In ancient Greek religion and mythology, the twelve Olympians are the major deities of the Greek pantheon, commonly considered to be Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Hermes, and either Hestia or Dionysus. They were called Olympians because, according to tradition, they resided on Mount Olympus.
Although Hades was a major ancient Greek god, and was the brother of the first generation of Olympians (Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia), his realm was the underworld, far from Olympus, and thus was not usually considered to be one of the Olympians.
Besides the twelve Olympians, there were many other cultic groupings of twelve gods.
The Olympians were a race of deities, primarily consisting of a third and fourth generation of immortal beings, worshipped as the principal gods of the Greek pantheon and so named because of their residency atop Mount Olympus. They gained their supremacy in a ten-year-long war of gods, in which Zeus led his siblings to victory over the previous generation of ruling gods, the Titans. They were a family of gods, the most important consisting of the first generation of Olympians, offspring of the Titans Cronus and Rhea: Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter and Hestia, along with the principal offspring of Zeus: Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Dionysus. Although Hades was a major deity in the Greek pantheon, and was the brother of Zeus and the other first generation of Olympians, his realm was far away from Olympus in the underworld, and thus he was not usually considered to be one of the Olympians. Olympic gods can be contrasted to chthonic gods including Hades, by mode of sacrifice, the latter receiving sacrifices in a bothros (βόθρος, "pit") or megaron (μέγαρον, "sunken chamber") rather than at an altar.
The canonical number of Olympian gods was twelve, but besides the (thirteen) principal Olympians listed above, there were many other residents of Olympus, who thus might be considered to be Olympians. Heracles became a resident of Olympus after his apotheosis and married another Olympian resident Hebe. According to Hesiod, the children of Styx: Zelus (Envy), Nike (Victory), Kratos (Strength), and Bia (Force), "have no house apart from Zeus, nor any dwelling nor path except that wherein God leads them, but they dwell always with Zeus." Some others who might be considered Olympians, include the Muses, the Graces, Iris, Dione, Eileithyia, the Horae, and Ganymede.
Besides the twelve Olympians, there were many other various cultic groupings of twelve gods throughout ancient Greece. The earliest evidence of Greek religious practice involving twelve gods (Greek: δωδεκάθεον, dodekatheon, from δώδεκα dōdeka, "twelve" and θεοί theoi, "gods") comes no earlier than the late sixth century BC. According to Thucydides, an altar of the twelve gods was established in the agora of Athens by the archon Pisistratus (son of Hippias, and the grandson of the tyrant Pisistratus), in c. 522 BC. The altar became the central point from which distances from Athens were measured and a place of supplication and refuge.
Olympia apparently also had an early tradition of twelve gods. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (c. 500 BC) has the god Hermes divide a sacrifice of two cows he has stolen from Apollo, into twelve parts, on the banks of the river Alpheius (presumably at Olympia):
- "Next glad-hearted Hermes dragged the rich meats he had prepared and put them on a smooth, flat stone, and divided them into twelve portions distributed by lot, making each portion wholly honorable."
- "He [Heracles] enclosed the Altis all around and marked it off in the open, and he made the encircling area a resting-place for feasting, honoring the stream of the Alpheus along with the twelve ruling gods."
Another of Pindar's Olympian odes mentions "six double altars". Herodorus of Heraclea (c. 400 BC) also has Heracles founding a shrine at Olympia, with six pairs of gods, each pair sharing a single altar.
Many other places had cults of the twelve gods, including Delos, Chalcedon, Magnesia on the Maeander, and Leontinoi in Sicily. As with the twelve Olympians, although the number of gods was fixed at twelve, the membership varied. While the majority of the gods included as members of these other cults of twelve gods were Olympians, non-Olympians were also sometimes included. For example, Herodorus of Heraclea identified the six pairs of gods at Olympia as: Zeus and Poseidon, Hera and Athena, Hermes and Apollo, the Graces and Dionysus, Artemis and Alpheus, and Cronus and Rhea. Thus while this list includes the eight Olympians: Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Athena, Hermes, Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysus, it also contains three clear non-Olympians: the Titan parents of the first generation of Olympians, Cronus and Rhea, and the river god Alpheius, with the status of the Graces (here apparently counted as one god) being unclear.
The Roman poet Ennius gives the Roman equivalents (the Dii Consentes) as six male-female complements, preserving the place of Vesta (Greek Hestia), who played a crucial role in Roman religion as a state goddess maintained by the Vestals.
The twelve gods and goddesses most commonly considered to be known as the Twelve Olympians are listed below.
|Zeus||God of the sky, thunder, lightning, weather, law, order and justice. From his throne on Mount Olympus, mighty Zeus rules over god and man alike, maintaining order and justice in the universe as the king of the gods. His domain is the sky, and his weapon is a lightning bolt, the most powerful and feared weapon on Earth and in the Heavens. His influence on the affairs of both god and man is ubiquitous. He was a son of Cronus and Rhea, the youngest of his siblings to be born, though sometimes reckoned the eldest, as the others required disgorging from Cronus' stomach. He overthrew Cronus and gained the sovereignty of heaven for himself. And in addition to being the brother of Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia and Poseidon, he has fathered many great champions and heroes of history. Such as the heroes, Heracles and Perseus. As combat raged at Troy, other gods picked favorites among the warriors. But Zeus refused to take sides, using his golden scales instead to balance the destinies of Troy's heroes. Yet, it was he who bestowed upon Paris the fateful task of judging which goddess was the fairest, and as fate would have it, was also the father of Helen. But this god of gods was no paragon of virtue, the most disloyal of husbands, his pursuit of goddesses and mortal women alike left a trail of deception, heartbreak and violence across the ancient world. Yet, from the global celebration of the Olympic Games to the all inducing temples and monuments erected in his honor, Zeus' legend remains as strong as the god himself. His symbols include the thunderbolt, eagle, oak tree, lion, scepter, and scales. His Roman counterpart is Jupiter, also known as Jove.|
|Hera||Goddess of marriage, women, childbirth and family. She was the youngest daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Both sister and wife of Zeus, Hera is the queen of Heaven and a jealous rival of the other goddesses of Mount Olympus. Being the goddess of marriage, she frequently tried to get revenge on Zeus' lovers and their children. As beautiful as she was shrewd, Hera was thought to be a vigilant guardian of married women, as she knew all too well the bitter sting of infidelity, and though she was demure, she was often vindictive towards those who thwarted her will. Because Paris judged the goddess Aphrodite to be lovelier than she was, she became a fierce enemy of the Trojans. Relentlessly using her powers to aid the Greek warriors, until Troy lay in ruins. Indeed, Hera's legend gives meaning to the phrase, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Her symbols include the peacock, cuckoo, and cow. Her Roman counterpart is Juno.|
|Poseidon||God of the sea, water, rivers, storms, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and horses. He was a son of Cronus and Rhea, and the brother of Zeus, Hades, Hera, Demeter and Hestia. Married to the Halia Amphitrite, although like most male gods, he had many lovers. His wedding with Amphitrite is often presented as a triumphal procession. He rules one of the three realms of the universe, as king of the sea and the waters. With water covering over 70% of the world's surface, it is only natural that a god should be appointed the duty of ruling over it and all it's wonders, Poseidon serves as such. As temperamental as the sea itself, he watches and controls his domain from deep beneath it's surface. Like the Ocean, which is his domain, Poseidon's moods can range from calm and placid to angry and turbulent. His weapon is a trident, which he uses to invoke earthquakes and violent storms at sea. In some stories he rapes Medusa, leading to her transformation into a hideous Gorgon and also to the birth of their two children, Pegasus and Chrysaor. During the Trojan War, Poseidon favored the Greeks a seafaring people. But when they set sail for home, arrogant in victory, he unleashed a storm, wreaking havoc on their fleet. Whether it be through gentle breezes or crashing waves, Poseidon, his trident in hand, still speaks to us today, a force as eternal as the tides. His symbols include the trident, dolphin, bull and horse. His Roman counterpart is Neptune.|
|Demeter||Goddess of the harvest, fertility, agriculture, nourishment, growth, nature and the seasons. Who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. Middle daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Also the lover of Zeus and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone. Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, was thought to have first taught mortals how to work the land and reap it's harvest. Endowed with the power to bring feast and famine to the world, she is said to have the ability to control the seasons and transform the face of nature. Today peaceful farmland flourishes on the very soil where it is believed the Trojan War was fought. Proof perhaps of the healing power of Demeter, to bring forth new life even at that legendary site of epic violence. Her symbols include the poppy, wheat, torch, cornucopia, and pig. Her Roman counterpart is Ceres.|
|Apollo||God of the sun, light, philosophy, truth, inspiration, poetry, arts, medicine and plague. He is the son of Zeus and Leto, and twin brother of Artemis. Apollo, god of prophecy, music and healing, offers his wisdom as a link between gods and man alike. With an intellect as far-reaching as the arrows shot from his silver bow, he is said to be the first god to teach mortals the healing arts, including that of music. It was thought that he helped humans to achieve their full potential with his gifs of enlightenment. During the Trojan War, it was believed that Apollo sided with and aided the Trojan warrior, Hector on the field of battle. As the conflict raged, he was said to have shot fiery arrows down at the Greeks, from his chariot in the sky. Centuries later, when man journeyed to the heavens, they fittingly named their mission to the moon, Apollo, after the god who inspired mankind to reach for the stars. His symbols include the sun, lyre, swan, and mouse. Some late Roman and Greek poetry and mythography make him equivalent to Roman Sol and Greek Helios.|
|Athena||Goddess of wisdom, knowledge, reason, intelligent activity, literature, domestic arts, handicrafts, science, defense and war. Athena, goddess of war, boasts a combination of divine intellect and extraordinary strength. Her legend claims that she emerged fully grown and clad in armor from the head of Zeus, and of all his children, he chose her to be the bearer of his shield and thunderbolt. A fierce enemy of Troy, she fought alongside the Greek warriors and was said to have grieved over the death of Achilles. But when Troy fell and the Greeks defiled her temple there, Athena sought revenge. She had Poseidon unleash a storm that wreaked havoc on the returning Greek ships. Courageous in war, she also understood the supreme value of peace and was known as the protector of the home and domestic arts. Unlike her fellow goddesses who preferred to call nature her home, Athena was devoted to cities, her favorite was Athens which bears her name, and where her temple the Parthenon still stands, as one of the greatest wonders of the world. Her symbols include the owl and the olive tree, which was a gift she gave to mankind. She also invented the chariot and the loom. Her Roman counterpart is Minerva.|
|Ares||God of war, violence, bloodshed and manly virtues. Ruthless and murderous, the god of war Ares with his passion for destruction embodies in his legend the worst of humanity's traits. It is said that as he and his consorts, grief, strife, panic and terror, walked the Earth in search of devastation and brutality, that a chorus of groans echoes to the Heavens. During the Trojan War, he used his power to aid the Trojan warrior Hector. But Ares himself was no hero, rather a coward who is described as fleeing a battlefield when wounded, his cries heard even on Mount Olympus. Today, centuries after the fall of Troy, Ares still casts a shadow across the world. His appetite for chaos and pain echoed throughout the ages. Even though he is the son of Zeus and Hera, all the other gods despise him. His symbols include the boar, serpent, dog, vulture, spear, and shield. His Roman counterpart is Mars, his latin name gave us the word "martial".|
|Artemis||Goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, virginity, the moon, archery, childbirth, protection and plaque. Daughter of Zeus and Leto and twin sister of Apollo. As wild as nature itself, Artemis the chaste goddess of the hunt and protector of the young, serenely ruled over the Earth's untamed places. Twin sister of Apollo, her archery skills surpassed that of all the gods on Mount Olympus. She's never without her silver bow and arrows. She sided with the Trojans during the war, and it was said that when a hare and it's young was slain by the Greeks, Artemis unleashed fierce northern winds that prevented them from setting sail for Troy. Only when the Greeks had sacrificed King Agamemnon's eldest daughter to Artemis, did the winds relent. Today, the legacy of Artemis can be seen in women who have defied convention, and taken a more individual and liberated route in life. A phantom in the moonlight, she is said to still inhabit the forest. Her symbols include the moon, horse, deer, hound, she-bear, snake, cypress tree, and bow and arrow. Her Roman counterpart is Diana.|
|Hephaestus||God of fire, blacksmiths, the forge, and volcanoes. He is the master blacksmith and craftsman of the gods. He is the son of Hera, either by Zeus or alone. Married to Aphrodite, though unlike most divine husbands, he was rarely ever licentious. On Mount Olympus where all other gods are beautiful, only Hephaestus, god of fire is described as ugly. Legend has it that during the quarrel, Zeus hurled him down to Earth, crippling him forever. For what he lacks in appearance, he makes up for in his extraordinary powers, and despite his deformity or perhaps because of it, he crafted objects of exquisite beauty. From his workshop deep within the Earth, this master of fire and forge crafted the palaces, tools and armor of the gods and goddesses. Such as Zeus' lightning bolt and Athena's armor. In the Trojan War, he fashioned, among other things, new armor for Achilles, and yet his true value proved not in war, but in peace. As he was also the patron god of artists and craftsmen. The benevolent Hephaestus has bestowed gifts of great beauty and skill on humanity. His gentle character visible in the details of man's great artistic designs and achievements. His symbols include fire, anvil, axe, donkey, hammer, tongs, and quail. His Roman counterpart is Vulcan, his latin name gave us the word "volcano".|
|Aphrodite||Goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, passion, procreation, fertility and desire. Her name gave us the word "aphrodisiac". Irresistible Aphrodite seduced god and mortal alike, with her hypnotic beauty. Some claim that she was born of Zeus, others, that she rose from the foam of the sea fully formed and devastatingly attractive. So breathtaking was her loveliness, she was envied by all the other goddesses on Mount Olympus. It was said that Paris judged her to be the most beautiful of all the goddesses, and awarded her with the golden apple. To reward Paris, Aphrodite granted Helen, the most beautiful woman on Earth. But his deed invoked the wrath of Menelaus, king of Sparta, thus setting the wheels of the Trojan War in motion. Aphrodite sided with the Trojans, and after their defeat, used her powers to protect her mortal son Aeneas, the Trojan warrior. It was said that with her enchanting laughter and unrivaled beauty, she could seduce any god or man she so desired, and in a love triangle, she married Hephaestus, Mount Olympus' homeliest of gods, while carrying on an affair with Ares, the most brutal. Aphrodite, sensual, mysterious, this original farm fatale has served as a familiar archetype throughout the ages. Her symbols include the dove, bird, apple, bee, swan, myrtle, and rose. Her Roman counterpart is Venus, her latin name gave us the word "venereal".|
|Dionysus||God of wine, the grape vine, fertility, festivity, ecstasy, madness and resurrection. He is the son of Zeus and the mortal Theban princess Semele. Married to the Cretan princess Ariadne. The youngest Olympian god, as well as the only god who is said to have a mortal parent. His magical gift distill from the vines was the bringer of both ecstasy and madness. His intoxicating creation can kindle rivalry in his drinkers and also ignite drunken chaos. In ancient times, his worshippers would gather in the forest and dance in his honor, drinking until the reached a primal frenzy. The warriors of Troy sought relief from the fury in his potent brew. Indeed this is true for war throughout the ages. But Dionysus was also known as the god of the theater and some of the world's greatest ancient poetry was written for him, and all those who participated from the writer to the actors and singers were thought to be his servants. So next you have a glass of wine, raise your cup to Dionysus, but never forget that it is a fine line between blessing and ruin, when it comes to the power of the vine. His symbols include the grapevine, ivy, cup, tiger, panther, leopard, dolphin, goat, and pinecone. His Roman counterpart is Bacchus.|
|Hermes||God of trade, heralds, merchants, roads, trickery, sports, and athletes. He is the son of Zeus and the Pleiad Maia. The second-youngest Olympian, just older than Dionysus. Hermes was a god forever in motion in his winged sandals, cretaceous in hand, he is best known as the messenger of Zeus and the patron god of travelers. Fittingly, he was the god of thieves and commerce. It is said that as a child, he stole a herd from Apollo, then crafted a lyre from a tortoise shell as a gift of forgiveness. It is said that he aided Odysseus on his journey home from Troy, and ever since, Hermes has been credited with aiding travelers. Renowned for his physical prowess he is also known for creating the sport of foot racing, as he was always sprinting around the world on missions for the gods. A bringer of good fortune and wealth, Hermes appears more frequently in mythological tales than any other deity, making him perhaps the most beloved of all the gods of Mount Olympus. His symbols include the caduceus (staff entwined with two snakes), winged sandals and cap, stork, and tortoise (whose shell he used to invent the lyre). His Roman counterpart is Mercury.|
- Walters Art Museum, accession number 23.40.
- Hansen, p. 250; Burkert, pp. 125 ff.; Dowden, p. 43; Chadwick, p. 85; Müller, pp. 419 ff.; Pache, pp. 308 ff.; Thomas, p. 12; Shapiro, p. 362; Long, pp. 140–141; Morford, p. 113; Hard p. 80.
- According to Homer, Aphrodite was the daughter of Zeus (Iliad 3.374, 20.105; Odyssey 8.308, 320) and Dione (Iliad 5.370–71), see Gantz, pp. 99–100. However, According to Hesiod, Theogony 183–200, Aphrodite was born from Uranus' severed genitals, see Gantz, pp. 99–100.
- Hansen, p. 250; Morford, p. 113; Hard p. 80.
- Chadwick, p. 85.
- Dillon, p. 114.
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- Herodotus, 2.43–44.
- Hesiod, Theogony 386–388.
- Just who might be called an Olympian is not entirely clear. For example Dowden, p. 43, describes Heracles, Hebe, the Muses, and the Graces as Olympians, and on p. 45, lists Iris, Dione, and Eileithyia among the Homeric Olympians, while Hansen, p. 250, describes Heracles, Hebe, the Horae, and Ganymede as notable residents of Olympus, but says they "are not ordinarily classified as Olympians".
- Dowden, p. 43; Rutherford, p. 43;.
- Rutherford, pp. 43–44; Thucydides, 6.54.6-7.
- Dowden, p. 43; Rutherford, p. 44; Long, pp. 58–62 (T 13), 154–157.
- Long, pp. 61–62 (T 13 G), 156–157; Homeric Hymn to Hermes, 128–129.
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