What makes the sun rise and set? Why are there seasons? Where do things go when they die? To the ancient Greeks, there were simple explanations to all these questions – it was the gods! Things that seemed unexplainable could suddenly make sense when there were gods and goddesses involved. And these stories of the gods that the Greeks created to help make sense of the universe have survived the years to become a treasured and integral part of the history of the Western world. Everyone knows who Zeus is. But are they aware that Zeus shared his power with thirteen of his sisters, brothers, and children? First there was his sister, Hera, whom he had chosen from his many wives to be his queen. Then there was Ares, their son, who was the god of war.
Next was Hephaestus, the god of fire, and his wife Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Another of Zeus’s children, Hermes, was the herald of the gods. And then there was Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, with her beloved daughter Persephone on her lap. Next there was Poseidon, the lord of the sea and Zeus’s brother, and then the four children of Zeus: Athena, goddess of wisdom; the twins Apollo (god of light and music) and Artemis (goddess of the hunt); and Dionysus, the god of wine. Zeus’s eldest sister Hestia also lived with these twelve great gods. She was the goddess of the hearth, and tended the sacred fires of the gods.
Finally, of course, there was Hades, the lord of the underworld and the ruler of the dead. He preferred his gloomy palace to the light of the gods’ world, and chose to stay there. Those were the twelve great gods of Mount Olympus, who ruled in splendor the lives of the mortals below them. But there were also many minor gods and goddesses, nature gods, and of course the many heroes that are involved in Greek mythology, Hercules being perhaps the most famous of these. The Greeks believed that every tree had its wood nymph and ever river had its river god.
It was necessary to pray for the approval of these gods before boating across a river or chopping down a tree, lest they meet with disastrous results. Of course, on some occasions, even when one took the precaution of attempting to appease them, the gods might just be in a foul mood and decide to let a human suffer – there are many stories like this in Greek mythology. So what did all these gods do all day long other than relax in their comfy palaces? Well, it was the belief of the ancient Greeks that their gods were involved in every aspect of daily human life, that they watched over all that was going on and at times stuck their noses in – sometimes to help a beloved devotee, other times to seek revenge on a human who has ignored them, and sometimes just for their own amusement. There was a great deal of fear and distrust involved in the Greek’s relationship with the deities, but they did believe with their whole hearts that the gods existed, and that they would protect and care for the devout. Some aspects of the Greeks’ religion seem barbaric and ridiculous to the modern observer, but that is not really for us to judge.
The importance of the ancient Greek religion lies not in their almost blind devotion to the gods, but in the major contribution to modern literature of the Greek mythology. These stories of gods and goddesses interacting with mortals are still familiar, and still enjoyed, by humans worldwide, thousands of years after they were written and told merely as simple tales to explain the unexplainable in life.