Greek Myths - The 12 Olympians Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Greek Myths - The 12 Olympians

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Greek Myths: The Origins | Centaurs | The 12 Olympians | Achilles
Gods of Greek Mythology | Heroes of Greek Mythology | The Trojan War
Heracles | Sirens | Prometheus | Perseus | Pygmalion and Galatea
Jason and the Argonauts | The Children of Nyx | Death and the Underworld

A sculpture of Poseidon at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh.

Mount Olympus was the home of the most powerful Gods. It was ruled by Zeus, the King of gods, and was where disputes were resolved and meetings held. There were some gods who, though powerful, did not live on Olympus. Hades, brother of Zeus and Lord of the Underworld, and Hestia, sister of Zeus and goddess of the Home, are the best examples.


The two most common myths about the birth of Aphrodite place her as either the daughter of Zeus, by Dione, the daughter of Uranus and Gaea, or the son of Uranus himself, from the foam his severed sexual organs landed in. Either way, she was the goddess of Love and Feminine Charms, the most beautiful of all the goddesses, at least according to Paris - she won the beauty contest which started the Trojan War.

She was married to Hephaestus the blacksmith, god of Fire, who was ugly and lame, but she had an affair with Ares, the fiery god of War. However, Hephaestus was told about the relationship and set a trap for the lovers. He fixed a strong but thin wire net around their bed and then told Aphrodite he was going on holiday. She declined to accompany him and instead brought Ares to their bed, where the next morning they found themselves trapped. Hephaestus then invited all the gods to see the lovers trapped and laugh at them, and refused to free them until Poseidon intervened and suggested that Ares should consent to pay back to Hephaestus the dowry he had paid for Aphrodite. This was agreed upon, and Aphrodite fled to the sea by Pathos, where she renewed her virginity.

Aphrodite was worshipped mainly by women, and her temples were filled with slave women, whose job it was to offer themselves to nearby men, and sometimes young virgins would do the same, giving their virginity to Aphrodite. The Romans adopted Aphrodite as one of their own, naming her Venus, and she was seen as a protector of the whole Roman race.


Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, daughter of a Titan. God of the Silver Bow, he was considered the most arrogant god of all, feared by even those he favoured. He is famous for his love of music, and his favourite instrument was the lyre, given to him by Hermes in return for his herd.

Apollo was a powerful god from a very young age - just after his birth he killed his mother's enemy, Python, a serpent god, at the Delphi Oracle of Mother Earth. Mother Earth complained to Zeus, who ordered his son to repent and be purified at a temple. Upon his return, Pan taught Apollo the art of prophecy, and assisted by his sister Artemis, Apollo captured the Oracle at Delphi and claimed it for his own.

Apollo was fiercely competitive, challenging anyone who claimed they could better him. He became god of Music by beating Pan at a musical contest, and he challenged Marsayas when the satyr claimed he was the better musician. Marsayas played on his pipe almost as well as Apollo did on his lyre, because the pipe belonged to the goddess Athena and still had her music lingering in it. However, Apollo settled the matter by posing the task of singing and playing at the same time. Apollo found this easy on his lyre, but Marsayas could not complete the task, and so Apollo won, and had the satyr flayed alive and tied to the pine tree which took his name.

A serial seducer, Apollo had many lovers. They, however, often preferred to marry mortals, since they knew of Apollo's fickleness and that he would abandon them with age. He was once afflicted with an unrequited love for the nymph Daphne, who fled from him. This love was caused by Eros who disliked Apollo and wished him to suffer for a while. However, the love faded and Apollo found Coronis, who bore Asclepius the healer. However, she was unfaithful to him, and he killed her in anger.

Apollo was the first god to love someone of his own sex - a prince named Hyacinthus, one of the Argonauts and a hero in his own right. However, in jealousy, Zephyrus, the god of the West Wind, caused Apollo to throw a discus that went off course and killed the prince.


Ares was conceived without the assistance of a male, by Hera, who was so angry with her husband Zeus for his infidelities that she bore a son that was hers alone. She managed this by striking the ground with her hand, thus conceiving Ares, god of War and lover of violence.

Ares was a tremendously large god, always covered in armour, and possessing terrifying speed. His war cry, 'Alale alala' was reputedly a horrific sound. He loved war before justice and violence before mercy; for this he was hated by Athena, who was famous for strategy and restraint. His habit of always joining in battles got him into trouble frequently, and he came close to being killed a number of times, saved only by Zeus who thought it was bad form to let a god die.

Ares had a lot of success with women. Apart from his famous liaisons with Aphrodite, he raped and seduced many other women, who all bore him children, although none bar Diomedes, friend of Odysseus, came close to being great men.


Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and was the twin sister of Apollo. She was the goddess of virginity, who looked after young women until they left her to go to Aphrodite. She was also the hunter for Olympus, and was famous for carrying a bow.

Although women left her when they lost their virginity, she would return to protect them during dangerous times, especially childbirth. However, she was also an angry goddess - when followers who had devoted themselves to her strayed they were punished severely, even with death.


Athena was the favourite daughter of Zeus. When her mother, the Titan Metis, was pregnant with her, Zeus heard from an oracle that if a daughter was born, a son would be born after her who would destroy his father. Zeus swallowed Metis, and when Athena was born Hephaestus cracked open Zeus' skull and released the child, who burst out in full armour with a war cry.

Zeus was proud of his daughter, who was a great warrior. She advocated the use of strategy, and won many battles by making clever plans. She often championed heroes, using her powers to protect them. She watched over Odysseus and Achilles during their struggles, and was the strongest goddess who fought against the Trojans, although she turned against the Greeks when, in their victory celebrations, they forgot to burn any offerings for her. She punished them by requesting that Poseidon destroy most of their fleet when they sailed home.

Athena became an important part of everyday life for the Greeks. She taught them how to weave and sew, and helped the blacksmiths learn their art. She favoured the crafts, and taught the people of Greece the skills they needed to live in prosperity. Her adopted son Erichthonius named Athens, the capital of Greece, after the goddess, and her cult there was stronger than any other.


Demeter was a sister of Zeus, and daughter of Cronos and Rhea. She was the goddess of farming, and peacefully looked after her subjects who worked the soil. However, she gave birth to a daughter, fathered by Zeus, named Persephone.

Although Persephone had a happy childhood, when she reached adulthood Hades fell in love with her and asked to marry her. Zeus refused his permission, because he did not want his daughter living in the underworld. But Persephone was out one day and stooped to pick a flower when Hades removed the earth from beneath her feet, and she fell into the underworld. Hades offered the girl a pomegranate, which she ate, not realising that it would condemn her to the underworld forever. By the time she was found it was too late - she was trapped.

Demeter searched the whole world for her daughter, and refused to return to Olympus until she was returned. She disguised herself as an old woman, and in her wanderings ended up at a palace where she was employed as a nurse to the son of King Celius, to whom she taught the skills of agriculture. As a result of her absence, crops on earth failed, and people started to starve, prompting Zeus to make a bargain with Hades - Persephone should live in the mortal world in spring and summer, and the Underworld from autumn to winter. Demeter then consented to return to Olympus and make the earth fertile again.


Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, who died in childbirth. Zeus tried to hide him by having Athamas, King of Thebes, adopt him as his own son. However, Hera discovered the deception and punished the King and his wife by driving them mad. Zeus spirited the child away by turning him into a ram and asked the nymphs of Mount Nysa to look after him. They looked after him when he returned to his human form, and it was there he invented wine, his most famous achievement. However, when he reached adulthood Hera discovered who he was, and sent him insane. He wandered the earth until he met the goddess Cybele, who taught him many mysteries, including how to control and use his madness.

In his new, powerful state, he continued wandering, until he reached and boarded a pirate ship. He was well-received, but the pirates turned against him and he tried to enslave them, prompting him to paralyse them and consume their ship with serpents and vines.

Dionysus caused whole towns to be consumed with drunken frenzies, and his many exploits proved that his power over people was undeniable. He was acknowledged as a god, and continued around the world, ensuring that every town he visited worshipped him. When he was content that there were enough temples devoted to him he ascended to Olympus.


Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and Hera. When he was born, his mother was horrified to see how ugly he was, and threw him from mount Olympus. He landed in the sea and was rescued by Thetis the sea nymph, mother of Achilles. She brought him up in safety, and with her guidance he set up the first smithy, where he learnt how to work metal.

In return for her kindness, he made many things for Thetis, and also assisted her son Achilles by making his armour, but the gods on Olympus also desired his skills. Hera visited him and persuaded him to return to Olympus, where he became the smith for the gods and married Aphrodite.

Hephaestus was a lame God, either a result of injuries obtained when his mother threw him into the sea, or when Zeus threw him from Olympus as a punishment for defending Hera in a dispute.


The daughter of Cronos and Rhea, Hera became the second wife of her brother Zeus. A beautiful goddess - known for her white arms - she was a jealous wife, and with good reason, since Zeus committed many infidelities. She pursued her husband's lovers and illegitimate children, and attempted to prevent their births. However, Zeus often managed to deceive her by hiding his children until they were powerful enough to protect themselves from her.

Hera resented most of the goddesses, since she saw them as competition for her husband. Her one ally among the goddesses was Thetis, the sea nymph, who was avoided by the gods1. As the goddess of married women, and the wife of the king of Gods, she had considerable power.


Hermes was the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia, and was the most enterprising of the gods. When he was a baby he crept away from his mother and stole a herd of cows belonging to his brother, Apollo. Hermes covered their tracks, but Apollo tracked him down to the cave where he lived with his mother, who denied the charges. Apollo did not believe either of them, and brought Hermes to trial, showing two cow hides as evidence. It was ruled by Zeus that the flock should be returned to Apollo. As this was being done, Apollo saw a lyre that Hermes had made - he was given this, in addition to a flute, in return for the cattle and a staff.

Impressed by Hermes' powers of bargaining and persuasion, Zeus consented to let his son be the Herald of Heaven, and so become a god.


Poseidon was the brother of Zeus, and god of the Oceans. He was known to be a surly God, holding grudges and tormenting mortals. He also had disputes with many of the other gods, mainly over land. At various times he tried to challenge Zeus, Athena, Hera and Apollo for their land - all unsuccessfully.

Poseidon was in love with Thetis the sea nymph, but when an oracle prophesied that her son would be 'greater than his father' Poseidon abandoned courtship of her, choosing instead to pursue his sister Demeter, who had come to his attention while searching for her daughter Persephone. In trying to escape Poseidon she changed into a mare, but he saw her and transformed into a stallion, raping her and impregnating her with Arion, the wild horse. In honour of this conquest, horses were made sacred to Poseidon.


Zeus, the son of Cronos and Rhea, was the ruler of the Heavens. He was the King of gods, the one who made and enforced their laws. Zeus had more power than any other god - he is well known for his ability to conjure up thunderbolts.

Zeus is best known for his many, many affairs. He had three marriages - the first was to Metis the Titan, and lasted until the birth of their daughter Athena, when Zeus swallowed Metis thus ending the marriage. His second marriage was to Themis, his aunt and the goddess of Law. The third and most famous marriage was to his sister Hera, who almost matched him in power and influence, although she displeased him many times.

Some of Zeus' lovers were goddesses, and some were mortal women. If he could not seduce them in the conventional ways he would transform himself - he favoured a swan or a shower of gold2. He had hundreds of illegitimate children - some of the most famous being Apollo, Hermes and Heracles - and many important Greek families would claim that Zeus was in their ancestry somewhere.

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1An oracle had said that her son would be greater than his father. None of the gods wanted to risk fathering a child by her, because that child might be a threat in future.2Good for getting through locked doors.

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