The Ancient Greeks 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.

Greek and Roman mythology names

The predominant mythologies handed down through the ages are those of the Greeks and Romans. The Greek mythology names and the Roman mythology names of each culture include gods and goddesses who interacted with humans, with good, bad, and indifferent motives.

© Vuk Kostic / Shutterstock
Zeus throwing lightning

Zeus (a Greek god) is depicted here throwing lightning. However, the Romans would assume this was a depiction of Jupiter, the king of gods.

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

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
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 the gods and goddesses named here there were many other gods and immortals in Greek mythology.

The Greek mythology names of other gods include the goat-god Pan; Rhea, Cronos’s sister and the mother of his children; Heracles, the son of a mortal and Zeus who had to earn his immortality; Ganymede, a beautiful prince that Zeus brought to Olympus to be his cup-bearer; and the four winds: Zephyrus, Eurus, Notus, and Boreas.

Like the Christian god, Jehovah, Zeus or Jupiter was considered the all-mighty father, but instead of being the father of man, he was the father of the lesser gods. Zeus actually was a third-generation god.

So, who were the first- and second-generation gods? Glad you asked. Gaia was the first goddess, also known as Mother Earth, and gave birth (with her son Uranus being the father) to the second-generation Titans. The Titans were led by Cronos or Saturn, and he seized power from Uranus. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades are the sons of Cronos, and Zeus was considered primarily responsible for overthrowing his father.

The Olympians as teachers

Hera or Juno was Zeus’ mate, although not the mother of all of his children. Zeus, Hera, and the other third-generation gods of Ancient Greece were Olympians; that is, they lived at the top of Mount Olympus, the highest peak in Ancient Greece, or a heaven in the skies. Sometimes, these gods intermingled with mortals, even falling in love and bearing children with mortal men and women.

Although modern man views these Greek gods and goddesses as creatures of mythology, remember that to the ancient Greeks, they were no less real than current beliefs in God or Buddha. With the passage of time, modern society has come to view the stories of the gods as metaphors for teaching lessons about behaviors and actions, although the gods and goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology exhibited many of the weaknesses and pettiness that modern man would never associate with deities.

One lesson that the Greek myths loved to teach was the lesson of hubris, or pride. Whenever a mortal (or god) exhibited hubris, thinking they were better than the gods, they inevitably would also experience a resulting tragedy. If one of the lesser gods started thinking they were more powerful than Zeus, then they, too, would be knocked down a peg or two. This type of metaphorical lesson also shows up in the stories of the Bible, Shakespearian tragedies, and even into modern literature and art.

Of course, the stories of these ancient gods were not just provided as a way to guide the behavior of men. Many of the myths explain various aspects of the world. Of course, there’s a story about how the world was created, but there are also stories to explain things such as the changing of the seasons. Persephone or Proserpine (Zeus and Demeter’s daughter in Greek mythology and Jupiter and Ceres’s daughter in Roman mythology) was stolen by Hades or Pluto to be his queen in the underworld. Her mother, the earth goddess, was saddened by her loss and refused to fulfill her duties. A compromise was reached whereby Persephone would spend 4–6 months (depending on the version of the myth) with her mother, and the rest of the year in the underworld. Thus, when she is with Hades, the earth goddess refuses to fulfill her duties, resulting in fall and winter, but Persephone returns, resulting in spring and summer.

Parallels to Christianity and other modern religions

Every religion has a creation “myth,” although those who currently practice a religion would argue that it isn’t myth. There’s the Judeo-Christian story of God creating the Heavens and the Earth, and the story of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden. The Greeks actually had several creation myths including one involving an egg from which all planets, the Earth, and all creatures hatched.

It is interesting to note some other parallels. For example, 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 and Eve are kicked out of the garden of Eden where they had everything they desired. In Greek mythology, the first woman is Pandora. Ring a bell? 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.

The first humans were destroyed in a great flood sent by Zeus. The only survivors were one man, Deucalion, and his wife. Of course, this parallels the story of Noah and his ark.

Mount Olympus itself is often considered to be the Ancient Greek’s version of Heaven, and Hades, named for the god who ruled the underworld, is the equivalent of the Christian’s hell.

A timeline of world civilizations for mythology

Mythology seeks to explain the world and thus reflects the culture, events, and history of the societies that create the stories handed down as myths. Egypt’s Nile River and its cycle of overflowing its banks leaving fertile ground as it receded became the basis for Egyptian religion that demanded that the people help the gods prevent anything from interfering with the cycle.

Myths form around the founding of cities, including Athens and Rome — about 10,000 to 2,500 years ago, respectively — and the founding of civilizations, including the creation myths passed down in virtually every culture.

Chinese and Native American myths account for astrological occurrences as well as for more earth-bound events such as the Toltec invasion of the Mexican city of Teotihuacan in 900 CE. The myth of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, grew from this victory.

Famous poems, such as Beowulf and the Saga of the Volsungs are combinations of history and legend. The stories of the mythical Brer Rabbit, who won every encounter against his adversaries despite his subservient position, inspired hope in African-American slaves in the Civil War era.

And don’t assume that all the myths are hundreds, if not 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 in 1947.

The following table offers historical highlights from 3,000 years before the common era to the eve of the 20th century.

3300-1900 Beginning of Sumerian Civilization 31 BCE-476 CE Roman Empire
2550-2150 Old Kingdom, Egypt 150 -750 Teotihuacan: Central America
1980-1640 Middle Kingdom, Egypt 27-30 Jesus of Nazareth preaches reforms in Palestine and is executed by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
1792-1750 Hammurabi’s reign, height of Babylonian Empire 35-62 Paul, a Diaspora Jew, founds a series of churches in Syria,
Asia Minor, and Greece. Christianity separates from Judaism.
1600-1100 Greek Bronze Age 400-499 Historical King Arthur might have lived
1540-1070 New Kingdom, Egypt 250-900 Maya: Central America
1500-400 Olmec; Central America 570–632 The Prophet Mohammed writes the Qur’an and founds
the religion of Islam.
1500 Aryans invade India; start of Vedic Age 632–750 Islam spreads to the Near East, North Africa, Spain, and
1250 Moses leads Israelite slaves from Egypt, establishes worship of
Yahweh at Mt. Sinai (formerly sacred to the moon god Sin)
700-1000 Age of Vikings
1200-1000 Earliest Hindu Literature, the Rigveda 900-1180 Toltec: Central America
1100 Trojan War 1000-1300 Apache and Navajo Indians move to Southwestern United
800-700 Age of Homer 1250 End of Anasazi culture, North America
776 First Olympic Games in Greece, in honor of Zeus 1325-1521 Aztec empire: Central America
753 Founding of Rome 1438-1532 Inca empire: South America
600-400 Age of Athenian Democracy 1492 Christopher Columbus lands in North America
599-500 Lao-Tzu, founder of Taoism, active in China 1600-1700 North American Plains Indians incorporate horses
551-479 Confucius 1800-1899 North American Indians in United States mostly displaced by
563 Birth of Gautama (founder of Buddhism)
540 Birth of Vardhamana (founder of Jainism)
509-31 Roman Republic
365-323 Alexander the Great

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Stephen Batchelor is a lecturer in Ancient History and Classical Studies. He writes reviews for History Today and Current Archaeology.

This article can be found in the category: