Around 700 BC, the poet Hesiod’s Theogony offered the first written cosmogony, or origin story, of Greek mythology. The Theogony tells the story of the universe’s journey from nothingness (Chaos, a primeval void) to being, and details an elaborate family tree of elements, gods and goddesses who evolved from Chaos and descended from Gaia (Earth), Ouranos (Sky), Pontos (Sea) and Tartaros (the Underworld).
Greek Mythology: The Olympians
At the center of Greek mythology is the pantheon of deities who were said to live on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. From their perch, they ruled every aspect of human life. Olympian gods and goddesses looked like men and women (though they could change themselves into animals and other things) and were–as many myths recounted–vulnerable to human foibles and passions.
The twelve main Olympians are:
- Zeus (Jupiter, in Roman mythology): the king of all the gods (and father to many) and god of weather, law and fate
- Hera (Juno): the queen of the gods and goddess of women and marriage
- Aphrodite (Venus): goddess of beauty and love
- Apollo (Apollo): god of prophesy, music and poetry and knowledge
- Ares (Mars): god of war
- Artemis (Diana): goddess of hunting, animals and childbirth
- Athena (Minerva): goddess of wisdom and defense
- Demeter (Ceres): goddess of agriculture and grain
- Dionysos (Bacchus): god of wine, pleasure and festivity
- Hephaistos (Vulcan): god of fire, metalworking and sculpture
- Hermes (Mercury): god of travel, hospitality and trade and Zeus’s personal messenger
- Poseidon (Neptune): god of the sea
Other gods and goddesses sometimes included in the roster of Olympians are:
- Hades (Pluto): god of the underworld
- Hestia (Vesta): goddess of home and family
- Eros (Cupid): god of sex and minion to Aphrodite
Greek Mythology: Heroes and Monsters
Greek mythology does not just tell the stories of gods and goddesses, however.
Human heroes–such as Heracles, the adventurer who performed 12 impossible labors for King Eurystheus (and was subsequently worshipped as a god for his accomplishment); Pandora, the first woman, whose curiosity brought evil to mankind; Pygmalion, the king who fell in love with an ivory statue; Arachne, the weaver who was turned into a spider for her arrogance; handsome Trojan prince Ganymede who became the cupbearer for the gods; Midas, the king with the golden touch; and Narcissus, the young man who fell in love with his own reflection–are just as significant. Monsters and “hybrids” (human-animal forms) also feature prominently in the tales: the winged horse Pegasus, the horse-man Centaur, the lion-woman Sphinx and the bird-woman Harpies, the one-eyed giant Cyclops, automatons (metal creatures given life by Hephaistos), manticores and unicorns, Gorgons, pygmies, minotaurs, satyrs and dragons of all sorts. Many of these creatures have become almost as well known as the gods, goddesses and heroes who share their stories.