Ancient Greece

The Minoan society existed from about 2800 to 1500 B.C.E. and is one of the oldest cultures that would later merge with other cultures to form the Greek society. Ancient Minoans lived on the island of Crete and worshipped a goddess associated with animals and a young god, either her son or her consort, who symbolized the cycle of nature. Minoans may have also worshipped Poseidon, although he is never pictured in temple artwork.

The Mycenaeans, another pre-Greek culture, occupied much of mainland Greece. In 1100 B.C.E., the Dorians, who arrived from northern Greece, invaded their lands. Little is known about this period, but by 800 B.C.E., the beliefs of Minoans, Mycenaeans, and Dorians merged to form the myths of the twelve Olympian Gods. Their veneration became the centerpiece of life in ancient Greek culture.

What is the origin of the word Pagan?

The term is derived from the Latin paganus (or pagani in plural) and was originally used by the urban Romans to refer to people who preferred the faith of their local ruling body. It was later applied to people who worshipped local deities, or people who practiced polytheism.

Worship centered around a sacred tree or spring inside a sanctuary; later, people would construct temples on these sites. Greek rituals involved burnt offerings, including animal sacrifices, as well as offerings of wool, oil, honey, and milk. People also made sacrifices on the home hearth and attended festivals to honor agricultural events, the birth of a new city, a hero's death, or life passages. Oracles, or shrines for the purpose of prophecy, were important to people's way of life. The most famous oracle was located at Delphi.

The Greek Creation Story

Part of the Greek mythology was a story of how the world was created. At the beginning, there was nothing (Chaos). From that came Gaea (the earth), and Tartarus (the underworld). Next came Eros (love). Night and Erebus (darkness) emerged together. From their mating came Day and Ether (air). Gaea then created Ouranos (heaven) and the mountains and the sea. Gaea took Ouranos as her consort, and Oceanus was born as a great river that surrounded the flat disk of the earth. They also gave birth to the six Titans, the Furies, nymphs, giants, and monsters. Aphrodite emerged from the foam of the sea, and Love and Desire joined her.

The Titans mated and gave birth to Isis, the Harpies, and the Gorgons. One of the Titans, Kronos, married his sister, Rhea, who gave birth to Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. To avoid the prophecy that his son would overthrow him, Kronos ate each of his sons at birth. But when Zeus was born, Rhea hid the baby until he grew up. Rhea then convinced Kronos to regurgitate their other children, and Zeus returned to kill his father.

Zeus and his siblings took up residence on Mount Olympus and waged war against the Titans. After winning the Cyclopes over to his side, and receiving from them the thunderbolt and lightning, Zeus led the Olympians to victory. The Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus. Aphrodite, Ares, Hephaestus, Hermes, Athena, Apollo, and Artemis joined the Olympians, and Hades took up residence in the underworld.

Prominent Greek Deities

Among the male deities are Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo, Hades, and Dionysus:

  • Zeus is the king of the Olympian gods and is the god of the sky. He is also the father of many of the other gods.

  • Poseidon, Zeus's brother, is ruler of the sea.

  • Hades is the god of the underworld, who kidnapped his sister Demeter's daughter, Kore, to be his queen.

  • Hermes is the son of Zeus and the messenger of the gods.

  • Hephaestus is the husband of Aphrodite and the god of fire and smithcraft. He made the first woman, Pandora, from clay.

  • Ares is the god of war and is disliked by the other gods.

  • Apollo is the god of music and poetry. The oracle to Gaea at Delphi was rededicated to him, and later to Dionysus.

  • Dionysus is the god of wine, and is not one of the original Olympians.

The female deities include Hera, Demeter, Aphrodite, Athena, Artemis, and Hestia:

  • Hera is the wife and sister of Zeus and is the goddess of marriage.

  • Demeter is the earth goddess, the goddess of the harvest, and is associated with winter and spring.

  • Athena sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus. She is a virgin warrior goddess and is of Mycenaean descent.

  • Artemis is the virgin goddess of the hunt and animals, and may be descended from the Minoan goddess, although she is Apollo's twin.

  • Aphrodite is the goddess of love. She is known for her many sexual escapades, especially her affair with Ares.

  • Hestia is the goddess of the hearth and her worship was central to ancient Greek home life.

The Greek gods are also frequently referred to by their Roman names because the two pantheons were merged following the Roman invasion of Greece. Some of these Greek assimilations were less appropriate than others, but the associations have survived to modern times.

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