A Dozen Distinguished Deities
These six gods and goddesses were the original Olympians, but they were only half the story. There were twelve great Olympians in all, each playing an important role in the order of the universe. This section introduces the second six.
Ares, god of war, lived for battle and bloodshed, deriving great pleasure from human warfare. Ares appears in many poems and myths and was worshiped in Sparta, particularly before a battle was to take place.
Depictions of Ares show him wearing armor and a helmet and carrying a spear, sword, and shield. He was associated with the dog and the vulture. Although he was the war god, Ares was not always victorious. In fact, he was defeated in battle several times throughout the myths.
As the goddess of wisdom, Athena was held in high regard by mortal and immortal alike. She was also the goddess of war, crafts, and skills. Unlike Ares, however, Athena was not bloodthirsty. She preferred peace to war. Even so, when she was involved in battle, she proved herself to be an invincible strategist, dominating the field.
Athena usually appears dressed in armor, helmet, and aegis. She wields a spear and a shield. She is associated with the owl (which symbolizes wisdom), and an owl often perches on her shoulder.
What was the aegis?
The aegis, Athena's shield or breastplate, was said to have been made by Hephaestus, the Olympians' smith. Hephaestus incorporated the severed head of the Gorgon Medusa into the aegis. Because Medusa's frightful appearance could turn men to stone, the aegis was an effective weapon that paralyzed enemies with fear. The word aegis has made its way into the English language; it means “protection” or “support.”
As goddess of the hunt, Artemis had little interest in anything besides the thrill of the chase. She roamed the mountains with a band of nymphs, hunting animals (and sometimes men). Although her primary activity was hunting, Artemis was also the protector of children, wild animals, and the weak. Legend has it that her arrows could cause sudden death without pain. You wouldn't want to get on her bad side, though — Artemis could be a vindictive and vengeful goddess.
If Hera had had her way, Artemis and her brother Apollo would never have been born. When Zeus had an affair with Leto, Hera was determined that the union would produce no children. But Leto escaped Hera and gave birth, first to Artemis. The newborn Artemis helped her mother through nine days of intensive labor, which ended with the birth of Apollo. Because their mother had suffered so much for them, Artemis and Apollo became her fierce protectors.
Artemis is usually depicted carrying her weapon of choice: a bow and arrows. Some myths describe her as a girl-child — a virgin with eternal youth — who was as wild as the animals she both hunted and protected. As all wild animals were within her domain, she was not associated with one animal in particular, although she often appears with a stag or a hunting dog.
Apollo, Artemis's twin brother, was the god of archery, music, and poetry. While his sister lived only for the hunt, Apollo was a versatile god who enjoyed a great many things. At times, he was a shepherd or a cowherd; at other times he was a great musician. Apollo was also important to prophecy and medicine. He had the ability to inflict illness as well as to cure it.
Because Apollo dabbled in so many arts, there isn't a single typical depiction of him. You might see him playing his lyre, shooting an arrow, or driving a chariot. One constant in all depictions of Apollo, though, is his great beauty, which was considered ideal. Apollo was associated with several different animals — including the wolf, deer, dolphin, crow, vulture, and swan — and he was also associated with the laurel tree (Chapter 13 explains why).
Hermes was the god of commerce, travel, and athletics. He brought luck to people, guided travelers and merchants, and protected rogues and thieves. Hermes was an active god, renowned for his agility and athleticism. He was one of the few gods who could enter the Underworld and leave it again without deterrence. He's probably best known, however, as the messenger of the gods.
Hermes is normally shown wearing a winged hat and winged sandals, which symbolize his swiftness (a good trait in a messenger). He is also sometimes shown carrying either a golden herald's wand or a staff with two serpents' heads. Hermes was a trickster who could be mischievous but who also had a kind heart.
Nearly everyone has heard of Aphrodite — the goddess of love. (You may know her as Venus, which was her Roman name.) Some myths present Aphrodite as a flaky, somewhat ridiculous character; others describe her as a generous and benevolent goddess, due the same reverence as the other Olympians. Regardless of her character, Aphrodite was always passionate.
Aphrodite was a great beauty, with a sweet and seductive smile. Her myths almost always involve love affairs: Either she's having affairs of her own, or she's meddling in those of others. This goddess was associated with the dove, and her plants were the rose and myrtle.
Hephaestus was Aphrodite's husband. You might assume that the goddess of love would be married to a handsome, charming husband. But that wasn't the case among the Olympians. In fact, Hephaestus, son of Zeus and Hera, was thrown out of heaven at his birth because of his ugliness and deformities. (If you're wondering how this god ended up with the beautiful Aphrodite, see Chapter 15, which tells the story of their marriage.)
As the god of fire, smithing, craftsmanship, and metalworking, Hephaestus erected great palaces for the gods and goddesses and made armor for those he favored. A skilled craftsman, he could build just about anything. Hephaestus is associated with volcanoes, which were thought to be his workshops.
Some myths state that Hephaestus was born healthy, without any deformities. In this version of his story, Hephaestus took Hera's side in an argument with Zeus. In anger, Zeus threw the god from the heavens, and Hephaestus fell for nine days and nine nights before he landed on an island. His not-so-gentle landing made him lame.
Dionysus was the god of the vine, wine, and revelry. Whereas most of the Olympians snubbed mortals, Dionysus mingled directly with his mortal followers. His religious festivals often turned into rites of ecstasy.
Dionysus's greatest gift to humanity was the gift of wine, which could provide relief from a person's burdens, if only for a while. However, Dionysus was sometimes cruel — as all gods could be. Those who opposed him felt his wrath, as you'll read in Chapter 16. Dionysus is most often associated with grapevines, dance, music, wine, madness, and sex.
You may have noticed that there are supposed to be twelve great Olympians, but you have been introduced to fourteen in this chapter. No, you didn't count wrong. Dionysus is said to have taken the place of Hestia, who eventually fades out of mythology. Hades is the other deity who's often not counted. His world was the Underworld, and he rarely visited Mount Olympus. Therefore, most do not consider him one of the great Olympian gods.