises again. Adonis is the Greek version of the Phoenician term Adon, which means "Lord."
APHRODITE Goddess of fertility, love and beauty. When Zeus killed his father, Uranus, he cut off his father's genitals and cast them into the sea. The sea foamed and boiled and Aphrodite arose from the waters. As Aphrodite stepped from the ocean, flowers grew wherever her feet touched. Paphos, the place where Aphrodite supposedly rose from the waters, was her most important place of worship, and at Corinth she was worshipped with sacred whores. Aphrodite is clearly related to Ishtar and Astarte and very much loves the company of the male gods. While married to Hephaestus, she also dallied with Ares, Poseidon, Adonis, and Dionysius. Aphrodite is a complex, many faceted deity. Among her many names are Melaina (the Black One), Androphonos (Killer of Men), Epitymbidia (She Upon the Graves), Anadyomene (Rising from the Sea), Urania (Sky Borne), and Pandemos (Goddess of All the People).
APOLLO God of light, god of prophecy and music, god of medicine, god of flocks and herds, the divine archer, a pastoral god. Wise, beauteous, all-knowing, ever just, ever young. Apollo urges forgiveness to all offenses, even the blackest of crimes, so long as the offender was truly penitent. After Zeus and Athene, the greatest of the Gods. Apollo's most important place of worship was the famous temple at Delphi, where oracles prophesied in his name. The Sybil at Cumae in southern Italy also foretold the future in his honor. Paintings and statuary show him with his bow and lyre, which were a gift from the infant Hermes. Apollo loved young men and young women alike, though his affairs usually ended unhappily. Artemis is his twin sister, and Horus is his counterpart in the Egyptian pantheon.
ARES; to the Romans, MARS God of war. The Greeks detested Ares. Quarrelsome, spiteful, unfaithful, Ares loves only hatred, strife and bloodshed. Ares was the first god to be placed on trial for murder, and the place in Athens where he was supposed to be have been tried was called the Aeropagus, the Hill of Ares. By custom trials for murder were held at the Aeropagus. The Romans believed Ares to be the father of Romulus and Remus.
ARTEMIS Also PARTHENOS Fertility goddess, patron of maidens, goddess of childbirth. Identified with the moon, as her brother Apollo is identified with the sun. The Virgin Huntress, Mistress of Beasts, Lady of All Wild Things, A Lion unto Women. Usually benevolent, but stern and demanding, dangerous to cross. Artemis lived in Arcadia with a band of nymphs subject to her strict discipline; those who dallied with men, as did Callisto, might be shot down with an arrow or otherwise punished. No man or god ever gained the love of Artemis. Artemis is virtually unbeatable in combat. The only one of the immortals who ever bested her was Hera, who defeated Artemis on the battlefield at Troy, whipped her with her own bow, and sent her fleeing in tears.
ASCLEPIUS God of medicine and healing, son of Apollo. Originally a mortal. So great was Asclepius' skill that he could revive the dead. Zeus killed Asclepius after Hades complained that he was being cheated of his lawful due, but Asclepius' virtues and good deeds won him a place among the gods. Those who wished a cure of Asclepius would sleep in his temple, where he would appear to them in a dream and advise them. Snakes are his symbol and were allowed to wander freely in his temple at Epidaurus.
ATHENE; to the Romans, MINERVA Goddess of wisdom, of architects and sculptors, of weavers, of oxen and horses. A goddess of war. Like Artemis, an eternal virgin. Often associated with birds, particularly the owl. Athene taught men to tame horses and invented the potter's wheel. Her city is Athens, which she won in a contest with Poseidon.
CHARON The ferryman who carries dead souls across the river Styx to Hades. His fee is one obol, which was placed in the mouth of the dead man before he was buried.
CRONUS The chief of the Titans, the race of giants who preceded the Olympian gods. In very ancient times, Cronus was probably a corn god. Told that he would be overthrown by one of his own sons, Cronus devoured them all as they were born until his wife Rhea deceived him to save Zeus. Wrapping a stone in swaddling clothes, Rhea gave the stone to Cronus and spirited Zeus away to a hiding place. After defeating Cronus, Zeus imprisoned him and the rest of the Titans, thus beginning the age of the Olympian gods.
DEMETER; to the Romans, CERES Goddess of grain and the fruitful earth. An earth mother who was certainly one of, if not the oldest of the gods. Demeter's immensely popular festivals, held twice a year at Eleusis, were so highly revered that no initiate was ever known to break the vow of secrecy. Demeter gave the gift of grain to men and instituted the Eleusinian Mysteries. The nature of these Mysteries has been lost to us, though we know that the mystery cults celebrated the Lesser Mysteries in February of every year and the Greater Mysteries in September of every fifth year. Most likely the rites included processions, ritual cleansing and religious dramas.
DIONYSIUS God of religious ecstasy and wine, accompanied always by satyrs and nymphs. The force of life in all growing things. Dionysius is the Greek form of Thracian and Phrygian deities of vegetation and fetility, who followers worked themselves into a frenzy and ritually tore apart their god in the form of a goat, a bull or a man. The cult survived the introduction of the Olympian gods and proved so popular that it finally had to be accepted by the Dorian Greeks. In the dark age which followed the decline of the Myceneans, the cult of Dionysius spread rapidly, especially among women. His followers were known as maenads (mad women) and it was best not to be near when their frenzy came upon them. Animals, and sometimes people, were torn apart and sometimes eaten in the belief that they were devouring the god himself. Drunk, lawless and noisy, not terribly impressed by authority or convention, the followers of Dionysius were often unwelcome. His worshippers danced wildly, and his rites were designed to cleanse men of lowly irrational emotions and desires.
ERIS The dark sister of Eros. Goddess of chaos and discord, Eris loves confusion and conflict. It was Eris who gave the goddesses the golden apple inscribed "To the Fairest," which set in motion the chain of events that led to the Trojan War.
EROS God of love both heterosexual and homosexual, though his domain is not limited solely to sexual love and includes love in all its broadest senses. One of the oldest of the gods, the center of his worship was at Thespiae. The ancient Greeks feared Eros. Eros can cause havoc, and there is an air of maliciousness about him. Eros can drive men and women to noble self-sacrfice, but he can also torture them to madness and drive them to self-destruction. Lacking wisdom, moderns have made Eros contemptibly cute and sweet, and somewhat prankish.
GAIA "Mother of all things." The Earth itself, mother of the Titans, the old gods. Usually represented as a giant woman. Before anything else existed, there was only Chaos (the Void, the Nothingness, the Emptiness) and the Earth. Gaia nurses the ill and watches over marriages. Gaia is an oracle as well, and the temple at Delphi was hers before it was Apollo's. The Greeks had no tales about Gaia, because she belonged to the distant past.
HADES Also PLUTO "The Unseen," "the Rich." God of wealth and the underworld. Hades is stern but perfectly just, and rejects all pleas for mercy, but he is in no sense evil or destructive. His realm is not a place of flames and torment, as is the Christian hell. Most dead souls dwell on the plain of Asphodel, where they wander aimlessly as mere shadows of their earthly selves. The blessed go to the Elysian Fields, a place of great joy and beauty, while the abominably wicked go to the dismal plain of Tartarus. You're born, you live, you die, you go to Hades. End of story.
HEBE Goddess of youth and beauty. An eternally young girl, Hebe helps the gods wash and dress themselves, though her main duty is to serve nectar and ambrosia at their feasts. A minor but charming deity.
HECATE Goddess of black magic and evil ghosts. Often portrayed with three faces: maiden, mother and crone. The poor and down trodden often turned to Hecate for protection or vengance. Hecate defends children and appears with her dogs at crossroads and tombs.
HELIOS God of the sun, the charioteer who drives the sun across the sky. From his great height, Helios sees everything and was often called upon to witness contracts and oaths. From the fifth century onward, Helios was considered identical with Apollo.
HEPHAESTUS; to the Romans, VULCAN The lame blacksmith god, patron of craftsman and metalworkers, god of fire. The centers of his cult could be found wherever metalworkers congregated and near volcanos. Hephaestus was so ugly that his mother Hera kept him out of sight, and the other gods laughed at his lame gait. In revenge, Hephaestus tricked the gods into giving him Aphrodite for his wife, though he never succeeded in keeping her faithful. Some scholars say Hephaestus' lameness was a reflection of an actual practice. A skillful smith was a rare and valuable man, and tribes or villages would often cripple a good smith to keep him from leaving or running away.
HERA; to the Romans, JUNO. Wife of Zeus, queen of the gods. Zeus is quite a randy god, and Hera's domestic life with him is always stormy. Zeus and Hera were on opposite sides during the Trojan War, and they squabble all the way through the Iliad. At first a sky goddess, Hera later became the embodiment of womanliness. Like Dionysius, Hera is a pre-Olympian deity whose cult was so strong that it had to be adopted by the Dorian Greeks. Hera was worshipped in high places, and her temples were built on mountain peaks. Her festival, held at Argos and called the Heraia, involved athletic contests.
HERMES; to the Romans, MERCURY The messenger of the gods, the god of eloquence, the god of luck. God of travelers, merchants and athletes. Originally a pastoral and fertility god in Arcadia, in his oldest monuments Hermes is represented simply as a phallus. Easygoing, kind and obliging, Hermes is quite helpful to both gods and men, though he appears in some stories as a trickster. Hermes invented the lyre, which he gave to Apollo to get out of a mess he'd made by stealing Apollo's cattle. Hermes' image was often found at crossroads and junctions, and he is shown with winged sandals and a winged helmet. Hermes was quite popular.
HYPNOS God of sleep. Brother of Thanatos (Death). Hypnos has power even over the gods.
IRIS Goddess of the rainbow. Like Hermes, a messenger for the gods. The center of her cult was at Delos, and the proper offerings to her were dried figs and honeycakes.
MOROS God of destiny. Dark, unknowable, all powerful. Even the gods are subject to Moros.
MORPHEUS God of dreams. His name is the root word of "morphine."
NEMESIS Also ADRASTEIA Goddess of destiny and inevitability, the repayment of sin and crime.
NIKE; to the Romans, VICTORIA Goddess of victory. Generally portrayed as a winged maiden holding high a wreath of bay leaves, the victor's laurel. Her most famous temple was in Athens.
OCEANUS Ancient god of the oceans, eventually displaced by Poseidon. With his sister, Tethys, he had six thousand children, half of them sea spirits, the other half river spirits.
PAN "The Pasturer," "the Feeder of Flocks." God of herds, fertility and male sexuality. Pan has the horns and legs of a goat and plays a syrinx, a pipe withs seven reeds. An ancient god, he has no moral or social aspect whatsoever, and is simply the embodiment of pure, basic instinct. Some said that Pan taught Apollo the art of prophecy. Pan especially loves mountains and wild country. Pan has a dark aspect as well, causing men and animals to go suddenly mad with terror in distant, lonely places. His name is therefore the root word of "panic."
PERSEPHONE Also KORE "Maiden." Daughter of Demeter, wife of Hades. Hades kidnapped Persephone and took her to the underworld to be his queen. When Demeter heard, she wandered the earth in mourning, abandoning her responsibilities, and the earth grew gray and barren. The growing famine forced Zeus to demand that Hades return Persephone to the surface world. But Persephone had eaten part of a pomegranate, and eating of the food of the dead bound her to their world. Zeus and Hades struck a bargain -- Persephone would spend seven months a year in the world of the living and five in the world of the dead. When Persephone is in the world, her mother Demeter is content, and te world blooms and lives. When she is in the underworld, Demeter mourns, the world languishes, and we have winter.
POSEIDON God of the sea and earthquakes. Horses and bulls are sacred to him. Originally the god of earth tremors, of vegetation and fecundity, Poseidon fought for the Olympians against the Titans, and his reward after the victory was dominion over the seas, lakes and rivers. Poseidon's fits of rage manifest as storms, and seamen dread his anger. Bulls were thrown into the sea as sacrifices to Poseidon. His amorous adventures played an important role in Greek mythology, and he loved men no less than women.
THANATOS God of death. Sometimes portrayed as a winged spirit, at other times as a man robed in black armed with a sword. Thanatos is not evil or hateful. He is just doing his job.
URANUS Heaven personified. The son born to Gaia when she first emerged from Chaos. Uranus' rain made Gaia fruitful, and she brought forth the Titans. Jealous of his children, Uranus confined them to the earth, and Gaia conspired wth Cronus, the boldest of her children, to overthrow him. Cronus castrated Uranus with a sickle, only to be overthrown by Zeus in his turn.
ZEUS; to the Romans, JUPITER. "Cloud Gatherer." The ruler of the Olympian gods, god of the sky, thunder, and lightening, the upholder of custom and tradition. Zeus had many names. As Soter, he is know as the father and saviour of mankind; as Herkeios, guardian of the home; as Xenios, keeper of the rules of hospitality; as Ktesios, protector of property; as Gamelios, god of marriage; as Zeus Chronius, god of the earth and fertility; as Zeus Eluetherious, protector of freedom; and as Zeus Polieus, god of the civic virtues. Despite all these duties, Zeus still had plenty of time to romp with young girls and boys. His wife Hera persecuted his lovers, both mortal and divine.
Last modified: 02 January 2002
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