Mythology For Dummies
Book image
Explore Book Buy On Amazon
Many cultures create a mythology to help explain the workings of the world. Western civilization is most familiar with the gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology, who have comparable powers, but different names. And mythology is created often in response to human history, so a historical timeline can be a good reference to have.

Comparing Greek and Roman deities

Even though Greek and Roman  mythologies are just a small part of all the world’s mythologies, they tend to show up a lot in the world of art, business, and technology today. Both of these cultures include gods and goddesses who interact with humans, with good, bad, and indifferent motives.

The Greek names of the gods and goddesses varied from the Roman names, although each culture attributed comparable powers and spheres of influence to the deities. The following table shows those areas and the names of the important deities in each mythology.

© Vuk Kostic / Shutterstock
Zeus throwing lightning

Greek and Roman Mythology Names

Greek Name Roman Name Description
Zeus Jupiter King of gods
Hera Juno Goddess of marriage
Poseidon Neptune God of the sea
Cronos Saturn Youngest son of Uranus, father of Zeus/Jupiter. His son took over being king of the gods, but he kept his job as a sky-god who presided over agricultural harvests.
Aphrodite Venus Goddess of love
Hades Pluto God of the underworld
Hephaistos Vulcan God of the forge
Demeter Ceres Goddess of the harvest
Apollo Apollo God of music and medicine
Athena Minerva Goddess of wisdom
Artemis Diana Goddess of the hunt
Ares Mars God of war
Hermes Mercury Messenger of the gods
Dionysus Bacchus God of wine
Persephone Proserpine Goddess of underworld
Eros Cupid God of love
Gaia Gaea Goddess of earth


Besides these gods and goddesses, Greek mythology in particular has many other gods and immortals.

Like the Christian god, Jehovah, Zeus or Jupiter was considered the almighty father. But instead of being the father of humans, he was the father of the lesser gods.

Gods as teachers

Although people today think of these Greek gods and goddesses as creatures of mythology, remember that to the ancient Greeks, they were no less real than current beliefs in deities like God or legendary spiritual leaders like Buddha.

Modern society has come to see the stories of the gods as metaphors for teaching lessons about behaviors and actions, even though the gods and goddesses in Greek (and Roman) mythology exhibit many of the weaknesses, such as pettiness, that you may not associate with deities.

Around the world, the figures of mythology play the role of teacher. The Egyptian goddess Sheshat taught people wisdom and how to write. The Armenian god Tir taught humans writing and other academic subjects.

Here are some of other gods that function as teachers:

  • Quetzalcoatl (among the Aztecs)
  • Ogma (among the Scots and Irish)
  • Wénchāng Wáng (among the ancient Chinese)
  • Athena (the Greeks, also Minerva for the Romans and Menrva for the Etruscans)
  • Saraswati (the Hindu people of India)
  • Benzaiten and Tenjin (in ancient Japan)
  • Nabu (the Babylonian god of writing)
  • Hnašká (who taught humans medicine, according to the Lakota of North America)
  • Odin (the northern European god who was always searching for knowledge)
  • Anansi (the spidergod of West Africa who taught humans agriculture).

We might of course include the prophets and teachers of religions practiced by many people today

  • The Buddha
  • Moses
  • Jesus Christ
  • Muhammad
  • Confucius

One lesson the Greek myths loved to teach was the lesson of hubris, or pride. Whenever a mortal displays hubris, thinking they’re better than the gods, they inevitably experience a resulting tragedy.

If one of the lesser gods starts thinking they’re more powerful than Zeus, they, too, get knocked down a peg. This type of metaphorical lesson also shows up in the stories of the Bible, Shakespearian tragedies, and even in modern literature and art.

Many myths also explain various aspects of the world, from how the world was created to the changing of the seasons and beyond. For example, Persephone (Zeus and Demeter’s daughter) was stolen by Hades to be his queen in the underworld.

Her mother, the earth goddess, refused to fulfill her duties until a compromise allowed Persephone to spend four to six months (depending on the version of the myth) with her mother; that’s spring and summer. She spends the rest of the year in the underworld, during which time the earth goddess still goes on strike, resulting in fall and winter.

Seeing connections between ancient myths and modern religions

Every religion has a creation “myth,” although those who currently practice a religion would argue that it isn’t myth. The Judeo-Christian story tells of God creating the heavens and the earth and of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden.

The Greeks actually had several creation myths, including one involving an egg that hatched all planets, the earth, and all creatures.

Here are some other interesting parallels:

  • Eve, the first woman in Judeo-Christian religions, was tempted into sin by the serpent and ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As a punishment, Adam (the first man) and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, where they had everything they wanted. Similarly, the first woman in Greek mythology, Pandora, is tempted to open a forbidden box (or, in some versions, a jar) and brings chaos by releasing all the ills of the world.
  • Ancient Greeks believed the first humans were destroyed in a great flood sent by Zeus. The only survivors were Deucalion and his wife. This myth parallels the story of Noah and his ark.
  • Mount Olympus itself is often considered to be the Ancient Greeks’ version of heaven, and Hades, named for the god who ruled the underworld, is the equivalent of the Christian hell.

Tracking mythology and civilization

Mythology tries to explain the world and therefore reflects the culture, events, and history of the societies that create the stories handed down as myths. Here are a few examples:

  • Egypt’s Nile River routinely overflowed its banks, leaving fertile ground as it receded. This cycle became the basis for Egyptian religion, which demanded the people help the gods prevent anything from interfering with the cycle.
  • Myths form around the founding of cities and civilizations, including the creation myths passed down in virtually every culture.
  • Myths account for astrological occurrences as well as for more earthbound events.
  • The Dogon people of Mali explain why humans come in male and female forms with their creation myth, and that all creatures have female and masculine energies.
  • Famous poems, such as Beowulf and the Saga of the Volsungs, are combinations of history and legend. The stories of the mythical Br’er Rabbit, who wins every encounter against his adversaries despite his subservient position, inspired hope in Africans who were enslaved in the United States during the Civil War era.

And don’t assume all myths are hundreds or thousands of years old. The “mythical” city of Brigadoon, a Scottish village that appears once every hundred years, was essentially the invention of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who wrote a play about it in 1947.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Amy Hackney Blackwell, PhD, has spent her career producing educational content on science, history, and the law. Christopher W. Blackwell, PhD, is the Louis G. Forgione University Professor of Classics at Furman University.

This article can be found in the category: