View Full Version : The Olympian Gods

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004, 03:58 PM
There is nothing more fascinating, exciting and more intricate as a subject in the field of the study of the ancient Hellenic world as the study concerning the Olympian Cods, otherwise called the twelve gods, and a multitude of other small gods and demigods. We used to assign this study in the field of mythology and use terms like idolatry and paganism in order to define the religious dimension of the belief and worship of the gods from the ancient Hellenes' point of view. But if we dismiss these terms and we try to be transferred in their spirit and thought in the course of the centuries, we will see that their notion of the divine was not something static and immovable, but it was a field of continuous questioning, of variform confrontation and philosophical contestation.

The general acceptance and belief was that man is a creature of a superior divine power that is eternal and sublime; therefore he is feeble and liable to its will. He had to obey to moral laws imposed from above, to believe that he will never be able to assimilate to this power or go beyond it, and that his fate and his life, both earthly and posthumous, were depending on its goodwill or disgrace. Apart from the cosmogonic, moral and philosophical content added to this supreme power, the Hellenic thought and imagination simultaneously added to it human features allocating and personalizing its manifestations according to life's needs and the metaphysical notions of men.

Thus, the natural phenomena, the physical situations, the human behavior and activities, the anxiety for the earthly and posthumous future, had their reference to specific deities, that according to the Hellenic conception were deriving directly or indirectly from the same generation, were characterized by the same supernatural qualities, like eternity, imperishability and heavenly bliss, but they did not have the absolute and autonomous omnipotence, except for the king of gods and men, Zeus. All of them had their residence on MountOlympus, the highest mountain of Hellas, and were related between them with kindred relationships.

Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Pluto and Hestia appear as gods originating from older gods, Cronus and Rhea, therefore they are brothers and sisters. But Hera is, at the same time, wife of Zeus, with whom he had a son, Hephaestus. Other gods or goddesses that appear as children of Zeus, were born either directly from him, as Athena, or after love adventures with inferior deities, like the nymphs, or with mortal women. Cods on MountOlympus are in perfect bliss, they eat the divine food, the ambrosia, they drink the divine drink, the nectar, and receive the sacrifices of mortals, they superintend the life of men from high up and according to their preferences and their dispositions, they interfere in their activities and in the relationships between them.

Zeus has indisputably the supremacy as god of heaven and earth. His wife Hera is the respectable queen and goddess of the family. The daughter of Zeus, Athena, among other things, is the goddess of wisdom. Apollo, son of Zeus, is the god of the sun, while his sister, Artemis, is the goddess of wild beasts and hunting. Aphrodite is the goddess of love, Demeter of agriculture, Hermes of trade and a messenger of the gods, Ares of war, Hephaestus of the fire, Poseidon of the sea and of the elements of water, Pluto is the god and king of the underworld.

Apart from these twelve gods there was a large number of gods not at all inferior as regards their worship and their presence in men's lives. Dionysus, the god of wine and drunkenness, is the first of them with variform manifestations. Asclepius, god of medicine, Hestia goddess of the house and of the foundation of the cities, Hygeia goddess of the physical and mental health, Themis goddess of justice, Eris goddess of strife, and many others. The worship of all the gods was spread all over the Hellenic world. Nevertheless it was not organized in a single and general system, but local customs and beliefs predominated giving on the one hand precedence and primacy to some god over the others, imposing on the other hand the cele*bration of special feasts and sacrifices of a mystic character.

In Olympia, Zeus was worshipped simultaneously with the celebration of the Olympic games, so was god Apollo worshipped in Delphi with the Pythian games and god Poseidon in the Isthmus of Corinth with the Isthmian games. On the contrary the worship of Artemis in Ephesus or Brauron of Attica, of Aphrodite in Cyprusand Kythera and especially of Demeter in Eleusis had developed into an organized system of initiation of the believers with the celebration of mysteries from a particularly constituted clergy. Moreover in Athens, the worship of the patroness goddess Athena had a special character with general participation of the citizens and a splendid procession, the Panathenaia. It is in the same city that the worship of Dionysus developed from its initial orgiastic character, that was spread almost all over Hellas, into the supreme form of intellectual creation, the Attic drama.

The sources for the study of the ancient Hellas theology are many and various. Firstly, the written texts of ancient Hellenic literature, particularly the poetic, starting from Homer's and Hesiod's epics, the works of lyric and tragic poets up until the writers after Christ, like Nonnos Panopolitanus with his «Dionysiaca» and Libanius the orator, provide plenty of information concerning their origin, their deeds and behavior in relation to other gods as well as concerning men's opinion of them. Certainly it is a fact that the presence of the gods is sovereign and catalytic everywhere. We have to specifically mention the Homeric and orphic hymns, which echo the most ancient beliefs concerning the origin of the gods, but also the faith and devotion of the common people to them.

These texts that are at the same time glorifying and beseeching, praising on the one hand their deeds and their power, and on the other hand expressing the weakness of the mortals to face the adversities of life without their help and immediate intervention. A common demand of all the hymns is the establishment of peace, health, livelihood and good old age. In the philosophical texts we notice a higher level of subject. The pre-Socratic philosophers try on the one hand to make the beliefs reasonable, debating and transforming the gods into symbols of the natural phenomena, and on the other hand they try to express a purely religious review.

According to Plato however, gods represent on the whole the expression of the divine and the origin of moral laws. Historians and travelers are often referring to exceptional places of worship, like the magnificent temples, dispersed all over the Hellenic land, sanctuaries and oracles. They are also referring to the statues and other votive offerings dedicated to these places, where the profound piety gave the impetus to the hands of incomparable painters and sculptors to express the experience they had in relationship with the divine. Only a few of them have survived today, those that were kept in the bowels of the Hellenic earth protected not only from the destructive rage of time and from the newly converted enemies of the ancient religion, but also from the rage of all kinds of invaders, old and new.

Today living in a new world, where the old has become really new with the teaching of Christianity, which lead to immortality and deification, we can understand more than ever the grandeur of those men who succeeded in reaching the highest levels of virtue through a dialectical relationship with their gods. However the unknown god of the Athenians did not have his residence on MountOlympus, he was omnipresent, and he was the one that united the imaginary heavenly Olympus with men.

Let the dedication of this post to the Olympian gods on the occasion of the celebration of the Olympic Games in Hellas, the country that gave birth to them, be an act of respect to the spirit of those men who actuated by deep feelings of piety to their gods, offered to the whole world through a ceremony of worship, the athletic contests, the possibility for the promotion of the universal and humanitarian values of peace and virtue.