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The archetypes of monotheistic religions, polytheistic religions, myths, legends, creation tales, morality stories, bard's tales, beasties, monsters and things that go bump in the night are often, if distilled down, remarkably similar with only cultural differences creating the varieties.
– An h2g2 Researcher
Gods and goddesses have featured in stories dreamed up and retold since ancient times. Some gods had specific features and represented certain traits. The stories about them were meant to be parables, a way of instilling wisdom upon the inexperienced. Generally, each culture had their own god or set of gods, for example the Greek gods. In other cultures, similar gods had different names although their representation was practically the same, eg the Roman god Neptune was the equivalent of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea who lived on the ocean floor.
This Entry features the Roman gods and goddesses. Roman religion evolved and changed as Rome grew from a little settlement to a great empire. Vesta, for example, seems to have been a Roman goddess since the earliest times, while the cults of Mithras and Sol Invictus developed under the Empire. The correspondences between the Greek and Roman pantheons would have been much less before the conquest of the Greek territories in Italy and of Greece itself.
Several of the Roman gods' names are legendary, and provided the roots for words we use today, while the rest have faded into obscurity. Six of the eight planets of our Solar System are named after Roman gods (the odd-ones-out are Earth and Uranus1). In Latin, the days of the week were named after gods. This is still the case in at least four of the languages descended from Latin: Italian, Spanish, French and Romanian.
Some of the god characters were debauched and their depravity, including incest and rape, knew no limits. They served their purpose as role-models for Roman society, whose orgies are infamous. Others were benevolent and beneficial, reflecting the gentler side of Roman life. Any Roman worth his salt knew which god ruled what, therefore who to invoke and offer tributes to. There was even a goddess of the sewer systems of Rome (Cloacina, in case you're wondering who to pray to if your toilet won't flush).
Apollo was a major deity who had the power of prophecy. A son of Jupiter and Latona, Apollo was the god of music, poetry, truth and healing. He is often depicted holding a lyre or harp, with a serpent in attendance. Like most gods, he had his contradictions; he could unleash a deadly plague as well as cure inflictions. The first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, claimed he was a son of Apollo and the god was his protector. Emperor Augustus initiated games in the name of Apollo and erected temples in his honour.
It was Apollo's son, the demi-god Asclepius, whose skill at medicine, learned from watching snake behaviour, conquered death itself. This so frightened the gods that Jupiter struck him dead with a thunderbolt, so that the mystery of death would remain the knowledge of the gods, and mortals would continue to die. Having killed his own grandson, Jupiter was contrite, and raised his image in the night sky as the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer2. This act didn't appease Apollo for the loss of his son though, and in his anger he slew the cyclops who had created the thunderbolt which killed Asclepius. In response to this retaliation, Jupiter commanded that Apollo be a servant to a mortal for a year as punishment, and he ended up as a herdsman for King Admetus of Pherae in Thessaly, a part of Greece.
The historic Apollo Missions of the 1960s were named after this god.
The Roman goddess of the beginning of the new day (dawn), Aurora's name now describes the ethereal lights which dance at the poles, the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis.
Bacchus is the Roman god of wine. There are many symbols in every type of Roman art commemorating this deity, particularly on the walls of pleasure houses. The normal depiction of Bacchus is as a larger-than-life inebriated young man wearing grapes on his head, rather than a detached god persona. The Greek equivalent is Dionysos.
According to one legend, Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne, a daughter of Jupiter, who had been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by Theseus. She was initially frightened of Bacchus, but he exalted her. They married and raised four sons. After Ariadne's death, Bacchus turned her wedding crown (the crown of Vulcan, goldsmith of the gods) into a group of stars to honour her. Today this constellation is known by the name Corona Borealis.
Ceres is the goddess of agriculture, the harvest and motherly love. Our word for cereal is derived from her name. A daughter of Saturn and sister (and also wife) of Jupiter, her Greek equivalent is the goddess Demeter. Ceres was important enough to have her own festival, called Ludi Ceriales, which was held during April, and she had a Feast Day in October.
- The goddess Ceres has a dwarf planet (it was originally the very first asteroid discovered, Ceres 1) named Ceres after her.
Cupid, the Roman god of love, was the son of Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, god of war (his father and uncle, but we won't dwell on that), so Cupid was an eclectic mix of good nature and bad habits. In ancient Greece the same god was known as Eros, the young son of Aphrodite, their goddess of love and beauty. Cupid is portrayed as a mischievous, winged, naked baby boy, whose arrows pierce the hearts of his victims, causing them to fall deeply in love. His aim is not always straight – some arrows miss their mark – therefore not all love affairs have happy endings. This was sometimes deliberate on Cupid's part; unrequited love among the mortal population probably greatly amused him.
Unfortunately, as the saying goes, the course of true love never runs smooth, and even the Roman god of love was not immune. A mortal princess named Psyche almost caused his downfall. Venus, who had been jealous of Psyche's stunning beauty, ordered her son to fire his arrow and make her fall in love with the ugliest man in the world. When Cupid saw Psyche, he fell deeply in love and defied his mother by marrying the maiden. He carried her off to his palace, visiting her only at night. Because she was a mortal, it was forbidden for her to look upon the face of a god. Psyche did not know who her husband was, only that he had told her she must never see his face. One night her curiosity got the better of her, so she lit a candle when he fell asleep. Her gasp at his stunning beauty awoke him, and, realising she had defied him, he deserted her.
Devastated Psyche prayed in the Temple of Venus to be reunited with her lost love. The goddess gave her a series of tasks to complete, to prove her love for Cupid. Each task was harder and more dangerous than the last, because Venus wanted beautiful Psyche destroyed. The last task was to take a little box to the Underworld, collect some of Persephone's beauty, and return it to Venus in the box. Although warned not to open the box, Psyche succumbed to temptation and released a deadly slumber. Cupid found her lifeless body and wept. Heartbroken, he begged the gods for forgiveness on behalf of both of them. Venus relented; and Jupiter was so moved by the power of love that he made Psyche a goddess, enabling the couple to be together. They subsequently had a beautiful daughter called Voluptas, who became the goddess of sensual pleasures.
- Cupid has played a role in the celebrations of love and lovers since time immemorial. If you browse a selection of engagement or wedding cards when choosing one for a couple who have just committed themselves to a lifetime of domestic bliss (hopefully) then chances are somewhere in the artwork there'll be a smiling baby or young boy with tiny white wings, holding a bow aloft in recognition of his achievement at bringing the happy couple together. He's a good whipping boy too; we can always blame his aim if the relationship ends in heartbreak or the marriage ends in divorce.
The goddess of the Moon, woodlands and the hunt, Diana also represented chastity. Diana was a daughter of Jupiter; her Greek counterpart was called Artemis. She is sometimes depicted as a nymph with a sheath of arrows strapped to her back and carrying a bow. One famous statue shows her running with hounds on a joint leash, in hunting mode. Another identity is Selene, the Moon goddess, who had her own cult. There is a chemical element called Selenium (Se, atomic number 34).
- Diana has been a popular baby girl name throughout the ages; famous Dianas include singer/actress Diana Ross, Avenger Dame Diana Rigg, and Lady Diana Spencer, who married a prince but didn't live happily ever after.
Fauna, also known as Bona Dea (good goddess), is the goddess of the good of the Earth, usually depicted holding a cornucopia overflowing with ripe fruit.
- Today we use the word fauna to describe the animal life of a specific area (like Australia) or of a particular time in history, such as the dinosaurs of the Jurassic period.
Flora is the goddess of flowers, whose festival called Floralia lasted from 28 April to 3 May. During this time the Roman people wore fresh garlands of flowers (leis) around their necks, a practice still performed when greeting visitors in places like the Bahamas and Hawaii.
- Today we use the word flora to describe the plant life of a particular region or area.
This god rules doorways, most importantly the entrance to the home, and represents beginnings and endings. Janus is depicted as two-faced, in the way that he can see both the beginning and the end, not that he is particularly deceitful. He has no equivalent in the Greek pantheon, nor is there any similar god in any other religion.
- Our month January, the first of the new year, is appropriately named after him, because we celebrate 'out with the old, in with the new' – both looking back over the past year and forward to the next.
The king of the gods Jupiter (sometimes 'Jove'), Greek equivalent Zeus, had many lovers (of both sexes) and multiple children. Jupiter had one chief wife, his sister the goddess Juno (Hera). She was someone he constantly tried to avoid, as he was usually up to no good and she had a fearsome temper. Jupiter, Juno and their daughter Minerva were worshipped as the chief deities of the Roman state.
Jupiter was depicted as an old man with a long white beard, an image that was adopted by Christians because they believed their God created Man in His image. Not content with this reverential look, Jupiter had a habit of changing his form into that of different creatures in order to seduce or capture the objects of his desire. For example, the old goat transformed himself into a magnificent white bull to attract the attention of Europa, who decorated his horns with a garland of flowers and then could not resist straddling him for a ride. The bull then carried her off across the waters to the continent which still bears her name. The kidnapping and subsequent ravishment of Europa has been the subject of many poems and works of art, including the 1580 ceiling painting in the Ducal Palace in Venice, Italy, by Paolo Veronese (1528 - 1588).
In another story, Jupiter took a fancy to a young shepherd lad called Ganymede. To attract his attention, Jupiter metamorphosed into an eagle. When Ganymede tried to protect his flock by chasing off the fabulous bird of prey, the eagle swooped, grasped the young man by his shoulders, then carried him off to Mount Olympus. Once there, he made Ganymede the cup bearer to all the gods and his personal slave. When the goddess Juno found out that Ganymede was her husband's lover, she was so enraged that Jupiter was forced to hide Ganymede in the heavens as the stars which make up the constellation Crater 'the Cup'.
According to another saucy tale, Jupiter changed himself into a swan to seduce a blushing royal bride. This avian form was used to visit King Tyndareus' new wife Leda, Queen of Sparta. Jupiter the swan managed to impregnate the queen, and she conceived two children, Helen and Pollux. She also conceived with her new husband King Tyndareus, who fathered a daughter, Clytemnestra, and a son, Castor. These 'quadruplets' caused a lot of trouble: Helen, reputedly the most beautiful woman in the world, is synonymous with the Trojan War3. Clytemnestra was married to Agamemnon, King of Argos, but after he returned from the war with a new wife on his arm, she killed him. Castor and Pollux have their own story.
More than 2,000 years ago, philosophers were debating about whether there were other Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars. Now, extrasolar planetary systems are being found. The mass of the planet is compared with that of Jupiter – astronomers know this as the 'Jovian scale'.
The god of war, Mars, a son of Jupiter and Juno, was another important deity, as the Romans were a war-like race who sought to expand their empire by conquering their foes in battle. His Greek equivalent is Ares. Mars' spouse was Bellona, the goddess of war, but he didn't father the founder of the city of Rome with her! The story goes that Rhea Silvia was a Vestal Virgin until she was ravished and impregnated by Mars. Once the twins Romulus and Remus had been born, her punishment for breaking her vow of chastity (even though she was forced) was being buried alive. A servant was ordered to slaughter the babies, who abandoned them instead, setting them adrift in a basket upon the river Tiber. They were suckled by a she-wolf and both attained adulthood, but then the brothers fought and one killed the other. The surviving twin Romulus went on to found Rome.
The fourth planet of our Solar System is named after the Roman god of war, with its two attendant moons Phobos and Deimos taking the names of his sons from another illicit relationship, this time with the Olympian goddess of the night, Nox.
Mens is the Roman goddess of the mind and consciousness. Our words 'Mensa' and 'mental' have their roots from this meaning. The festival of Mens fell on 8 May.
Messenger of the gods Mercury is depicted with wings on his helmet and heels, Greek equivalent: Hermes. The god of merchants and travellers, his festival, called the Mercuralia, was held on the Ides of May (15 May).
- The swiftest, innermost planet of the Solar System is named after him.
Minerva is one of the virgin goddesses, born from her father Jupiter's head. She is identified with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and knowledge. Minerva was depicted by the Romans as a warlike character, with the spoils of war being dedicated to her. There exists a gilt bronze head of Minerva which once graced the Roman baths at Bath in Somerset. It used to be a larger-than-lifesize statue, which was destroyed, it is thought, by Christians in the 6th Century. The head was recovered in the 18th Century and is now displayed in the Roman Baths Museum.
- The University of Lincoln of Lincoln has for its official crest the head of Minerva (wearing a warrior's helmet, lifted off her face) in honour of the goddess of wisdom and military success. The University's motto is Excellentia Per Studium (Excellence Through Studies).
- There is a large main belt asteroid called 93 Minerva, it was discovered in 1867 by Canadian astronomer JC Watson (1838 - 1880).
Neptune, a brother of Jupiter and god of the sea, was another important deity to the Romans, as they were deemed at his mercy when sailing or heading into a sea-battle. His festival called Neptunalia was celebrated on 23 July, thought to be a favourable day to begin irrigation. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (56 - 12 BC), governor of Syria and commander of Octavian's fleet, triumphed over the joint armies of Mark Antony and Cleopatra after the sea battle of Actium in 31 BC. Agrippa's protector-god was Neptune, and coins minted in his honour featured the sea-god on the reverse side.
- The eighth planet of our Solar System is named after Neptune, and the trident, Neptune's three-pronged spear, is used for the planetary symbol in ephemerides, astrology and palmistry.
The Parcae are the three Roman Fates, made up of the goddesses:
- Nona – goddess of pregnancy
- Decima – goddess of childbirth
- Morta – goddess of death
The Parcae call upon the services of the goddess Prorsa Postverta when women are in the process of parturition (labour). Minor goddesses were charged with being patron of:
- breastfeeding mothers – Rumina
- the nursery – Volumna
- feeding unborn children in the womb – Alemonia
- the dead (of an unsuccessful delivery) – Dea Tacita
- protects a new mother and infant from evil spirits – Deverra
- motherhood – Quiritis
The nearest Greek equivalent to all these deities is Eileithyia, a Minoan goddess who oversaw all aspects of midwifery.
The goddess of peace had a Feast Day on 4 July. This is the deity who is the antithesis of Mars, god of war, whose banner most Romans travelled under. However, even that war-like race understood balance, and that life prospers during peacetime.
Pluto is another of Jupiter's brothers and the god of the underworld, where Romans believed the souls of the dead spent eternity. Pluto's myth is entangled with the story of Earth's seasons. Pluto was lonely in his underground kingdom and no woman in her right mind would choose to spend her life below ground. So he kidnapped Persephone, the much loved daughter of the goddess Ceres. When she got hungry, Persephone ate some pomegranate seeds, which was the only food offered to her by her captor. She didn't know that the pomegranate was the symbol of the indissolubility of marriage, and inadvertently bound herself to him forever. Ceres, in grief for the loss of her daughter, refused to end winter, thus changing the Earth into a frozen, desolate world which would eventually kill all life (and then there'd be no-one left to worship the gods). Pluto, who had refused to give up his 'wife', settled the dispute when Jupiter intervened. He decreed that Persephone be returned to her mother, which signals the start of spring, but she had to go back to her 'husband' at the end of every autumn.
- The most remote and outermost planet of our Solar System, discovered in 1930, was named Pluto after this god. Since then other, larger planetoid bodies have been discovered, so its status was demoted to dwarf planet in 2006.
Portunes is the god of doors and harbours. At his festivals every 17 August, people would throw keys into a fire for purification purposes.
- In the Harry Potter world of JK Rowling, a portkey is an enchanted inanimate object which magically transports the person or persons who touch it to a predetermined location.
Saturn (called Kronos by the Greek people) is one of the oldest gods, ruling the agricultural tasks which gave rise to civilisation. For some time he was the ruler of the Universe after he deposed his father. Saturn's sister/wife Ops, the goddess of abundance and wealth, gave him many sons and daughters, including Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, who themselves became major gods. Saturn is depicted as a bearded man wearing a laurel wreath upon his head.
Saturday is the only English day of the week named after a Roman god, the ex-ruler of the Universe, Saturn.
There was a major festival every 25 December in honour of Sol Invictus, called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which means 'the birthday of the unconquered sun'. Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) was a title shared by three gods, who represented different aspects of the Sun: Sol, the main sun god (also linked to Janus), Sol Indiges (the Native Sun), and Mithras (the god of heavenly light), who was not originally a Roman god, but an adopted one. According to legend Mithras fought and slew the primordial bull, thereby winning the power of life and creativity, which he released into the world. Mithras had his own secretive cult of followers, especially among Roman soldiers, who practised initiation ceremonies and ate ritual meals. His temples, called mithraeums, were constructed underground, and they contained images or statues of tauroctony (the actual bull-slaying). Mithras was also depicted as holding a sphere on his shoulders, thus comparing him with Atlas, and other images show him rotating the zodiac4. In 1954, while post-war reconstruction work was being undertaken, the remains of a Temple of Mithras were discovered in Walbrook Street in London, UK. Some surviving artefacts were put on display in the Museum of London, and the temple remains were moved to Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street, EC4.
Terra Mater (Tellus)
Terra Mater literally means Earth Mother, and the Romans prayed to this goddess in the event of earthquakes.
- The term Terra refers to Earth in science fiction stories such as those penned by Philip K Dick, and some Star Trek aliens referred to humans as 'Terrans'.
The Roman goddess of love, sex and beauty, Venus, is known as Aphrodite in Greek mythology. Venus was married to the god Vulcan, but she had liaisons with other gods and mortal men which produced children; probably the best known of these offspring is Cupid (Eros), the god of love, by her brother Mars. Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) referred to Venus in the 1st Century BC as Geminorum mater amorum (mother of the twins of love). Many festivals were held in her honour and she had several feast days for her different roles. Perhaps the most famous Roman of all, Julius Caesar, claimed her as his direct ancestor (descended from her liaison with the mortal Prince Anchises of Dardania), and his personal protector during his time of power.
Venus has been the inspiration for many artists during the ages; one of the most memorable includes The Birth of Venus, a 15th Century painting by Sandro Botticelli. This priceless work of art is on public display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Possibly the most famous statue in the world, the Venus de Milo, has a fascinating history and an h2g2 Entry of its own.
The planet Venus orbits the Sun between the Earth and Mercury, and is known both as the 'morning star' and the 'evening star' due to it being so distinctive pre-dawn, and it's no shrinking violet when viewed on a clear night either. At times we see it during the day because its orbit is much tighter than ours, due to it being closer to the Sun than the Earth is. It is possible to witness Venus transiting the Sun, and astronomers have used measurements of previous transits to work out astronomical data, like the solar parallax. With such knowledge, the exact dimensions of our Solar System could be calculated. Information gathered from transits is now assisting the search for extrasolar planets.
Venus is more likely to be used as a description (of a beautiful woman) eg the subject of the song 'Venus in Blue Jeans' sung by Mark Wynter, but occasionally it does happen that babies are given this first name. Venus Williams, for example, grew up to become a tennis goddess, lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish as Wimbledon Ladies Singles Champion five times in the first decade of the 21st Century, and in 2005 she was voted Woman of the Year by Glamour Magazine.
Vertumnus is the Roman god of seasons, gardens and orchards whose Feast Day was 13 August. He appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses (book 14) in which he changes his form to that of a harmless old woman in order to talk to Pomona, the goddess of the blossoming of fruit trees. Pomona had rejected earlier suitors by refusing to speak with them, and the 'old woman' counselled her about the consequences of her actions. Pomona was convinced and she later married Vertumnus.
Vesta was an extremely important goddess to the Romans. A virgin, she ruled the hearth in the home and was the mainstay of family life. The festival of Vesta was celebrated on 9 June. Sacerdos Vestalis, Vestal Virgins, as the goddess' handmaidens were called, were the only female priesthood in Rome and their most important duty was to guard the flame of Vesta in her specially-constructed temples. Vestal Virgins lit a new fire to the goddess Vesta on the first day of March in celebration of the beginning of their new year.
Vulcan, Greek name Hephaestus5 was also known as Mulciber. He is the god of fire, which can be beneficial for cooking, warmth and smelting weapons, or detrimental when out of control. Vulcan in legend was a son of Jupiter and Juno. At the request of the other gods, Vulcan fashioned extraordinary items (such as Ariadne's wedding crown), armour and weapons at his anvil which were intended as gifts for favoured mortals and demi-gods. Vulcan was married to the goddess Venus, but she wasn't a faithful wife. Vulcan was informed of a liaison Venus had with Mars, her brother and lover, and he caught them in flagrante delicto. Vulcan bound them with an unbreakable chain of gold links then put them on display for the amusement of the other gods, refusing to release them until Mars promised to pay him a levy. Only when Neptune agreed to fulfil the request should Mars fail to pay did Vulcan set the captives free. One of the spellbound watchers was Mercury, who is recorded as saying to Apollo that he 'would endure thrice as many bonds if I could only share the bed of Venus'.
A new shrine to Vulcan was set up after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, and bulls were sacrificed in his name.
Our words for volcano, the personalised term vulcanologist, and vulcanology, the study of volcanoes, trace their origin back to this god. Volcanoes abound in the Solar System – one in particular, Tvashtar, was witnessed erupting on Jupiter's moon Io by the Galileo spacecraft. Olympus Mons on Mars, the tallest mountain that we know of in the entire Solar System, used to be an active volcano but it's now extinct.
In the world of Star Trek, Vulcan is an M-class planet orbiting the star Keid (40 Eridani), a close neighbour at 16 light years6 distance, and a race of aliens called Vulcans hail from there. Perhaps the most famous alien in the science fiction genre is the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr Spock, but it was his Vulcan ancestors in 2063 who made first contact with humankind in the film Star Trek: First Contact. The 'V' hand-sign and the accompanying Live long and prosper performed as a greeting by Vulcans have earned legendary status among Trekkers and people who like to dress up as aliens to attend conventions, if there's a difference.
The Vulcan Foundry were locomotive manufacturers at Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside, UK, at the beginning of the railway era. The gods weren't smiling on the MP for Liverpool on the day the local railway line opened: enthusiastic railway supporter William Huskisson was mown down by Stephenson's Rocket and died as a result of his leg injury. A bronze statue in the form of a toga-clad Roman male, head bowed, with a scroll in his right hand, and his raised left arm bent across his chest in salute, once stood guard over Huskisson's grave. It was destroyed during the Toxteth Riots of 1981. Luckily Huskisson's widow had commissioned a copy in marble, and this respectful Roman is now on public display in Pimlico Gardens, London.
Astronomers once thought a planet called Vulcan circled the Sun closer in orbit than Mercury, but that idea has been mothballed and almost forgotten now, just like some of names of the ancient Roman gods.