HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 2 Cherry Fan
The Olympian Pantheon:
The Reign of Zeus
In most Greek literature and culture, the myths related by Hesiod, about the origin of the gods, play only
a very limited role. The twelve Olympian gods are the most powerful, so it’s best to concentrate on
them. Why twelve, you ask? Which twelve? Again, if the number twelve does not appear in your
particular text, then it’s not important. But the usual twelve are Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter,
(Hestia is excluded), Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Hephaestus, Ares, and Dionysus (who replaces
Hestia). When learning about Greek gods, it’s especially important to take note of their epithets, the
short descriptive phrases used in poetry to describe them when repetition of their names would get
jarring. In this Unit, we’ll look at the Olympians with particular attention to how they are portrayed in
the shorter Homeric Hymns. These accounts may not give the full story, but they should give you
something like a mug shot, which will help you recognize them again.
The greatest of all gods was of course Zeus. His name is like that of the Roman Jupiter (that is, like the
Ju-part; -piter = father) and is related to our work “day”; it refers to the sky. (It makes more sense when
you know that the Greek Z is a combination SD, so SDeus). The Homeric Hymn to Zeus (23) relates
several epithets: he is “best among the gods and the greatest”, “all-seeing”, “the lord of all”, “son of
Cronos”, “the fulfiller”. The poem picks out his relationship to Themis, but does not explain why. As the
sky god, he is referred to as “cloud-gatherer”, and he uses lightning bolts as his principal weapon. In fact,
when lightning is seen striking the ground, it is thought to be an epiphany or manifestation of Zeus
kataibatês (coming down). Zeus’ bird is the eagle, his animal the bull, his tree the oak. Like the
appearance of lightning, the appearance of an eagle can be a sign of Zeus’ presence. In the story of
Europa, Zeus famously takes the form of a bull when he abducts her. At Dodona, in northwestern
Greece, priests listen and interpreted as the leaves rustled a stand of oak trees.
Because of his being raised on Crete, the island was thought to be especially significant for Zeus. But the
sanctuary at Olympia and its games were also especially in his honour. The Athenians had a building off
of their agora, or marketplace, dedicated to “Zeus the Liberator”, since freedom was such an important
value for the Greeks in historical times, but Zeus was also seen as the guarantor of both oaths and of
hospitality (xenia). Because of his place in the pantheon, the power of kings was also identified with his.
Zeus’ relationship to fate is a difficult one to clarify. If he is all-powerful and can see into the future, he
must be more powerful than fate. A nod of Zeus’ head often determines what will happen. But Zeus is
also bound by fate, that is, once he determines it. In myths, where everyone already knows the ending
and the interest lies more in the particular telling, prophecy of the future and the irrevocability of fate
can be made appealing aspects of the narration.
Zeus is a philanderer, which is reflective both of Greek values, that men may have multiple sexual
partners, and of the need to populate the world of heroes with divine progeny. There are many stories
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of Zeus’ sexual escapades and his wife Hera’s jealousy. You may find it odd that Zeus can be so lecherous.
Some Greeks found it uncomfortable also. Most didn’t.
Nota bene: One form of Zeus’ name, dios or diwos, is cognate with our word “divine”. (w and v are
equivalent.) It also appears in the name of his son Dionysus.
Poseidon is Zeus’ brother. Like him, he Is portrayed as roughly forty years old. In artwork he can also be
distinguished from Zeus because he carries a trident. In many ways they are doublets, or rather with
Hades triplets, each one dominating a different realm. The Homeric Hymn to Poseidon (22) emphasizes
his connection to the sea, to Helicon in Boeotia and Aegae in the Argolid. The hymn seems to concede a
paradox, that Poseidon is both “tamer of horses and a saviour of ships” (5). It seems likely that he was
originally at least two distinct gods, one of land and one of sea, who somehow became unified. His
epithet “earth-shaker”, however, may stem from a Greek view of earthquakes originating in the sea.
Greece is surrounded by the sea and is a very active seismic region.
Nota bene: When Poseidon is called “savious of ships”, that is a euphemism. Poseidon is also the god
who destroys ships, but the hymn emphasizes the positive. Likewise, his epithet asphaleios, “steadier”,
is a euphemism for his association with earthquakes.
Poseidon’s name is based on the stem potei-, “lord”. In some stories Poseidon is married to Amphitrite,
but she is usually not an important character (see Th 930). Besides Aegae and Helicon, Poseidon is also
important for Athens both because he is identified with its legendary king Erechtheus and because he is
said to be the divine father of Theseus, the Athenian national hero (see UNIT 8). In the classical period,
Athens’ military strength stemmed from its navy, so the sea god was very important for the city,
The third brother is Hades (sometimes Aidoneus), whose name later Greeks understood to mean
“invisible”. With Persephone he rules the underworld as the “host of many”, again a euphemism for his
association with death. As god of death he is not worshipped – he receives no Homeric Hymn – but
because of the Greek recognition that the dead have some mysterious powers, he is worshipped as
Ploutos, “Wealth”. He is chthonic, since he swells under the earth, and he is particularly identified with
the wealth of the earth. Hades can also be identified as the place rather than the god.
Hera is worshipped as the wife of Zeus, as the Homeric Hymn to Hera (12.) makes clear. This was an
instance of a “sacred marriage” (hieros gamos), since in the Olympian generation Hera takes over the
qualities associated with Earth. Her name may mean “ripe” (for marriage), or perhaps it is a feminine
form of “hero”. Her being the wife and sister of Zeus should not give you any ideas about Greek
attitudes to incest. In ancient Greece it was not uncommon for first cousins to marry, even for uncles to
wed their nieces, but siblings did not marry. On the other hand, in other areas of the ancient Near East,
perhaps including the Hurrians and Hittites, royal marriages could solve the issue of unequal status
between husband and wife by having siblings marry, or father and daughter marry.
The city of Argos and the island of Samos have special sanctuaries dedicated to Hera; her animal is the
peacock. She is a guardian of marriage, but seems strangely to have had less success as a mother. There
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is no special importance placed on her being the mother of Hephaestus, Ares, or Hebe. The goddess of
childbirth, Eileithyia (“coming”), is a separate entity.
Demeter is the goddess whose motherhood is emphasized. The last part of her name, -meter, clearly
means “mother”. The shorter Homeric Hymn to Demeter (13.) emphasizes first her nobility, concretely
apparent in her beautiful hair, and then her status as revered goddess. That status is one of the key
themes of the longer Hymn, which is discussed in the next Unit. Her relationship with her daughter,
Persephone, seems an almost essential part of her identity. The two are referred to as the “Twain
Goddesses” and worshipped in several important cults together. She is the goddess of grains, as her
Roman name Ceres (as in “cereal”) makes clear, and her most important cult was in Eleusis, near Athens.
Hestia, despite being the “first and last born” of Cronus’ children, is generally dropped from the
Olympian pantheon in favour of Dionysus. Her name simply means “hearth”, which reflects her limited
anthropomorphism. The Homeric Hymn to Hestia (24.) emphasizes her status as Delphi, which
possessed the communal hearth of all the Greeks. She is a virgin goddess, and scholars have suggested
that this is so because it was the girls in the household who had responsibility for keeping the family
The second generation of Olympians begins for Hesiod with Athena (Th 885). He exp