Story by Manos Angelakis
Images courtesy of numerous museums and art collections

Zeus holding Thunder - Louvre Museum

The Hellenic God Stories

We are mostly familiar with the later Greek and Norse mythology, the Olympian Gods of the Homeric epics and the Gods of the Vikings’ sagas.

But there were other, earlier deities that we normally rarely refer to.  The famous poem of Hesiod, called Theogony (meaning “Genealogy of the Gods” in Greek), presents complete information about the Gods of the Greek Pantheon well prior to the Olympian deities. Natural forces are personified and the most basic components of human perception of the world around them, the parts that humans could not control, are presented as Gods.

According to Hesiod, in the beginning there was Chaos.

Chaos was the personification of a dark void, from which all of existence materialized. Then came Αether, the god of pure, fresh air and clear sky. From Chaos also Eros was born, the god of love and procreation; according to the early ancient Greeks, love was one of the most fundamental powers in the world. Then Tartarus was born, the original god of the Underworld. Gaia then followed, the personification of Earth. Erebus, the god of darkness, and Nyx, the goddess of the night, were also children of Chaos. From Gaia, Rhea arrived, the goddess of female fertility, motherhood, and generation, and Pontus, the god of the sea (later renamed Oceanus), and Uranus, the god of the heavens.

Those were the gods of the pre-Homeric Greeks.

By the Homeric times, the more familiar 12 Gods that resided on Mount Olympus, became the basis of the Ancient Greek religion. They were known as “The Olympian Gods.”

Cronus (Ancient Greek: Κρόνος) was the father of all the Olympian Gods. In early Greek mythology, he was the son of Gaia (the Earth) and Ouranós (the Sky).

He was initially the god of good harvests, vegetation and plant fertility and also the god that controlled time, letting the Greeks know when to plant and when to harvest. He was the leader of the Titans, the giants that “lived on earth” prior to humanity. Eventually he became the King of the Gods.

Rhea and Cronus erythromorphous pottery

He married his sister, Rhea, a Titaness, the mother of the Olympian Gods, and had six children with her: Demeter, Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Hera, and Zeus. He was also the father of Chiron, who was born to Philyra (Ancient Greek: Φιλύρα linden-tree), an Oceanid (daughter of Oceanus, a later renaming of Pontus, the god of the seas). To avoid being deposed, he ate all of his children, one by one, as they were born. When his sixth child, Zeus, was born, Rhea decided that she wanted to keep her latest son. According to the myth, she swaddled a rock in a baby's diaper and gave it to Cronus. He ate it.

Nicolas Poussin Infant Zeus

Rhea kept Zeus hidden in a cave on the Cretan Mountain Aigaion (modern Mt. Dikti in the Lasithi region of Crete) nurtured by Amalthea, who became the foster-mother of Zeus. Amalthea is mostly depicted as a goat who suckled the infant-god in the cave.

There is a story about Amalthea in the Greek canon. “One day, as young Zeus played with Amalthea, he accidentally broke off one of her horns. To make up for it and as a sign of gratitude, Zeus blessed the broken horn, so that whoever owned it would always find everything they desired in it.” It became known as the Cornucopia or the Horn of Plenty, an eternal symbol of abundance.

When Zeus grew up, he approached his father as a stranger and gave him a drink that made him throw up his siblings who, as immortal gods, had survived in Cronus' stomach.

Statue-of-Zeus-And-Hera

In later Greek mythology, Zeus was the omnipotent god that hurled thunderbolts at his enemies and the enemies of the people he protected. He married his sister Hera. However, he was also a serial philanderer that would impregnate any female, mortal or immortal, that succumbed to his charms or his disguises.

Io And Jupiter circa 1788

Hera, was worshiped as consort of Zeus and queen of heaven, but also as the goddess of marriage and protector of the life of married women. The Romans identified her with Juno. She was frequently depicted as the jealous, rancorous and vindictive wife of Zeus, pursuing with hatred the females who were beloved by him. The myth exists about Io, who was avoiding Zeus’ amorous attempts until Zeus took the form of a cloud, surrounded her and seduced her. Unfortunately, Hera, learned about it and Zeus, knowing how jealous Hera was, turned Io into a white heifer to hide her from Hera. But Hera still found a way to torment Io, by sending a gadfly to constantly sting and plague her.

Leda_and_the_Swan_c.1510 Galleria Borghese

The “born of a god” theme is very prevalent in ancient mythology, where any young unmarried woman or a married woman whose husband was away in the long wars the Mediterranean inhabitants were involved in, would claim godly intervention to any non-anticipated pregnancy! See the stories about Leda and the swan; Leto and Zeus, which resulted in giving birth to divine children who would later be accepted as Olympian gods, Artemis and Apollo. The above mentioned Io. Zeus and Europa.

Dionysus who was dithyrambos i.e. “who entered life by a double door." His first birth took place prematurely when his mother, Semele, after being impregnated by Zeus, died when Zeus appeared to her as a flash of lightning. So Zeus opened his own flesh and enclosed the infant. In time, Dionysus was born "perfect" from Zeus' thigh and eventually was accepted to Olympus as a demi-god.

But, in the ancient world, it was not only the Greeks that claimed divine intervention for some births.

According to tradition, Zoroaster's mother, Dughdova, was a virgin when she conceived Zoroaster by a shaft of light.

In the Assyrian tradition, Tukulti-Urta was created by the gods in the womb of his mother.

Papyrus Isis Osiris and Nepthis, Egypt 1985

Horus' conception and birth were described in terms of the Egyptian canon of Upper Egypt. "Heru-sa Ast, sa-Asar” or Horus, son of Isis, son of Osiris.

Isis is portrayed as finding and reassembling the dismembered body of her dead husband Osiris, and using magic to restore him to life. Then, by uniting with Osiris she conceives Horus, the rising sun.

Annunciation Botticelli-c.1490-A

The Greek Christian Bible uses the word "virgin" referring to Mary, mother of Jesus who was married to Joseph, regarding the “miraculous birth”. The word, taken from the Torah prophesies about the coming of the Messiah, was mistranslated as “parthenogenesis” (virgin birth). The mistake of translation from the Hebrew to Greek is only one of the problematic word-changes made when the Septuagint and other Hebrew and Aramaic texts were translated in Alexandria by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BCE) and later incorporated into the Christian canon, as we now know it. The Hebrew word alma actually translates as a young woman of childbearing age who had not yet given birth and who might or might not be a virgin; whereas the Hebrew betulah, used elsewhere in the Torah, is the word that actually means "virgin." According to modern Greek philology, “parthenos” meant “virgin” in Alexandrian Greek, but was also an honorific, given to young women of high birth.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, myth and magic were used to explain the mysteries of life.

 

 

 

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