Ancient Greece

Anyone living in the western world can trace the influence the ancient Greek world had on their modern day society, from democracy to philosophy and the classical arts.

Greek Warriors via Costumes of All Nations (1882)
The Ancient Aegean World

Head of Athena, Hellenistic late 3rd–2nd century BCE

The ancient Greeks were a deeply religious people. They worshiped many gods whom they believed appeared in human form and yet were endowed with superhuman strength and ageless beauty. The Iliad and the Odyssey, our earliest surviving examples of Greek literature, record mans interactions with various gods and goddesses whose characters and appearances underwent little change in the centuries that followed. The Greeks attributed these epic narratives to Homer, a poet living at the end of the 8th century BC Each Greek city was normally under the protection of one or more individual deities who were worshiped with special emphasis, as, for example, Athens and the goddess Athena. While many sanctuaries honored more than a single god, usually one deity such as Zeus at Olympia or a closely linked pair of deities like Demeter and her daughter Persephone at Eleusis dominated the cult place. Elsewhere in the arts, various painted scenes on vases, and stone, terra-cotta and bronze sculptures portray the major gods and goddesses. The deities are depicted either by themselves or in traditional mythological situations in which they interact with humans and a broad range of minor deities, demigods and legendary characters.

Greek Architecture

A model reconstruction of the Acropolis Hill

The Acropolis hill, so called the “Sacred Rock” of Athens, is the most important site of the city. During Pericles’ Golden Age, ancient Greek civilization was represented in an ideal way on the hill and some of the architectural masterpieces of the period were erected on its ground. The first habitation remains on the Acropolis date from the Neolithic period. Over the centuries, the rocky hill was continuously used either as a cult place or as a residential area or both. The inscriptions on the numerous and precious offerings to the sanctuary of Athena (marble korai, bronze and clay statuettes and vases) indicate that the cult of the city’s patron goddess was established as early as the Archaic period (650-480 B.C.).

During the Classical period (450-330 B.C.) three important temples were erected on the ruins of earlier ones: the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Nike, dedicated to Athena Parthenos, Athena Polias, and Athena-Apteros Nike, respectively. The Propylaea, the monumental entrance to the sacred area was also constructed in the same period.

The Parthenon, the Temple dedicated to Athena as it looks today

The Parthenon, the Temple dedicated to Athena as it looks today

The monuments on the Acropolis reflect the successive phases of the city’s history. Some of them were converted into Christian churches, houses of the Franks and later on, of the Turks. After the liberation of Athens from the Turks, the protection, restoration and conservation of the monuments was one of the first tasks of the newly-founded Greek state. This major effort is continued until today, with the large-scale restoration and supporting of the monuments, which started in the 1970’s and is still in progress. The first excavations on the hill were conducted between 1835 and 1837. More systematic work was carried out in 1885-1890 by Panagiotis Kavvadias

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Ancient Greek Warfare

The Greek Phalanx formation

The phalanx was an offensive infantry formation for hand-to- hand shock combat. It usually fought without light troop or cavalry support, which should have been an important disadvantage, but the Greeks largely ignored these auxiliary troops. As long as they fought among themselves, lack of missile troops and cavalry was not a problem.

The heavy infantry on each side in a battle would close with each other at a deliberate pace, maintaining formation. When the opposing phalanxes came together, the first several ranks would lower their pikes and the two sides would thrust at each other, attempting to strike an unprotected area on an opponent. The pike points of several men in a file could project beyond the front rank. Men in the front were simultaneously attacked by several spears.

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The Cities of the Ancient Aegean

An antique map showing the principle City States of Greece

The Greek cities were originally monarchies, although many of them were very small and the term “King” for their rulers is misleadingly grand. In a country always short of farmland, power rested with a small class of landowners, who formed a warrior aristocracy fighting frequent petty inter-city wars over land. But the rise of a mercantile class (shown by the introduction of coinage in about 680) introduced class conflict into the larger cities. From 650 onwards, the aristocracies were overthrown and replaced by populist leaders called tyrants (tyrranoi), a word which did not necessarily have the modern meaning of oppressive dictators.

By the 6th century several cities had emerged as dominant in Greek affairs: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes. Each of them had brought the surrounding rural areas and smaller towns under their control, and Athens and Corinth had became major maritime and mercantile powers as well. Athens and Sparta developed a rivalry that dominated Greek politics for generations.

In Sparta, the landed aristocracy retained their power, and the constitution of Lycurgus (about 650) entrenched their power and gave Sparta a permanent militarist regime under a dual monarchy. Sparta dominated the other cities of the Peloponnese, and formed alliances with Corinth and Thebes.

In Athens, by contrast, the monarchy was abolished in 683, and reforms of Solon established a semi-constitutional system of aristocratic government. The aristocrats were followed by the tyranny of Pisistratus and his sons, who made the city a great naval and commercial power. When the Pisistratids were overthrown, Cleisthenes established the world’s first “democracy” (500), with power being held by an assembly of all the male citizens.

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Greek Art and Literature

Odysseus from an ancient illustration

The Odyssey, written by Homer, is the story of the homecoming of another of the great Greek heroes at Troy, Odysseus.
“TELL ME, O MUSE, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.”[/blockquote3]

A realistic bust of the blind Poet Homer, although his actual existence is still largely based on legend

A realistic bust of the blind Poet Homer, although his actual existence is still largely based on legend

Homer was a legendary (or perhaps mythical) early Greek poet and rhapsode traditionally credited with authorship of the major Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey, the comic mini-epic Batrachomyomachia (“The Frog-Mouse War”), the corpus of Homeric Hymns, and various other lost or fragmentary works such as Margites. A few ancient authors credited him with the entire Epic Cycle, which included further poems on the Trojan War as well as the Theban poems about Oedipus and his sons.

Tradition held that Homer was blind, and various Ionian cities are claimed to be his birthplace, but otherwise his biography is a blank slate. It has repeatedly been questioned whether the same poet was responsible for both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”; the “Batrachomyomachia”, Homeric hymns and cyclic poems are generally agreed to be later than these two epic poems.

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Greek Archeology

A statue of Philip found in the royal tombs of Macedon

The Tombs of Alexander are some of the most important archeological sites of ancient Greece. Archaeologists were interested in the hills around Vergina as early as the 1850s, knowing that the site of Aigai was in the vicinity and suspecting that the hills were burial mounds. Excavations began in 1861 under the French archaeologist Leon Heuzey. Parts of the Macedonian royal palace were discovered. The excavations were abandoned because of the risk of malaria.

In 1937 the University of Thessaloniki resumed the excavations. More ruins of the ancient palace were found, but the excavations were abandoned on the outbreak of war with Italy in 1939. After the war the excavations were resumed and during the 1950s and 1960s, and the rest of the royal capital was uncovered. Manolis Andronikos became convinced that a hill called the “Great Tumulus” concealed the tombs of the Macedonian Kings.

A portion of the Elgin Marbles, now kept in London

A portion of the Elgin Marbles, now kept in London

In 1977 Andronikos undertook a six-week dig at the Tumulus and found four buried chambers which he identified as tombs, hitherto undisturbed. Three more were found in 1980. Excavations continued through the 1980s and ’90s. Andronikos maintained that one of the tombs was of Philip II, and another was of Alexander IV of Macedon, son of Alexander the Great. This has now become the firm view of Greek archaeologists and the Greek government, but some other archaeologists dispute this identification.

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The Excavations of Mycenae

The famed Lion’s Gate entrance at Mycenae

MYCENAE, one of the most ancient cities of Greece, was situated on a hill above the northern extremity of the fertile Argive plain-0x ca “Ap’yeos 17rlro13aroco. Its situation is exceedingly strong, and it commands all the roads leading from Corinth and Achaea into the Argive plain. The walls of Mycenae are the greatest monument that remains of the Heroic age in Greece; part of them is similar in style and doubtless contemporary in date with the walls of the neighbouring town Tiryns. There can therefore be little doubt that the two towns were the strongholds of a single race, Tiryns commanding the sea-coast and Mycenae the inner country. Legend tells of the rivalry between the dynasties of the Pelopidae at Mycenae and of the Proetidae at Argos. In early historic times Argos had obtained the predominance. The Mycenaeans, who had temporarily regained their independence with the help of Sparta, fought on the Greek side at Plataea in 479 B.C. The long warfare between the two cities lasted till 468 B.C., when Mycenae was dismantled and its inhabitants dispersed. The city never revived; Strabo asserts that no trace of it remained in his time, but Pausanias describes the ruins. For the character of Mycenaean art and of the antiquities found at Mycenae see Aegean Civilization.

The solid gold burial Mask found at Mycenae, attributed to Agamemnon

The solid gold burial Mask found at Mycenae, attributed to Agamemnon

The extant remains of the town of Mycenae are spread over the hill between the village of Charvati and the Acropolis. They consist of some traces of town walls and of houses, and of an early bridge over the stream to the east, on the road leading to the Heraeum. The walls of the Acropolis are in of thin slabs of stone set up on end, with others laid across the top of them; at the part of this enclosure nearest to the Lion Gate is an entrance. Some have supposed the circle of slabs to be the retaining wall of a tumulus; but its structure is not solid enough for such a purpose, and it can hardly be anything but a sacred enclosure. It was within this circle that Dr H. Schliemann found the five graves that contained a marvelous wealth of gold ornaments and other objects; a sixth was subsequently found. Above one of the graves was a small circular altar, and there were also several sculptured slabs set up above them. The graves themselves were mere shafts sunk in the rock. Dr Schliemann identified them with the graves of Agamemnon, Cassandra, and their companions, which were shown to Pausanias within the walls; and there can be little doubt that they are the graves that gave rise to the tradition, the shape of an irregular triangle, and occupy a position of great natural strength between two valleys. They are preserved to a considerable height on all sides, except where the ravine is precipitous and they have been carried away by a landslip; they are for the most part built of irregular blocks of great size in the so-called ” Cyclopian ” style; but certain portions, notably that near the chief gate, are built in almost regular courses of squared stones; there are also some later repairs in polygonal masonry. The main entrance is called the Lion Gate, from the famous triangular relief which fills the space above its massive lintel. This represents two lions confronted, resting their front legs on a low altar-like structure on which is a pillar which stands between them. The device is a translation into stone of a type not uncommon in gem-cutter’s and goldsmith’s work of the ” Mycenaean ” age. The gate is approached by a road commanded on one side by the city wall, on the other by a projecting tower. There is also a postern gate on the north side of the wall, and at its eastern extremity are two apertures in the thickness of the wall. One of these leads out on to the rocks above the southern ravine; the other leads to a long staircase, completely concealed in the wall and the rocks, leading down to a subterranean well or spring. Just within the Lion Gate is a projection of the wall surrounding a curious circular enclosure, consisting of two concentric circles though the historical identity of the persons actually buried in them is a more difficult question. Outside the circle, especially to the south of it, numerous remains of houses of the Mycenaean age have been found, and others, terraced up at various levels, occupy almost the whole of the Acropolis. On the summit, approached by a well-preserved flight of steps, are the remains of a palace of the Mycenaean age, similar to that found at Tiryns, though not so complicated or extensive. Above them are the foundations of a Doric temple, probably dating from the last days of Mycenaean independence in the 5th century.

The Citadel of Mycenae

The Citadel of Mycenae

Numerous graves have been found in the slopes of the hills adjoining the town of Mycenae. Most of these consist merely of a chamber, usually square, excavated in the rock, and approached by a ” dromos ” or horizontal approach in the side of a hill. They are sometimes provided with doorways faced with stucco, and these have painted ornamentation. Many of these tombs have been opened, and their contents are in the Athens museum. Another and much more conspicuous kind of tomb is that known as the beehive tomb. There are eight of them at Mycenae itself, and others in the neighborhood. Some of them were visible in the time of Pausanias, who calls them the places where Atreus and his sons kept their treasures. There can, however, be no doubt that they were the tombs of princely families. The largest and best preserved of them, now commonly called the Treasury of Atreus, is just outside the Lion Gate. It consists of a circular domed chamber, nearly 50 ft. in diameter and in height; a smaller square chamber opens out of it. It is approached by a horizontal avenue 20 ft. wide and 115 ft. long, with side walls of squared stone sloping up to a height of 45 ft. The doorway was flanked with columns of alabaster, with rich spiral ornament, now in the British Museum; and the rest of the facade was very richly decorated, as may be seen from Chipiez’s fine restoration. The inside of the vault was ornamented with attached bronze ornaments, but not, as is sometimes stated, entirely lined with bronze. It is generally supposed that these tombs, as well as those excavated in the rock, belong to a later date than the shaft-tombs on the Acropolis.

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Ancient Greek Philosophy: The Ionian School

The Greeks were the first to see the Cosmos as a perplex machine that operated according to laws of nature

Under this name are included a number of philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Mainly Ionians by birth, they are united by a local tie and represent all that was best in the early Ionian intellect. It is a most interesting fact in the history of Greek thought that its birth took place not in Greece but in the colonies on the Eastern shores of the Aegean Sea. But not only geographically do these philosophers form a school; they are one in method and aim. They all sought to explain the material universe as given in sensible perception; their explanation was in terms of matter, movement, force. In this they differed from the Eleatics and the Pythagoreans who thought in the abstract, and explained knowledge and existence in metaphysical terminology. In tracing the development of their ideas, two periods may be distinguished. The earliest thinkers down to Heraclitus endeavored to find a material substance of which all things consist; Heraclitus, by his principle of universal flux, took a new line and explained everything in terms of force, movement, dynamic energy. The former asked the question, “What is the substratum of the things we see?”; the latter, “How did the sensible world become what it is; of what nature was the motive force?” The first name in the list of the Ionian philosophers – and, indeed, in the history of European thought – is that of Thales. He first, so far as we know, sought to go behind the infinite multiplicity of phenomena in the hope of finding an infinite unity from which all difference has been evolved. This unity he decided is Water. It is impossible to discover precisely what he conceived to be the relation of this unity to the plurality of phenomena. Later writers from whom we derive our knowledge of Thales attributed to him ideas which seem to have been conceived by subsequent thinkers. Thus the suggestion preserved by Stobaeus that he conceived water to be endowed with mind is discredited by the specific statement of Aristotle that the earlier physicists (physiologi) did not distinguish the material from the moving cause, and that before Anaxagoras no one postulated creative intelligence. Again in the De anima Aristotle quotes the statement that Thales attributed to water a divine intelligence, and criticizes it as an inference from later speculations. It is probably safest to credit Thales with the bare mechanical conception of a universal material cause, leaving pantheistic ideas to a later period of thought.

A 19th Century Lithograph depicting a bust of Heraclitus

A 19th Century Lithograph depicting a bust of Heraclitus

The successors of Thales were Anaximander and Anaximenes, who also sought for a primal substance of things. Anaximander postulated a corporeal substance intermediate between air and fire on the one hand, and between earth and water on the other hand. This substance he called “the Infinite”. Unlike Thales, he was struck by the infinite variety in things; he felt that all differences are finite, that they have emerged from primal unity into which they must ultimately return, that the Infinite One has been, is, and always will be, the same, indeterminate but immutable. Change, growth and decay he explained on the principle of mechanical compensation.

Anaximenes, pupil of Anaximander, seems to have rebelled against the extreme materialism of his master. Perceiving that air is necessary to life, that the universe is surrounded by air, he was con v inced that out of air all things have resulted. The process by which things grow is twofold, condensation (lruevwvcs) and rarefaction apaicovcs), or, in other words, heat and cold. From the former process result cloud, water and stone; from the latter, fire and aether. This theory is closely allied to that of Thales, but it is superior in that it specifies the processes of change. Further, it is difficult not to accept Cicero’s statement that Anaximenes made air a conscious deity; we are, at all events, justified in regarding Anaximenes as a link (perhaps an unconscious link) between crude Hylozoism and definitely metaphysical theories of existence.

We have seen that Thales recognized change, but attempted no explanation; that Anaximander spoke of change in two directions; that Anaximenes called these two directions by specific names. From this last, the transition to the doctrine of Heraclitus is easy. He felt that change is the essential fact of experience and pointed out that any merely physical explanation of plurality is inherently impossible. The Many is of Sense; Unity is of Thought. Being is intelligible only in terms of Becoming. That which is, is what it is in virtue of its perpetually changing relations. By this recognition of the necessary correlation of Being and Not-being, Heraclitus is in a very real sense the father of metaphysical and scientific speculation, and in him the Ionian school of philosophy reached, its highest point. Yet there is reason to doubt the view of Hegel and Lassalle that Heraclitus recognized the fundamental distinction of subject and object and the relations of mind and matter. Like the early Ionians he postulated a primary substance, fire, out of which all things have emerged and into which all must return. This elemental fire is in itself a divine rational process, the harmony of which constitutes the law of the universe. Human knowledge consists in the comprehension of this all-pervading harmony as embodied in the manifold of perception; the senses are “bad witnesses” in that they report multiplicity as fixed and existent in itself rather than in its relation to the One. This theory gives birth to a sort of ethical by-product whose dominant note is Harmony, the subordination of the individual to the universal reason; moral failure is proportionate to the degree in which the individual declines to recognize his personal transience in relation to the eternal Unity. From the same principle there follows the doctrine of Immortality. The individual, like the phenomena of sense, comes out of the infinite and again is merged; hence on the one hand he is never a separate entity at all, while on the other hand he exists in the infinite and must continue to exist. Moreover, the soul approaches most nearly to perfection when it is least differentiated from elemental fire; it follows that “while we live our souls are dead within us, but when we die our souls are restored to life.” This doctrine is at once the assertion and the denial of the self, and furnishes a striking parallel between European thought in its earliest stages and the fundamental principles of Buddhism. Knowledge of the self is one with knowledge of the Universal Logos (Reason); such knowledge is the basis not only of conduct but of existence itself in its only real sense.

Thus far the Ionian philosophers had held the field of thought. Each succeeding thinker had more or less assumed the methods of Thales, and had approached the problem of existence from the empirical side. About the time of Heraclitus, however, there sprang up a totally new philosophical spirit. Parmenides and Zeno (see Eleatic School) enunciated the principle that “Nothing is born of nothing.” Hence the problem becomes a dialectical a priori speculation wherein the laws of thought transcend the sense-given data of experience. It was therefore left for the later Ionians to frame an eclectic system, a synthesis of Being and Not-being, a correlation of universal mobility and absolute permanence. This examination of diametrically opposed tendencies resulted in several different theories. It will be sufficient here to deal with Anaxagoras, Diogenes of Apollonia, Archelaus and Hippo, leaving Empedocles, Leucippus and Democritus to special articles. The latter three do not belong strictly to the Ionian School.

Anaxagoras elaborated a quasi-dualistic theory according to which all things have existed from the beginning. Originally they existed in infinitesimal fragments, infinite in number and devoid of arrangement. Amongst these fragments were the seeds of all things which have since emerged by the process of aggregation and segregation, wherein homogeneous fragments came together. These processes are the work of Nous (vas) which governs and arranges. But this Nous, or Mind, is not incorporeal; it is the thinnest of all things; its action on the particle is conceived materially. It originated a rotatory movement, which arising in one point gradually extended till the whole was in motion, which motion continues and will continue infinitely. By this motion things are gradually constructed not entirely of homogeneous particles but in each thing with a majority of a certain kind of particle. It is this aggregation which we describe variously as birth, death, maturity, decay, and of which the senses give inaccurate reports. His vague dualism works a very distinct advance upon the crude hylozoism of the early Ionians (see Atom), and the criticisms of Plato and Aristotle show how highly his work was esteemed. The great danger is that we should credit him with more than he actually thought. His Nous was not a spiritual force; it was no omnipotent deity; it is not a pantheistic world-soul. But by isolating Reason from all other growths, by representing it as the motor-energy of the Cosmos, in popularizing a term which suggested personality and will, Anaxagoras gave an impetus to ideas which were the basis of Aristotelian philosophy in Greece and in Europe at large.

In Diogenes of Apollonia we find a return to Anaximenes. Diogenes began by insisting on the necessity of there being only one principle of things, herein contradicting the pluralism of Heraclitus. This principle is that of the universal homogeneity of nature; all things are at bottom the same, or interaction would be impossible. This universal substance is Air. But Diogenes went much farther than Anaximenes by attributing to air not only infinity and eternity but also intelligence. This Intelligence alone would have produced the orderly arrangement which we observe in Nature, and is the basis of human thought by the physical process of inhalation.

Another pupil of Anaxagoras was Archelaus of Miletus. His work was mainly the combination of previous views, except that he is said to have introduced an ethical side into the Ionian philosophy. “Justice and injustice,” he said, “are not natural but legal.” He endeavored to overcome the dualism of Anaxagoras, and in so doing approached more nearly to the older Ionians.

The last of the Ionians whom we need mention is Hippo, who, like Archelaus, is intellectually amongst the earlier members of the school. He thought that the source of all things was moisture and is by Aristotle coupled with Thales.

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Greek Mythology

The famous Oedipus Krater, illustrating the encounter with the Sphinx

Greek mythology is embodied explicitly in a large collection of narratives and implicitly in representational arts, such as vase-paintings and votive gifts. Greek myth explains the origins of the world and details the lives and adventures of a wide variety of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines, and other mythological creatures. These accounts initially were disseminated in an oral-poetic tradition; today the Greek myths are known primarily from Greek literature. The oldest known Greek literary sources, the epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, focus on events surrounding the Trojan War. Two poems by Homer’s near contemporary Hesiod, the Theogony and the Works and Days, contain accounts of the genesis of the world, the succession of divine rulers, the succession of human ages, the origin of human woes, and the origin of sacrificial practices. Myths also are preserved in the Homeric Hymns, in fragments of epic poems of the Epic Cycle, in lyric poems, in the works of the tragedians of the fifth century BC, in writings of scholars and poets of the Hellenistic Age and in texts from the time of the Roman Empire by writers such as Plutarch and Pausanias.

Archaeological evidence is a principal source of detail about Greek mythology, with gods and heroes featuring prominently in the decoration of many artifacts. Geometric designs on pottery of the eighth century BCE depict scenes from the Trojan cycle as well as the adventures of Heracles. In the succeeding Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods, Homeric and various other mythological scenes appear, supplementing the existing literary evidence. Greek mythology has exerted an extensive influence on the culture, the arts, and the literature of Western civilization and remains part of Western heritage and language. Poets and artists from ancient times to the present have derived inspiration from Greek mythology and have discovered contemporary significance and relevance in these mythological themes.

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The Greek Pantheon

Hebe giving ambrosia to the gods, from the Athena Vase

According to Classical-era mythology, after the overthrow of the Titans, the new pantheon of gods and goddesses was confirmed. Among the principal Greek gods were the Olympians, residing atop Mount Olympus under the eye of Zeus. (The limitation of their number to twelve seems to have been a comparatively modern idea.) Besides the Olympians, the Greeks worshipped various gods of the countryside, the goat-god Pan, Nymphs (spirits of rivers), Naiads (who dwelled in springs), Dryads (who were spirits of the trees), Nereids (who inhabited the sea), river gods, Satyrs, and others. In addition, there were the dark powers of the underworld, such as the Erinyes (or Furies), said to pursue those guilty of crimes against blood-relatives. In order to honor the Ancient Greek pantheon, poets composed the Homeric Hymns (a group of thirty-three songs). Gregory Nagy regards “the larger Homeric Hymns as simple preludes (compared with Theogony), each of which invokes one god”.

In the wide variety of myths and legends that Greek mythology consists of, the gods that were native to the Greek peoples are described as having essentially corporeal but ideal bodies. According to Walter Burkert, the defining characteristic of Greek anthropomorphism is that “the Greek gods are persons, not abstractions, ideas or concepts”. Regardless of their underlying forms, the Ancient Greek gods have many fantastic abilities; most significantly, the gods are not affected by disease, and can be wounded only under highly unusual circumstances. The Greeks considered immortality as the distinctive characteristic of their gods; this immortality, as well as unfading youth, was insured by the constant use of nectar and ambrosia, by which the divine blood was renewed in their veins.

Each god descends from his or her own genealogy, pursues differing interests, has a certain area of expertise, and is governed by a unique personality; however, these descriptions arise from a multiplicity of archaic local variants, which do not always agree with one another. When these gods are called upon in poetry, prayer or cult, they are referred to by a combination of their name and epithets, that identify them by these distinctions from other manifestations of themselves (e.g. Apollo Musagetes is “Apollo, [as] leader of the Muses”). Alternatively the epithet may identify a particular and localized aspect of the god, sometimes thought to be already ancient during the classical epoch of Greece.

Most gods were associated with specific aspects of life. For example, Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty, Ares was the god of war, Hades the god of the dead, and Athena the goddess of wisdom and courage. Some gods, such as Apollo and Dionysus, revealed complex personalities and mixtures of functions, while others, such as Hestia (literally “hearth”) and Helios (literally “sun”), were little more than personifications. The most impressive temples tended to be dedicated to a limited number of gods, who were the focus of large pan-Hellenic cults. It was, however, common for individual regions and villages to devote their own cults to minor gods. Many cities also honored the more well-known gods with unusual local rites and associated strange myths with them that were unknown elsewhere. During the heroic age, the cult of heroes (or demi-gods) supplemented that of the gods.

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The Twelve Olympians

A modern reconstruction of what the Statue of the Olympian Zeus may have looked like

The Twelve Olympians, also known as the Dodekatheon, in Greek mythology, were the principal gods of the Greek pantheon, residing atop Mount Olympus. The first ancient reference of religious ceremonies for the 12 Olympians is found in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. The classical scheme of the Twelve Olympians (the Canonical Twelve of art and poetry) comprises the following gods: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hestia. The respective Roman scheme comprises the following gods: Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Ceres, Mars, Mercury, Vulcan, Venus, Minerva, Apollo, Diana and Vesta.

There was, however, a great deal of fluidity when it came to who was counted among their number in antiquity. Around 400 BC Herodorus included in his Dodekatheon the following deities: Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Athena, Hermes, Apollo, Alpheus, Cronus, Rhea and the Charites. Herodotus includes Heracles as one of the Twelve. Lucian also includes Heracles, and also includes Asklepios, as members of the Twelve, without explaining which two had to give way for them. At Kos, Heracles and Dionysus are added to the Twelve, and Ares and Hephaestus are left behind. However, Pindar, Apollodorus, and Herodorus disagree with this. For them Heracles is not one of the Twelve Gods, but the one who established their cult.

Plato connected the Twelve Olympians with the twelve months, and proposed that the final month be devoted to rites in honor of Pluto and the spirits of the dead, implying that he considered Hades, one of the basic chthonic deities, to be one of the Twelve. Hades is phased out in later groupings due to his chthonic associations. In Phaedrus Plato aligns the Twelve with the Zodiac and would exclude Hestia from their rank. Hestia is sometimes displaced by Dionysus. Hebe, Helios and Persephone are other important gods, goddesses, which are sometimes included in a group of twelve.

The Twelve Olympians gained their supremacy in the world of gods after Zeus led his siblings to victory in war with the Titans. Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia, and Hades were siblings. Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, the Charites, Heracles, Dionysus, Hebe, and Persephone were children of Zeus. Although some versions of the myth state that Hephaestus was born of Hera alone.

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People & Places