Greek Mythology and Gods





Ancient Greeks had invented, or gathered from other peoples in their earlier experiences, a whole family of gods, in whom the listeners to Homer quite positively and religiously believed. These gods were supposed to live on the summit of Mount Olympus, or rather, in the heaven which it upheld; for Olympus was the highest mountain known to the Greeks, towering as it does quite two miles above the sea on the northern border of Greece. Chief of these gods of Olympus was Zeus, or, to give him his later Roman name, Jupiter. Indeed, as all these gods have become much more commonly known by their Roman names, let us use these customary names, merely remembering that they are not the Greek ones. Zeus is Jupiter, the Thunderer, the king of heaven and its storms and lightnings. He was probably the chief god of the Achaeans, brought by these invaders from their northern home; for he is much the same as Odin, or Woden, the Scandinavian chief god.

Perhaps it was in the process of harmonizing Achaeans and Aegean that Hera, the ancient "Great Mother" of Crete and Argos was represented as the wife of Jupiter, the queen of heaven. Juno is her Roman name. Jupiter had also two older brothers, the more important of whom was Neptune, the ruler of the sea. It is worth noting that Neptune was also an ancient Pelasgian or Aegean god. The Aegean had been sailors; the Achaeans were not, so the latter readily accepted into the god-family this Aegean monarch of the ocean.

The third of the brothers was Pluto, who ruled over Hades, the world of the dead. The Greeks had learned to believe in an after-life; but they thought of the after-life as one of darkness and dreariness. There, good folk and bad were all assembled in one world. The bad suffered punishments adjudged to them by Minos, the old Cretan king, who was supposed with his brother, Rhadamanthus, to give laws to the dead, as once he had given them to the living. The souls of the good in Hades did not suffer, yet they had little joy in that idle world where they lacked all of the physical pleasures of sunshine, eating, drinking, and so on, which the Greeks most highly prized. So the Greek clung to life and its beauty and physical strength; and he dreaded old age and death, and shut them from his thoughts all that he could.

All the local deities of special places were also given places in this broad god-family. Thus the goddess Pallas Athena, or Minerva, to whom the Athenians were specially devoted, was declared to be a daughter of Jupiter. Then there was the old Pelasgian sun-deity Apollo, who had a shrine at Delphi. He was declared to be a son of Jupiter. His city, Delphi, lies on the slope of a huge mountain, Parnassus, amid the rugged chasms of which there was hidden a very ancient oracle, which prophesied the future in Apollo's name. What this oracle originally consisted of we do not know; but volcanic vapors arose from a cleft in the mountain, and a priesthood gathered round these and interpreted the meaning of the god and his promises to his worshippers. Faith in this oracle must have far antedated the Achaean invasion; for its commands were not only accepted by the leaders in the Trojan war, they were then venerated for their age and were blindly obeyed by all the Grecian people. Indeed, the worship of this oracle formed one of the main bonds of unity and nationality among the Greeks.

The great god Jupiter was supplied with ancestors as well as descendants. A whole series of legends told of his father Chronos, and his grandfather, Saturn, or Uranus, each of whom had once been the supreme god, but had been dethroned by his descendants, after bitter warfare. And back of all these generations of gods there still loomed dimly in the Grecian mind the ancient figure of Earth herself, the producer of all things, the forgotten "Great Mother" of the Cretan worship.

These tales of wholly superhuman beings formed the Greek religion. Of more immediate historic value were their stories of their own doings, their hero tales, which had undoubtedly a foundation in actual occurrences. Earliest of these, and doubtless to be regarded as purely imaginary, are the stories of the creation of man. These tell us that two of the ancient gods, or Titans, grandchildren of old Uranus, were Prometheus and Epimetheus, Forethought and Afterthought. They aided Jupiter in his war against the older gods, for Prometheus clearly foresaw its issue. When Jupiter was victorious, he set the two brothers to creating subjects for him upon earth. Epimetheus rushed eagerly into the work and made all the animals, endowing one with the greatest swiftness, another with supreme strength, and so on, till there were no superlative qualities left. Meanwhile Prometheus, going more slowly and earnestly to work, made man out of the earth itself. He copied his creature in figure after the gods, and set him upright, so that while the other animals looked down-ward and saw the earth, man looked upward and saw the heavens. Then Prometheus, finding no superlative physical qualities left to bestow upon his creature, took fire from the sun and gave that to man, so that by its use he could conquer all things for himself, force earth to give up her secrets, and find out for himself all the sciences and arts.

By means of this precious possession of fire, men became so powerful that Jupiter began to fear lest they should drive him in his turn from the throne of the universe. At first they had divided with him all the spoils of their labor, and all the beasts they slew. But Prometheus, by a clever stratagem, arranged the carcass of a bull for sacrifice so that the good meat and hide were in one small heap, and the bones, the entrails, and all the waste matter, in what seemed a far large and more valuable heap. Jupiter was then called to select which portion should always be his in a sacrifice. He chose the large and worthless mass, but he never forgave Prometheus for the trick thus put upon him.

Jupiter now began to think seriously of destroying men altogether, so powerful had they grown and so defiant. But, first, he planned a means of weakening them. Apparently as yet there had been no women, but only men. Now, calling all the gods of Olympus to help him, Jupiter framed a woman, giving her every grace and beauty. When the work was finished and had been sufficiently admired, he named her Pandora, which means the gift of all the gods, and sent her down to men. Epimetheus welcomed her most gladly, though Prometheus had warned him to accept nothing which came from Jupiter. Pandora brought with her a casket which she had been forbidden to open; but no sooner was she established among men than curiosity overcame her scruples, and she peeped into the box. Immediately, when the box was opened, there sprang out of it all the ills of human life, the sicknesses, the bodily weaknesses, the faults of character and temper. Only Hope remained within the casket to cheer mankind.

Afflicted by Pandora's box of evils, men became so feeble that Jupiter no longer feared them. He took fire away from them, and when Prometheus stole some of it from heaven again, Jupiter punished the great Titan by binding him to a rock where a vulture tears forever at his flesh. Yet Prometheus still remains the Friend of Man, and by his aid, the aid of Divine Intelligence, the Greeks still hoped that some day man would become the equal of Jupiter and all his host of gods.






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