Classical Greek Mythology

The Greek Pantheon and the Olympians

How did the gods reflect actual human life?

The myths of a culture tend to reflect the values, mores, traditions, and concerns of that culture. Ancient Greek culture from the Mycenaean Age to the Classical period of Athenian hegemony was one ruled by aristocratic male warriors and tyrants. Even in fifth-century Athens, the “cradle of democracy,” the culture remained strongly patriarchal. Women and slaves were not allowed to participate in legislative assemblies or many public rites. The Olympian Gods reflect the pre-Athenian aristocratic system and the patriarchal outlook of Greek culture in general. Zeus is an aristocratic and often arbitrary husband, father, and king. He does whatever he wishes to do. He can be vindictive and cruel and he is a notorious philanderer, using his position of power to seduce mortal women and even boys, such as the Trojan Ganymede, whom he loved and whom he abducted and made the cupbearer of the gods. Naturally, we can assume that the wives of such men, although ultimately unable to prevent the escapades of their husbands, could complain mightily about them and even attempt to thwart their activities. Hera is the epitome of the unhappy “nagging” wife, an example of the use of comic stereotypes in myth. She also represents the power of sex to influence even such a “player” as Zeus. Homer tells us that during the Trojan War she seduced her husband to keep him occupied so that he could not influence the battle in a way that went against her wishes. There are powerful women in the Olympian family—Athene and Artemis, for instance—but they tend to be unusually masculinized women—virgins dedicated to the hunt and even to war. Other goddesses fulfill more typical roles. Aphrodite represents the dangerous mind-changing power of female sexuality. Hestia represents the values of the passive hearth and home protector. In all families, of course, including those of ancient Greece, there would have been infighting. We see this on Mount Olympus in the interactions between the children of Zeus’s generation—between Apollo and Hermes over the cattle theft incident, between Ares and Aphrodite and Hephaistos concerning the adulterous affair exposed in Hephaistos’s net.


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